A COLD DAY IN HELL
MEANDER RIVER, ALBERTA DECEMBER 18, 2021
Six months on the run.
Six months in small towns, big cities, motels, hotels, campsites, public parks, cohabiting with the riffraff, even the homeless, scrounging, surviving . . .
What a humiliating tenure this had been, in the post-Pulse ruins that was America, for a man of Ames White's abilities and sensibilities. But White was, if nothing else, a man able to endure difficulties, to overcome hardships, to shrug off adversities that would defeat even above-average specimens of mere humanity.
True, he was not particularly blessed with patience--that attribute had always eluded him. Nor was grace in the face of frustration his long suit; forbearance in the presence of mediocrity--not his forte. Nor was compassion a trait he considered worth cultivating. So in his lack of "sensitivity," he seemed--to the second- and third-rate minds he so often encountered--cruel, even cold.
But such (wrongly) perceived cruelty and coldness only bespoke a superiority of mind and spirit, the end result of thousands of years of selective breeding; and, as such, were part and parcel of his ability to prevail. Anyway, Ames White was free of most of these primitive "human" emotions, though admittedly vestiges remained. He had loved a woman, once; and he loved his son.
But that was family. Breeding. That was allowed, even encouraged.
And Ames White was possessed with a dark, wicked streak of humor. He could well appreciate the irony of a "cold" character like himself finding refuge in the bitterly frigid Dene Tha town of Meander River, Alberta, Canada.
Its population no larger than the Sunday crowd in a Seattle marketplace, Meander River had taken him about as far north as he could manage, short of renting a dogsled. The people who lived here were so removed from civilization that White wondered if these subhumans had even heard about the Pulse, let alone felt its repercussions.
The Meander River economy was based on barter, and the citizens had very little use for computers, which meant scant had changed here, after what had been a cataclysm to the nearby United States. When terrorists set off an electromagnetic pulse over the East Coast back in 2009, the USA had lost everything, a superpower instantly reduced to the status of Third World nation. To Meander River, the event was as trivial as an electrical outage in a thunderstorm.
Buried under a mound of snow measured in feet, not inches, Meander River was the perfect vacation getaway for the person who didn't want to be found by persnickety types . . . NSA federal bosses, say, who might be annoyed that a certain agent had gone rogue; or the Familiars, White's breeding cult family, who might be ticked that one of their own had failed in every one of his mission objectives, and could merit a reprimand . . . the fatal kind.
If those were the kinds of people you needed a vacation from, then Meander River had much to offer. Not only was there the biting cold and daunting snow, Meander River was also over three hours from the nearest pre-Pulse landing strip, and a good twelve hours from Edmonton and a real airport. Those conditions did not make travel to this fugitive's frozen paradise a simple proposition, particularly only a week before Christmas when the average high for the day was still well below zero.
Meander River was also located in the middle of the Dene Tha Native Reserve. Back in the United States, such locales were called Indian Reservations, with the generally abominable conditions to be expected as the end result of a several-centuries-long government-sponsored genocidal undertaking.
Up here, conditions were at least slightly better, with a school, a firehouse, a general store, and maybe a hundred clapboard houses, all in decent enough shape. The area was neatly maintained, without the abandoned cars and paint-peeling buildings White knew were par for the course on U.S. reservations. Best of all, the Meander River racial makeup meant that White wore reverse camouflage--he was one of only four or five persons in the town without the dark red skin and flat, wide features of the Dene Tha--giving him the prime advantage of seeing pale-face trouble coming from a long ways off.
The Familiars were universally white, racial purity being one element of the breeding recipe that had been perfected over countless centuries. And, of course, the U.S. government, particularly the ironically dubbed black ops agencies, weren't exactly renowned for their Rainbow Coalition hiring practices. So, for the time being anyway, White felt--if not safe--prepared to meet any difficulty, in this tiny Canadian burg.
Of course, White's whiteness had its downside. Among this dusky population, he stuck out like a failed Manticore experiment--he wouldn't have looked any more out of place had he been that imbecilic Dog Boy or that psychotic Lizard Man. While this would make him easy for his pursuers to spot, over all he maintained a certain peace of mind knowing that anyone hunting him would likely be in the same Caucasian--or at least non-Native American--boat.
Even so, White would also be harder to spot now than half a year ago, when his picture was broadcast on every television in North America. His spiky brown hair had grown out and covered his ears, a neatly trimmed beard and mustache replacing his previously clean-shaven face, giving him a well-groomed mountain-man appearance; his piercing dark eyes remained his most identifiable feature. The parka somewhat masked his lithely muscular build; but then, he had always looked slighter and less capable than he actually was.
He thought of himself as a mild-mannered Clark Kent, who could remove his glasses, strip off his attire, and reveal the Yber-man beneath. On the other hand, he had no need for glasses, with his keen Familiar-bred eyesight, and no one had ever accused him of being mild-mannered, or of having any manners at all, when it came right down to it.
When White had first arrived here four months ago, the former NSA agent rented a small blue house once owned by a schoolteacher who had taken a post in Calgary. With its two bedrooms, a sometimes functioning TV aerial, a bathroom with perpetually cold running water, and living-room fireplace, the one-story clapboard at least kept out the chill. He had enough money to live comfortably up here, the benefits of both government service and money provided him by the Familiars to run their operations.
Working for two secret organizations over half a decade had kept a steady flow of untraceable cash running through White's hands and flowing into numerous bank accounts under as many names. The fact that the NSA didn't know about the Familiars had allowed him to work both sides of the fence. For their part, the well-funded Familiars had been in existence longer than anyone could imagine, and they had wanted White to maintain his position within the NSA. The loss of that position through the treachery of his subordinate Otto Gottlieb would definitely have angered his Familiar superiors, a good reason for White to take this extended Canadian getaway.
Eventually, he would have to approach the Familiars and make peace with them, though doing so would surely mean risking his life. His priority for these many months had been survival--to retrench and use his best weapon . . . his mind . . . to begin working out a solution, to think his way out of this seeming impasse. He had personal desires, involving his boy, but he still shared the beliefs and goals of the Familiars, and his goal was to convince them that he should be allowed a second chance.
And yet still he remained in Meander River--telling himself that he was merely allowing the Familiars to cool off, to achieve a distance from his failures that might allow him to present his case before dispassionate judges. Truth be told, though, he had come to like living up here, where just getting by was a little harder--it gave him a feeling of tranquillity, and also pride that he was not only surviving, but adapting quite well to his new surroundings. He was free of the stress of his former double life. Someday, when he and his son Ray were reunited, this might be the sort of place where they could live together.
Even White's dreaded migraine headaches--something he struggled against constantly while working for the government (of course, those assholes could give Jesus Christ migraines)--hadn't bothered him nearly as much as he'd settled into life in Meander River. Pain was something White and those of his breed had largely overcome--their pain thresholds had been bred to near extinction, the remnants remaining only to serve as the warning system nature intended. But certain physiologically driven discomfort--genetically passed along--broke down the well-bred defenses of White and his kind . . . the migraines a prime example.
Bundling up in a parka, ski mask, and boots, White prepared for the short walk to Malcolm's, a combination restaurant and bar that was the only place in town to get either a hot meal or a real drink. Cooking not being among his many skills--and not an interest he wanted to cultivate--White spent a lot of time at Malcolm's, where the hired help, as well as the owner himself, had long since recognized him as a regular.
They were a stoic, sour bunch, however, still treating him like a stranger, an outsider. Perhaps it was racial, but in any event, White had the unmistakable feeling that none of the Malcolm's crew liked him. It wasn't an uncommon response on his part; people often appeared to instinctively feel an antipathy toward him, probably because of his well-earned air of superiority.
White didn't give a good goddamn whether these savages liked him or not, another common response on his part. If he could not be with his own kind--his son, for example--Ames White was quite content with his own company. If anything, he appreciated the staff at Malcolm's for not inflicting small talk upon ...