Novella: Crescent City [Book 3]

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Crescent City

Occurring in the Western Front universe, just before the cataclysmic events that led to the envelopment of the world in darkness and bedlam, Crescent City is a departure from the multiple, intertwining, story arcs that The Western Front and Kratocracy are known for.  

Crescent City follows one man and woman who struggle to escape a city descending into anarchy, before it consumes them whole.  

On the eve of the culmination of the Carnival season, in the back, corner booth of a drinkery nearly as storied and old as the city itself, Hayden is approached by a towering figure shrouded in mystery.  The dire warnings from the outlander shake Hayden to his core and thrust him on a path that affords no turning back.


About this Book:
The events in Crescent City take place before the events in The Western Front.  It is not necessary to read The Western Front first, but it is recommended.


Though the parades were long over, the night was still very young.  The revelers had retreated from their stations along St. Charles and Tchoupitoulas for their preferred haunts throughout the French Quarter.  The Monday night before the culmination of Carnival was known for its debauchery and overindulgence, of all kinds.
The sights from the parades earlier that evening were still emblazoned in the minds of the raucous crowds as they continued their extended celebration.  Some floats were decorated with chromatic, oriental dragons that spewed magnificent flames from their mouths.  Others boasted impressive, ornate gods from numerous, mythological pantheons that served as the figureheads of the earth-bound ships’ bows.  Masked dragoons rode atop their illustrious steeds as they tossed gleaming, colorful doubloons to the nearby, eager bacchanalians.  Some were dressed as mighty, Indian chieftains, while others were mock princes or knights; still others masqueraded as Greek warriors or ghastly, skeletal cavaliersmen.  Clydesdales pulled lavish carriages, while Southern belles in antebellum dress waved to the adoring crowds.
Ensemble marching bands comprised of brass, woodwinds and percussions conjured up hauntingly-beautiful, jazz and dixieland renditions.  The band members glide-stepped and shifted down the packed streets in their vibrant shakos, gauntlets, sashes and capes, as the color guards chased after them with their spinning flags and flaming batons.
The entire scene was one of complete pandemonium, like the climax of some bizarre, pagan sacrifice.  The rhythmic music pulsated, as if it was a living creature, with the coming and going of the bands and floats.  The crowds cheered or booed as the masked riders blessed them with or withheld from them their coveted trinkets and bangles.  Women on second-story balconies, or atop the shoulders of their counterparts, pleaded and shouted carnal obscenities at the regal procession; they bargained with the veiled argonauts by whatever means they had available for a simple, beaded necklace or a cheap, silk rose. 
The legions pressed in on themselves increasingly tighter as the revelers strained to gaze upon the more exotic thespians in the street beyond the barricades.  The horses whinnied and snorted nervously at the sights and sounds, while officers rapped their clubs along the aluminum palisades, threatening the more unruly within the crowd to restrain themselves. 
In spite of, or perhaps because of, the current state of the world, this Carnival season had been particularly wild and uninhibited.  With Europe splintering into age-old factions, Japan faltering and becoming increasingly vulnerable to the aggressions of its much larger neighbor, Russia reacquiring much of its Cold War territory without even a whisper of protest from the rest of the world, and the Middle East and North Africa coalescing into a unified front under a single, standard bearer, many people had grown weary.  The string of unending, bad news had exhausted them and made them apathetic or indifferent.  Carnival had been their release; they would drink and be merry, for tomorrow was no longer guaranteed.
Along with the intense reveling that had been a mark of the present season, it had also been marred by an alarmingly high rate of crime.  Bar fights and muggings, stabbings and shootings, had all been widespread and rampant, even with the overbearing presence of police.  Many of the bacchants seemed to be on the precipice of violence, needing only a gentle nudge over the edge.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Hayden unquestionably hated the city, and if it was even possible, he hated this period of the year even more.  The drunken, masked multitudes served only to elevate his feelings of agitation and unease.  He carried the compact, CZ pistol in a shoulder holster, under his jacket, at great risk during Carnival in the city, but he reasoned it was an even greater risk to not carry it.  Between the concealed pistol and the heavy, folding knife clipped to his front, hip pocket, Hayden reckoned he was armed heavier than most in the establishment, or at least he hoped so.
He sat in a corner booth and watched Morgan and a pair of their mutual friends at the bar, as they struggled eagerly to garner the attention of one of the frenzied bartenders.  Morgan was, without a doubt, the only reason he stayed in the city.  As much as he hated the place, he loved her more; she was beautiful, articulate and complimented him perfectly.  She did not disagree with his opinions on New Orleans, but this was her home, and she was not yet ready to leave.  They had fought countless times over the subject, and he had threatened to leave without her nearly as many; every time he made the threat, she would simply laugh and say, “Baby, if you were going to leave, you’d have left a long time ago.”  She, as usual, was right.
The two-story, Spanish-styled, Old Absinthe House was one of the older and more storied structures within the French Quarter, having been established in 1807.  It was located on the corner of Rue Bourbon and Rou Bienville, and was a landmark to locals and tourists alike.  Many a famous patron had sat at its copper-topped, wooden bar and quaffed its namesake concoctions, including Oscar Wilde, Mark Twain and Robert E. Lee.  The second floor of the building was even rumored to be where the pirate Jean Lafitte met with Andrew Jackson to plan the strategy for the Battle of New Orleans.
The establishment still displayed the marble columns once used to drip cool water over cubes of sugar and into reservoir glasses of Absinthe.  Absinthe, the bitter, chartreuse-colored, anise-flavored spirit made from grand wormwood among other herbs, was a powerful and storied substance that the House came to be known for.  The libation was often associated with hallucinations, delirium, paranoia and death.  Edgar Allen Poe was said to imbibe the cocktail prior to commencing his writing, and Jack the Ripper was rumored to have went mad because of his addiction to Absinthe.  Although no longer available at the establishment, the Absinthe House still managed to concoct unique and unusual imbibements for its patrons.
Perhaps it was a history of mere hallucinations brought on by the strong elixirs once purveyed at the House, or perhaps otherwise, but the Absinthe House was rumored by many to be alive with many a presence from beyond the veil.  In a city rich with the voodoo culture brought in on slaver’s ships, and ancient, European mysticism, the reputation was particularly hard earned and often disputed, but never fully conceded by the establishment, for long. 
The antique, wrought-iron chandelier only served to vaguely illuminate the booth and the table that it encircled.  Hayden continued to warily survey Morgan and the others at the bar from a distance, while he occasionally sipped his club soda.  He had purposefully remained at the booth while they went for more drinks, partly to retain their seats, but primarily to have a panoramic view of the bar; if trouble started to come her way, he would have time to meet it head on.  Morgan glanced over her shoulder at him periodically, while she waited on her cocktail.  Guthrie sang City of New Orleans while the dimly-lit, arcadian canteen beckoned street gypsies and bohemian wayfarers through its aging thresholds.  Hayden tapped a steel-toed boot to the rhythm of Guthrie as he swirled the ice around in the tumbler; the old-time voice that drifted from the speakers, combined with Morgan’s hypnotic smile, temporarily caused him to forget his surroundings and find momentary mirth in her presence.
He never noticed the man that approached his table while he watched Morgan; the sudden presence unnerved him, Hayden was usually keenly aware and observant of his environment.  The man was a powerful, towering specimen with startlingly intense, emerald eyes.  The massive man stood over Hayden for several moments, as if to size him up, before finally speaking.
“Seat taken?”  The man’s voice carried a strange accent of origins that Hayden was unable to recognize.
Hayden motioned to the bar and replied, “Actually yeah; sorry.”
“I’ll be gone before they’re back, friend.”
Under the cover of the rough-hewn, wooden table, Hayden reached into his pocket and retrieved the large, folding knife.  With a gentle flick of his left wrist, it was open and ready; he rested his left hand on his thigh as he clutched the steel grip firmly.
“Look bud, I’m not gay and I’m not looking for trouble; if either of those describes your intentions,” Hayden allowed the spine of the blade to be revealed from under the table and momentarily glimmer in the dull, yellow light, “you best leave now.”
“Sounds like I’m in luck.” The man pulled a nearby chair over and sat opposite of Hayden at the open end of the round table.  “I’m not here for either.  Name’s Ariel, can I buy you a round?”
Hayden rattled his tumbler and replied, “No, I’m fine.”
“Probably for the better; I doubt we could get a round in here right now, anyway.”
Hayden nodded awkwardly and warily watched Ariel as the conversation drifted into a lull.  After several moments, Ariel spoke again.
“So, what’s your name?”
“Hayden, you a military man?”
“What’s it to you?”
“I suppose I was just wondering if that high and tight was a fashion statement.”
Hayden managed a slight grin and replied, “Former marine; now with the Louisiana National Guard.”
“Yea, how’d you know?”
“Just an educated guess, since you’re here in town.”
“What about you Ariel?  You seem to be knowledgeable enough on the subject.  What branch is allowing ponytails these days?”
“I am a soldier of sorts.”
“What branch?”
“I’m not from here; the name wouldn’t mean anything to you.”
“Where’re you from?”
“I’m a long way from home.”
“Alright, where have you fought?”
“Our operations are covert; my battles go unnoticed to most.”
Hayden snorted and replied, “Ariel, I’m not sure you understand the mechanics of a conversation.  To have one, there must be communication by two parties.”
“I’m not much of a talker.”
“Did you not seek me out?”
“I did.”
“I tell you what, just keep the booth; I’ve got to go.”
As Hayden slid out from behind the booth and stood up, the man said, “Wait.”
“Look around you.  What do you see?”
“A bunch of drunks.”
“They’re people thoroughly oblivious to a storm on the horizon.  Do you follow world events, Hayden?”
“I do.”
Ariel’s eyes blazed with an intensity even greater than before, “Tell me about Europe.”
Hayden sat back down on the edge of the booth and said, “In short, they’re failing.”
“Can what’s happening there, happen here?”
“Without a doubt.”
If that sickness spreads across the Atlantic, what happens here?”
“The same thing:  bank runs, riots, inflation, maybe a currency devaluation-“
No,” The man’s heavy fist pounded the oak table as he interrupted Hayden, “here.  Orléans, Vieux Carré, Rue Bourbon, Old Absinthe House.  What happens here?”
“Utter chaos.”
“Quite an understatement, don’t you think?”
Hayden did not reply.
“How about: a baalful maelstrom of bedlam and death not experienced in centuries.”
Hayden felt his chest tighten and begin to burn as the man continued to stare unblinkingly at him.
“But they always caught up with our progress, and presently word would come, that a tribe had been wiped off its icefield, or the lights had gone out in Rome.”
“I’m impressed, Hayden; Kipling it is.  Now, tell me about the Middle East.”
Hayden tried to speak, but his words failed to materialize; the conversation had been transmuted by the man from awkward, pointless, bar drivel, to something much more fervent.
Hayden simply looked down and shook his head from side to side.
“We’re living in Vienna, 1681; maybe 1682.  We’re in the last, sunny days before being thoroughly engulfed by darkness.  In less than two years’ time – maybe not even that long, a very old evil will rally outside of our gates, but no one is standing watch on the ramparts this time.”
Ariel allowed the table to fall silent.  The sounds of the revelers in the bar seemed to disappear into some vast gulf as Hayden’s chest burned with dread.
“The threads of your society are unraveling before your eyes, Hayden, and you’re sitting here?  What are you doing, son?”
“I don’t know.”
Ariel stood from the dark-stained, scarred table.  He pushed the chair underneath it and began to walk away, before turning back to Hayden.
“You like Guthrie?”
Hayden stared at him with a puzzled look, but said nothing.
“Yea, I know that’s a strange question after a conversation like that.  I suppose he’s alright; this song’s a little cliché, but I understand it’s for the tourists – people like me.  Remember this song Hayden; don’t ask me what that means, because I don’t even know myself.  Just remember this song.”
As Hayden sat speechless, the man turned back and began to push his way through the crowd.  Hayden cast a sidelong gaze towards the bar at Morgan; she was just turning back to look at him as well.  She smiled lovingly and waved to him before grabbing her drink and tipping the bartender.  When his eyes returned to the crowd to search for the strange man with the blonde ponytail, he was already gone.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
As Hayden, Morgan and their friends stumbled out of the House and onto Rue Bienville, a troupe of street performers began to serenade them mockingly as a nearby crowd watched and laughed.  Across the street, a silver statue craned his head ever so slightly to watch as crowds of people passed him by.  The statue would occasionally reach out and brush a nearby tourist’s shoulder as they passed, before reverting to his original, unwavering state.  The drunken passersby would be thoroughly confounded as they peered about, trying to locate the hidden prankster.
As they immediately rounded the corner and aimed southwest along Rue Bourbon, Hayden heard the hauntingly captivating sound of a fiddle from somewhere over his shoulder.  As he turned to catch a glimpse of the performer somewhere to his side, he scanned all manner of outcasts, vagabonds and charlatans throughout the throngs.  His eyes finally settled on an apparent werewolf in a suit and tie, sawing on the bowed-string instrument.  The creature would occasionally howl at particularly climactic notes as a nearby audience roared with approval and tipped him generously.  Hayden rolled his eyes at the spectacle as Ariel’s words hung heavy on his mind:  the threads of your society are unraveling before your eyes, Hayden, and you’re sitting here?  What are you doing, son?
As the four continued southwardly towards Canal Street to hail a cab for the short ride home, a frat boy teetered uncontrolledly across the sidewalk as he was half-flung, half-shoved by a burly, leather-vested bouncer from a nearby, biker haunt.  The bouncer crossed his massive, trunk-like arms as he cursed at the drunken troublemaker, before turning and disappearing back into the bar.  The bouncer shortly reemerged with two of his colleagues; they each gripped a fraternity brother by the napes of their necks and tossed them out into the street as well.  The grisly, bearded guards formed an impenetrable barrier in front of the bar’s entrance as they scowled at the brothers; the fraternity boys shouted obscenities while they pitched their beers at the human wall from a safe distance.
Hayden moved to give the stumbling youth a wide berth, but the commotion was fast upon them before they could properly react.  While the three brothers disparaged the bouncers, their stumbling friend tripped over his own feet and tumbled headlong in Morgan’s direction.  Hayden stepped in front of her to catch the man, but his drink had already been flung awkwardly through the air in their direction; Hayden, Morgan and their friends were thoroughly drenched by the drink.
The antics of the unruly, frat brothers engulfed Hayden with a sudden, momentary savagery.  Without pausing to filter his reaction, he grabbed the man by the hair of his head; with a massive, downward force, he hurled the man face first towards the pavement below.  The muddled man’s face collided violently with the edge of the concrete curb; a sickening crunch could be heard as his nose shattered and blood splattered across the sidewalk and street around him.
Great, Hayden thought to himself, now you’ve done it.
Morgan gasped in shock, “Hayden!”
“We gotta go.”
The other three men turned around just in time to see their friend’s excruciating impact with the unyielding curb.  Their friend curled into a ball in the filthy street as he writhed and shrieked in agony.
“Hey you!”
“Just keep walking,” Hayden said to Morgan and the others, “don’t even acknowledge them.”
“Hey!  I’m talking to yo-“
As the apparent leader of the brothers lurched forward towards Hayden, he was immediately jerked backwards ferociously.  The leader choked and gurgled as his collar was yanked tightly around his neck.  He gasped for a breath and struggled for solid footing, but neither could be found.
“Get out of here,” one of the bouncers shouted to Hayden, “we’ll handle these four.”
Hayden turned his head to the side and nodded graciously as he simply mouthed, Thanks.
As Hayden and the others reached the end of the block, they turned off of Rue Bourbon onto Iberville to conceal themselves from the escalating scene of violence behind them, in front of the bar.  Iberville was much darker than the well-lit and rowdy Bourbon Street, but it allowed Hayden and the others to fade into the city, and away from the trouble behind them.  What originally had seemed like a drunken clique of fraternity boys that would surely be pummeled by the older and larger men, was now beginning to turn for the worse.
One of the frat brothers had managed to smash a half-full, whiskey bottle against the shaved head of one of the towering bouncers, so that his friend could break free from the tattooed man’s choke hold.  The brother had then proceeded to slash and stab at the back of a second bouncer with the sharp, jagged glass.  His friend, now free, had produced a long, thin, stiletto-like blade and was slashing it wildly about.  The wounded brother on the pavement was now beginning to pull himself up with the aid of a nearby lamp post.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
At the corner of Iberville and Dauphine, Hayden and the others turned south once again towards Canal Street.  Dauphine continued the trend of increasing darkness that had begun a half block off of Rue Bourbon.  While the crowds had been sparse on Iberville, they were nonexistent on the tight, one-way street.  The bright and vibrant lights on Canal were like the illumination at the end of the long, dark tunnel that was Rue Dauphine.  In the distance, a taxi could be seen idling at the corner of Dauphine and Canal. 
The surrounding buildings towered above them and disappeared into the dark night, further adding to the forboding feeling of restriction and confinement.  The narrow passage was littered with detritus and filth of all sorts.  The pavement was still slick with a thick film of grime and oil, exacerbated by the rains from earlier in the day.  They passed a narrow alley between two of the buildings and noticed a drum that glowed brightly, somewhere deep within the urban cavern.  The silhouettes of several figures could be seen standing over the barrel as a flicker of a flame occasionally leapt above the rim, before retreating back from view.  Hayden was reminded of what a difference a mere block or two made in the Crescent City, where dearth and poverty were swept just out of site to make way for opulence and extravagance on a grand scale. 
A long, open-top dumpster was staged along a stained, graffiti-covered, brick wall to their left.  The large bin was filled with construction debris from a nearby renovation, and nearly blocked the entire width of the cramped, back street.  Morgan clung tightly to Hayden as something within the dumpster began to thrash and shift about, as it heard the sound of their approaching footfalls.  Suddenly, a plump raccoon, nearly as round as an over-inflated basketball, rolled out of the large, metal bin and landed with a loud plop on the street below.  He stared at them defiantly for a moment before waddling away without a care, a half-eaten hamburger still hanging from his jaws.  After the tense encounter minutes earlier, the wobbling bandit caused the four to laugh aloud.
“Hey Evan,” Hayden jeered, “that’s you in five years if you don’t change your ways.”
Morgan and her friend Laurel snickered as Evan protested, “I don’t know what you’re talking about; I’ve never, ever scampered down Dauphine Street with a cheeseburger in my mouth.”
“Oh, no?”  Hayden chuckled, “what about a burrito?”
Evan laughed as he retorted, “Just shut up Hayden, no one likes a-“
Hayden’s chest tightened as he heard the sound of the fraternity brother’s voice.  He turned to see three men rounding the corner and sprinting towards them; the distance between the two groups shortened with every long stride.
“Evan, take the girls and get out them out of here.”
“Absolutely not, I’m staying here with you.”
Hayden slipped his left hand into his jacket, retrieved the pistol and brought it down low and tight against his leg as he scolded his friend, “Evan, seriously?  And what about Morgan and Laurel?  Go now and get us a ride out of here.  We don’t have time for this.”
The sight of the pistol visibly surprised Evan; he nodded with wide eyes and whispered to the girls, “Come on.”
“Baby please, go with Evan.  I promise you, I’ll be fine.”
While Evan, Morgan and Laurel fled to the relative safety of Canal Street and beyond, Hayden sidestepped behind the dumpster to provide an obstacle between himself and the men.  He squatted low and braced against the metal frame of the bin, with the pistol in a ready position.  He flicked the switched on the end of the frame with his index finger and flashed the crimson beam in the eyes of each of the swiftly approaching men, in turn.  The temporary blindness brought on by the wash of red light in their faces, halted the men’s pursuit.  The unexpected turn of events caused two of the men to begin to reconsider their thoughts of revenge, but the apparent leader still had a desire for bloodletting.  As he offered the men his stark warning, the words once again resurfaced in his mind.
The threads of your society are unraveling before your eyes, Hayden, and you’re here?  What are you doing?
“Tough guy with a gun?  Afraid of a fair fight?
“Like the whiskey bottle, or what about your friend’s knife?”
The brother snorted at Hayden’s retort and peppered him with obscenities.
“Turn back and leave now.”  Hayden warned, “I won’t ask again.”
“Come on dude, let’s just go; it’s not worth it.”
“I’m not going anywhere.”
The man continued to press forward, foolishly emboldened by the cocktail of chemicals coursing throughout his body.  He cursed and taunted Hayden with each additional step he took, every threatening movement more emboldened than the one before it.  Hayden began a series of deep, controlled breaths, as he steadied his aim.
“See, he’s not going to do anything, except take it like a-“
The two loud reports were explosive and deafening as they echoed down the passage and back on the men from the oppressive, brick walls that surrounded them.  The red beam guided the rounds perfectly to their intended target – the now shattered pelvis of the aggressor.  The man groaned as he shifted his weight and struggled to continue forward.
Hayden breathed deeply as he reacquired his target; he now trained the laser on the upper half of the man’s torso.  He growled at the men in a menacing and commanding tone previously unheard.
“Down, now!  Or I finish what you started!”
The two men in the rear immediately fell to the ground and closed their eyes tightly.  The wounded man cursed at Hayden, but finally acquiesced.
“Your phones,” Hayden motioned across the street with one hand, “toss them over there.  Do not tempt me by trying something stupid.”
After several moments of searching, three cell phones clattered across the grime-covered street.
Hayden rushed over and scooped the phones up without a word, and then disappeared into the night.  As he fled south to Canal Street, he tossed the phones into the throat of a nearby drainage inlet and muttered to himself, “The threads of your society are unraveling before your eyes, Hayden, and you’re here?  What are you doing?”

The bacon sizzled and popped noisily in the skillet as the aging coffee maker began to gurgle with its proclamation of another successful brew.  Hayden groggily sauntered over to the bitter pot of dark roast and poured the steaming liquid into the same, eternally-stained cup he had used the day before.  The thick brew that Hayden prided himself in making was a hybrid of sorts, somewhere between coffee and espresso.  Morgan had long since sworn off consumption of Hayden’s unbearable concoction; she insisted on a second pot of a lighter, more traditional infusion.  Hayden actually preferred the arrangement; no longer did he have to settle when making his coffee, or whatever it was.
He stabbed at the wrinkled slices of bacon with a fork and dropped them on a nearby plate.  He gently cracked several eggs and dropped them in the hot grease.  After a few short seconds, he flipped the eggs momentarily, before removing them from the skillet as well.  The teakettle was not quite whistling yet, so he quietly slipped through the open area of their tiny, corner flat that served as their combined den and bedroom, and out onto the balcony.
Hayden leaned against the wrought-iron railing of their fifth-floor, studio-apartment balcony and surveyed the city beneath him.  Most of the semi-derelict buildings in the Warehouse District had a look of decay and abandon, but many of the interiors were surprisingly elegant and modern, having been revitalized into museums, restaurants and art galleries over the last several decades.  The Nineteenth Century saw the district as a thriving industrial area, nestled just south of the French Quarter, on the edge of the Mississippi River.  Crates of grain, cotton and coffee shipped through the Port of New Orleans would often be cached temporarily in the sprawling, brick storehouses and seemingly endless rail yards that filled the area, before being transported upriver by paddle wheelers or out to sea on steamships.
As containerized transportation became the prevalent mode of transportation, the Warehouse District slowly faded into obscurity.  As prosperity gave way to blight, the area became an urban wasteland, inhabited only by vagrants and scofflaws.  For a century, the area languished in a ruinous hibernation, until it was mercifully granted a rebirth of sorts.  The area began to transform into a cultural center - slowly at first, but then more rapidly.  The forgotten warehouses were easily and inexpensively transformed into museums and art galleries by intrepid entrepreneurs with a vision for a renaissance.  The bohemians, nonconformists and beatnik artists followed shortly thereafter, desiring to be close to the sprawling galleries that would welcomingly display their works.
Hayden and Morgan were not the typical residents of the area.  He was often held in contempt by his free-spirit neighbors for his military service; Morgan, with her profitable day job, was often dismissed as just another one of the uncouth bourgeois, until her canvasses were beheld.  Her elegant, creole-inspired tableaus captured the very essence of the rich, unique culture and heritage that was her own.  Hayden had irrevocably fallen under the spell of an Acadian princess with a passion for art and a professional expertise in trauma surgery; she was as unique and enthralling as her oeuvres.  As much as he hated the city, he loved her more.
The whistle of the teakettle caused him to spin and notice Morgan carrying two plates to their battered sofa.  Hayden admired her form as she floated through the flat.  He quietly slipped into the kitchen, poured her a cup of coffee, topped off his own, crept through the apartment and sat beside her.  His sudden presence momentarily startled her, and she recoiled slightly at the sight of him.  Hayden kissed her gently on the cheek as he grabbed his plate and smiled smugly.
“You scared me!”
“So sorry.”
“No you’re not.”
He smiled again and replied, “I know.”
She elbowed him fiercely in his ribs; he coughed and groaned as he cut her a narrow eye, before smiling returning to his breakfast without response.  After several moments of silence, he spoke again.
“So, how you feel?”
“A little headache, but that’s about it.  I-“ She paused as the deluge of spotty memories from last night overwhelmed her.  “Are - are you alright?  What happened last night?”
Hayden wrapped an arm around her side and kissed her forehead as he whispered, “It’s okay; nothing happened.”
“Something happened!  What about those men?”
Hayden paused for a moment as he searched for the proper words, before continuing, “I drew on them.”
“I remember a shot.”
“I had to shoot one of them.”
“Oh my God!  Is he dead?”
“No.  He’s fine, or he will be at least.”
“Were there any witnesses?”
“Just his friends; like I said:  it’s okay, nothing happened.
Hayden watched for several moments as she processed the events, before adding, “You know, we had the same conversation last night when we got home.”
“We did?”
He laughed and retorted, “How much did you drink last night?”
Morgan simply sighed and said, “I have no idea.”
Hayden laughed again and said, “It’s alright babe; it all worked out.  We were lucky.”
He nodded and concurred, “Blessed.”
They finished their breakfast in silence and then sipped their coffees as Morgan turned on the modest television and settled on her preferred cable news channel.  The screen was split between a panel of stunned journalists that nervously watched a contributor on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange execute a monologue of epic proportions.
“Turn it up.” Hayden said.
“…What I’m saying Tom, is that this market is completely divergent from reality!  The Dow should be at half of what it’s currently priced at.  The entire market is being propped up by a monetary policy that is inherently self-destructive in nature!”
A journalist on the panel interjected, “Rick, we’re seeing signs of recovery all throughout the economy.  The recent jobs report places the unemployment rate under twelve percent for the first time in thirteen months.  Housing starts are up; the market is at new highs.  I think the science is settled on which school of economics is superior.”
The panel erupted into cross-talk until Rick, the contributor on the floor, exploded with another valiant attempt to connect with the listeners, if not with his fellow journalists.
“You people just don’t get it!  We’re at the breaking point!  The Middle East is on fire as Sunnis and Shias and Israelis are all involved in various ground operations against each other throughout the region.  There’s even talk in the intelligence community that Israel is considering preemptive nukes if the region continues in this death spiral.  I’m telling you, if the United States doesn’t get in front of the international community and condemn Israel, then immediately end all Israeli foreign aid, China and Russia are going to step in and start dumping Western assets.  These discussions are happening at the highest levels right now, I guarantee you.  Do we abandon Israel, or do we double down and start a third World War?”
“You’re running on absolute speculation and complete paranoia right now Rick and I find it to be beneath you.”
“And when these Western assets are dumped, the Fed and the ECB will be forced to absorb trillions – trillions of dollars in derivatives.  That is our Weimer moment; hyperinflation sets in at that point.  Get out of the market!”
“Let’s play your scenario out; what are people supposed to do, Rick?  They are supposed to exit the market and do what?”
“If you can’t hold it in your hands, you don’t own it.  Get that in your heads!  Metals, farmland – tangible investments; pay off your house, have some food on hand and have a way to protect your assets!”
The panel of experts murmured amongst themselves as the host smiled condescendingly and replied, “On that note, that’s all the time we have. Rick Fattori everyone, contrarian extraordinaire, thank you.”
“Yea, thanks Tom.”
“Up next:  how you can invest in the growing sustainable development movement.  Our panel of experts will dissect this topic for you right after the break.”
“Wow,” Morgan commented, “they completely blew him off.”
“Yea they did, but they always do.”  Ariel’s word from the night before echoed through Hayden’s head. “What if Fattori is right?”
Before Morgan could respond, Hayden’s phone began to vibrate.  He checked the incoming number before rising from the couch and answering it, “Hayden.”
Morgan listened curiously to the string of yes sirs that Hayden uttered as he walked towards the balcony.  After disappearing for several minutes, he reemerged with a somber look on his face.
“What’s wrong?”
“I’ve been activated.”
“What?  Why?”
“I don’t know, they didn’t say.”
“When do you have to report?”
“Tomorrow evening.”
“Where are you going?  How long will you be gone?”
“They didn’t tell me.  I’m sorry.”
She sighed, “What if Fattori is right?
“If he’s right, I promise I’ll get back here to you.”
“How quick could things get bad here?”
Hayden was silent for several moments before replying, “In a market crash, it could be really quick.  Maybe a couple of days; I don’t know.  If the markets do crash, they’ll likely close them for several days.  If it causes people to panic and then there’s a run on the banks and they close too?  It could be like a hurricane in the Gulf – people hoarding gas, empty store shelves and everything else that comes along with it.”
“Baby, I don’t want you to go.”
He sat down beside her and kissed her forehead.  “I know.  I’ve got to though.”
“I know.”
They lay silently on the sofa for several minutes while watching the muted television, before Morgan spoke again, “If I tell you something, do you promise not to think I’m crazy?”
Hayden smiled, “I don’t know.  I can’t know for sure until I hear it.”
“I’m serious, Hayd.”
“Alright; I promise.”
“I don’t remember much from last night, but I do remember one thing with absolute clarity.”
Hayden nodded subtly as he listened intently.
“I remember it so very clearly, that it’s startling.  There was this voice, in my head:  ‘The threads of your society are unraveling before your eyes, Morgan, and you’re here?  What are you doing?’  It was so clear that I literally spun around to see who was talking to me.
Unease crept into Hayden as he tried to deflect her worries, “It was so crowded in there last night; maybe somebody said it and then disappeared into the fray.”
“I was alone, in the restroom.”
A feeling of dread consumed Hayden as the words rolled out of Morgan’s mouth.  He wanted to speak - to tell her about Ariel and what he had said, but he could not.  The room fell into silence as the words once again reverberated in his head.
“That’s not crazy; not at all.  That’s just the plain-spoken truth.  Maybe it was a moment of clarity.”
“I think I’m ready to leave the city, Hayd.  Let’s leave now.”
“Where would we go?”
“I don’t know, anywhere.”
“We just can’t leave; there are things worse than being stuck in a city if something was to happen.”
“Like what?”
“Being a refugee, for one; being out on the road with nowhere to go.  But I promise if you want this, we’ll leave as quickly as we can.  Be looking for somewhere while I’m gone.  When I get back, we’ll see what you’ve found and we’ll move on a property.”
“Okay,” there was an urgency in her voice, “I’ll start looking today.”
“I’m sorry.”
“For what?”
“For holding out so long; you were right.”
“I was what?”
She smirked as she elbowed him again and replied, “You heard me.  Don’t push your luck, soldier.”

By Wednesday evening, the day Hayden was to report for duty, the markets were in a complete panic.  The Dow had plummeted by ten percent in a flash crash that never recovered.  At first, pundits and traders thought that it was a temporary error caused by high-frequency trading algorithms.  When the market failed to recover however, the experts began to panic.  The Dow lost another five percent by market close that evening.  Over the course of Wednesday night, market analysts began to predict a massive bounce back starting early Thursday.  They were right, but it would be short lived.
Thursday morning indeed saw a rush of investors diving into what was considered by many to be a cheap market.  The Dow began to recoup its losses until sometime around noon, when a second flash crash occurred.  Before the markets could be closed, most had lost close to fifty percent of their value.  In a matter of minutes, an enormous amount of digital wealth simply vanished.
The bank runs began Thursday evening, but they were to be short lived; by Friday morning, nearly every stock exchange and bank in Western civilization had closed until further notice.  As people were left with only the cash they had on hand and no answers as to when they would be able to access their accounts again, frustration quickly turned to unrest and violent clashes erupted with law enforcement.  By Friday evening, many states had called in their respective National Guard units to bolster police departments that were ill-equipped to withstand the widespread chaos.  Store shelves began to empty as many prepared for an extended period of lawlessness.  As the weekend progressed, the unease only intensified.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Hayden walked along the balcony of his garrison on the southern end of Jackson Barracks.  He surveyed the surrounding Ward and the hopelessness and poverty that permeated it.  FEMA cottages that had been transformed into permanent residences and derelict houses in various stages of degradation dotted the landscape for as far as he could see.  He noticed several guardsmen were patrolling the perimeter of the facility on UTVs, a precaution that Hayden could not recall seeing before, but one that was definitely warranted.  The perimeter walls around Jackson Barracks were short and easily scalable by anyone that was even mildly interested in breaching the facility.
Rumors had begun to surface earlier in the day, fueled by alternative media sources, that a massive cyber-attack had been launched against the USDA’s Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, more commonly referred to as SNAP or food stamps.  Reports were surfacing that as many as twenty percent of the SNAP accounts had been wiped out, and the virus was still spreading like a wildfire.  As the USDA restored one account, two more were compromised.  If the reports were true, Jackson Barracks was the last place he wanted to be. 
 Situated on the eastern edge of the Lower Ninth Ward, Jackson Barracks was established in 1834.  Though its original design may have been easily defensible, the current layout was a complete nightmare.  The facility was less than six hundred feet wide, but nearly two miles long.  Jackson Barracks was long, narrow and stretched from the Mississippi River to Cypress Swamp.  The Louisiana National Guard facility was a precarious buffer that separated the impoverished Lower Ninth Ward from the middle class suburb of Arabi.  If the rumors of a cyber-attack were true, the barracks’ western front would soon become a target of much frustration, and possibly aggression.
He wondered how Morgan was holding up in their flat in the Warehouse District; events seemed to be unfolding at lightning speed it and he hoped she was coping well.  Wednesday evening before he left, Morgan had agreed to Hayden’s request to call in sick for the rest of the week and reevaluate the situation on Monday morning.  They had talked every night since then, and she had been strong, but he could sense the worry in her voice.
The threads of your society are unraveling before your eyes, Hayden, and you’re sitting here?  What are you doing, son?
The words haunted him once again.  Were the times that Ariel was referring to right now?  Should they have left that very night?
The unease brought on by his inability to shake Ariel’s words only amplified the frustration that he felt for still not knowing why he had been called in.  He could not be angry at the officers, because he could see the same frustration on their faces as well.  No one seemed to know the reason why they were suddenly in limbo, with no orders and no idea when they might go home.  Hayden wondered if someone, somewhere, knew that something was about to happen, and he and his fellow guardsmen had been placed on standby for the event – whatever that event may be.  At this point though, he was just thankful that he was still stationed in town; it could have been a lot worse.
As Hayden reached the wide flight of stairs and began to descend from the balcony, he noticed his staff sergeant approaching from the distance.  As their eyes met, the NCO shouted across the green to Hayden.
“Yes sir!”
“Load up; we’re moving out!”

The convoy of Humvees pulled out of the narrow Dauphine Street side gate of Jackson Barracks and into the Holy Cross sub-district of the Lower Ninth.  Battered shotgun houses hugged cracked sidewalks that slavishly followed the jagged edges of the cramped alley.  Vine-filled live oaks and thick underbrush crowded the occasional empty lots and provided cover for all manner of depravity.  Not a single home had escaped the blight and depression that had consumed the impoverished community. 
The faces of the people that sat on meager front porches or congregated on street corners conveyed a myriad of emotions:  fear, hatred, hopelessness, hunger, want and malice.  As Hayden scanned his surroundings, he was consumed by the abounding despair.  A place like this already hung by such delicate threads, how much more desperation could a people bear when a short bus ride was all that was needed to see the excess and extravagance elsewhere in the city?  What would be the catalyst that transformed their despair into contempt, and their contempt into unrestrained desperation?
The convoy jogged north for several blocks on Deslonde Street before continuing west on St. Claude Avenue and over the Bascule bridge.  As they crossed the bridge, Hayden’s thoughts were interrupted by the sound of their unit leader’s voice crackling through their earpieces.
“Comm check.”
Hayden heard the series of checks and rogers as the men replied in confirmation.
“Good.  Alright, our destination is the park across from City Hall.  ETA about eight minutes.  Anyone familiar with SPARC?”
No response.
“Okay, SPARC - Socialists, Political Anarchists, Radicals and Communists; they proclaim themselves to be the spearhead of a nonviolent, people’s revolution, but more often than not, violence follows them.  Their two-day, event permit expired yesterday, but they’re refusing to leave.  Estimates put the number of protesters at about seven hundred, with just as many spectators.  Local police are about to move in, but they’ve requested a military presence to help diffuse any situations before they arise.  Orders are that all rifles are to be empty prior to exiting the Humvees.  No ammo.  If a response is required, it will be by the locals.  Understood?”
The men rattled off their affirmatives before muting their microphones and cursing their orders.  Empty rifles always caused more harm than they prevented.  Hayden removed the magazine from the rifle and began to flick rounds out of it and onto the floor with his thumb.  Upon emptying the mag, he reinserted it into the rifle and then tossed the four mags that were on his vest to the floorboard of the vehicle.
As the convoy crossed Tulane Avenue, the sprawling park came into view.  Hayden cursed under his breath; the crowd was much larger than he had anticipated.  From the corner of his eye, he sensed movement.  Hayden quickly glanced upward to the flat roof of the public library that was adjacent to the park, but no one was there.
A group of officers in riot gear huddled together at the corner of Loyola and Gravier as they waited on the guardsmen.  As the Humvees came to a stop, the guardsmen began to filter out of the vehicles and make their way to the officers.  Hayden stalled for a moment until the others had exited.  He quickly glanced from side to side before retrieving two of the loaded mags and stuffing them into a large pouch on his vest.
His heart fluttered at the sound of the squad leader’s voice; he nervously replied, “Yes sir!”
“Let’s go!”
“Yes sir!”
As the guardsmen approached the officers, one of the men turned and flashed a grim smile as he motioned them over.  The bleak demeanor of the officers put Hayden on edge; they did not appear to be at ease with the events in the park beyond them.  He wondered if they knew they were being supported by eighteen unarmed guardsmen.  The weight of the concealed mags tugged at his vest and eased his nerves somewhat; he hoped that several of his brothers had chosen to defy the order as well.
As the two groups converged, Hayden’s unit leader exchanged greetings with and received several updates from the barrel-chested police sergeant.  It seemed the crowd of protesters had swelled to nearly one thousand over the past several hours.  There had been several minor clashes with police already; the protesters seemed ready for a fight.
“You boys know your role?”
“Our orders are to stand back and look mean while you clear them out.”
The sergeant shook his head as he replied, “Isn’t that the most ridiculous line of garbage you’ve ever heard?”
“Orders are orders.”
“I guess so.  Well, let’s go crash a party.”

“Yes sir, we’ll be ready for them when they get here.  Thank you.  I will.”
William turned around to face his comrades who were gathered in the tent; they had been planning the climax of the protest before the call had interrupted them.  There was a faint glimmer in William’s eyes that was not apparent prior to the call.  He smirked as he retrieved a cigarette from the soft pack in his shirt pocket.  The cherry of burning tobacco swelled and grew more intense as he lit and inhaled it deeply.
  “We’ll have company in about thirty minutes.  A contingent of National Guardsmen is coming to aid the police in shutting us down.”
Don’t worry.  They won’t be armed; they’re just here to intimidate us.  Their orders are to not engage at all.”
William’s lieutenants sneered at the foolish miscalculations of their foe.
“I need some agents to work the crowd until they arrive; provocateurs that will foment and incite angst so that when I go onstage my words will be all the more – affective.  How many can you rouse?”
The lieutenants eyed each momentarily before one of them replied, “Maybe thirty.”
The others nodded in agreement.
“Go then.”
Reese waited patiently for the others to leave before addressing William.  His jeans were tattered and grimy, the drab-green, Army field jacket was a size too large and his hair tousled and oily; despite his outward appearance, something was inherantly different about him.  While the others were eager, amateur radicals and self-proclaimed revolutionaries in Che tee-shirts, Reese projected an air of quiet professionalism, as if he had partook in a thousand coups.
“What is it?”  William asked.
“I know what you’re thinking, and I must disagree.”
“And what am I thinking?”
“You’re thinking about killing some cops and soldiers.”
William grinned wryly as he exhaled smoke through his nose, “So, you do know.” 
“We’re not yet strong enough here; N’Orleans is still in the growth phase.  You’ll risk it all if you move too soon.”
Now is the time; the events have been set in motion.  We play the board with the pieces we have.”
Reese sighed and paused momentarily as he struggled to gather his thoughts and mount a riposte, “Will, let’s reason through this plan of yours:  we have, what – sixty cops out there and maybe a dozen or so soldiers en route?”
William nodded.
“What happens when you kill several of them and wound a couple dozen?”
“It fuels the crowd’s bloodlust and elevates the chaos.”
“Yea – and it makes us a magnet for every beat cop in town.  There’ll be ten times as many officers on us within two hours, but they’ll have guns drawn this time.”
“And so the cycles of violence begetting violence will begin.  Sounds like a symphony of mobocracy, doesn’t it?”
“It sounds like suicide.  We have maybe a thousand protesters?”
Revolutionaries.” William replied sardonically.
“Whatever.  Half of them will turn coat as soon as you push for violence.  Half of the remaining will defect as soon as shots are fired and lives are on the line.  Half of them still will disappear as soon as the reinforcements arrive.  That leaves – me, you and a hundred other comrades to die and fail the cause.”
William laughed condescendingly and retorted, “You have so little faith in your fellow man.  Don’t you see, Reese?  This city is ripe for the taking.  The official unemployment here is fifteen percent, but we know that means it’s actually closer to thirty.  Minority and youth unemployment is closer to half; those are unsustainable numbers.  This city is desperate for leadership, and no one has provided it.  And now, with the markets in complete free fall, banks refusing to release any cash and food stamps no longer working, the pyre is fueled – it just needs a SPARC.
Once you unleash the venom and hatred that is hiding behind the thin façade this place is wearing, there’s no turning back.  This crowd will grow like a living, breathing organism – until it blankets the entire city.  In the years to come, historians will study the New Orleans SPARC riots and how they ushered in the fundamental transformation of an entire nation.”
“William, you’re wrong.  Not now; not yet.  We should wait.”
William pushed past Reese and spoke with contempt as he pulled the Guy Fawkes mask over his face, “It starts today, Reese.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
A group of masked provocateurs made their way through the crowd of militants, demonstrators and dissidents to the outer fringes of the park.  Past the oak trees, park benches and lamp posts that the mass of people enveloped stood a line of solemn faced officers with riot shields resting against the sidewalk as they warily stood watch for any signs of trouble.
As the men reached the line of police, one of them spoke with scorn and venom.
“Top of the morning, gentlemen.
The officers ignored the man and continued to stare past the group.
“You pigs can’t speak?”
“Good,” the agent turned to the others and continued, “I think we’ve found our pigs.”
The others sneered as they nodded in agreement.
“Yep, you’re our pigs.  Right, pigs?”
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
William sighed deeply before climbing the stairs onto the stage, his identity still concealed behind the mask.  He had spent a lot of political capital organizing the event, and a lot of people were expecting this to be the start of something big.  If he could not pull off New Orleans, the circles he moved in would get much colder and smaller.
In the back of his mind, he knew Reese was right.  They were too weak; the opposition was too strong.  The odds were stacked heavily against them, but it had been decided that now was the time to act.  His role was a bit part, but it was an important one.
The anxious crowd seemed to barely notice, or perhaps care about, the emergence of another masked stranger.  They were tired of the hollow speeches and empty rhetoric of the past several days.  They wanted action, and William intended to give it to them.
He pulled the mask from his face and let it drop to the floor.  Though he would likely go unrecognized by most of the world, the people here knew him very well.  He was their inspiration – their demigod.  The crowd began to cheer as they recognized the man.
Heavily distorted guitar riffs and abrasive white noise began to resonate from the stage as William towered over the crowd.  The industrial-fused metal was barely perceptible at first, but its intensity slowly began to grow as he worked the crowd. 
“Greetings, New Orleans; it’s good to finally meet you.”
The crowd thundered with vigor and approval.
“I wish I could stand here and deliver words of hope or promise, but I cannot.  The system in which we are enslaved to has utterly failed us.  Hasn’t it?  Hasn’t it failed you?”
“You’re surrounded by poverty with no chance of betterment.  You’re bound by the heavy chains of oppressive oligarchs that want to bridle you like livestock.  This system offers you nothing better than what you have now – today you are richer than you’ll be tomorrow, and tomorrow to the next day; you’re lives are slowly descending into squalor.”
The crowd hissed and booed at William’s words.
“Yet they continue to lead you to the slaughter as they lay praise at the feet of this fascistic aberration they have constructed.  The fabric of our society has never been clean enough to warrant praise except from the corrupt who have woven it.  Look around you, is this worthy of praise?  Is this a world you want to live in?”
As William peered out over the crowd, he saw the convoy of Humvees appear from around the corner.  Perfect timing, he thought.   The fast-paced industrial riffs had reached a frenzied pace, infusing William with a primal energy and building the crowd to a climax from which they would not return without a blood sacrifice.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The group of provocateurs watched as the Humvees came into view.  William’s voice boomed over the loudspeakers as the guardsmen exited the vehicles.
“It seems we’ve offended our masters, so they’ve unleashed their hounds!”
  One of the agents of chaos plunged a gloved hand deep into his coat pocket and gripped an unseen object tightly.  A second man retrieved an item from his satchel and concealed it in his hand.  The team of provocateurs watched as the contingent of guardsmen followed several officers that were making their way towards them.
“Were you pigs no longer concerned with protecting and serving?  Are these thugs here to crush our throats with their jackboots?”
The crowd took their cue from William and began to chant to the officers:
Those on the fringes of the mob hurled harsher insults while some began to push and throw rocks.  The officers tightened their groups and began to rap their batons against their riot shields in response.
The group of provocateurs closed their ranks as the man with the gloved hand retrieved the pistol from his coat pocket.  He held it low so that it would not be noticed by the nearby officers.  He pointed the barrel at the ground at a sharp angle and slowly squeezed the trigger.
The loud report shocked the nearby police and protesters alike.  The group of approaching officers and guardsman momentarily stopped midstride, unsure if they should press forward or seek cover.  As the shot rang out, the second man, with the concealed item clenched in his fist, cried out as he sunk to his knees and clutched his chest.  His white shirt was now stained red as the blood continued to spread across his chest.  As the man collapsed onto the brick promenade, one of his comrades hovered tightly over him and cried out for help as he retrieved the now empty bag of stage blood.
Another agent in the group pointed at the nearby officers and cried, “Murderers!”
While the fallen man lay assumedly lifeless on the crimson-stained bricks, a half-dozen agent provocateurs suddenly burst forth from the group and clashed violently against the line of armored riot police.  The surprised line of officers faltered as the surprised men recoiled from the force of the attack.  All the while, dozens of cameras recorded the unfolding events and uploaded them to numerous social media outlets.  Within a matter of moments, the near-live feed of the officers apparently murdering an unarmed protester had spread virally across the nation.
Several of the provocateurs scooped up their fallen comrade and rushed him presumably to the nearest hospital.  One of the agents glanced up at the stage where William stood as he continued to work the crowd into a frenzy.  The giant projection screen that was behind William, as well as the half-dozen others that were strategically located throughout the park, displayed the heinous act in real-time for the entire crowd to see.
The frantic, distorted riffs boomed from the stage’s loudspeakers at near-deafening levels as the entire mob was transfixed on the events that were unfolding on the projection screens.  Suddenly, the screens flickered momentarily as the music climaxed; when the screens again settled on an image, it was the scene of the agents being beaten mercilessly by the line of riot police they had just attacked.  William thrust both arms forward and pointed in the direction of the melee as he roared, “Now!”
Several comrades within the mob lit their previously concealed Molotov cocktails and launched them at the officers.  The bottles crashed against the pavement and several riot shields, and flames immediately engulfed anything, or anyone, unfortunate enough to be near the impact.  Multitudes of figures arose from behind the parapet walls of nearby, flat-roofed buildings and assaulted the soldiers and police below with a barrage of bricks and flaming bottles.
Unable to contain the fury that William had festered within them, the protesters radiated outwards in all directions.  Their targets were anything that represented the evils that William had conjured up in his speech: the officers, the guardsmen, city hall across the street and any bystanders that were deemed enemies of the cause.
Drunk from the power of the chaos of his own creation, William unleashed a guttural, fiendish growl into the microphone before ripping it from his face and letting it fall to the floor.  He grabbed one of the fuel-filled bottles that had been hidden behind a nearby loudspeaker and lit the alcohol-soaked cloth that had been partially crammed into its opening.  He smiled devilishly as he held the cocktail high overhead before slamming it against the wooden stage.  The few in the crowd that were still watching the stage roared with approval at the anarchy.  Flames angrily leapt skyward as black smoke billowed high overhead.  William unsheathed his knife and retrieved the mask he had discarded earlier, before leaping from the stage and disappearing into the cacophony.

As Hayden approached the park, his feelings of dread were reinforced by the scene that was unfolding in front him.  The charismatic figure on the main stage was working the crowd to a boiling point and had begun to focus their collective anger towards the officers and guardsmen.  The crowd was teetering on a razor’s edge; pandemonium could erupt at any moment.  All that was needed was a flashpoint to ignite the powder keg of-
Hayden recoiled at the sound of the gunshot and the uncertainty of what might happen next.  He instinctively shouldered the rifle before remembering it was empty; he cursed under his breath at the orders they had been given.  He plunged his hand into the pouch to retrieve a loaded mag, but decided against it at the last moment.
The guardsmen fanned out and sought cover behind several nearby parked cars and oak trees as the officers rushed forward to support their brothers who were standing shoulder to shoulder several yards away.  A group of protesters suddenly burst forth from the nearby crowd and clashed violently with the line of riot police.  The line faltered momentarily from the force of the impact.  The officers reached their brothers seconds after the collision and managed to fight back the attackers.  Having successfully repelled the initial assault, the officers began to savagely beat the mob of agitators.
The scene was quickly spiraling out of control; the precious moments that remained where Hayden and the others might be able to restore order were slipping through their fingers.  Hayden scanned the crowd in front of him before glancing up at the projection screens in the park; he cursed aloud as he saw the chaos around him unfolding on them for the masses to see.  He quickly checked his periphery before depressing his carbine’s mag release button and watching the empty magazine free fall from the mag well and clatter on the pavement below him.  He retrieved a loaded mag from the pouch on his vest and slammed it into the rifle.
Adrenaline rushed through Hayden’s body as he watched the Molotov cocktails tumble end over end in a high arc, before mercilessly raining down on the line of riot police; it had begun.  Thick, liquid flames splattered across the pavement and rolled over the riot shields and into the faces of the officers with surprising strength and ferocity.  Shrieks of agony filled the air as figures engulfed with flames abandoned their posts and swatted in vain at the spreading blaze.
Hayden jerked his head around to determine the source of the series of loud crashes that were erupting behind him.  A group of protesters on adjacent rooftops were peppering the nearby police cruisers and Humvees with a hailstorm of bricks and flaming cocktails.  Within a matter of moments, their only means of escape had been decimated.
Suddenly, as if the fragile tethers that were holding the frenzied protesters at bay finally unraveled, the mob of protesters exploded outward in all directions.  The line of officers, less than fifty feet away, disappeared under a wave of feverish delirium.  The stampeding herd focused in on the remaining officers and guardsmen as they charged outwards.  Most were unarmed, but Hayden caught the occasional glimmer of cold steel.
Hayden calmly shouldered his carbine and aimed at the chest of the nearest advancing rioter.  The adrenaline that coursed through his veins caused his vision to tunnel until only the focus of his aggression was apparent to him.
“Fall back!”
Despite the tumultuous surge and rancorous clamor that had overwhelmed his surroundings, the sounds of anarchy and discord ceased to exist; it was as if a vast gulf separated Hayden from the world around him.
“Fall back!”
He exhaled deeply and began to squeeze the trigger in the gentle lull between his breaths.
A heavy hand gripped Hayden’s shoulder and snatched him back from his adrenal high.  He looked up to see a fellow guardsman shouting orders; slowly, the man’s words became audible once again.
“Hayden!  Fall back!  Let’s go!”
Hayden stumbled awkwardly for the first several yards as he sprung to his feet in an attempt to keep up with the other soldier.  He glanced behind him to see a frantic horde of protesters hurling insults and gaining quickly.  They cut northwest across the green space that surrounded the library; they hoped the narrow alley that lie just beyond the plaza would provide them the cover they needed to escape.  Hayden scanned his periphery in search of the remaining guardsmen, but they were nowhere to be found.
Just over Hayden’s right shoulder, the charred Humvees and cruisers billowed black smoke in the middle of the intersection, completely blocking traffic and only adding to the confusion.  Commuters fled their cars in a panic as several rioters diverged from the rabid mob and began to rock the gridlocked vehicles furiously in an attempt to roll them onto their sides.  The vehicles that could not be rolled had their windows smashed and their interiors set ablaze.
Firebombs and bricks rained down around the soldiers as the radicals on the surrounding rooftops directed those on the ground to the fleeing men.  Hayden dashed to his left just in time to avoid a massive explosion from a cocktail that landed directly in front of him.  He could feel the fireball’s hot breath on his face as it rapidly expanded outwards, fueled by the extremely deadly mixture of Styrofoam, gasoline and motor oil.
As the men crossed the library’s common area and dashed behind the Warwick Hotel, the chaos in the park to the south disappeared from view.  After several moments their pursuers rounded the corner of the hotel and continued their advance.  The guardsmen threw their carbines over the chain-link fence and onto a nearby pile of trash before colliding with the fence at full stride.  The men scaled the barrier and rolled over the top with relative ease, despite the weight of their gear. 
As they recovered their rifles, Hayden retrieved the second mag from his pouch and tossed it to his partner, “Here,” he shouted, “it’s loaded!”
Hayden spun and fired several rounds through the fence and down the narrow alley, connecting with one protester and sending the others diving for cover.  The pursuers countered with a volley of insults and threats, but they remained in hiding.  The injured man gripped his shoulder tightly and writhed in pain on the grimy floor of the alleyway.
Hayden shrugged, “Thought I might need it.”
“I’d say!”
The soldiers crept along the narrow, urban cavern that led from Gravier to South Liberty Street.  The overgrown palm trees along the west edge of the Warwick provided the men some meager concealment as they craned their necks beyond the alley and peered up and down the narrow, battered lane that was Liberty Street.  The chaotic sounds from the park drifted northerly, past the Warwick and up South Liberty Street to the men.
The guardsmen climbed the narrow gate at the end of the alley and crouched low as they scanned their surroundings once again, before proceeding.  The constricted avenue was plagued by dumpsters and vehicles parked haphazardly along the entire length.  Tall medical buildings towered over the men and cast dark shadows throughout.
A large group of protesters appeared to the soldier’s north, at the intersection of Liberty and Tulane Avenue.  Hayden and his companion ducked between a parked car and a dumpster as they weighed their options.
“There’s too many, we should turn back to the south.”
“The park is just behind us!  I’m surprised this place hasn’t been overrun yet.  We have to wait them out.”
The protesters paused at the mouth of the alley before slowly making their way south towards the soldiers.  Several in the group appeared to be armed.
“They’re looking for somebody;” Hayden countered, probably us!  We can’t stay here.”
Hayden cursed under his breath as the chain link fence clanked loudly and several voices called out to the distant protesters, “Over here!  Careful, they’re armed!”
As the mob rushed south towards the soldiers, Hayden dropped prone and fired several shots under the vehicle.  The mob responded furiously with a volley of lead that peppered the car and ricocheted off the street.  Hayden rolled onto his side and squeezed as much of his body behind the nearest tire as possible while bullets filled the air around him.  His fellow guardsman hugged the car tightly and took slow, deliberate shots to keep the mob in the dark alley behind them pinned down.
“How many rounds?”
“I had two mags!”
The soldier cursed aloud and replied, “That’s not enough!”
The group to the north continued to edge closer to the soldiers while laying down increasingly heavy firepower.  Those aren’t pistols, Hayden reasoned to himself.  He leaned out from behind the tire to fire under the vehicle again, but it was pointless, the mob had fanned out to avoid the narrow line of sight he was afforded.  To return fire would mean he would have to expose himself to multiple shooters.
The dumpster behind the men suddenly lurched forward unexpectedly from an unknown impact, before the sound of a car horn filled the air for what seemed like an eternity.  The entire alley grew silent as the rioters paused momentarily to listen curiously to the events that were unfolding beyond their field of vision.
“Come on, damn it!”
“Us?” Hayden called out reluctantly.
“Yes, you idiot!  Come on!”
Gunfire erupted from the north even more fiercely than before as the rioters saw their window of opportunity narrow sharply.  The guardsmen crouched low and rushed from the ventilated car, past the dumpster and to the side of the battered Volvo that waited impatiently for them.  The driver slammed the Volvo into reverse just as the men dove headfirst over the top of each other and into the back seat.  The dumpster wobbled back into place as the car sped backwards down the alley.  The open, back door scraped loudly against the brick wall as the men fled the onslaught.  Finally, the vehicle inched too close to the wall; suddenly, with a great metallic yawn, the back door slammed forward and was pinned flat against the car.
Hayden tried to raise his head, but a heavy hand pushed him back down as a voice shouted, “Stay down!”
The driver slumped low in his seat and cursed as bullets riddled the windshield and shattered the side view windows.
The driver roared, “We’re flying blind now!” 
Instead of slowing down, the mangled Volvo accelerated all the more furiously until they were careening wildly down the alleyway towards the park.  As the car hurtled out from the alley and past the Warwick Hotel, the driver cut the wheel with as much force as he could muster while jerking the parking break up.  The smell of burning rubber and the sound of screeching tires filled the air as the car swung in a wide arc across the pavement. 
The sudden force of the maneuver flung Hayden helplessly in the direction of the permanently-open passenger door.  He fumbled vainly for something to stop him from tumbling headlong out of the vehicle and back into the park where he had started.  As his head crossed the threshold of the opening and his body began to lift out of the car, the other guardsman grasped the back of his vest and heaved him back to safety.
As Hayden landed once again on the back seat, the rear of the Volvo bounced savagely off the pavement and into the air, sending all three men’s heads crashing violently against the roof.
“What was that?”
The driver ignored Hayden and remained completely focused on the task at hand – survival.
The driver released the parking brake and slammed the car into first gear, but the rear wheels merely spun freely in the air.  The driver slammed his fist into the steering wheel, causing the horn to bark loudly before shouting, “Get out!”
“Get out and bounce the rear end, or prepare to get mauled by this mob!”
Hayden peered out the window at the shocked crowd that, only moments ago, had stumbled backwards to give the crazed driver a wide berth; apparently, not everyone had been quick enough.  In mere moments, the rioters’ still-befuddled minds would process the events that had just unfolded in front of them, and they would swarm the Volvo – and its occupants.
“Get out now!”
Hayden and the second soldier lunged from the opening in the side of the car and began to bounce furiously on the back bumper of the ragged vehicle.  With every motion, the rear tires loomed closer to the pavement, while the sickening crunches of the bodies pinned beneath the axle grew louder.  With one final crunch, the spinning tires connected with the asphalt, and the car lurched forward in motion once again. 
The men were flung from the bumper and landed flat on their backs as the car lunged forward.  A shockwave of pain coursed through Hayden’s body as the back of his head collided with the pavement.  As he staggered to his feet and stared about in momentary confusion, he could see the blurry figures of the crowd beginning to encircle them.
“Get in!  Get in!”
The squealing tires and the forceful shove from his companion wrested Hayden from his daze.  The two men chased frantically after the car as it accelerated.  His legs ached and his head throbbed as he slowly gained ground on the fleeing car.  As they were preparing to dive into the back seat for a second time, Hayden watched as the driver leaned out his window, spun back in their direction and leveled his pistol at them.  For the first time, he realized that the man’s face was concealed by a ski mask.  Hayden cringed at the loud report of the pistol and prepared for the sharp pain that would undoubtedly soon follow, but it never came.  As he opened his eyes, he glanced back to see a stunned, pale-white rioter clutching his throat and struggling to breathe.
The driver tapped the brakes momentarily as he shouted his orders once again.  The exhausted men leapt into the car and the driver punched the accelerator, causing the vehicle to jump forward like a wild beast.  The hesitant rioters in front of the hood parted, as if on command.  The engine screamed angrily at the mob as the driver pushed the car to its limits and escaped west along Gravier Street.
The soldiers sat in a silent stupor in the back seat as the stranger navigated the city.  A dozen questions ran through Hayden’s mind, but he was too overwhelmed to articulate them.
Who is this man? 
Can we trust him?
Why is he helping us?
Why is he wearing a mask?
Hayden retrieved his service pistol from its holster and gripped it firmly. 
After several blocks, the driver pulled into a narrow alley behind a tiny bistro and turned off the engine of the ragged car.  The man removed the mask, turned around to face the two men and said with calm authority, “I just saved your lives; do me a favor and put the gun away.”
The man’s eyes were a deep, blazing blue of the likes that Hayden had never seen before.  Though they conveyed a fierce and commanding presence, they also seemed to put him at ease; Hayden complied immediately.
“Who are you?”
“Who I am doesn’t really matter.  Do either of you have family here?”
The two men turned to each and paused for a moment before nodding.
“Good; you need to get to your families and then get out of this city.  Get out tonight if at all possible.”
“But,” the second guardsman retorted, “we can’t do that.  We’ve got to get back to the barracks.”
“There might not be a barracks by the time you get back there.  Listen to me, get out now, before they burn this city down.”
Hayden looked to his partner and said, “I think we should listen to him.”
“This is as far as I can take you; I have to get back there before I’m missed.  I’d advise you get out of those uniforms as soon as possible and ditch the rifles.  You really don’t want to be standing out in a crowd right now.”
“You can’t go back to the park, they’ll kill you!”
“Well obviously I’m not going to just drive back up and honk the horn; I’ll have to sneak back in.  In the meantime, this is the end of the line for us; get out.”
As the two men climbed out of the mangled car, Hayden turned and asked again, “You saved our lives; I’d really like to know your name.”
The man with the blue eyes simply smiled and said, “Just some beatnik commie.”
“I doubt that.”
The man with the blue eyes flashed Hayden a smiled as he backed the battered Volvo out of the alley and drove back to the park.


  1. Whoa!! This is a most excellent chapter!

    I'm really looking forward to the rest of the book.


  2. Thanks IB. Where TWF glossed over the initial impacts, we'll get to explore more of that here.

  3. WOW again. What a chapter. Now you got my attention for sure.
    I've got all of your books and this is starting to be one of the best.
    Keep it going, thanks.
    Papa Mike

  4. Thanks for the support Pop. I'm glad your enjoying it.

    The story should stay pretty fast paced from here on out.

  5. Would like a paper copy, its the only one missing in paper. How and where can I get it

    1. It's on Amazon: