The emergency alarm whirs, then cuts out as all the doors and windows are locked and bolted on their automatic switches. It’s midnight, and every nook and cranny, every aisle and shelf, every inch of S-Mart is, for the moment, undisturbed by neither sound nor movement.
On the main floor, anyway. Past the storeroom, down the stairs, through the long enclosed hallway, and behind a door made of reinforced steel, this night is just beginning.
The room feels circular and is full of shadows. Around the perimeter are rows of large solid backed steel shelves filled with sundry weapons and cannisters containing acerbic-smelling liquids. These storage/barricade units fan out from a main aisle that leads from the door to the center of the room where there sits a wooden rectangular table. Past the table is another steel door. There are also doors to the left and right. In the back left corner is a makeshift med station with an examining table, monitors and tall lamps with moveable necks.
Yellowed light beats down onto the squat table from the hanging lamps above, illuminating the items strewn about–everything from books to Bowie knives–and casting stark shadows on everything else. Just outside the radius of the light, on the side of the table away from the entrance, paces the tall sturdy figure of a man, straight-backed, proud, even cocky, with his hands clasped behind his back. He walks from one end of the table to the other, dark eyes taking stock of the six men and women on the other side of the table facing him. His lips betray just a hint of a smile. This is his favorite part of the night. The part where he is in charge, where he is the one who undeniably gets to make the rules, where he is totally awesome. The part right before they all remember that he has no idea what he’s talking about.
“Drexell?!” Ash barks, assuming the intonation he has heard from every drill sergeant in every army movie he has ever seen.
From end of the lineup, the awkward figure of Nathan Drexell stands up a little straighter.
“Yes, sir, here!”
Lori turns to the gentleman on her right as he responds, “Present.” Up until two weeks ago, she had only seen him as the front of store greeter. Now, he is better known to her as Doctor Don, a former VA physician that, a few years ago, had come out of retirement quite suddenly and much to his surprise.
Lori leans over to the see past the Doctor to catch a glimpse of the person on the other side. What she sees is a man, very tall and thin with horn-rimmed glasses and wispy blonde hair. His hands are shoved in the pockets of his jeans and his shoulders are humped slightly, as if he is trying to conceal his tall frame, maybe conceal his presence entirely. He jumps at every name called, and his response to his own is a very shaky “H-h-here.” Lori racks her brain, but she can’t recall ever seeing him before.
“Aye, sir!” Cooper bellows from the other end of the line. Seeing Lori looking in his direction, he gives her a smile and a wink. Lori smiles back. It is a relief to have at least one normal-seeming person in on this…whatever it is.
Ash nods and pauses his pacing in the center of table. His eyes are narrows as he looks up and down the line.
“Good. Everyone’s here. Now, you all know who I am. But for the next six hours, I’m not your friend. I’m not even your boss. I am your leader, your commander…your General Manager. And you will address me as such.”
Lori looks to Grace, who rolls her eyes and nods. He is, in fact, completely serious about that.
“Now, this might be the first shift for some of you, but you all know why we’re here.” He leans forward on the table, his face cast in dark relief from the light about. “Those evil shitheads want into this world. And we keep ‘em out.”
He leans back and returns to pacing.
“This evening’s entertainment will be divided into two acts. Drexell, O’Bannon, you’re on first patrol. Specs—“ he points the nervous man next to the Doctor, who once again jumps at the sound of his moniker “—you’re pulling solo survelliance tonight. Doc, Henry and LaCrue are on defense and support. At 300 we’ll flip and switch for Act Two. Any questions?”
Lori raises a timid finger.
“Any questions? Any at all?”
Lori sighs. “Um…General Manager?”
Ash turns in her direction. “Yes, Ms. LaCrue?”
“Well, um, I was just wondering… what are you gonna be doing?”
Next to her, Grace inhales sharply and clears her throat. Lori feels heat in her cheeks and a sinking feeling that she had stepped out of line.
Ash arches an eyebrow, then cracks a smile. “R and C, honey. That’s my one and only task, 24/7/365.”
“If there are no other questions, get your stuff and get moving. We’ll see you back here in 3 hours.” Ash pounds his iron fist on the table. “Be Smart!”
“WE’RE S-MART!” The senior members of the team respond to Ash’s rallying cry. Lori and Nathan exchange a laughing look at each other.
The six members of the night shift turn to take their positions. Doctor Don starts powering up his medical equipment, the nervous man (Specs, apparently), retreats through the door on the left side of the room that contains the blue-grey glow of a bank of security monitors, and Cooper leads Nathan towards the entrance.
Just as Lori is about ask Grace what she should be doing, Ash utters in a low voice, “Henry…a word?”
Grace sighs. “Wait here,” she says to Lori. Lori nods, her heart pounding in her ears. The last thing she wants is for Grace to have another reason to hate her. The second to last thing she wants is for Ash to hate her too.
Grace walks to the other side of the table where Ash has taken a seat on a low stool. As she reaches his side, she hears the muffled metallic snap of a bottle cap being peeled off of a glass mouth.
“Something I can do for you, General?” The word “general” is full of vinegar as always.
“Your girl is a nosey Nancy.” Ash lifts the bottle to his mouth.
“I told you not to get her involved in this. You’re the one who insisted on bringing her into the fold.”
“I did?” Ash wrinkles his brow and gives his head a firm shake, trying to loosen the fuzzy memories and bring them into focus. “Uh, well…I didn’t say nosey was a bad thing. It means she’s…thorough. Suspicious. Sleuthy. Good to have when you’re dealing with sneaky little gremlins like we do.”
“Yeah, and just wait until her sleuthiness reveals that ‘R and C’ is code for getting buzzed and reading that book of yours for the eight millionth time. You’re gonna be so proud.”
A trickle of beer runs down Ash’s chin as he yanks the bottle away from his lips. He wipes it away with his sleeve.
“Hey, keep it down will ya? And anyway I don’t see you begging to be in the Research and Command position.”
“If I wanted to be drunk and bored I would have gone to college. Did you call me up here for a reason?”
“Uh…yes. Your girl—“
“That girl…she is useless.”
Grace stares at Ash for what seems like a long time.
“Great. Anything else?”
“Look I know she’s smart, I know you’re…simpatico, or whatever, but the fact is she’s a football out there. Assisting with munitions is fine for now but eventually she’s gonna be in a situation where she won’t have you, or anyone else to come to her rescue. She’s gotta learn how to put ‘em down on her own.”
Grace drops her eyes to the table. “Ash…she’s sixteen.”
“General. And sixteen or no, she’s one of us now.” Ash stands, stumbling a little as he pulls his tall frame up from the short stool. From the chest pocket of his blue work shirt, he pulls out a key ring with just three keys. “Help her decide.”
Grace’s shoulders raise and drop in a heavy sigh. She opens her hand. Ash smiles, and drops the keys into her palm. Clapping Grace on the shoulder, he turns and walks toward the steel door behind them.
“You just always have to be right don’t you?” Grace calls after him.
Ash pauses with his right hand on the door hand and turns back toward Grace. With a shrug of his shoulders and a wry smile, he raises the nearly empty beer in her direction.
“Don’t gotta be right, baby doll. Just gotta be the one who signs the checks.” With that, Ash sucks down the rest of his beer as he hefts open the door and disappears into the room beyond, the room no one else has ever seen.
“What was that about?” Lori converges on Grace as soon as Ash is out of sight.
“Just getting our assignment from the General.” Full of vinegar once again.
Lori wrinkles her nose. “So he’s really serious about that whole General Manager thing?”
“Just call him Sir, it makes the whole thing way less ridiculous.” Grace heads to the right side of the room, toward the third steel door.
“What are we doing?” Lori asks.
Grace jingles the keys on their ring. “Going on your first visit to The Armory.”