death. You get bad news or something? Ain’t nuthin’ happen to Colonel Mark?”

“No. I’m driving over to McCoy to meet him at noon.”

“Oh, that’s good. How come the children up north get out of school so quick?”

“I don’t know.”

“I’ll dust good, and make up the beds, and put towels and soaps in the bathrooms just like last year.”

“Thanks, Mizzoo. That’s fine.”

“Caleb’s going to be happy to see Ben Franklin,” Missouri said. Caleb was Missouri’s son, and just Ben’s age, thirteen. Last year, Randy had let them take the boat out on the river, fishing, just as Randy, as a boy, had fished with Caleb’s uncle, Malachai, except that twenty years ago the boat was a skiff, powered by muscle and oars, instead of a sleek Fiberglas job with a thirty horse kicker.

Missouri gathered up her cleaning materials and left Randy alone with his nightmare. He shook his head, but he didn’t wake up. The nightmare was real. Slowly, he forced his mind to function. Slowly, he forced himself to imagine the unimaginable. . . .

He must make a list of the things Helen and the children would need. He recalled that there was nothing stocked in the big kitchen downstairs, and little in the utility room except some steaks in the freezer and a few canned staples. My God, if there was going to be a war they’d need stocks of everything! He looked at his watch. He had yet to shave and dress, and he must allow an hour and a half for the drive to McCoy, ten miles south of Orlando, when you considered the main highways clogged with tourists, and Orlando’s infuriating and hopeless traffic tangle on a sunny payday less than three weeks before Christmas. And there might be some delay at the McCoy gate. He decided to give himself two hours on the road.

Still, he could start the list, and there was one thing he should do right away. Ben Franklin drank a quart of milk a day and Peyton, his eleven-year-old sister, even more. He telephoned Golden Dew Dairy and revised his delivery order drastically upward. This was Randy’s first act to meet the emergency, and it was to prove the least useful.

Chapter 2

Randy left the house in time to see Missouri wedge herself under the wheel of the Henrys’ Model-A Ford, an antique—so certified with a “Q” tag issued by the state-but kept in perfect running order by Malachai’s mechanical ingenuity. “I haven’t finished but I got to go now,” she said. “Mrs. McGovern, she holds the clock on me. I’ll be back tomorrow.”

The Model-A, listing to port with Missouri’s weight, bounced down the pebbled driveway. Randy got into his new Bonneville. It was a sweet car, a compromise between a sports job and a hardtop, long, low, very fast, .and a lot of fun, even though its high-compression engine drank premium fuel in quantity.

At eleven, approaching Orlando on Route 50, he turned on the radio for the news. Turkey had appealed to the UN for an investigation of border penetrations by Syria. Syria charged Israel with planning a preventive war. Israel accused Egypt of sending snooper planes over its defenses. Egypt claimed its ships, bound from the Black Sea to Alexandria, were being delayed in the Straits, and charged Turkey with a breach of the Montreaux Convention.

Russia accused Turkey and the United States of plotting to crush Syria, and warned France, Italy, Greece, and Spain that any nations harboring American bases would be involved in a general war, and erased from the earth.

The Secretary of State was somewhere over the Atlantic, bound for conferences in London.

The Soviet Ambassador to Washington had been recalled for consultation.

There were riots in France.

It all sounded bad, but familiar as an old, scratchy record. He had heard it all before, in almost the same words, back in ‘57 and ‘58. So why push the panic button? Mark could be wrong. He couldn’t know, for certain, that the balloon was going up. Unless he knew something fresh, something that had not appeared in the newspapers, or been broadcast.

Shortly before noon Florence Wechek hung her “Back at One” sign on the office door and walked down Yulee Street to meet Alice Cooksey at the Pink Flamingo. Fridays, they always lunched together. Alice, tiny, drab in black and gray, an active, angry sparrow of a woman, arrived late. She hurried to Florence’s table and said, “I’m sorry. I’ve just had a squabble with Kitty Offenhaus.”

“Oh, dear!” Florence said. “Again?” Kitty was secretary of the PTA, past-president of the Frangipani Circle, treasurer of the Women’s Club, and a member of the library board. Also, she was the wife of Luther “Bubba” Offenhaus, Chief Tail-Twister of the Lions Club, Vice President of the Chamber of Commerce, and Deputy Director of Civil Defense for the whole county. He owned the most prosperous business in town, the Offenhaus Mortuary, and a twin real estate development, Repose-in-Peace Park.

Alice lifted the menu. It fluttered. She set it down quickly and said, “Yes, again. I guess I’ll have the tunafish salad.”

“You should eat more, Alice,” Florence said, noticing how white and pinched her friend’s face looked. “What happened?” “Kitty came in and said she’d heard rumors that we had books by Carl Rowan and Walter White. I told her the rumors were true, and did she want to borrow one?”

“What’d she say?” Florence put down her fork, no longer interested in her chicken patty.

“Said they were subversive and anti-South—she’s a Daughter of the Confederacy—and ordered me to take them off the shelves. I told her that as long as I was librarian they would stay there. She said she was going to bring it before the board and if necessary take it up with Porky Logan. He’s on the investigating committee in Tallahassee.”

“Alice, you’re going to lose your job!” Kitty Offenhaus was the most influential person in Fort Repose, with the exception of Edgar Quisenberry, who owned and ran the bank.

“I don’t think so. I told her that if anything like that happened I’d call the St. Petersburg Times and Tampa Tribune and Miami Herald and they’d send reporters and photographers. I said, `Kitty, can’t you see your picture on the front page, and the headline—Undertaker’s Wife Cremates Books?”‘

This was the most fascinating news Florence had heard in weeks. “What happened then?”

“Nothing at all. If I may borrow an expression from one of my younger readers, she left in an eight-cylinder huff.”

“You wouldn’t really call the papers, would you?”

Alice spoke carefully, understanding fully that everything would soon be repeated. “I certainly would! But I don’t think I’ll have to. You see, publicity would hurt Bubba’s business. One third of Bubba’s customers are Negroes, and another third Yankees who come down here to live on their pensions and stay to die.” She lifted her bright, fiercely blue eyes and added, as if repeating one of the Commandments: “Censorship and thought control can exist only in secrecy and darkness.”

“And that was all?”

“That was all.” Alice tried her salad. “What’ve you been doing, Florence?”

Florence could think of no adventure, or even any news culled from the wire, that could compete with telling off Kitty Offenhaus—except her experience with Randy Bragg. She had pledged herself not to say anything about Randy to anyone, but she could trust Alice, who was worldly-wise in spite of her appearance, and who might even, when younger, have encountered a Peeping Tom herself. So Florence told about Randy and his binoculars and how he had stared at her that morning. “It’s almost unbelievable, isn’t it?” she concluded.

“It is unbelievable,” Alice said flatly. “But I saw him at it!”

“I don’t care. I know the Bragg boys. Even before you came here, Florence, I knew them. I knew Judge Bragg well, very well.” Florence remembered vague reports, many years back, of Alice Cooksey having gone with Judge Bragg before the judge married Gertrude. But that made no difference to what went on in the Bragg house now. “You’ll have to admit that those Bragg boys are a little peculiar,” Florence said. “You should have seen the cable Randy got from Mark this morning. Urgent they meet at McCoy today. Helen and the children flying to Orlando tonight-you know those children can’t be out of school yet and the last two words didn’t make any sense at all. `Alas, Babylon.’ Isn’t that crazy?”

“Those boys aren’t crazy,” Alice said. “They’ve always been bright boys. Full of hell, yes, but at least they could read, which is more than I can say for the children nowadays. Do you know that Randy read every history in the library before he was sixteen?”

“I don’t think that has anything to do with his sex habits,” Florence said. She leaned across the table and

Вы читаете Alas, Babylon
Добавить отзыв


Вы можете отметить интересные вам фрагменты текста, которые будут доступны по уникальной ссылке в адресной строке браузера.

Отметить Добавить цитату