It was to be the Guidestones after all where the game would play itself out. The presence of security cameras made it far from ideal, but while it did draw the occasional visitor, the location (an isolated plot between forest and field) meant innocent bystanders were unlikely. They would first meet in the small town of Elberton, just nine miles away. There, Cedric and Imogene would be reunited. There, they would make their final plans for the destruction of the Commander.
It seemed unlikely that the Commander would be waiting for them in the town. While it was the largest municipality in Elbert County, and its county seat, its population was still only about five thousand. A large group arriving together might draw attention, but there had been plenty of time for the Commander’s most loyal men to drift in a few at a time. Unless he had let his ego override his good sense, they would certainly be outnumbered by his minions.
After ending her telephone conversation with the Tourist, Grace breathed a sigh of relief. She was cautiously optimistic that they would be successful, despite knowing that the odds would be against them. She was acquainted with the skill sets of both the Tourist and the Commander, and while they seemed to off-set one another well, the differences were important. The Commander’s experience in recent years had been primarily in shooting range practice. Even with the field tests designed to measure and hone judgement skills (pop-up targets, etc.) it’s still a one man shoot-out; targets don’t shoot back. The Tourist’s experience, on the other hand, had included several examples of real world conflict, and while he was now retired, he was not one to let his technical skills go lacking.
Imogene had not immediately insisted that the phone be put on speaker, a fact that was not missed by the Tourist. “Are you really okay?” he had asked Grace. With a chuckle, she responded, “Not bad for someone with a bullet hole in her arm. Don’t worry, it’s not my shooting hand, and Imogene took good care of me.” There was a hesitation before he responded, “I’ll be sure to thank her when we get there.”
Upon hearing her name, Imogene’s attention was immediately drawn to the conversation. “What is he saying?” she asked. “Put it on speaker.” The remainder of what was said strictly involved the upcoming rendezvous, as well as the anticipated conflict. The Tourist was very guarded in his speech, which lead Grace to follow suit. Imogene had surprisingly little to add, and Cedric didn’t speak at all. The conversation lasted only moments, with Imogene cutting it short. “I don’t want them to be able to trace us,” she said, but without defining who “they” were.
Grace was not particularly familiar with the area through which they were travelling, but her skills in orientation let her know that they were not heading in the right direction. They were, she realized upon consideration, still headed for Atlanta. Choosing not to tip her hand, she waited to find out if Imogene might reveal her own plans.
Later in the day, Grace mentioned that they might want to stop for food and fuel, naming a location which should have been on their route. It was then that Imogene said, “It’s just a few minutes to our next stop,” revealing that they would be meeting her contact in the alpine village of Helen. “He will be travelling with us from there,” she said, “We have some unfinished business to attend to,” but she refused to discuss what that business might be. “Don’t you worry,” she said, “It won’t interfere with the mission.”
An hour later, they pulled into the Bavarian style village of Helen, GA. Fully decked out for Christmas, it was filled with a surprisingly large number of travelers enjoying the holiday there. The half-timbered buildings looked much as Grace imagined they might in Germany. They parked the SUV and began to stroll through the town, gazing at the extravagant decorations. No one viewing them would have imagined the gun in Imogene’s pocket as they walked arm-in-arm, European style. The cold, as well as the constant pressure of Imogene’s grip, made her arm ache, but at least it kept her alert.
They had been in town about thirty minutes, and were standing near a large decorated tree, when a man dressed in lederhosen, knee stockings, and a Tyrolean hat appeared. Tipping his hat, he spoke to Imogene in German. She responded in kind, and even though Grace only understood a few phrases of what they said, it was obvious that they knew each other well. This, then, was her contact. He was introduced to her as Hans, but she doubted it was his real name. After a few more moments of conversation, still in German, he tipped his hat again and walked away.
They enjoyed a hot meal before returning to their vehicle. Grace insisted that it be searched before getting on their way. On the security system, there was a message from Hans, instructing them on where to go next, in German, of course; it made Imogene smile. Grace didn’t ask, but it worried her to see Imogene so happy. “I thought you said he was coming with us,” she said, but Imogene remained silent, climbing behind the wheel. Grace hurried to the other side . Later, she would wonder what made her stay. Back on the road, they were once again pointed in the right direction. Grace wanted to stay one more night on the road, preferring to arrive in Elberton during daylight hours; Imogene wanted to get there as soon as possible, and she was in the driver’s seat.
After a while, Grace began to unwrap the bandage from her arm, telling Imogene that the wound needed cleaned and re-bandaged. “We don’t want the packing to get stuck,” she said. Imogene insisted that it would wait, but when Grace persisted in her actions, she pulled to the side of the road. “Let me take care of it,” she said, “You’ll hurt yourself.” Grace sat back with a sigh, remembering how many times she had tended to her own wounds. With them stopped, Imogene could think of no logical reason to continue their journey before morning. The moment the sun had crested, however, she was ready to go. Grace made quick use of some nearby bushes, then cleaned herself using some baby wipes she had bought for that purpose. Back in the SUV, they shared breakfast pastries and lukewarm instant tea. It was all Grace could do to swallow any of it.
There was little traffic on the road that early in the morning. Imogene kept her eyes on the road and her thoughts to herself; Grace barely noticed. She was occupied mentally preparing herself for the day to come. It had been several years since she had seen the Tourist; in fact, she had still been a civilian the last time they met. She sincerely hoped this would not be their final meeting. Despite her best efforts, he had been drawn into her troubles. She reminded herself again that his skills were equal to the situation; she wished that she could be as sure of her own. As she wondered how this day would end, she absentmindedly rubbed the bandage on her wounded arm. “Don’t do that!” Imogene scolded, “It will never heal if you don’t leave it alone.” If things go wrong, Grace thought, it won’t get a chance to heal.
At the first sign for Elberton, her stomach began to churn. Was the Commander already there? Would the Tourist be waiting for her? They had agreed to meet in the north end of town; from there they would travel to the Guidestones together. If the Commander was in town, as she expected, he would receive notice of their arrival from his agents watching the security monitors. Of course, there was the possibility that he would already be waiting for them there.
Imogene’s rate of travel slowed as they approached the town. “Are you okay?” Grace asked when she noticed. Imogene answered, “I’m fine,” but her speed didn’t increase. When Imogene’s phone rang, it caused them both to jump. She answered it quickly, “Yes?” and “Soon”, hanging up before Grace could see the number. “It was Hans,” she said in anticipation of the question. The worried look on her face caused Grace to ask, “Is something bothering you?” Again, Imogene denied that anything was wrong.
It occurred to Grace that neither of them knew what vehicle the Tourist would be driving. She tried to calm herself by reasoning that Cedric probably knew her SUV by sight, but it wasn’t much comfort. If she couldn’t trust Imogene (and she couldn’t), how could she put her faith in Cedric. “It will work itself out,” she told herself, but the how still bothered her. God and the Devil are both in the details (assuming you believe in either), and being able to identify and locate both friend and foe were vital details.
Imogene had pulled into a parking spot in front of the local drug store. Grace felt vulnerable there, waiting for someone to find them. She had hoped that the Tourist might be there before her, but the parking lot was empty. Imogene suggested he might have gone to the Guidestones ahead of them, but his instructions had been very specific, and she doubted that he would waver from them… not without an excellent reason.
Her worry was that the Commander would find them first. He had expected them at the Guidestones days earlier, she reasoned, and might have lost patience and come looking for them. Cars came and went as shops opened for business. Imogene was visibly nervous, but refused to allow Grace her weapon. “That’s foolish,” Grace argued, “What if we’re attacked?” Imogene finally passed her weapon to her, but with the clip removed. “You can load it when the shooting starts,” she said. It was clear that the mistrust had become mutual.
After only a few minutes, what had once been a very nice car entered the parking lot; its perfection flawed by a broken tail light and a long, deep scratch on the rear quarter panel on the driver’s side. Grace could barely see through the tinted side windows, but she would have known the Tourist anywhere. The car circled the lot, then pulled out again. Not long after, Imogene also pulled back into the road. She seemed preoccupied, but Grace put it off to the worry about the confrontation to come. For her own part, Grace wondered how she could be sure the Commander would be waiting for them there. Which of her “friends” had sent him the message to come.
It could only have been Imogene, of course; the Tourist would never have left Cedric alone with his phone. If Grace had realized from the beginning… but she hadn’t, and the only thing left to do was live with her mistakes, “or die from them,” she thought. While dreading the potential outcome of the battle, a part of her almost looked forward to it. However it ended, the chase would be over.
The road leading from Elberton to the Guidestones was narrow, sweeping, and lined with dense woods. As they grew more near, the tops of the granite monument could be seen intermittently through the trees. Carved into it, Grace knew, were rules for an “age of reason”, a post-apocalyptic world in which they seemed now to be living. She could see no reason to the world of this past four years, and even less to efforts that had been and were being made to assure a continuation of that madness.
Grace kept her eyes open for the Tourist’s vehicle. To confront the Commander without some sort of strategy seemed foolish, even as she reminded herself that she might even now be riding with the enemy. She had not yet seen him when she first glimpsed the narrow road which lead a short distance to the Guidestones’ parking lot. Without being coaxed, Imogene pulled to the side of the road. “What now?” she asked; Grace didn’t know. Instead, she asked, “What did you tell him about our plans?”
Imogene took a deep breath, then sighed. “I told him that Cedric and I were to be reunited here, and that we would be re-joining his forces. When he said he would be meeting us here to “take care of some pressing business”, I didn’t know what to say.”
“Bullshit!” Grace exclaimed. “You could have stopped this. One word and we might have changed the rendezvous location. Without your tracking devices, they might never have found us. Without Cedric sending me to your rescue, we wouldn’t be in this position at all. Tell me again why I shouldn’t kill you myself?” It was exhaustion speaking, but at that moment Grace meant every word.
The windows of the SUV were rolled up, and she had been speaking in subdued tones to minimize the spread of sound, so she was startled when a small stone bounced off her windshield. Grace had been playing with her gun, and quickly drove the clip home at the sound.
“You sound like a herd of buffalo.” Grace recognized the voice of the Tourist even before he stepped into view. She quickly glanced at Imogene, who had drawn her weapon. “I wouldn’t,” Grace said, “You can’t kill both of us, and the one who lives longest will kill you.” Imogene lowered her gun, but didn’t release it. The Tourist, who stood poised to fire, never changed his stance. “Roll down your window,” he said to Grace, “I’ve brought you a gift.” From behind his back, he pulled a weapon. It was a Smith & Wesson Governor; a hand gun fitted to fire .410 shotgun shells. “For short range use,” he said, “We wouldn’t want to damage the monument. It handles a lot like an agency issue weapon.”
Until this point, Imogene had been silent. “Where’s Cedric?” she suddenly interrupted, her voice angry and accusing. The Tourist looked at her as if noticing her for the first time. “Don’t worry about Cedric,” he said, “You’ll be joining him soon.” There was something about his chosen words which sent a chill down Grace’s spine. He turned his attention back to her and continued, “There’s only one car in the Guidestones’ parking lot. Since it’s the one which tried to drive me off the road yesterday, I’m going to assume the driver is no innocent bystander; a messenger, perhaps?” He turned his gaze toward Imogene, who averted her eyes.
Turning back to Grace, he said, “Come with me; bring all your firepower.” to Imogene he said, “You come, too. I’ll need you to draw the Commander out. On second thought, you will be driving us to the parking lot.”
“Us?” Imogene queried. The Tourist answered flatly, “Us, you and I. Grace, you will be approaching through the trees. Avoid his men if you can, end those you can’t; silently, if possible.” He held his weapon on Imogene as Grace got out of the vehicle and he took her place. “Drive,” he commanded as they watched Grace slip away into the woods.
Imogene drove silently, glancing over at the Tourist, who was still pointing his gun at her. Short minutes later, they were pulling down the narrow road which ended at the Guidestones’ small parking lot. “Not a sound,” he warned as they approached their position. He pulled out a set of binoculars and scanned the area. There were a couple of men casually wandering the monument, and another one reading the plaque a few feet away. The Commander was no where in sight. The Tourist did a slow sweep of the area, finally spotting him just inside the tree line. As he watched, the Commander gave a hand signal to his hidden troops. “Dammit!” he shouted, “They’ve spotted Grace.”
He ordered Imogene out of the vehicle, allowing her to take her gun. “Fight or die,” he said as he moved forward. The troops which had been moving so lazily just moments before were speeding toward the woods.
When he had reached the monument, he was surprised to see a large man step from behind one of the granite slabs, his gun raised and ready to fire. In that moment, they were both startled to hear Imogene call out, “Hans, watch out!” He turned toward the sound; she had begun running toward him. She stopped when she saw what was happening, but it was too late. The Tourist had taken advantage of the momentary distraction to fire his weapon. The shotgun pellets peppered his chest, causing him to stumble back, his gun firing into the air. Imogene ran to his side as the Tourist continued toward the wooded area. Her actions said it all. He turned back one last time to see Imogene pointing her gun in his direction; without hesitation, he fired again.
The sounds of shouting and gunfire erupted from just out of sight beyond the tree line. Both were sporadic, leading the Tourist to believe it was still a game of “cat and mouse”. Holding out hope that Grace remained alive, he continued toward the battle. Quite suddenly he heard, “I’ve got her.” The gunfire ceased, the silence marred by a thrashing sound from inside the trees. Having no place to hide, the Tourist moved away from what he judged by the sounds to be the direct line of sight of those exiting the woods. Almost immediately, he spotted the Commander, pistol in one hand, and his other arm across Grace’s throat. She was doing her best to impede his forward motion, but while there were two other soldiers with him, he refused to release her. Choosing instead to use her as a human shield, he kept her in front of his body. The Commander was searching the area ahead of him. He could see the bodies on the floor of the monument, and soon his gaze would fall upon the Tourist.
Grace saw him first.
She could tell that the Tourist had spotted them, so she went into action. Tipping her head back against the Commander’s chest, she went “dead weight”. Choking a bit from the effort, her action pulled him off balance just enough for her to reach her one remaining weapon, the Sig Sauer strapped to her ankle. Pulling it quickly, she fired at the nearest soldier. The pressure and weight of her drop caused the Commander to release her. The Tourist took his shot, hitting center mass with a projectile designed to do maximum damage.
The one remaining unwounded soldier ran away. By the time the Tourist had reached her side, Grace was getting to her feet. She wrapped her arms around him for a long moment, “Good to see you,” she said, stepping back to give him a good look. “You, too.” he replied, “Are you all right.”
Laughing, she said, “I’m alive.”
They walked together back toward the Guidestones. “You’re bleeding,” he said, noticing her arm. She glanced over, “Yeah, hurts, too. It’s an old wound, days old anyway. There’s a first aid kit in the SUV. Might want to bandage my thigh, too; I’m not so good at dodging bullets.” Grace wept a little to see Imogene lying on the ground, but knowing that there might soon be authorities there left no time to mourn. They drove together to retrieve the Tourist’s car, only then taking the time to deal with Grace’s wounds. The damage to her thigh was superficial. The through-and-through in her arm had begun bleeding again. After applying pressure to stop the flow, the Tourist cut away the bandaging around it. When he removed the packing, a tiny piece of man-made material came with it. “Should I put this back?” he joked before grinding it under his heel. He bound the wound, making sure it wouldn’t bleed again.
“Was that… ?” Grace asked as the chip was being destroyed. “They won’t be needing it any more,” he answered. Before they said their fare-wells, she asked about Cedric.
“I don’t think you’ll ever see him again,” the Tourist answered. “If his information is good, this country is about to have a real war on its hands. Can I count on you to join in the battle?”
Grace smiled. “You have my number,” she said.