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Authors: Newton Thornburg

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Valhalla

BOOK: Valhalla
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Valhalla
Newton Thornburg
Copyright

Diversion Books
A Division of Diversion Publishing Corp.
443 Park Avenue South, Suite 1008
New York, NY 10016
www.DiversionBooks.com

Copyright © 1980 by Newton Thornburg
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

For more information, email
[email protected]

First Diversion Books edition April 2015
ISBN: 978-1-62681-750-0

Also by Newton Thornburg

To Die in California
Cutter and Bone
Dreamland
A Man’s Game
Eve’s Men
The Lion at the Door
Beautiful Kate
Black Angus

To Kris and Doug

Table of Contents

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world

—William Butler Yeats

One

Even looking through his binoculars Stone could not make out the town name on the small white road sign, for it was sieved with bullet holes, as were the walls of the building across the blacktop, a cement-block drive-in with fierce brown smoke stains rising from gaping windows and smashed-in doors. In front of the structure an orange signboard, dangling from a chain at one end, turned in the early fall breeze.
Tiny’s Shake ’n Burger
, it read.
Y’all come
.

Stone lowered the glasses. He was crouched among some cedars near the crest of a hill bordering the road, which ran straight into the small town, so he was able to see the place clearly: the neat little rows of burned-out houses, the abandoned cars and pickups and campers, the litter of clothing and furniture and junk the inhabitants had dropped or left behind, to be picked over by the marauding gangs moving through, the blacks or whites or whatever. The only sign of life he saw anywhere was a pack of dogs savaging something caught in a shed behind a three-story Victorian brick house gutted of all its wood, its roof
and porches and gingerbread, and standing there now like some prim local old maid stripped and violated in these unbelievable last days of her life. Stone hoped it was only another dog in the shed, one of their own kind, weakened, fair game, because he knew that he would do nothing no matter what it was, not even if it was human. He had not got this far, probably sixty miles from the city, by taking chances. Any one of those sad little buildings might have a few Mau Mau in it, or locals, or even a loner like himself, some half-mad refugee who had spent most of his time these last weeks learning that survival depended to a degree on the non-survival of others, what food and weapons he could take to see him through the next hours or maybe even days ahead, if he was lucky, if he was inclined to dream large dreams. So Stone would not enter the town. He would go around it. The only problem was which way, whether circling to the east or to the west would offer the safer route, the one with better cover and less chance of surprise. Also he was looking for a burned-out farm with some woods around it for a safe approach, for he had not forgotten what the dying old man had told him yesterday about some of the farms having root cellars buried in the ruins and overlooked since, possible repositories of potatoes and canned goods and other treasures. And then too there was always the chance an old cat or dog might have returned to its homeplace and would be there waiting for him, as convenient as a carryout at Kentucky Fried Chicken. Maybe he would even risk a fire. The thought of meat, cooked meat, made him salivate. He was not weak yet, thanks to Miller’s almost eccentric providence, the One-a-Days and Vitakaps he had included in his survival cache, along with Spacefood Sticks and Planters Jumbo Blocks and Sunmaid raisins. Now only the vitamins and
four small boxes of raisins were left, enough to keep him moving and that was about all. No more than they could fill his stomach could they slake the hungers of his mind, the visions of long noon lunches at Harry’s and the Black Angus forming constantly in his path.

After adjusting his backpack, he picked up his rifle and started down the hill. He moved across the road and entered the overgrown, almost wooded pasture that was his main reason for choosing the easterly route. Wherever possible he stayed away from open ground, respecting the accuracy of the locals’ deer rifles, the thirty-thirties and aught-sixes they were not at all loath to fire at a man, for this after all was their country, their land and homes and families they were defending. It had reached the point now though where most of them had abandoned their own places to join forces with other farmers and their families in what Stone could only characterize as forts, usually large farms with live water and enough buildings to hold all the new members and the provisions they had brought with them, the food and livestock and feed and of course the weapons, the means of securing such awesome wealth against the roving bands outside. Stone had seen a few such forts during the past week, from a safe distance of course, and the thing that had impressed him even more than their startling unburned walls were the birds he saw surrounding them, crows and vultures feeding on those who had been foolish enough or hungry enough to venture too close.

So he made it a point to avoid large unburned farms. He held to wooded areas, to high grass and brush. And he moved slowly, looking carefully about him. There were times in fact when he felt as if he had become some other species entirely, something small and vulnerable, creeping
in the shadows. Though he had been carrying the Winchester ever since the freeway incident—it too, along with a thirty-eight pistol, had been Miller’s—he had yet to use the weapon except on wild dogs. He had come upon a number of loners like himself and occasional groups of two and three, and they in turn had seen him, silent starings across the fields of fear and suspicion. But nothing had happened. Perhaps it was the gun or simply their common animal reluctance to chance the unknown, to risk all, ever. Stone knew that he had much worth killing for, chiefly the guns but also the binoculars and canteens and other backpack equipment, plus all the imagined food inside. So he resisted the societal urge, the hunger for companionship, and kept to himself. The one exception had been the old man, whom he had come upon the previous afternoon, beaten and robbed, lying beside a sulfur water stream, talking to it as if it were his family, his own blood running past. Stone had tried to make him comfortable and had given him sweet water and a precious last piece of Jumbo Block, which the man had promptly vomited. But mostly all Stone did was sit and listen through the long cool night to the man’s contented litany of inhumanity, contented because it apparently confirmed his fundamentalist theology, the final hegemony of Antichrist, the coming of Armageddon. He died while Stone slept, and Stone buried him in the morning, more like six inches deep than six feet, but even that was more than a man had any right to expect, now, in these first days of the new age.

Early in the afternoon Stone came upon the crashed airplane, a twin-engine Cessna stuck like a giant plow into the earth. One wing had been sheared off and the cabin door hung open behind the battered, half-buried nose of
the craft. Climbing up on the jagged base of the missing wing, he peered into the cabin and saw one body amid the clutter, a fortyish man pinned to the pilot’s seat by the shattered trunk of a small white oak. In death the man had gripped the tree, as if he had hoped to pull it from his chest, like an arrow. Otherwise all Stone could see inside were broken seats and scattered luggage. On the ground, under the door, one suitcase lay open, with its contents tossed about. Rifling through it, he found men’s shirts and toiletries, including a Norelco shaver. The shirts all bore the label of I. Magnin. There was also a book of hundred-dollar American Express traveler’s checks, an artifact that Stone found almost touching. Some people simply could not accept that it was all over now, done, as dead as the Age of Pericles. Paper money was good for starting fires, and that was all.

Stone took only one item, a lined suede shirt-jacket he knew he would be able to use in the weeks ahead, as the weather turned colder. Stuffing it into his backpack, he wondered idly who had gone through the bag before him—the owner, or someone like himself, someone wandering through? He looked back at the swath the plane had cut across the field, a hundred-yard gash bordered by uprooted bushes and broken saplings and the one large tree that had claimed the Cessna’s wing. From the raw dark look of the open ground he judged that the crash had occurred within the last twenty-four hours. And the length of the swath indicated it had been more a crash-
landing
, a doomed attempt to put down in a field that from the air must have looked reasonably flat and safe. He imagined that there had been survivors, and that they had moved on, leaving their dead for the birds and wild dogs to dispose of. Well, he would do the same. If a man wanted to, he could have
spent all his time these past weeks digging graves and mumbling obsequies. But Stone had more important things to do, chief of which was not to join those in need of burial. So he walked on, still circling east of the small town.

He had gone less than a half mile when he saw the woman in the distance, standing in the doorway of a barn ruin like a high-fashion model on assignment. He raised Miller’s eight-power Nikons and studied her more closely, struck by the incongruity she presented against the decay and detritus all around her: young and honey-blond, dressed in high, brushed leather boots and a tan safari jumpsuit set off with a scarf of iridescent purple. Though she did not even look rumpled, he figured she was one of the survivors of the crash and was using the ruin for shelter, such as it was. Roofless and crumbling, the structure was little more than the rock and concrete foundation of an ancient dairy barn, a victim not of the collapse but of time. Beyond its thick gray walls stood a huge old tiled silo and beyond that another ruin, this one of a house and garage, recently burned.

Stone moved on across the field toward her, not missing the fact that as she saw him she reacted hardly at all, neither calling out nor pulling back into the doorway, which made him wonder if she was playing the decoy, trying to draw him into an ambush of some kind. So he released the safety on his rifle and he watched carefully for any movement behind her or in some other part of the ruin. As he drew close, she continued to stand there watching him.

“Hello,” he said. “That your plane back there?”

“It
was.”

“Can I help you in any way?”

“Why? You a doctor?”

“No. You got people hurt?”

She did not answer immediately. She turned and looked back into the shadows of the unroofed room behind her at a man sitting on the dirt floor with his knees drawn up and his head resting on his arms.

“Him,” she said finally. “He hit his head. He can’t see. And he’s been in shock, I think.”

The man looked up, in the direction of her voice. He appeared to be about Stone’s age, mid or early thirties. And like the woman, he too could have been a fashion model, had that kind of snotty, finely chiseled features and the whippet build to go with them, as well as the once
de rigueur
mop of curly slave-boy blond hair. He also had a bump on his forehead, along with a black and swollen eye. His faded denim outfit was torn and dirty.

“Eddie?” he said. “Eddie, you there?”

As he spoke, Stone caught the woman’s uneasy glance to her left, behind the open doorway, and he quickly pushed past her, crouching, swinging his rifle in that direction just as a two-by-four board sliced through the air a millimeter above his head and shattered against the concrete wall. Stone’s finger involuntarily started to close on the gun trigger, almost blowing away the feisty little man who stood glaring at him now like a cornered wolverine. And he had that same animal’s face as well as attitude, the pugnacious snout and ready mouth and fearless button eyes. Balding and long-haired, there was nothing of the fashion model about him.

Stone brutally prodded him with the rifle. “Why’d you do that, huh?
Why?”
He was feeling sick with sudden anger, not so much at how close the board had come to braining
him as how close he had come to shooting the little creep. Once more he drove the muzzle of the rifle into the man’s chest.

“Why, huh? Tell me!”

The wolverine, trembling, somehow managed a sneer. “Your fucking gun, that’s why.”

“You wanted it?”

“I wanted not to get killed with it!”

For a few moments longer Stone held him there. Then he lowered the gun and backed up, moving past the woman again. The blinded man was still calling for his friend.

BOOK: Valhalla
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ads

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