After the Apocalypse
Chapter 120: Escort Leaders

by Mark Bollman--> and Steve Donohue

Consensus held that the return to Lapeer had to be done as quickly as possible, before the failure of the Flockmen to return inspired more visitors. In an effort to defuse a potentially messy situation which all felt could arise from a conflict among the strong personalities who were preparing to go, Roger suggested that the question of the sixth member be deferred until the details of the plot were in place.

"Maybe by then, it'll be clear what necessary qualities we five lack, and then we should have no trouble identifying who else we need."

No one could argue with that, and so the planning began in earnest.

Two hours later, while a plan now existed, there was still no sense of who should be added to the team. The idea that had emerged turned out to be simple: Two cars would set out for Lapeer, in daylight, so that the Night Razers would be at their least active. Ron Atkins and the self-described "Goon Force"-Mark Hunt and the two Daves-would take the lead in the Flockmen's car, while Jeff and Roger, and the third person to be named, would follow directly behind, remaining within sight of the lead car at all times.

Upon their arrival at the hospital-to which they were sure, although without any firm evidence, that Atkins would direct them safely, through or around Night Razer territory-Roger and Dave Woods would take the lead and escort Atkins in. The others-and again, no one could pinpoint what a hypothetical sixth person would need to bring to the table-would present a show of force from behind.

"You know," said Jeff as they reviewed the entry plan, "suddenly I'm thinking that it may not matter much who person six is. As long as they can help to maintain the show of force, we may not need anything else specific."

Carrie had deviated from her original plan to keep this opportunity to herself, and had briefed Melissa as soon as the first five men had been determined. Melissa, in turn, agreed that night to do whatever she could to convince Dave Milon to convince the others to send one of the women.

"Are you sure you want to take that chance?" she had asked.

"Yep," said Carrie. "I want to get in the game; to make some real contributions around here. Will you talk to Dave for me?"

"I was hoping we'd get some one-on-one time tonight-I'll have to catch him quick, though."

That Melissa's persuasive powers were on target was proved as Dave made the case to the others that she had made to him the night before.

"You know," he said casually, "I've been thinking that we might be underestimating the religious dimension of this group."

"Isn't that's why Roger's going?" asked Mark.

"Not enough. Hence 'underestimating'. Here's my idea: If there's such a strong Christian undercurrent to the way that the Flock is operating-and I don't think anyone would challenge that-then maybe we can turn that against them. If they're a traditional religious outfit, they probably have some pretty archaic notions about women. That they should be kept in their place, perhaps-but also that they should be protected. Indeed, that they should kind of be on a pedestal. What if, then, our sixth man were actually a woman? Maybe that would give us an edge-they might not leap to attack us when they see we've got Atkins, but maybe even more so if they see a woman on the crew."

Heads nodded around the table as Dave highlighted the Flock's spiritual commitment. They ceased motion-but significantly, none shook-as the rest of his idea emerged. Since few of the Winter Campers-and none of the team headed for Lapeer-knew that anything was going on between Dave and Melissa, no one considered the possibility that Dave had had help concocting his plan.

"What about these Night Razers?" asked Roger. "Their views on women might not be so easily exploited."

"We need to avoid them, remember? If we should stumble across them, I suspect we'll have bigger problems than a discussion of the proper role of women in the 21st century." Everyone knew of Dave's role in the firefight at M-24, and thus that he was at considerable risk if the Razers were to recognize him in a future encounter. As a result, his voice carried more weight on this one matter than it might elsewhere.

"I'm not so sure I agree," said Jeff, "but let's just say for a minute that I do. Do you have a woman in mind?"

Minds around the table read multiple meanings into Jeff's comment, but no one dared to interrupt the flow of the conversation. Each man preferred instead to wait and see how this played out-and no one in the room really knew the women well enough to answer the question himself.

Dave chose to bluff. "Not yet. I think we might do well to see if any of them are even interested before we go drafting anyone. Or asking for volunteers, for that matter."

"We don't have time for a public opinion poll," said Jeff, "or for a long training period. Whoever we choose to add needs to be ready to go-when? Tomorrow?"

"I should think so," said Roger.

"So you two agree. Big surprise," said Milon, a certain acidity evident in his voice. "Look, does anyone have a better idea? Or a worse idea, for that matter?" Silence fell. "Okay then. Lacking anything better to go on, maybe this is worth pursuing."

The conversation moved forward. "Assuming you're right-and I don't know if I buy that assumption just yet-how will these women feel about one of their own being used as a decoy?" asked Jeff.

"I don't think that 'these women', as you put it, are as monolithic as that," said Milon. "They're individuals, and we know that there's some interest here and there about making some contribution to what we're all trying to do here."

"You mean that Carrie chick, then," said Woods.

Milon saw the conversation drifting in the direction he had hoped it would go, but was careful not to reach for too much too fast, nor to implicate Melissa directly in what was going on. "Possibly. There are others. Allison might be interested. Robyn. Jenny-Iaconian, not Cooper," he added quickly as several surprised faces looked at him. "Lynda. Maybe even Jeanne."

Many of the Winter Campers-Mark Hunt and Dave Woods among them-hadn't yet managed to learn everyone's names, so Milon's rapid listing of names put them at a disadvantage. As he had intended, they focused their attention next on the one name that everyone knew.

"I do not see Jeanne as part of this away team," said Hunt.

Jeff knew the women's names-though not yet their faces-but he quickly agreed. Roger went along readily.

The distraction having been successful, Milon pressed forward. "All right, so Jeanne was a reach. Seriously, though, what about someone like Carrie? She seems like a pretty solid woman; I don't think she'd be a defensive liability or anything."

"But how'll she be on offense?" asked Woods.

"Does it matter? We've got our plan worked out, and we probably don't, strictly speaking, need another offensive weapon. What we need is a show of force, and that's best done by a show of numbers. With a woman on the team, we have a chance to play some mind games as well as make a physical threat."

The notion of twin mental and physical intimidation had begun to win Jeff over to Milon's plan, but nothing on his face indicated that he'd been moved in any way. He continued to play the skeptic. "This isn't a time for quotas. This is a time for the best and the brightest. We're facing the biggest threat in the history of Winter Camp, and we can't risk everyone's safety by playing games. Not now."

Though Milon had started out advocating Carrie simply as a favor to Melissa, the argument they'd agreed on the night before was rapidly convincing him that there really were sound reasons for including her. "This isn't a game, Jeff, and it's got nothing to do with proportional representation or any kind of quota. And it's not a time for argument. If no one has a better idea, I say we talk to Carrie about coming into town with us. Tomorrow."

"Why wait until tomorrow? We can pitch this to her right now," said Woods, not completely understanding.

"No, no," said Roger. "Leaving tomorrow, not talking tomorrow. I think we all still agree that we need to move on this quickly."

"What if she turns us down?" asked Jeff. "Who's got a backup nominee?"

"We won't need one," said Milon with force. He had only Melissa's assurance that Carrie wouldn't turn down this opportunity, but he suspected that that would be enough.

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