Ft. Bragg, North Carolina/Sedona, Arizona March, 1957
General Flagstaff was not a festive man by nature. Oh, sure, he enjoyed a good stiff whisky and a fine cigar at the officer’s club, or brandy with his pipe by the fire, or even the occasional ice cold beer with a shot of tequila with the boys, topped off with a cigarette, or a handful of bennies washed down with half pint of rotgut vodka if he had to pull an all-nighter, or even the odd sniff of cocaine off a Japanese prostitute’s pale bare ass while enjoying his leave. But he wasn’t generally a champagne kind of a guy.
Today was different.
They’d been tracking her five years now, five long years since her first appearance at the H-test site when she walked out of the ultra-top-secret forbidden stretch of desert like it was nobody’s business but her own. Never mind it was on the heels of a madman who’d tried to run down an entire platoon. Too bad they could never prove the bullet-riddled hunk of shit was actually a spy, but in his gut, Flagstaff knew it to be true. Just as he knew the woman was an absolute menace, that she must be brought in for rigorous interrogation, and that at the end of the day, one way or another, he had to have her.
And now he did. Well, not that way, not yet, but she was within reach. He’d just received word from CIA Deputy Director Exeter that they had her pinpointed in a little diner on the outskirts of Sedona. Apparently the girl just couldn’t find her way out of the Southwest to save her life.
Up until now, it was just the odd report, the unsubstantiated rumor, the false-alarm sightings, the unreliable eyewitness accounts, like the Las Vegas casino fire or that incident in Pasadena with the rocket-freak, Parsons. But now, it was confirmed. She was there, just sitting, having lunch at the counter like an ordinary human being, no doubt brazenly flirting and coyly tempting and openly seducing everything with either a penis or a pulse. His wonder woman–the Red-headed Bitch Goddess of the Apocalypse, as prophesied in his fever-dreams ever since that initial contact.
“Culpepper,” he said to the young aide standing nearby. “I believe this calls for champagne.”
“Sir,” Captain Culpepper gave him a clipped nod and started for the wine cellar.
“Not the Dom ’47. Not just yet.”
“Sir,” Culpepper said, nodded again, clicked his heels and was off.
The phone rang, the direct line from the field. Ordinarily he’d have Culpepper answer, just to maintain formality, but he was too excited, and this seemed important enough for him to break his own rule just this once.
“Exeter?” he said, almost before the receiver reached his ear. “What’s the word?”
“Well, sir, you said you wanted a play-by-play of the situation once we made our move.”
“So you’re ready to go?”
“We are, sir.”
“Tell me everything.”
“As it happens.”
“Of course, sir.”
“In real time.”
“Why I called, sir.”
The last half-decade was a thrill, a blur, a whirlwind, a never-ending, slightly exhausting vortex of excitement, possibility, and ever-increasing isolation from everyone and everything around her.
Ever since the incident she found it impossible to pass one of these Googie-style diners, or space age motor inns, or anything with Atomic or Jet or Space in its name. After all, she was Victoria Atomblast now, and in a way she was the flesh and blood embodiment of this space age, post-atomic aesthetic that had seized the national imagination. And whoever she’d been before was a distant memory who didn’t even rate a missing persons report, as far as she knew. Then again, she wondered if she saw her old face on the wall at the Post Office, would she even recognize herself? That lost sad girl wouldn’t have known what to make of the form-fitting latex jumpsuits and mini-dresses she adorned herself in now, the knee-high zippered boots, the Bakelite bangles at her wrists, the turquoise Phoenix pendant at her throat, gifted by a young Apache would-be warrior/will-be alcoholic who was on the cusp of manhood until she brought him all the way there.
She didn’t pay for anything these days. She breezed in and out of towns and villages and private residences, blazed a trail through shops and restaurants and with a wink and a nod, she found herself fed, clothed, housed for a night or a week or a month, until she inevitably grew bored with them, as they never seemed to grow bored with her. In fact, the only person she seemed capable of boring anymore was herself.
She breezed into the cafe on this glorious spring morning, the Arizona sun already blazing and her right along with it, in an orange vinyl mini hugging a bombshell figure she never had to work to maintain, matching plastic pumps, her red hair piled high on her head like a sunburst on the horizon. She felt like the future. And everyone else felt it, too. It was predictable now, that western-saloon moment whenever she walked into a place, the sudden silence, necks swiveling, eyes fixing, forks dropping, coffee spilling, platters of food hitting the floor, an instant of silence that became a cacophony of little oopsy-daisies. Even the most conservative of women, the most pious of men, only stared, never glared, too awed by the sight of this alien being to stand in judgement of it.
“Should I get a tattoo?” she asked the aging cowboy beside her as she slid onto a stool at the counter.
He looked stunned for a second, and she didn’t know if it was because he wasn’t used to a woman being so upfront or because he never thought someone who looked like she did would give him the time of day. Probably both. Finally, he found his voice, and even managed to summon some of his long-lost teenage lothario. “And mark up all that pretty skin? I don’t think so. Then again…” Emboldened now, he looked her all over. “…I’m not sure anything short of third degree burns could damage that.”
“You are so sweet.”
“I tell ya, if I wasn’t married…” he started, fingering his wedding ring.
“You’d be alone,” she said sharply.
His jaw dropped open, just a little. She reached under his chin and pressed it shut. End of conversation.
“You’re not from around here, honey,” the waitress, Cookie, going by her name tag, stated matter-of-factly. One look at her weary face, barely thirty and already baggy around the eyes, and Victoria just felt sad. She’d be a pretty girl if this job, this town, these men, these people, this world, weren’t rapidly sucking the life and energy out of her all the way down to her wounded, complacent, uncomplaining soul.
“Yeah, I’m kind of from everywhere. And nowhere.”
“Okay. Well, I don’t know what they eat in everywhere, but it just so happens we specialize in the regional cuisine of nowhere.”
“Well, in that case, let me try a little bit of everything.”
“Oh, sweetie, you do not want to do that. You’ll bust right out of that…outfit you’ve got on there.”
“Trust me, sugar…I won’t.”
Sometimes, her own bitchiness surprised her, and those were the moments when she most longed to remember how it felt to be the lost little girl she was five years ago. Not to truly be her again, but to experience things the way she did, from a place of innocence, with just a glimmer of empathy or compassion for the strangers in her midst. At this point, the fading desire to experience those feelings was about all the genuine humanity she had left. Everyone and everything she encountered in every place she went just seemed so beneath her. And this waitress, with her kind eyes and sassy ways and her empty pathetic sadness making Victoria feel sorry for her? That just pissed her off. Besides, deep down, she knew the only reason this woman was being so friendly was A) it was her job and B) like everyone else she met these days, deep down, this poor little minimum wage slave just wanted to fuck her, too. And therein lay the rub. Who do you trust when everyone just wants a piece of you?
How do you maintain a relationship with someone who just stares and drools with eyes full of naked lust. Sure, she enjoyed the sex, free and wild and utterly meaningless, but if she wasn’t playing the smart-mouthed queen of all she surveyed, if she tried to say something true, from the head or the heart, would anyone even listen?
“Okay, sir, Corporals Litsky and Sparzst are ready to move on your orders…now I’ve already got a man in there, feeding me intel. If you like, I can hold the corporals back and let him make the first move. Maybe if this is handled with some small amount of discretion…”
“I don’t know, Ex. This one’s a handful, we already know that.”
“Right, right. A ‘real bitch goddess,’ I believe you said.”
“Which makes me think, if we handle this in a more low-key fashion, at the very least, my man can get her away from all those people in there.”
“Alright. Give it a try. But tell those men to be ready. And Ex–we absolutely 100% need her alive.”
Lost for a moment in her self-pitying reverie, she hadn’t even noticed the old cowpoke drift away, gutshot with rejection, while another man took his place. Younger, maybe 40-ish, but still very handsome. In his clean dark suit, he looked more out of place among these yokels than she did. There was nothing Southwest about him in the slightest.
“I was wondering if you had a light.”
“I’m always on fire, if that’s what you’re asking.” She took the cigarette from between his lips. “Besides, why do you need one?” She struck the tip off her thigh and handed it back to him smoldering. “If you don’t know how your own ciggies work, I’m a little worried about you.”
It was one of the clumsiest moves to start a conversation she’d yet encountered. Still, she didn’t shut him down. Not yet. There was something going on behind those baby browns that snared her interest. For the moment.
“Little late in life to be picking up bad habits, isn’t it?” She was vamping at maximum level, and she noticed something unusual, and very intriguing. He wasn’t falling for it. Not yet. In fact, there was no pupil dilation, no stammering, no wandering eye traveling the relief map of her luscious curves.
“Never too late to start killing yourself, I say.”
“Too true. And there’s just so many wonderful ways to do it.” She placed a hand on his thigh, stroking the fabric of his off the rack suit. He was all muscle there. Still, no response. He didn’t move to stop her, but his eyes remained inscrutable and distant.
“You know, it’s a little early in the day to get into this kind of trouble.”
“Don’t tell me,” she said, sliding the hand between his knee and just shy of his groin, each stroke a little longer and slower than the last. “…you’re married.”
“Too bad. For her.”
“Yeah, well, it’s the job, y’know.”
“Let me guess.” She gave him the once over, never pausing her stroke. She was pretty sure something was stirring in those poly-blend slacks.
“I’ll save you the trouble. Sales.”
“Ooh, the traveling salesman. That wasn’t going to be my guess, but it fits.”
“Oh, and what was your guess?”
“Well, the haircut, the inexpensive but well-fitting suit, they could go either way, but the quiet confidence? That I’ve never seen from a salesman. And I’ve seen my share. I was going to say…G-Man.”
Still nothing. He didn’t flinch, didn’t gulp, didn’t have a tell of any kind. After a brief pause, he let out a short burst of spontaneous laughter that only made him sexier.
“You just made my ex pee her pants, and she’s three states away. G-Man. I should have known a girl in that outfit would have a wild imagination.”
“You have no idea,” she said, and cupped her hand around his manhood, in full view of everybody. The waitress just stood there, wiping the same spot on the counter in a hypnotized feedback loop. Sexual tension filled the diner like propane from a gas leak. He went from semi- to fully-erect then, possibly against his will, but his actions confused her even more. He didn’t move into it, and he didn’t pull away. He was letting her do everything, and somehow he was controlling everything by doing nothing at all. He might have been the most badass real man she’d ever met.
“Why don’t we take this outside?” he suggested, his voice a husky whisper as if everyone in the diner wasn’t hanging on every word.
“Why don’t you take me right here?” she said and pulled him to her, planting her mouth on his, and now he did push back, just a little, and she knew she was right about him. And what she’d have to do. But to her own credit, she felt kind of bad about it.
“I prefer my privacy,” he murmured, trying to unseal his lips from the vacuum of her kiss, the strong pull of her searching fearless tongue.
She paused just long enough to look into his eyes, watering now. She’d cracked him, if not broken him. Nobody could resist forever. “Ah, men,” she said, letting him feel her body as she wrapped herself around him. “So many secrets.”
This time, when she pressed her lips to his he kissed her back, hard and hungry and shameless. She felt the heat rising inside of her and she let it, concentrating it, focusing it, not letting it get too out of hand. But he felt it too, all that fire, flowing into him now, and his eyes went wide and wild as it filled him, but still he couldn’t stop kissing her, even as it consumed him.
“Holy shit! Go, go, go!”
Exeter was shouting, the desperate pitch of his commands exacerbating the static crackle over the long distance wire.
“Exeter, what in God’s name is going on over there?”
“McKind is down, sir. I repeat, McKind is down!”
“That’s your boy inside?”
“Yessir. Agent McKind. A…good man. A great man. Fuck me.” The sound that erupted into his earpiece may have been a sob. An actual goddamn sob. Flagstaff didn’t have all the information, didn’t know every detail of what these men might have been through together, but under no circumstances would he tolerate crybabies.
“Exeter, pull yourself together. I told you I wanted play-by-play!”
“Um, I believe he…spontaneously combusted, sir.”
“He what? Was he necking with her?”
“I believe he was, General.”
“Nothing spontaneous about that then.”
“I thought you said you all took something, something to counteract whatever the hell it is she does to people.”
“We did, sir. But I think she may have counteracted the counteraction.”
“I told you, she’s a handful. Did you send in my boys?”
“They’re going in now, sir.”
“They’re two of the best.”
“So was McKind, sir.”
When it was over, she was depressed and elated at the same time. And seeing as that was the most overwhelming conflux of emotion she’d experienced in years, elation won the day. The handsome G-Man with the steely resolve was literally everywhere, and she was coated in his visceral blowback. She spun around on her stool, surveying the room, the stunned audience of sad diner patrons also caked with his spatter. One woman was clutching her eye, blood pouring through her fingers, probably permanent vision loss from bone shard shrapnel. The only reason she wasn’t screaming, Victoria figured, was that she didn’t want to draw any attention to herself.
“So glad I could share that experience with you all,” she exclaimed with the sing-songy forced merriment of a Vegas lounge entertainer, then spun back around to face the waitress, licking a bit of G-Man goo from her fingertips.
“Honeypie,” she cooed, “what did you wanna be when you grew up? You know, when you were still young and full of dreams?”
“Lady…ma’am…I don’t know about any of that but right now all I wanna be is still alive…”
Victoria smiled indulgently but not at all comfortingly. “I’ll see what I can do, sug.”
Then that old familiar feeling started to creep in, the one that always came sooner or later after sexual ecstasy or orgiastic violence or any highly punctuated moment of existence. The anti-climax settling over her as she realized the only way to get back to the fading feeling was to keep chasing it unto eternity, the tiger after its own tail. Post-orgasmic depression syndrome. It was all somehow related to the howling emptiness at the heart of human endeavor that we were all trying desperately to keep at bay.
So as she sat amongst these frightened, whimpering little nothings, wondering what in the hell her purpose was if the man who’d ostensibly summoned her into being was dead and all she was left with was a planet stuffed to brimming with plebeians, who should walk in but two more of the same?
She whirled around in her seat to face the soldiers, their weapons at the ready.
“Hiya, boys,” she purred with a smirk that was practically her permanent expression now.
“Miss, we can do this two ways…” one of them started to say.
“No,” she said, and she could already feel the heat rising inside of her. “We can’t.”
“Exploded? Everything? The whole goddamn diner?”
“Presumably. Along with a lot of innocent people. And three good men. Well, two good. One great.”
“Good. Great. It all ends the same, Exeter.”
“I suppose it does, sir.”
Profoundly depressed now, Flagstaff glance up to see Culpepper hovering in the doorway, clutching a bottle of Laurent-Perrier and two flutes. “Put that shit away and bring me whisky. This day has just gone to shit in a shinebox.” Culpepper scurried away, and Flagstaff shouted after him, “And what the fuck did you bring two glasses for? Did you think I was gonna share a toast with you, you little faggot?!”
He’d almost forgotten Exeter was still on the line. “What?”
“You’re not going to believe this, sir…”
“So it would seem.”
“Culpepper! Strike that last order! Bring the Dom! And a glass for yourself! The celebration is…”
“Before you go getting too excited, I’d like to remind you…”
“Don’t crash my party now, Ex.”
“Well, I’m alone here, sir.”
As the fire raged and the smoke billowed and yes, actually mushroomed into the sky, Exeter kept his distance and watched for movement, any kind of movement, though it was ridiculous to imagine that anything could be alive in that flaming hell. Even the Jeep-load of men stationed behind the diner with the brand new mounted M60 ready to take her if she attempted escape out the back had been blown straight to God.
Only because he’d positioned himself inconspicuously clear across the road and behind an old abandoned pumphouse had he managed not to take more than secondary burns from the heatblast. There didn’t seem to be anyone else alive for miles.
The only noise was the crackle of the fire consuming everything in its reach. Everything except…
For a moment, he let himself feel a little thrill of hope, like maybe there were actual survivors, someone shielded in a meat freezer or behind a lead-lined counter. Hell, maybe he’d been wrong about McKind, his eyes playing tricks through the binoculars. But he knew who it was, the only one it could be.
She emerged from the smoke in a stumbling mockery of her sexy swivel-hipped signature strut; she’d definitely taken damage from this one. Her red mane was a wild frizzy burst like the Rising Sun on a Jap flag.
He moved around to the trunk of his vehicle, popped it and moved the spare tire aside, revealing the illicit treasure he had stowed in there. Jass’ old blitz-rifle, the one they’d taken from him on Der Schwimmenwurst, all those years ago. He had no reason to believe it would actually work on this unkillable bitch but it seemed like a sweet way to honor McKind before joining him in the Great Beyond, or maybe the Big Empty.
She staggered across the road, stark naked except for the few places where the vinyl from her outfit had melted to her flesh. She was terrifying, but also somehow vulnerable, reminding him of nothing so much as a bombing victim he’d come across outside a French village during the war, so badly scorched he couldn’t tell if she was young or old or in between. So burned he couldn’t even hold her as she died, because the pain of his touch was too great. He tried to shake it off, this overwhelming pity he was feeling for the creature that was about to end his life.
He raised the lightning rifle to his shoulder and took aim.
“Don’t come any closer, Atomblast!” he warned. “I will put you down like a dog.”
“God,” she said, mushmouthed as a drunken bag lady, “I wish you would. I wish someone fucking could!”
She kept coming toward him, and still he hadn’t fired. The weapon hummed in idle, drawing charged particles from the air. There were plenty.
“You know,” she said, stopping just about five yards shy of him and putting one blackened hand on her scorched hip. “This day did not turn out like I thought at all.”
And collapsed in a heap at his feet.