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The Ballad of Moscow Pete

Pete shed a lonely tear, not bothering to wipe it away. The last of them was gone, dead and burned up with a mixed fanfare of denunciations and praise. All those years devoted to the cause and what was left? Nothing. Just worn out memories and a long list of regrets. He’d be next too, he wasn’t getting any younger and he was running out of reasons to stick around.

He’d lost friends before, too many to recall and more than enough to make that sorrow familiar. Castro was no friend of his though. Fidel had been a onery son of a bitch, stubbon, arrogant and even more paranoid than a person needed to be even when the CIA really was out to get them. He’d also been part of that old school though, the ones who’d led Pete into the game and framed the rules for him. As they’d disappeared one by one, Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Mao, Che and hell, even the ones on the other side, the Kennedys, Reagans and Hoovers – the joy had gone out of the whole thing. What fun was a Cold War when nobody else was fighting it? The only person left who’d even consider trying to have Pete assassinated was Kissinger and he’d stopped being a real threat when the aliens had replaced half of his brain with that of a hyper-intelligent sheep. Although, to be fair, he seemed happy enough with the arrangement.

Looking up Pete could see two men walking up the long trail to the barn he was sitting outside of, an intrusion on a moment more lonely than solitary. Hit men? His nerves jangled with the preemptive rush of adrenaline for a second but it was optimism more than anything else that fed them. There wouldn’t be any hit men coming. No poison umbrellas, no death rays, no spies, no snipers’ bullets, no suave men in outdated tuxedos and no Illuminati shills out to drive him mad with obscure research chemicals. The only people who came by these days were the McCarrick boys, nursemaids living out their obligation to their dead, or at least departed, mother who’d had an uneasy alliance with him when it came to protecting their small Alabama hometown of Hetsaw. A favour Pete hadn’t asked for but not one he was stupid enough to reject.

He’d come to know them over the years, filing away the ever more bizarre rumours which went around about them in a habitual attempt to build mental files, as if the Kremlin would come knocking for an update report. The older son, Earl, took after his mother when it came to the occult stuff, shit, maybe he even was her in a way, there was no knowing with that mystic nonsense but the dead in the McCarrick family certainly didn’t shirk their familial obligations. The younger one though, Jimmy, he was like his Uncle Waco and his dad, ET, straight up crazy. Good boys for all that though, easy going in a fatally dangerous kind of way.

Pete rose to greet them as they drew close, warily eyeing the pair in their beaten denims and wife beater vests. Good boys or not it never paid to take the pair lightly when they came around. Earl came first, reaching out a calloused and heavy hand to engulf Pete’s own increasingly frail one in a handshake.

“We came when we heard, Moscow, we know you go back a way with the old Commie.”

Moscow was the nickname jokingly given to Pete by Hetsaw locals thanks to his rumoured dealings with the KGB – and one used seriously by those who knew his real past. How much that included Jimmy and Earl he wasn’t sure, although old Ma McCarrick might have told them a pretty story or two before passing on to wherever her kind passed on to. Jimmy followed up with a seemingly genuinely look of concern and his own handshake.

“Thanks boys. He was an asshole but give it long enough and even they end up meaning something to ya.”

There was a pint jug by the bale of hay Pete had been sat on and, reclaiming his seat, he offered it to the two men who took turns taking deep gulps from it.

“We figured we should come up, give our condolences ‘n all” Jimmy said, a surprisingly soft tone belaying the persistent wide eyed look of insanity that he’d made his own.

“Appreciated, would say you shouldn’t have troubled yourselves but I ain’t one to say no to company on a day like this.”

Earl nodded and took a hay bail next to Pete, Jimmy following suit.

“I ain’t meaning to probe” the older brother said “but Ma told me that we should keep an eye out if the old guys from your, ah, way of thinkin’ started to drop. I mean, I know he was ninety but those Agency boys can have some long memories and if you’re name’s next on a list somewhere then best to let us know now. We don’t stand for that sort of thing here in Hetsaw.”

Pete nodded vaguely, letting his confused old man face take over his features, as he tended to when people started probing at things they perhaps ought not to know about.

“You know we’ll keep you covered Moscow but if you know about anything that might go down it’d certainly help. We can stick Cousin Hank and Cousin Myron up here, good men in a shootin’ fight, but those CIA guys have their own line in that… other shit, y’know? If it comes to that we might have to approach things a li’l differently.”

Earl looked the same as always, relaxed to the point of indifference, but for his eyes which, Pete noticed for the first time, were maturing to resemble Ma McCarrick’s. Soft at first glance but hard as steel if you bothered to pay attention. The proper heir to her side of the family business then. Jimmy meanwhile was draining the jug and looking sad, although whether that was out of compassion, because the jug was empty or just because he was crazy there was no way of knowing.

“Well thanks Earl, that’s good to know. Ain’t no need for concern though. No one’s losing sleep over an old son of a bitch like me. You’re smart to be thinkin’ about those Agency boys though, your Ma’s right, they dabble in all sorts of shit. Back in my day it was kept in check mind, they did stuff, we did stuff, everyone scared of goin’ too far with it. Occult M.A.D. y’know? Kids these days, with their computers and Facebooks and whatnot, no sense at all, they’ll summon a demon just to show off. By the way, how’s she keepin’, er, wherever she is?”

That Ma McCarrick was dead Pete was certain, he’d been to the funeral and snuck in the night before while the body way laying out, just to make sure. That she was really gone though was a bit more of an open question.

“Ah she’s good, you know how it is.”

He had no idea how it was, even after his years working in the darkest regions of the KGB’s magical subdivisions he was still, at heart, an old fashioned spy, more used to gunfire and garrotes than sacrifices and chanting.

“Well, that’s good to hear son, good to hear.”

The trio sat in silence for a while, Pete drifting through rough edged memories, the brothers lost in their own thoughts. It was comfortable, he vaguely thought, the boys weren’t kin but they knew enough to be silent company and they knew enough to take him seriously, a rarity in Hetsaw these days. He knew most locals now viewed him as a relic, a senile old farmer living out a life that had stopped making sense decades back and that was just because he was old, never mind the sniggering Moscow Pete jokes they told about him. The rumours which used to make him a mystery now made him a novelty, a curiosity, he knew that and now with Fidel gone he was even more of a museum piece. The game really was over. These days it was all drones and ‘Cyber Terrorism’, whatever the hell that was. No one believed any more, not in the ideas and definitely not in the right way of doing things. Kids in containers blowing up convoys of trucks a thousand miles away and anonymous people in anonymous suits sticking microphones on the backs of flies – that was no way to run the world.

After a while he was broken away from his thoughts by a faint, but rapidly increasing thrum in the distance. Pete recognised the sound, it was a chopper, a MI-17 ‘Hip’, a favourite of the CIA these days. Made in Russia, for added irony, so hard to trace back to the US. For a moment he thought he was finally starting to give in to senility, hallucinating fragments of excitement dredged up from the distant past but both Earl and Jimmy were already on their feet, scanning the horizon and pulling out pistols. They only cast passing glances at him as they kept their eyes fixed on the treeline that fronted the property, waiting to see what came.

Leaving them to it Pete stood up and shakily rushed into the barn. Old limbs ached, the arthritis in his left knee making him feel like he’d slowed to a crawl but even he knew that he made a fair dash to the pile of hay he was looking for, old man or not. He swept aside the top layer, revealing a steel footlocker buried in the mass of fodder. It took forced concentration to make his trembling fingers work on the combination lock but with only a couple of mistakes he still managed to open it. Inside was a half dozen handguns, a shotgun and an AK47, all immaculately oiled and kept despite years of disuse. Old habits died hard and besides, what else was there to do these days beyond polish mementos of the past? Pulling out the AK he made his way back outside where the McCarrick boys were watching the now visible helicopter approach them, the noise rising to an overwhelming din, sending dirt and dust up into the air around them.

First the ropes dropped down, then the black clad figures. Pete had stopped shaking now and forgotten his aching knee, he was even grinning as he levelled the rifle at a descending figure some forty feet off and with a grunt at the forgotten jolt of a bucking gun reeled off a couple of shots at it. He struck home, a limp form free falling to the ground. Jimmy and Earl followed suit, unleashing a small but meaningful hail of bullets at the invaders as they made their way down.

From there on in it was just like the old days, for Pete at least. The younger men were experienced, well used to the rattle of gunfire, but he barely noticed them. For the few split seconds the gunfight lasted, as CIA operatives hit the ground and dashed for cover, splattering the three men with bullets when they could, he was propelled back into those halcyon days all those years ago. It was just like the Bay of Pigs all over again, like the jungles of Vietnam, like the underground city where they’d duked it out with Navy Seals to make the centre of the earth Communist, it was everything he’d remembered it being, it was –

Earl grabbed Jimmy and hauled him backwards into the barn, guiding him around the fallen figure of Moscow Pete as he went. The old man had died with a smile on his face. Granted, he also had a bullet hole straight through his forehead, but wherever he’d gone now he probably wouldn’t be worrying about that. There was still gunfire from outside, smacking into the wooden planks but with his brother trailing behind him there was nothing left to do but run. Straight through the barn and out of the small door at the back, then a sideways dash for the treeline. The McCarricks could still hear the Agency men wasting ammunition as they fled into the dense woods and shifted from full flight down to a relaxed stroll. The CIA should have surrounded the place but they hadn’t, Earl wasn’t surprised, those guys loved their black helicopters and drama too much to bother with real planning.

They walked in silence for a while, guns tucked back into their belts and the gentle crunch of leaves under their feet audible between their ragged inhalations. It was Jimmy who, eventually, broke it.

“You told them where he was?”

Earl nodded.

“They knew, I just reminded them. Maybe mentioned that he might be planning to write a book or somethin’.”

They walked on in silence for a while before Jimmy spoke again.

“That was nice of you. It’s what he would have wanted.”

“I reckon so. Ma and Pa agreed too, ain’t no joy having to live out yer days as less than the man you were.”

Later that night they drank a toast to Moscow Pete and, along with a dozen other McCarricks and hangers on, sang the Internationale one more time, loud enough for all of Hetsaw to hear.

Moscow Pete, Earl, Jimmy and the McCarrick clan also feature in the novel Crashed America – available in all good realities.

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