It was the worst of times; it was the worst of times.
Rayford Steele's knees ached as he sat behind the wheel
of the rented Lincoln. He had dropped to the pavement at
the crushing realization of his pastor's death. The physical
pain, though it would stay with him for days, would
prove minor compared to the mental anguish of having
yet again lost one of the dearest people in his life.
Rayford felt Amanda's eyes on him. She laid one
comforting hand on his thigh. In the backseat his daughter,
Chloe, and her husband, Buck, each had a hand on
What now? Rayford wondered, What do we do without
Bruce? Where do we go?
The Emergency Broadcast System station droned on
with the news of chaos, devastation, terror, and destruction
throughout the world. Unable to speak over the
lump in his throat, Rayford busied himself maneuvering
his way through the incongruous traffic jams. Why were
people out? What did they expect to see? Weren't they
afraid of more bombs, or fallout?
"I need to get to the Chicago bureau office," Buck
"You can use the car after we get to the church,"
Rayford managed. "I need to get the word out about
Global Community peacekeeping forces supervised
local police and emergency relief personnel directing traffic
and trying to get people to return to their homes.
Rayford relied on his many years in the Chicago area to
use back roads and side streets to get around the major
thoroughfares, which were hopelessly clogged.
Rayford wondered if he should have taken Buck up on
his offer to drive. But Rayford had not wanted to appear
weak. He shook his head. There's no limit to the pilot's
ego! He felt as if he could curl into a ball and cry himself
Nearly two years since the vanishing of his wife and
son, along with millions of others, Rayford no longer
harbored illusions about his life in the twilight of history.
He had been devastated. He lived With deep pain and
regret. This was so hard
Rayford knew his life could be even worse. Suppose
he had not become a believer in Christ and was still
lost forever. Suppose he had not found a new love and
was alone. Suppose Chloe had also vanished. Or he
had never met Buck. There was much to be grateful for.
Were it not for the physical touch of the other three in
that car, Rayford wondered if he would have had the
will to go on.
He could hardly imagine not having come to know
and love Bruce Barnes. He had learned more and been
enlightened and inspired more by Bruce than anyone
else he'd ever met. And it wasn't just Bruce's knowledge
and teaching that made the difference. It was his
passion. Here was a man who immediately and clearly
saw that he had missed the greatest truth ever communicated
to mankind, and he was not about to repeat the
"Daddy, those two guards by the overpass seem to be
waving at you," Chloe said.
"I'm trying to ignore them," Rayford said. "All these
nobodies-trying-to-be-somebodies think they have a better
idea about where the traffic should go. If we listen
to them, we'll be here for hours. I just want to get to
"He's hollering at you with a bullhorn," Amanda said,
and she lowered her window a few inches.
"You in the white Lincoln!" came the booming voice.
Rayford quickly turned off the radio. "Are you Rayford
"How would they know that?" Buck said.
"Is there any limit to the Global Community intelligence
network?" Rayford said, disgusted.
"If you're Rayford Steele," came the voice again,
"please pull your vehicle to the shoulder!"
Rayford considered ignoring even that but thought better
of it. There would be no outrunning these people if
they knew who he was. But how did they know?
He pulled over.
Buck Williams pulled his hand from Rayford's shoulder
and craned his neck to see two uniformed soldiers scampering
down the embankment. He had no idea how
Global Community forces had tracked down Rayford,
but one thing was certain: it would not be good for Buck
to be discovered with Carpathia's pilot.
"Ray," he said quickly, "I've got one set of phony IDs
in the name of Herb Katz. Tell 'em I'm a pilot friend of
yours or something."
"OK," Rayford said, "but my guess is they'll be deferential
to me. Obviously, Nicolae is merely trying to
reconnect with me."
Buck hoped Rayford was right. It made sense that Carpathia
would want to make sure his pilot was all right
and could somehow get him back to New Babylon. The
two uniforms now stood behind the Lincoln, one speaking
into a walkie-talkie, the other on a cell phone. Buck
decided to go on the offensive and opened his door.
"Please remain in the vehicle," Walkie-Talkie said.
Buck slumped back into his seat and switched his
phony papers with his real ones. Chloe looked terrified.
Buck put his arm around her and drew her close. "Carpathia
must have put out an all points bulletin. He knew
your dad had to rent a car, so it didn't take long to track
Buck had no idea what the two GC men were doing
behind the car. All he knew was that his entire perspective
on the next five years had changed in an instant.
When global war broke out an hour before, he wondered
if he and Chloe would survive the rest of the Tribulation.
Now with the news of Bruce's death, Buck
wondered if they wanted to survive. The prospect of
heaven and being with Christ sure seemed better than
living in whatever remained of this world, even if Buck
had to die to get there.
Walkie-Talkie approached the driver's-side window.
Rayford lowered it. "You are Rayford Steele, are you not?"
"Depends on who's asking," Rayford said.
"This car, with this license number, was rented at
O'Hare by someone claiming to be Rayford Steele. If
that's not you, you're in deep trouble."
"Wouldn't you agree," Rayford said, "that regardless
who I am, we're all in deep trouble?"
Buck was amused at Rayford's feistiness, in light of
"Sir, I need to know if you are Rayford Steele."
"Can you prove that, sir?"
Rayford appeared as agitated as Buck had ever seen
him. "You flag me down and holler at me through a bullhorn
and tell me I'm driving Rayford Steele's rental car,
and now you want me to prove to you that I'm who you
think I am?"
"Sir, you must understand the position I'm in. I have
Global Community potentate Carpathia himself patched
through to a secure cell phone here. I don't even know
where he's calling from. If I put someone on the phone
and tell the potentate it's Rayford Steele, it had blamed
better be Rayford Steele."
Buck was grateful that Rayford's cat-and-mouse game
had taken the spotlight off the others in the car, but that
didn't last. Rayford slipped from his breast pocket his ID
wallet, and as the GC man studied it, he asked idly,
"And the others?"
"Family and friends," Rayford said. "Let's not keep
the potentate waiting."
"I'm going to have to ask you to take this call outside
the car, sir. You understand the security risks."
Rayford sighed and left the car. Buck wished Walkie-Talkie
would disappear too, but he merely stepped out
of Rayford's way and pointed him toward his partner,
the one with the phone. Then he leaned in and spoke to
Buck. "Sir, in the event that we transport Captain Steele
to a rendezvous point, would you be able to handle the
disposition of this vehicle?"
Do all uniformed people talk this way? Buck wondered.
Amanda leaned over. "I'm Mrs. Steele," she said.
"Wherever Mr. Steele is going, I'm going."
"That will be up to the potentate," the guard said,
"and providing there's room in the chopper."
"Yes sir," Rayford said into the phone, "I'll see you
Rayford handed the cell phone to the second guard.
"How will we get to wherever we're supposed to go?"
"A copter should be here momentarily."
Rayford motioned for Amanda to pop the trunk but
to stay in the car. As he shouldered both their bags, he
leaned in her window and whispered. "Amanda and I
have to rendezvous with Carpathia, but he couldn't even
tell me where he was or where we would meet. That
phone is only so secure. I get the feeling it's not far away,
unless they're coptering us to an airfield from which
we'll fly somewhere else. Buck, you'd better get this car
back to the rental company soon. It'll be too easy to connect
you with me otherwise."
Five minutes later Rayford and Amanda were airborne.
"Any idea where we're going?" Rayford shouted
to one of the Global Community guards.
The guard Clapped the chopper pilot on the shoulder
and shouted, "Are we at liberty to say where we're
"Glenview!" the pilot hollered.
"Glenview Naval Air Station has been closed for
years," Rayford said.
The chopper pilot turned to look at him. "The big runway's
still open! The man's there now!"
Amanda leaned close to Rayford. "Carpathia's in Illinois
"He must have been out of Washington before the
attack. I thought they might have taken him to one of
the bomb shelters at the Pentagon or the National Security
Administration, but his intelligence people must
have figured those would be the first places the militia
* * *
"This reminds me of when we were first married," Buck
said as Chloe snuggled close to him.
"What do you mean `when we were first married'?
We're still newlyweds!"
"Shh!" Buck said quickly. "What're they saying about
New York City?"
Chloe turned up the radio. ". devastating carnage
everywhere here in the heart of Manhattan. Bombed-out
buildings, emergency vehicles picking their way through
debris, Civil Defense workers pleading with people over
loudspeakers to stay underground."
Buck heard the panic in the reporter's voice as he continued.
"I'm seeking shelter myself now, probably too
late to avoid the effects of radiation. No one knows for
certain if the warheads were nuclear, but everyone is
being urged to take no risks. Damage estimates will be
in the billions of dollars. Life as we know it here may
never be the same. There's devastation as far as the eye
"All major transportation centers have been closed if
not destroyed. Huge traffic jams have snarled the Lincoln
Tunnel, the Triborough Bridge, and every major
artery out of New York City. What has been known as
the capital of the world looks like the set of a disaster
movie. Now back to the Cable News/Global Community
News Network in Atlanta."
"Buck," Chloe said, "our home. Where will we live?"
Buck didn't answer. He stared at the traffic and wondered
at the billowing clouds of black smoke and intermittent
balls of orange flame that seemed to hover
directly over Mt. Prospect. It was like Chloe to worry
about her home. Buck was less concerned about that. He
could live anywhere and seemed to have lived everywhere.
As long as he had Chloe and shelter, he was all
right. But she had made their ridiculously expensive
Fifth Avenue penthouse flat her own.
Finally, Buck spoke. "They won't let anybody back
into New York for days, maybe longer. Even our vehicles,
if they survived, won't be available to us."
"What are we going to do, Buck?"
Buck wished he knew what to say. He usually had an
answer. Resourcefulness had been the trademark of his
career. Regardless of the obstacle, he had somehow
made do in every imaginable situation or venue in the
world at one time or another. Now, with his new, young
wife beside him, not knowing where she would live or
how they would manage, he was at a loss. All he wanted
to do was to make sure his father-in-law and Amanda
were safe, in spite of the danger of Rayford's work, and
to somehow get to Mt. Prospect to assess what was happening
to the people of New Hope Village Church and
to inform them of the tragedy that had befallen their
Buck had never had patience for traffic jams, but this
was ridiculous. His jaw tightened and his neck stiffened
as his palms squeezed the wheel. The late-model car was
a smooth ride, but inching along in near gridlock made
the huge automotive power plant feel like a stallion that
wanted to run free.
Suddenly an explosion rocked their car and nearly
lifted it off its tires. Buck wouldn't have been surprised
had the windows blown in around them. Chloe
shrieked and buried her head in Buck's chest. Buck
scanned the horizon for what might have caused the
concussion. Several cars around them quickly pulled
off the road. In the rearview mirror Buck saw a mushroom
cloud slowly rise and assumed it was in the neighborhood
of O'Hare International Airport, several miles
CNN/GCN radio almost immediately reported the
blast. "This from Chicago: Our news base there has
been taken out by a huge blast. No word yet on whether
this was an attack by militia forces or a Global Community
retaliatory strike. We have so many reports of
warfare, bloodshed, devastation, and death in so many
major cities around the globe that it will be impossible
for us to keep up with all of it"
Buck looked quickly behind him and out both side
windows. As soon as the car ahead gave him room, he
whipped the wheel left and punched the accelerator.
Chloe gasped as the car jumped the curb and went
down through a culvert and up the other side. Buck
drove on a parkway and passed long lines of creeping
"What are you doing, Buck?" Chloe said, bracing
herself on the dashboard.
"I don't know what I'm doing, babe, but I know one
thing I'm not doing: I'm not poking along in a traffic
jam while the world goes to hell."
* * *
The guard who had flagged down Rayford from the
overpass now lugged his and Amanda's baggage out of
the helicopter. He led the Steeles, ducking under the
whirring blades, across a short tarmac and into a single-story
brick building at the edge of a long airstrip.
Weeds grew between the cracks in the runway. A small
Learjet sat at the end of the strip close to the chopper,
but Rayford noticed no one in the cockpit and no
exhaust from the engine. "I hope they don't expect me
to fly that thing!" he hollered at Amanda as they hurried
"Don't worry about that," their escort said. "The guy
who flew it here will get you as far as Dallas and the big
plane you'll be flying."
Rayford and Amanda were ushered to garishly colored
plastic chairs in a small, shabbily appointed military
office, decorated in early Air Force. Rayford sat,
gingerly massaging his knees. Amanda paced, stopping
only when their escort motioned that she should sit
down. "I am free to stand, am I not?" she said.
"Suit yourself. Please wait here a few moments for the
* * *
Buck was waved at, pointed at, and hollered at by traffic
cops, and he was honked at and obscenely gestured at by
other motorists. He was not deterred. "Where are you
going?" Chloe insisted.
"I need a new car," he said. "Something tells me it's
going to be our only chance to survive."
"What are you talking about?"
"Don't you see, Chlo'?" he said. "This war has
just broken out. It's not going to end soon. It's
going to be impossible to drive a normal vehicle
"So what're you gonna do, buy a tank?"
"If it wasn't so conspicuous, I just might."
Buck cut across a huge grassy field, through a parking
lot, and beside a sprawling suburban high school.
He drove between tennis courts and across soccer and
football fields, throwing mud and sod in the air as the
big car fishtailed. Radio reports continued from around
the world with news of casualties and mayhem while
Buck Williams and his bride careened on, speeding
through yield signs and sliding around curves. Buck
hoped he was somehow pointed in the right direction.
He wanted to wind up on Northwest Highway, where a
series of car dealerships comprised a ghetto of commercialism.
A last sweeping turn led Buck out of the subdivision,
and he saw what his favorite traffic reporter always
said was "heavy, slow, stop-and-go" traffic all along
Northwest Highway. He was in a mood and in a
groove, so he just kept going. Pulling around angry
drivers, he rode along a soft shoulder for more than a
mile until he came upon those car dealerships.
"Bingo!" he said.
* * *
Rayford was stunned, and he could tell Amanda was
too, at the demeanor of Nicolae Carpathia. The dashing
young man, now in his mid-thirties, had seemingly been
thrust to world leadership against his own will overnight.
He had gone from being nearly an unknown in
the lower house of Romanian government to president
of that country, then almost immediately had displaced
the secretary-general of the United Nations. After nearly
two years of peace and a largely successful campaign to
charm the masses following the terror-filled chaos of the
global vanishings, Carpathia now faced significant opposition
for the first time.
Rayford had not known what to expect from his boss.
Would Carpathia be hurt, offended, enraged? He seemed
none of the above. Ushered by Leon Fortunato, a sycophant
from the New Babylon office, into the long-unused
administrative office at the former Glenview
Naval Air Station, Carpathia seemed excited, high.
"Captain Steele!" Carpathia exalted. "Al, uh, An,
uh, Mrs. Steele, how good to see you both and to know
that you are well!"
"It's Amanda," Amanda said.
"Forgive me, Amanda," Carpathia said, reaching for
her hand with both of his. Rayford noticed how slow
she was to respond. "In all the excitement, you understand ."
The excitement, Rayford thought. Somehow World
War III seems more than excitement.
Carpathia's eyes were ablaze, and he rubbed his hands
together, as if thrilled with what was going on. "Well,
people," he said, "we need to get headed home."
Rayford knew Carpathia meant home to New Babylon,
home to Hattie Durham, home to Suite 216, the
potentate's entire floor of luxuriously appointed offices
in the extravagant and sparkling Global Community
headquarters. Despite Rayford and Amanda's sprawling,
two-story condo within the same four-block complex,
neither had ever remotely considered New Babylon
Still rubbing his hands as if he could barely contain
himself, Carpathia turned to the guard with the walkie-talkie.
"What is the latest?"
The uniformed GC officer had a wire plugged in his
ear and appeared startled that he had been addressed
directly by Carpathia himself. He yanked out the earplug
and stammered, "What? I mean, pardon me, Mr. Potentate,
Carpathia leveled his eyes at the man. "What is the
news? What is happening?"
"Uh, nothing much different, sir. Lots of activity and
destruction in many major cities."
It seemed to Rayford that Carpathia was having
trouble manufacturing a look of pain. "Is this activity
largely centered in the Midwest and East Coast?" the
The guard nodded. "And some in the South," he
"Virtually nothing on the West Coast then," Carpathia
said, more a statement than a question. The
guard nodded. Rayford wondered if anyone other than
those who believed Carpathia was Antichrist himself
would have interpreted Carpathia's look as one of satisfaction,
almost glee. "How about Dallas/Ft. Worth?"
"DFW suffered a hit," the guard said. "Only one
major runway is still open. Nothing's coming in, but lots
of planes are heading out of there."
Carpathia glanced at Rayford. "And the military strip
nearby, where my pilot was certified on the 757?"
"I believe that's still operational, sir," the guard said.
"All right then, very good," Carpathia said. He turned
to Fortunato. "I am certain no one knows our whereabouts,
but just in case, what do you have for me?'
The man opened a canvas bag that seemed incongruous
to Rayford. Apparently he had gathered Air Force
leftovers for a disguise for Carpathia. He produced a cap
that didn't match a huge, dress overcoat. Carpathia
quickly donned the getup and motioned that the four
others in the room should gather around him. "The jet
pilot is where?" he asked.
"Waiting just outside the door, per your instructions,
sir," Fortunato said.
Carpathia pointed to the armed guard. "Thank you
for your service. You may return to your post via the
helicopter. Mr. Fortunato and the Steeles and I will be
flown to a new plane, on which Captain Steele will transport
me back to New Babylon."
Rayford spoke up. "And that is in?"
Carpathia raised a hand to silence him. "Let us not
give our young friend here any information he would
have to be responsible for," he said, smiling at the uniformed
guard. "You may go." As the man hurried away,
Carpathia spoke quietly to Rayford. "The Condor 216
awaits us near Dallas. We will then fly west to go east, if
you know what I mean."
"I've never heard of a Condor 216," Rayford said.
"It's unlikely I'm qualified to"
"I have been assured," Carpathia interrupted, "that
you are more than qualified."
"But what is a Condor 2"
"A hybrid I designed and named myself," Carpathia
said. "Surely you do not think what has happened here
today was a surprise to me."
"I'm learning," Rayford said, sneaking a glance at
Amanda, who appeared to be seething.
"You are learning," Carpathia repeated, smiling
broadly. "I like that. Come, let me tell you about my
spectacular new aircraft as we travel."
Fortunato raised a forefinger. "Sir, my recommendation
is that you and I run together to the end of the airstrip
and board the jet. The Steeles should follow when
they see us get on board."
Carpathia held the oversized hat down onto his styled
hair and slipped in behind Fortunato as the aide opened
the door and nodded to the waiting jet pilot. The pilot
immediately took off running toward the Learjet as
Fortunato and Carpathia jogged several yards behind.
Rayford slipped an arm around Amanda's waist and
drew her close.
"Rayford," Amanda said, "have you ever once in your
life heard Nicolae Carpathia misspeak?"
"Stutter, stammer, have to repeat a word, forget a
Rayford suppressed a smile, amazed he could find
anything humorous on what could easily be the last day
of his life on earth. "Besides your name, in other words?"
"He does that on purpose, and you know it," she said.
Rayford shrugged. "You're probably right. But with
"I have no idea," she said.
"Hon, do you see no irony in your being offended by
the man we're convinced is the Antichrist?" Amanda
stared at him. "I mean," he continued, "listen to yourself.
You expect common courtesy and decency from the
most evil man in the history of the universe?"
Amanda shook her head and looked away. "When
you put it that way," she muttered, "I suppose I am
* * *
Buck sat in the sales manager's office of a Land Rover
dealership. "You never cease to amaze me," Chloe whispered.
"I've never been conventional, have I?"
"Hardly, and now I suppose any hope of normalcy is
out the window."
"I don't need any excuse for being unique," he said,
"but everyone everywhere will be acting impulsively
The sales manager, who had busied himself with
paperwork and figuring a price, turned the documents
and slid them across the desk toward Buck. "You're not
trading the Lincoln, then?"
"No, that's a rental," Buck said. "But I am going to
ask you to return that to O'Hare for me." Buck looked
up at the man without regard to the documents.
"That's highly unusual," the sales manager said. "I'd
have to send two of my people and an extra vehicle so
they could get back."
Buck stood. "I suppose I am asking too much.
Another dealer will be willing to go the extra mile to sell
me a vehicle, I'm sure, especially when no one knows
what tomorrow may bring."
"Sit back down, Mr. Williams. I won't have any
trouble getting my district manager to sign off on throwing
in that little errand for you. As you can see, you're
going to be able to drive your fully loaded Range Rover
out of here within an hour for under six figures."
"Make it half an hour," Buck said, "and we've got a
The sales manager rose and thrust out his hand.