U.S. 20, OUTSIDE SHREVEPORT, LOUISIANA: EARLY 21ST CENTURY
Ron Labane felt awkward behind the wheel of the rental car. For one thing, everything was in a different place than he was used to. He kept reaching for the stick shift and finding it missing. For another he had to rely completely on the side view mirrors because he couldn’t see a thing when he looked over his shoulder. Every time he switched lanes he expected to hear a crash. Worst of all was the awareness of how much fuel the car was burning, how dirty it was making the air. But he couldn’t afford to go to this meeting in such a recognizable vehicle as his own.
Success was wonderful. Glorious, in fact, and usually a lot of fun. But the problem with being a celebrity was that people recognized you. Hence the rental car and a medium-priced business suit complete with tie, white shirt, and loafers. He was willing to bet his own mother wouldn’t have known him.
Things were going so well! People were finally embracing his message. His book had been on the Times bestseller list for three weeks and each week it had risen a notch. Alone in the car he gave way to a huge, happy grin. Life was good!
His agent had booked him a dozen speaking engagements around the country, charging fees that made Ron blink. And they were paying it! The sheer joy of finally being listened to! It had what he remembered of weed beat all hollow, and it was catching up fast with sex.
On the advice of his lawyer—his own, personal lawyer of all things—he’d sent a check for twenty thousand dollars to the commune.
On the back of the check, just above the space for the endorsement, the lawyer had written that all the commune’s members were required to endorse it, and that cashing the check meant that they renounced all past and future claims to him, his name, or his property.
He’d felt a moment’s regret for his son, but forced himself to remember that if he’d listened to the members of the commune, he’d be pruning trees right now and raking up leaves instead of raking in cash. They’d had their chance and they’d rejected his vision. If they’d stuck by him, they, too, would be rolling in dough and all their dreams would be coming true.
He turned his mind away from this train of thought. There was no point in going down that road again. He didn’t need the hurt, he didn’t need the disappointment. How did it go? A prophet is not respected in his own country?
He saw the diner coming up on his right and after fumbling for it found the turn signal. Ron parked and looked the place over. It was a tired-looking building despite its eternally tidy aluminum siding. The windows were nearly opaque with condensed moisture. It was typical in its anonymity, one of thousands just like it all over North America. The food would probably be bland but filling and totally unhealthy. The coffee would be brown hot water.
He got out into the asphalt-and-gasoline smell, settled the unfamiliar suit around him, and then walked over to the door and opened it. Once inside, he was met by the sound of country Muzak and a warm, greasy scent sparked through with cigarette smoke. Ron stood in the doorway and looked around.
A thickset blond man in the last booth held up his hand and Ron walked over to him. There were two other men with him in the booth. All three looked at Ron as though he were wearing feathers.
Ron put his hand on his stomach and gave a small laugh. “Sorry about the suit,” he said. “I thought I’d be less likely to draw attention like this.”
The blond man nodded slowly. “Right,” he rumbled. “Never know who’s watching.”
The other two mumbled and shifted, somehow giving off a general air of agreement.
Ron had expected an invitation to sit, but since none was forthcoming he plopped himself down beside one of the men. He looked them over as unabashedly as they examined him.
They looked… tough, and determined. They did not look overly bright, but to Ron that was an advantage. They looked like the kind of men who would do what they thought was right even if the rest of the world disagreed with them. Actually, they’d probably follow their code even if the rest of the world was shooting at them. And they’d never stop for a moment to take a second look at their beliefs. In their way they were perfect.
A waitress came over with a tired smile and he ordered an orange juice and a piece of apple pie.
“Á la mode?” she asked.
“Why not?” he said with a smile. He might take a sip of OJ, but nothing on earth could make him eat the overprocessed excuse for a pastry. And he certainly wouldn’t touch the growth-hormone-produced ice cream. Maybe one of his hosts would eat it.
And he was their guest. The blond had spoken to him at a book signing and suggested this meeting with “like-minded men.” So Ron sat back and waited, his eyes on the beefy man before him. He spread his hands in a gesture of invitation.
“I’m John,” the blond finally said. “This is Paul.” He pointed at a thin faced brunette. “George.” A tubby, balding guy nodded. “And—”
“Let me guess,” Ron said. He turned to the ferret-faced little man, grinning. “Ringo?”
“Louie,” the man said, looking puzzled.
Ah, so these were their real names. For a moment Ron had given them more credit than they deserved. John, Paul, George… and Louie. O-kay.
The men opposite him raised their heads expectantly and a second later pie and orange juice were set down before him. Ron smiled up at the waitress and said “Thank you.”
“Anything else?” she asked, giving Ron’s untouched pie, and then him, a glance.
Heads shook; Ron picked up his fork and played with the mess on his plate. She walked away. Ron put his fork down.
“So, gentlemen. What am I doing here?” he asked.
The blond man, John, fiddled with his cup, his eyes downcast.
“You seemed to mean what you were sayin’ at that lecture, there,” he said. He looked up, faded blue eyes hard. “But so have some others we’ve talked to. They talked the talk, but they wouldn’t walk the walk.”
Ron crumpled his napkin and tossed it onto his plate.
“It’s the money,” he explained. “It’s like a drug. It makes you forget that it’s just a tool and makes you think it was what you were working toward all along.”
And these men were tools, too. They might not be the sharpest ones in the shed, but they’d do until something better came along. He could use them, and as long as they didn’t know he was using them, they’d do whatever he asked.
Ron had always known they were out there, people who were looking for a leader and a cause to die for. He could give them that, and they would give him the means to his own end—a world made pure. A world returned to simplicity and community. With the scientist and the industrialists and the politicians put back in their places as servants of the people.
He leaned forward and began to learn who these men were and how they would fit into the black wing of the organization he, as yet, could only dream of founding. But Ron was possessed by a vision and firmly believed that the future was always just about to fall into his grasp.
“That ski lodge that got bombed?” Louie said. “We know who did that. Couldn’t keep the politicians from giving them a green light, even with all the petitions and protests we had.” His little eyes gleamed with malice. “But they made damn sure the bastards couldn’t open for business.”
The other men chuckled and sipped their coffee.
Ron gave a disgusted, “tsssh!” and waved his hand dismissively. “All they did was annoy the insurance companies,” he said. “The politicians stayed bribed, the ski lodge owners still own the land, and they will rebuild. And that fire took a thousand acres of woodland. Last I heard the owners were planning to expand their operation since all that land had been cleared for them.” Ron shook his head. “What a waste of effort.”
“So what would you have done?” George challenged, looking like an angry Buddha.
“I dunno,” Ron said, looking thoughtful. “Nothing really destructive, though. Something that would amuse the public, get them on your side.” His gaze sharpened and he looked George in the face. “If you’ve got the public on your side, and I mean the majority, then you make it risky to impossible for the politicos to do their damage.” He smiled wryly. “You’ve got to think like frat boys crossed with Navy seals.”
The men laughed.
Before Ron left, their hard eyes had begun to glow with hero worship and they’d made plans. Labane opened his briefcase and took out a small, brightly wrapped parcel.
“For start-up expenses,” he said quietly, handing it to John. “Happy birthday.”
Then he smiled and got up. Without another glance he walked out into the night. Ron could feel their eyes following him, like plants following the sun, and he nearly laughed. Having acolytes was a heady experience; he’d have to watch himself or he’d be swallowed up by his own ego.