All who arrived at the enclave came by way of Hester, as did the woman in the red parka who entered a small greasy spoon on the outskirts of the isolated hamlet. Unease and anticipation are etched upon her countenance. Through a gauntlet of elbows and shoulders a tall man bearing a stoop and vanquished appearance approached Nance unseen.
“Show me yours and I’ll show you mine,” he muttered just inches from her ear. She noded without looking and follows him to a booth in the back of the packed diner where a middle-aged woman sat.
No hands of introduction, no pleasantries exchanged among them as they all sat down. “You have your paperwork?” he asks. Nance immediately unfolds two documents for the couple to review. Several minutes pass as they silently pore over the pages.
“For now you can call me ‘Will’—and this is ‘Barb’,” he motioned to his associate. “You’ll be under probation for the first thirty days of your stay—so you can decide whether or not you want it to be your permanent home. Also, it gives us a chance to see how you fit within our group. With that in mind, we’d like to know why you want to make our community your home. And please feel free not to include any particulars about your situation as we’re not now in a setting where confidences can be shared.”
“Well,” Nance sighed, “it got to be just far more than I could handle: the cold stares, the threats—written and phoned. Wherever I go I can’t let my guard down for one moment. And there’s no possibility any longer to make friends—too often they’ve found out about me before I’ve had a chance to build trust… establish a rapport. I don’t consider myself a needy type, necessarily, but it get lonely not having people to call on. This has gone on for a couple of years, and I think I’m going to lose my… mind,” she trailed off into silent sobbing.
Will and Barb nodded grimly and were silent as Nance regained her composure. “So,” Will spoke up,”one more thing before we set out: it’s a couple hours hike to our destination. Because you have not been accepted by the enclave, you’ll have to submit to blindfold—it’s a precautionary measure, as I’m sure you can sympathize, one we’ve had to insist upon. If the blindfold is a deal breaker, we’ll understand and be on our way.”
Nance paused before answering, her eyes fixed on some unseen horizon before she made her decision. She nodded and stood up from the table. The trio left the diner and headed toward a path alongside the highway, out of sight from anything moving or stirring in Hester. Nance accepted the blindfold and held on to Will and Barb as they slowly descended down the concealed trail.
An hour into the hike Barb removed the blindfold from Nance, allowing them to quicken their pace. Very little was said among them as they scaled and trudged over often treacherous terrain. A sparsely wooded landscape leaped and dipped as afar as the eye could see, studded with clusters of large boulders. Nance looked back behind her and Will shot a glance that could have turned her into a column of salt.
As they peered over the hill they ascended a far away shout greeted them and Bar and Will waved back. In minutes they arrived at the foothills of a steep slope ascending to snow-capped peaks. About a dozen mobile home structures stretched along where the slope flattened.
“For now you can stay with Fran and Jack,” Will motioned to the unit at the extreme left. “They’ll help you get settled in,” he added with a tone that implied warmth.
By now a handful of the enclave’s inhabitants stepped outside their units to get a look at Nance. “Never mind them,” Barb piped up, “it’s been a couple of years since we’ve had a visitor. They’ll get over the novelty of it all.” Nance averted he eyes as she strode over to Fran and Jack’s. The door to the clap board structure opened slowly before Nance had a chance to knock.
A soft voice invited her in. Natural light poured in from two sky lights. Fran and Jack stood unsmiling but not unfriendly as Nance surveyed the mobile trailer’s interior: sparely furnished and with few personal touches.
“I can place your bag in a corner,” Jack offered timidly.
Nance hesitated, “Sure, yes please.”
“Would you like a bite to eat?” Fran offered.
“For now, I’d just like to sit and rest my feet. May I?” Nance inquired gesturing to the removal of hiking boots. Fran and Jack broke into smiles, acknowledging the merciless length of the hike.
“Certainly—what an an odyssey, huh?” Jack said with widened, astounded eyes.
The trio laughed softly, with great reticence as if they had wandered into a wedding ceremony uninvited and wanted to stay. Nance relaxed a little in her seat. A stretch of quiet passed.
“You know,” Fran spoke up, “calling this occasion and what our community represents ‘awkward’ does not begin to describe what we’re going through.” She paused, looking around for her next words. “We know you have lots of questions and there’s a certain order the have to be answered in to optimize this process.”
“We have to protect ourselves,” added Jack, “and also help you arrive at your decision—what we understand to be one of the most agonizing of choices.”
Fran took Jack’s hand and he accepted the gesture of comfort.
A pang of realization passed over Nance’s countenance.
“Yes, we’re a couple—the only couple here at the enclave,” Fran admitted. “We went through hell to convince everyone to accept me—the only one who hasn’t been convicted as a sex offender–along with Jack, but alas we prevailed.” Fran’s eyes glistened above a wary smile.
Nance ended her silence. “Is everyone here a tier-three case?”
“With the exception of my wife, yes,” Jack confirmed. “We’re past the child-bearing stage, otherwise they would have never given us an interview.”
“How about violent offenders?” Nance notching up the topic.
“I think that’s a Will-question,” Fran said after exchanging glances with Jack. “That was definitely a concern of mine, I can assure you….”
Over the days that followed, it struck Nance that nearly every question she posed to any member of the enclave, turned out to be a Will-question. And how frustrated Nance felt about Will—that he was rarely around to answer her questions. What agonized her the most was the prospect of living in the middle of nowhere in close proximity to a violent offender; the alternative was exile outside the enclave.
A few days passed and the first reticence of the community eased enough for Nance to learn everyone’s name. Some readily traded confidences with her about the past, living in exile—though Nance reserved the particulars about her own transgression.
One by one the others dropped by Jack and Fran’s unit for a conversation where very few words were said. Nance sat—on separate occasions—with Phil, a former air traffic controller; a ‘defrocked’ psychiatrist named Sal; and Jer, a photographer who once shot pictures for major fashion magazine covers.
“It’s like you go into a glass holding tank once people find out,” Jer reflected on his exile days. “This life, here—it’s no fantasy, but at lease no one’s wearing a crimson badge.” This, the most verbose of all the dwellers in the enclave. It occurred to Nance how little everyone talked and with such measured tones—as if to avoid provoking unwanted attention. Just as striking: how the enclave came to the view that their lives before arriving were the days of exile.
A week after her arrival, Will reached out to Nance when breakfast had concluded. “It’s time to show you around,” he said, and the began with a rigorous hike, ascending along the foothill. Reaching the peak of the foothill, the mountains now in towering proximity, Nance saw a hill sitting apart from foothills that led to the mountain. It emitted a dark, shimmering glow that blanketed the entire surface of the large mound.
“That,” Will point out, “is the source of our energy.”
Her eyes adjusted to distinguish individual glassy surfaces lining the hill in concentric arcs. Until that moment it never occurred to Nance how a small group of people could survive unlinked to the grid of civilization.
On the way back to the foothill, Will elaborated on the origins of the enclave. “It’s a dream that took over twelve years to build it as it is now. There was once a paved foot path leading to this destination. It’s gone now—ploughed over and seeded with what became a swath of shrubs shading it. The FEMA trailers came from a nearby natural disaster that happened a couple of decades ago. We hired undocumented labor to bring and set them up here. We acquired the FEMA units in a transaction we paid generously for. Several layers of intermediaries arranged for a government bureaucrat to delete their records from a federal inventory….”
“So,” Nance cut in, “how does all this get paid for?”
Will gestured toward a FEMA trailer that was double the size of any of the other units. It had been the only structure that none spent any time outside of in the cool of the evenings. Nance followed Will into the trailer, unprepared for a sight so far away from the grid—a suite of about a dozen desktop computers. Each one perched upon a work space occupied by a member of the enclave.
“This,” Will said by way of introduction, “is our workshop. There are a number of revenue generating strategies we pursue—”
“You mean identity theft?” Nance inquired, immediately regretting her sanctimonious tone.
Will rolled his eyes, smirking. “Have you ever heard of a Nigerian national being arrested for cyber crimes? Of course not. Because they aren’t the ones trying to coax bank account information from unwitting investors,” he said wearily.
“The deal is, you’re going to have to do your part to make our operation a continued success…” Will hesitated, “you know, assuming you want to live here—and should our community accept you.”
Nance fixed her eyes on Will’s, then surveyed the spread of computers, monitors and network mainframe towering in a corner. She shrugged and turned to walk out the door.
Later that night, after the evening meal, members of the enclave gathered around a campfire. “Everyone’s here,” Mike announced, “of course, except Duke.” It was the first time Nance heard the name uttered, however, she began to understand that one FEMA unit remained for her to visit. No one else made any reference to it. It stood as a well-enforced omission. The question she had posed on the first day of her arrival—about violent offenders—Will managed to scuttle off-handedly each time she inquired.
“Okay, let’s get to it,” Will spoke up as a segue to addressing Nance’s visit to the group. “As I’ve explained to our guest, this group lives by the tension of open communication and individual privacy. We know all too well the feeling of going about in the exile skinned alive by the infamy of our shortcomings. So, Nance, whatever you want to share with the group is up to you as everyone here has had the discretion over what to reveal about themselves… you had a question?”
“I’m afraid so—this seems as good a time as any to repeat a question I’ve had since arriving here. It’s a concern of mine whether or not I’ll be living in a community where I’ll have to worry about a violent offend— yes, I know that smacks of the worst hypocrisy you’ve ever heard, but still, I have to weigh the cons of living here or back in the exile, as you refer to it.”
The crackle and wheeze of the campfire asserted itself as the group sat silently.
“Well,” Sal began, “she needs to know the story of why she’s being considered for residency here.” He addressed Nance. “As you’re probably aware already, there’s one trailer you have yet to visit. That’s Duke’s place, and… well, he’s dying. He’s the answer to your question about violent offenders. We’ve purposely kept you from meeting him because he’ll know that there isn’t much else we can do for him. We could debate the ethics of it all, but in the final calculation, we’ve chosen the path of least resistance.”
Nance felt numb upon hearing the revelation. Once again the dread of sentencing for her crimes descended upon her; not the incarceration she would endure, but the tier three status—a mark for life. Knowing now that the name of Duke personified an agony she suppressed until this moment but now no longer.
“He’s dying,” she repeated with the flat edge of her voice.
“Sal diagnosed him, albeit without the capabilities of modern medicine. All symptoms point to pancreatic cancer. It could be days… even hours,” Will responded.
Nance walked away without a further word. The fury of circumstances gathered force within her. Another unlivable angle forcing itself upon her, again summoned by desire: the Venus fly trap of her soul, engorging itself on even greater calamity.
Pity moved her first, in the winding days of her vocation as a high school civics instructor. What folly the pity Nance nurtured for the hapless pubescent—sweaty palms and downcast eyes. How swiftly desperation seizes upon compassion, ravishing it, bending sympathy toward a frenzied terminus. A consequence Nance never bothered to discourage—popularity among a handful of male students who assembled around her like suitors after class. A sudden interest in current events and the ways of the world ‘out there’ kept them posted in her presence.
Little changed when summer arrived and Nance’s coterie of enthusiastic handy men constantly invented premises for dropping by her place. One humid, restless evening they arrived in a car, horn honking for Nance to step out for a chat. There were shouts and pleas for her to join them for a friendly drive around town. Thomas (Richard & Harold) stood out as the most eloquent of the duplicitous trio of raging pubescents. Would she please score beer for them? The more she demurred the more fretful and earnest their pleading, with assurances of a civics discussion as highlight of the evening. Just as they were about to drive away Nance stepped out of her home, waiving at the teenagers to wait up. A chorus of hoots and yelps welcomed Nance as she took her place in the front passenger seat.
Before heading to the gulch just outside of town, the young men prove themselves just as convincing about getting Nance to buy beer for them. Since they were officially out of school and she no longer their teacher, it stood to Thomas, Richard and Harold as a reasonable request. On the condition that she would make the purchase alone, Nance agreed. Thomas, Richard and Harold wasted no time reaching into their pockets for crumpled notes of legal tender to drop in her open palms.
Four six packs? She questioned her weeks-ago students. To wit, the trio of pubescents began reciting examples of their most manly tolerance for beer. Each successive testimony reached greater heights of improbability until Nance raised her voice to concede, all right already—three six-packs! The young men accepted the compromise and Nance stepped out of car and entered the liquor shop. The cashier’s raised eyebrows met Nance’s chagrin. Going to a party, she informed the grease-complected, sun-scorched man as he counted back the change.
Harold bounded up to Nance as she exited the shop with three six-packs of beer stacked up to her chin. Not here, she warned the youth through gritted teeth—a moment of circumspection curiously seizing upon her in that instant. The cashier’s never-seen-a-woman-buy-three-six-packs routine had rattled her. Cautiously she approached Richard’s car and handed each cluster of beers through the open window. Nance glanced over her shoulder—not a soul to be seen within the dusty lot on a late Sunday evening.
Her companions noted a more somber former-civics teacher. It was only an 11-minute drive to the gulch, for Nance it may as well have been a half hour. Richard kills the lights when they arrive at the edge of the local abyss. Beer cans exchange hands and a burst of opened tabs pierce the silence. Nance was the last to open a can. The young men gulp their beers at a competitive pace. Predictably Harold chokes, succumbing to a fit of hacking coughs and panting for air. Thomas and Richard laugh and taunt him. Recovering his composure, Harold continues imbibing until finishing the first beer. He opens another
The trio then turn to Nance urging her to catch up. Again feeling daring, she tips back the beer can to the cheers of her young companions; having drank the first half of the beer with sips, Nance swallowed the remainder of the beer in a handful of pulses.
Thomas, Richard and Harold have started their third beers respectively. Light weight Harold feels the rush of intoxication charging into his face. A strem of incoherent phrases and sentence fragments spew from his lips. His friends erupt into laughter again and Nance smiles kindly as she drinks the last of her second beer. Richard turns to quiz him whether or not he knew what the blonde mating call was. (Richard stared into Nance’s eyes then took inventory of the rest of her body.) She has heard this joke at her expense in spite of a “better-than-average-blonde” intelligence. Harold claimed to know the answer but sank in the soup of his intoxication.
“I think I’m drunk!” Thomas hollered at Harold in a thinly disguised reprimand, followed by a hail of fists landing on his chest and upper left arm. Richard laughed and Nance could not help but get swept up in the absurdity of it all. Richard opened another beer and handed it to his former civics teacher. She took a long sip that reinforced her sense of overall well being that two beers could bring. A smile of frivolous joy plastered her countenance. The moment Harold observed outloud that the company present had yet to begin their discussion of current events, the pretense of this occasion summoned closer scrutiny.
Nance saw the scowl Richard shot at Harold and she reached out in a gesture of comfort or reassurance. She understood it all now, in her inebriated state—she saw clearly the aim of their intent.
“You gentlemen,” Nance announced, “want to fuck me.”
Once again laughter exploded inside the sedan, the young men relieved of their shabby efforts to prop up their pretense. Harold, feeling a tinge of shame attempted to reassure Nance that it really wasn’t all like that. Richard was having none of Harold’s hand-wringing, second-guessing, and he placed his hand on Nance’s thigh not-too-subtly caressing.
The kind of lust-infused smile that an aroused woman might give, Nance’s gaze encouraged Richard. He moved in to kiss her while Thomas and Harold gasped over their friend’s daring. Kissing escalated to groping and a good deal of friction. Thomas opened thee door and stepped out of the sedan, hurrying around to the passenger side where Nance sat, her lips wrenched into Richard’s. Thomas opened the door and reached her arm to lead her out of the car. He dived into her lips and Nance reciprocated. Soon she found herself pressed against the car—a magnet of terrifying pull that fused all three young men to her body in a furious erotic frenzy. What sensation of the unfathomable Nance experienced, a sexual abandon she had only fantasized about in unspecific detail. Nance then realized what she sought was transcendence—a heaving disorientation that accompanied the prying out of her senses from sentience.
Nance wandered out from the enclave only as far as maintaining a view of the campfire would allow. As the fire faded and those gathered around it drifted back to their trailers, she drew closer to the enclave. An unfamiliarity with the order of all the trailers at night disoriented Nance. In the dark each unit’s front door featured the same lighting fixture: a single flourescent bulb installed perpendicular to the ground. The group living as the enclave decided by omission that no particular numbering convention would be necessary. Nance’s belief that she had opened Fran and Jack’s unit endured a sudden broadside from the putrid stench that rushed her before having a chance to set foot inside. Knocked aside by the smell, Nance clutched the door frame to keep her balance. A thought nagged at her that perhaps she had entered the wrong unit, however, she feared more having to return outside.
The sound of stirrings in one’s sleep Nance heard from the back of the mobile home. Jack or Fran she desperately wanted to believe. Nance heard a heavy, labored breathing greeting her from the dark. Her eyes adjusted as she crept along the short hallway that led to the bedrooms.
“Are you my death angel?” a strange man’s voice addressed Nance from one of the bedrooms. Startled in mid-step, Nance dared not respond. The labored breathing continuted. “I’d offer …you a place to sit and maybe a drink… but I’m in no condition to,” the voice had just enough strength to end the phrase on a resentful note.
“What’s your name, darlin’?” the voice sweetly inquired some moments later with renewed strength. Still no response from Nance whose only impulse was to rush out of the wrong trailer she had wandered into.
“C’mon,” he said and then paused, “Don’t be frightened. I’m as sick as a dog as I’m guessing you’re well aware of. At least tell me your name before you run off,” he urged her, revealing a keen sense of her instinct to dash off in a fright. Nance murmured her name.
“Darlin’,” he chuckled, “I’m sorry you’re gonna have to speak up a little—my hearing isn’t what it used to be.”
She repeated her name.
“Well, Nance, the pleasure’s all mine. I’m Duke—United States Army, Lieutenant in Special Forces, retired. What a long spell it’s been since I’ve had the delight of meeting someone… given we’re all locked away in these hills far far away from the quickening pulse of civilization,” he drawled on.
“So Nance—tell me something about yourself,” he continued now with considerably more warmth.
“I-I’d rather not,” she stammered.
“Hey-hey, please darlin’ relax yourself. I don’t know what these folks we live among have told you about me,” he labored breathing. “I’m harmless as a barn swallow.”
“Sure, if you say so,” Nance responded flatly.
“Given the circumstances of our meeting, it’s perfectly clear to me I’ve not much time left—that makes you my angel of death,” Duke trailed off with a weak laugh.
Nance panicked, which would not be the best decision considering the company she was in. In Duke’s experience, panic was never good under any circumstances, far less when the trafficking of human flesh was at stake. No moment stood out in his memory when he crossed the line from a decorated Army officer to a slave trader and sex offender who eventually faced conviction in a criminal trial.
At the tail end of a tour in Afghanistan, which coincided with a chance to retire from the military, a handful of colleagues approached Duke about a venture arranging the security and logistics of transporting decommissioned equipment back to the United States. On the day immediately after resigning his Army post, Duke found himself employed by a private contractor overseeing the return of a fleet of Humvees back to a military surplus dealer. The scope and reach of his employer’s operation eluded his grasp. As the company’s confidence in Duke deepened the more he found himself working for subsidiaries two or three times removed from the original contractor. Given the nature of his training in special operations he never asked questions and was generously compensated at intervals of rapid increase.
By subtle turns over time, Duke’s post-Army career required of him travel to the far reaches of the planet on private jets, feted by the wealthiest benefactors. One memorable night on a yacht floating in the middle of the Indian Ocean, the realization hit like an IED–as a trio of women seduced him–that he had long lost contact with, or knowledge of, the wares he arranged security and transport logistics for. He had come to assume he was better off not knowing as long as the cargo transports departed and arrived on time.
No one who enters the portal through to the black market does so with any awareness of arriving. On a cargo ship bound for Miami, Duke heard shouts of warning—a container had somehow opened there was an escapee who had sprinted away.
Duke ran toward the shouts disoriented by all the talk of live cargo contents. The stench of human mortality buffered his pace as he neared the container in question. Clutching his nose and mouth the opened door revealed several bodies strewn about the interior. He ran off toward the shouts along the cargo hold. The hoarse cries of a young woman greeted him as he approached a couple of ship mates who had caught the dark complected female. The merchant marines debated some minutes where or not to include the escapee with the container of decaying flesh that sudden necessity required abandoning to the wide open sea.
Duke pleaded and vouched for the girl, committing himself to personally assume responsibility for her within the confines of his cabin. They chuckled and expressed knowing smiles that convinced Duke he was being patronized. After reviving consciousness some hours later the young woman attacked Duke with such desperate ferocity he felt left with no other recourse than to subdue her with such force that proved fatal.
There were hours remaining until dawn when a couple of merchant marines stood watch over the ship’s starboard side. They spotted Duke cradling a lifeless form as he approached the railing. Heaving the corpse into the whitecaps below, Duke turned around startled at the laughter and jeering he heard from the night-watch duo.
Many others followed this initiation into the rites of the black market. Duke lost count after disposing scores of bodies mangled by market demand. The work demanded ice-cold nerves, especially when docking at a port of entry when a single cry for help could topple an entire trafficking operation.
With same methodical calm Duke crawled in the dark toward Nance, heaving breath between each pace. Panic paralyzed her long enough until Duke could seize one of her ankles. She staggered toward the door to escape and Duke held on until his last breath.Recommend0 Simily SnapsPublished in