Nye County, Nevada June 1951
Jackson Tennifer’s ’47 Vanderbuilt Road Baron flew up North Highway 95 like a rocket from Hell. It was full dark, nearly midnight, and there were no other cars on the road. His wife, Visalia, was stretched across the bench seat, head resting in his lap. Her cheek against his thigh was causing an erection he was doing his best to ignore. After all, what good what it do? She’d never put her face this close to his crotch when she was wide awake, would she?
When he saw the sign for Mercury, Nevada, he slowed the Road Baron and left the main highway onto a service road that veered off to the right. The speed decrease was like an alarm clock, and right on cue, Visalia began to murmur, then lifted her head and blinked up at him with a bleary smile.
“Are we there?” she asked, lifting herself slowly away from him and stretching as she sat upright. She peered through the windshield at the surrounding darkness. “Where’s the lights?”
“We’re close,” he said, and reached into his coat pocket for his flask, took a long pull of the bourbon inside and then poked the open mouth at her before replacing the lid.
She waved it away. “Did we take a wrong turn somewhere?”
“Nope,” he replied. “More of a…romantic detour.”
“Oh, Jack. Please. If I wouldn’t do those kinds of things in a car before we were married, why would you think I’d want to do them now?”
Jackson rolled his eyes, hoping the cab was dim enough that she wouldn’t notice. Question of the day, wasn’t it? Of the year. Of their life. “You miss my meaning, sweetie. I just thought, before we hit the big town, we should get a little time to ourselves.”
“Um…okay. But I thought we had a room at the Desert Inn, and tickets for Martin & Lewis?”
“Tomorrow night, hon. Tonight’s all about us.”
The Road Baron rolled off the service road and bumped its way down a narrow strip of dirt that could only be referred to as a road with tremendous generosity. The puzzled expression wasn’t leaving Visalia’s face, but Jackson was thoroughly used to that look by now. Visalia, the sweet little angel, the Virgin of Sioux City, Iowa, a small town girl with big city dreams and stars in her eyes but not a single clue how to operate one foot outside of Squaresville. Sure, she was beautiful, under the mousy haircut and unflattering clothes, else why would Jackson have ever given her the time of day? And there must have been some tiny mystery there, too, behind those wide, eternally awestruck eyes, else why would he have asked for her hand just to get under her skirt? But now here they were, two years in and nothing had changed. Well, next to nothing. Two years in and she was still as fearful of his sex as she was on their wedding night, still timid and frigid and willing to submit only under what amounted to extreme duress. There was just no joy in it. If he wanted the house cleaned and his meals on the table, he could hire a goddamn maid, but could he really be expected to spend the rest of his life like a monk who’d taken vows?
After a long silent while he brought the sedan to a stop outside of a bare bones clapboard two-story house. The headlights revealed a long wide porch across the front, dark windows staring down, the shades half-drawn like sullen eyelids, observing their approach with blank indifference.
“I rented us a cabin. You don’t like?”
“No…I…it’s…fine. It’s totally fine.”
He could hear the disappointment in her voice, and for just a moment he wondered if he should have saved this for the end of the weekend. Let her have her fun, or whatever passed for fun in her boring Midwestern brain, then…but no, that would have been too late. If he couldn’t save the marriage, at least he could save himself. And this was the only way.
He got out of the car, mildly surprised and slapped half sober by the cold snap of night air in the desert, took a breath and went around to her side, opened the door like a gentleman does and put a warming arm around her as she stepped out, already shivering.
“It’s like no cabin I ever saw,” she said, taking a tentative step toward the big dark shabby house. She peered around, trying to take in their surroundings beyond the bleak, impenetrable dark. “It’s so…desolate.”
“That’s Nevada, baby. You wanted to get away, right? Well, you can’t get much more away than this.”
He couldn’t tell what she was more afraid of, the loneliness of the house and this place, or the thought of being alone here with him. Either way, he didn’t want her scared. That wouldn’t do either of them any good.
“C’mon, I’ll get the bags.”
“Do you have a flashlight?”
He popped the trunk and brought out an electric lantern, clicked it on and flooded them both in white light. It didn’t exactly cheer things up.
“Prepared for every eventuality.”
She smiled for the first time since waking up in his lap, and it melted him, just a little. That smile had been the first hook, the thing that drew him to her. He should have hated that smile, but he just couldn’t.
The steps creaked and even buckled a little with each footstep, and the porch floor was no better. The whole place felt like it might fall over if he leaned against the wall to tie his shoe or something.
“Jack, are you sure this is the right place?”
“Well, isn’t that another car?” She pointed off to the left, around the Southeast corner of the house, where the tailfin of a spanking new Vanderbuilt Casino Deluxe sparked and glistened in the glow of the lantern. “Maybe somebody’s already here?”
“Oh, no. That’s the owner’s. The guy I rented from. He told me he parks his extra car out here sometimes. Safekeeping.”
“Oh.” She smiled up at him, but this wasn’t the warm inviting smile of a moment ago. It was the forced smile she wore along with her one negligee, the “I-guess-if-you-say-so” smile.
He gave her the lantern and pretended to fumble with the door, hoping she wouldn’t notice that he didn’t have a key. He’d known he wouldn’t need one. He didn’t push the gag too hard, afraid the thing would pop off its hinges, and when it swung open, he took the lantern back before ushering her in. Immediately, she grabbed his arm.
“Jackson,” she hissed through clenched teeth. “There are people here.”
“How’s that?” he asked, giving the lantern a swing around the room. Sure enough, several human silhouettes emerged from the darkness, one standing at the window, one seated at the kitchen table, another over by the couch.
“Jack, I’m scared,” she whispered.
She clutched his arm tightly enough to leave a bruise as he stepped over to the figure at the window and illuminated it fully. She gasped when he reached out and gave it a tap, and it wobbled stiffly.
“Huh. Imagine that.” He let out a snort of laughter. “Mannequins.”
“Jackson, what is this place? It’s like a…house of horrors.”
“They’re probably just here to scare off kids and troublemakers. Like scarecrows.”
“I don’t like it. It’s weird. I want to leave.”
“C’mon, I already paid.”
“It’s worth every penny to me not to be here anymore.”
He’d had plans, an idea to enjoy her diffident lovemaking one last time, to eke as much minimal pleasure from the whole sordid event as he could before…
“Sorry, babe. We can’t leave. Well…you can’t.”
The puzzled look again. “What are you–?”
He brought the lantern down on her skull.
He must not have hit her as hard as he thought. Carrying her out to the Road Baron, she stirred, the same sleepy, bewildered look as when she woke up from her car nap, but no smile this time. Just fear. He’d never wanted her to be afraid. This wasn’t meant to be malicious. He just wanted his freedom. To leave as little mess behind as possible. A peaceful exit for both of them. Sort of. He thought he’d planned it perfectly, but he’d only ever seen the place in daylight. It was a little creepy then, but he hadn’t counted on how much more disturbing it would be at night, and how that would affect his little Iowan waif. His virtuous child bride.
“Jacky…? What are you…? What…happened?”
“Shh.” He carried her in his arms like they were crossing the threshold on their wedding night, and maybe it stirred that memory for her, because she nuzzled against him suddenly, burrowing for his protection. She probably didn’t even realize, in her semi-conscious stupor, that he was responsible for her cloudy mind. Probably just thought she’d fainted, again like their wedding night, and he was doing as she asked, taking her away from this terrible place, not forcing her to do anything she wasn’t comfortable with.
The trunk was still open, and he tried his best to be gentle as he lowered her in, but he bumped her head against the trunk lid and she let out a little yelp of pain.
“Jacky, I’m cold. Where are we going?”
“Nowhere too far,” he said comfortingly, then went to close the lid, but she grabbed the edge of the trunk and he nearly caught her fingers. Gingerly, he reached down and freed her hand, pushed it down against her chest, arranging her in her casket.
“Jacky, it’s too dark,” she murmured as he caught his last glimpse of her.
Too fucking dark indeed.
If the Road Baron was a rocket, the Casino was a goddamn time machine. At top speed, he figured he’d be back in San Diego an hour before he’d ever left. He whistled along with the song on the radio, Tony Bennett’s version of “Cold, Cold Heart.” He expected to feel guilt, shame, that anxious looking-over-the-shoulder feeling. But he only felt…lighter. The further he got from that broken down shack and that unfixable woman he felt like he was tap dancing on a storm cloud.
As he reached the turn-off for the service road, he was hit with a flood of light so intense he thought for a moment he might be getting abducted by aliens. He knew the rumors about the area, but he was a pragmatist by nature, so the thought left him just as quickly.
“Stop the vehicle!” a voice barked with a bullhorn crackle.
The law! he thought, but how was that possible? No one could have found her this fast. It hadn’t been ten minutes yet. He hit the brakes more out of blindness than in response to the command. The Casino was brand new, and cost a fortune. It wouldn’t do to smash it into anything just yet.
“Step out of the vehicle! Hands over your head!”
He blinked into the brilliance, and it all became clear. Their helmeted silhouettes coming into view, the outlines of their rifles, held at the ready. A jeep rigged with floodlamps and some kind of mounted machine gun.
The click-clack of weaponry cocking, the shadowy motion of men stepping forward, coming for him.
Without a second thought, Jackson threw the Casino into reverse and floored it. She handled beautifully, a masterstroke of American automotive engineering, top of the motherfucking line. All this desert, horsepower like this, they didn’t have a hope in hell of catching him out here. All he had to do was make the highway, any highway, and he’d be home free.
V8 engine, chrome bumpers, built-in record player, automatic doors and windows, this car had everything. Though there was one feature available on the ’52 Casino that Jackson had refused. The mere suggestion from the sales dealer had sounded absurd to him at the time. Why on earth would he ever need that? What would any regular Joe just cruising the American roadway ever want with a bulletproof car?
As the shattered glass filled his eyes and the relentless ammunition of the silhouette soldiers tore him and his car to pieces, Jackson Tennifer finally had his answer.
She wasn’t in a bed. That much she knew. Wherever she was it was hard and unyielding and devoid of creature comfort and…she tried to sit up and promptly bumped her head against whatever ceiling was above her. It sent a jangling shock of pain through her body. She’d barely bumped it, though, so why did her head hurt so terribly?
As she pressed her hands upwards against the obstruction, a moment of foggy panic had her convinced she’d been buried alive, some kind of horrible mistake. What could have led to this? Were they in an accident? Last she remembered she’d been resting comfortably in Jackson’s lap, on their way to Vegas, the long-promised second honeymoon.
“Jack?” she croaked, her voice hoarse with fear. She thought that had to be it, they’d been in a crash and she was either dead in her coffin or, more likely, trapped inside the ruined car. But where was Jack? She felt around in the terrible dark and her fingers brushed strange things—hard metal here, soft cloth there, a crumple of something that was crusty and hard, maybe newspaper or an old towel, something that had to be a hairbrush, another that felt like a length of pipe or a tool.
“Jack!” she said, more insistently now. But he wasn’t here with her, she knew already. Not in these tiny confines. She remembered him carrying her, and then she knew where she was. The trunk. And Jackson had put her here. But why? She reached up and felt the lump on her head and the sharp but expected jolt brought a flood of realization. The creepy house, the ghostly mannequin-people, Jack’s strange demeanor. Had she been attacked in there? Had they both? But no, that made no sense either. It was Jack who’d done this, she was sure. A new answer but the same nagging question: Why?
Panic again. She was alone, as alone as she’d ever been, in the middle of nowhere with a man who’d just hurt her, possibly tried to murder her, the man who supposedly loved her. And just the thought of that was enough to transform fear into anger. It wasn’t an emotion she was used to, at least not to expressing out loud. But hell hath no fury…
She began pounding on the roof of the trunk, shouting as loud as her cold lungs would let her. “Jack! You let me out of here right now, you…you…son-of-a-bitch! Do you hear me?! Let me out or I’ll just make sure whatever happens is as bad for you as it could ever be!” Then, rethinking her position. “Let me out, while there’s still a chance we can make sense of this!”
Anger turned to despair then. He’d done it. He’d abandoned her. Maybe he’d meant to kill her, maybe not. Maybe there was another woman, maybe there wasn’t. Hardly mattered now. She’d been betrayed. Abandoned and betrayed. In the far-flung reaches of some desert hell, locked in a trunk without light…or air.
Panic again. She pounded even harder, knowing it was futile but trying anyway, knowing there was no one to hear her for miles around, just like he’d planned it. So no matter how she tried to slice it, it was murder, even if he’d been too much of a coward to kill her with his bare hands. He’d meant for her to die, and when she’d exhausted herself and her hands and arms ached from pounding, she collapsed back and figured she would. Almost against her will, though, her legs kicked up and she tried to force the trunk that way. She felt the heel of one shoe give and she kicked them both off, kicking upward again as hard as she could, and feeling nothing but hard steel resistance and screaming needles of pain in the soles of her feet. She very nearly twisted an ankle with the violence of her effort and that was when she gave up again, collapsing back and curling up into a fetal ball and sobbing heavily.
When she cried herself out she tried praying, but even as a good church-going Lutheran girl, a tiny part of her deep in the center knew that it was futile. Jesus might be there to comfort her when she reached the Pearly Gates, but he wasn’t going to come along and open the trunk with his magic key, was he? He could always send one of his angels, in the form of a passing motorist, but she was too far off the highway to be seen, no matter how bright their halo.
She thought maybe if she just went to sleep she wouldn’t feel it, that death would come for her with silent solicitude and steal her last breath in mid-snore. But there was something pressing against her spine and if she was going to lay back into the arms of death, she was going to be comfortable, by God. She reached beneath her and her hands closed around the metal object she’d brushed over earlier and she knew without needing to see what it was. A tire iron. With a crowbar end. She tried to stay calm as she fumbled around for the trunk’s lock mechanism, and after a panicky few minutes she realized she was searching the back of the trunk, not the front. She rolled over and found it, then fingered the tire iron, trying to figure out how to mate tool and lock in blind darkness. She managed to slide it into place at the edge of the lock but she couldn’t find a position that gave her any leverage to pry. She wriggled this way and that until she could, then used what strength she could muster to force the lock. It wouldn’t budge. This wasn’t something a woman was capable of, she thought. This was man stuff, all the way. Her thin arms and slender shoulders didn’t have the muscle required for such a monumental…
Fuck that, she thought, and startled herself with the mere idea of the word. She wasn’t that kind of girl, she didn’t talk that way. She’d heard the word, sure, from the lips of her father out in the garage under the hood when he had no idea she was in earshot. And what had he been doing? Fumbling and struggling with a wrench against a bolt that didn’t want to budge. But a few well-placed and whisper-shouted “fucks” later, the bolt came loose for him. How was this any different?
“Fuck this,” she said out loud and caught herself giggling. The word felt weird on her lips. Weird but wonderful. She wondered what Jackson would have thought? Her mother would have slapped her silly, her father would have grabbed his belt—never acknowledging his own hypocrisy as he tarnished her hide. But Jackson, he would’ve just stood there, with that slack-jawed “who are you?” expression on his face. The look that told her what she’d always been too afraid to think about too hard—that he didn’t really know her, and never would. All for lack of trying.
“Fuck this!” she said again, and pried hard at the lock, feeling the narcotic adrenal surge as she summoned strength she didn’t know she had. Something gave. Not a lot. No satisfying shriek and pop of metal surrendering to her will. But…movement.
She couldn’t tell what sound it made over her own powerful scream, but the lock gave up the ghost with such force it flew back and hit her in the mouth and even as the blood trickled from her lips she was laughing. Hysterical, triumphant, exhausted, over-the-edge soul-deep laughter welling up from her core.
She pushed the trunk open and was surprised to see that it was dawn now, the desert sky a pale blue-gray overhead. It was comforting to know that she wouldn’t have to find her way out of here under dark of night. She didn’t suppose that rotten bastard would have thought to leave the keys.
As she started to climb out, she heard a roar of thunder loud enough to shake the Heavens and then the sky lit up. Great, she thought, a storm. But this bright flash didn’t flicker away. Daybreak, she figured, the sun cresting the far horizon. It wasn’t until she saw the massive cloud begin to form that she fully realized what was happening. Jackson really had planned this well. Next came the cloud of dust, rolling toward her like a freight train, picking up whatever was in its path and hurtling it in her direction. She ducked back into the trunk and managed to get the lid down just in time for the shockwave of the atom blast to send the Road Baron flying into and right through the clapboard house.
Surrender Dorothy, she thought, as the car sailed end over end, and again she was laughing.
She didn’t know what time it was when she came to. She figured wherever she was now, time didn’t matter anyway. Right? I mean, I must be dead now, she thought. Then again, if I’m dead, why does everything hurt so Goddamn much? And then she clapped her hand over her mouth just for thinking the word Goddamn. Maybe I went to Hell, she reasoned. Probably. After all, I did say the Fuck Word. And what was a life of piety and submission and near-constant trembling God-fear in the face of an atrocity like that?
She felt another fit of the giggles coming on and that surprised her even more. She couldn’t remember laughing this much in a long time, and by all rights, this should be the least hilarious day of her life. But it wasn’t. It was Goddamn hysterical. Everything about it, from Jackson’s brutal betrayal to her escape into the face of a mushroom cloud struck her as wonderfully, joyously ridiculous. There was an undercurrent of anger, too, a recognition of the bitter ironies and vagaries of fate. But miraculously, the fear was gone, replaced with an overwhelming sense that in spite of her predicament—because of it?—she could do anything.
It took her a few moments to realize that she was most likely not in Hell, but in the trunk of an irradiated Road Baron. Feeling around, she also realized pretty quickly that she wouldn’t be going out the way she got in. The car must have landed upside down. Without hesitation, she repositioned herself and kicked at the back of the trunk, one, two, three, and the backseat popped forward and she was able to crawl free. She expected to emerge into the sedan’s roomy interior but instead she found herself outside, and when she turned to look at the vehicle she realized that at some point it had been cleaved in two. She was in the backyard of what had once been the clapboard mannequin abode, which was now just a wood frame on a cement foundation strewn with rubble. The front half of the vehicle rested on the still-standing second floor, next to a clawfoot bathtub. As she stood there in the debris field, tattered, bruised, bleeding from here and there, but very much alive, she took in a lungful of radioactive air and turned to face the mushroom cloud still lingering on the horizon, unable to believe how absolutely brilliant and beautiful everything was. This was undoubtedly the lowest moment of her life, and she’d never felt better.
Without exactly knowing why, she started walking in the direction of the big billowing cloud of smoke and death, like she’d seen the soldiers do in the newsreel films. On the horizon, the incongruous mushroom seemed as motionless as a painting, a piece of set dressing for an epic Hollywood film. She didn’t know how long she walked, but she never seemed to get any closer to it and she didn’t stop until she saw something, or maybe someone, coming toward her, silhouetted against that gorgeous backdrop of pinks and yellows and oranges and reds. She didn’t know if this was someone coming to her rescue—not that she needed it—or maybe a soldier coming to take her into custody for trespassing. Better yet, perhaps it was Jackson, on his way back to finish the job. If that was the case, she was ready for him.
But as the figure drew nearer, Visalia saw that it was a woman. It wasn’t just the voluptuous curves and the billowy mane of flaming red hair. No, the real giveaway was that she was stark naked, her ample breasts and fiery nethers on display for all the world to see, if all the world were to suddenly gather in remote death-blasted Nevada. Maybe, Visalia thought, she’d been caught in the blast, too, another victim of a surprise atomic incident, her clothing super-heated away. But that didn’t explain the confident motion of her hips as she walked, the near-hypnotic focus of her determined forward motion.
“I’ve been waiting for you,” she said as she drew close enough for Visalia to see that she had the most electrifying green eyes she’d ever seen. As soon as the words left her full, indescribably luscious lips, she planted them on Visalia’s, and as they kissed in the shadow of the mushroom cloud the former Mrs. Tennifer felt a shockwave that put the A-bomb aftermath to shame.
Oh, I get it, Visalia thought. I’m hallucinating.
The sun was already getting low in the sky, the giant cloud long since dissipated, when she found herself at the service road. She came upon a bustle of activity, men in army gear and some in suits, others in labcoats and even more in radiation gear, taking readings and measurements and talking quietly and seriously among themselves. They were gathered around something that she recognized, first dimly, then with dawning horror followed by sudden and immense satisfaction. The ’52 Vanderbuilt Casino Deluxe that she’d seen parked alongside the clapboard house. The getaway car. Only it didn’t get far. Pocked with bullet holes like a gangster’s last ride. She couldn’t yet tell if Jackson was inside, but she knew he was—every bit as dead as she wasn’t. It was almost enough to make her believe there was some justice in the world.
When she caught the first soldier’s eye, she couldn’t help but wonder what a sight she must be. In her own mind-reel, she was a bedraggled wretch, a filthy ragamuffin waif in tattered dress and grease-smeared sweater, shoeless and skin-burnt from radioactive wind. But the wide-eyed look on his face was her first clue that her mental picture wasn’t entirely accurate. He was obviously startled, only vaguely concerned for her well-being, and definitely not thinking of her in terms of her potential threat level. No, the predominant reaction lingering within that slightly glazey gaze was…lust. Pure animal lust.
She’d seen the look before, but only rarely directed her way. She kind of liked it, even if she couldn’t quite understand what she’d done to inspire it.
“Ah…sir?” the soldier managed to stammer, letting go of his rifle stock to jab a stiff index finger in her direction.
The nearest officer turned away from his conversation with a lab-coated tech, a slightly annoyed expression on his face. “What is it, sol…?” And then he saw her. And got the same wolf-lust look in his eye.
The bustle went right out of the scene as one by one they turned to apprise the new object of interest in their midst. And as they drank in the messy, blast-ravaged sight of her, they all, to a man, got the look. Okay, she had to concede, the one over there in the labcoat didn’t have it, and neither did the strapping sergeant to her immediate left. And she couldn’t really be sure what was going on under the helmets of the men in the radiation-proof suits. But the rest of them just stood leering for a long, quiet moment that was as poignant as it was awkward. She hadn’t said a word, hadn’t done a thing, had hardly moved a muscle since wandering upon them. And she had them all mesmerized. Maybe they just weren’t used to seeing girls around these parts?
“Sir?” the first soldier managed again, and the officer seemed to snap out of his horndog stupor, yanking his pistol from its holster and holding it pointed at the sky.
“Halt!” he barked, and she hadn’t even been aware she was moving. She really just wanted a peek inside the car. She did as she was told like a good little girl, and the thought of that made her giggle again.
Those who were armed swung their rifles and sidearms towards her now, none of them quite wanting to poke the barrels at her, but just to let her know they were paying attention.
“What…where did you come from?” the officer asked.
She nodded her head back toward the blast area. “Ground zero, I guess.”
“Were you…how did you get out here?”
She cast a meaningful glance at the ruined luxury car.
“You were…with him?” The officer’s face wavered between a look of deep empathy and total suspicion, but never quite losing that lusty undercurrent.
“Do you mind?” she asked, gesturing at the car.
The strapping sergeant stepped aside and she got her first good look at what was left of the man she’d pledged her life to. Slumped behind the wheel, one eye open, the other gone, along with about a quarter of his skull. It was the first dead body she’d ever seen, besides her grandfather in his funeral casket, already stuffed and mounted. But she’d seen pictures, and in death, Jackson Tennifer looked like most dead men did. Beyond vulnerable. Pathetic. The sad empty vessel of a life spent in perpetual terror and confusion, not the least bit clued in or prepared for the moment when life meted out the final punchline.
“Did you know this man?”
Visalia snorted. “Not in the least.” It wasn’t even a lie.
“What were you doing out here?”
“Just passing through,” she said with a smirk. Part of her couldn’t believe the way she was talking to these men, and not just any men, but real legitimate figures of authority. Federal authority. But it also felt like the most natural thing in the world. They weren’t above her, after all, and their silly game of War didn’t really mean anything, did it? They were little boys playing dress up, and taking it as gravely serious as all little boys did. And here she was, in no-girls-allowed country, distracting and confounding them and reminding them all why there were no girls allowed in the first place.
She started to move again, not so much eager to get away as simply done and over with the whole dull scene, but caught a glimpse of herself in the absurdly outsized sideview mirror of the Vanderbuilt. She’d been right to begin with. She was a wreck. Smudged, bruised, hair undone from its tight bun and flying behind her in a wild tangle. Not only was she barefoot and sporting skinned knees like a schoolgirl, but at some point she’d lost the last of her ruined dress and was wearing only her satin slip—Jackson was too cheap to ever buy her silk, must’ve been saving for his sweet ride. Her makeup had all been cried or sweated away. Both slip and bra-strap had slid off her shoulder and her left breast was precariously close to revealing itself to the eyes of the U.S. Armed Forces, et al. She looked, if she dared think it of herself, alluring. Sensuous. Even her facial expression had some heretofore unseen come-hither quality. She thought the face in the mirror might wink back at her. Then it did. She wasn’t sure she knew this person, but she instantly liked her. She clearly didn’t give a shit what anyone thought about her, and that was probably the sexiest quality of all. That and she had a pretty incredible figure, which the Widow Tennifer had known all along, or at least since she used to stand naked before the mirror back in Sioux Falls and compare herself to the bathing beauties in the movie magazines. By the time she looked away from the mirror and back at the men, she knew exactly why they were all looking at her that way. Beyond the obvious novelty of a half-dressed woman sashaying out of the desert in the wake of an A-test, she, Visalia, or this woman who had taken hold of what was once Visalia, was truly something to behold. They weren’t just looking at a woman; they were gazing upon a Goddess and not one of them had the first clue what to do with her. Typical men.
One of them, a young private barely out of grade school from the look of him, gave his head a puppy-like shake and stepped forward, jamming his rifle at her. “Stay right where you are!” he blurted, trying his best to sound menacing and authoritative, but his quavery adolescent voice wasn’t up to the task.
Without a thought, she reached out and gently took hold of the barrel, cupping it, giving it a suggestive stroke. As she stared into his helpless eyes, she felt the heat surge up from somewhere deep inside her and the gunmetal began to melt, literally melt, in her fist.
“Ooh, what happened?” she asked, coquettish and sly. “You went soft on me.”
The private staggered backwards, staring with disbelief at the now-useless weapon in his hands.
“It’s been real, fellas,” she murmured breezily, moving on.
“Halt!” the officer commanded again, but she could tell his heart wasn’t in it. “Identify yourself!”
She stopped, half-turned, and put a hand on her hip. She had to think about it, but only for a second. “They call me…Victoria Atomblast.”
She didn’t know where that came from, but she knew it wasn’t a lie either.