After the Apocalypse
Chapter 55: The Cover Blown, The Air Cleared

by Mark Bollman--> and Steve Donohue

Joe, Steve, and Dave's continued absence from camp could not escape comment for long, so it was no particular surprise to any of the five searchers that they were met on their return to Beaver Creek by a large group demanding answers.

What did come as a surprise was the composition of that group-the Winter Campers were remarkably absent and the assembly was predominantly female. Most of the Tundra Stomp women were there, along with Jerry, Steve Clark, and about half a dozen other guys.

"Ron, what's really going on here?" asked Carrie. "Those guys haven't come back from Lapeer yet, and the five of you just vanished without any explanation. Nobody down at Clearwater is talking, and we'd really like to know exactly what the big secret is." Katie was impressed as she listened-clearly Carrie had taken to heart her advice about toning down the confrontational tone.

""Let us get cleaned up a bit, and then we'll be back up to talk to everyone," said Ron. "We need a few minutes to warm up, okay?"

The crowd briefly mollified, the search party trekked down to Clearwater for a quick private "get-our-story-straight" conference. "We've got to come clean; there's no other choice," said Dan. "It's not like we've spotted any serious threat to anyone, and we can't keep our cover story in place much longer."

"Agreed," said Mark. "I don't think anyone thinks that Steve's a menace, so we haven't really got a dangerous killer on the loose. Even if we did, we'd still have to warn people."

"So should we tell them about Steve killing the two guys in Lapeer?" asked John.

"I think that news will get out on its own, if it's not out already," said Ron. "I filled Jeanne in on the real situation yesterday and then swore her to secrecy. I don't doubt that she can keep the secret, but it would be easier on everyone-and fairer to everyone, I might add-if we weren't hiding anything."

"Okay, so what happens after we tell them this?" asked Jeff. "Have you thought out the implications of making this news public?"

"Of course not; I was hoping there wouldn't be a need to. I was expecting that we'd find Steve and that the other guys'd be back by now. Tragically, that's not the case. So what do you think will happen?" asked Ron.

"I doubt there'll be much of an uproar. We'll probably have to arm the girls up at Chippewa if we say we might be in danger, but that's not an unreasonable adjustment," said Jeff.

"The one other thing that I wonder about might be some sort of resentment at all the secrecy surrounding this incident," said Mark. "I mean, it's pretty much the Camp Metamora crowd up there asking questions. They've been out of the loop ever since they arrived here. What do we say about that?"

"We made the decision that we thought was in everyone's best interests at the time, and we stand by that decision," said Ron, sounding surprisingly like a politician. "If we erred, we did so on the side of caution, and we'll do better in the future."

"Well-spoken," said Dan. "You're our representative before the crowd."

They hiked back up the hill to the BC building and gathered everyone in the main room. "Okay, everyone, this is what's going on," said Ron. "The most important news is that we've discovered some other survivors in Lapeer. We don't know if they're friendly or not; we haven't had a lot of contact with them, and the guys who have seen them, of course, aren't here right now. What they've told us is that, for the most part, they're just out scavenging supplies like we've been. Mark and Lou and Brian have been thorough; I don't think they're holding back any information anymore. Anyhow, that's where Dave and Joe have been-they're out scoping the situation and trying to get us an accurate account of what's going on, preferably without being seen themselves. Steve sent them out there two nights ago. We haven't heard back from them, but they're pretty resourceful guys. I have no doubt that they're safe."

"What about Steve?" asked Michelle. "Is he with them, too?"

"That's a little trickier," said Ron. "John, would you take that? You know more about it than I do."

"Lou told us that, when he and Steve were in town the first time-that was December 30, before we found all of you-that he was threatened by some locals. One of them was getting ready to attack him when Steve shot and killed both of them."

The gasp was audible, as everyone expected. John quickly continued. "We've gotten all the information out of Lou; there's really no reason to doubt that it was a case of self-defense."

Katie wanted to bring up the "killer at large" angle, but at the same time she didn't want to let on how much she'd overheard earlier. Robyn Lynch filled in the gap for her, "So there's a murderer running loose in the woods? And nobody told us?"

"I wouldn't put it that way..." began John, but he was at a loss to continue. Mark jumped in. "Neither would I. Let me sketch out the timeline for everyone." As he began drawing in the air, he was suddenly back in his professorial niche-all he needed, he thought, was a blackboard.

"Steve did this on December 30-that's almost three weeks ago now. None of us noticed anything unusual or suspected anything until he wandered off two nights ago. I don't claim to be an expert in psychology, but it seems to me that if he were really dangerous to anyone except himself, we would have seen it coming out by now. The guys down in Clearwater know him as well as anyone here, and they swear they didn't notice anything unusual. Even Lou, who saw the killings, and was in the best position to monitor Steve, reported that he saw nothing. We were told that Steve was a little intense about the whole scavenging operation-that could have been due to any number of causes, of course-but it's not like he was looking to fight again. Additionally, as far as we know, he was unarmed when he left. I think the biggest risk is that he might take his own life-or lose it wandering around in the cold. That's why we were so hot to find him. To answer your question, Robyn: Yes, there is, technically speaking, a murderer wandering around loose. On the other hand, it is our best opinion that he's more of a threat to himself than to us. We didn't see any point in alarming anybody so long as we thought we could find him quickly and get him back here where we could try and help him."

Katie saw an opportunity. "I think we need to bring Melissa in on this-she's a psych grad student and could probably help you out."

"Assistance for which we would be grateful," said Mark. "Thank you. We don't have anyone with that kind of experience, and it's been a concern."

"So, are there any other questions?" asked Ron. "Any other issues that need addressing, as long as we're all here?"

Katie cringed as Carrie began to speak. "Please, Carrie, be careful," she thought to herself.

"That depends, Ron. Is there anything else going on that we should know about? Are there any other secrets? We need to know if there's any more danger, so is there?"

"Not to my knowledge. We made the best decisions that we could in this circumstance, and there wasn't any point in alarming everyone unnecessarily-not until all of the facts were in. Could we have done better? Perhaps-in retrospect. Everything looks clearer after it's happened."

"Can I make a suggestion?" piped up Erin.

"By all means."

"I think you guys need to let some of us in on the decision-making process around here. We might be able to help on some things, and it would certainly help avoid any more of these surprises. If we're all in this together, we need to be all the way in this together." Steve Clark and Jerry nodded their heads in quick agreement, but only Dan noticed them.

The words were a little confusing, but Erin's point was made. "And how could we best pull that off?" asked Ron.

"How about letting two or three of us in on the Future Society meetings, where all of the important decisions seem to be being made?" asked Carrie.

"I think we could waive the membership requirements, under the circumstances," said Mark. He was greeted by a round of chuckling that helped to ease the uncertain tension. "Who do you have in mind?"

Katie jumped in, once more the leader. "I think Melissa, because she's the most likely to be immediately useful, and then maybe Carrie or Erin. They've been the most interested in helping out with the administrative end of things."

"Fair enough, but you should also join us, Katie," said Mark. "You were the leader of the Tundra Stomp; it is only right that you have a place in the new table of organization."

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