Chapter 9: The Castle

The houseboat is approaching a broken concrete dam, shattered by the earthquakes. The floodwaters have raised the water level to the top of the former dam, but there is not enough clearance to go over without scraping the bottom of the houseboat, potentially getting caught and stranded.

There are flooded trees but mostly the banks are clear and steep. Finegan selects a sturdy tree as his anchor and ties up. The canoe is tied firmly to the side of the houseboat, the paddles laid in the bottom. Not a soul is in sight.

Finegan is pulling a tub out from the clutter, and sorting laundry, preparing to finally have laundry day. Joey emerges from the house holding an old Tide box.

This?

Finegan glances up.

No, that's salt. It's a brown box. Slivered bar soap.

The camping grill is at the side, heating a pot of water, which can be seen steaming. Finegan takes a couple pails of river water, pouring it into the tub. He examines the box Joey brought from the house and shakes some of this into the tub, then immediately pours boiling water on top of the flakes. He then grabs a washing board nearby and starts scrubbing shirts, wringing them out, and throwing them to the side to be rinsed later.

Finegan stands straight, sweating a bit, to catch his breath. Looking to the side, up along the shore, he sees a fisherman.

Company . .

The fisherman is quiet and dressed in earth tones, had been there all along, not noticed. He nods in Finegan's direction and recasts his bamboo pole and line into the river. He does not have expensive fishing gear, but rather a pole with a line tied to the end, primitive.

Finegan returns to scrubbing his laundry, seeing that his activity is downriver from the fisherman's spot, and that they are not interfering with each other. Joey is picking up the washed items and rinsing them in the river.

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The houseboat is now covered with drying laundry. All lines from the corner posts are full, the laundry attached to the lines by anything but laundry pins. Some shirts are attached by the arms of the shirt knotted loosely around the line, as though the shirt itself were holding onto the line. Heavy pants such as jeans are attached with tools - clamps or pliers. The roof of the house is covered with small items such as underwear and t-shirts.

The Fisherman is making his way down along the steep bank toward where the houseboat is moored, a string of fish in one hand, his pole in the other. He raises the hand that holds the string of fish.

Howdy. Be happy to share the fish and some news.

Finegan has been sipping a mug of coffee, the pot still on the grill, staying warm. He puts his mug down and rises to move toward the canoe, tied to the side of the houseboat.

Let me bring you over . .

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The houseboat crew and their guest are seated on the clutter at the front of the houseboat, framed by flapping laundry hung on the corner-post lines. The laundry tub has been emptied into the river and is turned upside down. Finegan is seated on this as a chair. They are all finishing fried fish and potatoes, putting their plates aside and sipping coffee. Time now to finish catching up on whatever news they have to share. The fisherman says, with a deep sigh,

So the fire took it all . . gutted the place . . people keep showing up, looking for the stash, so we let the char heap say it all. . . No need to explain.

Finegan asks,

Those armed guards, they gone too?

And the fisherman responds,

Them that didn't kill each other off during the shootout, yeah. They took their guns and went off to Atlanta.

Finegan asks,

Just you and your family here?

And the fisherman relays,

Those that come looking to loot, they don't stay. They move on. . . We try to stay out of sight.

Finegan sets his mug down and rises to pick up a pumpkin and holds it high.

For the fish. Would you mind taking me back to the castle? What looters want is not always what's valuable. I'd like to sort through.

Joey is watching Finegan's face but they both are arriving at the same conclusion, having learned to almost read each other's minds. Joey will bring the canoe back and stay with the boat, in case looters arrive.

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Finegan and the Fisherman are walking up a barren hill, no trees or shrubbery on the hill. Near the top of the hill, not at the crest but to the side of the crest nestled against a rock outcropping, is the charred remains of a large house. The spiked metal fence that surrounded the house is still intact, though the gates are hanging open. Some sheep are seen on the hillside in the distance, grazing. The two are seen walking through the gate. The fisherman is pointing toward a corner pinnacle.

There they had the lookout. Had one atop the hill too in a concrete bunker. Then the goods they had in a basement bunker, huge. The guards blasted that open to get at 'em. Heard the blast from miles away. This was after they kilt Mr. Anderson. He'd hid the key and was holding out, ya'know. He was real tight fisted . . always was. Acted like he owned everybody. Got him kilt, I recon. We ain't seed him since.

The twosome continue walking toward what was the front door of the enclave. The monstrous double front doors are hanging open, still standing though one is hanging a bit off its hinges. The doors are charred but still entact, as they were solid wood on top of metal centers, designed to be impermeable. The twosome slide between the open doors, stepping gingerly through the trash. The main room of the house has been burned to the extent that there is no roof and the floorboards have been consumed. Only an occasional floor beam is in place. Finegan points to the side, where the fire was less intense in the wings of the house.

Lets try that route.

Finegan and the fisherman punch out the remains of a window glass, and climb through the open window frams. The room they are entering has a solid floor, though the drapes and furniture have been consumed by the fire. The fire raged upward in the drafts, not downward. There is a bar on the far end of the room, farthest from the main room inferno. Finegan heads over there, poking around behind the bar, but nothing seems to have been left by the looters. He pulls at some plumbing used to pipe carbonated water, and detaches a carbonating device under the counter to take along. He is still looking around, determined to find some booze. He is pulling out half melted soda bottles, littering the floor with them. Toward the back of this stash he finds what he is looking for, a half-filled soda bottle that has a tape tag on it. The soda bottles toward the back had not melted as much as those exposed to the air of the room, and this bottle is intact.

Aha!

Finegan opens the cap and sniffs with satisfaction, taking a swing.

As tight as he was, the help had to hide any booze they were stealing. . . Probably measured the bottles daily.

Finegan holds the bottle high, sloshing it, smiling.

This is how they got around him. The whole bottle went missing.

Suddenly he realizes there may be more, and drops down to dig around in the soda bottle cabinet.

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Finegan and the fisherman are going down some concrete stairs into the basement of the castle hulk - an external entry to the basement. The door to the basement has been blown open, the doors in fragments pointing inward. There is some standing water on one side of the basement floor, from rain and damaged drains and the fact that the cataclysms tilted the house on its foundation. The walls are severely cracked.

To one side of the basement, in one wall, is the entry to the food stash, the entry now one big hole due to the explosion that set the house afire. Various pieces of cardboard are littered here and there, some floating in the flooded basement corner, as the supply depot has been sifted through repeatedly by looters. Finegan is going to have a look, and starts walking toward the blast hole.

Maybe they left some soap.

The shelves in the center of the bunker are knocked over and somewhat charred. All the shelves of the bunker appear to be empty, though some items have been thrown to the floor, discarded. As Finegan suspected, these include boxes of soap powder and packages of bar soap. He goes over to start stacking them in a pile. A voice growls out of the corner.

That's mine.

Finegan jerks his head up to look in one corner of the bunker, and sees a shell of an old man, huddled behind some broken and empty cardboard boxes. His clothing is matted with dirt, his hair long and stringy and also matted, his beard thin and long, and his face wrinkly and with a perpetual sneer plastered across his face. It is clear he has been using a spot nearby for a toilet, as a pile of dung and yellow pool of water attests. Finegan says,

Make you a trade! How about some roasted pumpkin and pecans, eh? Something to eat.

The owner was not expecting to be fed or treated fairly, and looks puzzled, unable to answer. Finegan takes the initiative. He pats the pile of powdered soapboxes and bar soap packages.

I'll leave these here, and be back in an hour or so.

Finegan steps toward the exit, holding his soda bottle half full of booze to his far side so the owner cannot see this. He moves lively, before the owner can speak, the astonished fisherman at his heels. When they are clear of the room and on their way up the concrete steps, the fisherman says in a loud whisper.

I thought he was dead! . . Huh . . Maybe he had a bunker within the bunker. . . What's he been eating?

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Finegan and the curious fisherman are returning down the concrete steps, holding a couple plastic buckets. One is filled with roasted pumpkin pieces, skin still on and browned at the edges, and the other is partially filed with shelled pecans. They make their way into the bunker and look expectantly into the corner of the bunker where the snarling owner was last seen. There is no one there. Then they see the owner seated on the pile of powerdered soapboxes and bar soap packages, glowering and sneering.

It's mine!

Finegan calls the owner's bluff, knowing he is not interested in soap and has probably run through any secret food cache he had hidden in a bunker within the bunker. Finegan turns to leave.

Suit yourself.

The owner snarls,

Wait!

Looking like a trapped, mean spirited animal, eyes shifting in every direction and the sneer ever returning to his, the owner motions to his side.

Bring that stuff over here and set it down.

Finegan sets his plastic buckets to the side of the soap pile, but far enough way that the owner must actually rise from the pile to reach the food. Finegan steps back. The owner lunges for the food, shuffling to his corner of the bunker with it, hugging the buckets to his chest. He starts stuffing the roasted pumpkin into his mouth like a famished animal. Finegan picks up his soap pile and backs away toward the bunker entry.