The Protocol (Riker’s Apocalypse Book 5)

Table of Contents

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Epilogue

 

 

Riker’s Apocalypse

 

THE PROTOCOL

 

Book 5

 

 

By

Shawn Chesser

 

SMASHWORDS EDITION

 

 

 

 

 

***

 

 

Riker’s Apocalypse

 

THE PROTOCOL

 

Copyright 2024

Shawn Chesser

Smashwords Edition

 

 

 

 

Smashwords Edition, License

 

This eBook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This eBook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please go and buy your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author. This is a work of fiction. Any similarities to real persons, events, or places are purely coincidental; any references to actual places, people, or brands are fictitious. All rights reserved.

 

 Shawn Chesser Facebook Author Page

Shawn Chesser on Twitter

ShawnChesser.Com

 

 

***

 

Acknowledgements

 

Maureen, Raven, and Caden … I couldn’t have done this without your support. Thanks to our military, LE and first responders for your service. To the people in the U.K. and elsewhere around the world who have been in touch, thanks for reading my yarns! Lieutenant Colonel Michael Offe, thanks for your service as well as your friendship. Thanks to Robert Kagel for providing help with military aviation tech. Huge thanks to my Beta reader crew, you rock, and you know who you are. Paul Whitmer: I truly appreciate your keen eye to detail, especially when it comes to weapons and explosives. To my friends and fellows at S@N and Monday Steps On Steele, thanks as well. Lastly, thanks to Bill W. and Dr. Bob … you helped make this possible. I am going to sign up for another 24.

Special thanks to fellow scribblers John O’Brien, Mark Tufo, Heath Stallcup, and Eric A. Shelman. I appreciate your continued friendship and always invaluable advice. Joe McKinney, who passed too soon, is definitely missed. Fist pump to Christian Bentulan of Covers by Christian for yet another awesome cover. Once again, extra special thanks to Monique Happy for her work editing “The Protocol.” Mombie, as always, you came through like a champ! Working with you for over a decade has been nothing but a pleasure. I’m lucky to have a confidante I can trust. If I have accidentally left anyone out … I am sorry.

 

***

 

Edited by Monique Happy Editorial Services

http://www.moniquehappyeditorial.com/

 

Chapter 1

 

Pleasant Hill, Iowa

 

The bell cow zombie framed in Groot’s Steiner binoculars was still a quarter of a mile distant and way out in front of the herd of walking dead it was leading when the radio in the Ohio National Guard Oshkosh Defense L-ATV crackled to life. And like the previous three times sound came from the speaker, absolutely nothing followed the split-second burst of white noise. No SITREP. No plea for help. No garbled transmission from another unit in a fractured and wildly scattered military that up until two days ago had been a premier fighting force comprised of veterans of the fifteen-year-long Global War on Terror. While the Oshkosh was outfitted as a command-and-control asset, complete with high-tech communications gear and the FBCB2 (Blue Force Tracker) that allowed it to track vehicles and foot patrols in its area of operation, all of those critical systems were either acting up and totally unreliable or were inoperable altogether.

The thirty-five-year-old in the armored vehicle’s driver’s seat had been periodically glassing the slice of suburban Des Moines for close to an hour but had only been tracking the incoming zombie horde for a couple of minutes. Groot was not great at math, but he figured if the zombies kept to what looked to be a two- to three-mile-per-hour pace, in fifteen minutes, likely less, the recently turned creature in the lead would be coming up against the snarl of vehicles on the highway below.

Sitting in the shadow of a pair of mature trees at the southern end of the Copper Creek golf course, the desert-tan Oshkosh was easy to miss unless one knew where to look. Already the turning of the seasons had the trees shedding leaves, the ground all around littered with them. The greenskeeper’s building, a windowless steel affair surrounded by chain-link fence and fronting a fleet of golf carts, stood in the line of sight between the lone vehicle and any threats, living or undead, that may have followed it in from the north. The three vehicles that had accompanied the Oshkosh across the golf course had continued south, weaving their way down car-choked surface streets, the shopping mall beyond the highway their first objective.

The Oshkosh, with its top-mounted CROWS (Common Remotely Operated Weapon Station) bristling with a very lethal .50 caliber Browning (Ma Deuce) heavy machine gun, had been Groot’s home for two days. It was where he slept and ate. The only time he had left the safety of the cab was to take a dump. When he had to piss, he did so in a Gatorade bottle. Why the only armed vehicle out of a total of four was not accompanying the rest of the patrol on the foraging mission into the city had everything to do with the man in the passenger seat next to Groot. Newly minted First Lieutenant Jimmy Tolliver was a coward through and through. The man was ten years younger than Groot with a knack for delegating everything to subordinates, especially anything that necessitated going anywhere there was a possibility of encountering the scourge of dead things that had quickly taken over the large population centers on the Eastern Seaboard and were now surging westward, into America’s heartland.

Tolliver’s conduct since awarding himself the battlefield promotion two days prior was antithetical to everything Groot knew about effective leadership. Groot’s fellow “recruits,” a disparate group of civilian men and women who had crossed paths with the National Guard unit and had been conscripted into service, had nothing good to say about the rotund man. Rumor was that prior to the escape of the Romero virus, a particularly nasty bug responsible for creating the monsters that had them all running for their lives, Tolliver had been low man on the totem pole at a suburban Columbus muffler shop, his days spent replacing stolen catalytic converters and rotating tires. One thing that was not rumor was that Tolliver had never set foot in the Sandbox, nor had he seen combat. He was loathed so much by the other Guard members that they talked about him behind his back. Still, Tolliver wore a sand-colored shemagh around his neck and spoke and acted as if he had “been there and done that.”

Tolliver’s excuse for staying behind this time was as flimsy as all that had come before. Sending one vehicle to scout ahead while keeping the remaining three in reserve made the most sense. Not only would the move conserve precious fuel, but it would also spare the bulk of their cobbled-together squad from the attrition that, in less than twenty-four hours, had seen their numbers winnowed down from thirty to a baker’s dozen. Instead, insisting that strength in numbers was the best way to ensure the mission’s success, Tolliver had sent into the wild aboard two thirsty Humvees and a commandeered Ford F-350 the five remaining conscripts and six Guardsmen who had mustered alongside him in Columbus, Ohio the day after the dead began to rise.

The corporal who had challenged Tolliver for command two days prior was leading the foraging mission. It angered Groot to think about the unnecessary waste. Everyone knew the only fuel Tolliver cared to conserve was the full load in his Oshkosh, and the only life he cared about was his own. Tolliver’s contingency plan should his vehicle draw unwanted attention before the others returned with the fuel and food necessary to keep them all on mission was to backtrack across the fourteenth fairway and rendezvous with the patrol at a predesignated set of GPS coordinates a couple of miles north of their current position. If Tolliver was the leader of men he pretended to be, he would be in the gunner’s seat behind Groot, ready and willing to engage any threats to the vehicle, not sitting up front and looking to cut and run at the first sign things were beginning to go sideways on the foraging party. Even a blind man could see that Tolliver was way out of his league. The man was in a constant state of retreat from the dead—both mentally and physically.

Tolliver slammed his fist down on the Oshkosh’s abbreviated dash. “They better get their asses back here soon,” he said, his voice rough from smoking a pack of Marlboros a day for a decade. “If they stay out there another five minutes, the rotters are going to cut us off.” He looked at Groot, who was still glassing the divided four-lane. “Try them again on the radio,” he commanded.

“If they didn’t answer the first two times,” Groot said, showing no emotion whatsoever, “I highly doubt they’re going to pick up on the third.” Though he spoke like someone who’d spent a fair amount of time in the big city, there was a hint of country in there. He shifted the binoculars a couple of degrees to the left. “It’s the others out there that I’m worried about. Won’t be long before the Zulus get to them. We could—”

“Forget about it.” Tolliver shook his head vehemently, the unsecured helmet straps whipping left and right. “You’re no longer in the protect and serve business, Groot.” He made gimme hands for the binos. Pressing them to his face, he went on, saying, “The last orders we received were for us to keep moving west and to pick up any able-bodied men and women of fighting age that we encounter.”

Groot shifted his gaze from the zombie herd to the others he was referring to. “I don’t know much about the new Ronin Protocol, but I do know the National Guard isn’t in the business of abandoning U.S. citizens. If I recall, after a hurricane or tornado or earthquake upsets the normal day-to-day, the National Guard is the one running into the fray and rescuing people. What makes this scenario any different?”

Tolliver didn’t respond. He was rigid in his seat, the Steiners locked on the distant street the patrol was supposed to be returning on.

“The woman looks able-bodied to me,” Groot pressed. “She got them this far. Surely, she’d make for a good recruit.”

“The kid would only slow us down,” Tolliver said, passing the binoculars back to Groot. “There’s no way we’re going to put all of us at risk on the outside chance she’d end up being an asset. Lord knows, you being just about the only exception, civilians are just useless eaters on their way to being undead eaters.” He chuckled.

Groot didn’t find it at all funny. Tolliver viewed everyone, even his fellow Guardsmen, as expendables. You mean no way you are putting your ass on the line for the very people you work for, thought Groot. Probably wouldn’t even come to your own mother’s aid if it meant putting yourself in danger. Groot despised selfish, self-centered people like the man to his right. Tamping his hatred for the man down to a manageable level, he lifted the binoculars. He had just reacquired the horde coming in from the right when the slow-moving main body came up against the phalanx of static vehicles currently occupying both eastbound lanes of the divided four-lane. He watched a fire engine locked in that last deadly traffic jam pushed aside like a kid’s toy. Cars and pickups caught in the path of the incalculable number of zombies on the move, many of the vehicles with reanimated corpses still trapped inside, suffered the same fate as the multi-ton emergency vehicle. It wasn’t the first time he had witnessed the sheer force of the dead on the march. Still, he found it impossible to look away.

The radio squawked again, but this time, instead of the usual quiet, Corporal Horowitz breathlessly informed anyone listening that his patrol was on a nearby arterial and fast approaching the interstate. Horowitz also confirmed having heard the earlier queries, but a prolonged firefight with a large group of well-armed looters had taken precedence over a timely response.

Reacting to the unexpected SITREP, Groot swung the binoculars back to the Chevy pickup that had only recently burst upon the scene. Having been pursued by more than a dozen sprinting zombies—Sierra Zulus in mil-speak—the blood-and-gore-streaked pickup had emerged from a side street three blocks east, turned a hard screeching right onto the two-lane directly across the interstate from Groot’s position, then had gone pinballing down the road, trading paint with just about every vehicle lining both sides of the street. The keen of metal being reshaped and the noise of glass breaking spurred on the zombies in pursuit. Eyes locked on the white pickup, the creatures had somehow found an extra gear and had proved hard to shake.

Having regained control of the fishtailing rig, the driver had turned left onto the nearest overpass, only to come up against the lead element of a second, albeit smaller throng of walking dead that had been converging on the interstate from the north. Obviously flustered, the driver of the Chevy had ridden it up over the curb and tried using the overpass’s narrow sidewalk to skirt the new threats. All that did was flatten two of the tires on the passenger side, sending the pickup lurching right back into the path of the advancing dead.

Groot and Tolliver had watched in amazement for ten long seconds as the driver, a woman of indeterminate age, renewed her efforts, steering the stricken pickup through the moving wall of corpses. Like a combine scything a field of wheat, steel rims devoid of rubber raining sparks on the falling dead, the pickup kept going all the way to the opposite end of the overpass where the growing accumulation of bodies trapped between the undercarriage and road became too much for even the big V8. High-centered, rear wheels spinning futilely, the pickup was quickly enveloped by the sea of hungry dead.

The fast movers chasing the pickup had caught up seconds later, two of them scrabbling atop the crush of bodies and careening headfirst into the load bed. Before the sprinters had risen and blocked the cab from view, Groot had gotten his first good look at the woman behind the wheel. She was in her mid-twenties and wore a look of utter defeat. Next to the driver was what looked to Groot to be a teenager. Given the woman’s age, unless she birthed him when she was eleven or twelve, he thought it highly unlikely the kid was hers.

Now, his lower back screaming from an on-the-job injury suffered two years ago, the dull throbbing and intermittent lightning bolts of pain rising to the level no amount of Ibuprofen could numb, Groot lowered the Steiners and fixed Tolliver with an earnest stare.

“We can walk and chew gum at the same time, sir.” He raised the binos and glassed the distant corner where the patrol was supposed to emerge. “We have enough time.”

“She made their bed,” growled the man, who three days prior had been a lowly specialist and driving for the major who had commanded the unit since the initial two dozen vehicles had deployed from the Guard base in suburban Columbus. “Now they’re going to have to lie in it.”

Groot shifted in his seat, trying to get to the bottle of Ibuprofen deep in the cargo pocket of his MultiCam ACU pants. Dragging the bottle out into the open, he pretended to stretch, twisting his torso left and right. Issuing a guttural grunt and saying, “Back spasm inbound,” he purposefully fumbled the pill bottle. And as it landed on the floor on the passenger side, Tolliver failing his sad attempt at catching it midflight, Groot hinged forward at the waist, hiked up his right pant leg, and pulled from an ankle holster the little .38 snubby that had been with him since day one of the zombie apocalypse.

The uniform was a couple of sizes too small for Groot, the bottoms of the pants legs barely reaching the tops of his boots, which made it easier for him to get to the revolver and cock the hammer without drawing suspicion. The nametape on the partially buttoned blouse read Harris. The Ohio National Guard soldier Groot had killed for the uniform was a sergeant and didn’t need it any longer. It wasn’t murder. Groot knew that. Still, he felt a bit uneasy wearing a dead man’s clothes, even if that man had been sans pulse and respiration and still hanging around the blown roadblock like a good soldier before Groot put the bullet between his eyes. It wasn’t the first time he’d shot a man, but it was the first time he had ever sniped someone from concealment. There had been no sport to it. No blood, either. Just a bang and a thud. Thanks to the hundred yards or so of separation, the latter had been a byproduct of his own imagination.

Tolliver was leaning forward, arm outstretched, his reach severely restricted by his ample belly and overlying chest rig when Groot pressed the .38’s muzzle to the nape of his neck and gave the trigger a gentle squeeze.

The report was deafening in the cab, adding to the constant ringing of the tinnitus Groot had been enduring since his early twenties. Thanks to the helmet and angle of the muzzle when he had done the deed, the only mess was the spritz of blood on the passenger door.

Blessed (or cursed) with a near seven-foot wingspan, reaching across and opening the dead man’s door was no problem for Groot. After relieving Tolliver of his sidearm and spare magazines for it, he harvested the chest rig of the spare mags for the M4 propped in the well by Tolliver’s feet. Finished retrieving everything that might prove useful going forward, a firm shove was all it took to get the corpse tumbling from the vehicle. Getting the door closed without having to exit the vehicle and go around was a bit of an undertaking. Leaning across the center console and straining to full extension allowed him to get ahold of the handle and pull the door closed. And none too soon, because in the next beat a pair of snarling zombies slammed headlong into it.

Ignoring the zombies, Groot snatched up the mic. Depressing the push-to-talk button, he said, “Black Dog Six Two, Buckeye One Six Romeo. How copy? Over.”

Corporal Horowitz’s radio operator answered straight away. “Good copy, Buckeye One Six. Go ahead. Over.”

“Be advised, Six Two,” Groot said, purposefully raising his voice an octave or two to impart a sense of urgency. “There’s a Zulu herd blocking your path. I estimate one thousand bodies. LT wants you to backtrack and proceed to rally point Bravo.” Keeping the channel open, he paused for a moment to let what he was about to do sink in. “How copy? Over.” He put the handset down, fired the Oshkosh’s engine, and got her rolling toward the fence bordering the nearby frontage road. The last part was just a formality. He really didn’t care what Horowitz had to say about the matter. Nothing was going to stop him from attempting to save the pair trapped in the pickup. And whether he succeeded or failed, by the time Horowitz and the others arrived at the rendezvous point, Groot intended on being as far away from them as possible.

 

Chapter 2

 

Frenchman Mountain Complex

 

Las Vegas, Nevada

 

Steven “Steve-O” Piontek scooped up the last spoonful of the white slurry the military chef insisted were mashed potatoes and deposited them on a plate belonging to the twenty-something airman across the counter from him. “If you want some more,” Steve-O said, yanking the hotel pan from the steam table, “you’re going to need to be patient.”

“What else am I going to do?” replied the fresh-faced kid whose nametape read Billings. “I’m definitely not going home any time soon.”

“I already told you we’re never going home,” shot the African American airman next in line. “President Tilden made damn sure of that. First, he goes and orders a nuke strike on the desert south of Henderson, then the dude up and goes dark on us.”

Ignoring the banter, Steve-O turned to face the airman manning the meat carving station next door to him. “Robert,” he said, showing him the empty pan. “Can you remind me again where I get more mashed potatoes.”

Serving the African American airman a thick slice of ham, the airman, whose nametape read Madison, put down his tongs. “How is it that you can remember the lyrics to all those songs you’re always singing, but you can’t remember how to complete a simple task you watched me do four or five times while you were shadowing me last night?”

Steve-O shrugged, causing white goo to slough off the spoon in his hand. It hit the floor with a wet splat. “My dad always said I was so stupid I could not pour water from a boot if the instructions were on the bottom of the heel. I knew he was being a meanie, but I never understood what that meant.” It was a lie. Steve-O was playing dumb. While most born with Down syndrome, also known as trisomy 21, possessed an IQ of 50, in that department he had won the extra-chromosome lottery. Shortchanged a bit in the height and dexterity column, where IQ was concerned, the forty-five-year-old authority on all things country and western had scored high up on the chart among those like him.

Madison shook his head. “Your dad was an asshole, dude.”

“Marcy was my caregiver after Dad and Mom died. She was a nice person. She never called me retard or stupid or mongo. She said my short-term memory is not as good as everyone else’s. It’s kind of the same as someone who has old timers disease.”

“It’s called Alzheimer’s disease.” Madison chuckled as he stooped to wipe up the spilled mashed potatoes. Rising, he stuffed the towel in his apron and motioned for Steve-O to follow him. As they rounded the corner, he prompted Steve-O to dump the pan and spoon in an empty bus tub. “Just be thankful you didn’t get assigned dish duty. You need to remember where a lot of stuff gets put away. It’s what happens to those of us who get busted slacking off or failing to follow orders.”

“Thank you for being so kind to me, Robert. Most people don’t even see me. Some tell me to go away. It’s like I’m a ghost or the Invisible Man.” They were walking along a corridor behind the serving line and had to squeeze by kitchen workers busy prepping food. Once they were out of earshot of all the noise, Steve-O added, “I like you, Robert.” He paused. “Can you do me a favor?”

Airman Madison stopped in front of a stainless-steel mobile heating cabinet. Holding off on opening the door, he said, “What is it?”

Steve-O said, “Do you know who Linus is?”

Tilt to his head, Madison said, “The kid from the Peanuts gang? The one with the blanket, right?”

Steve-O nodded. “I’m like Linus. But my blanket is my Stetson.” He looked at the white, nondescript tennis shoes he’d been issued. He preferred his red leather cowboy boots—also made by Stetson. They made him stand a little taller. To a person a couple of inches north of five feet, every little bit counted. “Wearing my hat gives me confidence,” he said. “It makes me feel tall.” He met Madison’s gaze. “I am also less forgetful when I have it on. Marcy called it my thinking cap.”

“Size isn’t everything, Steve-O. Mighty Mouse was small.” He tapped his head. “It’s your mindset that’s holding you back.”

Steve-O shook his head. “The hat really works. It’s not all in my mind. A doctor told me so.” More lies.

“Can’t you just pretend the hat you’re wearing now is a Stetson?”

Steve-O removed the cloth hat. “The hero always wears a white cowboy hat. This flimsy thing”—he wrung the hat with both hands—“isn’t even close.”

Handing Steve-O a pair of towels, Madison said, “The pan’s going to be hot. You go ahead and do the honors.”

Steve-O draped the towels over the pan, one at each end.

Watching intently, Madison said, “Where’s the Stetson? Does Chef have it?”

“Nope,” Steve-O said matter-of-factly. “It got left in my friend’s rig.” Biting his lip as if focused solely on the task at hand, he pulled the pan from the shelf. Closing the door with his elbow, he turned and stared at the airman. Hoping he was affecting a look Lee had said Lia had down pat, a look that Lee called “puppy dog eyes,” Steve-O said, “Can you help me get it? I won’t tell anyone.”

After making sure they were still out of earshot of the others, Madison said, “I can get you into the garage. We have a storeroom down there.” He looked over one shoulder. “Let me think about it.”

Smiling wide, Steve-O continued down the corridor, saying, “Behind. Hot,” each time he came up against someone blocking his way.

 

***

 

Three levels down, sitting on folding chairs lined up in a narrow, windowless hallway whose cement floor, walls, and ceiling made it impossible to forget where they were, Tara, Lia, Vern, Shorty, and Riker waited for their turn with the doctor. It was day two of them being stuck inside the Cold-War-era bunker that had saved them from a fate they all agreed was a remarkably close second to dying from Romero and coming back hungering for human flesh. The kids they had rescued from a couple and their monster of a son were in the care of the female airman who had been instrumental in their being allowed inside the bunker. Lia had taken it hard when the kids were separated from the adults, but she understood—they weren’t her kids. With each passing day, the sting of the airman’s decision lessened. For Leland Riker, who was not a fan of being held against his will, the two days seemed like half a lifetime.

The temperature underground was a constant fifty-five degrees. Which came as no surprise to any of them. Whether the mercury was flirting with a hundred degrees outside their Trinity home back in New Mexico or was in the low forties as it often was at night in the desert, the air inside the nearby Lazarus bunker remained a constant fifty-five. It also imparted the same stale taste in his mouth as did the air he was currently breathing. Riker was convinced both facilities were designed by the same government engineers and were equipped with ventilation systems capable of scrubbing the air down to the molecular level.

Already they’d been cooling their heels for thirty minutes under a bank of bright fluorescent lights. Mercifully, the unfinished ceiling and walls helped to diminish the glare that only added to the low-grade throbbing inside Riker’s skull which was always just one stressful moment away from going supernova. He suffered from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, commonly referred to by the acronym CTE. It was caused by multiple concussions and something he had been living with since his days playing tight end in high school and college. Then an IED exploding on Route Irish outside of the Green Zone in Iraq changed everything. And though he had survived the blast and ensuing conflagration, his left leg was unsalvageable. The surgeons amputated it below the knee, leaving him with a five-inch-long nub of flesh and bone wrapped in shiny pink scar tissue. His head and neck and chest still bore scars where the burned dermis had been excised by very patient scalpel-wielding surgeons. Occasionally, he suffered phantom sensations so real it seemed as if he hadn’t lost the lower portion of his leg. Until that fateful day, the CTE symptoms had been somewhat manageable. Not so much now. The constant state of fight or flight brought on by the scourge of undead and the rise of predatory opportunists had exacerbated his symptoms.

“If the doc doesn’t come out real soon and take one of us in,” Riker said, “I’m going to go in and find him. And if he’s lucky, I’ll stop short of tearing one of his arms off and beating him to death with it.” It wasn’t hyperbole. An inability to check his anger when under extreme duress was another major byproduct of the explosion that had opened the Land Cruiser like a sardine tin and killed all three of his passengers. Being told by the commander of nearby Nellis Air Force base, the man currently in charge of the redoubt everyone called French, that the Bill of Rights had been suspended and learning that he and his friends would be held against their will indefinitely had started the ball rolling. He was grateful they had been allowed refuge inside French. With the first rumblings of the distant low-yield nuclear detonation already rolling across the desert, they could have just as easily been turned away from the military complex, leaving them to either suffer a quick death from the blast wave and superheated air to follow or die a slow death from a lethal dose of radiation. Still, Riker thought, literally being a slave to the Man was barely worth the tradeoff. The moment the complex commander everyone called Conk had broken the bad news to him and the others, doing so with a smile and an aw-shucks attitude, Riker had been planning his version of The Great Escape—one of the rare war films that he and his extremely cerebral late father had enjoyed watching together.

“How’s it going to go down?” Shorty asked. “Is the doc going the age before beauty route? My money says True Value is going in first.”

Uh-oh, thought Riker. This was not the time to start stirring the pot. Being ordered to see the doctor, with no explanation as to why, already had everyone on edge. The waiting was only adding to their collective unease. Shorty unnecessarily assigning nicknames only threw fuel on the fire.

Scowling, Tara leaned forward until her nose was dangerously close to touching Shorty’s nose. “It’s clear by the hardware store quip that you don’t think highly of Vern. Given what we’ve all been put through already, calling him Mr. Rossi seems appropriate.” As she paused in thought, her eyes never left an unflinching Shorty. “Who do you have going in first if beauty is the benchmark?” she asked. “Me, Lia … or you?”

Seventy-year-old Vern Rossi shook his head. Although he had been with the group for the least amount of time, one of the first things he had learned was to never take what Shorty had to say at face value. As Vern’s late father was wont to say about men like Shorty, men with a Napolean complex who didn’t give much thought to the consequences before running their mouths: The man was all hat and no cattle. It was a mystery to Vern how Lee, Tara, and Steve-O had endured Shorty’s constant banter during their cross-country trip from Florida. He hoped to hear the story recounted one day. He knew that had he been with the group during their 1,300-mile cross-country trek instead of holed up in his hardware store with his adult son, he would have set Shorty straight the first time the man crossed the line into topics that Vern didn’t want discussed in his presence. The two of them may have even had a roadside tussle or two along the way. Spry and wiry, Vern’s physique led people who didn’t know him to think he was closer to fifty than his true age. If he were a gambling man, he would have bet the house he could take Shorty in a fair fight. But since Shorty’s penchant for telling off-color jokes or making inappropriate comments at the most inopportune time was acceptable to the others, who was he to rock the boat now? Sitting back, eyes closed and with the beginning of a smile forming on his face, he waited for the fireworks.

Without missing a beat, Shorty said, “It’s obvious to me, Ms. Riker, that the doc would be so hard-pressed to choose just one that he would have no choice but to bring us all in simultaneously. And everybody knows there ain’t nothing wrong with a threesome.” He winked at Vern. “Especially one with as diverse and beautiful participants as yourselves.”

Lia flipped Shorty the bird. “You wish, perv.”

Tara said, “I knew you couldn’t resist finding a way to make this about sex.” She tapped a finger on her head. “I’m just surprised you’re giving us all an insight into what’s in that spank bank of yours. Because that’s as close to a ménage à trois you’re going to get outside of doing the horizontal mambo with a couple of defanged rotters.”

“Touché, Tara. I do love our verbal sparring.” Shorty clasped his hands and placed them atop his head. “The apocalypse would be very boring without you in it.”

“Ditto, Shorty. But, damn, you sure do know how to get under a girl’s skin.” No sooner had she said it than she regretted giving him material for yet another crude comment. To head him off at the pass, she broke eye contact, made a fist, and stalked across the hall. She was approaching the gray steel door, fist raised and about to give it a good pounding, when it sucked in and she found herself face to face with a man in a white lab coat who she’d never seen before.

Two days prior, minutes after they had been given sanctuary, they were escorted to a different part of the facility where a team of physicians made them strip and don open-in-the-back medical gowns. They were all put through a very demeaning physical inspection. During the twenty-four-hour quarantine that followed, they had been visited individually by three different physicians. This was the first time any of them had seen this owlish-looking man. He had a stethoscope around his neck and a clipboard in hand. His expression was impossible to read. On one hand, the lop-sided grin had Tara feeling a little like a canary under the watchful eye of a tabby cat. But the longer she held the man’s gaze, the more she began to think he was harboring a terrible secret, one he wanted very badly to share with her but was in no position to do so.

“You must be Tara Riker,” said the man, the grin never leaving his face.

“In the flesh.”

“Come on in.” He made a sweeping motion with one arm and moved aside.

Casting a furtive glance at her brother, Tara stepped across the threshold. No turning back now.

 

Chapter 3

 

Pleasant Hill, Iowa

 

Incoming calls from Horowitz’s radioman were blaring from the Oshkosh’s radio as Groot steered off the frontage road, the golf course filling up the rearview. Stealing a final glance in the oversized right-side wing mirror, he spotted the dead lieutenant’s prostrate corpse. Already, the zombies had mined his ribcage of all the juicy morsels. A pair of shirtless male zombies, their chests glistening red with fresh blood, seemed to be playing a game of tug-of-war with a long strand of lower intestine. Truth of the matter was that the monsters were aware of only the task at hand: cramming as much of the quivering pale organ into their greedy maws as possible.

Shoving the image into the back of his mind, Groot steered onto the overpass, the high-centered pickup and surrounding throng of zombies quickly filling the windshield. With just yards to go, the creatures on the periphery were slowly becoming aware of the noisy vehicle barreling toward them. The zombies pressing against the pickup, maybe two or three rows deep, remained focused on the meat in the cab. Whether they were just so enamored with the possibility of a meal or the approaching engine noise was drowned out by the combined din of their guttural moaning, Groot hadn’t a clue. With just a few seconds to go until first contact, he realized the same must be true for the two people in the truck, where the added noise of palms striking sheet metal and glass was no doubt amplified greatly inside the enclosed space.

The pair in the pickup was so focused on getting it off the drift of dead bodies, the driver working the steering wheel and pedals feverishly, the kid throwing himself from one side of the cab to the other—a vain attempt to get it rocking side to side—that they, too, were entirely unaware of the behemoth of a vehicle bearing down on them. All of that changed when Groot purposefully steered into a trio of orange traffic barrels, sending the first one airborne and the next two spinning away in different directions. The noise of the impact was loud inside the Oshkosh. Groot hoped it didn’t go unnoticed by the woman and kid inside the pickup.

Heads turned all around. The zombies trying to breach the pickup paused long enough to crane and try to see the source of the noise. In the pickup’s driver’s seat, the woman sat upright and locked her gaze on the Oshkosh. Loosening her death grip on the steering wheel, she mouthed “Thank God” and performed the sign of the cross. It was clear to Groot in that brief snippet in time that the woman had come to realize there was a strong possibility she and the kid were going to live to see another day.

Meanwhile, in the backseat, having just slammed his small frame hard against the inside of the driver’s side rear door, the action having no great effect on the pickup’s position relative to the road, the kid tapped the woman on the shoulder and pointed at the approaching military vehicle. In response, she nodded, said something to the kid that was lost on Groot, then turned around in the seat.

This is going to be tricky, thought Groot. There was no way the two were going to be able to escape the pickup via one of its doors. The dead were packed in too tight. It would be a different story if the pickup had a moonroof they could use to access the pickup’s roof. There, they would have the best chance of keeping out of the reach of the pale hands probing the air all around the pickup. The only way to egress the pickup evident to Groot was the small sliding window inset on the rear window. The kid might fit through the opening. The woman, who likely had wider hips and the usual female attributes up top, was going to have her work cut out for her.

The armored Oshkosh was slowing but still moving close to fifteen miles per hour when it came up against the outer ring of zombies. The sounds Groot knew all too well followed: wet meaty thuds, farting noises as gasses were propelled forcefully from rupturing abdomens, gunshot-like cracks as bones snapped in two, and, worse by a magnitude of ten, the hollow popping of the skulls of the dead bursting underneath eleven tons of steel and rubber coming to a slow-rolling halt. It was the kind of stuff nightmares were made of. Groot was fortunate he didn’t have a visual to go along with the morbid soundtrack.

A shudder transited the frame as Groot watched the dozen or so zombies being struck down by the Oshkosh’s massive front grille guard. The vehicle swayed left and right and finally lurched to a complete stop atop the two-foot-tall mound of slowly compressing zombie corpses.

Pinned between Groot’s door and the pickup’s left side was close to a dozen zombies, their arms upthrust and left with diminished range of movement. When the armored vehicle shifted unexpectedly, the hood taking on a leftward slant in relation to the horizon, Groot saw the eyes of one zombie bug from their sockets. There came a loud pop and the sharp crack of glass breaking as the zombie’s wildly misshapen head was forced through the imploding window. He saw the woman’s entire right side get hit with flying glass and clumps of brain matter as she frantically tried to worm her way into the backseat.

As the pale hands of the other trapped zombies finished what the first had started, their gnarled fingers pushing through the spiderwebbed glass and trying to snag hair or clothing, the woman managed to slither over the seatback. No more than a second after disappearing, Groot saw the woman pop back up, sledgehammer in hand, and begin to go at the rear window with it. Two swings and the rear glass was punched through with two fist-sized holes. A third swing sent the mostly intact sheet of glass peeling away from the rubber gasket keeping it in place. With the window out of the way, she tossed the sledge after. The kid came next. He popped up from the backseat and, with a little assistance from the woman, made his way into the load bed.

The woman didn’t follow the kid through the window. She lingered in the backseat area long enough to pass to the kid a large canvas bag. From the way the kid’s arm muscles corded up, Groot concluded that the bag contained something heavy. Guns and ammo? Maybe pictures and mementos taken from wherever they were fleeing? Once the bag was in the load bed, the kid, appearing to be acting on instructions from the woman, sat down atop the remnants of the punched-out window, pressed his back to the rear of the cab, and trapped his knees to his chest. Although the load bed was wide, the kid still was barely out of range of the reaching hands of the zombies nearest to him.

Groot got a good look at the woman as she was angling for the patch of load bed near the kid. She looked to be in her mid-twenties. He put her height somewhere close to six feet. Though she was wearing a Duke sweatshirt and baggy cargo pants, it was still clear to him she was no stranger to the gym. Tufts of dark hair poked out from under a blue ballcap. He couldn’t see her feet. If he had to guess, she was wearing something sturdy and functional. All put together, based on a dozen years spent sizing people up from afar, Groot concluded she knew how to take care of herself.

Leave the duffel was what Groot was thinking when the woman bent over and instead plucked the sledgehammer off the floor. With a determined look on her face, she lifted it high over her head. Ignoring the fingers of the dead tugging at her pants legs, she brought the sledge down atop the head of the zombie nearest her. And much like the zombie jammed up against the pickup, the one with its eyes bugging and dripping brains onto the pickup’s front seat, the blow to this one’s skull had the same effect. With the area of its brain responsible for primary motor function cleaved through by several pounds of steel and the impulses driving it to want to feed suddenly disrupted, the living corpse went completely limp.

On to the next one. The woman wasted no time. She hefted the sledge, still dripping with brain matter, and swung it in a right-to-left arc. The blow to the closest creature’s left temple drove its head into the zombie next door to it. Even though Groot was separated from the action by a couple of yards, and the Oshkosh’s window glass was a couple of inches thick and impervious to penetration by bullets fired by most weapons, he heard clearly the sonorous thwack of the zombie skulls coming together.

With the kid continuing to make himself small against the cab wall, the woman kept at it, bashing the brains of a dozen zombies in less time than it took Groot to kill Tolliver and eject his corpse onto the golf course green. Groot decided that underneath the Duke sweatshirt the woman had to be all muscle and sinew. And after all the exertion she had put into creating a buffer between herself and the multitude of dead still standing, she didn’t appear to be winded. Which explained to him why she was still among the living.

Having created a ten-foot-wide by three-foot-deep swath of truly dead corpses, the majority of them still upright and being held fast by the ones pushing in from behind, she dropped the sledge, grabbed the kid’s hand, and hauled him to his feet.

Groot banged a fist against the window. When the woman made eye contact, he pointed and mouthed, “Get on the hood.”

Shaking her head, she mouthed back, “Open a door, motherfucker.” Had he been able to hear the words in her voice instead of just reading them off her lips, the Boston accent would have added weight to the demand.

Groot shook his head while continuing to point to the hood. No way was he going to open a door and compromise the vehicle’s integrity. That could lead to all three of them joining the burgeoning ranks of the dead.

The kid had been watching the interaction. Once it dawned on him that to get atop the armored vehicle’s hood, not only was he going to have to cross the chasm, but he was going to have to do so over the straining arms of the zombies just outside of the sledge’s reach, he shook his head vehemently and dropped back down to his knees.

Saying something to the kid that Groot couldn’t hear, the woman tossed the canvas bag onto the Oshkosh’s hood. The sledge came next. As it struck the vehicle’s armored exterior, a loud clang reverberated inside the cab.

Under Groot’s watchful gaze, the woman helped the kid back to his feet. Bending at the waist, she threaded one arm through his legs and had him drape his upper body over her neck and back. In one fluid movement, she hooked her free arm around his neck and shoulders and stood up straight.

From experience, Groot knew that getting a person into a proper fireman’s carry—even someone smaller in stature than oneself—took a modicum of strength and coordination. Once again, it appeared the woman was not winded. Nor did she seem to be straining under the load.

Half expecting the transfer from the pickup to the Oshkosh’s hood to end in disaster, he watched her plant one boot on the bedrail. Then, inexplicably, she paused there for a beat. Groot guessed she was trying to decide between attempting to leap across the void or whether to use the zombie heads like stepping stones in a creek.

Having come to a decision, face a mask of concentration, the woman did the latter, pushing off the rail and stomping on the nearest unmoving zombie’s wide shoulders. Swinging her other leg forward, she guided her boot to a soft landing in the V-shaped hole she had previously bashed into the skull of a much shorter specimen. Still a couple of feet from the safety of the Oshkosh’s gently sloping hood, she leaned forward and pushed off on the foot currently displacing zombie brain matter from the compromised skull. With the kid weighing her down, the intended leap ended up being more of a semi-controlled faceplant.

As the kid came down hard on the Oshkosh’s hood, the noise from the impact ringing much louder than that of the tossed sledge, he had the wind knocked out of him.

Though her legs from the knees down were still sticking out into space when the woman banged down on the hood, miraculously she had retained her hold on the wheezing kid, keeping him from sliding off the hood and into the ready hands of the dead crowding the passenger side.

As the kid realized his predicament and took hold of one of the vehicle’s hood-mounted tiedown points, a zombie managed to wrap its fingers around the woman’s ankle.

Gathering his wits, mouth still opening and closing like a fish out of water, the kid got to his knees. Gripping the nearby roof-mounted CROWS mast with one hand, the kid threaded his fingers through the woman’s belt near the small of her back. With the woman introducing the lug sole of one boot to the leering face of the zombie trying to drag the leg to its snapping teeth, the kid made eye contact with Groot through the windshield and shouted, “Back up!”

Slamming the transmission into Reverse, Groot pressed down on the accelerator. Resisting the urge to mat the pedal, a move that could lead to breaking the kid’s hold on the woman, Groot kept the pressure on the pedal constant and steered hard left.

As the Oshkosh commenced a J-turn that had its front end swinging away from the mangled pickup, the brained zombies that had been trapped there toppled to the road, one after the other, until all that was left to contend with was the lone zombie clutching the woman’s leg and the two dozen ambulatory specimens chasing the retreating vehicle.

Unable to break the creature’s hold, even after caving its nose in and setting its jaw askew with several perfectly aimed heel strikes, the woman released one hand from the hood, picked up the sledge, and twisted her upper body toward the immediate threat.

The left-handed swing with the sledge was clumsy and ineffective. The blunt end came down hard on the zombie’s fingers, crushing a couple of them but doing nothing to loosen its hold. She grimaced. Clearly, she had suffered collateral damage from the blow.

Groot was nearing the end of the turn, the dash-mounted monitor showing the overpass railing looming close to the backup camera, when he saw the fear in the kid’s eyes. His neck muscles were straining. Sweat had broken out on his forehead. It was clear he was close to letting go of the woman’s belt.

In the next moment, as Groot was braking and beginning to spin the steering wheel back around, he saw the sledge handle spin in the woman’s hand. He was getting the Oshkosh moving back the way he had come, the herd of dead closing fast, the one on the woman’s leg barely keeping pace, when the woman delivered the second blow. She hit the zombie’s wrist square on, the wedge-shaped end of the sledge head breaking bones and severing tendons, the combined effect causing the pallid hand to slip away.

Dragging herself fully onto the hood, both legs tucked under her body and one arm wrapped around the kid, the woman locked eyes with Groot and mouthed, “Get us the hell out of here.”

Groot was already on it, the transmission in Drive and the rig slaloming through static vehicles, upended traffic barrels, and the zombies reaching for it as it passed them by.

When Groot had covered half the distance to the golf course, he braked and pulled the Oshkosh gently to the side of the frontage road. Once the vehicle was no longer moving, the woman and kid rose to their knees and surveyed their surroundings. Meanwhile, Groot was checking his wing mirror. In the middle distance, just coming off the overpass and spilling onto the road behind the Oshkosh, was a large group of zombies. He estimated he was looking at fifty or sixty of them. Thankfully for his reluctant passengers, so far none of the zombies were head down and sprinting. Which was a good thing. Because the opposite end of the overpass and the ramp leading to it was crowded by a pack of zombies several hundred strong that had splintered from the main herd still wreaking havoc on the inert vehicles amassed on the interstate below.

Swinging his gaze forward, Groot saw that behind the woman and kid, a block or so distant, the zombies that had been kneeling and feeding on the man he had killed were just now rising from the green. Groot had no way of knowing if one or more of them were fast movers. He hadn’t watched their approach earlier. One moment he was pushing Tolliver from the cab, the next the zombies were crowding the passenger-side door. There was no real consensus among the soldiers Groot had been riding with as to why a certain specimen possessed the ability to sprint. If the scientists had figured it out, they hadn’t shared the info with the higher-ups prior to them all going dark. And it wasn’t as if the president or a member of his cabinet could just go on television and address the public or push out an emergency SMS message to everyone’s smartphone. Those days were over.

The woman was on the ground first.

With no zombies swiping at him, the kid displayed more agility climbing off the Oshkosh than he had getting into the bed of the stricken pickup.

The woman moved to the driver’s side door, looked up at Groot, and her mouth started moving. He couldn’t hear what she was saying, but he read her lips. She wanted in. No doubt about it.

Shaking his head, Groot said, “Strip off your clothes.”

Based on the woman’s immediate response, a defiant shaking of the head and a single middle finger directed at Groot, he concluded she was damn good at lip reading.

“Brains and blood all over you,” he went on. “You’re a walking biohazard.”

Mouth moving a mile a minute, not a word of it decipherable by Groot, the kid started tugging on the woman’s sleeve and gesturing frantically toward the golf course.

Groot looked across the hood. One of the zombies, chest red with blood, man boobs bouncing wildly, was loping onto the frontage road. It wasn’t a slow mover. Nor was it a “Bolt” as Horowitz had taken to calling the sprinters. But it was jogging toward them, a funny hitch in its step, and closing the distance much faster than Groot was comfortable with. He figured the woman had less than a minute to make up her mind and act. Had the zombie been a Bolt, Groot would have had a decision of his own to make.

Coming to realize that she and the kid were between the proverbial rock and a hard place, the woman dropped the sledge and bag and removed the ballcap. Groot saw that her hair was braided in rows tight to her scalp. He also noticed that her left ear was deformed. Cauliflower ear. It was something that afflicted boxers, wrestlers, and mixed martial arts fighters.

Quickly shedding the sweatshirt, the woman tossed it unceremoniously to the road. The pants didn’t come off as easily. It took a bit of hopping and a lot of tugging to get the cargo pants off without removing her leather boots. Clad only in a black sports bra and like-colored bikini briefs, the woman retrieved the sledge and bag from the road.

Thirty seconds after modesty took a backseat to the woman’s will to survive, Groot was reaching across the cabin and opening the passenger door for her.

Eschewing her own safety, the woman stepped aside and helped the kid climb aboard.

Seeing the young survivor up close led Groot to realize he had misjudged his age. Instead of a preteen, this one had to have been in high school prior to the shit hitting the fan. The dead giveaway was the fledgling mustache and strong body odor that had followed him into the cab. And when the teen thanked Groot for saving him—the accent rooted in the East, probably Virginia—the deep tone to his voice further dispelled Groot’s initial impression.

The passenger door slamming shut drew Groot’s attention back to the jogging zombie. It was getting dangerously close to the woman, who was standing a few feet from the passenger door and brandishing the sledge like a baseball bat.

As Groot instructed the teenager to reach back and open the reverse-hinged rear passenger-side door, his eyes remained fixed on the drama unfolding outside. With maybe ten feet separating the woman and the zombie closing on her, she crouched low, choked up on the sledge’s wooden handle, and stuck her right elbow out. The stance was solid. Something a batting coach would be proud of. At the last moment, with the zombie baring its teeth and both arms outstretched, the bloody fingers straining to get ahold of the prey, the woman lifted her front foot and swung for the fence. As her leading foot came back down, the sledge tracking a right-to-left arc with a slight upward trajectory, she opened her hips and pushed off with her right foot.

Being a huge fan of the Chicago Cubs’ Anthony Rizzo, Groot marveled at the mechanics of her swing, which was upstaged only by her chiseled physique. As he’d suspected, she was all sinew and muscle; the washboard abs the crowning jewel to a body that was no stranger to the inside of a gym. His momentary lapse in concentration was shattered when the zombie’s face met the blunt end of the sledge. The thing’s head took on an uneven shape and shards of broken teeth pelted the Oshkosh, the accompanying sound a lot like hail striking a tin roof. Lifted off its feet by the sudden and very violent collision, the woman’s perfect follow-through altering its course, the zombie careened face-first into the armored vehicle.

“That’ll do it,” said the kid as he twisted back around in his seat.

Yanking the rear door the rest of the way open, the woman tossed the bag inside.

“Get rid of the sledge,” Groot commanded. “We’ll find you another.”

Without protest, the woman dropped the sledge and clambered aboard.

Before the woman could pull the door shut behind her, Groot had steered the Oshkosh around the zombie corpse and had the big vehicle moving west, along the road fronting the golf course.

“Well, this is awkward,” said the woman. “I’m nearly naked and totally unarmed.”

Groot met her gaze in the rearview. “Clearly, you’re not modest.” Averting his eyes, he reached behind his seat, fumbled around until his fingers found what he was looking for, then passed the woman an Army-issue MultiCam blouse.

Examining the offering, the woman traced a finger along the nametape. “Who is Tolliver?” she asked, dropping her gaze to Groot’s chest. “And more importantly, Sergeant Harris … where are your dog tags?”

Groot said nothing. There would be time for talking later. Maybe even time to confess a couple of sins, the cardinal one he had just committed chief among them.

Gripping the steering wheel two-handed, he braced and drove the Oshkosh over the curb and onto the golf course. The long travel suspension eating up the impact, he wheeled through the gap in the perimeter fence and drove onto the green, making sure to steer wide right of the MultiCam-clad corpse lying in its own pooled blood. Following the tire tracks left by the National Guard convoy on its way in, Groot sped across the fairway, his main goal: to get as far away from rally point Bravo as possible.

 

Chapter 4

 

Tara’s visit with the doctor lasted all of ten minutes, most of it spent checking boxes on a form and answering probing questions. After the doctor sent her on her way and the door had closed at her back, she remained standing in the hallway, her gaze bouncing from person to person.

“Well?” said Riker, his headache now so excruciating that he had taken to shielding his eyes with one baseball-mitt-sized hand.

“It was basically a psyche exam. The good Doctor Payne … yep, that’s his name … he basically wanted to know how I’m adjusting to my new circumstance.”

Vern stood. “Circumstance? That’s chilling. What did you tell him?”

Shorty shot from his chair, sending it crashing into the wall. “Hopefully, you told him to fuck himself and that you want to get out of this place ASAP.”

Tara stared down on Shorty. “He didn’t cow me if that’s what you’re trying to say.”

“Not at all,” Shorty assured her. “I know you’re tough as nails.” He shook his head. “It’s just that my gut is telling me we can’t trust this guy. I get the feeling he’s as crooked as a dog’s hind leg. Or at least crooked as that fucked-up smile of his.”

“At least give us the short version,” Lia insisted. “That way, we can all be on the same page.”

Tara gestured toward the closed door. “I didn’t lie about anything. He said he’d be out in a minute. It’s going to take longer than that. We better save it for later.” She reached into a pocket and came out with a handful of blister packets. “I snatched these when he dipped into the closet.” She stuffed them back into her pocket. “Both back pockets are full, too. He’s got a whole box of them.”

“What are they?” Lia asked.

“They’re potassium iodide tablets. Supposed to protect your thyroid from the effects of radiation exposure. It’s not a magic bullet. Just kind of a stopgap. Still, it’s best to keep from being exposed at all.”

Shorty spun the chair around and sat back down. Looking up at Tara, he said, “That was gangster-level shit.” He briefly bowed his head. Regaining eye contact, he went on, saying, “I’m sorry for getting in your grill, Tara. I’m just so fucking stressed. I was getting used to not having to answer to anyone. Who did he say is next up to bat?”

Tara shrugged. “He didn’t say.” Brow softening, she accepted Shorty’s apology. “I get it. We’re all stressed, too.”

Lia was about to speak when the doctor opened the door and stuck his head out. Glancing at the clipboard, he said, “Vern Rossi?”

Exchanging glances with Lia, Shorty said, “Well, there goes my theory.”

Lia shook her head. She didn’t even have the energy to flip him off again.

The doctor ushered Vern into the room and closed the door behind them.

Riker said, “I don’t like this.”

 

***

 

Vern was in and out in under ten minutes. As they waited for the next one of them to be called in, he recounted his experience. “The good doctor didn’t bother to have me fill out any questionnaires,” he explained. “He had a copy of my old service record as well as a summary of every visit with my doctor at the VA up until the Romero outbreak.”

“They’re still able to tap into DoD databases,” commented Riker. “Interesting.”

The doctor poked his head into the hall and called Riker in.

Ten minutes later, Riker emerged, red in the face and walking with a pair of crutches. His fingers were threaded through the laces of the Salomon still shod on the prosthetic leg’s articulated foot. With each step he took forward, the prosthetic swung pendulum-like, the ring of metal on metal as it struck the crutches echoing in the narrow confines.

Vern said, “Did he have your file, too?”

Riker nodded. To Shorty’s questioning look, he said, “Routine inspection of my stump. The doctor shooed me out and told me to put it on out here in the hall. I’m relieved he didn’t attempt to keep it.” Shorty didn’t get a chance to probe further because the doctor reappeared, glanced at the clipboard, then called his name.

Shorty was in the room for less than five minutes. Emerging, he looked the others over, saying, “Doc Payne hates me.” He returned to his folding chair, sat down on it backwards, rested his crossed arms on the seatback, and bowed his head. “I didn’t get the old one-finger oil check. No spread the cheeks, lift the boys and cough. Doc Payne didn’t even have me don one of those breezy-in-the-back gowns. Had he done so and gotten a look at my pasty white bum, I’m pretty sure he would have been so captivated by it that he couldn’t have resisted giving me the full workup.” When his attempt at humor didn’t garner the desired attention—good or otherwise—he lifted his head. First person he set eyes on was Lia. She was standing and pointing a finger at the door. It was still open, the doctor still filling up the doorway.

The doctor didn’t acknowledge Shorty. Instead, he flashed that crooked half-smile at Lia and waved her into the room ahead of him.

 

***

 

Lia’s doctor visit lasted just north of thirty minutes. When she showed her face in the hall, she was carrying the clunky prosthetic she had been wearing when she went in. Vern had fashioned it for her out of odds and ends taken from his hardware store. In its place on her right leg was a shiny new prosthetic. It looked a lot like Riker’s, all carbon fiber and polished stainless steel. The properly sized artificial foot, the one thing Vern’s prosthetic lacked, was shod with a New Balance tennis shoe. It, too, looked brand new.

The doctor didn’t linger. He said, “I want to see you all again in two days. Same bat place, same bat time,” and disappeared into his office.

Riker had replaced his prosthetic and was standing when Lia exited the room. He was holding the crutches and eager to give them back to the doctor. Struck speechless by the confirmation they would be underground for at least two more days, he just stood there, crutches in hand, and watched the doctor as he reentered his office and shut the door. The snick of the lock being thrown was loud in the hall. To Riker, it was just another fuck you in a long line of them.

Meeting Shorty’s accusatory gaze, Lia said, “No, smartass, the doctor didn’t give me a full workup.”

“But he did give you a new wheel,” Tara noted. “Thing looks quality.” She regarded Vern. “No disrespect to your wheel, Mr. Rossi. You did your best with what you had.”

Riker moved in close, went to one knee, and gave the prosthetic closer scrutiny. “It is quality. Nice dampener. Where’d the doc get it?”

“I didn’t ask.” She made a face. “There’s something else.”

Riker rose and put a hand on her shoulder. “What is it?” he asked, concerned.

“Better not be radiation,” Shorty said.

“Shut up about that,” Tara shot back. “And remember what I said about the topic … do not mention the unseen enemy around Steve-O. No sense adding another bogeyman to the mix. Especially one he can’t see or smell. As far as we’re all concerned”—she patted her pocket—“these are vitamins.”

Shorty mimed zipping his lip.

Directing his gaze at Lia, Riker stuck his arms out and shrugged. Universal semaphore for spit it out.

“He drew blood,” Lia divulged. “That was after he asked me a million questions about the bite and the emergency amputation of my leg. He was pawing my stump and grunting and muttering to himself.” She threw a hard shiver. “Dude was giving off Dr. Frankenstein vibes.”

“I hate to say it,” Vern added, “but he strikes me more Dr. Mengele than some fictional character.”

Shorty said, “All this talking about groping nubs is making me hungry. Let’s get some dinner.”

Riker looked at his watch. “Too late. The DFAC is closed. We better get back. I have a proposal, but I don’t want to voice it out in the open. Never know who’s watching and listening.” Leaving the crutches propped against the door at an angle that ensured they would fall inward and surprise the doctor when he opened the door, Riker turned and started back the way they had come.

“We won’t go hungry,” Vern called ahead. “I pocketed some extra food during lunch service.”

“Oh great,” grumbled Shorty. “Crackers and ketchup packets. Just what I wanted for dinner.”

“Keep it up and you’ll get nothing,” Vern called back. “You ever heard the saying beggars can’t be choosers?”

Shorty said, “Ever heard?” and flashed Vern the bird.

 

***

 

After accessing the elevator with the keycard and riding it to their floor, Riker used it to swipe them through the door to their quarters. The door opened into the communal area, a thirty by forty room with a rectangular dining table on one end and a low coffee table on the other. There was seating for eight around the former. The latter, a dark walnut affair, had parked around it like spokes on a wheel six low-slung chairs complete with wooden legs and avocado-green cushions. White Stetson perched atop his head, Steve-O was sitting at the far end of the dining table and drinking from a bottled water. In front of him was a pair of large paper bags and a short stack of paper plates. Letting his keycard dangle by the lanyard around his neck, Riker said, “Someone went up and got your hat for you?”

Shaking his head, Steve-O said, “I went down in the elevator with Robert. He let me go in and get my hat out of Large Marge.” He smiled wide. “I pretended I didn’t remember which vehicle my hat was in. Robert let me search both rigs. My hat isn’t the only thing I got.”

“Good work,” Shorty put in. “The Lennie Small routine worked better than we thought it might.”

Steve-O said, “When I got on the food serving line, I pretended like I had forgotten all their names. When it was time to switch out the mashed potatoes, I told Robert I couldn’t remember how to do it.” He smiled wide. “He had to show me again. I could tell he wasn’t very happy.”

Shorty rubbed his hands together. “What else did you take out of Marge? Please tell me you got Shocky for me.”

Grinning at the thought, Tara said, “And how would he smuggle that thing past Robert? Stick it down his pants? I know he’s a grown-ass man and all. But he’s not that grown.”

Steve-O said, “Ewww, Tara. Thanks for the visual. What if Robert saw it and thought I popped a boner? He might have thought I’m sweet on him.” He shook his head vehemently. “No, siree … I like the ladies.”

Shorty said, “Back to Shocky. Was she still in the Roamer … on the floorboard by my seat?”

“It was nowhere to be found,” Steve-O conceded. “But they did leave this in Dolly. It was under the front seat.” He reached behind his back and dragged Riker’s Randall fixed-blade knife from the waistband of his denim jeans. Handing it over, he said, “There’s more,” and produced a small black pistol. It, too, had been secreted in his waistband. And as Riker had taught him, he kept his finger away from the trigger and the muzzle pointed at the floor as he brought it out into the open. “I already checked. It’s loaded. And the safety is on. I also found the two spare magazines for it.” He smiled again. “Now I know where you like to hide my gun, Lee Riker.”

“Did you see my pistol or the pair of MP7s we took from the cache?” Riker asked.

“Nope,” Steve-O said.

While Riker would have preferred his SIG Legion, the little .22 SIG Mosquito would have to do. On the upside, if they got out of here, ammunition for it shouldn’t be too hard to find.

“Was everything else as we left it? The satellite phone? Two-way radios? How about the food we took from the RV outside of the Navajo rez? Most importantly”—he paused and locked eyes with Steve-O—“did you see Dolly’s fob?”

Steve-O nodded. “Yeppers on all of the above.”

Vern said, “Which makes me think they’re eventually going to let us go.”

“Eventually isn’t soon enough,” said Riker. “I can’t stand the idea of all this rock over my head. And lest we forget, Benny and Rose are all alone at Trinity.”

“No, they’re not,” Steve-O said. “Dozer is with them. He is a good zombie alarm.”

“That he is,” Riker said.

“Wade and Sarah should have already returned from their last mission,” Vern noted. “When we left Trinity, Benny’s only project was to widen the clearing to accommodate a much larger helo. Pretty sure he won’t do something stupid like coming to look for us. It’s only been three days.”

“This Ronin Protocol I’ve heard people whispering about could have changed Wade and Sarah’s mission,” replied Riker. “While I’m not pretending to know what’s happening out there, I do know what a ronin is.”

Steve-O hit Riker with a questioning look.

Shorty beat Riker to the punch, saying, “A ronin is a masterless samurai whose fate is to roam the countryside in search of either an honorable task to undertake or a new shogun to serve. The name alone has me thinking the military is now operating autonomously … just like the ronin. The Lazarus bunker”—he spread his arms and looked at the low ceiling—“and this bunker … and all those little dots on the map pulled from Lazarus are, in my opinion, part of a broader plan. We already know the bunkers were built to house important people in government and the military should the United States come under attack or fall victim to an act of God. Continuation of government is the real goal.”

“And if COG fails,” Vern put in, “the military is rudderless. Hence the Ronin Protocol.” He stared at Shorty. “I think you’re onto something.”

Tara said, “I bet they didn’t have zombies on their bingo card when they were building these places.”

Riker stared at the ceiling. “Nobody did.” Getting back on track, he said, “So if Robert took Steve-O down three levels, then either they transported the rigs down there in a very large elevator, or somewhere in this place is one of those corkscrewing ramps like you see in stadium parking garages.”

Lia and Tara pulled out chairs and sat across from Steve-O. They each took a bag and started removing the food Steve-O had brought from the DFAC. The man had even thought to liberate some real silverware to go along with the paper plates he had procured.

Vern passed bottled waters all around and then staked out a spot at the end of the table near Steve-O.

As he was wont to do when he was chewing on a problem, Shorty started pacing the floor.

Riker sat at the end of the table opposite Steve-O. Speaking to no one in particular, he said, “Considering the size of the blast doors up top, I think the elevator theory carries more weight than them fashioning a ramp from solid granite. If a shipyard can make one big enough to haul warplanes to a carrier deck …”

Shorty stopped pacing long enough to ask Steve-O to describe everything that had transpired from the time he hung up his apron to his return to their quarters.

Swallowing a bite of lukewarm mashed potatoes, Lia said, “I’ll take notes. Give me a sec to find pen and paper.”

“Good idea,” said Riker, snatching up a slice of ham with his bare fingers.

Lia found a pen and pad of paper in a drawer filled with boardgames.

Looking at Steve-O, Riker instructed him to close his eyes and visualize where Robert took him. “While you’re doing that, recount to Lia exactly what you’re seeing and doing.”

Closing his eyes, Steve-O said, “I shall do my best,” and took it from the top.

When Steve-O was finished, maybe three minutes later, Shorty said, “Did your pass key work on the door to what you’re calling a ‘lower garage’?”

Steve-O shook his head. “Nope. Robert used the chef’s card. It was hanging in the chef’s office.”

“Nobody was in there?” Lia asked.

“More importantly,” Tara interjected before Steve-O could answer, “was the door to the chef’s office open or closed when you got there?”

“Open,” Steve-O said. “Chef goes in and out a lot. He disappears for long stretches. Robert says Chef smokes like a chimney. He does it in the walk-in refrigerator.”

“No better place to smoke in an enclosed environment like this,” Tara added. “The exhaust fan filters out the incriminating odor.”

“There’s one more thing,” Steve-O said, reaching into his partially buttoned denim shirt. “When nobody was looking, I took Chef’s keycard.”

“That wasn’t part of the plan,” Riker said, palming his recently shaved head. “I had hoped to collect a little more info about conditions outside before we committed to breaking out of here.”

Tara said, “Bro … you’re the one who’s always saying we need to ‘improvise.’”

Lia nodded and placed a hand on Riker’s thigh. “She’s right, you know.”

“Doesn’t matter now,” Shorty said. “Damage is done.” He winked at Steve-O. “By that, I mean the good kind of damage.”

Vern rose and left the table. When he returned from their shared sleeping area, he was carrying a pen and pad of paper of his own. “Since our backs are against the wall and we’re on the clock, we better wargame this. If we all know our roles, there’s a greater chance we can get out of here without having to use that little popgun.”

Before Vern could get started, there came a knock at the door.

Riker rose.

Lia tore the sheets with the notes from the pad, folded them neatly, and stuffed them into her pocket. “Tuck that pass back into your shirt,” she whispered to Steve-O.

“Who is it?” Riker asked.

Nothing.

There was no way for Riker to see who had come calling. No peephole in the steel door. No monitor showing a feed from a security camera like they had at Trinity.

Grabbing the handle and tugging on the door, he thought, How bad can it be?

It was bad. Standing ramrod straight a foot from the door, nearly as tall and muscled as Riker, was the base commander, a two-star major general whose nametape read Conklin.

“Come in,” Riker said. “Mi casa es su casa.”

“It’s not a social call,” said the two-star. “I want you to come with me.”

Riker craned to see past the doorway. A pair of airmen stood in the hall, off the general’s right shoulder. They wore MultiCam ACUs and held their M4 carbines at the low ready.

Shrugging, Riker offered his wrists to be cuffed.

Ignoring the offer, Conklin said, “Follow me,” turned on a heel and set a course for the nearby elevator.

Addressing his friends over one shoulder, Riker said, “Be right back. I hope.”

 

Chapter 5

 

“You haven’t uttered a word for close to an hour,” the woman said to Groot. “Whatsamatter, Harris, cat got your tongue?”

Remembering the scene in Fargo, where one hired hitman berated his partner in crime about the same tightlipped routine, Groot’s resolve crumbled. “Harris isn’t my name. People call me Groot. It’s a nickname my first lieutenant gave me. He was a real prick. Anyway, believe it or not, it has something to do with my height and my real surname.”

Less than a week prior, when Groot was still a civilian and trying to evade contact with the multitudes of walking dead as well as the sizeable chunk of society that had gone lawless, he would have gladly offered up his name and a short bio. Now, however, when seemingly everyone he got to know on a first-name basis ended up zombie chow shortly thereafter, he was content to go by what he had only recently learned was the name of the tree-like creature in Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy franchise.

“Where is the uniform with your real name on it?” asked the teen. “Are you hiding from someone or something?”

“It’s complicated,” replied Groot. Truth was, every time he heard his real name spoken, it reminded him of the family he had lost. He regarded the teen. “You haven’t told me your name.” Flicking his gaze to the rearview, he went on, saying, “It finally dawned on me about thirty minutes ago who your lady friend is.”

They were twenty-five miles north by west of the golf course and had put close to forty miles between them and rally point Bravo. Having just been forced to exit Interstate 80 because of a horrendous accident, Groot had selected an east/west-running surface street that paralleled the nearby interstate. All around them were clear signs Urbandale, Iowa had not escaped being ravaged by the undead hordes. Half-eaten bodies lay in the street and on the sidewalks. A thoroughly looted chain drugstore, the roof sagging, its windows reduced to pebbled glass, still smoldered after the conflagration that had left its brick exterior walls streaked with fingers of black soot.

“The ear is a dead giveaway to my profession,” said the woman. “It always leads to me getting noticed.”

The teen said, “My name’s Chance Derosier.” He rose off his seat and studied the woman. “How does this soldier know you, Miss Sloane?”

For the first time in a long while, Groot cracked a smile. “Because Miss Sloane ‘The Stone’ Drake is arguably the best mixed martial arts fighter to ever set foot in the Octagon.”

Chance’s eyes went wide. “You fight in the UFC.”

“Fought,” Sloane corrected. “Past tense.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?” asked Chance.

“I don’t like to toot my own horn,” she replied, worrying the end of one of the short braids. She felt weird without a hat on her head. She was also still half-dressed. While she didn’t mind wearing only a sports bra and skimpy bottoms in the Octagon, even with millions of eyes on her, her new opponents dictated a different uniform. Since the dead began to rise and hunt the living, she always layered on the clothes and usually wore a leather jacket and gloves. The former items, along with her well-worn Balance Studios ball cap, were back there on the road fronting the golf course where she had reluctantly shed them. The latter she had inadvertently left in the Chevy pickup and were lost forever. She really liked the Langlitz Columbia leather she had stripped off an undead biker chick that almost punched her ticket outside of Boston. It would be near impossible to replace.

Groot steered around a wrecked crotch rocket motorcycle. There must have been one hell of an impact with whatever it hit because the front forks were bent at an unusual angle. The still attached wheel was a mess of broken spokes and misshapen metal. The rider had fared much worse. He, or she, had come to rest against a distant curb at the end of a long trail of dried blood. All that was left was a shredded leather jacket containing ribs and a spinal column, a full-face helmet still strapped to a partially severed head, and, on the feet at the end of its splayed-out legs, a multicolored pair of leather boots. The flesh and organs had been consumed by the dead. Conceivably, thought Groot, having been infected with Romero during the attack, if the brain remained intact, the head could have reanimated. He’d seen it before. He had also witnessed half of a man-turned-zombie dragging its stunted corpse down the road, the one functioning arm and the desire to feed on the flesh of the living keeping it in the hunt. The rider had gone down with the helmet’s smoked visor in the down position, sparing Groot from knowing if the eyes behind the Plexiglass shield were tracking the Oshkosh as it passed close by.

Skin crawling from the mere thought of those shark-like eyes boring in on him, Groot said, “You were supposed to fight in November, right? UFC 205 … Alvarez versus McGregor. I had big wagers on both you and Connor to take your matches.”

“We’ll never know now, will we?” Sloane sat back hard in the contoured seat. “The president made it sound like this would all be over in a few days.”

“Two weeks to stop the spread,” Chance interjected. “We all see how that went. Bunch of retards north of Richmond, if you ask me.”

Eyes searching for a sign that would direct them back to the interstate, Groot said, “Are you from Virginia, Chance?”

Parroting Sloane, Chance said, “Was. Past tense. Farmville. Little town in central Virginia. ‘Bout seven thousand folks spread out over two counties. Just me and my pops staying in a singlewide before Romero happened. Mom died right after she had me. Brain aneurysm, they said.”

“I’m sorry that happened to you,” Groot said. Returning to searching for an arterial that would take them back to the interstate, he added, “How old are you, Chance?”

After a long moment of silence, the thrumming of knobby tires on pavement the only noise inside the cab, Chance said, “I’m seventeen. Going to be eighteen December twelfth. I’m a bit small for my age. Doctors say my bone development is a year or two behind normal. Saw the X-rays myself. Couldn’t make heads nor tails of them. But I took their word for it anyway.”

“Had me fooled,” said Groot. “Thought you were pushing twenty.”

Chance turned and faced Groot. “Bullshit,” he shot. “Everyone tries that crap on me. My dad calls it patronizing talk. I don’t like it.”

Changing the subject, Groot said, “What’s your relationship with Sloane?”

Sloane had been busy scrubbing her face and neck with a baby wipe taken from a pack she’d found in an Army-issue duffel bag in the backseat. Poking her head in the very limited space between the front seats, she regarded Chance. “Do you want to tell the story? Or do you want me to?”

After deliberating for a few seconds, Chance said, “I’ll tell it. If I get anything wrong, you jump right in.”

“Deal,” said Sloane, and she went back to what she was doing.

“Me and Dad drove to Philly to attend his big brother’s funeral. Cancer took Uncle Jack a week before all this started. I guess he got lucky in that regard.”

Seeing the sign he was looking for, Groot steered off the arterial. With the freeway entrance looming, he said, “How old was your uncle?”

“Fifty-five. He was a Green Beret in the Tenth Group Special Forces out of Fort Kit Carson in Colorado. Saw a lot of action … that he never wanted to talk about. He was out a couple of years before the Towers fell. He wanted to get back in. He had an honorable discharge and didn’t burn bridges after.” Chance shook his head. “Assholes wouldn’t let him re-up to go and fight them over there. His drinking had done a number on his liver. At least that’s what they told him. After that slap in the face, he worked in the slaughterhouse for bullshit pay until the day he got the diagnosis.” Chance rapped a knuckle on the dash. “I was going to follow in his footsteps. Become a Ranger, then try out for the Teams. I signed early with a recruiter and everything. Dad even backed me on it. Cosigned for me, too. I was all set to ship off for Basic in January.”

Groot looked across the cab. “Eleven Bravo?”

Chance nodded. “Did you know that the shortest Green Beret was four-foot-nine and a hundred pounds soaking wet? I’m already four-ten and about a hundred and ten. Captain Richard J. Flaherty fought in Vietnam. He was highly decorated, too.” Chance hung his head. “He died homeless in Florida. The Giant Killer was killed by a fuckin’ hit-and-run driver.”

“It’s not the size of the dog in the fight; it’s the size of the fight in the dog,” Groot put in. “I’m sure you would have made a great soldier. Probably would have sailed through the selection process. I promise that is not patronizing talk.”

Chance said nothing.

“What happened to your dad?”

“He went out to get us some cheesesteaks and didn’t come back to the motel. By then, the phone service was spotty. I tried him with the landline. No answer.”

“I’m sorry,” Groot said. “I remember those first days. All my calls out went straight to voicemail. Some texts went through. Most came back as undelivered.”

“I sat in that motel for a day and a half,” Chance said. “It wasn’t a nice one, either. No room service. And it was in a bad part of Philly.”

“There’s a good part of Philly?” Sloane interjected. “Cause if there is, I ain’t seen it. I grew up in Boston. But for the last six years, I’ve been living and training in the so-called City of Brotherly Love.”

Groot did the math in his head. “If your online bio is correct, that’s about a quarter of your life. I think that makes you an expert on the streets of Philly.” He accelerated back onto I-80 and pulled into the far-left lane. Amazingly, there was a pair of colorful imports up ahead. And they were getting at it. Doing double the speed limit, looked like. Street racers making the most of the new world, he guessed.

“I’m twenty-five,” Sloane said. “Prime of my fighting life. And just like Chance, my dream was snuffed by the government’s ineptitude. Training for my next fight with a Gracie-approved team. Got a few million in the bank. But what good is that if I can’t get to it? My phone’s a brick now. My trainer went out to find some food for us. He never returned. No doubt the eaters got him. By then, my sparring partner and the other fighters had already left. Thought it would be safer at one of the shelters the mayor was going on about. I stayed behind. Chance showed up a few days after. He wasn’t bitten. Seemed like he wouldn’t be a drag on me if … when I decided to get the hell out of Philly.” She sat back in her seat. “The rest, as they say, is history.”

“Chance won the lottery,” Groot said. “My phone was a brick, too. Kept it just in case. Good thing I did, because it came alive a couple of days ago. And so did a lot of the other smartphones on the Guard soldiers I was with at the time. Might want to power yours on and check it for messages.” He hooked a thumb over his shoulder. “What’s in the bag? And why weren’t you armed with something easier to wield than a sledgehammer? Couldn’t scrounge up a pistol or shotgun?”

Chance answered the question for her. “The bag is full of breaking and entering tools. Crowbar, hammer, screwdrivers. There’s a thing you use to get into cars without the key. A siphon pump to get gas is in there, too. We took the tools from the gym when we finally left there. The rest was already in the first car we stole. It’s how we’ve been getting food and new wheels. As for weapons, Sloane’s trainer said they were damn near impossible to own in Philly. Getting a concealed carry … forget about it. He said only the police and the criminals were armed before Romero.”

“Don’t tell him all of our secrets,” Sloane said. “At least not until he tells us what he’s doing all alone in a multi-million-dollar military vehicle. Or why he has no dog tags. Or where Tolliver went.” She was back between the seats, head turned in Groot’s direction. “Was that Tolliver bleeding out on the green back there? Is that why you’re running? And, most importantly, since we’re along for the ride, where are you running to?”

“Looked like a dead zombie to me,” Groot lied. “The military is fractured,” he continued. “I got separated from my unit. That’s why I’m solo.”

“Where are you going?” Chance pressed.

“West,” Groot answered.

“The West Coast?” Sloane said incredulously. “Because if it’s anything like the East Coast, that’s a bad fucking idea.” She peered out the window. Watched a group of ten or so zombies slide by on the right. They were surrounding a car parked on the shoulder. If there was a person alive inside the tiny sedan, God help them.

Groot was thinking the same thing as Sloane. The difference between the Chevy pickup back in Pleasant Hill and the car on the shoulder here in Urbandale was that he hadn’t seen anything moving behind this vehicle’s windows. If he had, continuing without stopping and assessing the situation would have been against his core beliefs. Returning his gaze to the road ahead, he said, “Where’s your idea of Shangri-La, Sloane? How about you, Chance?”

Chance said, “I’m going wherever Sloane goes. I’ve got nobody else.”

Sloane said, “My mom lives in Vegas. So does my agent. We could get a new ride and go there.”

“Vegas is out of the question,” Groot said, regarding Sloane in the rearview mirror. “So are half a dozen other cities. Nobody is going to want to go anywhere near any of them for a long, long time.”

“What do you mean?”

“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you, Sloane.”

In a voice devoid of emotion, she said, “Try me.”

Chance said, “What can be worse than living dead things roaming the streets?”

Groot shook his head. He could feel Chance’s eyes on him. Finally, pointing to the dash-mounted computer, he walked Chance through the procedure of powering the thing on. Once the screen flared to life, he said to Chance, “Read that flash message aloud. It was the next to last thing we received from Command.”

Chance read the message from the president of the United States twice over. The second time around, he did so slowly, pausing now and again to confirm with Groot that the military jargon meant what he thought it meant. Finished, he twisted around in his seat and fixed a watery gaze on Sloane. “I’m sorry about your mom and agent.”

Sloane pinched tears from her eyes. Finally, after a long period of silence, she said, “Still doesn’t explain why you’re solo, Groot. But I’m sure you’ll come clean sooner or later. From the looks of things, we’re going to be spending plenty of time cooped up in here together.”

Groot instructed Chance to skip to the next message.

Once Chance had the next message on the screen, he read it aloud. When he was finished, Sloane said, “That’s enough evidence for me.”

Chance said, “I have questions. First off, what’s a ronin? Second, what happens if we run into another unit? Who’s in charge? Do we have to join them?”

Groot said, “Ronin is a wandering samurai warrior from the Japanese feudal era. As for being pressed to answer to anyone else, civilian or military, let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.”

“If it does?” Sloane pressed. “What then?”

“I have a plan,” Groot said. He laid out what he had in mind. Finished, he said, “You two think that’s doable?”

Sloane said, “I’m not sold. I’d like to sleep on it.” She looked at her Garmin watch. “It’s going to be dark in forty-five minutes or so. And if I’ve learned one thing since leaving Philly, it’s that the eaters are drawn to headlights like moths to an open flame. We should probably find a safe place to park this thing. What do you think of that, Chance?”

“I have nowhere else to be,” he answered nonchalantly.

Groot said, “It’s a deal. If you two decide in the morning that you want to go your own way, I’ll take you vehicle shopping.”

Sloane was staring out the windshield, her eyes simultaneously focused on nothing and everything. The thousand-yard stare. He’d seen it before. Finally, as they were leaving the suburbs behind, the homes and strip malls crowding the interstate being slowly replaced by plats of fenced-in land green with grass and dotted with groves of trees and idle farm equipment, Sloane said, “They fucking nuked Vegas. Never in a million years would I have thought I would be saying those words.” She performed the sign of the cross. “Rest in peace, Ma. Rest in peace, Graham.”

“All right,” Groot said. “Keep your eyes peeled for a place that makes sense. Best not to be too picky.”

Without being prompted, Chance grabbed the binoculars off the floor and started scanning the road ahead.

In the backseat, overcome by emotion, Sloane “The Stone” Drake began to sob uncontrollably.

 

Chapter 6

 

Trinity House – Santa Fe, New Mexico

 

Nearly three days had passed since the Chinook CH-47 dual-rotor helicopter piloted by former Army aviator Wade “Griswold” Clark and current Army aviator Sarah “Country” Rhoads had settled on the turnaround fronting the sprawling single-level compound. Hours later, after receiving a middle-of-the-night call on one of their DoD-provided satellite phones, a call that amounted to a five-minute listening session during which Rhoads relayed to Clark multiple strings of GPS coordinates, the pair were off on yet another secretive mission.

The Trinity mansion sat at the end of a long drive that wound its way up from the valley floor. It was quite literally the last house on the block. There were maybe a dozen other homes scattered about the mountain’s lower flank, none of them within easy walking distance, all of them unoccupied. Complete with twelve-foot-tall walls, an extensive array of recessed rooftop solar panels, geothermal heating and cooling, and a security system to rival a casino’s, the mountainside redoubt once owned by a major player in the Manhattan Project was all Leland and Tara Riker had to show for the windfall inheritance they had received as the world was going to shit around them. Trinity’s cul-de-sac-like turnaround, a massive oval of blacktop that had been barely large enough to accommodate the National Guard helicopter, was now teeming with living corpses in varying stages of decay.

Left to caretake the mansion while Lee and the others were away on a rescue mission, it was all Benny Sistek and his girlfriend Rose could do to keep up with the surge of dead things that had been drawn up the mountain by the noisy helicopter’s arrival and departure. Speaking to the couple’s combined efforts to cull the abominations as they arrived (at least the ones showing up during the day) was the mound of twice-dead corpses crowding the perimeter wall. At first, Benny and Rose had followed established protocol: killing the zombies from within the safety of the compound’s walls and then venturing outside via the wooden door flanking the vehicle gate. With one of them armed with a suppressed H&K MP5 and standing watch, the other doing the backbreaking work of dragging the corpses to the head-high pile of them on the opposite side of the cul-de-sac, they had managed to keep clear both gated entries to Trinity’s inner courtyard.

Now, with so many dead things arriving overnight and more showing up throughout the day, the simple act of putting them down was a daunting task. Moving the putrefying bodies off the turnaround, let alone relocating them further down the mountain as they had been doing up to now, was not going to happen anytime soon.

Eight hours prior, having put down a sizeable zombie herd that had shown up overnight, Benny was standing in the center of the turnaround, the blacktop under his feet crisscrossed with blood trails, a pong of rotting flesh heavy in the air, when he realized what it was that had been attracting the dead to Trinity during the long lulls in between the comings and goings of things mechanical in nature. Perched atop the mansion’s octagonal great room, complete with pointed roof and ubiquitous weathervane, was a ten-foot-tall cupola. It was the highest point on the mansion, which in turn had been built on a parcel of land with unobstructed views of Santa Fe and its surroundings. Four of the cupola’s eight windows, the ones facing the sun as it traversed the sky east to west throughout the day, were taking turns reflecting its rays. The flare that had first caught Benny’s eye occurred as the sun’s reflection transitioned between the east- and southeast-facing windows. It was so brilliant that it reminded him of the output of a lighthouse he had once visited as a kid. Thanks to the subtle changing of the sun’s azimuth as autumn marched toward winter, the fiery orb dipped lower in the southern sky with each passing day. Until now, the phenomenon had gone unnoticed by all but the dead. With Santa Fe seeing more than 320 days of sun per year, Benny feared that if something wasn’t done about it, eventually it could lead to Trinity either being overrun by the dead or discovered by breathers with bad intentions.

Taking the matter into his own hands, Benny used a ladder taken earlier from Vern’s hardware store to get onto the roof. He solved the problem by wrapping the cupola with a dark green tarpaulin, which he secured in place with a copious amount of duct tape.

Now, witnessing yet another large group of zombies coming in off Trinity’s private drive, Rose pounded a fist on the kitchen counter. “It’s been hours since you fixed the glare that was drawing them in, Benny. Are you sure that’s what was doing it?”

They were standing in the kitchen, shoulder to shoulder, and staring at the monitor sitting before them on the tiled counter. She tapped the pane on the screen where the little figures could be seen moving left to right. “That is not normal behavior. We haven’t made any racket since you covered the thing up. No vehicles or helicopters coming and going. I’m getting sick of this shit.”

“These are probably the last of the ones that saw the light flaring off the glass.” He looked her in the face. Reached out with one hand and tucked a stray lock of her auburn hair back underneath her knit cap. “Wade and Sarah should be back soon. I’ll get them to help me remove the bodies. You can stay inside.”

“The wheelbarrow is a little rickety,” she noted, a tear rolling down one cheek. “And the tire probably could use some air …”

“I know all of this is overwhelming.”

She pinched away the tears. “I can’t take any more of this. The unknown.” Shaking her head, she went on, saying, “What if they’re all dead? Or worse. What if they turned into zombies and find their way back here?”

“Lee is a survivor. Tara is no slouch either,” Benny said. “They’ll be back soon. I’m sure of it. I feel it in my gut.”

“Can we try the satellite phone again?”

Benny shook his head. “Let’s stick to the plan. The less electronic noise that originates from Trinity, the better. That’s what Wade said when he passed out the phones. Considering he’s the only one of us who has had any contact with the people who are working to get this catastrophe turned around, I’m inclined to take his word for it.”

She nodded.

Putting on a fake smile, he said, “Paper, rock, scissors to see who gets to climb the ladder and do the deed?”

Raising her arm, hand balled into a fist, she said, “You’re on, Sistek. Shoot on three. The usual? Best of three?”

He nodded, made a fist, then followed along, counting with Rose as she shook her fist. When her count reached three, he paused, but only long enough to see what she was going to do. Seeing her pointer and index finger parting ever so slightly while the others began to curl under, and knowing it meant she was going to go with scissors, he opened his fist all the way. Paper.

“Scissors beats paper,” she said, obviously pleased to have a one-to-none lead on him. “Let’s go. Only one more W and I’m not going to have to slather Vicks underneath my nose and go out and poke eyeballs.”

Recalling the stomach-churning stink of death hovering over the turnaround, an olfactory flashback that instantly stole the appetite he’d worked up wrenching on the War Wagon, he began to regret his plan to let Rose win.

Resigned to the fact he was best suited to standing on the ladder and leaning out into space, his superior reach an advantage when it came to delivering the coup de gras to the ambulatory sacks of rotting meat, he followed her lead, balling his fist and shaking it in perfect time with hers. Again, he stalled his reaction by a fraction of a second, ultimately playing a losing rock to her winning paper. It had to be this way. The first day here completely on their own he had split duties equally with her. And every time she had come back in from a thirty-minute stint of scrambling zombie brains and had shed the heavy coat and gloves, the look he saw in her eyes behind the clear visor affixed to her helmet told him the old happy-go-lucky Rose was slowly slipping away.

“Winner, winner, chicken dinner,” she crowed, handing him the jar of Vicks. “I’m on a roll. Maybe I should let you win one of these times.”

“Great,” he said, grimacing. “The mighty Rose wins yet again. It’s okay, hon.” He paused for a beat. “While I’m out there, can you please leave the satellite phone alone?”

Fingers crossed behind her back, she nodded and plucked the Motorola two-way from atop the monitor. “I’ll keep my eye on you at all times.”

He palmed her cheeks and kissed her hard on the lips. “We’ll get through this. I promise.” In that moment, seeing her face up close and realizing the event was also aging her prematurely, the fact that they could end up all alone in a world of dead things hit him like a ton of bricks.

 

***

 

Adept at suiting up for the grisly task to come, it took Benny less than two minutes to shrug on the heavy firefighter’s turnout coat, leather welder’s gloves, and strap to his head the riot helmet complete with ear protection and clear flip-down visor.

A minute after suiting up, he was outside, standing on the ladder erected inside the perimeter wall, and staring down into the upturned faces of yet another group of dead things. The mix was equal: five males and five females. There was a disparity in age. Four of the females were kids. Before first death, they had ranged in age from what he guessed to be five to ten. Kindergarten to third or fourth grade. The rest were adults, five males and one woman. The latter was a Bolt. No doubt about it. It was pacing back and forth in front of a pile of corpses still awaiting removal. Eyes never leaving Benny, the twenty-something moved with a scary fluidity the others didn’t possess. As it made it round the far end of the stacked corpses, he saw it was missing most of the fingers on one hand. If that hadn’t been the point of infection, the oval bite marks walking up one side of its neck surely had.

Banging the sharpened javelin against the top of the wall, Benny said, “Over here, Speedy. I have a present for you.” The “present” was for the former daughter to someone, maybe mother herself, to be released from the hell-on-earth existence Benny was certain walking the earth as a corpse had to be. Along with the snippets of memory that had led to some of them attempting to perform rudimentary tasks, things like twisting doorknobs, sitting on bus stop benches, loitering in the aisles of looted grocery stores and on sidewalks fronting the suburban strip malls so prevalent across America, Benny’s gut told him those same brains had to be harboring memories of loved ones and the good times they had shared prior to Romero turning so many of them into rotting husks of their former selves.

Benny waited until Speedy was toes against the wall to drive the sharp end of the javelin into its eye socket. Using the same tactic, he put down the rest of the zombies, finishing with a pigtailed girl wearing a shredded and blood-soaked dress featuring a smiling purple dinosaur. He had propped the soiled javelin against the wall and was climbing off the ladder when he detected the steady thrum of rotor blades thrashing the air. The unmistakable sound was coming from the east, the pitch and cadence very different from the Lakota and Chinook that had transported Wade and Sarah here on two separate occasions.

Benny climbed to the top of the ladder, panned his head until he had an audible fix on the incoming helicopter, then started scanning the horizon for it. After a few seconds of this, he picked it up visually. It looked bigger than the Lakota but much smaller than the dual-rotor Chinook he was expecting them to return in. He only hoped the new bird was roomy enough inside to accommodate Lee and the others. That is if he could talk Wade and Sarah into mounting a search and rescue mission. They had balked before when he had brought it up. The main problem, they had said, was locating them. Because no matter the make and model of helicopter, whether it had long-range capabilities or not, if they couldn’t figure out a way to get in contact with the missing party, locating them visually in the vast southwest desert was going to be like trying to find a needle in a haystack.

The helicopter was running dark and closing fast, its smooth underbelly skimming treetops and roofs as it maintained a heading that took it directly over northeast Santa Fe. Benny had seen plenty of military helicopters in flight since the world was turned on its head, but to the best of his recollection, all of them had either skids or wheels affixed to their underbellies. Even the Apache attack helicopter had wheels hanging into the slipstream. This one’s gear, however, stowed away internally.

He only watched the approach long enough to confirm it was indeed heading for Trinity. Jumping down from the ladder, he sprinted for the mansion’s oak front door.

Benny burst through the door and entered the galley-style kitchen with a full head of steam. After skidding to a halt, he snatched the satellite phone off the counter and quickly checked the call log. There was one more outgoing call added to the half dozen Rose had placed previously. All were less than thirty seconds long, and all had gone unanswered. Putting the phone back where he had found it, he sprinted toward the great room, calling out for Rose as he rounded the corner to the long hall leading to it.

Reaching the open entry to the great room, Benny nearly crashed headlong into Rose.

“What is it?” she asked, startled. “Are you bit? Don’t tell me one of them finally got you.”

He shook his head. “A helicopter is approaching. I’m pretty sure it’s Wade and Sarah. If so, we’re going to need to make sure there are no biters near the landing pad. I’m going to go back out and look for the signal.”

“It’s gonna be dark soon. We’re going to have to hurry if it is them.”

“After you get suited up, grab us a couple of headlamps and check the monitor to see if the back door is clear.”

Rose said nothing. She just peeled away and headed for the attached multi-car garage where she had left her protective gear.

Snatching up the satellite phone and a small tactical flashlight, Benny made his way back outside. By the time he had reached the ladder and had scaled it halfway, the helicopter was thundering up the valley due south of Trinity. No sooner had the sleek black and white craft popped up over the smattering of houses a couple of miles lower on the mountain’s scrub- and tree-covered flank than Benny realized he was looking at a civilian aircraft. As it kept coming, the westering sun flaring off the cockpit glass, Benny began to hear the Jaws theme in his head. And just when he was thinking the menacing craft was either going to open fire on him, or overfly the house completely, a niggling sensation of doubt prompted him to shoulder the slung MP5 and take dead aim. He was drawing a breath, every nerve ending in his body on fire, finger tensing on the trigger, when the helicopter flared hard and adopted a steady hover just outside of the effective range of the little 9mm submachine gun.

Come on, thought Benny, give me the signal. As if on cue, a red light on the underside of the helicopter lit up. After a half beat, it went dark again. The sequence was repeated three more times, then the light blinked off and stayed off.

In response, Benny triggered the tactical light on the MP5 four times in quick succession.

The light on the helicopter lit up and began strobing rhythmically. Message received.

Slowly, the helicopter turned a one-eighty to the east, nosed down slightly, and carved a leisurely clockwise arc across the darkening sky.

Benny clawed his two-way Motorola from a pocket. Lifting it to his lips, he radioed Rose. “It’s them,” he said. “You ready to go?”

“Almost,” she radioed back. “Just now checking the cameras.”

“Copy that,” he replied.

Five long seconds crawled by, during which Benny watched the helicopter circle around the mountaintop under which sat the Lazarus bunker. When Rose finally came back on the radio, it was to call an “all clear” for the back gate.

 

Chapter 7

 

Frenchman Mountain Complex

 

Ninety minutes after being shanghaied by the base commander and pair of airmen armed with M4 rifles, Riker returned alone. He didn’t knock on the door. Just swiped himself in with the keycard, closed the door at his back, then, with all five sets of eyes tracking him, he strode across the communal room and plopped down on one of the low-slung chairs. Remaining tightlipped, he pulled up his left pantleg and methodically removed the prosthetic.

Tara was the first one to acknowledge his presence. She rose from the dining table, curled around behind the men who, out of habit or some instinctual caveman shit, were all sitting at the far end of the table with their backs to the wall. “What the hell happened, Bro?” She was slowly shaking her head, the beads capping her short braids clacking in time with the wag. “I was beginning to worry about you.”

“We all were,” Lia put in. “You don’t come with armed men just to suggest someone come with you.”

“The definition of suggest,” said Steve-O, “is to put forth a subtle order.”

“Nothing subtle about it,” answered Riker. “The commander is a two-star major general. He is used to getting what he wants. I read it in his eyes. He wasn’t going to take ‘no’ for an answer. So, in keeping with Sun Tzu’s Art of War, I decided to appear weak when I’m strong. I figured if they cuffed me, no way was I ever going to be able to fight back.”

Vern pushed away from the table and stood. Planting both hands on the tabletop, eyes boring in on Riker, he said, “What did it come to?”

Riker began massaging his prosthesis. He kneaded the scar tissue for a beat. Finally, he said, “It came to a whole bunch of things. Chief among them is that the entire operation is pulling up stakes tomorrow night and heading out.” He looked the others over. “Believe it or not, this operation consists of only fifty people.”

Incredulous, Shorty said, “Only fifty? Hell, there’s ten cooks in the kitchen during peak hours. There were maybe ten swinging dicks in the welcoming party that met us at the blast door the other night.”

Steve-O said, “I must correct you, Shorty. There were only eight swinging dicks. The others had swinging tits. Four, to be exact.”

Lia tilted her head and mouthed, “Really, Steve-O?”

Tara found the man’s accurate, albeit very clinical assessment humorous. It was all she could do to keep from laughing.

Shorty, on the other hand, was not amused. “Well la-ti-da, Captain Obvious. We’ve established that you can count. What I was attempting to convey to the group”—he rose and made a sweeping gesture—“is that we’ve already seen more than half of this joint’s skeleton crew. And only three or four of them strike me as people I would be hesitant to tangle with.”

Riker said, “I got a tour of the motor pool. After which, the general took me down to the tactical operations center. It was manned by all of six airmen. If push came to shove, they could probably handle themselves. I’d lump in with them the commander, his shadows, and the lady airman who we all met the first night.”

“She was really easy on the eyes,” Steve-O pointed out.

“We’re not contestants on The Bachelor, young man.” Shorty rose and began pacing the floor. “We’re frickin’ prisoners of our own government,” he went on. “And with each passing second, I’m beginning to think a jailbreak is in order.”

“I’m confused,” Vern said to Riker. “Why would you be given a tour of the motor pool? And what good could come from the commander letting you inside the TOC?”

“I was wondering the same thing,” said Lia. “It makes zero sense tactically.” She locked eyes with Riker. “Unless, that is, you’re leaving something out.”

Tara said, “He’s been known to do that. I could tell you stories.”

“Ooooh,” said Steve-O, “do tell.”

Lia was staring at Riker and bobbing her head. “Spit it out, Lee.”

“I’m curious, too,” Shorty said. “Why, pray tell, would the good commander give the nickel tour to you, a lowly Army Motor Transport Operator who drove his VIPs into the path of an IED? Doesn’t pass the sniff test.”

Though Riker knew everyone was stressed and that they were all just grasping for straws, for something to make sense of this all, he still felt as if he were under attack. And he didn’t like the feeling. Crack a joke, he heard in his head. The disembodied voice was that of one of his first therapists at Walter Reed. She was a little twenty-something officer from Nebraska and barely came up to his sternum. She had been instrumental in getting him to only want to wring the neck of some of the civilians who looked at him sideways while he was rehabbing. Baby steps. Before he started using the tools she had equipped him with, the compulsion to kill every civilian he came across who looked at him funny was strong in him.

Riker refitted his prosthetic and rose from the chair. As he walked around the table, he said to nobody in particular, “What’s red and bad for your teeth?”

Silence. After the barrage of questions the others had directed his way, everyone save for Steve-O had been expecting him to finally address the elephant in the room.

“Is this a joke?” asked Steve-O.

Riker nodded.

“Comedy is a coping mechanism,” Tara divulged. “It just needs to be funny to him to work. And I have no clue what the punchline is.”

“I give up, too,” said Vern. “Let’s hear what’s red and bad for our teeth.”

“A brick,” said Riker, his lips parting to reveal his straight white teeth. “Get it?”

Tara groaned. “Really, Bro? A dad joke?”

Vern merely shook his head.

Steve-O said, “I don’t get it.”

Riker tapped his pearly whites.

Steve-O harumphed. Removing his Stetson and plopping it on the table, he said slowly, “I still don’t get it.”

Riker didn’t elaborate further. The joke had done its job. The brief pause had sidetracked him from worrying about everything currently pressing down on him, real and imagined.

Leaning on the wall behind the dining room table, Riker said, “The commander told me that the last orders he received from Raven Rock before everything went dark told him to relocate his people to a location called Wonderland. It’s obviously a code word. He wouldn’t tell me more. The kicker is that they’re going overland. Driving to wherever this place is. And since he knows everything about us, especially that I took all the defensive driving courses available to me in the Sandbox, he wants me to drive for him.”

Lia said, “Be his personal driver? Like a chauffeur?”

Before Riker could answer, Steve-O asked in a low funereal voice, “What about us?”

Instinctually, Tara and Lia both moved around the table and flanked Steve-O. “We’re all going,” Lia began.

“Or none of us are,” Tara finished. “You’re family, Steve. And you’re never going to be abandoned again. You have my word on it.”

“Mine too,” Lia added.

Steve-O rested his head against Tara’s hip. “That means so much to me, Little Sis.” He looked up at Lia. “And I hope one day you and Lee get married. Then you will be my sister, too.”

Changing the subject, Riker said, “I told the general I’d accept but with conditions.”

“And what are those conditions?” Vern asked.

Ticking them off on his fingers, Riker said, “One: You all are coming with. Two: We get to keep our vehicles. And three: In addition to us getting to keep our gear and weapons, we’ll be provided with MOPP suits.”

“What’s a MOPP suit?” asked Steve-O.

“MOPP stands for Mission Oriented Protective Posture,” Riker explained. “Soldiers wear MOPP suits when there’s a danger of them being exposed to the byproduct of a chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear attack.” To head off Steve-O’s worry monster, he added, “It’s likely we won’t even need them.”

“But it’s good to be prepared,” Steve-O said, donning his Stetson. “Like the Boy Scout’s saying: Be Prepared.”

Shorty said, “Correctamundo, Steve-O.” He stopped pacing and directed his gaze at Riker. “So what did you see in the operations room?”

“Tactical operations center,” Riker said. “He showed me their battle-damage assessment. The footage was captured by a drone a few hours after the strike. The blast damage was mostly contained to the desert. However, parts of southwest Prescott in the blast zone caught fire and burned. The footage he showed me was captured by a drone out of Creech Air Force Base. Since it’s unmanned, it was able to get close to the deck.”

Vern said, “Mini Fonzie left out the most important question.” He regarded Riker. “What about radiation levels? And what were the prevailing winds after the nuke detonated?”

“He’s right,” Shorty said. “I should have thought of that.”

“While we’re on the subject,” Tara interjected. “Did the commander say what effect, if any, the radiation has on the biters?”

Steve-O shivered. “Are they going to be glowing? Those white eyes staring out of the dark are scary enough.”

“That’s just in movies and cartoons,” Riker assured him. Addressing the other concerns, he said, “Winds were in our favor. There are no radiation level readings to report. I think with the mountain in the way of the blast, radiation shouldn’t be too much of a problem if we stay northeast of ground zero. I wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere near Prescott.”

Lia said, “What about the herd we saw kicking up all the dust?”

Riker said, “Most of it was decimated. Those that survived the blast split off in two different directions. One-half went north into the city. The other kept going toward Nellis … the airbase the nuke was supposed to protect. The one these folks had just evacuated.”

Vern said, “Leave it to the government to FUBAR everything they touch.” He looked at Riker. “So when do we di-di-mau?”

Steve-O cocked his head sharply to the side, nearly sending the Stetson to the floor. “I don’t know what all that means.”

“FUBAR … fucked up beyond all recognition. And di-di-mau is Vietnamese for let’s get the fuck out of here in a hurry.” Shorty shifted his attention from Steve-O to Riker. “When do we leave? I’m guessing zero dark thirty would be optimal.”

Riker nodded. “It’s a longshot, but I think that’s the only time we’ll have any chance of slinking out of here without being stopped before we get a foot inside the motor pool.”

Lia said, “What do we do if someone’s guarding the motor pool?”

Voice full of menace, Tara said, “Whatever the fuck is necessary. You don’t hold Rikers against their will.”

Riker grimaced. He knew where this was coming from. Tara had been drugged at a nightclub, was taken somewhere without her consent and then raped. The perpetrators never faced justice—from the legal system or the street. It was a regret shared by both brother and sister. He said, “Everyone here, from the commander on down, are … were just following orders.” He looked at the faces staring back at him. “Violence only as a last resort.”

Everyone nodded, save for Tara; she was scowling. For this had happened to her and her brother when they fled Middletown. Locked in the high school. The confrontation with the Bolt in the stadium tunnel. Saving Steve-O from what certainly would have been his last day on earth. And it had all happened because, once again, the government had decided what was best for her, for American citizens.

Never again.

 

Chapter 8

 

Groot didn’t know how long he had been running from the zombies hunting him. Ten minutes? Fifteen? What he did know was that he had lost Sloane and Chance. One moment, they were bailing out of the burning Oshkosh; the next, he was peering over his shoulder and realizing they were not with him. Then, there was the problem with all the gear he was wearing. The extra weight was slowing him down. The helmet’s tightly cinched chinstrap was biting into his neck. It was better than one of the creatures doing the biting, he thought as he tugged at the chest rig loaded down with full magazines. No relief. It dawned on him that the main problem was the ballistic vest underneath everything. It was too tight and was compressing his chest. Every breath came with considerable effort. But there was nothing he could do about it now. He knew that in the condition he was currently in, he probably couldn’t fend off another fast mover if he came up against one. They were just too strong. And fast. And tenacious.

The leader of the small pack of biters shadowing him was a shirtless and shoeless twentysomething male. A tiny camping hatchet was buried in its chest, just above the heart, only the wood handle and blunt steel butt visible. Thin fingers of blood, long dried to black, crisscrossed the thing’s pale chest and stomach. Having soaked up a great amount of blood, the faded Levi’s, from waist to ratty cuffs, were a dark shade of red.

Behind Hatchet Man was a who’s who of rural America. A fully frocked priest with bloody stubs for fingers doddered along a wide-open expanse of well-manicured grass. Still, curiously, it was able to maintain its grasp on a Bible and rosary with those mangled hands. Behind the priest was a middle-aged woman. Worn over a knee-length dress was a powder blue apron with the name “Connie” embroidered on it. What appeared to be an ordering pad was stuffed in one of the apron’s front pockets. A trio of ballpoint pens protruded from the other. Clearly, a diner was missing an employee. Bringing up the rear and struggling to keep pace with Connie was an obese man in bib overalls. Cause of death had to have been the gaping hole in its neck where the Adam’s apple should be. As if hungering for a taste of Groot, the bloodless chasm opened and closed like a second mouth with each footfall.

Reaching the end of the grass, Groot entered a copse of dogwoods. Emerging from the other side, he came upon a prefab metal garage, its rollup door yawning wide open, almost beckoning him to come inside. The windowless structure was taller than it was wide and lacked any kind of architectural detail.

As Groot ducked inside the building’s darkened interior, he careened into another zombie. It was a head shorter than him and wearing a MultiCam blouse like his. It had been literally below his line of sight. Which was why it managed to get ahold of his uniform blouse before he knew what was happening. Using his height to his advantage, Groot grabbed a fistful of fabric and lifted the zombie off the ground. As he did so, he saw that the cement floor was covered with coiled garden hoses, one of them twined loosely around his boots.

Twisting away from the ghoul to avoid its snapping teeth, Groot was hit broadside by Hatchet Man. In the next beat, the priest and waitress were piling atop him. He sat down hard on his butt and felt something pressing against his back. As he became aware of a scraping sound that could only be teeth dragging across the top of his helmet, the vibration transiting his skull all the confirmation he needed, sausage-like fingers snagged his chest rig and he lost his fight to remain upright. Resigned to his fate, a fate he knew had been stalking him since he saw that first dead body reanimate before his eyes, he closed his eyes and started to recite The Lord’s Prayer.

Groot’s eyes snapped open, but he couldn’t see a thing. Wherever he was, it was as dark as the bottom of a coal mine. Disoriented, he batted at the hand dragging him off balance.

“Wake up, Groot.” It was the UFC fighter. Her face was inches from his, yet, for some reason, she was whispering.

“Was I snoring?” he asked, eyes darting back and forth, trying to make out the woman’s features in the dark.

“A little bit,” said a disembodied voice. It was Chance. He was in the gunner’s seat, directly behind Groot. “Your feet and arms were twitching, too.” Chance chuckled quietly. “I think you were running from something in your nightmare. So I tapped the top of your helmet. I don’t think you felt it, though.”

“But you did mumble something that sounded a lot like ‘our Father,’” Sloane put in.

Nightmare. Reaching up, Groot brushed the hand away from his chest and realized it belonged to Sloane, not a zombie.

“You need to flip down those things attached to your helmet,” Sloane whispered. “There’s something out there. It woke me up from a deep sleep.”

“Me too,” Chance said. “Sounded like a motor. Or maybe a distant train.”

As the fog of sleep lifted, Groot came to realize where he was. He was in the driver’s seat of the Oshkosh. After Sloane’s breakdown, they’d continued south on Route 35, making it another thirty miles without stopping. Along the way, every exit ramp they’d passed had been blocked by vehicles or guarded by local citizenry. Finally, closing on the Missouri state line, with the sun well below the horizon, the Oshkosh’s headlights had washed over a roadside sign declaring that Lamoni, Pop. 1,968 lay just two miles ahead. Groot had had a gut feeling there might be a checkpoint stood up at the border crossing into Missouri. And if his hunch was correct, approaching the crossing at night with lights ablaze would leave them at a serious disadvantage.

As luck would have it, the first exit to Lamoni had been wide open. The small town was seemingly deserted. No zombies in the streets. No locals protecting their homes or businesses. It was as if everyone had believed FEMA’s recurring pre-recorded PSAs that had been dominating the AM and FM bands and had left to find sanctuary in one of FEMA’s many pop-up facilities.

Spurred on by the need to find a place to stay the night, Groot had driven west on Main St., passing the darkened Amish Country Store, a chain hotel with no vehicles in the lot and No Vacancy displayed on its reader board, and a Pizza Hut whose familiar signage and recognizable red steel roof only served to remind everyone how hungry they were. As Main transitioned from two lanes to four and the dark signs of closed business concerns slipped away, Groot had forged ahead, trusting that the Oshkosh’s headlights would reveal a sign or billboard that would steer them to a place of haven.

Two miles outside of town, when Groot had been just about to turn onto a tree-lined road and park on the shoulder for the night, he’d finally spotted in the distance the flat roof of what looked to be a large warehouse.

Turned out it was a warehouse attached to retail space. The boxy structure was set back a few hundred yards off the rural highway, dead center on a few acres of open ground, along with a smattering of outbuildings. A twelve-foot-tall chain-link fence encircled it all. Trees planted outside the fence ringed the property on three sides. The steel warehouse was painted white, which was why Groot had spotted it. Here and there, like acne on a teen’s face, splotches of rust sullied the peeling paint. A large sign that read MILLER’s FEED & TACK rose over the road near the entrance.

Sloane had used the bolt cutters from her B&E kit to snip the padlock on the gate. After closing the gate and securing it with the broken piece of lock, Groot had driven the Oshkosh behind the warehouse and had found two semi-trailers reversed in against a loading dock designed to accommodate half a dozen trailers at once. Thankfully, the trailers backed to the dock happened to be close together. There were no semi-tractors hitched to the trailers. Had there been, fitting the Oshkosh between them would not have happened. As it was, the trailers were so close to the Oshkosh’s flanks that once it was between a pair of them, none of its doors could open. Which was a good thing. Because that left only one direction that trouble could arrive from. Which just so happened to be the direction Sloane was pointing.

Groot powered on the NODs (Night Observation Device) and flipped them down in front of his face. Instantly, he saw everything outside rendered in various shades of green. Parked directly in front of the Oshkosh, maybe thirty yards away, was a pair of lifted 4×4 pickup trucks. They were side by side, lights extinguished, their massive grilles facing the Oshkosh. Huddled beside the pickup on the left was a small knot of people. Even viewed through the NODs, Groot could tell that they were all physically fit males in their late teens or early twenties. They were armed with rifles; that much was clear. Some were brandishing them openly. Others had the long guns hanging off their shoulders. No doubt a few of them had secondary weapons, pistols or revolvers, riding in holsters or tucked into waistbands. First thought that came to Groot after he processed it all was that he was looking at the Wolverines from the movie Red Dawn.

“What do you see?” Sloane asked softly. “It’s more of those things, right?”

“Nope,” Groot replied. “Looks like a bunch of locals. Maybe from here or surrounding towns.”

Indicating the flat-panel monitor mounted vertically to the dash in front of her, Sloane said, “Does this tank have night vision capability?”

Groot thought about correcting her about calling the Oshkosh a tank. Deciding it really didn’t matter, he said, “It can. Thermal, too. The camera’s on the CROWS mast.”

“Then why don’t you ditch the goggles and pick them up with the cameras?”

Keeping his NODs trained forward, he said, “As far as they know, we’re sleeping in here. If you power that thing on, it’s going to emit just enough light to make us visible to them.”

“It’s a tank,” Sloane pressed. “What can they do to us?”

Groot said nothing. When Sloane repeated her question, Chance asking how the group had found them here saved him from having to go through the many ways they could perish in a tank, one of them being blockaded in between two semi-trailers and burned alive.

Groot checked his watch. Two in the morning. Responding to Chance, he said, “We’ve only been here for a couple of hours. They probably heard us passing through town, rallied the troops, and set out to find us. Given all the farmhouses between here and there, I’d bet they’ve been busy checking those.”

“So they cornered their prey,” Sloane declared. “Question is, why did they give chase in the first place?”

“They’re probably just protecting their turf from outsiders,” Groot answered soberly. “It’s what I’d be doing if I lived somewhere rural. Especially considering Romero.”

Peeking between the front seatbacks, Chance said, “What are we going to do?”

Groot said nothing at first. While the Oshkosh had the CROWS Ma Deuce up top, the controls and its targeting and acquisition monitor were in the back seat area. The doors were pinned shut. And there was no way either he or Sloane, who was much thinner and not wearing a bunch of gear, could get back there without him pulling the Oshkosh forward. Then there was the problem of opening two doors and exposing themselves to incoming fire for as long as it would take to hop out and get back inside. Switching seats was out of the question.

“I have an idea,” Groot finally said. He took a penlight from a pocket and handed it back to Chance. “I want you to locate the power button on the screen in front of you. When you find it, press it and hold it down.”

“Done,” said Chance as a soft blue glow lit up the back seat area. “Now what?”

Groot was keeping one eye on the Wolverines as he spoke. So far, so good: They were still deliberating something. Every now and then, one of them would cast a furtive glance at the Oshkosh. He said, “Do you see the joystick in the center?”

“Yep. I’ve been eyeing it the whole time I’ve been back here.”

“Don’t touch it until I tell you to,” Groot stressed. Once he had Chance’s undivided attention, he went on, walking him through the procedure to switch the feed coming in from the camera in the CROWS mount from video to thermal. The blue glow diminishing substantially let Groot know they were making progress. Meanwhile, out in front of the Oshkosh, the Wolverines were making progress, too. They were dispersing, one half of them taking cover behind the pickups, the other forming a phalanx at roughly ten o’clock to the Oshkosh. The ones who had taken cover were, to a man, shouldering their rifles and aiming them at the Oshkosh. The rest were slowly advancing on foot, angling in from the left, clearly taking every precaution to stay out of the line of fire should any of their friends get an itchy trigger finger.

“I saw that gun up there,” Sloane said, gesturing at the roof. “It’s huge.” She paused for a second. “Please tell me you’re not going to kill them. That thing looks like it will shred a person into tiny pieces.”

“I already told you,” Groot said in a low voice. “I am not a killer.” Speaking to Chance, he went on, saying, “You see the crosshairs on the screen?”

“I do,” Chance said. “And Groot … I don’t want to be a killer, neither.”

“You’ve got to trust me, Chance.”

Chance said nothing.

Sloane just continued shifting her gaze between Groot and the people slowly picking their way across the open ground.

Groot said, “What’s in the crosshairs right now?”

“The roof of the big truck on the left.”

“Okay,” said Groot, “this is what we’re going to do. Without touching the red trigger cover, you’re going to grab the joystick.” He paused for a beat, thinking. “Are you left or right-handed?” Groot remembered Sloane was right-handed. In fact, there were compilations of her fights on YouTube that focused solely on fighters being dropped by her famous overhand right.

“A mixture of both,” Chance said. “But I’m mostly right-handed.”

“When you play video games, what hand is dominant?”

“My right.”

“Perfect. Grip the joystick with your right hand.”

“Done. My finger is nowhere near the trigger guard.”

Good job, Groot thought. “Now find the button on the side with your thumb. Pressing it will make the mount go live.”

“That did it. How fast is this thing’s reaction time?”

Groot didn’t know how to accurately answer the question, so he said, “Medium fast. Just don’t jerk it. Slow is smooth, smooth is fast.”

“That’s a black op saying, isn’t it?”

Groot shrugged. “Could be. It’s what the last gunner said to me when he was showing me the ropes.”

“So I’m guessing we’re just going to fire a couple of warning shots overhead.”

“Better be all you do,” Sloane interjected. “You kill one of those young people, I walk next opportunity I get. This is still America. The military does not kill civilians.”

Groot nodded in agreement. To Chance, he said, “I want you to position the crosshairs on the front of the truck. It’s a Dodge. Put the point where the lines come together on the ram’s head emblem.”

A soft whirring from the turret motor sounded above them. “Done. It’s dead center.”

“Flip up the red cover, but don’t touch the trigger.”

“Okay. Next?”

A lick of flame belched from one of the long guns. The round hit the windshield head-high to Sloane. Inside the vehicle, behind a couple of inches of ballistic glass, the impact was quieter than one would have thought. The damage to the windshield pane was minimal. Just a shallow divot with a couple of superficial cracks radiating out from it.

“They’re shooting at us,” Sloane bellowed. “Light the fuckers up.”

“What do I do now?” Chance asked, the first hint of panic evident in his tone.

Knowing the round was a small caliber item, Groot said, “You stick to the plan, Chance. Make sure there’s nobody in the crosshairs, then press the trigger. Remember, you hold it for a second, at most.” He leaned toward Sloane and told her to close her eyes to save her night vision.

Without warning, a stream of yellow/orange tracer rounds belched from the heavy machine gun. It looked like a glowing rope was connecting the two vehicles. The sound of the reports was tolerable. The strobe effect lit up everything. It made the people fleeing for cover appear to be moving in slow motion. The damage to the Ram was catastrophic.

“That truck is dead,” Groot reported as he started the engine and hit the headlights. “Now target the other one. Same routine.”

Chance said nothing. The Ma Deuce did the talking. After another ten-round burst, flames were coming from underneath the hoods of both pickups.

Gunfire erupted to their fore, the multiple reports drowned out by the Oshkosh’s noisy diesel.

Groot tromped the pedal. As the armored vehicle lurched forward, emerging from the tight confines, engine growling and causing the people still standing to scatter, Chance was lamenting the fact he had just become a murderer.

“You didn’t kill anyone,” Groot insisted as he hauled the wheel to the right. “You just destroyed a couple of country boys’ pickups.”

“Should have killed a few of them,” Sloane muttered.

“What about the Army not killing civilians?” Groot said, steering the Oshkosh onto the parking lot in front of the feed store.

Incredulous, she said, “They were trying to fucking kill us.” She indicated the multiple bullet pocks in the windshield. “Those weren’t warning shots. And those people weren’t guarding turf. They want this vehicle.” She shivered. “I didn’t see any women when you hit them with the lights. No telling what they would do to me.”

“I think you’d give them what for,” Groot said.

Near simultaneously, Chance said, “I see heat signatures across the road.”

Groot killed the exterior lights. “They left a few behind to guard the entrance,” he said. “Smarter than I thought they were. How many do you see?”

“Five. They’re lying in the ditch. There’s a couple of vehicles over there, too. Looks like full-sized SUVs. Engines are putting off the same glow as the ones in the pickups.”

“Target the vehicles,” Groot ordered. “Same length of bursts as before. You know where to hit them.” As the closed gate loomed ahead, he calculated in his head how many rounds were left for the Ma Deuce. The coward Tolliver always rolled with five hundred linked rounds in the ammo box attached to the CROWS mast. Assuming Chance remained consistent with his bursts, they should be leaving this one-sided skirmish with four hundred and fifty rounds in the box. Acceptable by any measure.

A split second before the Oshkosh’s front grille guard demolished the gate, sending the entire 12×20 panel of chain-link fence, roller wheels and all, flying toward the vehicles parked across the road from it, Chance let loose with the big fifty. The first burst from the Ma Deuce stitched one SUV’s front fender from door to bumper. He was off a bit when he engaged the other SUV. Perhaps due to the impact with the gate, or that the Oshkosh was just beginning to make the right-hand turn onto the feeder road, Chance’s second burst chewed up the SUV’s front right tire, as well as two of the five forms prone in the ditch. Chance was not the only one privy to the outcome of the brief engagement. Groot had seen it all through the NODs. While the blood gushing from the ruptured bodies wasn’t as dramatic as it had appeared to Chance on the monitor, he still saw the bodies contort and the resulting geysers of blood.

The mistake wasn’t lost on Chance. As the gun went silent, it was replaced by the sound of Chance pounding his fists against the back of the driver’s seat.

Groot said nothing. Just got the swerving vehicle under control and pointed it toward the nearby state route.

Oblivious to all that had transpired, Sloane said, “Good shooting, Chance.” She regarded Groot in the dark. “We pushing into Missouri?”

He said, “It’s our only play,” and muscled the Oshkosh onto US-35 south, toward a rendezvous with what appeared to be a series of bonfires way off in the distance.

With the results of his actions playing on a continual loop in his mind, Chance released the joystick and slumped back in his seat.

 

Chapter 9

 

Riker woke up knowing exactly where he was: underneath God only knew how many tons of rock, in a prison of both the mind and the body. It was pitch black, the only sound the rhythmic breathing of the five other people sharing the room with him.

He was on the bottom bunk of the first set of bunk beds in a long row of them. Lia had insisted on taking the top, mostly because there was no way they both could share a bed Riker could only occupy alone if he was lying on one side and with his knees drawn up damn near all the way to his chest.

Mercifully, the first night inside the doomsday bunker, Lia had insisted he take the lower bunk. She reasoned should something from his past (pre- or post-Romero) rear up in his resting mind and cause him to wake suddenly and sit up in bed, a regular occurrence since she had known him, it would be better he hit his head on a bunch of exposed bedsprings than the low cement ceiling. Last thing he needed was to aggravate the CTE that, at times, turned him into a different person.

Riker pressed a button on the side of his Garmin wristwatch. 2:45 a.m. Fifteen minutes until I need everyone else to be up and at it.

Yet again, he had beat his alarm to the punch. It had been a long time since he last overslept and nearly as long since he had last slept in on purpose. After listening hard and not hearing anything out of the ordinary, he sat up, grabbed his clothes and prosthetic off the floor, and placed them at the foot of the bed. He affixed his bionic (a name bestowed on his prosthetic leg by his sister), then quickly dressed and slipped the Salomon on his right foot. Next, he dropped to the floor and knocked out his usual set of twenty-five pushups. It was a ritual he performed morning and night, the first twenty-two honoring the average number of men and women who, before Romero, took their lives by their own hand every single day, the follow-on three he always added for the friends he had lost over there.

Kneeling on the floor beside his bunk, he lifted the mattress and retrieved the Mosquito pistol, both magazines for it, and his Randall knife.

Tucking the weapons away, he made his way to the communal area.

After running all the different escape scenarios through his mind a dozen times the night before, every one of which had them having to restrain one or more people adversarial to the plan, it had come to him where he might find something suitable to take the place of the zip ties they did not have.

Removing six of the cushions from the low-slung chairs, he stacked them on the dining table and then went to work dissecting them with the Randall. As he hacked at the fabric, removing the lengths of piping from the cushion edges, all he could think about was the scene in First Blood, when an on-the-run John Rambo was fashioning a tunic from a scrap of automotive upholstery.

When Riker was finished, instead of having produced a makeshift article of clothing, he had arranged on the table in front of him six yard-long lengths of thin rope. They wouldn’t be as quick and easy to apply as a pair of cuffs fashioned from zip ties, but he was certain the rope had more tensile strength than the thin nylon lanyards their key cards hung from.

The clicking of bootheels on cement preceded Steve-O as he entered the communal room.

“Good morning, Lee. Did you sleep well?”

Riker shook his head. “Too much on my mind.” He pointed at the man’s red Stetson brand boots. “You’re going to need to put on your issued shoes. Wear them until we get to where we’re going.”

Steve-O glanced down at his prized boots, the boots Shorty had been so kind to pick up for him in Nashville when he was making his way back across the country after the failed attempt at locating those dear to him. “Do I have to wear those cheap things all the way to Trinity?”

“No,” Riker said. “Just while we’re still here. We don’t need to go announcing to everyone within earshot that we are coming.”

“Good call, Lee.” Steve-O plopped down on a chair and began wrenching the boots from his feet. As he did, he was looking at the mess on the dining table. “I see you found something to tie up the guard with if he does not see things our way.”

“These are for anyone who challenges us,” Riker explained. “We’re only going to hurt or shoot someone as a last resort.”

Shorty entered the room a few steps ahead of Vern. “Oooh,” he said, eyeing the lengths of rope. “Looks like we’re going to be getting kinky. Chips, whips, chains, and dips. Who can name the movie?”

Passing out the lengths of rope, Riker shook his head.

Steve-O shrugged. “Beats the hell out of me.”

Shorty hung his head.

Clapping Shorty playfully on the shoulder, Vern said, “You’ve created a monster.”

Tara strode into the room. In one hand was a piece of metal bed frame she’d taken off the foot of her bunk. In the other, she held a pillowcase bulging with something. “Weird Science,” she said confidently. “Kelly LeBrock played Lisa, the supposed perfect woman Gary and Wyatt conjured up.”

Shorty turned and faced Tara. “That’s all fine and dandy, young lady. But witchcraft isn’t going to get us out of this pickle. You see The Great Escape? Escape from Alcatraz? Papillon? Because those folks in those movies all had luck on their side. We’re going to need some of that.”

Steve-O looked at Riker. “What if they catch us sneaking out?”

Lia said, “They’ll put us in the brig until they are ready to leave.”

“That’s like a jail, isn’t it, Lia?”

“Yes, Steve-O, it is.”

Steve-O shook his head. “Then we better not get caught. Because I’m not jail material.”

“What?” Shorty cracked. “You leave your soap-on-a-rope at home?”

“No matter how the cookie crumbles,” Vern pointed out. “We’re not coming back here. So grab your stuff and let’s get going. I can’t stand another second being incarcerated by the country I fought and bled for.”

“Ditto,” said Riker. He looked at Tara. “Got the pills in there?”

She patted the pillowcase. “And then some.”

Making sure he had everything he came in with, Riker looked the others over. “Everyone know their roles and what to do if anyone tries to stop us?” Heads nodded all around. “Good,” he said, walking his gaze from face to face, “because with everything stacked against us, we’re all going to have to bring our A game.”

“Whatever you say, John Madden. Nice pep talk.” Shorty zipped up his parka and retrieved the black knit cap from one of its pockets. He snugged it on. “If you ask me, I think a prayer is in order.”

They gathered around. Tara and Lia were the last to form up. Lia said, “I’m not really the praying type.”

“Every little bit helps,” Tara said, grabbing her hand. “Just act as if. It ain’t going to kill you.”

When Shorty was finished petitioning his idea of a higher power for help in getting them out of there, Lia opened the door and poked her head into the hall. “Clear,” she called over her shoulder. “We’ve got less than three hours until the sun comes up. Let’s get a move on.”

 

Trinity House – Santa Fe, New Mexico

 

Benny took a sip of the coffee in his mug, grimaced, then set the mug on the counter. The words White Sands Missile Range wrapped around one side of the mug. On the opposite side, also rendered in a light shade of blue, was the base logo. It consisted of a constellation of stars, the largest of which was centered on the mug face and being orbited by a missile in flight.

He had found the mug in the bunker underneath the great room. It was just one of many base-specific items that once belonged to a previous owner of Trinity House who had had a hand in developing the first atomic bombs.

Benny and Rose were bellied up to the kitchen counter, perched side by side on barstools they had dragged over from the island. At their feet, all four legs pointed skyward, was their pewter gray pit bull, Dozer. Thirty minutes of fetch, during which the dog tore recklessly back and forth down a makeshift outdoor run sandwiched between the great room and guest house, had left him dead to the world. After scarfing a generous serving of dry dog food and drinking two bowls of water, Dozer had plopped down where he was now and hadn’t moved a muscle since.

Atop the counter in front of them was the monitor displaying all the incoming feeds from the perimeter cameras. The cameras were old, but on a normal night, the moon and stars produced ambient light sufficient for them to display in great detail anything moving outside the walls and on the turnaround. Tonight was nothing close to normal. Due to a new moon and the layer of high clouds that had moved in after sunset, the zombies drawn in by the helicopter’s unannounced arrival came across looking more like spectral figures than physical beings. Which made it difficult to get a handle on how many they would be facing come sunup.

Rose pushed her mug forward. “You’re right. This instant coffee is crap. It leaves almost as bad a taste in my mouth as Wade and Sarah’s response to what I thought was a perfectly reasonable request. The nerve of those two. And now they’re sleeping like babies in the guest house while Lee and Tara and the rest of our friends are still missing. Especially after all the work we did to prepare their landing pad. Keeping it free of zombies while they’re away. Rigging the landing lights for them.” She shook her head. “If only you knew how to fly that helicopter, Benjamin. We could go up and look for them ourselves.”

“But I don’t know how to fly,” he said. “Give them a break, Rose. Wade told me they were flying for two days straight. Back and forth and back and forth between the Eastern Seaboard and a location he called Looking Glass.”

“Did he say where it is?”

Benny shook his head. “I gather it’s classified.” He paused and matched Rose’s gaze. “There’s something else.”

“What is it?”

He swallowed hard, then said, “The government set off a nuke in the desert south of Las Vegas.”

Rose gasped. “When?”

“The night Lee and the others were rescuing the kids.”

Head starting a slow side-to-side wag, she said, “They can’t be dead. They got the kids and were safely on their way back here, right?”

Benny held his tongue. He knew there was nothing he could say that would nudge her from her constant glass-half-empty mode of thinking. Ever since her friend Crystal had shown up unannounced with the parolee who had tried to take over Trinity at gunpoint, Rose had been very pessimistic. Which was the reason he had been withholding the news of the nuke strike from her. It was also why he was reluctant to tell her why Wade and Sarah had been shuttling dignitaries and high-ranking military personnel to a secret base whose location Wade had been sworn to protect. He had been more forthright with the real reason for the evacuation flights. Apparently, the military deploying five additional low-yield nukes against newly formed mega-herds wasn’t top secret. Nursing a few fingers of scotch, the aviator had told Benny everything he and Sarah had witnessed. None of it was good.

Rose slapped a palm on the counter. “What did that asshole call my idea?”

Benny said, “He called it a ‘fool’s errand that could lead to all of us getting killed.’”

“They’re both cowards.”

Benny shook his head. “I don’t think that’s the case. They just did a cost-benefit analysis. And I agree with them that we need proof of life and our friends’ general vicinity before we do anything.”

She exhaled and rested her elbows on the counter. “I have a confession to make,” she said, swiveling her head his way and looking him straight in the eye.

“What is it?” he asked, his eyes boring into hers.

“I called the phone four times today. I got the voice mailbox every time.”

“I know,” he said. “I saw the call log.”

“I just can’t believe Wade and Sarah won’t even lift a finger to help the person whose home they’re staying in.”

Benny didn’t respond. He’d already come to Wade and Sarah’s defense in their stead.

“We’ve got the RV,” Rose said. “We could take it and retrace their route.”

In the pane on the monitor showing the feed from the front gate and turnaround, a pack of zombies could be seen coming in from the private drive. Benny put his hand on Rose’s shoulder. “Lee and Tara made it out of ground zero okay. They drove all the way to Florida and then made it here in one piece. So let’s give them one more day. Maybe when Wade and Sarah are rested, they’ll both be more receptive to taking us up in the helicopter to look for them.” Swirling around in his mind as he spoke was everything Wade had divulged to him about the Ronin Protocol. If the military had indeed devolved into an every-man-for-himself situation, how was that going to affect the two aviators. Then there was the fact that Wade did not know the exact locations where the other nukes had been detonated.

She said, “One more day, Sistek. That’s all I’m willing to give you. You work to get the War Wagon running. I’ll work on the selfish duo.”

“It’s a deal,” Benny said. “We’ve got a big day ahead of us. We better turn in.”

 

Chapter 10

 

Frenchman Mountain Complex

 

Steve-O walked point, staying well ahead of the rest of the group until they reached the elevator. Before he used the stolen key card to summon the car, he waited for the others to get into their pre-planned positions. Riker, Shorty, and Vern posted up to the left of the elevator doors, a yard or so from the edge of the recessed bay, with their backs pressed firmly to the hallway wall. Tara and Lia followed suit but on the opposite side of the elevator bay. In case someone was inside when the doors parted, Steve-O was to be the only person they saw. The thinking was that it would be easier for him to explain why he was out and about. He’d already played the ignorance card with the kitchen staff, and it had worked like a charm. At the very least, coming face to face with a man with Downs would be a bit disarming for the person in the elevator. A moment’s hesitation was all that was needed for Riker and the others to rush in and do the real disarming.

Steve-O made eye contact with Riker. Seeing the thumbs-up telling him they were all ready, he took hold of the card on the lanyard around his neck and waved it in front of the square card reader. The small light on the reader changed from red to green. Next came the faraway sound of motors engaging somewhere behind the elevator doors.

While most elevators featured a digital readout either above or beside the bay, this one did not. The entire group was completely in the dark as to whether the elevator was coming up to them from the lower levels or descending on them from the floors above. The only hint they received that the elevator had arrived was a muted clunk behind the door. Next, a bell was dinging. A tick later, the bell went quiet, and the doors parted.

Riker had been studying Steve-O’s face, waiting for any kind of reaction to wash over it. Hearing the doors hit the stops and seeing the man crack a smile, Riker dropped his gaze to Steve-O’s left hand and noted his extended thumb. All clear.

“Let’s go,” Riker said, ushering everyone in ahead of Steve-O. Once they were all inside and doing their best to replicate the strategy they had used outside of the bay, he instructed Steve-O to tap the card and select the appropriate floor.

“I hope we’re not exceeding the maximum weight limit,” Vern said, the elevator doors snugging shut.

“I pray Steve-O doesn’t fart,” Shorty put in.

Tara gave Shorty a playful slap upside the head.

Riker shushed everyone. “Make yourselves small,” he said, pressing his large frame into the corner opposite the car’s control panel.

Steve-O selected SUBLEVEL 3 and waved the card over the reader.

As soon as the doors closed and the car began to move, Riker took the SIG Mosquito from his pocket, gave it a quick press check, then threw off the safety. As each floor ticked by, he tensed, ready to go on the offensive if the car stopped prematurely and the doors opened. When the elevator finally reached their floor, Riker raised the pistol and aimed for the spot on the door where center mass on a person should be if the doors parted and there was someone waiting for them. The odds were high that Steve-O’s use of the pilfered pass card to call the elevator car had alerted security to their presence. If so, anyone dispatched to investigate would either be playing catch up and coming down from above, or they would be on SUBFLOOR 3 and waiting for them.

“Don’t shoot unless you’re certain we’re in jeopardy,” Tara said through clenched teeth. In her hands, held like a baseball bat, was the yard-long piece of bed frame.

“Make doubly sure,” Lia added. “I can’t live with the blood of innocents on my hands.”

“Lee would be the one with the blood on his hands,” Shorty pointed out. “Don’t overthink it, big fella. Just take care of business.”

As the elevator slowed and stopped, the doors already beginning to part, Riker drew a deep breath, then exhaled slowly to calm his nerves. Moving closer to see more of the hallway through the widening gap, he looked left, then quickly walked his gaze right. Lowering the pistol, he declared the hallway clear.

Again taking point, Steve-O entered the hallway and followed the same route the airman had taken when he had escorted him down to retrieve his hat and boots.

Having recently come this way with Conklin and his guards, Riker stayed way back from the group, ready to intervene if they should encounter anyone between here and their eventual destination.

After making two opposing turns and traversing a long, straight hall that took them by four unmarked doors, they were forming up in front of what Riker hoped was their final barrier to freedom.

As discussed earlier, Steve-O was going in first, unannounced. If there was a guard, Steve-O would play dumb and engage the person with small talk. If that didn’t fly, Riker had instructed him to improvise and try to get the person to let their guard down. If there happened to be more than one hostile, Steve-O had yet another predetermined non-verbal signal in his quiver.

The door was steel. No window. No peephole. The handle was on the left, same side as the card reader. Everyone fanned out at the door and took up positions on either side of the jamb, same order as when they were waiting for the elevator car.

Steve-O pressed the card to the reader. Smiling at the resulting click of the deadbolt disengaging, he turned the handle and pushed the door inward. He paused, his body blocking the doorway. “Anyone home?” he called at the top of his voice.

The sound of footsteps, amplified and echoing because of the room’s tall ceiling, preceded an airman materializing out of the gloomy interior. He was all sinew and muscle and nearly a foot taller than Steve-O. Red hair, shorn high and tight, contrasted sharply with his green eyes and talc-white skin. He stood there, looking down at Steve-O, a bewildered expression on his narrow, clean-shaven face.

Voice betraying what had to be Southern roots, the airman said, “What are you doing down here, Steve? Better yet, how did you manage to get through a locked door?”

Steve-O smiled. “It wasn’t locked.”

“Impossible,” said the airman whose nametape read Mulligan. “You need a special card to get in here.” He paused, thinking. “You’re here. What do you want?”

“I have a question for you.”

Taking a step toward Steve-O and craning to see past him, Mulligan said, “What is it?”

Staring into the airman’s eyes, Steve-O said, “Anyone else in there with you?”

Mulligan shook his head. “I shouldn’t even be in here. Nothing to guard but storerooms and the motor pool.”

“Okay, good,” replied Steve-O. “Next question. What is the capital of Thailand?”

“What?” said Mulligan, incredulous.

Simultaneous to Steve-O swinging the cowboy boots clutched tightly in his right hand forward and on a slightly upward arc, he said, “Bangkok!”

Riker had been listening to the exchange and watching Steve-O out of the corner of one eye. The angle was less than optimum. Still, because of his height, he had a good idea of where the airman was in relation to the doorway. The query and thing with the boots had caught Riker completely by surprise. It wasn’t part of the plan. However, when both boot tips caught the airman full on in the family jewels, and Riker heard the airman gasp and watched him double over in agony, Riker barged past Steve-O, the pistol pressed to his leg. As he crossed the threshold, eyes scanning the room beyond for any threats, he stood the airman up and aimed the Mosquito at the man’s face.

Staring down the barrel, wide-eyed and clutching his damaged balls one-handed, Mulligan said, “What the fuck is this?”

“A jailbreak,” said Shorty as he came through the door behind Riker and deftly relieved Mulligan of his sidearm, pass card, and the Kershaw locking blade knife clipped to the front pocket of his ACU uniform. He stuck the Beretta in his waistband, then pocketed the knife and pass card.

Without missing a beat, Mulligan said, “Take me with you. I was going to leave before the president ordered the strike that got us all stuck inside this tomb.”

No pause. No thinking about it. And without consulting the others, Riker said, “Okay. But only if you cooperate fully.”

Speaking loudly to be heard over the protestations coming from Lia, Tara, and Vern, the man said, “Don’t listen to them. I won’t be a problem. I haven’t spoken to my family since all this started. I’ll do whatever you say. I promise. Just get me the hell out of here.”

Pistol unwavering, Riker said, “First off. Who’s monitoring the elevators and watching the cameras?”

“There’s only one person on duty tonight,” divulged Mulligan. “And if Ellison is being Ellison, he’s either sleeping on the job or he’s playing sudoku and totally oblivious to what’s going on.”

Vern said, “Are we on candid camera right now?”

Mulligan pointed toward the ceiling. “Cameras are up there. They’re black and white and pretty damn old.”

Always the voice of reason, Lia said, “We’re wasting precious time, Lee.”

“We’ll need the fob for the Shelby,” Riker said. “And you’ll have to take us to wherever you’re keeping our weapons and gear.”

Shorty said, “While you’re at it, you better grab the keys to my Roamer. And we’ll need enough MOPP suits for all of us. A Geiger counter, too.”

“Just the fob for the Ford,” Riker told the airman. Regarding Shorty, he went on, saying, “We’re going to have to be fast and nimble to avoid capture if they pursue us. Large Marge is neither fast nor is she nimble.”

Shorty shrugged. “You have a point. Easy come, easy go.” He looked at Mulligan. “I’m not leaving Shocky behind.”

Mulligan shot Riker a questioning look.

“It’s what he calls his shotgun,” Riker explained, still kind of stunned he wasn’t embroiled in a heated discussion with Shorty about why leaving his Earth Roamer behind was a bad idea.

Mulligan said, “Deal. Follow me,” and struck off for a set of double doors inset in the wall fifty yards or so to their left.

Riker looked back at Tara and Lia. “Bar the door with something. When you’re done”—he gestured at the fleet of military vehicles parked at the opposite end of what was essentially a very large airplane hangar—“I need you two to pop the tires. Start with the MRAPs and then move on to the Humvees.” He unsheathed the Randall knife and handed it to Tara. Looking at Shorty, he asked for the Beretta and knife he’d seen him take from Mulligan. The knife he gave to Tara. Then, after press-checking the Beretta and inspecting the mag, he passed it off to Vern. “She’s locked and loaded. Keep an eye on both doors.”

Vern nodded, then backed into the shadowed area beside the door to the hallway. Unless a person knew he was there, he would be easy to overlook.

Tara found a table and chairs that had been set up across the hangar. She hustled over and retrieved one of the chairs. Wedging the chairback underneath the door handle, she said, “That should hold for a spell.”

Steve-O had finished swapping out his tennis shoes for the red boots. Watching Tara and Lia head toward the assortment of military vehicles, he asked, “What about me? What can I do to help?”

Indicating Mulligan and Shorty, already half of the way to the set of double doors, Riker said, “Come with us. We’re going to need your help to carry the MOPP suits.”

 

***

 

Five minutes after everyone went their separate ways, they were all back at Riker’s Shelby Baja pickup. No stranger to donning the bulky MOPP gear, Riker was quick to get dressed in his set. It was a size too small for him, but it would work.

Shorty and Steve-O had the most trouble with their protective gear. Since both were on the small side, and the smallest suits in the storeroom were still a size or two too large for them, they were both struggling to get the ungainly suits and the accompanying rubber gloves and overboots to fit properly.

Without being prompted, Mulligan stepped in to help Steve-O.

Riker offered to assist Shorty. The overture was met with a middle finger.

“I can take care of my own damn self, Lee.” He grunted and groaned and bent at the waist as he tried to keep the extra material from bunching up around his ankles. Finally, after resorting to jumping up and down with his arms extended to achieve a decent fit, all that was left was for him to put on the hood. Looking at Riker, who appeared to be getting a kick out of the battle between man and suit, Shorty said, “You sure we can’t take one of the armored jobs over there?”

“Too late. The ladies already flattened their tires.” He leaned in close. “If it’s any consolation, I’m going to lose my ride too. Dolly’s going to collect radiation on our way out of Vegas. I figure we find a dealership that’s not too picked over and grab us some new wheels.”

“When were you going to break it to the others that we’re all going to be packed like sardines in your truck?”

“Same time I break it to Mulligan that he’s not coming with us after all,” Riker whispered. “And I plan on doing it at the very last moment.”

“That’s savage,” Shorty said. “Even I wouldn’t do something like that.” He looked at the airman busy showing Steve-O how the hood and respirator functioned. “He seems like he’d be an asset. At least that’s what my gut tells me.” He paused for a beat. Finally, he regarded Riker and reminded him what happened last time they fucked someone over. “If it wasn’t for that lockpick I gave you. That teeny tiny piece of metal you refused to put in your prison pocket … you and me wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

Riker said, “It’s called a prison wallet.”

“And you know this how?”

“I read books in my spare time. But your descriptor makes sense, too.”

Mulligan approached Riker. “All set. Let’s load everything in your rig and get the hell away from here.” He went quiet for a second. “How are we all going to fit in there?”

“We’re not,” Shorty said. “We’re going to tie you up and leave you here. Isn’t that right, Lee?”

“The hell we are,” Tara put in. “You remember the people from Shorty’s boat ramp? I sure as hell do. Karma, Big Bro. Karma is a real thing.”

Looking at Mulligan, Riker said, “You know your way off the mountain?”

The airman nodded. “I used to ride dirt bikes out there on the weekends.”

“You’re hired,” Riker said. “What’s your first name?”

“Paul.”

“Okay, Paul the navigator, you’re going to open the blast door for us. When I pull through, you get up front with me. The ladies, they get the backseat all to themselves.” He looked at Shorty, Vern, and Steve-O. “I’m sorry fellas, but you three are relegated to riding in the load bed. Put your hoods on, gun up, and get in.” As he looped around to the driver’s side door, fixing his hood as he went, a klaxon blared, and the many banks of overhead fluorescent lights flared to life. They shined down on Riker with ferocious intensity, causing the pounding in his head to intensify. It was the brightest light he had seen since the unexpected flash of the nuke detonation had lit up the landscape behind the Shelby as they were just clearing the mountain complex’s steel blast door. As he got behind the wheel, exchanging worried glances with Tara and Lia, an amplified male voice boomed from hidden speakers, ordering them to exit the pickup. When nobody complied, the tone of the voice changed and the person—most likely an airman in the TOC—began pleading with them to not open the blast doors.

Too late. Mulligan had already completed his only job. As Riker watched the doors begin to part in the middle, he reached across the seat and threw open the passenger door. Least he could do to reward the man for his cooperation was to hold up his end of the bargain. Best case scenario, the kid could get them down off the mountain and headed east, away from ground zero. Worst case was someone in the TOC would deploy air assets, and they would all be dead from a missile strike before the Shelby made it to the desert floor.

Hoping Tara was right about the karma thing, Riker fired the engine and toggled the Baja’s headlights. Throwing the truck into gear, he tromped the gas and aimed for the rectangle of darkness to their fore. As the pickup leapt forward, the wildly spinning offroad tires leaving smoking black streaks on the polished cement, Riker stole a quick glance in the passenger-side wing mirror. The ladies had done well barring the door to the corridor. It was holding—for now.

 

Chapter 11

 

A large sign on the right side of I-35 had been the only warning to Groot that the two-lane they were on would eventually take them across the Iowa-Missouri state line. From a mile out, it had been evident to Groot, and only to Groot, that the points of light he had spotted as they were getting back on the interstate south of Lamoni were not bonfires. From a quarter mile out, thanks to the NODs, he learned that the larger among them were vehicles burning. It was a mix of military and civilian that leaned heavier to the former. In and around the vehicles were human corpses. No doubt about it. There had to be upwards of a hundred of them.

Now, with the shallow depression where two states met laid out before the Oshkosh, it was clear to Groot, and still only to Groot, that a major battle had taken place here. Thanks to the NODs, everything he was seeing was a ghostly shade of green. Gossamer wisps of smoke twining off charred skin and still-smoldering flesh made it seem as if he were watching the souls of the dead leaving bodies no longer useful to them.

Ambulatory corpses moved slowly amongst the wreckage, their stilted gaits accentuated by the flickering firelight. Some were swathed in scraps of still burning clothing, the exposed skin blistered and sagging. Others were seemingly unscathed, their military MultiCam ACUs tucked and bloused, slung weapons and chest rigs full of magazines lending the impression they were still alive and simply on maneuver through a hellscape of their own making. Dispelling that notion were the uniformed zombies down on all fours and feeding ravenously on the recently deceased. All put together, what Groot was witnessing in real life was worse than any of the nightmares his subconscious had already subjected him to.

As Groot veered sharply from the passing lane to the far-right shoulder, he was bombarded by questions. They came at him fast and furious, with Sloane imploring him to describe what he was seeing, and Chance, still in the gunner’s seat, begging to be allowed to power on the targeting screen so he could see for himself.

Pulling parallel to the guardrail, Groot set the brake and left the engine idling. First thing he did was check both mirrors. Clear. Only ten or fifteen minutes and a couple of miles removed from escaping what could have been their undoing, the possibility was real that they hadn’t seen the last of the young people from the feed store.

Groot addressed Sloane first. “I was wrong. Those aren’t bonfires.” Then, leaving out the feeding zombies and condition of the bodies of the truly dead soldiers, he went on and described—in the most vanilla manner—what he was seeing.

“What’s it going to hurt if I zoom in on them with the thermal camera? What don’t you want us to see?” Chance pressed. “Or is it just me you’re trying to protect?” He popped his head between the seats. Singling out Sloane, he said, “Are you on my side? If so, Driver Man here is outnumbered.”

Twisting around in his seat, Groot said, “This isn’t a democracy, Chance. I recommend you both take my word for it. Because once you get a look at what’s out there, there’s no unseeing it.”

“I saw a lady pulled in half in front of Geno’s. A couple of biters were digging into her guts. At the same time, three or four others were chewing on her arms and legs. At this point, she was still screaming. Well, she was screaming at first. As her upper body came loose from her bottom half, she was making cat sounds. Fucking cat sounds. Sort of like a kitten mewing. When her organs dumped out of the cavity, all wet and squishy, the other deaders forgot all about her arms and legs.” He shook his head. “Was like pigs at a trough. Lapping and licking at the blood and runny shit spilling from her ruptured bowels. Looked like chocolate pudding. But I know it was shit because I could smell it from where I was hiding.”

“Okay, okay,” Groot said. “I’ve heard enough. I don’t think I’ll ever eat pudding again.” When he regarded Sloane, she was mouth agape and gasping for air. Her forehead glistened with a sheen of sweat. He was pretty sure if he could see her face without the hue bestowed upon it by the NODs, her visage would be tinged a similar shade of green. If she were a passenger beside him on an airplane, he would already be digging into the seatback for a vomit bag to give to her.

Speaking through the hand cupped tightly over her mouth, Sloane said, “I’ve heard enough, too. But I’m with Chance. I’d rather know what we’re up against than literally being in the dark. If it’s a battlefield you’re looking at, there’s bound to be weapons and bullets we could pick up. Maybe we’ll find MREs in some of the vehicles. They don’t taste as bad as I thought they would.”

“I could siphon some fuel,” Chance added. “We have the hand pump and hose in the bag.”

Looking directly at Sloane, Groot asked her when and where she’d tried a meal ready to eat.

“I did this survival show with a British special force guy a few years back. Honestly, best thing about it was getting to look at him for days on end.”

“His name is Bear Grylls,” Chance said matter-of-factly before abruptly changing the subject. “Nobody out there is going to notice if I turn on both monitors,” he pointed out. “I want to see what’s out there, too. I need to see. And I most definitely don’t want us to sit here on the road any longer. Trouble’s going to find us. Those idiots back there probably have friends. Always keeping on the move is what got me and Sloane this far.”

At that moment, it dawned on Groot that not only was Sloane an elite athlete who excelled in combat sports, but she was also a celebrity recognized the world over. Before everything went to shit, Sloane was as popular and recognizable as Mike Tyson was in his heyday. Tucking that fact away for future exploitation, he said, “Suit yourself, Chance. But don’t say that I didn’t warn you.”

Didn’t have to tell Chance twice. He punched the power button and leaned closer to the monitor. When it flared to life, he saw that the optic on the CROWS mast was aimed directly at the heart of the battlefield. And it was still set to thermal. The vehicles and zombies and the corpses the zombies were feeding on were not rendered in shades of green. Instead, everything was presented to him in warm tones, primarily yellow, orange, and red. There was nothing fear-inducing about what he was seeing.

Having powered up the primary monitor mounted to the dash in front of Sloane, Groot said to Chance, “You need to mirror your monitor to ours. There’s a way. I’m just not that up to speed on how to do it.”

As Chance explored the option tree on the touchscreen, he said, “Do you see those heat signatures way off to the right of the state line sign?”

Groot panned his head in the proper direction. “About three o’clock?”

“I guess. Up in the trees. Thirty yards or so from the interstate. I see six big hot spots and ten or so smaller hits.”

Groot nodded. “Good eye. Pretty sure those are Amish. I count six horses, each hooked to a buggy. Looks like there’s a couple of men per buggy. They’re all bearded and wearing those hats.”

Sloane said, “What do you think they’re doing?”

“What I was trying to do a few days ago,” Groot said, flipping the NODs up. “Minding their own damn business.”

Finally, the monitor in front of Sloane lit up. Everything on it was presented in gradients of green and black. As Chance panned and zoomed, sweeping the entire battlefield, Sloane said, “It’s as bad as you let on, Groot. What the hell happened down there?”

Groot had been looking at the monitor, too. “I’m new to the vehicles and markings,” he conceded. “But I’m pretty sure all the armor and Humvees are our side. The pickups on the Missouri side”—he shook his head—“are so shot up it’s hard to tell. Maybe they belonged to locals protecting their turf.”

“How’d the locals take out the tanks?” Sloane asked.

“Those aren’t tanks,” Groot said. “Those are MRAPs. The way they’re burning, and those holes punched in the top makes me think they were taken out by antitank missiles.”

“Javelin missiles,” Chance pointed out. “Man-portable tank killers.”

Groot said, “You’re probably right.”

Sloane squirmed in her seat. “Where did the good old boys and girls get those kinds of weapons?”

Groot was thinking the same thing. He said, “I came across three different National Guard roadblocks in the days following the first reports of Romero. All of them had been overrun. I saw vehicles abandoned, many dead soldiers and their discarded equipment. It’s not too much of a stretch to think civilians could get ahold of antitank weapons.” No sooner had he said it than it dawned on him that the Oshkosh L-ATV they were sitting in was a prime target for those kinds of weapons. Since it was usually either windy, rainy, or bitterly cold where he came from, he’d spent a lot of his downtime watching war documentaries on cable television. Which was why he was also aware that it didn’t matter if they were stationary or moving. If the bad guys could see them and let loose a Javelin, it would eventually find them.

Singling out Chance, Groot said, “I want you to keep your eyes peeled for muzzle flashes. Call them out, but do not engage unless I say so.”

Sloane said, “What do you want me to do?”

“Unbuckle and be ready to jump out if I tell you to,” Groot replied. “That goes for you, too, Chance. And if it comes to that, don’t ask any questions, don’t pause to grab anything … just get the hell out and move to cover. A vehicle would work. The guardrail. Anything solid you can put between you and this rig is better than nothing at all.”

A hush descended on the cab. Only sound was the low rumble of the Cummins diesel engine. As Groot selected Drive, he flicked his eyes to the side mirror, where he spotted two points of light. They were way back on I-35, maybe half a mile or so. They were set low to the road on a vehicle with a massive bumper, long hood, and lots of window glass. And they were closing fast. It was a semi-tractor. No doubt about it.

After getting the Oshkosh rolling toward the state line, Groot said, “I’ve seen this movie before.”

Sloane clicked out of her seatbelt. “What movie?”

“The Duel. One of Spielberg’s early works. Dennis Weaver plays the part of a salesman in a Plymouth Valiant who’s being chased across California by a psycho in a Peterbilt tanker truck.”

Instinctively, Sloane checked her mirror. All she saw were the lights. “That’s a Peterbilt?”

“Or the equivalent.” Focusing all his attention on selecting a safe path through the wreckage—both human and vehicular—he ordered Chance to take control of the Ma Deuce and bring it to bear on the road behind them. “If that vehicle looks like it’s going to ram us, shoot to kill.”

Groot steered the Oshkosh through the long line of static vehicles. It was a tight fit in places. Which was a good thing because the semi just now cresting the hill behind the Oshkosh was going to have a hell of a time navigating the snarl. At one point, when they were crossing into Missouri, the Oshkosh came close enough to one of the MRAPs that they were all able to see the silhouette of the immolated driver. He, or she, was draped over the wheel. The flickering light from the flames lit up the inside of the Oshkosh’s cab. In the brief snapshot in time, Groot saw a new expression transform Sloane’s face. It was equal parts concern and anger. There was a hard set to her jaw. It was night and day from just moments ago when she had been close to puking.

“This is bullshit,” she said. “Americans shouldn’t be fighting Americans.”

“Agreed,” Groot said. “Thanks to the chaos caused by the Romero virus, I’m afraid we’re witnessing what happens in a power vacuum. The current lack of any kind of command and control, whether at the state or federal level, is only going to make it worse. Throw in the large herds of zombies ranging out from both coasts, and you have a perfect storm that could bring America to her knees. If that happens, I doubt she’ll ever recover.”

“It’ll be a nonstop purge,” Chance said. “Philly was fuckin’ nuts when we escaped.”

Groot said nothing. He was focused solely on the long stretch of body-strewn no-man’s land he’d spotted from the hilltop behind them. It was coming up quick. He figured if they had to engage the pursuing semi, it would be the perfect place to do so. Flicking his gaze to the display, he saw what Chance was seeing. The semi was slaloming through the first of the military vehicles. When it came to the narrowest point, moving at a pretty good clip, it sideswiped a Humvee. The equal and opposite component of Newton’s Law had more of an effect on the semi than the squat desert-tan Humvee. Groot watched it pinball off a couple of vehicles, slew back and forth, then, miraculously, the driver regained control of it.

“I’m pulling to the shoulder,” Groot warned. “Track it with the gun. If it does anything other than pass us by, you know what to do.”

“Let them have it,” Chance replied, sounding like he almost wished they would.

Groot found a spot equidistant to the last of the National Guard column and the first of the civilian vehicles, a bullet-riddled Dodge Ram pickup sporting a plate-metal grille guard that was more of a modified cowcatcher than the usual wraparound apparatus constructed with bent steel tubing. On the ground nearby, in a pool of blood, was a man who had been shot multiple times. He wore a flannel shirt and blue jeans. A large chunk of his skull was missing. It took the zombie kneeling over the body and chewing on the dead man’s neck a moment to react to the noise made by the vehicle coming to a stop in the dark a dozen feet away. When it caught sight of the approaching headlights, it rose slowly and squared up to the idling vehicle. It stood there, mouth agape, bloody teeth glowing green on the display. Seemingly confused by the contradictory stimuli, the thing stared off into the distance, up I-35, where the semi’s engine noise had to be building to a crescendo.

Eyes never leaving the zombie, Groot said, “What’s the semi doing now?”

“Still coming,” Chance replied.

“Does this thing have any reflectors?” Sloane asked. “Because if it doesn’t, there’s a good chance the semi driver can’t even see us.”

Groot groaned. “I should have thought of that.” To Chance, he said, “I’m going to hit the light. Let me know how our friend responds.”

“Better do it quick,” Chance blurted. “He’s just coming into the clear.”

Groot flicked the lights on.

Continuing the play-by-play, Chance said, “He’s slowing and swerving to the left.”

“Toward us or away from us?” asked Sloane.

Groot was finally able to see the headlights in his wing mirror. “He’s veering away. Check your fire.” When he flicked his gaze forward, he saw the zombie passing through the headlight beams. It was low to the road and sprinting. A fast mover.

“He’s passing us on the left,” Chance warned.

Sloane said, “Dumb biter,” a split second before the zombie entered the semi’s path. The semi barely slowed. Only indication the driver had any idea his rig had just mowed down the living corpse, the impact blasting it out of its shoes and sending it flying toward the Ram pickup, was the hiss of air brakes and slight change in direction as it continued its charge down the interstate.

“I was wrong about the Duel scenario,” Groot conceded. “Chalk it up to a vivid imagination.” He killed the lights, dropped the NODs down in front of his eyes, and aimed the Oshkosh at the Dodge Ram.

Sloane said, “What’s the plan?”

“You and I dismount and check for supplies, ammunition, weapons, maps. Anything we can use.”

Sloane had Chance hand forward the B&E kit. “I’ve gotten pretty good with the pump. If any of these rigs run on diesel, I can have it transferred to this tank in no time.”

“No can needed?”

She shook her head. “Just get the place where you fill this thing’s tank close to the pickup’s tank, and I’ll do the rest.”

He pulled the snub nose .38 from the ankle holster. “You know how to use a revolver?”

She took the pistol from him. Keeping the muzzle pointed at the floor and her finger off the trigger, she checked the cylinder. “Hammer was on an empty chamber. You fire this recently?”

“No,” Groot lied. “I prefer to carry it this way.”

“Riiight,” she said, tucking it in her pocket. “Because everyone knows having five rounds at the ready is better than six.”

Groot drove forward slowly, eased the Oshkosh next to the Dodge, then set the brake. He grabbed the M4, took a last look around the area through the NODs, then elbowed open the heavy door. On the way out, he reminded Chance of what he had told him earlier.

“I’ll jump when you say jump,” Chance replied.

As Groot’s feet struck the ground, he was hit in the face with the caustic smell of melted plastic and burned flesh. There was also the underlying stink of rotting meat. The culprits, the zombies he had spotted earlier, were several hundred yards away and clustered mostly in and among the National Guard vehicles. He wasn’t too particularly worried about being overrun while he and Sloane did their thing. Still, he intended to remain hyper-vigilant while they were outside of the vehicle.

While Sloane set up the siphoning operation, Groot ducked inside the Ram. Rifling through the consoles and glove box turned up nothing of value. He did see that the gas gauge was pegged at Full. Enough to top off the Oshkosh’s tank. Any extra fuel would go in the plastic cans stowed in the back of the Oshkosh. He was backing out of the Ram’s cab when he detected a sudden flare of light off his left shoulder. It was very bright and emanated from the crest of a distant hill. As the initial flash birthed a rapidly rising pinpoint of light, Groot realized what was happening. He screamed, “Missile inbound!” and rushed alongside the Oshkosh, pausing only long enough to haul open Chance’s door and order the kid to get out.

Coming around the rear of the Oshkosh, Groot barely avoided colliding with Sloane. “This way,” he said, legging over the guardrail. Lifting his gaze, he saw the Amish on the hill to his right. They hadn’t moved since he had seen them last. It was almost as if they had been expecting the attack. Hell, they didn’t watch television, or so he thought. No World War Two documentaries on The History Channel. No Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. This was probably the most entertaining thing they’d ever seen.

Groot was sprinting downhill through ankle-high grass when he was lifted off his feet by the thunderclap-like explosion at his back. As he came back to earth, face leading the way and entering the first of what would be three full somersaults, he was enveloped by a wave of superheated air. He finally came to rest face up, the wind knocked from him, every nerve ending on every inch of exposed skin afire. As he tried to sit up, he realized the impact with the ground had not only knocked the NODs askew, it had also rung his bell pretty good.

The hammer-on-anvil-like pounding behind his eyes seemed to be keeping time with the flickering light of the flames enveloping the Oshkosh. The throbbing in his back, exasperated by the tumble, was like a bass drum being played by a person reading from a different sheet of music. Nearby, the unmoving form awash in the soft orange glow cast by those same flames could only be Sloane. He tried to call out but, slowly, like a drawstring was being pulled, his field of vision narrowed. The last thing that registered before everything went dark was the dead-eyed stares of the zombies dropping to their knees all around him.

 

Chapter 12

 

Captain Terrance “Conk” Conklin registered the slight deviation on the computer display a half beat before he felt the B-2 Spirit’s autopilot nose his stealth bomber a few degrees to the right. It was the beginning of the final leg of the bombing run he had programmed into the computer as he sat on the tarmac at Whiteman Air Force Base while waiting for confirmation his worst fear was about to be realized: That in two hours, he would be dropping a B83 variable-yield thermonuclear gravity bomb on more than half a million Americans carrying a virus whose cure was currently being pursued by the big brains at the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Maryland. Then there was the collateral damage that would surely be wrought on the nearby American city. If the predicted firestorm did not decimate the living who had gone to ground in hopes that help was coming, the radiation and radioactive fallout most certainly would. Having been in the service of his country for going on close to thirty years, he never thought his arm of the nuclear deterrent triad would actually be used in his lifetime.

Though Conk couldn’t see any detail on the ground below thanks to the moonless night, in his mind’s eye he saw the Vegas strip in all its illuminated glory. The Bellagio fountains glowed an aquamarine blue. Searchlights probed the sky, threatening to expose the two-billion-dollar aircraft and its murderous payload.

A dark blotch on the landscape, Nellis Air Force Base was visible below. Usually a beehive of activity around the clock, the runways and tarmac were deserted, the last of the base’s aircraft having launched hours ago.

Simultaneously, as a visible cue splashed across the targeting computer and Conk heard in his ear the audible tone letting him know it was time to open the bomb bay doors, a warning tone filled the cockpit.

Missile lock?

Impossible. There were no enemy fighters reported over American airspace. Furthermore, the B-2’s radar cross section was smaller than a bird. However, once he opened the bomb doors, that would not be the case.

He was still trying to determine the cause of the warning when a series of loud bangs resounded in his ears.

Jolted awake from an Ambien- and Aviation-Gin-induced slumber, Conk sat up and tried to make sense of where he was. He heard the distant blaring of what sounded like a klaxon. The usual soft glow produced by the Spirit’s touch screens and gauges was not present. It was so dark he could not see his hand in front of his face. It was the type of impenetrable darkness known only to miners and deep-sea explorers.

Bang. Bang. Bang. Someone was knocking on the door to his tomb-like quarters deep inside the Cold-War-era Frenchman Mountain Complex.

Through the door, he heard someone say, “General Conklin. Airman Mena. I have an urgent message for your ears only.”

The relief that the general felt when he shook off the cobwebs and realized he had only been dreaming he was at the controls of the last bomber in the United States arsenal he had had the privilege to pilot dissipated when he remembered the mission had been real. Only it was a young captain out of Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri who had pickled the nuke over the desert somewhere south of Las Vegas.

“Can it wait five?” asked the two-star who, up until the Romero outbreak, had been the Associate Director for Military Affairs of the Central Intelligence Agency (ADMA). When the situation south of the border devolved to the point that Conk’s contacts in Central and South America stopped returning his calls, there was no longer a need for him at the Pentagon. Shortly thereafter, when Nellis’s previous commander had gone out on a “fact-finding” mission to Las Vegas and had gone AWOL, the Chief of Staff of the Air Force tapped Conk to replace the missing man.

To say the abrupt move came as a surprise to Conk would be a vast understatement. Not one to question his superiors, most of whom could eventually prove instrumental in him one day being appointed to the Joint Chiefs, he did what he always did: He packed his bags and boarded the next transport out.

“It cannot wait, sir,” said the airman. “It truly is urgent.”

Dressed in dark blue sweatpants and white tee shirt bearing the Air Force logo, Conk rose from his bed, padded across the room barefooted, then pawed at the door jamb in the dark to locate the light switch. As the overhead fluorescent lights snapped on, he yanked the door open. Standing there at attention, ACUs pressed and bloused neatly, was a diminutive Hispanic. “I’m sorry, sir,” said the airman. “They tried to phone you.”

“Ringer’s off,” said the general unapologetically. “What is it that could not wait, Airman Mena?”

“The facility has been breached.”

“Breached?”

Airman Mena nodded. It was clear being in front of the new base commander was intimidating to him.

“At ease, Airman,” Conk said. “I’m not a spook. I only worked amongst them. And I’m no good at guessing. So I need you to take it from the top. Tell me everything you know. I’ll just listen. Okay?”

Airman Mena nodded. Finally, after relaxing his posture and taking a deep breath, he said, “The people we allowed in the other night commandeered a vehicle and have left the facility. We think the one with Downs stole the kitchen pass card.” He paused. “And it looks like they had help opening the blast doors.”

The general ran a hand through his graying hair. “All of the visitors?”

“Their quarters are empty,” Mena said. “What are your orders?” When he finished speaking, he gestured at something inside the room.

Peering over his shoulder, Conk noted the strobing red light. It was the phone. Someone was attempting to reach him.

Conk dismissed the airman, instructing him to close the door on the way out.

Without another word, Airman Mena stepped back into the hall and shut the door.

Once again finding himself all alone, the general crossed the dimly lit room and snatched up the handset. “This is Conk,” he said, taking a seat on the bed. “What’s going on?”

The general listened as the airman on the other end of the line reported what had happened down in the motor pool. After pausing for a few seconds to process everything he had just taken in, all of it bad, he said, “Those rad levels are not life-threatening so long as they don’t take their time getting suited up. Get a patrol together and bring the runners back. If they resist, the patrol is authorized to use deadly force. Tell them the anomaly must come back unharmed.”

Conk listened to the airman’s reply. Finally, grimacing, he said, “They punctured how many tires?” He paused and listened to the airman confirm the number. “So you are telling me there’s not a single working vehicle out of the two dozen down there? Not even my Oshkosh?”

The airman confirmed it all.

“Once the patrol is suited up, have them start patching tires. Then I want you to get ahold of Colonel Ahearn at Creech and have them put up a Reaper. Hell, if they have a Global Hawk at their disposal, put her up too.” He did not wait for a response. Just slammed the handset in the cradle and spewed some choice curse words. Not too many, though. He wanted to have a full quiver. Because when he finally made it down to the TOC buried deep in the bowels of this Godforsaken pile of rock, he was going to unleash the whirlwind on those responsible for this debacle.

 

Northeast of Frenchman Mountain Complex

 

In a normal situation, if the person navigating for Riker didn’t have their head up their ass—a common occurrence when he was an Eighty-Eight Mike motor transport operator and driving troops and supplies in and around Baghdad, Iraq—he was more than adept at following directions. There was nothing normal about this situation. First off, he was wearing MOPP gear too small for him and sweating profusely. Then, there was the problem of the M50 respirator’s panoramic single lens visor fogging up. To rectify this, he would periodically hold his breath until the moisture building on the glass began to dissipate. The byproduct of this solution had him seeing tracers and experiencing periodic bouts of lightheadedness. And if that wasn’t bad enough, given the combination of road noise, whine of the Shelby’s Whipple supercharger, and that Airman Paul Mulligan was speaking through his own respirator, the AWOL airman in the passenger seat next to Riker might just as well have been issuing driving prompts with his head firmly embedded in his ass.

Every time Mulligan said “Left,” Riker heard “Yes,” and every time the airman said “Right,” it sounded to Riker like “Aye.” They had already stopped at two different gates and put Tara to work cutting government-issue padlocks with the bolt cutters Riker always kept stowed away behind the rear seat. When she got back into the idling Shelby, he asked her what kind of radiation levels the Geiger counter was picking up. Shaking her head, she said what sounded like, “Eye slant bear poo,” and shot him a bug-eyed glare from behind her respirator’s fogged-over glass lens.

Understanding Riker’s question, Mulligan reached back and made gimme hands at Tara.

She said, “Suit yourself,” and slapped the counter into Mulligan’s palm.

Momentarily convinced he had just heard his sister say, “Shoot the elf,” Riker took his eyes off the road and repeated it back to her. He was back to watching the road ahead when the Shelby’s wing mirror on his side brained a zombie trudging the shoulder. While the initial thud of vacuum-formed plastic cracking the monster’s skull came as a complete surprise to everyone inside the cab, the follow-on gunshot-like report of the mirror slapping against his window had everyone, Riker included, coming off their seats.

But it was just the beginning. It was the first zombie out ahead of a small herd of them. Short of leaving the rutted dirt road and chancing getting the Shelby high-centered out in the open desert, there was no avoiding the shambling mob. So Riker halved his speed and did his best to avoid the slow-moving ghouls. Still, as he jerked the wheel left and right, the cacophony inside the cab, even insulated by the MOPP suits, was enough to drive a person mad. Hands slapped the Shelby’s metal skin. Fingernails dragged her entire length, producing a hair-raising keen that had Riker wanting to crawl out of his skin. A quick glance at the rearview mirror told him the three men back in the load bed were doing their best to keep out of harm’s way. Shorty was lying lengthwise against the liftgate, a two-handed grip on the underside of the bedrail, both feet braced against the opposite bed wall. Unless one of the zombies caught sight of him, he was likely to get out of this scrape with little more than a bad case of motion sickness.

Vern was lying in a fetal position, his small frame wedged firmly between the back of the cab and the driver’s side wheel arch. Aside from his entire body shimmying and shaking like a leaf caught in a windstorm, he, too, was out of sight to the zombies.

Steve-O was on his back in the center of the load bed and being tossed around like a cork in the ocean. It was clear to Riker the man had long ceased fighting the proverbial current. Whether he had become exhausted and couldn’t brace or he had just given up altogether, Riker hadn’t a clue. His first instinct was to stop and give the man a chance to right himself, but he knew that would expose them all to danger. Last thing they needed was for an irradiated Bolt to come sprinting at them out of the dark and launch itself into the load bed.

Riker dipped down in his seat to get a different viewing angle at the rearview mirror. He saw Frenchman Mountain, a dark, squat triangle superimposed over a smattering of twinkling stars. High up on the mountain was a rectangle of light. It was shrinking at a rapid pace. And it wasn’t due to the distance Riker had put between the Shelby and the mountain they had just come down from; it was happening because someone up there had finally gotten around to closing the massive blast doors.

For fifteen long minutes, as Riker navigated the road coming down off the mountain, casting furtive glances uphill each time he steered out of one of the dozen or so switchbacks, the doors had stayed open—the multiple rows of lights running the length of the ceiling impossible to miss. Now the doors were close to coming together in the center.

Riker shifted his gaze back to the road ahead and caught fleeting glances of the dead, most of which had severe burns over their entire bodies. Riker supposed it had either occurred instantly when the nuke detonated or the damage had accrued over time, during a slow march through the conflagration that had consumed huge swaths of the city south and west of the strip.

A pale hand shot from the inky black, the gnarled fingers leaving gray streaks on Riker’s window. Faces of the dead, the skin charred and sloughing off in places, loomed in his side vision, only to fall away as quickly as they had appeared. Their rictus white-toothed grins stayed with him though, imprinted in his mind like the faces of fellow soldiers who he had watched die on Route Irish in Baghdad, Iraq. He wanted to ask Mulligan and the others their thoughts as to why the zombies were out here in the first place, but he figured they wouldn’t hear him. Or if they did, his question would come out sounding as absurd as Tara’s “suit yourself” had sounded to him. Shoot the elf. How did his brain come up with that? As he stole one final look at the receding sliver of light in the rearview, it came to him that the light from the doors parting could have been the thing that had drawn the zombies in from the nearby interstate.

Another couple of zombies stepped into the Shelby’s path, the collision sending them flying into the scrub brush lining the road. Riker gripped the wheel tight and steered around a knot of stragglers bringing up the rear of the column. As abruptly as the encounter had begun, it was over, and the battered Shelby was alone on the empty road and charging hard toward the interstate.

Though the aural and visual assault was over, Riker was still suffering the consequences. The headache had grown into a full-blown migraine. The pounding between his ears was exponentially louder now that they were out of the herd than the noise produced by the brief ordeal. The pressure building behind his eyes had him squinting and wishing he could tear off the respirator and swallow a handful of two-hundred-milligram Ibuprofen.

Looking up from the Geiger counter in his gloved hand, Mulligan shook his head.

Riker took one hand off the wheel and indicated that he wanted a look. At the same time, he slowed the truck to walking speed and craned to see the device. It was yellow, rectangular, and about the size of a six-pack. It shared much in common with the Army-issue Geiger counters he had learned to use more than a decade ago. Mulligan’s gloved hand was wrapped around the device’s top-mounted L-shaped handle. Placed horizontally on the top of the device was a lighted gauge. The gauge’s single needle was parked about a quarter of the way through its left-to-right sweep. Riker couldn’t tell if what he was seeing was good or bad where radiation levels were concerned. His thirty-eight-year-old eyes could still pick up major details when viewing things in the distance, but when it came to reading small font, whether up close or at arm’s length, they weren’t up to the task. If he were staring at a gas gauge, he wouldn’t be happy with the position of the slightly wavering needle. A quarter tank in this environment always made Riker a bit uneasy. Shaking his head, Riker brought the Shelby to a complete stop and silenced the engine.

Tara asked, “Why are we stopping here?”

Lia said nothing. She was in the middle of the backseat, crowding Tara, her gaze directed at the road behind them.

Finally, one at a time, beginning with Shorty and ending with Steve-O, the three men in the load bed sat up straight.

Dawn was knocking on the sky to the east, the deep black of full dark beginning to show a hint of purple.

Instead of answering his sister’s question, Riker stared across the cab at Mulligan. “Explain what this means to me like I’m Steve-O.”

“That’s bullshit,” Tara interjected. “You just demeaned our friend. If you won’t say it in front of him, don’t say it at all.”

Riker showed her his palm, then nodded at Mulligan. Go on.

Mulligan said, “Up to now, the amount of gamma radiation we’ve been exposed to is not life-threatening. The guys in back”—he shook his head—“won’t know their exposure until we’re out of the fallout zone and I can run this thing over them.”

Riker said, “Are we talking deadly levels for the guys in back?”

Mulligan said, “Doubtful.”

Riker was skeptical. His gut said the airman was sugarcoating the answer. Pushing the worry out of his mind, he said, “What about my truck?”

“No doubt the desert out here got a dusting of fallout,” Mulligan pointed out. “Your rig is wearing a thick coating of dirt. You couple that with all those Zulus she came into contact with—”

Tara poked her head between the seats. Shooting a sideways glare at Mulligan, she said, “Zulus? Really? If you don’t take that cracker-ass shit back, we are throwing hands.”

Riker put a hand between the two. Addressing Tara, he said, “It’s military speak for zombies. I’m confident our accomplice here isn’t a card-carrying member of the KKK.”

Mulligan said, “We’ve been calling them Zulus since day one.” He established eye contact with Tara. “When we get out of the fallout zone, this cracker is going to find a ride of his own and drive to Boise and find out if his Jamaican ex-wife and his two mixed-race kids are still alive. They were just in from South Carolina and visiting her friend from college when this thing started. I haven’t heard from them since the cellular carriers started throttling civilian usage.” He exhaled. “You’re the first person I’ve told this to. Truth is … I’ve been planning on leaving ever since they went dark on me. Haven’t had the opportunity until you all came along.”

“Point taken,” Tara said, hanging her head. “I’m sorry, Paul. I just thought because the burnt zombies were black that you were making it racial. My bad.”

“Apology accepted.” Mulligan tapped a point on the map displayed on the Shelby’s SYNC screen. “I believe this place is just outside of the fallout zone. We can be there in less than an hour. If we can find a way inside, I’m confident it’ll have everything we need to decontaminate ourselves and this truck. If your ride turns out to be too hot to keep, you’ll find something there to replace it with.”

Riker said, “Good call. We passed it on the way to Vegas.” He looked at the men in the load bed. Seeing them all staring expectantly at him, he flashed them an encouraging thumbs-up and lifted his foot off the brake.

 

Chapter 13

 

Groot came to with every one of his senses under assault. He was lying on his side in the backseat of a vehicle. He gathered it was new on account of the “new car” smell, the aroma of the drool-smeared leather of the seat the main component. Another clue was the paper mat on the floor. Partially obstructed by a single muddy footprint were the words Reddinger Motor Company – Mt. Ayr, Iowa. It was day, but he didn’t know precisely what time nor how long he had been out. The bright light coming in through the windshield conjured up the memory of the sun-like flash he had experienced when the Javelin’s warhead detonated. He was lucky to be alive. He wondered what had become of Chance and Sloane.

Somewhere outside the vehicle, someone was firing a rifle. The steady hammering was likely why he was no longer dead to the world. It had to be close because he could smell the gun smoke. And barely perceptible over it all was the unmistakable reek of decaying flesh.

As Groot tried to sit, a wave of pain coursed his body. It was so severe that he nearly passed out again. Catching his breath, he probed his ribs with one hand. The ones on the left were tender. He’d broken at least one rib on his right side. And then there was the old back injury; it was aggravated by the triple somersault. To top it all off, the skin on his arms, face, and neck—at least the areas not wrapped with white gauze—was itching like hell.

Lying flat on the black leather seat, his head spinning amid building waves of nausea, he experienced a sensation of thirst foreign to him since he was in his twenties and dabbling in high-grade pharmaceuticals.

He called out for someone to give him water. His voice sounded like it belonged to someone else. There was also a steady ringing in his ears. On top of that, a constant rush, like the sound one hears coming from the inside of a seashell.

His request garnered no response. All he heard was the nonstop pop, pop, pop coming from what sounded to him like the M4 he had been carrying when the concussion had lifted him off his feet at the ambush site. During a brief lull in the gunfire, he repeated the request.

Someone exclaimed, “He’s awake.” A beat later, Chance’s face appeared from behind the headrest atop the seat crowding Groot’s limited field of vision.

Groot repeated his request. Following that, he asked the kid to tell him what happened.

Chance passed a bottled water back to Groot. “We got ambushed is what happened.”

Groot cracked the seal and sucked down half the water, spilling a good deal of it on himself. Wiping his chin, he asked, “Where’s Sloane? Did she make it?”

The gunfire outside ceased.

Casting a furtive glance forward, Chance said, “She did.”

“What happened after the explosion? I remember seeing zombies all around me.” He held up a heavily bandaged arm. “Did one of them bite me? Is that what this is all about?”

Chance was back to looking Groot in the eye. Clearly, the person who had been doing the shooting was no longer in danger. He said, “The blast knocked both of you off your feet and sent you tumbling down that little hill. You got second- and third-degree burns from the fireball. You were both out of it.”

“And you?” Groot asked. “What happened to you?”

“I did what you told me to do. After I got away from your vehicle … with your rucksack in my possession”—he smiled—“I dove behind the pickup. It shielded me from the shockwave and the heat. By the time I got back to my feet and saw you guys and saw those things dropping to their knees all around you, there was really nothing I could do but watch. If the Amish dudes hadn’t gone all Chris Kyle on the monsters, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

The passenger door flew open, letting in more light. It temporarily blinded Groot. He saw only the outline of the person clambering aboard. Once again, the ear was a dead giveaway.

“Oh look, Sleeping Beauty awakes.” It was Sloane. She brought in with her air from outside. It was rife with the odor of carrion and cordite. He also detected fear-induced sweat. It had been all too common riding with the late lieutenant.

Groot heard the engine rev and detected forward movement. “Where are we?”

Chance said, “Just outside of Lincoln.”

“Nebraska?”

“How many other Lincolns are there?” Sloane said.

Groot tried to imagine a map of the United States. Thanks to the throbbing in his head and the fact he’d rarely traveled west of the Great Lakes, he drew a blank. “How far are we from the Iowa-Missouri border?”

After a short pause, Chance said, “This thing had seventeen miles on it when I drove it off the lot. It’s a 2016 Ram Big Horn. And it’s the crew cab model with four-wheel drive and the five-point-seven-liter hemi. Only color they had was this one. Says Delmonico Red on the window sticker.” He turned and smiled at Sloane. “This is a sixty-thousand-dollar ride. To be honest, it’s the first brand-new pickup I’ve ever driven. Hell, she’s the first new vehicle I’ve ever sat in. And to think that all this time I didn’t believe all the new-car-smell talk.”

Chance drove over something in the road, causing the pickup to shake and shimmy. Groot felt rib bones grating together and groaned from the pain. Collecting his thoughts, he asked, “So what’s on the odometer now?”

“It’s showing a hundred and sixty-two,” Chance answered. “You’re going to need to do the math for me. It’s not my strong suit.”

Groot didn’t bother. It was well over a hundred miles. More than enough to set him at ease but still not enough to convince him that whoever fired the Javelin was out of the picture entirely. Instead of worrying about the latter, he said to Sloane, “I thought the Amish were averse to technology. Yet they had modern long guns? What’s their story?”

“We’re alive because of them,” she said. “I’m sure Chance already filled you in on some of the details.”

“Just how they saved us from the zombies.”

She spotted the dozen or so zombies she had just gunned down. The bodies were spread across both lanes and couldn’t be avoided. Anticipating the jostling to come, she took hold of the grab handle beside her head.

Groot was still in listening mode when the pickup bucked underneath him. Bracing on the seatback in front of him spared him from a one-way trip to the floor.

Once Chance had regained control of the pickup and Sloane saw nothing but open road ahead of them, she said, “When the Amish came down to check on us, I was just coming to. There were dead zombies everywhere. You were underneath a pile of them. Anyway, when they got to you, you started swinging on them like a madman.”

“Which is why one of them shot you up with something,” Chance put in. “You were lights out in about three seconds.” He passed back a sheet of paper.

Groot took it and turned it over in his hand. One side was blank. Everything on the opposite side was blurry. When he squinted, the only thing he could read was the writing at the top: Introduction to Closed Head Wounds and Concussion Protocols. “My vision isn’t there yet. I can’t read the small font.”

“The doctor predicted that,” Sloane said. “Probably won’t clear up until the drugs wear off. He also said you broke a rib or two. Nothing he could do about it. Then there’s the burns. They’re extensive and border on third-degree. We have medicine and salves for it.”

“What happened after that?”

“They took us to a farm near the Iowa line. Seemed like it was less than two miles from the ambush site. It was all fenced in. More like a compound, really. Dawn was just breaking. We saw kids and women and farm animals. They also had a fleet of vehicles. All of them came from where we got this one. To be honest, I didn’t believe they were Amish. I mean … given how they took out the zombies and ran off the foot patrol that showed up after the missile strike, I thought they were our Special Forces guys using the clothing and buggies for cover.”

“What changed your mind?” Groot asked.

“Not one of the men, young or old, recognized me.” She shook her head. “That hasn’t happened since I won the belt back in fourteen. After that, it was hard to walk the street without getting bombarded by requests for an autograph or selfie.”

“Makes perfect sense,” Groot said. “Did they know who was going at it back there? Any idea who attacked us?”

“A combined National Guard motorized unit out of Iowa and Indiana tried to cross into Missouri,” Chance said. “The Missouri folks, a combination of citizens and Guard units from southern states, wouldn’t let them cross. The result was what you saw.”

Thinking aloud, Groot said, “And the coalition assumed we were scouting out ahead of reinforcements.”

Peering into the backseat, Sloane said, “That tank of yours had to have cost taxpayers a ton of money. Aren’t you going to get in trouble from higher-ups for losing it?”

Meeting her gaze, Groot said, “Easy come, easy go.” It dawned on him that she was wearing a gray sweatshirt in place of the ACU blouse he had given her. He also realized he was no longer wearing his uniform. In its place was a short-sleeved white smock and black cotton pants with a length of rope for a belt. “What happened to my uniform?” he asked.

“It’s all in the bed with our gear,” she replied. “The Amish couldn’t get us out of their hair fast enough.”

 

Chapter 14

 

Nevada Desert East of Frenchman Mountain Complex

 

The route from the razor-wire-topped fence bordering what the warning signs declared to be military-proving grounds was circuitous, to say the least. The unimproved dirt road had dipped into shallow arroyos, followed the crest of small bluffs, then, finally, with the sun chinning up over the landscape, shot off due east, a laser-straight stretch that seemed to have no end. After three miles, the road finally came to a T with another unimproved dirt track that ran parallel to a paved two-lane that showed up as Pabco Road on the Shelby’s SYNC display.

Pointing to a confluence of squiggles on the navigation screen, Riker said, “Want me to turn here, or are we taking the established road?” He traced the pixelated line north with a gloved finger. “They both link up with the interstate.”

Staring at the display, Mulligan said, “We’re not taking the interstate. Go left here and left again when we get to Las Vegas Boulevard.”

Riker drove the rest of the way without saying a word, keeping to Pabco as it crossed over I-15 and wound back around to Las Vegas Boulevard, an east/west running four-lane that eventually dipped south as it neared downtown Las Vegas, fifteen miles to the west.

The traffic lights at the intersection were not operating. After looking both ways, a habit Riker figured he would never break, no matter how long the deserted roads and highways had him feeling like Charleston Heston in The Omega Man, he turned right and headed west, back toward Las Vegas. Slowly but surely, the Vegas skyline materialized, the spires and geometric shapes reflecting the sun back at Riker. It was the first time he’d seen it during the day. He didn’t know the city well enough to pick out anything of note from the jumble of unique structures.

As Riker wheeled the Shelby westbound on North Las Vegas Boulevard, he was constantly having to slow and steer around packs of wandering dead, most of them horribly burned. Three times in five miles he had to circumvent deadly pileups. Every instance was a scene of total vehicular carnage. Many of the vehicles, at least the ones that hadn’t caught fire, still had corpses trapped within.

Finally, as they came to a four-way stop, the SYNC screen displaying a graphical representation of their destination, Mulligan pointed across the dash. “That’s it. Las Vegas Motor Speedway.”

A pair of gloved hands gripped the front seat headrests. Poking her masked face into the space between seats, Tara said, “We came in under a dark night sky, Lee. I wasn’t wearing night vision goggles like you were. Did you see zombies from the interstate?”

“I’m more worried about humans at this point,” Lia put in. “If there’s anyone inside the place, no doubt they’re going to have a problem with us breaking in. Usually places with millions of dollars of hardware sitting around have a security guard or two patrolling the premises.”

Las Vegas Super Speedway, home to the Las Vegas Supercar Experience, was ahead and to the right. The sun was glinting off the south- and east-facing windows of what Riker guessed to be luxury boxes. The place looked vastly different when approaching it from the south. There were no billboards with smiling people posing before angular exotic supercars painted all the colors of the rainbow. Instead, all they could see were the flat roofs of the dozen or so buildings scattered about the speedway. Everything was painted white and aglow with the honey-colored first light of day.

The backside of the grandstands rising north of the banked oval track was all Riker had seen from I-15 on their way in three nights prior. Due to the wall rising over the south side of the track, there was no way of knowing the status of the rest of the facility. If there were zombies or humans in there, they wouldn’t find out until they made their way inside.

“Priorities tend to change when dead Americans start eating live Americans,” Mulligan pointed out. “I’m sure they had security at one time. But that bomb detonating south of Vegas … it changed everything. There’s sure to be more of those things hanging around that we just saw in the desert. The zombies that didn’t perish in the conflagration are already back to following the roads and reacting to stimuli. If we’re alone when we go in, we won’t be for long.”

Tara turned her head toward Mulligan. “Thanks for that little PSA, Master of the Obvious. But I wasn’t talking to you. I was talking to my brother.” She swiveled her head in Riker’s direction. “Well, Bro? What do you think?”

Riker said, “Yes, Tara, I saw zombies from the interstate. How many? I really couldn’t tell you. The NODs make it kind of hard to count while you’re driving. And I’m not really sure if they were inside or outside of the fence.” He raised his hands in mock surrender. “I’m only human, Sis.”

“That’s pretty vague,” Lia said. “Can you wrack your brain and come up with something more definite?”

Riker shook his head. “My brain can’t take any more wracking, Lia. There’s currently an army of hammer-wielding dwarves bashing the hell out of it. Then there’s my eyes. I can’t see the little fuckers, but I’m confident the Keebler Elves are inside my skull and throwing darts at my optic nerves. At least, that’s what it feels like. So, sorry ladies, if I’m not rising to your Rain Man expectations.”

Lia said nothing.

Like a sinking ship’s prow slipping beneath the waves, Tara retreated slowly and silently into the backseat area.

Ignoring the infighting, Mulligan pointed across the dash. “Turn right at the next intersection.”

“Checkered Flag Lane. Fitting,” Riker said as he slowed and prepared to take what looked to be a blind turn. Feeling kind of shitty for having unloaded on the two most important people in his life, he apologized to them for having such a short fuse.

“Back at you,” Lia offered. “I can’t wait to get back to Trinity. It’s the only place I feel a sense of normalcy.”

Intrigued, Mulligan said, “What’s Trinity?” Speaking to Riker, he pointed and said, “Turn right there. The tunnels are how you access the infield. They’ll take us under one of the turns and deliver us to Supercar Experience.”

As Riker made the turn, he briefly met Lia’s gaze in the rearview. Simultaneous to that, he was telling Mulligan that Trinity was what they called their place in Arizona.

“Doesn’t make sense,” Mulligan pressed. “The Trinity blast occurred at White Sands Missile Range. That’s in New Mexico. North of Santa Fe, right?”

Riker didn’t respond. Instead, he changed the subject, saying, “Looks like someone beat us here. The gate for the entrance on the right is wide open. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.”

“Looks clear to me,” Mulligan said. “Drive on in.”

Riker paused at the mouth to the tunnel, staring at the light at the end he hoped wasn’t going to end up being the proverbial train. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw the three men in the load bed. Steve-O was still prone in the center of the box. Vern was sitting with his back against the rear of the cab, the back of his hooded head the only part of him visible. Shorty was peering through the rear window glass. When he and Riker made eye contact, he started gesticulating and pointing at something beyond the pickup.

Swinging his gaze forward, Riker saw three human-shaped silhouettes entering the oval of light. One of them was barely three feet tall. A kid.

“Famous last words,” Riker muttered as he nosed the Shelby into the tunnel and matted the pedal. As the mouth of the tunnel grew exponentially larger, he couldn’t help but think about the kids they had to leave behind. That the female airman had taken them under her wing was better than nothing. So far Lia hadn’t really broached the subject beyond a couple of comments about their general well-being that she had made as they were coming down off the mountain. He figured she was still in the denial stage of grief. The tsunami of emotion would crash later. No doubt it would happen unexpectedly and at an inopportune time. Focusing on the sliver of daylight between the pair on the left and the smaller form on the right, he told Lia to close her eyes and he braced for impact.

The Shelby hit the zombie trio head-on at close to thirty miles per hour. There was a loud bang, and the two on the left caromed off one another, their heads cracking together violently before both monsters disappeared under the left-side tires. Zombie number three was closer to the right-side wall than the others had been. The Shelby’s bumper and right fender caught the tiny ghoul with a glancing blow, standing it up straight and pinning it against the wall. Scraps of clothing fluttered, and one of its arms banged against the passenger door as three tons of Detroit metal on the move ground it into a bloody pulp.

Seconds after the Shelby had entered the tunnel, it was bursting into the open, the mystery instantly dispelled. Riker noted the tiny form tumbling away from the Shelby but didn’t give it a second thought. The areas of the infield not visible from Las Vegas Boulevard were now front and center and one hundred percent the object of his attention. The track used by Supercar Experience occupied two-thirds of the infield, with the area to the north home to covered staging areas, multiple garages, and a sprawling single-level building Riker presumed to be where safety briefings took place. The track featured a couple of straightaways, multiple chicanes, and a handful of long, sweeping turns. It looked as if a demolition derby had taken place here. Wrecked and abandoned on the track were more than a dozen exotic sports cars worth millions of dollars. Most looked to have been purposefully crashed into the walls or other cars. And as if things couldn’t get any stranger, the wreckage of a single-engine plane littered the entire length of one of the straightaways. An emergency landing gone wrong.

Mulligan pointed out the row of covered parking spaces. “That’s where we need to be. It’s close to the offices. It’ll shield us from prying eyes. Try to find a spot close to a faucet. Preferably one with a hose already attached to it.”

“We’re trading Dolly for a convoy of sportscars?” Lia asked incredulously. “I’ve ridden in a couple over the years. First off, they’re cramped inside. Secondly, the back seats have zero legroom. Then there’s the gas mileage problem. What do they get? Three gallons to the mile?”

“I’ll consider that only as a last resort,” Riker answered, steering the Shelby onto the infield, where he had to jerk the wheel to keep from running over a bloated corpse. “I intend on driving Dolly home. The good news is that raceways are like airports.” After making the turn onto the racetrack and steering around a badly mangled Ferrari high-centered on a still-moving corpse, he hooked a thumb over his shoulder. “Nellis is a busy place. It’s also a dangerous environment. You’re going to find shuttle vans, fuel bowsers, maintainers’ vehicles, ambulances, and emergency response rigs.”

“He’s right,” Mulligan announced. “In addition to the fleet of exotic cars, this place has an ambulance or two and a fire engine. If we’re lucky, Supercar Experience also has a couple of vehicles they use specifically to shuttle customers to and from the Vegas Strip hotels.”

As Riker brought the Shelby around on a sweeping left-hander, he got an unobstructed view of the east side of the facility. There was an identical row of covered parking spaces, every other one occupied by a brightly colored supercar. To the right, fifty yards away, tucked into an area far removed from the inner racetrack, was a large garage with a dozen roll-up doors.

Riker found a covered spot close to an air and water station. It was one of a trio of them evenly spaced along the staging area where customers could ogle the cars and select their ride for the day. There were hoses with spray nozzles attached to each of the hose bibs. On the nearby support pole was a dispenser full of paper towels. On the ground were buckets of water. The wooden handles of what had to be squeegees protruded from the buckets.

“Perfect,” Mulligan said, looking all around. “Slide her in.” He glanced at the Geiger counter on his lap.

Fully expecting to not like the answer, Riker said, “How’s it looking?”

“Not too bad,” Mulligan replied. “It’ll be safe for you all to stay inside while I take some readings out there.”

“You need backup,” Tara insisted, hefting the compact H&K MP7. “I’ll watch your six while you work.”

Mulligan shook his head. “No sense subjecting you to more rads than necessary. Closest zombie is still a couple of hundred yards out. I’ll have enough time to take the necessary readings.” Geiger counter in hand, he elbowed open his door, clambered out, and quickly shut the others inside.

All eyes were on the airman as he walked around the Shelby, stopping now and then to sweep the radiation meter over what Riker assumed were areas of concern. He spent an inordinate amount of time taking readings from the grille area. When Mulligan stooped down to check the undercarriage, clumsily taking a knee in the bulky MOPP suit, Riker took note of the zombies. They were still a safe distance away. When Mulligan stayed down for what seemed like an eternity to Riker, especially being stuck in the idling vehicle and relegated to watching the steady approach of a dozen dead things, he asked Tara for the MP7. The hardest part of the waiting was being in the dark as to what the airman was seeing displayed on the Geiger counter.

Riker was a heartbeat away from exiting the pickup and seeing for himself what the device was reading when Mulligan rose and resumed his task. After sweeping the Geiger counter back and forth over the men in the back of the pickup, he walked a few paces east, held the device level in front of him, and then proceeded to walk an ever-widening circle around the Shelby, stopping once to take readings from the sloped hood of a neon-green Lamborghini Aventador, then again from a twice-dead corpse that looked to have been run over by one of the supercars.

Rising, Mulligan strode back to the Shelby and began issuing orders.

Riker stepped out of the Shelby and raised a gloved hand to silence Mulligan. “I didn’t hear a thing you said. Let’s start from the top. But first, I have questions.”

Mulligan stopped talking and stared at Riker.

Riker said, “Are we outside of the fallout zone?”

Mulligan nodded.

Riker hooked a thumb at the men in the load bed. “What about them?”

Mulligan flashed a thumbs-down. “Their suits are hot,” he warned. “I was about to tell them they need to find a hose and rinse each other’s suits off. Then they need to remove the suits in reverse order as to how they put them on.”

“Respirators as well?”

“Yep,” Mulligan said. “Those come off after they’re away from the gear pile.”

Riker already knew the answer but posed the question anyway. “What about my truck?”

“It’s hot, too,” Mulligan answered. “And if it’s hot on the outside, it’s likely that some irradiated dirt and dust got inside. Trace amounts, though. You’re going to want to tell the ladies to unload everything. They’re going to have to do the same with their suits.”

Riker hung his head. “So we need new wheels,” he stated. “Where do you think they keep their shuttle vans?”

“They’re not out here,” Mulligan said. He pointed to the distant garage. “If they’re still here, I’d bet the farm that’s where we’ll find them.”

Riker did a quick scan of their surroundings. A small group of zombies was crossing the nearby straightaway, fifty feet away and closing. Another pair was ranging in from the right. They were about a hundred feet distant and coming even with the first of the covered stalls.

The five suited forms in the Shelby were staring at him, their expressions impossible to read on account of the respirators. He hurried back to the truck. At the top of his voice, he repeated everything Mulligan had just told him. “When you’re done,” he said to the men, “I want you three to find out where they keep the keys to the cars. My guess is they’re in the clubhouse.” He opened Tara’s door and retrieved his SIG Legion from the duffel she and Lia had used to collect their gear. After a quick press check, which told him there was a round in the chamber, he dumped the magazine and pressed down on the exposed round. Full. Just like it was when the guards disarmed him as the upper blast doors were closing against the nuke strike three days prior.

Tara stepped from the Shelby. “What can I do to help?”

Slapping the mag home, Riker said, “Take an MP7 and go deal with the two biters. Take Lia with you. Get your Glock from the sack. She can use it.” He stabbed two gloved fingers at her eyes. “Be on the lookout for Bolts.”

Nodding, Tara asked, “Where are you going?”

“Me and Paul are going to put down the zombies behind me, then we’re going to find us some wheels.” He put a hand on her shoulder, then leaned in close. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Lia exiting the Shelby from the driver’s side. “Amelia’s still sore at me because we left the kids behind. She’s a little out of sorts. Please don’t let anything happen to her.”

“I got her back, Bro.” She cast a furtive glance at Mulligan. “We don’t really know him. You had better watch yours.”

 

Frenchman Mountain Complex – Tactical Operations Center

 

The MQ-9 Reaper—call sign Vader—flying out of Creech Air Force Base in Indian Springs, Nevada had just arrived over Frenchman airspace when it picked up the escapees’ vehicle coming out of the desert near Pabco Road. Upon hearing the good news, General Conklin, already half of the way through the eight ounces of bourbon he’d poured into his hip flask before leaving his quarters, had abruptly stopped pacing the back of the room. Eyes glued to the incoming feed splashed on the jumbo screen at the front of the room, he had moved forward and stood behind the airman who had been in constant contact with Vader since it had gone wheels up thirty minutes ago.

When Conk saw the surveilled pickup arrive at the interstate and go west instead of east, he had expressed his disbelief by saying, “What in the hell?” Immediately afterward, when it was evident the blue Ford pickup was not going to backtrack, incredulous as to what he was seeing, he asked the other three people in the low-ceilinged room why any sane person would be heading back into the hot zone.

Conk had received a couple of responses, with one airman saying he thought that the driver could be disoriented and didn’t know west from east. The airman on comms with Creech posited that the civilians likely assumed the MOPP suits would provide them adequate protection from the radiation as they passed through the hot zone’s outer rings. The airman monitoring the video feed piped in from the motor pool had the most logical take. He was convinced the hostage was taking them on a wild goose chase and would eventually stop short on the periphery of the fallout zone and stall them there with the hope that a recovery team dispatched from Frenchman would intercept them. After taking another long pull from the flask, Conk had let them know how absurd it all sounded. First, he had pointed out that one of the hostage takers was prior military and was aware of the protection afforded by a MOPP suit. He also pointed out that Airman Mulligan knew both the fallout pattern and the dangers associated with going anywhere near ground zero, even the outer rings. Conk reminded the men that prolonged exposure, even at the periphery, starts the cancer time bomb ticking.

Finally, after watching the pickup turn from Las Vegas Boulevard, tool a half of a block north on the much narrower street, then disappear into the tunnel that he knew would deliver the vehicle inside the speedway taking up most of the screen, he’d pulled up a chair and sat down hard on it.

Now, having ordered Vader to adopt a racetrack pattern and loiter over the speedway, he was beginning to grasp what Leland Riker was up to.

The scene on the big flat-panel display was confusing at first. Once he realized he was seeing on the screen a slew of wrecked sports cars and bodies and parts thereof that had been cleaved from the dozens of walking corpses the cars had collided with, he said, “This is some Death Race 2000 shit.”

Looking away from his screen, the airman to Conk’s right said, “I don’t get the reference.”

Seeing the Ford loop around to the north and disappear underneath what looked like a carport, Conk let the question go unanswered and instead ordered the operator at Creech to hold fast and to zoom in tight on the pickup’s last known position.

Three minutes later, with two small groups of Zulus entering the frame, both advancing on the pickup’s last known position from opposite ends of the long row of covered carports, two people emerged from under the carport near where the pickup should be. They were no longer wearing the bulky suits. One of them, the larger of the two judging by his shadow, was moving toward the Zulus with one arm extended. He was twenty feet out and quickly closing the distance when the first licks of flame erupted from the weapon in his hand. It was all over in a matter of seconds, the pair deftly sidestepping the fallen corpses and altering course toward a garage complex that appeared capable of housing a multitude of vehicles.

Conk asked, “Is that Airman Mulligan we’re looking at? Sure looks like the smaller of the two is wearing a uniform.”

“Affirmative, sir,” answered the airman in touch with Creech. “What are your orders for Vader?”

“Keep orbiting. Maintain ratio and aspect.”

“Copy,” said the airman.

As Conk and the others in the room were watching the melee unfold in real time, another dozen or more Zulus appeared at the bottom of the screen. They had just crossed the straightaway bordering the infield to the north and were heading toward the nearest break in the infield barrier.

A few seconds later, Conk spotted two more people coming out from under the carport at the westernmost end. Heads on a swivel, they moved fast and kept low. When they emerged from the carport’s long shadow, it was clear they had also shed their MOPP suits. The same was true for the three people who bolted from cover shortly thereafter. Instead of following the others, they struck off for the glass and steel building north of the carports.

Seconds after the two new groups emerged, two things happened back-to-back. First, the trio arrived at the building and disappeared underneath what looked to be an awning protruding from the building’s façade. Then, off to the left of the screen, the pair ranging west from the carports slowed their advance, raised their weapons, and engaged a pair of slow-moving Zulus.

 

Chapter 15

 

When Riker and Mulligan finally made it to the garage, Riker’s ears were still ringing from him emptying the Legion’s magazine into the cluster of walking corpses. It had taken all sixteen rounds to dispatch just nine of them, a definite waste of ammunition by anyone’s standards. For the first time since ditching the MOPP suit, he paused long enough to draw in a deep breath and enjoy it. Even tinged with gun smoke and the stench of death, after forty-five minutes in the oppressive suit with the respirator hugging his face, the air was still sweet to him.

Finished swapping the spent magazine for a full one, he glanced over his shoulder and saw Shorty, Vern, and Steve-O stacked up in front of the main building’s glass double doors.

Continuing the right-to-left pan, he got eyes on Tara and Lia. They had completed their task, the zombies lying where they had fallen, arms and legs askew, runners of body fluids sullying the white cement apron. While they should be heading toward the building to join the others, instead they were moving with purpose in the direction of the remaining group of walking dead. Nothing he could do about it now save for pray there were no Bolts in the mix.

Riker placed an ear to the first garage door and listened. Nothing. Looking down the line, he counted ten individual roll-up doors. Doing the math in his head, he estimated the building to be about a hundred yards long—the entire length of a football field. Each door was about twenty feet wide and featured a trio of oblong windows. A person of normal height would have to either stand on something or jump repeatedly to be able to look through the windows to get a glimpse of what was inside. Riker did not fit the description of normal. He was a head and a half taller than most and could see inside while standing flat-footed. He walked the length of the building, stopping at each door just long enough to see what lay inside.

Some stalls were empty. Half contained low-slung vehicles shrouded by car covers bearing the company name. Combat-parked in the last two stalls, their massive chrome grilles and vertical headlights rendering them instantly identifiable, was a pair of black Cadillac Escalades. They were identical down to the vinyl vehicle wraps emblazoned with Las Vegas Supercar Experience and all the usual social media logos and the links associated with them.

“These will do,” Riker said. “Now we just need to find the keys.” No sooner had he stopped talking than the overlying reports of Lia’s Glock and Tara’s suppressed MP7 reached his ears. He turned in time to see two things playing out, one of them reassuring, the other causing his gut to clench. The former was the jumble of twice-dead zombie bodies laid out at Tara and Lia’s feet. The latter was the sight of a lone zombie working to extricate itself from the cratered window of a wrecked red Ferrari no more than ten yards from his sister. Somehow, he had missed seeing it earlier. Which was not like him. He chalked it up to a combination of the migraine, having been ensconced in the MOPP gear, and his peripheral vision being limited thanks to the respirator.

Both women had not yet spotted the zombie. If the zombie turned out to be a Bolt and managed to free itself, they would have mere seconds to react. Because the women were in his line of fire, his only option was to shout a warning and to start running in their direction.

At the top of his voice, Riker said, “You’ve got one at your six!” Nothing. Both women kept on walking toward the main building, the car and zombie still in their blind spot.

The only explanation Riker could think of was that the prevailing breeze coming out of the west was preventing his voice from carrying the hundred-plus yards. That Tara and Lia were fixated on the main building, where Vern had just put his foot through the glass on the right-side door, didn’t help matters any.

Riker had made it only a third of the way back to the main building when he saw his worst fear get legs, literally and figuratively. The zombie freed its arms from the cratered windshield, wriggled back and forth until the hole in the spider-webbed glass released its hold on its head, then started the slow slide down the Ferrari’s dented hood, leaving in its wake a two-foot-wide trail of some kind of bodily fluid.

By the time the zombie had risen to its feet and was stalking toward the women, head canted forward and each step propelling it faster and faster, both Mulligan and Riker were yelling and sprinting toward them.

 

The last one to cross the threshold into what looked more like an urgent care waiting room than the reception area of a place selling the lower 99% a million-dollar experience was Shorty. He was the only one to hear the men hollering and turned to see what was going on. A hundred feet away and running left-to-right across his field of vision was Riker and the airman named Paul. To the far right, beyond the covered parking spots, Tara and Lia were returning from putting down the pair of biters. They were walking a wide half circle that took them away from the covered area where everyone had rinsed off with the hose and then removed and discarded their MOPP suits. Judging by their startled expressions, they, too, were slow on the uptake.

Dead ahead and equidistant to Riker and Tara was a living corpse. It was loping across the tarmac on a collision course with the women. Though it was moving at half speed, he was still convinced it was a Bolt. The movements were too fluid for it to be anything but. Purging the questions from his mind, he leveled his Mossberg 590 Shockwave shotgun at the creature and aimed for center mass. Praying for the chambered round to be a slug, he pressed the trigger. The fist-sized hole appearing below the Bolt’s sternum was confirmation his prayer had been answered.

The impact caused the Bolt to lose a step, but it kept on coming.

Tara and Lia were surprised by the booming report. Both stopped in their tracks and spun to see what Shorty was firing at.

Rocked back on his feet by the violent recoil, Shorty racked another 12-gauge shell into the chamber and reacquired the moving target. Too late. Before he could finish the trigger press, he heard the rapid stutter of a suppressed weapon with a high cyclic rate. It was to his immediate left and showering him with hot, spent brass. As this was registering, he watched the zombie’s face absorb multiple direct hits and collapse inward. As the zombie did a faceplant on the white cement, a miasma of gore spreading from the site of impact, he watched Tara and Lia each pump a couple of rounds into the back of its misshapen head.

“You can thank me later,” Vern hollered, lowering the MP5, curls of gun smoke twining off the hot suppressor. “Let’s go, Shorty. The keys aren’t going to find themselves.”

Seeing Vern eliminate the threat, Riker lowered the Legion. Whistling to get Shorty and Vern’s attention, he said, “Why isn’t Steve-O with you?”

“He’s already inside,” Vern answered. “Don’t worry … he’s armed. He can take care of himself.”

Not entirely convinced of that, Riker let it go. He was tired of carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders.

“What’d you find in the garage?” Shorty called.

“A couple of shuttles,” he answered. “Identical Cadillacs, no less.”

Shorty felt someone tugging on his shirt sleeve. It was Steve-O. He’d unlocked the doors and shoved one side open. “Come on, Shorty,” he urged. “You’re holding us up.”

Shorty ducked inside, the broken glass crunching underneath his boots. Waiting for his eyes to adjust to the dim light, he said to Steve-O, “You already cleared the place?”

“Easy-peasy,” Steve-O replied. “I’m a grown-ass man, Shorty.”

“There was not much to clear,” Vern said. “It’s an open floor plan. Steve-O checked the bathrooms and changing rooms.” He pointed to a long trail of dried blood spatter crossing the floor tiles. “This ends at the men’s room. Something’s moving in there. The door’s locked. Shouldn’t be a problem for us.” He led them past a whole bunch of chairs arranged in front of a podium flanked by a big-screen television. To the left was a long counter. On the wall behind the counter was another flat-panel television. Next to it was a display showing off tee shirts and other merchandise available for purchase. To the right of the display was the door to the office. A big picture window with the blinds pulled open was letting enough light in to see that, unless there was a crawler out of sight on the floor, the office was safe to enter.

“First, you steal my thunder,” Shorty said to Vern. “Then you minimize Steve-O’s contributions.” He shook his head. “I was about to put down that biter. The shot to the chest was to slow it down. Next one was going to be to the head.”

“We don’t have time for all this bickering,” Vern said. “I’ll check the office for keys. What kind of keys did Lee say we need to look for?”

“Cadillac,” Steve-O replied.

As Vern padded around the counter, the sound of glass grinding against the tile floor broke the still.

“Anybody home?” It was Tara. “Coming in, guys. Lia’s behind me. Don’t shoot.”

“You’re good,” Shorty said. “Come on in, sweet cheeks.”

Watching Tara navigate the chairs, Steve-O said, “Shorty, what does too much radiation do to a person?”

Without missing a beat, Shorty said, “It makes your hair fall out.”

Steve-O nodded and smiled at Tara. Turning his attention back to Shorty, smile fading, he said, “All of it?” He pointed to his crotch. “Even down here?”

“Especially down there,” Shorty answered. “High speed, low drag, my friend. Slippery when wet, if you get my drift.”

Tara said, “You’re nasty, Shorty. Which is why you’ve been on a desert island for so long.”

Shorty chuckled. “They said it was going to be a three-hour tour. At least Steve-O and I have something in common. We’re both ships with no port … if you get my drift.”

Stepping clear of the dried blood on the floor, Tara said, “Don’t listen to him, Steve-O. Shorty’s just a miserable little man. So to make himself feel better, he brings other people down to his level.”

“Long way to go to get to his level,” Vern said. “Until I met you all, I was always the smallest guy around.” He cast a sideways glance at Shorty. “Maybe you should take your vaudeville act outside.”

Shorty stared murder at Vern. But just for a beat. Expression softening, he said, “I shall go where I am appreciated.”

Don’t let the door hit you where the good Lord split you, thought Tara. She said, “Tell Lee we’ll be out shortly.”

Shorty pretended to not hear Tara. He was a little resentful at the fact the others didn’t get his sense of humor, but he got it. His father always told him the Twigg men were an acquired taste. Coming out of the building, he noticed the two men had collected all their gear and had deposited it in front of the third roll-up door from the left. The big man was leaning against the door and working his thumbs into his temples. It had been a common sight since he’d met him in Florida, what now seemed like an eon ago. There was a lot of stuff going on inside that dome of his, most of it because of the IED that stole the lower third of his left leg. Slung over one shoulder was one of the suppressed MP7s. In one hand was the pair of Steiner binoculars.

“What’s with the field glasses?” Shorty asked. “We got biters coming in off the road?”

Riker raised his chin and regarded Shorty. Pointing a thumb at the sky, he said, “There’s also a drone circling over us. I had a hunch they would deploy ground and air to find Mulligan and bring him back. The military doesn’t like deserters.”

“You sure it’s not an airplane?”

“Positive,” Riker answered. “I’ve seen them in the air over Baghdad. Don’t know what model drone or if it’s armed or not … but it’s up there. No idea how long it’s been on station.” He shook his head. “I should have listened to my gut.”

“What do you mean?”

“I powered on the satellite phone. There were multiple messages from Trinity.”

“And?”

“I composed a long reply and sent it.”

“What’s wrong with that?” Shorty said. “You had to loop them in sooner or later.”

“I think I may have given away our position.”

“It’s a DoD phone, right? If they caught it powering on, does that mean they can track us?”

“I powered it off right away. But I think the damage was already done.” He hung his head.

“What do you think they’re going to do if they catch up with us?” The moment the question crossed Shorty’s lips, he realized it was a stupid one. So before Riker could answer, he asked him where the airman had gone off to.

“He’s checking the smaller garage complex for fuel.”

“And if he doesn’t find any?”

Mulligan rounded the corner of the garage to Shorty’s left.

Reacting to the man’s sudden reappearance, Shorty leveled the shotgun at him. A millisecond from pressing the trigger, the hair on his neck at attention, Shorty realized who it was. Lowering the shotgun, he said, “Damn, Paul. That’s a good way to get yourself shot. Announce yourself next time.” He shook his head. “That would have been all on you.”

Riker said, “We’re all on the same team, Shorty.” Indicating the long lengths of garden hose in Mulligan’s hands, he added, “There’s the answer to your question.”

Shorty made a face. “I was hoping he’d come back empty-handed. I’d rather eat gas station sushi than suck-start a siphon job. Once you get the taste of gas in your mouth …”

“Same with cooking human flesh,” Riker put in. “You can taste it. And you certainly can never un-smell it.”

The wind picked up, causing the flags over the grandstands to go horizontal and snap and pop. On the heels of that, the others filed out of the building, Tara in the lead and holding something aloft. “Vern found the Caddie key fobs,” she called across the distance. “Each one comes with what I’d bet is a key for the garage door.”

Steve-O exited the building last. He had an armful of red shirts. He held one up. The Supercar Experience logo was emblazoned across the front. “Momentos,” he crowed, a wide smile on his face.

“Close, Steve-O. But the word you’re looking for is mementos,” Tara corrected.

“I wanted to drive a car,” Riker confessed to Vern. “Alas … priorities.”

“Me, too,” Vern admitted. “One day.”

Shaking his head vehemently, Shorty said, “Hard pass, Steve-O. I ain’t wearing one of those. We all know what befalls the Star Trek red shirts.”

When Tara reached the garage, she passed a fob to Riker. “We taking both rides? Because if we are, I’m driving one of them.”

“Nope,” Riker said. “I’m a man of my word.” He turned the fob over in his hand. Someone had written LVSES1 in silver Sharpie. He asked for the second fob. On the back of it was LVSES2, also in silver Sharpie. Indicating Paul, he said, “Your choice: Las Vegas Supercar Experience shuttle number one or number two? It’s on you if the one you choose has less fuel in the tank than ours. Call it the gas tank lottery. Seems fitting since we’re so close to Vegas.”

Mulligan chose the fob to shuttle number one. When he tried the attached key in the roll-up door’s lock, the mechanism turned smoothly. When he hauled open the roll-up door, everyone standing around the garage saw the Escalade’s front license plate: LVSES1.

Riker drew everyone in close. He said, “Don’t look up.” Steve-O and Shorty did so immediately. Speaking through gritted teeth, Riker chastised the pair. Continuing, he said, “We’re under surveillance right now. There’s a drone circling high over our heads. Initially, you could see it with the naked eye. It’s gained altitude since I first discovered it. Now you can only see it with binoculars.”

Shorty reached for the Steiners and received a slap on the hand from Riker, who said, “Let’s all act natural as we load up the rig. Whoever is operating the thing has to believe we have no idea it’s up there.”

Mulligan said, “Good eye, man. I didn’t even think to check. Swear to God.”

Riker said, “I believe you. I’m giving you back your Beretta. You can have one of our spare mags, too.” He paused for a beat. “Sorry we got off on the wrong foot. And thank you for helping us break out of jail.” He reached out a hand. “Godspeed to you, Paul Mulligan. I’ll be praying that you find your family safe.” He knew at once it was a long shot. Instantly he regretted saying it.

“Thank you,” Mulligan said. “I’ll be praying for your safety as well.”

The others, busy getting the door unlocked and the gear loaded in the second Escalade, had missed the exchange.

With a final nod, Paul Mulligan collected his weapon and magazine from the duffel and then made his way to his ride.

“Let’s stick close,” Riker called ahead to Mulligan. “At least until we get to where we are going our separate ways.”

“I’ll take the lead,” Mulligan said, opening the Escalade’s door and sliding behind the wheel. “I’ll have to break north as soon as possible.” He glanced at the instrument cluster. “Tank is full. Hope the same is true for yours.”

Riker said nothing. He was already compiling a list of things they would need to survive the long trip home.

 

Frenchman Mountain Complex

 

Conk was drinking the last of his bourbon when he saw the SUV drive out of the garage that he had just watched seven people enter. He was issuing orders to have the vehicle followed by the Reaper when a second SUV rolled out of an adjacent garage. Both were black with deeply tinted windows. Even from a couple of thousand feet up, it was impossible not to see the sun glinting off the glass and chrome. When the second SUV pulled in behind the first and they wheeled onto the outer oval track, he got a good look at their slab sides. They both bore identical graphics that he guessed had something to do with the exotic car experience whose name and logo adorned the middle track in multiple locations. Annunciating his words slowly lest he slur them, he said, “Zoom in tight. I want to know who’s who in those trucks. And if anyone can read what’s on the side of them, tell me what it says.”

Conk watched the SUVs enter the westbound tunnel, exit the opposite end, and turn left. They traveled a city block south, paused at the intersection, then slow-rolled a left turn onto Las Vegas Boulevard. The entire time, the two vehicles had stayed so close together that one may as well have been towing the other. Conk’s first inclination was that Riker—the man who had experience driving foreign dignitaries and American ambassadors in war zones under the most dangerous of conditions—was the one driving the trailing SUV. The reaction time to the lead vehicle’s every move was near instantaneous. But the longer Conk thought on it, as the two SUVs sped east, toward the interstate, weaving through automobile pileups while avoiding the occasional Zulu, the point driver was the one who looked more comfortable behind the wheel. If he didn’t know better, he would have thought he was watching the president’s motorcade on the move. But he did know better. The deserter had no defensive driving training. And the president, as far as Conk knew, was no longer breathing air. Word had come down shortly after the president had given the order to unleash the nukes on American soil that the man, who was already mourning the loss of his wife, had ended his own life with a combination of alcohol and pills. Not a bad way to go, thought Conk, filing it away for future consideration.

“God damn it!” he bellowed. “How long until the vehicles are ready to roll out?”

“Last I heard, the tires are all patched,” answered the airman who had been watching the action in the motor pool on his personal monitor. “They’ve been working nonstop, sir. Shouldn’t be long now.”

Conk didn’t reply. He was fixating on the vehicles on the big screen. They were approaching an interchange and seemed to be slowing. The point vehicle was still moving at a fair clip when it abruptly drifted right, taking an exit that Conk knew fed US 93, a two-lane that skirted the Delamar Mountains as it snaked toward Alamo, Nevada, eighty miles to the north. The trailing vehicle continued eastbound, accelerating rapidly before moving into the left lane.

The airman in contact with Creech said, “Wait one,” and regarded his commander. “Sir … what vehicle do you want Vader to shadow?”

“No joy on a second bird?”

“No joy, sir. They’re all away on battle damage assessment missions.”

“Which vehicle is the girl in?” asked a man out of sight to Conk. Conk didn’t recognize the voice, so he turned to see who had asked the question. It was Doctor Payne. And like some of the people who’d been underground, deprived of sleep and breathing sterilized air for days on end, the doctor’s voice had gone hoarse. Conk had no idea how long the little man had been standing behind him.

After pausing for a spell to think, Conk first addressed the airman monitoring the motor pool. “Did Airman Mulligan have family in the area?”

If the airman on the other end of the question noticed that his commander had referred to his friend’s family in the past tense, he didn’t let on. He didn’t need to consult a database. He knew Mulligan well. “His mom and dad are in Portland, Oregon,” replied the airman. “His ex and kids were in North Carolina.” He paused. “Just north of Asheville.” Because a nuke had been detonated near Asheville to halt the southerly advance of a mega horde made up of infected from Washington D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia, and all points north, the airman had purposefully spoken of Paul Mulligan’s ex and kids in the past tense. “They were close to the Asheville strike, sir.”

If Conk cared about Mulligan’s family, it didn’t show. Moving on, he said, “Where did the others come from?”

Before the airman had a chance to answer, the doctor said, “Santa Fe, New Mexico.”

After pulling the stunt Riker had, only a fool would take a direct route home. Mulligan, on the other hand, would make a beeline to his kids’ last known location. Replying to the doctor, Conk said, “The girl is in the one that just turned off the interstate.” Turning to face the airman, he went on, saying, “Order Vader to shadow the northbound vehicle.”

“Copy that, sir,” replied the airman.

“What if you’re wrong?” asked the doctor.

After ordering the ground element to also pursue the northbound vehicle, Conk turned to the doctor. “I’m aware of her importance to your colleagues at Looking Glass. We have the upper hand. We’ll catch up to them, one way or another.”

 

Chapter 16

 

Three hours after coming to from the drug-induced stupor somewhere south of Lincoln, Nebraska, Groot was at the wheel of the new Dodge Ram pickup and watching the fuel needle creeping steadily toward E. With Chance driving, they had skirted Lincoln and eventually entered Crete, a college town with a population just north of 7,000. Steely glares from an armed group of locals had put them on notice that they were not welcome there.

Friend, Exeter, and Fairmount, Nebraska were more of the same, the exits off the interstate manned by grim-faced citizens, all armed to the teeth. It was clear to Groot as he watched the countryside scrolling by from the Ram’s spacious backseat that not only was the military facing an every-man-for-himself existence, but so was the rest of the populace. No one was coming to save them. So, just like their ancestors had done close to two hundred and fifty years prior, to protect hearth and home and life and limb against tyrants both foreign and domestic, the American people had taken up arms to repel both the living and the dead.

Groot had seen towns and cities like these after they had fallen to the walking dead. It wasn’t a pretty sight. He wanted to be nowhere near one of those mega herds he had heard about but had yet to see up close. And because he knew it was only a matter of time before these people would be on the receiving end of a herd like the ones currently coalescing on the Eastern Seaboard, he felt a profound sadness for them.

Reaching the quaint village of Fairmount, where a sprawling ethanol production plant sat idle, they had exited US-6 and then quickly transitioned onto US-81, a straight 125-mile-long stretch of four-lane freeway that plunged due south toward Salina, Kansas, a city of 46,889 just across the state line.

Now, having had an entirely dissimilar experience during the most recent border crossing than they had endured coming into Missouri from Iowa, the Ram was carrying them west on I-70 toward Ellsworth, Kansas. While Groot kept his eye on the road, Sloane and Chance were looking for cars from which to siphon fuel. Their intention had been to stop at the Elkhorn Corner Store when I-70 merged with K-156—the state route they were on now; however, from the interstate, they saw NO GAS displayed prominently on the station’s reader board. As they were exiting the interstate, the station slipping past on their right, it was clear that not only was the place out of gas, but someone had set fire to the store. Glass from the shattered windows littered the ground all around the storefront. A lone corpse, burned beyond recognition, was supine on the carpet of glass, its upper body trapped between the partially open front doors.

Coming up fast on Ellsworth, the countryside bristling with trees whose leaves were signaling autumn’s imminent arrival, Sloane said, “This looks promising,” and stabbed a finger at the Ram’s dash-mounted navigation screen. “Buford’s New and Used Auto Sales. Bet we’ll find an abundance of vehicles. And where there are vehicles, there’s fuel to siphon.”

As Groot eased off the pedal and started to drift to the right lane, Chance said, “How much further is it?”

Sloane said, “Up the road a bit. It’s going to be on the left side as we enter town.” She stared at Groot. “I know you saw there are gas stations farther down the road. I have a feeling it’s going to be no different there than what we saw at the Elkhorn store. The runs on gas early on were insane. Can we just try the car lot first? Can’t sell a car with no gas in the tank.”

“As you wish,” Groot replied. She did have a point. Plus, it wasn’t like he had any choice in the matter. If they didn’t find fuel soon, they’d be walking around town with the siphon pump in hand and nothing to collect the fuel in. “While I’m following orders,” he added, “I need one of you to go into my pack and get out that last MRE.” He held up one hand. Because he hadn’t eaten since the day before, it was shaking.

While Chance was digging through the pack to find the MRE, his stomach growled in anticipation. “You’re going to share, right?”

“That was my intention,” Groot replied. “But sooner or later, we’re going to have to find some real food.”

Sloane said, “We could use water, too. We drank the last of it an hour ago.”

Gino’s IGA was the first thing they saw as the highway entered Ellsworth from the north. Sheets of plywood covered the windows. DO NOT GIVE UP was spray painted across two of the half-dozen sheets. On the rest was the message: THE END IS HERE – REPENT.

A zombie was thrashing around in the driver’s seat of a compact EV, the only car in the IGA lot.

Chance groaned as he passed the MRE over the seatback. “No food for us in there,” he said in a funereal voice. “Maybe some of the used cars in the lot will have some old French fries under the seats.”

“Stop worrying,” Sloane said. “We’ll find something to eat. If we need to break in someplace … a home or apartment … we still have the tools to make it happen.”

Groot gave the MRE to Sloane to open. “Thanks to you,” he said, slowing down to avoid an old three-car pileup blocking the entrance to the IGA’s lot. “How’d you get away from the siphon op so fast with all that in your hands? That bag isn’t light.”

“You should see what my trainer puts me through.” She went quiet. “Put me through. I still can’t believe he didn’t return to the gym. He was a tough motherfucker. Beat a couple of the UFC GOATs when he was in his prime. Part of me wants to believe he’s still alive.” She rested her head against her window.

Groot glanced over and saw tears welling in the woman’s eyes.

“My dad was no slouch either,” Chance said, more so to break the tense silence than to try to minimize Sloane’s loss. “I don’t know how he went out, but I’m sure he was swinging away when he died.”

As Groot steered off the highway, nosing the Ram toward Evans Street, an undivided two-lane running parallel to the highway, he saw that the Dollar Store on the corner had suffered the same fate as the IGA. It came as no surprise. It was the same story all over the country, which lent credence to the saying: Hungry people don’t stay hungry for long. He remembered his father telling him that a civil society was only nine missed meals from chaos and anarchy. He wasn’t wrong. Rarely was. Throw in a virus that turned the recently dead into ravenously hungry versions of their former selves, and suddenly, the people who usually toed the line of law and order had two choices: participate or die. And going by the devastation wrought on Ellsworth, it was clear which route they had taken.

“Dollar Store’s a wreck, too,” Chance noted. “You think roving bands of raiders did that?”

Groot said, “I think the locals did it. Hell, those first days, every store in my neighborhood ended up getting sacked.”

“The car lot’s coming up on the left,” Sloane said, pinching the tears from her eyes. “Who’s doing what?”

No hesitation, Chance said, “I’ll be lookout.”

“Do you want to pump?” Sloane asked Groot.

Eyes on the road, mind slipping toward the gutter, Groot said, “I’ll do whatever I’m told.” With that, he steered across the empty oncoming lane and slowed down to get a good look at the place. Above the lot, colorful flags on streamers strung between light poles popped in the wind. The business encompassed the entire block. The only structure in the sea of blacktop was a garage with two windowless roll-up doors and an attached office. It was equidistant to the side streets and set way back from the road. Groot guessed that back in the day, before the conglomerates took over the retail arm of the energy sector, Buford’s was a gas station run by a lone proprietor.

Close to two dozen vehicles occupied the lot. None of them looked new. Buford had some explaining to do where false advertising was concerned. The sexy models with the prices displayed on sloped windshields faced the road. There were a couple of older Corvettes, a red Camaro with black stripes on the hood, and a pair of sporty Japanese imports. The right side of the lot was where the sensible shopped. He saw the flat roofs of a long row of minivans. There were very few economy sedans. The offerings on the near side of the lot were what he was looking for.

Groot spotted three curb cuts. He steered toward the one nearest to the row of pickups and drove onto the lot. The only place to park was a long patch of smooth blacktop central to the lone structure and the rows of vehicles on display. He didn’t like the idea of the Ram being hemmed in on three sides, but unless they found gas cans inside the garage, transferring fuel between vehicles using just the hand crank siphon would necessitate the Ram being close to the vehicle giving up its bounty.

Groot set the brake and cut the motor. He looked at Sloane. Her eyes were red, but they were dry now. “Back when you two still had guns,” he asked, “which one of you was the better shot?”

Sloane said, “You’re assuming we shot people with those guns.”

“If you came out of Philly, I’m assuming you at least shot at people with those guns. Can’t imagine that nobody challenged you for your vehicle … or worse.”

“We ran into some of those types,” Chance admitted. “Most were more bark than bite. The ones that pushed it … well, they got pokerized.”

Groot pocketed the Ram’s key fob. Grabbing up the M4, he said, “Pokerized?”

Sloane said, “He got it from a book. I guess one of the bad guys said ‘pokerized’ instead of outright saying he killed a person. Isn’t that right, Chance?”

“Correct,” he replied, elbowing open the door behind Groot’s. “Now, which gun do I get?”

Groot said, “Neither of you answered my question.”

Sloane said, “We’ve both pokerized a couple of opportunists. As for who’s the best shot … hard to say. We’re both still alive. There is that.”

“Okay,” Groot said. “Chance gets a chance to prove himself to me.”

Chance groaned again. “Now the Army man thinks he’s a comedian. I’ve never heard that one before.” He reached over the seatback and took the revolver being offered to him. “Five in the cylinder?”

“Six. When you get out, you just cock the hammer and you’ll be ready to go. Keep your finger off the trigger until you’re ready to destroy something. The trigger is a bit touchy.”

“I’m guessing, with this stub of a muzzle, this is pretty much only good for Jack-Ruby-type of kill shots.”

Groot was amazed. “You know your history, Chance.”

“Jack was but a cog in the machine,” Chance said. “It was all orchestrated by the clowns in America … if you know what I mean.”

Groot nodded. He was aware of the Central Intelligence Agency’s dubious reputation.

Sloane checked the mirrors. Still no zombies. Which was a good thing. Stepping onto the lot, she said, “I’ll get the tools.”

Groot met Chance’s gaze. “Find a place where—” he began.

“I can see every avenue anyone or anything might approach from,” Chance finished.

“I get it,” Groot said. “It’s not your first rodeo. Just don’t get too cocky.”

“I’d feel more comfortable if I had that rifle of yours.”

Before closing her door, Sloane said, “He knows how to use it. We had a .223 ranch rifle before the run-in with the dudes who were chasing us. There’s not much difference between the two.”

Groot closed his door. Reluctantly, he handed over the M4. “One in the chamber. Thirty in the magazine. Safety’s on.” He held onto the rifle for a tick. “Don’t make me regret this.”

Chance smiled as he handed over the revolver. “Never regret anything that makes you smile. Mark Twain.”

Calling across the load bed, Sloane said, “There are no regrets in life, just lessons. Jennifer Anniston.”

Tucking the .38 into his waistband, Groot said, “I regret opening my mouth.” He looked at Chance. “Pick your spot and stay there.”

Chance hustled over to one of the sports cars and tore off a wing mirror. Returning to the Ram, he deposited the mirror and M4 in the bed and crawled in after.

“Good thinking,” Groot said. “Keep your head down and stay frosty.”

“Let me guess,” Chance said, hunkering down, his back pressed against the rear of the cab. “That’s a Groot original.”

Groot shook his head. “I got it from Generation Kill.”

Voice at a near whisper, Chance said, “When the Amish were taking off your uniform, your wallet fell out. I picked it up. Considering what I saw in there, it’s conceivable you could have thought up the saying.”

“Does Sloane know about the thing in my wallet?”

Chance checked their surroundings with the liberated mirror. Seeing that Sloane was already half of the way to the garage and gesturing for Groot to join her, he said, “None of my business. So I kept it to myself.”

Groot said, “That’s good to know. Because I’m not sure what she’d think of me if she knew the truth.” Without elaborating, he hurried to catch up with Sloane.

 

Arriving at the garage together, Groot and Sloane scrutinized the roll-up doors. They found both sides locked.

They moved over to the office and checked the door. Locked. Peering past the CLOSED sign, Groot saw a desk heaped high with papers and catalogs. On the wall beside the interior door to the garage was a box containing key fobs and keys, each one dangling from its own hook. The pages of the calendar tacked to the wall opposite the key box were open to September.

Groot asked Sloane for the bolt cutters.

As Sloane dug the tool from the B&E bag, she shot him a questioning look.

Matter-of-factly, he said, “I don’t want to get cut,” and then used the tool’s metal maw to shatter the glass pane. He looked around to see if the noise garnered a reaction and saw only Chance semi-prone in the Ram’s bed and flashing a thumbs-up. “The kid is cocky,” Groot said, passing the tool back to Sloane.

“Probably why Philly didn’t eat him up and spit him out,” Sloane opined.

Drawing the .38 and cocking the hammer, he reached past the jagged glass shards trapped in the muntin and threw open the deadbolt.

Inside the office, glass crunching underfoot, Groot stood before the door to the garage and banged on it a couple of times. Nothing. A good thing. Car lots and garages were notorious for having guard dogs. Now, having to worry about undead humans, too, no noise was good noise.

“Bang on it again,” Sloane ordered. “It’s how we do it.”

Acquiescing, he beat on the door for a couple of seconds. Still no sound from inside. No shuffling of feet. No moans. And, most importantly, nothing was throwing its dead weight against the door.

Groot tried the knob. Unlocked. Standing back with the revolver tucked close to his body, the muzzle aimed at a point in the doorway a threat was likely to appear, he shoved the door inward.

Expecting to find more clutter and cobwebs and see dust motes scudding the air, instead, the garage interior was nothing like the office. It was clean and organized. High up on the far lift was a late-model Dodge Challenger. It was purple with black wheels and the ubiquitous hockey stick decal down the side. Close to the office door sat a Ford Escort. Its hood was up, the top half of the engine deconstructed. The parts sat atop a nearby workbench.

“Do you see what I see?” Sloane said, offering Groot a fist bump.

Groot stuffed the .38 into his waistband, then gave Sloane’s knuckles a tap. “That’ll do just fine,” he said as he stepped into the gloomy interior and made tracks for the trio of gas cans lined up on the workbench’s lower shelf.

One of the cans was half full. Two or so gallons. The other two were empty. As Groot handed the empties to Sloane, a pair of gunshots broke the still.

 

Chapter 17

 

Groot was certain the gunshots had come from the M4 carbine he’d allowed Chance to keep. “Get behind me,” he said to Sloane, taking the revolver from his waistband. After pausing to listen and hearing nothing more coming from outside during the thirty-second interval, he poked his head into the office and craned to see through the big picture window.

The scene in the lot baffled Groot at first. Chance was standing in the Ram’s load bed, rifle shouldered and training it on something on the ground and out of sight to Groot. A quick scan told him the kid was alone out there. If that weren’t the case, he wouldn’t be making such a large target of himself. Groot struck off through the office, careful to avoid stepping on the larger of the shards of glass. After holding the door open for Sloane, they sprinted for the Ram.

Sloane arrived at the Ram ahead of Groot. She made eye contact with Chance. “What were you shooting at?”

“This guy on the ground,” Chance answered, motioning with the M4. Voice cracking, he added, “We need radios. I saw him coming across the street back there. He was talking to himself. I thought he was nuts. I couldn’t call out to you two without giving away my position, so I made myself small and prayed he wasn’t here because of us. I was wrong.”

Groot crept to the front of the row of pickups, then looked both ways down the street and sidewalk. Nothing. When he arrived back at the Ram, he aimed his .38 at the man stretched out on the ground and ordered Chance to jump down and search him for weapons. Already, Sloane had the man’s shotgun and was aiming it at his crotch. The man had on blue jeans and a long-sleeved flannel shirt. On his feet were a pair of worn mukluks. Nearby on the ground sat a woodland camouflage trucker’s hat.

Chance said, “I already did. All he had on him was a switchblade, shotgun shells, and this”—he pulled up his shirt to expose the black semiautomatic pistol tucked into his waistband—“which I aim to keep.” He pulled the shells and knife from his pockets. He gave the shells to Sloane and handed the knife to Groot who, to Chance’s amazement, didn’t say a word either way about the pistol.

The man groaned and turned his head away from the Ram, giving everyone a good look at his face. It was narrow, the skin pitted. The red nose and flushed, veiny cheeks suggested he was a drinker. His dark hair, streaked with gray and cut in a mullet, was straight and greasy. Groot put the guy anywhere between forty and sixty, the lower end if he were right about the reason for the rosacea and Rudolph nose.

Sloane said, “Where is he hit?”

“In the back,” Chance replied. “I had no choice. I told him to ‘freeze.’” He looked up at Groot. “Probably should have said I was going to shoot him if he didn’t put the gun down. Instead, when he heard me, he started swinging that shotgun around at me.”

“You’re right. He didn’t leave you any other option,” Groot agreed. “It was you or him. Better him than you … always. Don’t forget it.” Indicating the man’s flannel shirt, he asked Chance to pull it up so they could assess the damage.

Chance hiked the guy’s shirt up. There were two entry wounds to the right of his spine, one midway down, the other near where the spine and pelvis came together. They were about six inches apart, the lower one oozing blood, the other expressing a dangerous amount in steady spurts. It was not the guy’s lucky day. Appeared as if a bullet nicked a major artery. Looking at Sloane, Groot asked her to run back and get the fuel cans.

A male voice, distant and tinny, called out: “Clint … you there?”

Sloane was only a couple of steps away. She stopped in her tracks and mouthed, “What the fu—?”

Groot pointed at the Ram’s rear tire. “Under there, Chance. His radio.”

Chance went down on all fours and retrieved the radio. As he was handing it over to Groot, the person on the other end repeated the question, adding: “We heard gunshots. Sounded like your Glock. You okay?”

Groot waved Sloane away. “Go. Get the cans.” As she ran off, he pressed the back of the radio to his head. “Think, man. Think.” Then it came to him. One for yes. Two for no. It was how the National Guard dismounts communicated with command and control via radio when the undead were near and silence was tantamount to remaining undetected. Praying the tactic would buy them time, he pressed the Talk button once and quickly released it.

Out of the speaker came: “You got deaders hanging around you?”

Again, Groot pressed the Talk button one time and quickly released it.

Clint was back to groaning when Sloane arrived carrying the cans and a funnel.

“You want me to pour what little there is in this one into the tank?”

“Good idea,” Groot said. “I’ll pop the fuel door. Be quick about it.” As he rose, he instructed Chance to load everything into the Ram, informing him that when they got back underway, he wanted the kid riding shotgun. Since Sloane was right-handed, he reasoned that she would be more effective in the backseat, where it would be easier for her to shoulder the shotgun and engage a pursuing vehicle from the passenger side rear window.

It took Groot longer than he anticipated to find the filler door release. As he was fumbling around, searching for it by feeling under and around the front seat, the radio came alive again. It was the same guy telling Clint to hang in there and that help was on the way.

Sloane heard it, too. She said, “Almost done.”

Groot looked at Chance. “Keep the rifle. How many rounds left in the magazine?” The question was meant to be a test. See if the kid was paying attention.

No hesitation, Chance said, “Twenty-nine.”

“Get inside and be ready to use them.”

Chance hurried off, M4 at a low ready.

Regarding Clint, Groot said, “You’re bleeding out. Answer my questions truthfully, and I’ll patch you up.” It was a lie. When the guy’s comrades showed up and found him, he wanted them to waste time trying to keep him alive.

“How many are coming?”

“More than enough to kill you and your thieving friends.” Clint coughed up blood. “Buford’s going to have fun with the cauliflower-eared bitch before he kills her.”

“We’re done here.” Groot rose and climbed into the Ram. Simultaneously, he started the motor and looked at the rearview mirror. Clear for now. When he swung his gaze forward, he spotted a pair of zombies. They were walking single file and about to emerge from between two minivans. When the first creature stepped from the narrow confines, the one in tow quickly picked up its pace. In two or three short seconds, the trailing zombie had overtaken the other and was in a full-out sprint and closing fast with the idling truck.

Slamming the transmission into Reverse, Groot looked over his shoulder and tromped the pedal. The tailgates of the pickups for sale flashed by on the right. In his opposite side vision, he saw the Ram’s blurry reflection scrolling by in the office windows. The tires chirped as the pickup transitioned from the lot to the side street abutting Evans. The protests from the rubber rose in volume, a banshee-like screech, as he spun the wheel counterclockwise, the simple action throwing the wildly slewing vehicle into a high-speed J-turn.

When the Ram finally came to a stop, rocking subtly and with smoke from the burnt rubber drifting low across the street, he selected Drive and sped around the corner. As the Ram picked up speed, the sexy rides sliding by on the left, Groot caught a fleeting glimpse of Clint between the pair of Corvettes. Already the fast mover was atop the dying man and yanking something wet and stringy from his heaving abdomen.

The knuckles on Sloane’s left hand were white from the death grip she had on the grab bar above her window. Catching her breath, she said, “Where in the hell did you learn to drive like that?”

“My father,” Groot replied, his eyes touring the mirrors. “Clint’s friends just made it to the lot. Two or three on foot. And I see a couple of SUVs just now pulling up in front.”

Chance pulsed his window part way down. Resting the M4’s muzzle on the glass, he said, “Do they see us yet?”

Sloane followed Chance’s lead. Wind whipped her hair as her window hit the stops. On the air was the stench of rotting meat. “Even if they don’t see us yet,” she noted, “they sure as hell can hear this truck.”

The SUVs paused in front of Buford’s for a couple of seconds. Just long enough, Groot guessed, for those on foot to determine Clint was beyond saving and, no doubt, to kill the flesh-eaters and put a bullet in Clint’s brain to make sure he didn’t come back as one.

Groot’s hunch was correct. He had put half a dozen blocks between the Ram and the lot when he saw the people on foot reenter the picture and clamber aboard the SUVs. No sooner had the doors slammed shut, than tires were smoking and the two vehicles were on the move, the black one sliding in behind the white one which was much wider and at least a foot taller.

Groot looked at the fuel gauge and saw that the two gallons Sloane had added had hardly moved the needle. Assuming the Ram was getting somewhere in the low teens where miles per gallon were concerned, he concluded that they would be running on fumes in less than twenty minutes, even less if he continued to lead-foot it. With no other option than to try and lose their tail, he told Sloane and Chance to hang on and matted the gas pedal.

 

Chapter 18

 

Frenchman Mountain Complex – Las Vegas, Nevada

 

General Conklin’s chin was touching his chest and he was snoring loudly when an airman gently tapped him on the shoulder. As he came to, slightly disoriented and with a sharp pain behind his eyes, he looked around and quickly realized he was still in the operations center deep in the bowels of what amounted to a glorified fallout shelter.

“What is it?” he asked, his eyes fixing on the large wall-mounted monitor.

“The target vehicle just pulled to the side of 93 North and stopped. No movement so far.”

“How far out?”

“Ten miles north of Dry Lake. Roughly twenty miles total north of where the vehicles split up.”

“And the ground unit?”

“They’re already underway. Their last SITREP put them twelve miles north of the 15/93 junction.”

Conk had been watching the stationary SUV the entire time he was interrogating the airman. Now, just when he expected the vehicle to pull back onto the road and resume traveling north, the driver’s door opened, and a lone figure stepped onto the road, circled around to the passenger side, peered over the guardrail, then seemed to relax. After watching the unmoving form for a good thirty seconds, Conk said, “Who is that, and what are they doing? Have the sensor operator increase magnification.”

Coinciding with Conk issuing the order, but before the airman in contact with Creech could acknowledge it, let alone pass it on, the drone’s camera zoomed in tighter on the vehicle.

“He’s wearing one of our uniforms,” the airman reported. “And I believe he’s urinating, sir. See the black spot spreading out? That’s urine.”

Realizing he had chosen the wrong vehicle for Vader to follow, the general shot from his seat. “Have the ground unit turn around and find that second vehicle.”

“Yes, sir,” replied the airman. “What are your orders for Vader?”

“Have Vader remain on station.”

“Come again?”

“I didn’t stutter,” bellowed Conk, spittle flying. “Have Vader remain on station.”

As the airman relayed the new order to the drone operator at Creech, another airman informed the general that the vehicles were operational and ready to move out. “What do you want me to tell Staff Sergeant Wright?”

Having regained his composure, the general said, “Tell him to have his men suit up and be ready to move out. I’ll be down in ten.”

While the airman issued the new orders, Conk watched the deserter circle back around the SUV and climb inside. Already, the puddle of urine had long fingers running away from it. The brake lights flared red, and the vehicle started to move.

“Sir,” said the airman still connected to Creech, “Vader is requesting new orders.”

“That airman is a collaborator. His actions put every one of us at risk of radiation poisoning.” He swung his gaze from the screen on the wall to the airmen staring at him. “What that man did is treasonous. Have Vader engage the target.”

Both airmen swiveled around and stared at their monitors.

Nothing.

“Relay the order, Airman.”

“Vader,” said the younger airman of the two, the stress of the moment evident in the tone. “Frenchman Control requests you engage the target.”

Silence in the low-ceilinged room.

The airman relaying orders said, “General Conklin. Vader is questioning rules of engagement. He wants to run it up the chain. He requests a standdown so he can loop in his commanding officer.”

“Per Ronin Protocol, I have sole command. Therefore, I set the ROEs,” Conk said sharply. “There is no chain to run anything up. Tell Vader he is weapons-free, and he is to engage the target. If there’s any confusion, tell the operator and everyone else in that trailer that they’ll all be facing court-martial when we arrive at Looking Glass. You can loop in Major Marley, too. If he doesn’t follow my orders to the letter, he’ll be the first one to hang for treason.”

The airman repeated the general’s order.

The only acknowledgment the order was received and was being acted upon was the change in magnification on the wall-mounted monitor. The SUV went from filling up much of the flat panel to being a small black rectangle tooling a desolate stretch of two-lane climbing north through the barren Arrow Canyon Range. The drone’s aspect to the ground changed incrementally, rotating right to left while the camera remained fixed on the moving target. The only evidence that the launch order was fulfilled was when the jet wash from the laser-guided AGM-114R “Romeo” Hellfire II missile momentarily blurred the image beamed in from the Reaper’s nose-mounted FLIR pod.

Viewed from one thousand feet, the total elapsed time from launch to impact was less than two seconds. The Hellfire streaked in from above, impacting the roof of the three-ton Cadillac Escalade. When the twenty-pound warhead detonated, the ensuing explosion momentarily lifted the SUV off the road. Shards of glass from the disintegrating windows glittered in the sun as the stricken vehicle entered its final death throes. With its tires flattened and flames and dark smoke billowing from every window, the SUV ground to a halt at the end of an oil-soaked debris field, less than twenty feet from the spot in the road it had been when the missile struck. Even to an outsider, it was clear nobody was going to crawl from the inert wreckage.

“What are your orders, sir?” asked the airman. “Vader is asking.”

“Have him reroute south by east. When he gets to the interstate, he is to follow it until he finds Target Bravo. When he gets a hit, he is to relay the target’s location to the ground team and then maintain constant contact from a safe standoff distance.”

As soon as the airman delivered the update, the drone banked hard right, and the image of the burning SUV slipped from view. Seconds later, everyone in the TOC was seeing on the screen the rambling peaks of the nearby Arrow Canyon Range, patches of trees dotting the desert in the middle distance, and the long stripe of blue sky crushing down on it all.

 

Trinity House – Santa Fe, New Mexico

 

Rose and Benny had just finished a late breakfast and were feeding their scraps to Dozer when Sarah Rhoads entered the kitchen. The former Army aviator was wearing blue jeans and a gray sweatshirt with Alabama on the front and Roll Tide running down both sleeves. Rose noticed at once that the woman’s brown hair was no longer shoulder-length. She had gone and cut it short. It was a good look. It made the forty-two-year-old appear much younger than her true age.

“Smells good,” Rhoads said, pulling up a chair. “What’s for breakfast? I’m so hungry I bet I could eat a horse. That is if it doesn’t come in drab MRE packaging.”

Rose put her plate in the sink and ran water over it. “We shared a can of hash. There’s another in the cupboard. I’ll leave the Tabasco out. You’ll need it.”

Benny said, “You and Wade have been going nonstop. This may be your longest stay.”

“Yeah,” Rhoads said, “and all of it was on my back. That’s the longest I’ve slept since the night I cut off your friend’s leg.”

“What have you two been up to?” Rose asked.

“I think she wants to know what’s going on out there in the world,” Benny added.

“I can speak for myself,” Rose said. “But, yeah, that’s what I was hoping to pry out of you.”

Rhoads got the can of hash out and attacked it with the can opener. As she divided the hash into two bowls, she said, “It’s a shitshow out there. The rotters are forming mega herds.” She put the bowls in the microwave and set it to cook for two minutes. “It’s worse than I could have ever imagined. We’ve lost the East Coast.” She shook her head. “The government was decapitated. The military is splintered and spinning their wheels.”

Wade Clark padded into the kitchen bare-footed. He was wearing flannel pajamas. He, too, had recently cut his hair short. It was so close to the bone that the skin on his scalp contrasted sharply with his deep tan. “I couldn’t help overhearing Sarah’s version of what it’s like out there,” said the forty-eight-year-old former Army aviator. “She’s sugarcoating it. It’s in her nature. You see, Sarah is an eternal optimist. She still thinks we’re coming back from this.” He bowed his head. When the microwave dinged, he looked up. “We evacuated Raven Rock. We were ferrying the bigwigs to a place they’re calling Looking Glass.”

“Where’s that?” Benny asked.

As if he was also curious, Dozer emitted a guttural growl.

Rhoads said, “We both quit yesterday. No amount of danger pay or even the promise of a berth at Looking Glass was worth what they were asking us to do.”

Swallowing a bite of hash, Clark made a face and snatched up the Tabasco. Dumping a copious amount of the hot sauce on his food, he said, “The new job entailed us flying over hot zones. Which is why we balked at going anywhere near Vegas.”

Benny said, “Zones? There’s more than one?”

Rhoads held up one hand, fingers splayed. When she had their undivided attention, she added one more finger to the mix.

“Six? Where are the other five?” Benny asked. “Don’t tell me they hit the big cities back East.”

Clark had hoovered down his breakfast. Putting his bowl in the sink, he said, “They nuked strategic chokepoints close to a few big cities. So far, to the best of my knowledge, the Vegas strike was the closest detonation to a major city.”

Rose gasped. “Since you’re no longer on duty, can I use the DoD phone?”

“She already did. And more than once,” Benny divulged. “Nobody came knocking.”

“I don’t think there’s anyone left at the NSA. That goes for Langley and the Hoover building. If there is, they’re in for a long siege. Anything moving that’s not already dead soon will be,” Clark said. “When the bureaucracy saw their paymasters bugging out, they did the same. I’d imagine they saw the writing on the wall the moment the Ronin Protocol came into play.”

Rhoads said, “I knew it was FUBAR when we got the order to divert from Raven Rock to the Pentagon.”

“As we were orbiting and waiting for a clear LZ, we watched a couple of platoons of Abrams tanks taking it to the Zulus. Wave after wave of the things fell. The tankers must have been using flechette rounds. They killed thousands of Zulus. There were body parts everywhere. An arm here. A leg there. Piles of limbless and headless torsos. Then, suddenly, the tanks stopped firing. They must have run out of ammo. We watched those things overrun close to a dozen premier main battle tanks. The tanks tried driving away only to get bogged down.” He sat down on a stool. “Nothing we could do to help them. For all I know, those poor bastards are still trapped inside their tanks. Helluva choice to have to make. Try your luck leaving the tank or stay inside and die slowly of thirst.”

Rose had powered on the satellite phone while Rhoads and Clark were recounting their terrifying ordeal. Now, after having read the last incoming SMS, she held the phone aloft and said, “They’re all still alive.” She looked at Benny. “You and I have been given a mission.”

Benny said, “Let me see,” and took the phone from her. After reading the lengthy message, he passed it to Clark.

As Clark was reading the message, his head began a slow side-to-side wag. “We’re not going to fire up the bird for that. It’s too close. Can’t justify bringing more Zulus to our front door when you two can get there and back before dark.” He gave the phone to Rhoads, who read the message and immediately concurred. “We need to conserve fuel,” she said. “Save it for a real emergency.”

“Lee’s resourceful,” Clark said. “Hell, he led them all the way there, and they saved those kids. No reason to doubt his ability to get them back to home base in one piece.”

Benny put his bowl in the sink and rinsed it off. “I’ve got to get to Lazarus and put some finishing touches on the War Wagon.”

Clark said, “You’re really calling her that?”

“Got it from one of those nuclear Armageddon novels the old owner left in the bunker.”

Rose said, “I had a few other names; none of them tickled Benjamin’s fancy.”

Rhoads winked at Rose. “Men. Can’t live with them, and you can’t kill them.” She put her hand on Clark’s shoulder. “I think it’s time for us to start pulling our weight.” She pointed to the monitor on the counter. “Gate’s three deep with Zulus.”

Clark groaned. “I prefer staying high above the biters.”

“Then being the ladder monkey will suit you just fine,” Benny quipped. “Above the fray and stabbing eyes. Only part I don’t enjoy is the stench. You need to be careful and not let the bodies stack up too tall in any one spot. All it takes to ruin your day is for one Bolt to get up on the pile of bodies and vault the wall.”

“We’ll be careful,” Rhoads promised. “Take a satellite phone with you. Use it if you get into trouble.”

Rose said, “We’ll be fine.” She looked at Benny. “While you’re doing your thing, I’ll pack us some warm clothes.”

Benny was already making tracks toward the vaulted great room. Peering over his shoulder, he said, “Feed Dozer, then meet me up the hill.” There was a pep in his step. It was clear to Rose he was giddy at the thought of finally being of use to the group. Making an impact for once would go a long way in softening the sting of constantly staying behind to caretake the mansion while the others went out into harm’s way. She prayed they were up to the task.

 

Chapter 19

 

As hard as Riker tried to ignore the Escalade’s falling fuel gauge, he couldn’t stop himself from constantly glancing down at the instrument cluster. He had been doing so every few miles. Looking at Lia, who was in the passenger seat next to him and glassing the road ahead with the Steiners, he said, “This thing sucks down fuel almost as fast as Dolly.”

Unaware she was the one he was addressing, Lia remained focused on the task at hand.

Steve-O had staked out a spot on the third-row seat directly behind Vern, who in turn was sitting in the plush leather captain’s chair behind Riker. Poking his head between the captains’ chairs, Steve-O said, “I really miss Dolly.” He looked sidelong at Shorty. “I miss Large Marge, too. Both were fun to ride in.”

“Agreed,” responded Shorty. He stabbed a finger into the bench seat he was sitting on. “These might look good, leather and all, but they aren’t easy on the backside.”

“I’m comfortable,” Tara said, swiveling in her captain’s chair, a smile on her face. “To be honest, the Shelby’s seats were too hard for my bony ass.”

“And a fine bony—”

A glare from Tara stifled Shorty’s comment. “I still haven’t gotten over your last sexist comment,” she said. “You’re skating on thin ice.” She wagged a finger at him. “Better watch yourself.”

“You know what I miss,” said Vern, changing the subject. “Ice. I miss having ice spill out of the front of my refrigerator whenever I wanted it. I would give my left arm right now for a tall, iced coffee. Just black. None of that Ethiopian crap, either. Too bitter.”

Prompted by the three-letter word, Steve-O started in on Vanilla Ice’s radio breakthrough single. Soon, everyone except for Riker, who hated the song and was still battling a migraine that was prone to unexpectedly ebbing and spiking, was singing along and butchering the lyrics, Shorty the worst offender.

When everyone’s enthusiasm petered out, Tara looked back at Shorty. “It’s not ‘stop, urinatin’ and pissin’,” she corrected. “It’s ‘stop, motivate and listen.’ If Ice is alive somewhere out there, his nose is itching. If he’s dead, God rest his rapping soul, he’s rolling over in his grave.”

Steve-O said, “Does anyone know the name of the song the opening part came from?”

Lowering the binoculars, Lia said, “Under Pressure. David Bowie and Queen.”

“X gets a square,” said Steve-O, beaming from ear to ear. “Shorty taught me to say that.” Then, switching gears abruptly, he asked if someone could help him remove his boots.

The request spurred everyone but Riker to tell him “No” all at once.

“When we stop for the night, I am taking them off,” Steve-O declared. “And nobody is going to stop me.”

Forty-five minutes after parting ways with Paul Mulligan, they had crossed the Moapa River Indian Reservation and were fast approaching the unincorporated town of Glendale. For thirty miles, they hadn’t encountered a single vehicle traveling on I-15 in either direction. There had been the occasional vehicle pulled to the side of the road. One late model American sedan, its hood propped up, was empty. No occupants. No signs of life. And, sadly, the tank was empty. Another, a small pickup, had gone off the road and ended up on its roof in a dry creek bed. If somehow the driver had survived the initial wreck, he or she died shortly thereafter. Group consensus was that it would have been too much of an undertaking to hike down and check the tank for fuel.

They were constantly coming upon groups of walking dead, the lion’s share of them trundling I-15’s eastbound lanes. The zombies were mostly naked, and flash burned all over, the exposed skin blistered and weeping. Scattered amongst the groups were specimens burned by fire. They looked like walking charcoal briquets, the blackened dermis brittle and cracked in places. Scattered throughout the pockets of walking corpses were a scant few that remained fully clothed and showed no signs of having been anywhere near ground zero. With no way to determine with any degree of certainty which of the undead were hot with radiation, Riker gave them all a wide berth, even having gone to the trouble of crossing the median on a couple of occasions to keep out of their collective reach.

After ten long minutes of blissful silence, the pressure behind his eyes finally beginning to wane, Riker said, “Good Lord … this thing sucks down fuel faster than Dolly.”

Lia was back to glassing the road ahead, her primary task when they had come west from Trinity four days prior. She responded by saying, “Glendale isn’t looking good. All I see is an ARCO station with ‘no gas’ signs on its pumps and a Mexican restaurant with plywood over the windows.” She leaned forward, trying to steady the binoculars. “The lot behind the restaurant is nothing but tents and dead bodies. They circled the wagons here. Cars and SUVs on all sides.”

“What’s the black stuff?” asked Steve-O. “It’s shiny and looks like it’s moving.”

“Those are crows. Or blackbirds. I see vultures, too.” She looked at Riker. “I didn’t think birds and animals fed on zombies. Which makes me wonder if those are people who got lucky and made it out of Vegas alive after the bomb went off, only to run out of gas and die from the radiation right here in the middle of nowhere.”

“First time she speaks after giving us all the silent treatment,” Shorty said, “and all she has to offer is bad news.”

Lia flipped Shorty the bird. If he saw it, he didn’t acknowledge that he had.

“How far is Mesquite?” asked Vern.

Steve-O said, “It’s the city with the casino. It’s by the Arizona state line, right?”

Lia said, “Good memory.” Consulting the Escalade’s 8” LED touchscreen, she said, “The nav system indicates we’re still thirty miles out. I wonder if the bodies of the rock and roll freaks who tried blocking the road with the hearse and Camaro are still where we left them.”

“Doesn’t matter either way,” Riker said. “I just hope they didn’t have friends in town. If so, it’s going to make foraging for fuel a real pain in the ass. Losing three of their own a couple of days ago will have them on high alert.”

With nothing interesting to look at outside his window, Steve-O said, “If there are bad guys in Mesquite, they will find us. Isn’t that right, Lee Riker?”

At first, Riker said nothing. He was aware trouble had a propensity for finding him. No sense saying it aloud and upping the odds. Besides, he was preoccupied thinking about a particular place they had stopped to forage for fuel and supplies as they were cutting across Arizona. While they did encounter zombies there, an engagement that had almost proven deadly for Vern, Lia, and Steve-O, if they hadn’t yet received confirmation from Benny and Rose that they had completed their mission, spending the night there might not be a bad idea. Already, after having gone sleepless the previous night, Riker was finding it difficult to keep his eyes open.

Responding to Steve-O, he said, “What doesn’t kill us only makes us stronger. We will find a way. We always do.” He went quiet for a spell, thinking. After a few seconds, he addressed everyone. “I have a proposal.” He flicked his eyes to the rearview so he could gauge reactions. “How about after we stop in Mesquite to forage for food and fuel, we push all the way to Jacob Lake? If there’s no message on the phone from Benny or Rose, we can hole up in the pair of RVs we looted and wait for word.”

Only Steve-O and Vern seemed to have been listening to him. The former gave him a thumbs-up. It was his go-to response when he didn’t really care one way or the other. It wasn’t like they were finally getting around to going to Graceland, a promise made to him by Shorty days ago. Vern nodded. “If we don’t top off and fill at least one of the gas cans we took from the speedway, we’re going to need a place to lay low for a couple of days.”

Lia continued staring through the Steiners, watching the road ahead. Tara was looking out her window, lost in thought. Shorty was the only one doing something productive. He had broken down the Shockwave and was busy wiping down the major components. He stopped what he was doing, looked at Vern, and asked, “Why in the heck would we do that?”

“Because we are fugitives,” Vern replied. “And we compromised their operation by letting in contaminated air. And to add insult to that injury, we kidnapped … at gunpoint … one of their people. Put yourselves in their shoes. You going to let that go unpunished?”

Riker said, “While we’re on the topic, I have a confession to make. In addition to the drone, Mulligan told me his commander doesn’t take to deserters. It’s highly likely he would have sent a couple of vehicles out after us. But that’s not all.”

Nobody said a word. Lia put the binoculars on her lap and stared a question at Riker.

Riker swallowed hard. Eyes locked on the road stretching out before the Escalade’s long black hood, he said, “The commander … Conklin, he’s also the kind of guy who would want to punish us for messing up his operation. He’s lost face. Which is why we need to assume he’s dispatched men who wouldn’t hesitate to mete out that punishment. The doctor has a different agenda. He only cares about one of us. And he would want that person recovered alive at all costs.”

Lia said, “Mulligan told you all of this?”

Riker nodded. “While we were checking the garages.”

Though the pit in her gut told her who the doctor wanted retrieved, Lia asked anyway. “Who is it Payne wants taken alive?”

Eyes locked on the road, Riker said, “You’re the one he wants, Lia. They’re calling people like you Anomalies.”

Vern said, “Meaning people who survived a bite via amputation.”

Riker confirmed it with a nod. Glancing at Lia, he said, “Nobody is going to take you.” He shook his head. “And if anyone is getting punished, it’s the fools who try. If Conklin has the balls to show his face, I’ll punish him as well.”

Agitated, Steve-O removed his Stetson and ran a hand through his hair. “Over my dead body are they hurting you, Lia.” He pounded a fist on his seat. “The nerve of that guy.”

Tara said, “Since we can’t outrun a radio, we’re going to have to hide from the drone.”

“We can’t,” Riker said. “But it does have a limited time it can stay aloft.”

“How long?” asked Lia. “Days?”

“Hours,” replied Riker. “It probably has enough fuel to stay up for another few hours. It’ll eventually need to return to base to refuel. That’s the wild card.”

“And the ones who are hunting us?” asked Tara. “What do you propose we do about them?”

Shorty said, “We lure them into an ambush and kill the fuckers.”

“Speaking of ambushes,” Lia interjected. “We’re getting close to the place we ran into Rock and Roll Grandma and her boys. Stay alert, everyone.”

“It’s right here,” Riker said, tapping a spot on the pixelated interstate snaking across the display. “About ten miles ahead. She’s right … everyone stay frosty.”

 

***

 

Fifteen minutes later, Lia spotted the hearse and Camaro. Only they weren’t at the point of the earlier ambush. They were a mile west of Mesquite’s city limit and parked side by side on the center median. And they weren’t alone. They were at the head of two long rows, each consisting of dozens of vehicles. If Lia didn’t know better, maybe if the vehicles were in worse condition than they looked from a quarter of a mile out, she would have thought she was looking at a wrecking yard. In a way, she supposed, it was just that. The one vehicle that stood out, mostly because it dwarfed the civilian vehicles but also because it was shiny and new-looking, was a ten-wheeled water tanker truck.

“This isn’t the place,” Riker said, stabbing the brakes. As the SUV quickly slowed from fifty miles per hour to thirty, he spotted the universally recognized radiation trefoil symbols painted in red on the hoods of the vehicles facing the interstate.

“You’re wrong,” Lia said, lowering the binoculars. “This is it. This is where we’re going to gas up. I don’t care if all the cars have the radiation symbol on them. Doesn’t mean they’re all hot. I’m going to walk down each row with the Geiger counter and identify which ones are safe for Shorty to siphon gas from.”

Shorty said, “You do you, Lia. What I’d really like to know is when did Shorty sign up for this suicide mission?”

“Fuck it,” Tara said. “I’ll do it if he won’t. What do I have to live for anyway? Not like this new world is the kind of place one would want to meet a man and get hitched and raise some ankle biters.”

“She has a point,” Shorty said. “But I can’t let her do it. I was just breaking balls. I said I would do the siphoning, and I am a man of my word.”

That he is, Riker thought, remembering how Shorty promised the exclusive use of his ferry so they could avoid the military roadblock in Florida and had followed through in spades. He pulled the Escalade onto the median and parked her a hundred feet short of the hearse. To Vern, he said, “Get in the duffel and get me the Geiger counter.”

Lia turned to face him. “What the heck, Lee? Shorty volunteered to do it.”

“I talked Mulligan into letting us keep the Geiger counter,” Riker said. “I got it. Besides,” he added, leaning over and giving her a peck on the cheek, “my arms are longer than yours. Which means I can stay further away from the vehicles that the counter shows are too hot to siphon from.” Before she could protest, he was out of the Escalade, the counter in one hand, his SIG Legion in the other.

They all stayed inside the Escalade and watched Riker work. He was out there for a minute or two, swiftly walking along the line of vehicles, the counter thrust in their direction. When he returned, he was shaking his head. “The tanker’s not hot, but it runs on diesel. Out of the rest of the vehicles, the only safe to go close to are the hearse, Camaro, and the pair of pickups at the far end of the row nearest to us. A couple of others have had nominal radiation exposure.” He shook his head. “Not worth going near them. I’m not sure it’s even worth checking what the others have in the tank.”

Shorty said, “We get diddly if we don’t.”

“What he means,” Steve-O put in, “is if nothing is ventured, nothing is gained.”

“Exactly,” Shorty said as he unbelted and grabbed the gas cans and hose and then scooped up the Shockwave. He made his way forward to the middle row, where he went sideways and slipped past Tara’s knees, giving one of them a playful squeeze as he opened her door. “If I don’t return,” he said to her. “I leave to you all my worldly belongings.”

“What about me?” Steve-O called.

Poking his head back in the open door, Shorty said, “You’re already a beneficiary of my infinite wisdom.” With that, he closed the door and hustled toward the hearse, the cans banging against his leg, the length of hose trapped in the hand holding Shocky carving a straight line behind him on the dirt median.

“If he goes missing,” Riker quipped, “we can always find him by following the trail he’s leaving.”

Tara threw off her seatbelt. “Someone has to get his back.” MP5 in hand, she was out the door and hustling after the diminutive survivor.

 

* * *

 

Shorty and Tara returned to the Escalade fifteen minutes later. He was carrying a jerry can in one hand and the Shockwave in the other. Going by the way he was walking, a bit like a penguin, there had to be some gas in the can. Tara was following close behind and lugging the smaller plastic cans. Riker figured that combined, they had collected eight or nine gallons. He estimated it was enough to get them an additional hundred-and-thirty miles further east.

After topping off the Escalade’s tank, they had a gallon or so in reserve.

Lia rolled down her window. “Hold on for a bit, guys. Lee is coming out to check you with the Geiger counter.”

Tara said, “What the hell are we going to do if we’re hot?”

Shorty said, “Duh, Tara. It means we’re just going to have to strip down naked and ride all the way to Trinity in our birthday suits.”

Tara said nothing. She stepped away from the SUV, set the cans down on the road, then held her arms out at her sides. Shorty followed her lead.

Riker ran the counter over them one at a time. Declaring Tara safe to get into the rig, he looked at Shorty. “You’re going to have to shed your clothes. I get a clean reading off you without them, you can come with us.”

Shorty pulled his shirt over his head. When Riker couldn’t see his face, he said, “Just busting your balls. Get in. We got to go.”

“You had me there,” Shorty said. He beckoned Riker closer. When they were only separated by a foot or so, Riker leaning over, an ear cocked toward Shorty, the little man said, “Why didn’t you mention the piles of bodies over yonder? Looks like one is Romero victims. The other appeared to be uninfected people who died horribly. Burns and such. I’m guessing radiation. Then there were the ones who took one to the back of the head execution style.” He cocked his head. “Even a blind man could see the exit wounds from across the road.”

“Wasn’t part of the mission,” Riker declared.

“What about all the dead birds? It’s obvious they were eating the uninfected. Are they going to start flying around and drop their radiated shits all over the place?”

Riker looked at the Escalade. Tara was still outside, waiting for Shorty to get in first. “Did Tara say anything about them?”

Shorty shook his head.

“Let’s drop it then. Steve-O’s already more than a little freaked out about the unseen enemy.”

“Agreed,” Shorty said. “We need to get him back to Trinity. Establish some kind of normalcy for the guy.”

Riker tapped a finger gently on Shorty’s chest. “I knew deep down inside you were a softy. I think that’s going to be your new nickname.”

Stabbing a finger at Riker, Shorty said, “Don’t you dare, Lee. It took me forever to embrace the one I have.”

Riker hesitated, studying his new friend. Finally, with Tara urging them to hurry up and get in, he said, “Just yanking your chain. I appreciate your contribution. You’re an asset. But if you get that wrinkly fifty-five-year-old penis anywhere near my sister—”

“What? Is Big Brother going to beat me up?” Shorty interrupted.

“Nope. Nothing like that. But you better be ready to turn your will and your life over to a power greater than yourself.”

“Isn’t that some of that Twelve Step shit?”

“No,” Riker said, a slight tilt to his head. “That’s the side of my sister nobody here has seen. She can be a bit possessive. Tread lightly, brother.”

 

Chapter 20

 

Evans Street shot north to south on Ellsworth’s sparsely populated east side. From one end of town to the other, Evans was a mile in length at best. Having traveled two blocks south of the car lot where Chance had shot the man called Clint, Groot was appreciating the output of the 5.7 Liter HEMI under the Dodge Ram’s hood. The acceleration was brisk; the way it handled, adequate. By the time they reached 8th Street, an east/west arterial that cut through the heart of Ellsworth, the multi-block lead they originally had on the two SUVs was down to less than half a block.

In the passenger seat, Chance was watching the pursuers in his wing mirror and urging Groot to speed up. Having just thrown the shotgun’s safety, Sloane was experiencing the same steady creep of dread she had felt the first time she knew she was going to have to shoot someone else to save herself.

Groot was first to notice the appearance of two new vehicles on the road in front of them. They were pickups, their headlights and fog lights ablaze despite the fact it was midmorning. Though they were blocks away, it was clear that not only were they on a collision course with the Ram, but they were also accelerating. Sensing the drivers were sprinting to reach the next intersection first and block it with their trucks, Groot took his foot off the accelerator and called for Sloane to pass his rucksack up front to Chance. Swinging his gaze to Chance, he instructed him to unzip the ruck’s front pouch and hold it steady.

Chance put the ruck on his lap and started to unzip the pouch. “What do you need?” he asked. “You’re driving. Let me get it for you.”

Looking sidelong at the kid, Groot said, “Just do what I asked.” When his eyes were back on the road ahead, he spotted a pair of zombies entering the intersection from the left. For the time being, the approaching vehicles had the zombies’ undivided attention.

Steering one-handed, Groot dipped the other into the rucksack pouch, rooted around in there for a second, then came out with a grenade about the size of a baseball. He placed it on his lap, then dove back in and brought out a second grenade.

Chance had been watching intently. When he realized what the oval green items were, he said, “How many of those do you have in there?”

“Seven or eight.” Taking ahold of one of the grenades with his free hand, Groot thrust it toward Chance and made him pull the pin out for him.

“You sure it’s not going to blow us up?”

Consulting his wing mirror again, Groot simply shook his head. The SUVs were now only three or four truck lengths away from the Ram’s rear bumper. Another few seconds and they’d be close enough for his plan to come together.

As Chance worked the pin loose, Groot kept the spoon trapped to the grenade’s smooth, round surface.

“Done,” Chance said. “Now what?”

Groot watched the pickups roll onto the intersection and park grille to grille, their front bumpers nearly touching. It was exactly what he was expecting them to do. Looking at Chance, he said, “Open the moonroof.” What he had planned next would be instrumental in keeping the Ram from getting boxed in at the intersection.

Chance punched the proper button. At once, there was a whoosh of air and the smoked glass began to slide backward into the headliner.

Singling out Sloane, Groot said, “Be ready to open fire on the pickups when we come broadside to them.”

“Shoot to wound or to kill?”

Face a mask of determination, he said, “Shoot to kill,” and started his window running down. Speaking loudly enough so he would be heard over the air rushing in, he told Chance the SUVs were his responsibility, stressing that Chance remain exposed no longer than necessary. He hoped the rifle fire would distract the SUV drivers long enough that they would misjudge the rate of closure with the pickups in the intersection. If all went as planned, when the Ram reached the intersection, their pursuers’ fates would be sealed.

Chance wasted no time getting turned around. Rising from his seat, feet planted, he poked only his head and shoulders into the slipstream and aimed the M4’s business end at the white SUV.

The zombies were halfway into the intersection and vectoring toward the pickups when the sound of incoming gunfire rose over the noise of the hard-at-work V8. With just seconds to spare before a collision with the pickups would be unavoidable, and with the distinct hollow thuds of the bullets striking the Ram reverberating through the cab, Groot lifted his fingers off the trapped spoon and watched it fly from the grenade. He counted to two, then dropped the grenade out his window. Simultaneous to that, he jinked the Ram hard right, barely avoiding the zombies. The grenade bounced one time, then hit the pickup on the right squarely on the driver’s door. The whoomph reached Groot’s ears just as the Ram was bouncing over the curb and riding onto the sidewalk, where he had to yank the steering wheel hard right to keep from crashing into a telephone booth. The course correction had the Ram sideswiping a long row of hedges in dire need of a professional trimming.

Slow to react to Groot’s sudden evasive maneuver, the white SUV ran down both zombies, sending them flying, and then it plowed headlong into the pickups blocking the intersection.

As Groot steered back onto Evans, the Ram’s tires chirping when they reacquired contact with the blacktop, the reassuring back-to-back-to-back booms coming from Sloane’s shotgun filled the cab. Lost in the wind was the steady popping emanating from Chance’s M4. The only clue Groot had that the kid was pulling his weight was the sight of his spent brass arcing away from the Ram’s left side.

Groot glanced at his wing mirror. Saw that the zombies had come back down in the tractor supply lot thoroughly broken and were struggling to rise. The driver of the white SUV had struck both pickups, sending them spinning away in opposite directions and leaving the SUV with a mangled front end and steam pouring from under its crumpled hood. Just when Groot thought they were in the clear, the black SUV materialized from the drifting smoke of the exploding grenade. It looked to be one of the crossover SUVs built on a minivan platform. Good for show, but not for go, was what his father always said. They were usually two-wheel drive and notorious for being deficient in both horsepower and ground clearance. As the SUV slalomed through the disabled vehicles, picking up two men on the way, Groot consulted the navigation screen. The straight vertical line splitting the screen was Evans Street. In a quarter of a mile or so, Evans transitioned into a four-lane highway. While outrunning and eventually losing their pursuers on Kansas 156 was a possibility, with so little fuel remaining in the Ram’s tank it was also just as likely the Ram would die on them first.

Coming up on the right was a neighborhood. It consisted of mostly small- and medium-sized homes. A wall stood between the road and neighborhood. Just inside the wall, a water tower painted robin’s egg blue and streaked with rust towered over the nearest homes.

On the opposite side of Evans, the grass lush and green and growing out of control, was Ellsworth Golf Course. The sign indicated it had been around since 1921.

A quick glance at the rearview mirror told Groot that the remaining SUV was closing fast. Back to sitting on the passenger seat, having already swapped the empty magazine in the M4 for a full one, Chance offered to go back up through the moonroof and try and take the driver out.

Groot shook his head. “You and Sloane already dodged enough bullets. I have a better idea. A safer way to take them out.” He tasked Chance with prepping another grenade. Then, meeting Sloane’s gaze in the rearview, he said, “Hang on,” and steered toward the golf course.

The Ram was traveling close to fifty miles per hour when its front tires hit the shallow curb. Long-travel suspension soaking up the impact, the 4×4 rolled across the sidewalk and onto the golf course. As the sign blipped by on the left, Groot scanned the course left to right. He was looking for a water feature, a cluster of sand traps, or a gully with steep walls.

He charted a serpentine course through a pair of unkempt greens, turned parallel to the highway, and put his hand out. “Grenade, please.”

Peering over the seat back, Sloane said, “They’re catching us. And they’re firing—”

The rear window taking a couple of hits and exploding inward drowned out the rest of Sloane’s warning.

“How many shotgun shells do you have?” Groot asked.

“Three,” was her reply.

“Poke that thing through the rear window, aim for the grille, and empty it rapid-fire.” There was a method to his madness. He was hoping the muzzle rise would ensure the second and third rounds hit the windshield. If so, and the driver reacted how most people would when realizing they were receiving accurate fire, the next grenade would be more effective than the last.

Groot said, “Now!” When the first report sounded, he was steering between a pair of large sand traps and a tee box, narrowly missing running over the bench and ball washer. Hearing the shotgun boom again, he dropped the grenade out his window, into the unruly grass bordering the fairway, where it stayed. No bouncing off the target this time.

Ears ringing mightily, Groot lifted his gaze to the mirror just in time to see Sloane fire the third and final round at the SUV, the sloped windshield already spider webbed and punched through in multiple places. Craning to see past her head and shoulder, he witnessed three things happen in quick succession. First, the shockwave from the grenade detonating rippled through the fairway grass. The follow-on geyser of dark soil and fingers of smoke twining skyward momentarily obscured the pursuing SUV. On the heels of that, self-preservation kicking in, the driver instinctively steered away from the explosion. It was human nature. And exactly what Groot was hoping he’d do. But because there was no way to predict which direction the driver was going to yank the wheel, success was a fifty/fifty proposition.

“Shit!” Groot exclaimed, seeing the rig jink away from the smoking crater. “All that for nothing.”

“What do you mean?” Sloane said. “The dumbass just drove into a pot bunker. If that didn’t ruin his rig, good luck getting it out of there.”

Groot shook his head. He had been confused because he’d watched it all go down in the mirror, where everything appeared to him to have happened in reverse. Instead of wasting his breath explaining himself, he steered right until he caught sight of the highway through the bug-spattered windshield. There was a tall fence running north to south. Getting back on Evans wasn’t going to happen here, so he drove south, bumped across another fairway, then cut across a narrow cart path bordering a bed of colorful flowers. Seeing an east/west thoroughfare, he drove over the flower bed, looked both ways, then turned onto the closest westbound lane of a two-lane labeled Avenue L on the navigation pane.

“See anyone back there?”

Chance said, “Clear on my side. Nothing on the road behind us, either.”

Shaking her head, Sloane said, “Nobody’s cutting across the course. But if they do get unstuck, you left a hell of a trail of destruction for them to follow.”

“They’re just flowers,” Groot replied. “They’ll grow back.”

“Then there are the multiple fairways and that green you totally fucked up,” Chance pointed out. “Not to mention the grenade. I’m sure it left one hell of a divot. By the way,” he asked, “why do you have so many of them?”

Groot was consulting the navigation pane to confirm the road bisecting Avenue L via the upcoming overpass was the one they needed to be on. When he saw that it was indeed Evans, he slowed abruptly and drove in the wrong direction up the off-ramp. At the T, he ignored the stop sign and hung a sharp left. Finally, in response to Chance’s question, Groot said, “Grenades aren’t effective on the dead. They usually just walk through the smoke and keep on coming. Whenever someone would discard them because they didn’t want them weighing down their pack, I’d scoop them up. With so many garbage humans running amok, I figured they might come in handy down the road.”

“I don’t give a shit about how many grenades you have or how you got them,” Sloane said. “I want to know how much fuel is left in the tank. Because if we’re going to find ourselves walking, we’re also low on ammunition. The shotgun is out totally. The rifle of yours is down to two magazines. All that headache for two gallons of gas.” She ran her window up and sat back in her seat.

“It’s not looking good,” Groot admitted. “All that spirited driving took a toll.” He pinched the display screen, causing the map to zoom out. He walked a finger down the road they were on now and took note of the upcoming towns and cities. Finally, after crunching the numbers in his head, he announced the names of a couple of places they could reach with the estimated amount of fuel still in the tank.

“I like the sound of Holyrood,” Chance put in. “Maybe we’ll get lucky and find gas and ammunition.”

“It’s about fifteen miles south,” Sloane noted. “That’ll leave us a little buffer if the place doesn’t have what we need.”

“Holyrood it is,” Groot said. “But we better wish Buford’s reach doesn’t extend to neighboring towns. If he has a powerful radio and more friends nearby …”

“Wish in one hand and shit in the other—” Sloane began.

“See which one fills up faster,” Groot finished. “It was one of my father’s favorites. His dad started him saying it.”

“Speaking of shitting,” Chance said. “I’ve had to take a dump since we left the car lot. Apparently shooting a person has that effect on me. So if you don’t step on it, your hand’s not the only thing that’s gonna be filling up with shit.”

 

Chapter 21

 

Mesquite, Nevada

 

The exact spot where the bandits had tried to rob the group on I-15 was a stone’s throw outside Mesquite city limits. The hearse and Camaro were on the road just beyond the military crest of a slight rise where anyone traveling west would not see them until it was too late. Traveling eastbound and coming out of the shallow dip west of the apex, the phenomenon worked in reverse. Two things happened as the Escalade reached the military crest of the hill. First, Riker and Lia found themselves staring into the low-hanging morning sun. Then, as they simultaneously reached up to flip down their sun visors, they saw that since they had passed through here last, someone had set up a formidable roadblock. Jersey barriers lined both sides of the road. The chute made up of the barriers that the Escalade had just entered was two lanes wide at the entrance and choked down quickly to just one. If he had been driving the Shelby Baja and wanted to make a break for the westbound lanes and drive eastbound, that rig would be more than capable of tackling the little bit of off-road action necessary to pull it off. The Escalade, however, weighed down with six people and all their gear, simply was not up to the task. He dismissed the idea of rabbiting when it occurred to him that the people responsible for setting up this roadblock here also had one set up on Mesquite’s east side. It would be stupid of them if they had not. With all other options off the table, Riker braked and brought the Escalade to a full stop a third of the way down the chute.

The roadblock here occupied a couple of hundred feet of both lanes of travel and was under guard by no less than ten people. One man was waving them down. He was tall and wearing a dark green Mesquite Police Department uniform and like-colored cowboy hat. In his hands was a black AR-15. Next to him was an African American woman. She was shorter by half a head and wore the same uniform and hat. She had a shotgun in hand and a sidearm on her hip. A dozen people armed with AR-15s and wearing black tactical gear had taken up positions at staggered intervals on both sides of the interstate. A black and white Chevy Tahoe cruiser and a Dodge Charger wearing the same Mesquite Police Department livery blocked the end of the Jersey barrier chute. A bulldozer Riker recognized as a Caterpillar D9 backed up the police cruisers. And standing in the chute, equidistant from the cruisers and the idling Escalade, face concealed behind a black respirator, was a person in a white hazmat suit.

While Riker was eyeing the personnel and vehicles in their path, from out of nowhere a Ford F-250 tow truck conversion rolled across the entry to the chute, completely blocking his only point of egress.

“What are you going to do now?” Lia asked.

Shorty said, “Out of the pan and into the fire. Just my luck.” He tapped Tara on the shoulder. “What movie does this whole thing remind you of?”

“Stop with the movie trivia crap,” Riker shot. “I’m trying to think up here.”

Tara leaned back in her seat. In a near whisper, she said, “First Blood, obviously.”

“Not the best representation of a Vietnam veteran,” Vern said. “Made it look like we all were prone to snap at a moment’s notice.”

Shorty said, “Terrible representation of small-town sheriffs, if you ask me.”

“It was the early seventies,” Tara reminded him. “In some small towns, people who looked like me and my bro weren’t welcome. Especially after dark. I’m not saying every sheriff back then was going to take a black hitchhiker to the edge of town and tell them to get out, but I’m sure there were plenty who did.”

“I stand corrected,” Shorty said. “Let’s hope this lawman is nicer than the ones Sly Stallone had to deal with.”

Steve-O said, “Marcy let me watch that movie. Lee is way bigger than Rambo.” He made a fist and punched his palm. “If that tall man is bad, Lee can take him out.”

“Shut it,” Riker said. “I’m not taking anyone out … unless I’m forced to.” He jabbed a finger at the person in the protective suit. “That’s a Geiger counter the gatekeeper is fiddling with. Probably establishing a baseline reading before he checks us out. We need to get over that hurdle before we get to talk to the authorities. So we all better pray none of us are so hot that it sets that thing off.”

Voice wavering slightly, Lia said, “First we better hope this truck didn’t collect an abnormal amount of radiation. If it did, I think, at best, they’re going to have us go back the way we came. I don’t even want to put into words what I think the worst-case scenario entails. We all saw the bodies back there. And the hearse and all the other vehicles that have accumulated since we came through here four days ago.”

Always the optimist, Steve-O leaned forward and said, “Maybe they are going to give us gas and food and send us on our way. This is still America, Lia.”

Lia didn’t get to respond. The person in the suit had finished messing with the device in his or her hands and was waving them forward.

Riker said, “Let me do the talking.”

Breaking protocol, Steve-O said, “And everyone should keep their hands where the person can see them and do not make any sudden movements.”

Riker said, “Steve-O is right.” He placed his SIG on the dash and lifted his foot off the brake. A little bit of pressure on the accelerator started the Escalade rolling forward. There was no confusion as to where he was supposed to stop. The pair of stop signs flanking the chute left nothing up to interpretation.

The only communication between the suited person and Riker came via hand signals. The first, one arm extended, palm of the hand facing the Escalade, was easy enough for him to decipher. Stop right there. Then came the finger across the throat gesture. Kill the engine. Lastly, the gatekeeper raised both arms over the head. Hands where I can see them. Pretty straight forward. Since everyone was already complying with the third pantomimed order, Riker held his tongue.

The person in the suit advanced briskly. If they were worried about putting themselves in harm’s way, it didn’t translate. As the person got to within fifteen feet of the Escalade’s grille, Riker got a good look at the face behind the respirator’s clear visor. It was a woman with brilliant blue eyes. A shock of blonde hair curled across her brow.

The woman said nothing. She just went about her business, passing the Geiger counter over the SUV’s exterior and undercarriage. She did so with all the thoroughness of a TSA agent giving the wand treatment to a person displaying all the visible cues associated with unease and deception. Finished with the exterior, she pointed at Riker and hooked a thumb over her shoulder.

Understanding it to mean she was ordering him out of the SUV, Riker ran his window down. Reaching both hands out his open window, he opened his door using the outside handle. Leaving his door open after he stepped onto the road, he followed her to a spot next to the Jersey barriers, where she gave him the same once-over with the Geiger counter that she had the vehicle. She was thorough. Then, maintaining the mime routine, beginning with Lia and ending with Shorty, she ordered each person to exit the Escalade and led them to the barriers, where they each received the same scrutiny as Riker. Finished running the Geiger counter over Shorty and doing her best to ignore his plea to have her check his junk one more time—“Just to be safe”—the woman flashed a thumbs-up to the uniformed officers.

Anticipation building, Riker looked down the line to his right. As chance would have it, beginning with Lia and ending with Shorty, each person in the lineup was incrementally shorter than the person to their immediate left.

“What’s the thumbs-up mean?” Shorty asked.

No answer.

Tara looked at Lia, who was standing on her immediate right. “Dude better not come at us with a barbed-wire-wrapped baseball bat named after his dead wife.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” Lia asked. “You’re not making any sense.”

“It’s a scene from a show I used to watch on AMC. Didn’t end well for a couple of the survivors.” She cleared her throat. “Never mind. Here he comes. No bat detected.”

Steve-O leaned forward. Calling out to Riker, three people down the line from him, he said, “We’re going to be okay, right?”

Approaching Riker from the left, the male officer stopped a yard or so short and asked him if he was the leader.

“I don’t speak for anyone here,” Riker admitted. “Everyone has a say.”

“That’s admirable,” said the officer whose nametape read Nance. On his shoulder was a patch indicating that he was Mesquite’s Chief of Police. “Since you were the one driving, I’ll start with you.”

Riker nodded. He’d been sizing the man up as he spoke. His narrow face was a roadmap of worry lines and scars. Eyes the color of flint were constantly probing from behind plastic-framed glasses with prescription lenses.

“What brings you to Mesquite?” It was a smoker’s voice. A bit raspy with a hint of an accent Riker couldn’t place. Midwest?

Riker had already decided he was going to tell the chief the proverbial whole truth, and nothing but the truth. The so help me God part needn’t factor in. Because the way Riker saw it, the people with the guns backing up Chief Nance made him God in these parts. So, beginning with the HAM radio intercept, Riker told him everything they had been through. He went on to describe their takedown of the pawn shop that resulted in freeing Cole and the other kids, and then, as far-fetched as he knew it was going to sound, he divulged how they barely escaped being victims of the nuke strike south of Vegas. When Nance remained tight-lipped, the news seeming to come as no surprise to him, Riker described their short stay and eventual escape from the government bunker.

“That’s it?” Nance quipped, smiling for the first time. “You left out where you got the Escalade. But it’s pretty evident. Thing’s a rolling billboard.” He paused, thinking. Finally, his eyes boring into Riker’s, the man went on, saying, “What were you all driving when you came through here on your way to Vegas?”

Matching the chief’s steely gaze, Riker said, “I’m not going to lie to you, sir.” As soon as he said it, he realized it was likely that every liar prefaced their lies with the same preamble. Then there was the fact Nance looked to be pushing sixty. No doubt he’d been on the receiving end of thousands of lies told straight to his face. Riker already knew he was an awful liar. Tara had told him so every time he lied to her about his sobriety and mental well-being when he had been suffering mightily from the aftereffects of nearly dying on Route Irish in Baghdad, Iraq. The time estranged from her had been the hardest couple of years in his life. When he decided to get help with his bedevilments, she was the first person on his amends list.

Noticing the slight hesitation, Nance said, “That’s refreshing. Honesty is the best policy.”

Riker told Nance about the Shelby and Earth Roamer and what had befallen them. He also described the encounter with the older woman and two men he had assumed were her sons. “And it happened right where we’re standing. Just left the vehicles and bodies and we got on our way.”

After spending a few seconds looking the road up and down, Chief Nance said, “I figured it was you based on the description a citizen provided. Very few groups as diverse as yours roll through here these days.” He placed a hand on his hip, close to the butt of some kind of semiautomatic pistol. His expression suddenly changed. He looked disappointed in something.

The rest of the group sensed it, too. They were beginning to shift from foot to foot. Shorty cleared his throat, trying to get Riker’s attention.

Ignoring Shorty, Riker said, “They gave us no choice. Honestly, none of us take any satisfaction over what happened. The pedo grandparents at the Vegas pawn shop … now that’s a different story. I took great satisfaction in ending them and their perverted son.”

The chief fixed Riker with a hard stare. “We were in the north part of town taking care of a zeke problem when you all rolled through. If I’m being honest, you did me a favor. Those three wannabe highwaymen were a pain in my ass since day one. They’d been robbing people all up and down the interstate. It was only a matter of time before they effed around with the wrong folks. And you all happened to be the wrong folks.”

Riker released the breath he didn’t realize he’d been holding in. “We’re free to pass through Mesquite?”

The chief nodded. “Is there any way I can repay you all for taking out our trash?”

Though Riker knew it was a long shot, he asked anyway. “A full tank of gas? Maybe also fill a couple of our gas cans?”

“Done,” said the chief, glancing at the sky. “You and me both know you’re not going to outrun the eye in the sky. If you’re right in your assumption that your former captors have sent people out to bring you back, and they show up here, there’s not much I can do about that. Far as I know, we’re still under martial law. Which means Posse Comitatus was the law of the land. Assuming all you say about the Ronin Protocol is true, then the president’s previous declarations are null and void.”

“I get it,” Riker said. “Do whatever you have to do.”

The chief removed his hat. Addressing Riker, he said, “I have an idea on how to deal with anyone who comes calling.” He looked the line of survivors over. “You all better get back in that ride of yours before I change my mind.” He winked at Riker and cracked a sly smile as everyone scrambled to reboard the Escalade. Once the doors closed, he extended a hand to Riker. “We’re all on the same team, Lee Riker. Thanks for your service and for your sacrifice.” He pointed to the leg with the prosthetic. “You carry yourself like someone who’s been there and done that. No way to hide what you lost over there. I can tell by your gait. My boy … he lost more than that in the Sandbox. Fallujah, ’04. He’s in Arlington now. Section Sixty. Come hell or high water, when all this is over, I will visit him one last time.”

Riker grasped the chief’s hand and gave it a firm pump. “I’m sorry for your loss, sir. Too many good men died over what my gut tells me now were a whole bunch of lies.”

The chief removed his glasses and pinched away the tears. Pointing east, he said, “We just stood up an aid station in the casino parking lot. Got a fuel tanker parked there. Take what you need. And go ahead and get you and your people water and food for the road.” He leaned in and warned Riker of a couple of places between the Nevada border and Navajo land he should avoid. Finished, he motioned for his people to clear the road. Clapping Riker on the shoulder, he rejoined his officers behind the row of Jersey barriers.

 

Chapter 22

 

“This Ronin Protocol is going to be a big problem if we ever get a handle on Romero,” said Airman First Class Reginald Washington as he steered the armored Oshkosh L-ATV around a lone zombie trudging the wrong direction on I-15’s fast lane. “You’re going to see a grip of officers who’ve gotten a taste of power … real power, balk at giving it up. I’m already getting a Captain Queeg vibe from Conk. Happened all at once. Like a light switch was thrown. One day he’s his old approachable self. The next, he’s blatantly hitting the flask in front of junior officers. When he takes command of Looking Glass”—the twenty-one-year-old shook his helmeted head—“he’s never going to want to relinquish it.”

“Who the hell is Queeg?” asked First Sergeant Gene Lassiter. He was riding in the passenger seat of one of four Oshkosh L-ATVs delivered to Nellis aboard a C-5 Galaxy heavy lift aircraft the day before the Ronin Protocol put the major general in charge of a large swath of the southwest United States. Less than twenty-four hours later, on the heels of the nuke strike meant to spare Nellis from the zombie hordes, the two-star lifer had ordered Frenchman’s skeleton crew to begin preparing to evacuate the bunker. The other three L-ATVs were to provide security for a larger convoy that would be leaving the underground bunker as soon as the technicians had secured the TOC’s computer servers and set the environmental systems to run autonomously.

Sergeant Peter King occupied the seat behind Washington. He was in his late twenties and had just voluntarily re-upped for four more years. That he had pulled the trigger less than a week before the incident at Logan International started the chain of events that put the entire CONUS into lockdown had spiraled him into a state of perpetual resentment. He took his eyes off the flat-panel screen next to him only long enough to shoot the first sergeant a look of incredulity. “You didn’t read The Caine Mutiny in high school English Lit? It’s one of the classics. Herman Wouk is the author, I believe. Won a Pulitzer for it.”

“I was raising Cain in high school, Pete. That and chasing tail. Didn’t have the time for reading.” Lassiter laughed and slapped his thigh.

Back to watching the feed from the Reaper drone bearing the coolest call sign he’d ever heard, King said, “You had more fun than I did, sir. How about you, Reg? Were you a bookworm?”

“Nah, man,” Washington said. “I was doing the same thing as our fearless leader. Spent all my spare time smoking and poking. As for The Caine Mutiny, I watched the movie on Turner Classics.” He offered a fist bump to Lassiter, but Lassiter left him hanging.

In his mid-thirties and a bit of a germaphobe, Lassiter didn’t see the need, nor did he want to participate in fist bumping, dapping, or one of the many choreographed hand-slapping routines he’d seen the younger airmen doing. He thought it made them look like buffoons trying to get Likes on Instagram. One of the biggest plusses of the Romero outbreak was the demise of social media. Never being asked to watch another TikTok video of a person in uniform lip-syncing to the latest top-of-the-charts pop song or doing some stupid dance was an acceptable tradeoff for having to deal with ambulatory corpses full of disease. With no friends or family to speak of outside of the Air Force prior to seeing his first Zulu in the flesh, Lassiter could not care less if the pointy heads developed a cure for Romero. He had never felt freer than he did now, outside the proverbial wire, in command of the newest gun truck in the United States military’s inventory. If he ever met the person responsible for releasing the virus that started the cleanse that he felt the world was long overdue for, a cleanse he thought of as the mother of all enemas, he would break his own rule and give him or her a high five. Hell, he might even plant a sloppy kiss on their lips, germs be damned. Lassiter’s orders stated he was to bring back the anomaly, but in the back of his mind, he found it acceptable if the gimp bought it in a crossfire. If the opportunity presented itself, he might even have to make it happen.

Looking up from the screen, King said, “First Sergeant … the feed from Vader is fading in and out. I’m receiving a lot of static.”

Lassiter powered on the flat-panel display in front of him. “Joker Six is Oscar Mike from French, right?”

“Affirmative,” replied King. “They finished sealing up and rolled out at the top of the hour.”

“Vader should have already reported the malfunction. Anything from Conk’s radio operator?” Lassiter asked.

“Negative. Want me to send an interrogatory?”

Lassiter didn’t answer. He was paying attention to the mass of steel and glass passing by on the left. Had to be close to fifty vehicles crowding the center median. There were imports, pickups, SUVs, and, most fitting of all, on account of the times, a big black hearse. Turning in his seat so he could take it all in, he said, “What in God’s name am I looking at, Washington?”

Meeting his superior’s gaze, Washington said, “Going by the radiation symbols, I’d bet it’s a quarantine lot. Whose quarantine lot is the million-dollar question. I didn’t see a soul in Glendale when we passed through. Didn’t look like anyone was operating out of the gas station or the restaurant.”

King said, “Anyone notice the piles of corpses the birds were feeding on? That’s not normal.”

Lassiter was back to watching the fuzzy image of the black SUV speeding along the interstate somewhere east of the state line. He continued watching for a few more seconds, then he switched from the drone feed to the Blue Force Tracker screen and zoomed in a couple of stops. Tapping his finger on the screen, he said, “Mesquite is coming up. About a mile or so. I’d bet my left nut that’s where we’ll find the people responsible for what we saw back there.” He turned and looked at King. “Do birds even feed on Zulus?”

King shook his head. “I’ve never seen it before.”

“Me neither,” Washington put in.

King said, “Maybe they weren’t Zulus. Could be they were irradiated citizens.”

“Great,” said Lassiter. “If true, not only will we have to avoid glowing Zulus, but now we might also have to deal with birds dropping irradiated shit all over the place.” After a short pause, he went on, saying, “King … get Joker Six’s Romeo on the horn and see what’s up with Vader.”

King contacted Conk’s radioman and told him the problem. Learning it was an issue originating at either Creech or a glitch plaguing the DoD satellite tasked with relaying the signals back and forth, King broke the news to Lassiter that Vader was returning to base.

“It is what it is,” Lassiter responded. “Note the squirters’ last known location. We’ll work from there.”

“Copy that,” King replied before hailing Creech again and having them provide the exact location on the Blue Force Tracker.

Five minutes after signing off with Creech, with the Oshkosh coming to the end of a long straight stretch that culminated at a slight rise in the road, Lassiter spotted a herd of Zulus on the move and ordered Washington to find a way around them.

Washington was easing off the pedal when the zombies first started to react to the engine noise. By the time the Oshkosh was about to crest the hill, the zombies were already in the process of getting turned around.

 

Chief Lawrence “Larry” Nance heard the approaching vehicle long before he had eyes on it. And so did the medium-sized group of zombies cresting the rise where he knew he would first be seeing the approaching vehicle. The moment the Riker fella mentioned that he and his crew were being tracked by an unmanned aerial vehicle, Nance had chided himself for not having procured a drone of his own. Even a civilian model would do. Being able to see what type of vehicle was approaching well before any kind of contact happened would be extremely beneficial in deciding how to receive said vehicle.

The zombies’ reaction to the low growl of the engine was quite amusing. The assemblage ranged in age from single digits to a grizzled male flesh-eater Nance decided had to have been an octogenarian prior to dying the first time. Half of the group, the seven that were mostly naked, bore telltale signs of having been in the blast zone, the exposed skin red and blistered. Most had little to no hair remaining on their entire bodies. Like the majority of the walking corpses he had already put down, these ones had also been brutalized by flying debris created by the ensuing shockwave. Their skin bristled with wood splinters, glass shards, and cactus needles, making them look like walking pin cushions.

The rest were your garden-variety zombies, every one of them showing obvious signs of having been on the receiving end of a brutal attack while still among the ranks of the living. Puckered wounds ringed with purple where a zombie’s bite had excised dermis and flesh stood out starkly against alabaster skin.

The moment the creatures had detected the sound they associated with human prey, which the reptile part of their brains took to mean that a meal of fresh meat was a clear possibility, the lead zombie stopped in its tracks and slowly panned its head toward the sound. The collision and follow-on chain reaction that the sudden halt initiated was like something out of an old silent film. Colliding head-on with the rooted zombie, the next zombie in line fell back on its heels, making no attempt to arrest its fall. Its left shoulder met the sternum of the number three creature, sending it careening into the zombie directly behind it, which in turn sent it spinning away in the opposite direction.

When it was all over, the remaining zombies having fallen to the right and the left in quick succession, Nance was under the impression he had just been witness to a display of undead synchronized swimming, only sans the water and any semblance of precision or balance.

Tamping down the urge to laugh at the folly on display, Nance consulted the battered Luminox on his wrist. Noting that forty-five minutes had slipped into the past since the east roadblock had radioed confirmation that the Escalade carrying Riker and the others was no longer within Mesquite city limits, he began to plot ways in which he could help them pad their lead.

 

“Fucking Zulus,” Washington said to no one in particular. “I can almost smell them from here.” He was edging the Oshkosh toward the right-side shoulder, the top of the hill still a few yards ahead of them.

“The only thing I miss about being under all that rock is the clean air,” Lassiter said. “I’d take stale scrubbed air any day over living with the constant reek of those things hanging around. Hair, gloves, even my damn uniform … everything always stinking like roadkill possum.”

“Ain’t no shower hot enough to get rid of it either,” King added. “I’m back to always keeping a jar of Vick’s on me. Want some?”

Lassiter reached a hand back and took the jar from King. He had just gotten it open when the zombies began falling over each other like drunken dominos. One finger slathered with menthol-scented goo, he was working it into his mustache when, to keep from running over a zombie that had hit the ground and immediately logrolled into the Oshkosh’s path, Washington jerked the steering wheel hard to the right.

While Washington’s abrupt maneuver had spared the Oshkosh from running over a specimen that looked to be hot with radiation, the sudden lurch and subsequent reaction provoked by Newton’s Law caused his superior to smear a glob of Vick’s VapoRub across his right eye.

Lassiter was cussing and trying to keep his eyes open when the Oshkosh’s brakes locked up and he was nearly thrown out of his seat.

Washington said, “The Zulus are the least of our worries, sir. There’s a roadblock beyond the crest of the hill.”

Squinting, Lassiter regarded Washington. “How many rounds in the 240?” He was referring to the M240 Bravo medium machine gun mounted in the L-ATV’s CROWS mast.

“A full box, sir.”

“How many in reserve?”

“Just the one box, sir.”

Not enough, thought Lassiter.

“Now what?” King asked.

“Power on the CROWS and stand by for my orders.”

“Shouldn’t we run it up the chain? See what Joker Actual has to say.”

Viewing that as a display of weakness, Lassiter said, “I’m commanding this vehicle. Stand by and await my orders.” He wet a wad of napkins with water from his hydration pack and dabbed his eyes with it. As he was doing this, Washington was describing what he was seeing.

“Just two squad cars?” Lassiter asked.

“Yep. Only two,” replied Washington. “But I’d bet they have a QRF somewhere out of sight. The SWAT-looking guys all have M4s and are wearing body armor.”

“What’s the person in the hazmat suit doing?”

“Looks like a woman,” Washington offered. “She’s holding up a whiteboard. There’s a radio frequency written on it.”

Before Lassiter could do the obvious—issue an order for King to tune their comms to the frequency—King announced he was establishing a connection. Almost immediately, he said, “Sir … I have a man on the line who’s claiming he’s Mesquite’s chief of police. His name is Nance.”

Prying his right eye open with two fingers, Lassiter tried to bring the police cruisers into focus. “He’s got to be broadcasting from a radio in one of the cruisers. I’m still seeing double. Either of you see which cruiser has a person up front?”

“There’s someone in the SUV,” Washington replied.

Lassiter said, “I want that Bravo aimed at that Tahoe.”

King said, “Do we really want to provoke these people?”

“This isn’t a democracy, King!” Lassiter shouted. “I’m issuing the orders. I expect you to follow them without hesitation.” He snatched up the handset and pressed the transmit button. “Chief Nance. First Sergeant Lassiter, United States Air Force. I’m acting under authority of Regional Commander of FEMA Zone 8 Major General Terrance Conklin. We’re in pursuit of a black SUV. You’re going to need to clear the road and allow us to pass.” He released the transmit button and watched the woman in the hazmat suit. She had put the whiteboard aside and was now holding a Geiger counter and walking toward the Oshkosh. Still waiting for a reply from Nance, Lassiter said, “I wonder what we’d find if we unwrapped her. Under all that I bet she has a smoking hot body.”

“It has been a minute since I had relations,” Washington divulged as he craned to see the woman as she walked past his window. “There better be a decent male-to-female ratio at Looking Glass.”

Lassiter said, “You couldn’t get laid in a nunnery if Jesus popped up and told all the sisters that the whole celibacy rule was just a big misunderstanding.”

Wanting to avoid riling Lassiter more than the man already was, Washington said nothing.

King said, “Movement on my screen. Twelve o’clock.”

Lassiter was back to watching the woman in his wing mirror. A dozen yards behind her, the fallen Zulus had already risen from the road. If she was aware they were stalking her, getting the rad level readings from the Oshkosh’s wheels and undercarriage was more important to her. When he looked forward to see what King was seeing, he spotted a golf cart zipping down the Jersey barrier chute. It was larger than the ones available for rent at the course. This was more of a people mover like you might see zipping VIPs around at a concert or festival. Four people in full body armor, complete with face shields, gloves, and big black boots occupied the front- and middle-row seats. All of them, save for the driver, bore an AR-style rifle.

“Orders?” King asked.

“Nothing they can do to us even if they were trying to make a show of force,” Lassiter responded. “That’s a QRF. They’re going to take care of the Zulus.” A bright orange front loader appeared from behind a row of shipping containers behind the roadblock. The bucket was at the halfway point, just below the hazmat-suited operator’s eye level. Bouncing subtly on big tires, it sped up and followed the golf cart.

Lassiter watched the golf cart stop equidistant from the Oshkosh and the zombies, all of which were staggering along the white fog line. As soon as the cart was static, the four armored-up individuals piled out. He noted how, to a man, they moved with precision. Furthermore, he saw nothing wrong with the way they brandished their weapons as they maneuvered into position. Nobody got flagged. Heads were on a swivel. And though Lassiter saw they wore headsets, the hand signals the leader was utilizing told him they didn’t need to rely on verbal cues to get into position and get the job done. It was clear to him they were practiced in the art of warfare. And he wasn’t surprised. With a decade and a half of war in the desert, a war that was still raging when Romero entered the picture, departments large and small had a steady supply of men with deadly skill sets to choose from. Chief Nance had chosen well.

From their rapid dismount to the end of the one-sided engagement, the four members of the QRF were boots on the road, rifles shouldered and granting the zombies second death for less than thirty seconds. When they were finished, with the nearest fallen zombie thirty feet to their fore, one of them returned to the cart and moved it to make way for the front loader.

Finally, the radio crackled to life. “This is Chief Nance. Respectfully, First Sergeant Lassiter, I’m going to have to deny your request for immediate passage. Mesquite is in FEMA Zone 9. As I am not privy to who has assumed the title of Regional Commander for this zone, and seeing that our mayor was killed by a biter a little over a week ago, Mesquite is my responsibility. Then there’s the problem of your vehicle reading hot. So you have two choices. The first is to backtrack and find another way into Zone 8. The second is to turn around and follow Officer Underwood back to the decontamination area and see if we can get that badass rig of yours back to where it’s putting off acceptable radiation levels.”

 

In the Mesquite PD Chevy Tahoe, Chief Nance stopped talking into the handset but kept his thumb on its Talk button. After counting slowly to ten, during which he imagined the first sergeant was cussing him up and down, he added, “We accomplish those goals, sir, then we’ll escort you through Mesquite and make sure you get safely over the border and into Arizona.” A sly smile creasing his face, the chief opened the channel and waited for a response.

 

Forced to listen to the police chief’s entire response without being able to interject, a trial difficult for most people to endure but especially hard to take for an only child used to always having his way, Lassiter’s cheeks and neck had turned a shade of red close to matching his inflamed right eye.

King leaned forward in his seat. “What are your orders, sir?”

Lassiter thumbed the push-to-talk button. Speaking slowly, doing his best to inject a hint of menace into his voice, he said, “I will comply, Chief. The turnaround better be quick.” He went quiet for a few seconds but left his thumb on the button. Finally, he went on, saying, “You didn’t say whether a black SUV had come through here or not.” He took his thumb off the button, reopening the channel.

No hesitation, Nance radioed back, “You didn’t ask,” and opened the channel for comment.

“You better tread lightly, Chief,” Lassiter radioed back. “Because by this time tomorrow, my boss may oversee this sector, too. Then he would be your boss.” He reopened the channel and tracked the golf cart as it passed in front of the Oshkosh, wheeled a U-turn, and then stopped to let one of the passengers relinquish his seat to the hazmat-suited woman. Once she was settled, the Geiger counter held close to her chest, the loaded-down cart sped off to the west.

“Understood, First Sergeant Lassiter,” Nance replied. “Make sure you tell the general we’re all over here on tenterhooks waiting for official confirmation of who we’ll be answering to going forward.”

Lassiter said nothing. While he had been listening to the chief’s smart-ass comeback, one poorly disguised as acquiescence, he had been watching the front loader, its bucket now full of twice-dead zombies, as it spun a U-turn of its own and gave chase to the golf cart.

“Follow them,” Lassiter said to Washington. To King, he said, “Radio Joker Six’s Romeo and report the setback. While you’re at it, find out when Vader will be back in the hunt.”

 

Chapter 23

 

Trinity House – Santa Fe, New Mexico

 

Benny and Rose had remained in the kitchen and watched Clark and Rhoads struggle to put down the zombies drawn in by the noise created by the Airbus helicopter’s unannounced early morning arrival. After an hour of this, the pile of bodies once again rising to dangerous levels, Benny and Rose suited up and ventured out to aid in the cleanup.

An hour later, sweating like a pig and stinking like death, Benny had gone inside and showered in the weak spray of geothermally warmed water pumped up from the well deep underneath Trinity. Once finished, he had changed into camouflage pants and blouse taken from the Lazarus Bunker and laced on surplus leather boots half a size too big for him. Since he and Rose were entrusted to undertake their first solo mission outside the walls, it was only proper that he dressed for the occasion.

Rose, on the other hand, wanted nothing to do with the “Army guy” look. Instead, she washed off the stench of death and dressed in blue jeans, a flannel shirt, and a Mountain Research fleece. In the event she had to move quickly, she opted for a pair of ASICS running shoes over the boots Rhoads had offered to loan her.

Now, three hours after dragging the last corpse away from Trinity’s front gate and depositing it atop the mini mountain of bodies crowding the mouth of the feeder road, Benny had finished prepping the War Wagon for travel, Rose was sitting in the RV’s passenger seat, and Clark and Rhoads had gunned up and were standing just inside Lazarus’s blast door and awaiting the signal to open it.

Benny entered the RV through the left-side door, retracted the steel steps, and sealed him and Rose inside. Theoretically, since the vehicle was specifically designed to roam a radiated wasteland in the wake of all-out thermonuclear war, this jaunt into the desert southwest would be child’s play. Seeing how the Wagon was a few decades old and hadn’t seen any serious maintenance for a good fifteen years, nothing was guaranteed.

Taking his seat behind the jumbo, near horizontal steering wheel, Benny stowed the borrowed H&K MP5 near his feet, then clicked into his seatbelt.

Face a mask of worry, Rose said, “Are you sure we’re doing the right thing? I could go back out there and beg them to take us in the helicopter.”

Benny shook his head. “Wade said they had to conserve fuel for an emergency. Since Lee and the others are okay and headed back, Wade can’t justify going up. Now, if Lee or one of the others call a Prairie Fire, Wade’s words, not mine, they’ll drop everything and go extract them from whatever trouble they’ve gotten themselves into.”

“What’s Prairie Fire mean?”

Benny looked in his wing mirror and stabbed the accelerator. He saw blue smoke roiling from the exhaust pipe. Better than the first time he’d fired her up when the exhaust had spewed out black and thick with carbon. Taking his eyes off the myriad of gauges on the dash, the majority of which were transmitting and in the green, he said, “I have no idea. It’s military slang only Vern and Lee would understand.”

She nodded. “Ready to go?”

“Ready as I’ll ever be.” Benny swallowed hard and showed the aviators a thumbs-up.

While Rhoads worked the door controls, Clark took a knee and trained his MP5 at the spot where the door’s edge was pulling away from the mountainside. Seeing no zombies lurking outside, he rose and waved the War Wagon on its way.

 

Bleeding the brakes the day before seemed to have paid off. At first, the pedal was a little bit spongy. After braking hard to negotiate a couple of sharp turns that came up within the first quarter mile of the long winding fire lane coming down from the bunker, the rust came off the brake drums, and the response to brake pedal input improved markedly.

Steering was another thing entirely. Turning the wheel was like trying to move a fifty-five-gallon steel drum with a foot of water at the bottom. Thankfully, though the trees that encroached from the sides and above that lined the narrow dirt and gravel road made it hard to see the upcoming turns, the few that Benny encountered on the lower part of the mountain were not hairpin like those near the top. The Wagon did take a beating from the brush and low-hanging branches. Reaching the base of the mountain, the extent of the damage to the Wagon’s roof and flanks still a mystery, Benny steered left onto another red-dirt road that paralleled a nearby straight stretch of U.S. 84 South. The unimproved road eventually spilled onto Circle Drive, which quickly merged with Camino Encantado, a paved and lined road that hugged the mountain’s west flank. From that point, Benny followed the lines Riker had drawn on a gas station map. It was the route the others always took when they ventured into Santa Fe to forage for food and fuel.

A short drive east took them through a sprawling subdivision full of finished and unfinished homes. Dead lawns fronting the former were host to real estate signs, the smiling agents adorning them more than likely all dead and gone. Heavy equipment and building supplies lay abandoned on the dusty streets and cul-de-sacs in front of the skeletal forms of half-built houses that would never be home to the living.

Looking longingly at a two-story house with a wraparound porch and nice stonework on the foundation, Rose said, “One day, when all these dead things die off for good, we can move down off the mountain. We’d have our pick. I could plant a garden. Dozer would have a yard to protect. We could start a family.”

“I don’t know,” Benny said. “I like the security Trinity offers. You really think we’ll live long enough to see the end of those things?”

“I have to believe we will … eventually.” She shuddered at the thought of the dead being a problem until she was old and gray. “It’s not like I’m talking about next week. Hopefully, by next summer there will be a large-scale fall-off. We still don’t know how a prolonged cold snap is going to affect them. I hope it shuts them down for good. For forever.”

We need to get today off our plate was what Benny was thinking when, as if on cue, he spotted a clutch of zombies loitering on a nearby cul-de-sac.

After cutting through the subdivision, the established route meandered east for a handful of miles. Now and again, to avoid little pockets of homes that had been inhabited before Romero, the line drawn on the map deviated sharply north and south for short spurts before resuming its continuous easterly tack. Arriving at Hyde Park Road, a paved two-lane riddled with tarred-over fissures, its dashed yellow centerline long overdue for a refresh, Benny stopped the War Wagon and set the parking brake.

He was grateful for the pause. All the winding turns and rising and falling they’d endured as they traversed miles of backroads had him feeling a bit nauseous. Soon, the War Wagon was going to need to have her shocks replaced. That much was clear.

“What are you doing?” Rose asked, a hint of concern in her tone. “Something wrong with this thing?”

“Just a precautionary stop,” Benny answered. So far, having avoided the more populated areas on the outskirts of town, they could tally their encounters with the walking dead on one hand. From listening to the others relive their trips into downtown Santa Fe, he knew that was about to change.

First, he glanced at the gauges. Although the outside temperature was in the mid-seventies, the needle on the water temperature gauge remained in good territory. The fuel gauge showed the tank was still close to full.

Finished scanning the countryside close in with his naked eye, Benny said, “Give it a look with the binoculars, please.”

Rose picked up the Bushnell binoculars and scanned the road ahead. “Looks to be clear all the way to the bend in the road. What’s that? A mile or so ahead of us, right?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “I remember Vern saying it’s smooth sailing until you get to the center of town. Which is where we’re going.” He made gimme hands at her. “I want to see the downtown skyline. This is an elevated position. Better to get a feel of what we’re getting into from up here before we’re down there and in the thick of it.”

She handed him the binoculars.

He pressed them to his face and spent a minute or two scanning the distant horizon. Although he couldn’t make out much of the smaller details from what he guessed was about five or six miles out, he did see a plume of smoke roiling the air. Something was burning on Santa Fe’s west side. Tensing his arm muscles and locking his elbows, along with holding his breath, helped to cut down on the shake, which allowed him to pick up something moving in the middle distance, in the center of the parking lot of a large shopping complex. Even though it was hard to believe, he was seeing his first zombie mega herd. They were in total sync with one another, trudging slowly counterclockwise around the lot’s periphery. If it was the sprawling mall they’d passed by coming into town the first time weeks ago, even trying to guess the number of zombies it would take to fill its parking lot made his head hurt. Five to ten thousand seemed reasonable.

“We’ll need to stay clear of the mall and keep out of sight of the herd. When we get by it, I’m going find a way to get us back to heading west.”

Taking the binoculars from him, she said, “I’ll be your eyes, Sistek.”

Benny released the brake and steered onto Hyde. Hyde was clear for the first two and a half miles, all the way to where it jogged left and became Bishops Lodge Road. From there on out, Benny wished he were driving something other than the monstrous RV. As they passed through a small neighborhood, driving with two wheels on the sidewalk to avoid piles of tangled corpses or stalled cars became the exception to the norm.

Soon, Bishops Lodge Road became Federal Way, which jogged and changed names a couple of times before becoming Cerillo Road, a wide boulevard that cut through the heart of downtown Santa Fe. The mall of the dead was behind them; still, nothing Benny saw led him to believe they could let their guard down.

They were closing on the X marked on the map when Benny noticed the Jersey barriers and dust-covered cars blocking the cross streets. He was beginning to think that they were driving into an ambush manned by bandits when biters began spilling from a narrow alley a block or so distant. At first, it looked as if the numbers would be manageable. However, in just a matter of seconds, a crowd of fifty or so had amassed on the road, the ones in the back pushing and jostling to break from the alley’s mouth. And just when Benny thought he had seen the last of it, the lead element of a second herd burst from the alley directly across the street. As the merging herds reacted to the big metal intruder, raising pustule-riddled arms and fanning out across the road, a few Bolts broke from the ranks and launched into the head-down sprint that gave them their name.

Benny knew straight away that he needed to make a split-second decision: either drive through them or stop and try to reverse out of what he had heard Lee call a kill box. Both options had their own risk attached. He figured if he tried to reverse away and he screwed up and managed to get the War Wagon hung up on the cars and Jersey barriers, in no time there would be so many dead surrounding it that it would become stuck and end up being a tomb for them. If he went with the latter, tromping the pedal and relying on the vehicle’s sheer mass to pulverize the zombies, there was a good chance of either getting high-centered or that something mechanical could fail and sooner or later, somewhere down the road, the damage wrought would force them to abandon the stricken vehicle and have to run for their lives.

Not much of a runner, he decided to go with the latter, but instead of crashing through the herd like a Brunswick bowling ball against already wobbly pins, he opted for the slow and steady approach. Hell, it worked for the tortoise.

Slowing the RV to walking speed, Benny told Rose what to expect when they made contact. He advised her to close her eyes, to which she immediately balked, positing that if he was going to have to stare them in the face, then so was she.

“You sure about this thing getting through that?” she asked. “There’s got to be a couple hundred of them.”

“All the electronic gear in the back probably adds another two or three tons to this thing’s gross vehicle weight.” He was also factoring into the equation that the rolling command post was designed so that the people assigned to Lazarus who managed to survive an all-out nuclear exchange would be able to venture out and become an essential component in the nation’s elaborate continuation of government doctrine. Therefore, he trusted the early versions of run-flat tires wrapping the rig’s ten steel rims to not fail. Since DARPA or one of their offshoots created the tires, and they had withstood the march of time up to this point, he reasoned they would survive the looming encounter with the marching dead. Tightening his grip on the steering wheel, he took a deep breath. “They’re no match for this beast,” he said. “Don’t worry, honey.”

“If you say so, Benny.” Then, as if she didn’t believe his promise, let alone her own verbal affirmation of his optimism, she tightened her seatbelt, grabbed the oh-shit handle over her head, and further braced herself by planting the other hand on the near-vertical dash to her fore.

The first of the herd to meet the War Wagon’s slab front end fell away left and right like so many bowling pins. A few got sucked under the RV’s front end, the sharp reports of bones snapping and the pulpy-sounding pops of skulls imploding impossible to ignore. As the pushback from the mass of former living human beings became more noticeable, the RV bucking, its rear-mounted engine bogging down and emitting an unnatural whine, Benny imagined he was piloting an icebreaker through pack ice comprised of flesh and bone. Enduring the famished stares of the zombies while their hands landed meaty thuds on the window glass had Benny and Rose both leaning away from the points of attack. Their trek west from Indiana had been harrowing, but nothing they’d encountered was on par with this. It was one thing being on a ladder behind a wall at Trinity with multiple routes of egress should something go wrong; it was a whole different metric being out here in the wild with the very real possibility of becoming trapped inside a vehicle with questionable mechanical reliability. With the communication gear and air-scrubbing paraphernalia crowding the RV’s sloped roof, should they become mired, cutting through the roof’s thin skin to affect an emergency egress, while possible in theory, wasn’t going to happen without the right tools.

Rose covered her ears against the thuds and scraping of nails on glass occurring just inches away but kept her eyes wide open. “I don’t know how in the hell Lee and the others deal with this on a continuing basis,” she bellowed. “It’s maddening.”

Benny could take the sonic assault. It was the stench of those things that always got to him. It made his eyes water and his throat hurt. Which was why he was grateful the War Wagon was hermetically sealed. The roof-mounted apparatus meant to scrub and recirculate the air inside the cabin seemed to be working as intended. If it had been damaged by low-hanging branches as they were coming down off the mountain, the air they were breathing would already smell like those things out there.

Rose shook her head. “I can’t take much more of this. How far until we reach our destination?”

“Just a few more blocks,” he reassured her. “Better to be hearing the banging on the outside than smelling death on the inside.”

If Rose had heard the second part, she didn’t let on. Her gaze was locked on one of the Bolts. It had turned the corner from the alley when Benny was telling her what to expect. It looked like it had lived at 24 Hour Fitness before all of this. It was pale and wearing khakis and a polo-style shirt, but the way its muscles rippled when it moved convinced her it had been into bodybuilding or maybe extreme martial arts prior to having suffered the bite wounds that had delivered saliva rife with a little virus that no amount of healthy living and physical fitness was a barrier to.

With the deftness of a cheetah, the zombie she had nicknamed Hans—on account it reminded her of the larger of the fictional bodybuilding duo Hans and Franz made popular by a Saturday Night Live skit—swam through the crush, stepped on the back of a fallen zombie, then was out of the pack and sprinting across open ground. It was a dozen feet from her side of the windshield, with a full head of steam built up, when an orange traffic barrel rolled into its path, tripping it up and sending it flying, arms outstretched, like Pete Rose stealing home.

Hans made no attempt to break his fall. Meeting the blacktop face first knocked the front teeth from his gaping maw. With so much energy pent up, the impact was not sufficient to halt its forward movement. Rose maintained eye contact with the creature until it was out of sight underneath the RV. The sickening crunch that followed started a tickle in her throat that she knew was the precursor to her losing her cookies.

As she searched the glove box for something, anything, to spare her the indignity of spewing partially digested breakfast on the dash and windshield, an event which would lead to the unenviable task of cleaning up after herself, she felt the tickle of saliva in her throat and the first acidic tinge that told her there was no stopping what was coming.

The torrent of vomit, thick with yellow bile, hit the windshield head-high to her and began a slow, steady slide toward the dash and long row of heater vents aligned with the near vertical slab of ballistic glass. If any chunks did get in there, the stench would be no better than the reek of carrion outside.

Having already shed the fleece, Rose tore off her flannel. Before she could cover the vents with it, Benny was telling her they were through the worst of the herd and not to worry about the window because it wasn’t hindering his ability to see out the windshield. “We’re almost there,” he continued. “Get the binoculars and start scanning the road on the right. Those things will follow us. Which means we’re not going to have very much time to get the job done.”

Multitasking, Rose wiped the windshield off with her shirt with one hand, pressed the binoculars to her face with the other, and began to scan the road ahead for 2515 Camino Entrada. With no way to dispose of the rank-smelling shirt, she dropped it blindly to the floor, where it landed on her ASICS. Sitting there with just her bra on up top, she walked her gaze along the business concerns, noting the addresses of each. Jumping from the fire-ravaged chain motel on the nearby corner to Santa Fe Fire Department Station 9 directly across the street from it, she thought it strange that the firehouse’s rollup doors were wide open and there were no personnel or emergency response vehicles inside or out.

South of the fire department was two blocks of off-street parking. All Rose spotted on the twin swaths of asphalt crisscrossed with faded white lines were a couple of compact cars and the corpses of people she suspected were set upon by packs of roaming zombies and thus no longer retained the muscles and sinew that made rising after reanimation possible. She shuddered at the thought of the hunger-filled eyes in those darkened sockets following the RV as it lumbered by.

After a picket of skeletal trees passed in front of Rose’s view, she spotted the place they were looking for. It was only a block distant, so she put down the binoculars.

“I think that’s it,” Benny said, slowing the RV to a crawl.

“It is,” she confirmed. “Not a lot to it. Station 9 is much bigger.”

They were looking at a mostly windowless cube-shaped building with a flat roof and little curb appeal. The front entrance was a smaller cube with a wheelchair ramp and a short stack of cement stairs, both ending at a recessed landing cluttered with an accumulation of leaves and trash. Plywood sheets covered the double doors, which looked to be ajar. A big padlock secured a length of chain wrapping the door handles.

Atop the flagpole out front was an American flag. Below it, also hanging limply, was the flag of New Mexico. On the top corner of the larger cube, the red and blue letters standing out starkly against the pale-yellow south-facing wall, was a sign that read Santa Fe Police Department. The lots surrounding the building were mostly empty. No cruisers in sight. Behind the building, its squared-off rear end and ladder assembly impossible to miss, was a Santa Fe fire truck.

Benny pulled the War Wagon to the curb, also strangely devoid of vehicles. A quick glance at the wing mirror told him the zombie herd was still half a dozen blocks away. He figured they had five or so minutes until they would once again pose a threat.

Benny said, “While it goes against every rule in the book, Lee wants us to honk to get their attention.” He pressed down on the plastic cap in the center of the steering wheel. Nothing. Pissed he hadn’t taken the time to confirm the War Wagon had a horn, which he thought was a safety item mandated by law, he let his gaze roam the dash. There were tons of switches—none of them labeled HORN. Feeling eyes on him, he looked to his right and saw Rose shooting him a questioning look.

“Well?” she said.

Benny shrugged. “It doesn’t have a horn.”

“And we don’t have a bullhorn. What do we do now?”

Benny did the only thing he could think of: he shifted the transmission into Neutral and stabbed the gas pedal to get the engine running at high RPMs. He did this a couple of times, then let it go back to idling.

Rose said, “The chain is moving.”

The doors heaved outward. With the slack in the chain taken up, the vertical gap between the doors increased to about six inches. Just wide enough for a human arm to fit through. And one did. It didn’t take a pair of binoculars to see that the arm belonged to a zombie. It was pale and thin. The forearm pronated and the claw-like hand probed the outside of the door, slapping and scratching the plywood before finally grabbing hold of the padlock and pulling it through the vertical seam. A couple of seconds later the padlock reappeared, swinging freely like a pendulum. It was still moving when the chain again stretched tight, drawing the padlock back up to the handles as the doors parted in the middle. But instead of the arm reappearing, a pasty white face filled up the gap.

“Nobody home but dead people,” Rose said glumly. She refolded the gas station map so west Santa Fe was front and center, then set it flat on her lap. After tracing a squiggle heading west, her finger took a right and followed a mostly straight tack north. “Looks like we’ve got a bit of a drive ahead of us to get to the alternate location.” As the RV started to roll forward, she tapped the map. “It’s a long way from home. They better damn well be there.”

 

Chapter 24

 

Holyrood, Kansas was a bust. The residents had formed a collective and were not welcoming at all. Groot had stopped the Ram three times so Sloane could start a dialogue in hopes of getting someone to give them fuel. Each attempt to communicate with the armed citizens who had set up checkpoints at all avenues branching off US-56 garnered the same message delivered differently. They ranged from a simple wave-off complete with wagging heads to people pointing pistols at her face and yelling “No gas!” or “Go away!” One group a dozen strong had even set up a pair of canopies on the side of the road at the far edge of town. Even before Sloane could run down her window, people in lawn chairs were throwing up middle fingers while others who were standing with rifles shouldered simply tracked the Ram with the muzzles, lowering them only when the interlopers had bypassed the sign demarking Holyrood’s city limit.

The Ram’s tank must have contained more than Groot thought when Sloane added the fuel taken from the car lot in Ellsworth. As they traveled south by west, across a part of Kansas flat as a griddle, Groot had tried his best to drive like a grandma. From Ellsworth to Great Bend, Kansas, the only traffic they saw was moving north. And it was sparse, half a dozen vehicles total, all of them loaded down with belongings. People escaping Dodge City? Whatever the case, at the time, Groot saw it as anything but a good sign.

The Fuel Gods were in their corner just outside of Great Bend, Kansas, where they found a car carrier trailer abandoned on the side of the road. The driver had disconnected the tractor and left behind the trailer and its full load of cars. The four import sedans on the trailer’s bottom level had empty tanks. The tanks of the four midsize pickups on the top level all contained between five and ten gallons. Working together, it had taken the three of them less than half an hour to access each tank, siphon the fuel into the pair of small cans, and transfer it to the Ram’s tank. When they skirted Great Bend to the south, the Ram’s tank was topped up and they had a little more than three gallons in reserve.

Now, four hours after leaving the fools in the crossover SUV languishing in the golf course bunker back in Ellsworth, the Ram’s navigation system was showing the Kansas/Oklahoma state line was four miles distant, just over a sparsely treed horizon already awash in the warm glow of the mid-afternoon sun.

They were two miles from the state line, according to the digital map on the in-dash screen when Route 56 took a shallow turn south and the airport came into view. It looked deserted; not very many planes on the tarmac. The reason was evident once the Ram came broadside to the main fence surrounding the airport. To keep planes full of people fleeing the major population centers, someone had parked emergency vehicles at staggered intervals on the runways.

As a sign declaring Elkhart, Kansas, population 1,888 blipped by on the right, Sloane said, “I saw on the news that they blocked the runways at Logan, LaGuardia, Newark, O’Hare … all the big international hubs. Look how well that worked out.”

Chance said, “The airline canceled our flight home days before we were set to fly out. It was one of the last texts my dad got before he left the motel to get that cheesesteak. I think he was really going out to find supplies and a car.” He pinched the bridge of his nose. “Guess I’ll never find out.”

“O’Hare was a shit show,” Groot said. “They had a big jumbo come down on the wrong runway. It landed on top of a smaller business jet. Last numbers I saw put the combined manifest north of two hundred. There were no survivors.”

“I always hated flying,” Sloane said as they got to Elkhart. Changing the subject, she added, “Just another blink-and-you-miss-it town in a long string of them. On the bright side, we should be at the state line in a couple of minutes.”

The highway went straight through southeast Elkhart. The town was just a handful of blocks end to end and populated by the usual business concerns: a couple of fast-food joints, a Southwest-themed motel, a police station minus the police cruisers, and an honest-to-God Pizza Hut complete with the angular red roof and slits for windows, the smoked glass mostly intact.

Leaving Elkhart, they spotted a small herd heading south. There were close to fifty of them, all strung out along a couple of hundred yards of the right lane. A small group of them had strayed beyond the shoulder and were laboring to walk in the knee-high grass.

The last of the dead things had been out of sight for less than a minute when they all saw what awaited them at the crossing. It wasn’t good. Groot’s first instinct was to run. Eyes flicking to the left, he saw that there was no access to the inner median because of thick cables strung up parallel to the highway. They were meant to arrest an out-of-control vehicle before it could venture into the opposing lanes and cause a head-on crash. It was also detrimental to him accessing the northbound lanes so he could find them a way around the formidable roadblock quickly filling up the windshield.

Groot said to Chance, “Keep the rifle out of sight. And you better hide my wallet.” To Sloane, he said, “They’re going to be on your side when we stop. Keep your hands where they can see them. Just be calm and let them do the talking.”

“You’re not going to turn around and get us the fuck out of here?” She scooped up the binoculars and glassed the roadblock. “Those tanks can’t be faster than this truck. We can get away from here and go around.”

“That was my first thought.” Groot gestured at the crash barrier. “No way to. They picked a good place to stand up their roadblock.”

“Those aren’t tanks,” Chance corrected. “Those are MRAPs. Stands for mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicle. They’re armored personal carriers. The other ones are Humvees. Only two of them have guns. See those turrets up top of the MRAPs? They’re a bit like the one on the rig Groot was driving. Only those need a person in the turret and the guns are smaller caliber.”

A man with a rifle stepped from behind one of the MRAPs. He was in his mid-twenties and dressed in civilian attire. On his head was a John Deere ball cap. Groot thought the man’s fledgling beard, when combined with the blue jeans and thermal underwear top, made him look more like a Special Forces guy than a weekend warrior. The markings on the vehicles and the type of weapon he was holding, just your basic M4 (nothing exotic about it), drove him to believe the latter. He figured the absence of a central command for the United States armed forces was the reason for the lack of a proper Guard uniform. That there wasn’t a column of Jersey or Hesco barriers set up to offer protection against a ramming attack pointed to a lack of discipline. No SF guy worth his salt would allow an unknown vehicle to roll up so close to his assets.

Seeing the man in the Deere hat signal for him to pull over, Groot steered toward the right shoulder and parked alongside one of the Humvees. At once, he saw the identifying markings stenciled on the desert-tan vehicle’s flank. Oklahoma Army National Guard. He couldn’t remember where they garrisoned, but he was certain it was not in Kansas.

Speaking in a near whisper, he said, “If they ask about the bullet holes in the back window, just say we were ambushed in Ellsworth.”

As Deere Hat motioned for Sloane to roll her window down, a similarly attired middle-aged woman and a baby-faced twenty-something male wearing a North Face vest over a Nirvana tee shirt appeared from behind the Humvee. Both were carrying M4 carbines. Strapped to the woman’s right thigh in a drop-leg holster worn over MultiCam camouflage pants was a black pistol. Her choice of hat, a black Stetson with a hat band inlaid with turquoise and silver, struck Groot as odd. Then again, if the deeply tanned woman hailed from Oklahoma, she could very well be Native American. That the hair showing from under the Stetson was black as a raven’s eye further bolstered his assumption.

While Sloane ran her window down, the woman soldier—if that’s what she really was—waved Deere Hat aside and approached the Ram. She had a certain swagger. It was clear she was comfortable in the presence of the armed men. With a tip of the hat, she said, “Where we heading today, ma’am?”

After a moment’s hesitation, Sloane said, “Las Vegas.”

The woman shook her head. “I would not advise that. Where you coming from?”

“Iowa.”

“Your accent begs to differ.” She paused, thinking. “You say you’re from Iowa. You sound like a Yank. Yet you got this rig from a dealership in Missouri?” She gripped her chin with one hand.

Sloane shrugged. “We needed wheels. I’m originally from Boston. Hence the accent.”

“And the kid?”

Chance leaned forward in his seat. “I’m Sloane’s friend. And I’m not a kid, lady. I’m almost eighteen.”

“Friend with a Virginia twang. How’s that work?”

“We met in Philadelphia where …” Chance choked up for a moment. Continuing, he said, “I lost my father. Literally lost him. He went out and didn’t come back.”

“Sounds like Oklahoma City,” said the woman. “Shit went sideways faster than a prairie fire with a tailwind.” She let her M4 hang from its sling. Bending at the waist, she braced both gloved hands atop her knees and stared across the cab at Groot. “What’s your name and story, big fella?”

Keeping both hands on the steering wheel, Groot said, “Just searching for a loved one. Met up with these two in Pleasant Hill a couple of days back.” He shifted his gaze to the two men. They were standing silently, M4s at a low ready, their gazes locked on him.

Getting to the point Groot figured was coming, Hat Band said, “You all bandits? Doing some robbing and stealing across the country?” She gestured at the rear window. “Got a bit, did you?”

Sloane shook her head. She removed her sunglasses and stared the woman directly in the eyes. “It’s the total opposite of that. We’ve been on the run from bandits. They attacked us for no reason at all.” The last part was a lie. She figured how and where they got their fuel did not fit the definition of bandit and was none of the woman’s business.

Hat Band said, “Something isn’t adding up. Stretch there is all dressed up like he’s Amish but talks like he’s Heinz 57. And here I thought the Amish were pacifists. What’s an Amish doing with an M4 and military issue rucksack?”

“Me and Sloane took them from a roadblock outside of Toledo,” Chance lied. “All we had for protection until then was a sledgehammer—”

Hat Band put a hand up, silencing Chance. She regarded Sloane. “What’s your name?”

“Sloane.”

“That’s what I thought the kid said.” She motioned the two men over. When they formed up next to her, Deere Hat said, “We’ve got Zulus enroute, ma’am,” and pointed east. “Looks like two dozen … at least.”

“They can wait,” said the woman. She pointed at Sloane, then looked at the soldiers flanking her. “Do you two know who this is?”

Deere Hat caught on first. “Hell, yeah, I know who she is.” His hand went into his pocket. He pulled out an iPhone and powered it on.

“Fuckin’ A,” said the other soldier. “Sloane The Stone Drake in the flesh.”

Hat Band smiled. It was the smile of someone who had just won the lottery. She said, “Get out here, Stone. Been a fan for a long time. Even tried my hand at some Brazilian Jujitsu a few years back. In my early thirties, when I was still limber. You, ma’am, are an inspiration to me.” After calling over a group of soldiers within earshot and mustering three more who had been out of sight behind the MRAPs, Hat Band ordered them to deal with the approaching zombies. Once the hastily assembled squad was on the move, she pulled out a smartphone of her own. “I gotta have a selfie of me and you. This Romero thing is going to be over one day. When it is, I’m going to write about it. Gonna put the picture inside my book.”

“I got it for you, ma’am,” said the soldier in the North Face vest. He took the phone and herded them around to the rear of the Ram and positioned them side by side on the road so the approaching zombies were visible in the background. As he snapped the pictures, gunfire rang out down the road. It was a sustained volley followed by a smattering of single shots. While the photo session kicked into high gear, with Guard soldiers arriving from all points of the compass with their phones in hand, somewhere out of sight the distinct sound of a jet turbine firing overrode the excited chatter of people reveling in the moment, people being taken away from the day-to-day drudgery of surviving in a world turned on its head. The steady thwop of rotor blades beating the air into submission joined the whine of the turbine. As the soldiers surrounded the UFC superstar, in the background, a lone Black Hawk launched from the road. It gained a couple of hundred feet of altitude, then went nose down and thundered off to the southwest, toward New Mexico.

“Good job ad-libbing,” Groot said to Chance. They had been sitting silently in the Ram and marveling at the celebrity phenomenon taking place on the road behind them. It was quite surreal. Like being in a war zone and having the world brought to you.

Chance swiveled around to face Groot. “I don’t like to lie, but I had no choice. I didn’t want them to start grilling you.”

Groot said nothing at first. He was staring at the opposite wing mirror. Watching the commotion die down. When the soldiers filed away, leaving Sloane alone with the original three, he said, “I owe you one, Chance. And I’m sorry I initially had doubts about you and your abilities. You’re a stand-up guy.”

The passenger door opened, and Sloane climbed aboard. In her hand was a sheet of paper.

Groot said, “Well? What’s next?”

“We’re free to go.”

“Just like that?”

Before she could reply, Chance was inquiring about the paper. “What’s that?” he asked.

“Las Vegas is a no-go zone,” she said in a melancholy voice. “That’s not the only place the Air Force nuked. This”—she shook the paper—“is a list of places we must avoid.”

Chance asked, “Who is that lady?”

“That’s Mary Falling Leaf,” Sloane replied. “She is the governor of Oklahoma. At least she was three days ago. She’s also retired Army. A full bird colonel when she got out. The Army dragged her back in because of catastrophic losses back East. She’s one of the good guys. Those Iowa Guardsmen who clashed with the civilians at the Missouri state line were not. They strayed from their duty and had already broken their oath multiple times before that skirmish broke out. Now, because of the Ronin Protocol, Falling Leaf was promoted to regional commander of FEMA Zone 6 by default. And thanks to me being me, on the back of the map she gave us is your get-out-of-conscription-free card.”

Groot was still processing it all when Falling Leaf rapped on his window, causing him to start. When he ran the window down, she was staring down at him.

Unsure of what to say or do, Groot just stared back.

“You keep Sloane and the kid safe,” said the woman who was now responsible for the wellbeing of the survivors inhabiting five southwestern states. From a foot away, she appeared much older than his first assessment. She had to be closer to sixty than somewhere in her mid-forties as he had guessed earlier. Wrinkles near her mouth and pronounced crow’s feet suggested that, during good times, she was prone to smile. Her face was a roadmap of a life lived well.

“I will, ma’am. You have my word.”

“I hope I don’t one day come to regret this decision.” She went quiet for a spell. “You’ve made it this far,” she went on. “Tells me you’d be a good addition to the Sixth Zone Regulars, Amish garb notwithstanding.”

“Maybe I will be back,” he said truthfully. “If I don’t find what I’m looking for, and I can talk these two into it, chances are we will meet again.”

Falling Leaf stepped away from the Ram.

Groot started the motor and pulled away slowly. When he was out of earshot, he said, “That was close. I thought I was going to be back in a uniform and driving again.”

Sloane shook her head. “Nothing to worry about there. She said they don’t have uniforms. They ran out on day three. They had used up most of their ammunition shortly thereafter. Boy, that woman likes to talk.”

Chance said, “What’s our fuel situation? We going to get to where we’re going?”

Groot steered the Ram between another pair of MRAPs and accelerated briskly. With all that finally behind them and the state line coming up quick, he finally relaxed. “We have enough to get us across New Mexico,” he answered. “But we should still be on the lookout for opportunities to replenish.”

“Want one of us to drive?” Sloane asked.

“I’m good,” Groot lied. In fact, he was dead tired, and his shoulders and forearms ached from keeping a constant grip on the steering wheel. His ribs hurt like hell, more so when he laughed. Fortunately, nothing about their current situation was funny. Then there were the burns. They were itching like crazy. Soon, he would need to change the dressings. But right now, all of that would have to wait. They had to cross over the Oklahoma panhandle, and every mile he put behind them was one more mile closer to him finding the closure he had come searching for.

 

Chapter 25

 

The rain started falling a couple of miles west of Colorado City, Arizona. Heeding Chief Nance’s advice to avoid the Mormon fundamentalist stronghold located there, Riker began searching for a way to skirt the town. After a short detour through southwest Utah, as State Route 389 dipped back into Arizona, he had found what he was looking for. After tooling backroads with the wipers working furiously but barely keeping the windshield clear enough for him to navigate the collection of single lanes and dirt tracks jagging through the high desert, he got back on 389 and wheeled the Escalade eastbound through the Kaibab Indian Reservation, at just above the posted limit, with Lia in the passenger seat next to him glassing the road ahead.

Thirty miles east of Colorado City, the state route shot diagonally through the center of Fredonia, a small town near the Utah border with a posted population of 1,323. Fredonia appeared deserted, the black Escalade drawing zero attention from the living or dead as it sped through a downtown core home to abandoned vehicles, drifts of trash, and half-eaten corpses.

Just outside of Fredonia, 389 became US 89A. Designated Fredonia-Vermilion Cliffs Scenic Road, 89A tooled south by east through rocky high-desert terrain dotted with scrub brush and gnarled juniper trees. As the two-lane climbed from the desert floor toward Jacob Lake, gaining just north of six thousand feet, evidence of the snow they had encountered on their way west lingered under trees and on corners of the road that had been in perpetual shadow.

The Escalade traversed the patches of slushy hardpack with ease. It wasn’t until they were a couple of miles from the summit, where Jacob Lake Inn sat at the junction with Grand Canyon Highway, that the temperature plunged below freezing and every little icy patch had the big SUV trying to fishtail on Riker.

Steve-O said, “Put Elvira into four-wheel drive, Lee.”

“That’s what you decided to call her, eh,” Shorty interrupted. “Good one. I can see the resemblance. This girl has huuuuge headlights.”

Riker eased up on the accelerator and took the next corner well under the speed limit. “This rig is a city girl, Steve-O. She’s only two-wheel drive. Nothing like Dolly when it comes to off-roading and tackling snow. Unfortunately, the two wheels getting power happen to be the rear ones. That’s the worst for driving on snow.”

“Doesn’t make much sense having four-wheel drive in Vegas,” Vern commented. “I bet the valley floor rarely gets any measurable snow.”

Lia said, “Judging by the look of the trees on the upper part of the mountain, I’m afraid it’s going to get worse before it gets better.”

 

***

 

Five minutes later, half a mile or so before they were to reach the summit, Lia’s words rang true. Riker wheeled the newly christened Elvira around a corner and saw that not only were the trees wearing a coat of snow, but the road was as well. Two or three inches of it. And it was pristine. No tire tracks or discernable footprints. That he was able to keep the big SUV under control told him the snow was fresh. Unlike the hardpack in the shade on the mountain, the snow here hadn’t had the time to partially melt and freeze again overnight. Easing off the pedal, he switched on the headlights and drove cautiously the rest of the way to the summit.

 

Jacob Lake didn’t look much different arriving from the west than it had four days ago when they had come over the pass from the east. The namesake inn was situated on a couple of acres cleared out of a dense forest of fir, spruce, and aspen. The inn was rustic, to say the least. It was clad in hewn-wood siding and featured a recessed entry paneled with pale pine. Blood-streaked sheets of plywood covered the ground-floor windows. Columns of stacked river rocks flanked the wide pine door. The steeply pitched roof was white with snow. The attached restaurant was more of the same, its windows also boarded over.

It was immediately apparent to Riker that things had changed since they were here last. There was a silver Mercedes-Benz AMG G 63 SUV nosed in between two cars parked in a long row of them clogging the gas station lot north of the restaurant. It wasn’t here the first time they came through. Riker would have pointed out the two-hundred-thousand-dollar vehicle to anyone who would listen.

The boxy G-Wagen was also the only vehicle around not wearing a thick layer of days-old snow. Instead, smeared dried blood and a constellation of bloody handprints marred the side windows and left side rear quarter panel. Two of the SUV’s left-side doors as well as the large rear door were wide open. Pieces of matching Louis Vuitton luggage, clothing spilling from one of them, were on the ground behind the SUV.

As Riker wheeled the Escalade onto the narrow access road and steered toward the G-Wagen, he thought he saw something moving up front. When the headlights finally washed the SUV’s all-black interior, he learned that the movement that had drawn his eye was the upper half of a zombie. It was shirtless, a roadmap of lacerations and dried blood covering the pale torso. He couldn’t see if there was significant damage to the front of the SUV but still concluded the wagon had struck the zombie, the zombie had gone airborne like undead Superman, then it had speared the front windshield and had become lodged there. He imagined the terrified driver trying to keep control of the vehicle while at the same time doing everything possible to avoid the thing’s flailing arms and gnashing teeth. At least one of those things had happened. Save for the spider-webbed windshield glass and the damage inflicted on the hood by the zombie’s constantly moving legs, the G-Wagen was undamaged.

The male zombie flailed its arms and arched its back to keep its head level so it could track the incoming vehicle as it rolled to a halt perpendicular to the G-Wagen’s square rear end.

“Someone didn’t look both ways at the crosswalk,” Shorty said in a sing-song voice.

“There’s another one in there,” Steve-O pointed out. “Looks like a woman zombie.”

Riker let his foot off the brake and allowed the idling engine to pull the Escalade forward until he could see what Steve-O was talking about. Sure enough, in the SUV’s passenger seat was a second zombie. Still belted in, arms upthrust, it was craning to see past the shredded headliner that had come down on its head. This new angle let Riker get eyes on the front of the G-Wagen. The damage to the grille was major and confirmed his hypothesis.

Lia had been scanning the area through the binoculars as they rolled onto the access road. Focusing on the forest beyond the inn, she said, “There’s more of those things in the trees. Seven or eight of them milling around the cabins and RVs parked back there.” She gasped. Then her body began to tremble. Unable to keep the binoculars trained on whatever was troubling her, she pulled them away from her eyes.

“What is it?” Tara asked. “What do you see?”

Staring at Lia and trying to coax a response from her, Riker killed the engine and snatched the SIG Legion from the center console.

Finally, after about a three-second lapse, Lia said, “I saw a little girl in a tree.”

“How little?” Shorty asked. “Like a toddler?”

“No,” Lia replied, shaking her head back and forth. “She looks to be about Dena and Diana’s age. Five or six. Those Goddamn monsters are surrounding the tree she’s in. And all she has on a nightgown. If I can see my breath in here, I know she’s got to be freezing out there.”

“And terrified,” said Steve-O. “I would be.” He gripped the headrest on Vern’s seat and shook it. “We better get out there and help her.”

As Riker elbowed open his door, he heard a soft squelching sound. It was growing louder. Which meant the culprit was drawing nearer. When his door finally hit the stop, he noticed a flash of movement in the wing mirror. Whatever it was, it was coming at him fast, from the left. Just as he was turning to face the threat, SIG in hand and arcing around right to left, the passenger door flew open, nearly hitting him in the face. Sandwiched between the two doors and unable to get a shot off, he was witness to a twenty-something male zombie running head-on into Vern. It had happened just as the much smaller man was setting foot on the snow-covered ground.

Vern cried out in pain as a couple of hundred pounds of undead muscle and sinew in full locomotion slammed into his left side and drove him forward, into the open door, where he went oof and crashed vertically to the road. The Bolt had caught him completely by surprise. The man didn’t so much as flinch before the hit. Nor did he brace afterward to lessen the impact. If it hadn’t been for the passenger door, Riker was certain he would have ended up on the ground with them.

As he crabbed past the passenger door, SIG in a two-handed grip and tracking with his gaze, he heard a pair of hollow pops and saw chunks of brain matter and tiny flecks of hair-covered skull rain down on the snow to his fore. The debris field began at the door’s edge and ended a yard or so to Riker’s right. That there was little blood told him Vern was not the one who had been headshot. When he peered around the door, his gaze dropping automatically to the tangled bodies, he saw that Vern had settled face down just outside the door’s sweep. The halo of blood darkening the snow around his face was growing larger by the second.

“I got it,” Steve-O exclaimed, gun smoke still twining from the SIG Mosquito’s stunted muzzle. “Two to the head.”

“Vern’s bleeding!” Riker bellowed. Dropping to his knees, he rolled the man over to see where it was coming from. One look at the man’s neck, where a hunk of flesh had been torn away, put Riker’s stomach in a freefall. Blood, hot and sticky, was bubbling forth from the wound. While the loss of blood had not yet risen to the level of it being life-threatening, Riker was certain that the Romero virus had entered Vern’s bloodstream. He was infected. No two ways about it. The bite’s location, three or four inches above the right collarbone, guaranteed there was no coming back from it.

Steve-O sat down hard on the captain’s chair Vern had just vacated. “It was my fault Vern is hurt. I told him to get out.” He dropped the Mosquito to the floor and buried his face in his hands, sobbing.

Riker called out to Lia, telling her to toss him the blowout kit so he could treat the wound.

Coming around from having his bell rung, Vern raised his head off the ground and grabbed ahold of Riker’s shirt, his eyes dazed. Grimacing, he said, “Let me bleed out. I want to go be with Shane.” He stared intently into Riker’s eyes. “Do not let me come back as one of them. That’s all I ask.”

Waving off the medical kit, Riker nodded. “I’ll respect our pact, Vern. I’m sorry I didn’t see the thing in time to put it down. It came up so fast.” He looked toward the highway. “Must have come out of the trees over there.”

“I’m a big boy,” Vern said, his shirt now fully wet with blood. “Forget about me. You all better check on the little girl. Give her my seat.” A coughing fit wracked his body. Riker could see his pallor fading.

Tara was out and carrying an MP5. After looking down at Vern and saying a tearful goodbye, she told her brother she was going to save the girl.

A door on the other side of the Escalade opened. A tick later, it slammed shut, and Lia was curling around the front of the SUV. She dropped to her knees beside Vern and took his hands in hers. She had gotten there just in time. He smiled at her and thanked her for being such a good customer over the years. “Take care of your plants, Miss Amelia.”

Before Lia could respond, she saw his eyes roll into the back of his head and felt his hands release their tenuous hold on hers.

“He’s gone,” she said, tears rolling hot and fast down her cheeks. “Such a good man. Rest in peace, Vern Rossi.” She closed his lids and rose to her feet. “Wait for me,” she called ahead to Tara. “I’m coming.”

“Me, too,” said Steve-O, exiting the vehicle on the passenger’s side.

“That leaves me and you,” Shorty said to Riker. “You want me to do what needs doing?”

“No,” Riker said. “I made the man a promise. I intend on keeping it.” He nodded toward the others. “Shocky needs to eat. You better go with them.”

Shorty didn’t argue.

Riker stayed on his knees, waiting until he could no longer hear Shorty’s footfalls. Saying a prayer for Vern, he pulled the Randall from its leather sheath, took ahold of a shock of the man’s gray hair, then shoved the tempered steel blade through the upturned temple, pushing hard on the pommel to the sound of cracking bone. A quick twist of the wrist to scramble the brain punctuated the solemn act. Cleaning the blood and gray matter from the Randall, he sheathed it, drew his SIG, and rose from the ground. He had barely cleared the passenger door when he heard Lia scream. It was shrill and terror-filled. On the heels of that came an eruption of gunfire. It began with thunderclap-like booms of Shorty’s Shockwave discharging. During the lulls in between, Riker detected the barely audible slapping sound of the suppressed MP5 sub guns spitting subsonic lead. Steve-O was contributing, too. Mixed in there were the hollow pops of the little Mosquito.

No more than five seconds later, the guns fell silent. But the screaming didn’t let up. Only now, it wasn’t coming from Lia, nor was it Tara doing the screaming. Whether born from anger or fear, he would never mistake anyone else’s screams for his sister’s. That left only the little girl.

Just as Riker entered the forest, hurrying to see what had happened, a single gunshot rang out, silencing the screams. As he hustled along a beaten dirt path, making his way through the trees, the soft murmur of voices he recognized pulling him forward, he felt a cold ball forming in his gut.

The scene he came upon as he burst into the small clearing in the trees was like nothing he could have imagined. Not in a million years. Lia and Tara sitting on the forest floor, locked in an embrace and rocking slowly back and forth. In Lia’s hand was the Mosquito.

Shorty and Steve-O stood silently in the center of a ring of twice-dead zombies, their gazes directed at the tiny lifeless form hanging upside down, back against the tree trunk. Both bite-riddled arms were at gravity’s mercy, seeming to be reaching for the safety of terra firma the dead little girl would never again feel underneath her dainty bare feet.

Riker reconstructed in his head what he thought had happened. Seeing the group file into the clearing had excited the girl, causing her to lose her grip on the tree and pitch over backwards. Arrested midfall by her nightgown catching on the broken stub of a wrist-sized branch had left her dangling upside down, within reach of the zombies that had run her up the tree. The rest he didn’t want to think about. The damage to her face, neck, and chest was just too much to process. So he cast his gaze downward and moved to Lia’s side. Taking the pistol from her, he set it aside and then wrapped his arms around the two most important ladies in his life.

 

Chapter 26

 

After crossing over into Oklahoma, with the “get-out-of-conscription-free” note Falling Leaf had given him sitting on the dash, Groot had driven nonstop south by west, cutting diagonally through the Oklahoma Panhandle, seventy miles of US-56 that proved to be mostly clear of wrecks and sparsely populated by wandering zombies.

Nobody was guarding the state line with New Mexico. The same was true at the border with Texas, where US-56 briefly skirted the state’s northwest corner. Though the trees in the fields were casting long shadows, he drove with the lights off through Clayton, New Mexico, a town populated by less than three thousand souls prior to Romero. US-56 quickly choked down and became Main Street, which he stuck to as it cut through the first half of the downtown core. He saw a convoy of pickups sliding down a side street half a block north of Main, their load beds piled high with corpses. Two groups of people dressed in what looked like prison riot gear flanked the pickups. The dozen or so dismounts carried a mishmash of different weapons. He saw machetes and baseball bats. The majority of the dismounts carried black rifles, the muzzles on a constant sweep of the homes flanking the street.

Sloane said, “I’ve seen more of that kind of teamwork since we left Iowa than we did coming cross-country from Philly.”

“Everyone is a stranger to one another in the big cities,” Groot noted. “People in rural areas tend to know their neighbors. Goes a long way when you’re trying to reestablish order.” He shook his head. “I’m afraid the cities are gone. At least for now. If the virus burns out and the Zulus atrophy and decompose, one day we might retake the cities.”

“I want a mountain cabin,” Chance put in. “Lots of guns … and a mountain cabin.”

“Nothing stopping you,” Groot said, swerving the pickup to avoid a Ford Transit van buried to its front doors in the corner pharmacy.

US-56 resumed at the Clayton city limits. From there, it plunged south by west for twenty-three miles, all the way to the Pinabetes Creek crossing, where the highway straightened out and put them on what seemed like a collision course with the westering sun. For close to a hundred miles, through the small towns of Gladstone, Abbott, and Taylor Springs, everyone in the cab remained silent, content to just listen to the competing sounds of the Hemi under the hood and the hypnotic thrum of the tires on the highway.

Groot pulled to the side of 56 a mile south of Taylor Springs to let Sloane drive a leg. Dusk was descending on the countryside, cloaking a nearby farmhouse and barn in shadow. Nothing was moving save for a lone tumbleweed and a flock of swallows, the black amorphous mass dipping and diving and expanding and contracting, each movement dictated by the flock leader.

Fifty miles south of Taylor Springs, on the limit of Wagon Mound, Chance and Sloane switched seats.

Once Chance had the seat adjusted to his liking and was back to tooling south, Groot said, “Another hour or so of driving, we’ll have to find somewhere to top off our tanks.”

“It’ll be full dark by then,” Sloane noted. “We had better recon the place thoroughly before we stop. Last thing we need is another encounter with a bunch of Bubbas.”

Groot powered his seat back on the rails and then put on his seatbelt. “Agreed,” he said, press-checking his Beretta. “For one, we don’t have unlimited ammo. Second, sight lines out here are different than in Kansas where it’s flat. Someone with a little high-ground advantage will see us coming from miles out. Especially if the headlights are on. And before long, you’re going to be transitioning to the interstate. I highly recommend you drive for as long as you can before turning them on.”

Chance eased the Ram onto the highway and pressed the accelerator. In no time, he was matching the speed limit. “My eyesight is pretty good,” he said. “I’ll wait until I can barely see the lines before I switch them on.”

Settling into the backseat, using Groot’s rucksack as a pillow, Sloane said, “If you crash and kill me, Chance, I’m going to come back as a ghost and haunt you for the rest of your life.”

Groot suppressed a smile. “I trust your judgment, Chance.” He shut his eyes. “Wake me when you switch on your lights.”

 

***

 

Thirty minutes later, when Groot woke, night had fully embraced the New Mexican countryside. While everything had been awash in the red/orange glow of the setting sun when Groot closed his eyes, now the only details of his surroundings he could see were within the reach of the Ram’s headlights.

“Hey,” Chance said, startled to see Groot stir. “You weren’t asleep for long. I’m okay, man. You can go back to sleep. I don’t need a babysitter.”

Groot yawned and stretched. “Last thing I am is your babysitter, kid. A catnap is all that I needed. That’s the truth.” He looked over the seatback. Saw Sloane curled up in the fetal position. As if she were in the octagon and facing an opponent, she had balled both hands into fists and had them protecting her face. When Groot flicked his gaze forward, he saw at the distant edge of the light spill a pair of zombies. They were on the centerline, arms parallel with the road, mouths hinged open, the jaundiced whites of their eyes standing out starkly against their gray skin.

Chance backed off the accelerator, braked subtly, then slalomed the pickup around the pair. The maneuver was smooth. If there had been a hula girl on the dash, her hips wouldn’t have gotten a prolonged workout.

“Third time that’s happened since you let me drive,” Chance said. “First one was a near miss. I wasn’t looking far enough down the road.”

“I felt it. It was all I could do to keep my eyes closed,” Groot divulged. “You need to remember that sound travels a long way out here. The dead hunt by sight and sound. They no longer have the sense of smell. That’d make them even more efficient at killing us than they already are if they could smell campfires and smoke from chimneys and such. When they hear us coming at night, especially if engine noise is involved, they don’t have to look far before they lock onto us. The headlights are a dead giveaway. Pardon the pun.” He gestured at the right-side shoulder. “Go ahead and pull over. I’ll drive another leg.”

“You sure?”

“Positive.”

Chance eased the Ram to the side of the road. Everything out there, beyond the twin cones of light, was a mystery. It would be a different story once the moon finally rose.

Groot fished a tactical flashlight from his pack. He ran his window down, switched on the flashlight, and probed the darkness. Open range as far as the light could reach. Barbed wire fence in the middle distance. No zombies in sight.

Thirty seconds later, Chance was in the passenger seat and Groot was at the wheel. Both were shivering slightly.

“Cold out there,” Groot noted. “Wonder how it affects the Zulus.”

Chance zipped his jacket to his chin and put up the collar. “It doesn’t affect them much in the TV shows and movies.”

Activating the Ram’s high beams, Groot said, “Time will tell.” He looked over at Chance. The kid was still shivering. “I’m going to crank up the heat. Close your eyes and get some Zs.”

“Okay,” Chance said, reclining his seat and shutting his eyes. “Wake me when you find a place to siphon gas.”

 

Chapter 27

 

Lassiter and his men in the Oshkosh L-ATV, call sign Joker Five, waited ninety minutes down the road from the roadblock in Mesquite while the woman in the hazmat suit checked their vehicle for excess radiation. After the Oshkosh received a thorough rinsing off by the water tanker truck standing by, they received an escort to the east side of Mesquite by a golf cart full of armed deputies. There had been no diesel or food offered. Nobody said a word to them as they were led past the fully loaded dump trucks that had parted upon their approach.

Disregarding Chief Nance’s warning to skirt the fundamentalist enclave at Colorado City, First Sergeant Lassiter directed Washington to stick to 89A. “Drive straight through those backwards-ass fuckers,” were his exact words. Time was of the essence, he stressed. He didn’t voice his real fear: that if he let the anomaly slip away, gone was the promotion he was anticipating when the convoy finally reached Looking Glass.

Thirty miles southeast of Colorado City, the small town of Fredonia was a blur as the lone vehicle charged through the shuttered business district. Washington pushed the Oshkosh to her limits, only letting up when the drone operator out of Creech Air Force base, call sign Vader, announced that his Reaper’s newly repaired satellite uplink was “five by five” and that the refueled and rearmed bird was cruising at 250 knots and only five minutes out from Joker Five’s current position. Once Vader had a visual on the Oshkosh, he indicated he was confident it wouldn’t take him long to regain contact with the fleeing SUV.

Joker Five was one hundred and fifty miles from the Nevada border and climbing steadily toward Jacob Lake when Vader came over the radio to report he had just entered the airspace over Jacob Lake and had eyes on the SUV.

In the seat behind Washington, Airman King replied at once. “Vader. Joker Five Romeo. Good copy.”

“Joker Five Romeo. Vader. Stand by for coordinates and live video,” came the reply from the airman at Creech.

“Solid copy, Vader. Joker Five Romeo standing by.” Washington leaned forward. “How far to Jacob Lake?”

Consulting the Blue Force Tracker, Lassiter said, “Little over a klick. If they’re going to stop anywhere to stretch their legs between here and Navajo-controlled land, I’d bet the house that’s where they’ll choose to do it.”

“Agreed,” said King. “People got to piss. Me included.”

Fifteen miles east of Fredonia, the sky had gone from cobalt blue to steel gray. Now, a stone’s throw from the summit, Washington slowed considerably and toggled on the armored vehicle’s auxiliary driving lights.

Lassiter said, “I still can’t get over the look on the Mormon leader’s face when you flagged him with the Bravo. Old man went white as a sheet.”

“The kids lining the road shitting their pants when they saw it swing in their direction was priceless, too,” Washington put in. “I saw a few drop their rifles and run.”

“Yeah. That shit was funny,” added King, chuckling. “They scattered like a bunch of cock-a-roaches.”

A message coming over the radio interrupted the banter.

“Joker Five Romeo. Vader. Target vehicle is at the summit. I think they may be preparing to stop. I repeat … target vehicle is at the summit and appears to be preparing to stop. How copy?”

Washington radioed back that he copied, adding, “I’m having trouble seeing the target. Too much canopy clutter. Visual is intermittent. I need you to switch to thermal.”

“Stand by,” Vader replied. “Optics cycling over to white-hot.”

The switch from video to thermal was instantaneous. Instead of seeing intermittent flashes of the SUV’s black roof through the dark canopy, the display went from full color to grayscale, and the vehicle presented as dark gray, which made it easy to see as it tooled along the light gray snow-covered mountain road. The definition was superb. The hotspots—engine, exhaust pipe, and tires—presented as differing gradients of white and stood out significantly from the rest of the SUV. The main drawback was that thermal couldn’t pick up heat variations through glass. Which really wasn’t an issue because when the SUV eventually stopped, any personnel exiting the vehicle would immediately show up white hot against the cold snow.

“How long until sunset?” Lassiter asked Washington. “Your watch has that function, right?”

Yes, sir,” Washington said. “But it’s going to be a bitch to get at with these gloves on. King did a good tape job on the cuffs.”

Lassiter said, “We’re out of the radiation zone. Give me your arm.” He took his multitool from a pocket. Deploying the knife blade, he cut away the tape. Setting the tool aside, he stripped the glove from Washington’s hand. The man’s hand was hot to the touch. A sheen of sweat made it hard to hold on to. After stripping the Garmin Tactix from Washington’s wrist, Lassiter handed it back to King. Regarding Washington, Lassiter ordered him to walk King through the watch’s functions.

Cycling through the menus, King finally found the one labeled Sunrise/Sunset. “It shows we’ve got ninety minutes or so until sunset. After that, there should be ambient light for another twenty or thirty minutes.”

“Call it two hours,” Lassiter said. “Pull over here.”

“We’re still half a klick out,” Washington protested.

“Pull over,” Lassiter growled. “If they do stop and kill the engine, they’ll hear us coming. We’re outnumbered. The advantage of surprise is a force multiplier. We lose that”—he shook his head—“we may as well just wait for Joker Actual to get here.”

Washington steered to the right side of the two-lane and shut down the engine. “We’re supposed to wait for Joker Actual anyway. Those were his orders.”

“I’m calling an in-the-field audible,” Lassiter said. “If I get called to the carpet as a result, I’ll pull the fog of war card.”

King said, “When you were at Bagram, how many times did you go outside the wire?”

Lassiter said nothing. The red creeping up his neck did the talking for him.

Sensing he had treaded where he should not have, King backtracked. “What I’m saying, sir, is that Conk isn’t going to like it. That’s all.”

Washington said, “What now, Commander?”

Lassiter cycled from the Blue Force Tracker to a mirror image of the screen King was looking at in back. He saw that the SUV had come to a halt behind a row of cars. As he continued to stare at the screen, the driver’s side door opened, and he saw the driver’s heat signature. It filled up the entire doorway. Lassiter concluded it was the big dude with the prosthetic leg. Looked as if he was preparing to exit the vehicle. But before he could set foot on the ground, the left-side passenger door swung outward.

What happened next took Lassiter by surprise. Because the camera was zoomed in on the vehicle, drastically limiting the field of view, the vehicle filled up most of the screen. Which was why no one in the Oshkosh spotted the light gray human form rushing in from the left. It wasn’t until the passenger was already out of the vehicle and standing on the road that the other form entered the picture from the left, near the SUV’s left rear quarter panel. When the incoming form didn’t slow or deviate from its laser-straight course, it was clear what was about to happen. The form hit the disembarking passenger at full speed, knocking him or her flat. The thermal relayed little in the way of detail, but there was no confusing the flurry of motion that came next for anything other than what it was: a fast-moving Zulu ruining someone’s day. Lassiter had seen attacks like it more times than he could count. Early on, when Romero was still spreading from both coasts, he saw his first Zulu attack. Fremont Street in Las Vegas, under the gaudy lights and surrounded by the incessant din of inebriated people crowing about wins or lamenting losses, he heard a woman screaming. It was like nothing he had ever heard. The fast mover had appeared from out of nowhere. It was shirtless, the fresh blood of a previous victim on its chest. Going by the muscled physique and high and tight haircut, the young man could have been a frat boy or a member of the military before he died the first time. Muscles coiled and snarling like a feral dog, the thing had launched from the sidewalk not ten feet from Lassiter, bowled over a fifty-something loaded down with bags from a recent shopping spree, and had ripped her fucking throat out right in front of him. Teeth gnashing, hands encompassing the woman’s head, it buried its face into the gaping chasm and began to bite and rend away the soft jiggly flesh with a ferocity Lassiter hadn’t seen outside of a commercial promoting Discovery Channel’s Shark Week.

In no time at all, the flesh-eaters outnumbered the living on the Vegas Strip. The Las Vegas PD were suffering losses so staggering Lassiter didn’t believe what people were telling him until he was back at Nellis, and an MP confirmed it all. Ninety minutes later, the base was under total lockdown. By midnight, word was circulating that the president declaring martial law was imminent.

In the backseat, King had been glued to the display, watching everything playing out on the road somewhere close by. When he saw the driver step onto the road, he said, “That one’s huge. It’s got to be the Riker guy.” A beat later, when the passenger inadvertently stepped into the path of the fast mover, he went on, saying, “And that one is either the retard, the old man, or that loudmouth, Shorty.” Seeing the passenger go down and not get up, the Zulu clearly overpowering him, King refined his assessment, pegging the passenger down as definitely being the retard. “No fight in him,” he announced. “It’s like he just accepted he was a goner.”

“He was blindsided,” Washington put in. “None of us would be getting up after a hit like that.”

When Lassiter saw the telltale white flashes that indicated another passenger was shooting at the Zulu from within the SUV, he grabbed his M4 and started issuing orders. He shoved open his door and took a blast of cold mountain air to the face. While it felt good at first, it had no effect on his swollen right eye. The thing was still burning from the Vicks. Another thing he wouldn’t miss about being underground was the steady temperature. Neither hot nor cold suited him fine. For that reason, he was looking forward to making it to Looking Glass. Shivering, Lassiter took one last look at the display to see what was happening up the road. The passengers were now piling out of the SUV, three of them already stooped over the passenger bleeding out on the ground.

Lassiter looked at Washington. “First thing when we leave, I want you to top off our tank. We need to be ready to scoot as soon as the rest of the column gets here.” His thinking was that by not getting in the way of the other vehicles that might need to refuel from the accompanying fuel bowser, Conk would notice his ability to think ahead. And if he was successful in what he was setting out to do—force the escapees to surrender and apprehend them without firing a shot—only thing standing in the way of his promotion was getting the ink on the paper. Continuing, he added, “And stay off the radio, Washington. If anyone calls and asks, we’re radio silent because we’re probing ahead on foot. You are the QRF. If I call, I want you to be at the summit yesterday. Understood?”

Washington nodded. “What if the SUV gets underway again?”

“Then hop on the radio and let us know. Use your discernment, Washington.”

Twisting around in his seat, Lassiter looked at King. “I’m taking point,” he said. “Stay frosty and follow my lead.”

King nodded again. “Understood, sir.” As he exited the Oshkosh, he exchanged glances with Washington. There was apprehension on the driver’s face. King was feeling the same way. He only hoped it wasn’t showing on his face. If Lassiter sensed weakness, the short march to the summit was not going to be fun. It would be to the tune of a whole bunch of slights directed at him. Lassiter was a bully through and through.

Lassiter was out ahead of King, rounding the first corner, his M4 at the low ready position, when the distinct boom of a shotgun discharging shattered the still. Next came a seconds-long fusillade of gunfire.

They’re engaging Zulus. Good, Lassiter thought, picking up the pace. Let them burn through what little ammunition they have.

 

Chapter 28

 

Jacob Lake

 

Leaving Shorty, Tara, and Lia at the clearing with the bodies, Riker and Steve-O set off alone to look for a shovel so they could bury the girl. A quick search of a pair of outbuildings behind the restaurant turned up nothing. There wasn’t so much as a spade or garden hoe. Riker did find a folded tarpaulin. He dusted off the cobwebs and gave it to Steve-O to carry.

They moved on to the gas station, where Riker cleaned a portal out of the dirt and grime coating one of the rollup door’s rectangular windows. Peering inside, all he saw were automotive supplies and the usual tools one would find in a place that no doubt dealt with all kinds of driving-related emergencies year-round. What he didn’t see was a tool that he could use to quickly dig a shallow grave.

Steve-O said, “After Lia put the girl out of her misery, Shorty said something I didn’t understand. Everyone was sad and crying, so I didn’t ask him what he meant.”

Riker turned away from the rollup door. “What did he say?”

“That the girl looked like a meat piñata.” Steve-O cocked his head, waiting for an answer.

Riker drew in a deep breath. Exhaling, he said, “Shorty doesn’t have a filter. Which means sometimes he says things that are inappropriate for a certain situation. A piñata is usually an animal or object made from paper mâché. Piñatas were a popular thing at birthday parties and picnics when I was a kid. Parents fill it with candy and hang it in the air just high enough to make it hard for a blindfolded kid with a broomstick to reach it.” He paused, thinking. “I guess it’s more fun for the parents to watch their kids staggering around and swinging that stick, trying to break open a thing they can’t see, than it is for the kid. And when someone finally gets lucky and the piñata splits open and the candy spills out, the mad scramble by the kids to get to the candy is equally as amusing to the parents.”

Steve-O removed his Stetson. “I still don’t see how that’s funny. The monsters peeled the little girl’s face from her skull. It happened so fast that nobody could stop it.”

“Look at it this way,” Riker said. “Some of us go quiet and withdraw when something bad happens to someone else … even people we love.”

“Like Vern? I was quiet for him when we walked into the forest. I even said a prayer for him. I really hope he and Shane meet again.”

“That’s a good example. No doubt they will reunite in Heaven. That attack on Vern happened so fast. There was truly nothing any one of us could do to save him. And it wasn’t your fault, Steve-O. Vern was the kind of man who ran toward danger. He was a medic. It was his job for an entire tour of duty in the jungles of Vietnam. Medics are the bravest mofos on the battlefield. Putting their own life on the line to save that of another is a special kind of hero. That’s exactly what he was doing. He didn’t need your prompting to spring into action. In all honesty, what he did probably saved my life.

“As for Shorty,” Riker went on, “he uses morbid humor as a defense mechanism. He doesn’t mean anything bad by it. So don’t take it that way.”

“I won’t,” Steve-O promised. “And I’m sorry I shot the Bolt without asking.”

“Never be sorry for acting, Steve-O. You did the right thing. Most people, even after seeing walking corpses every day for weeks on end, would freeze up in that situation.” He dug into his pocket and came out with the Mosquito. He gave it a quick press check and then verified it was on “safe” before handing it over. “There’s one in the pipe. Safety is on. It’s yours from now on,” he said. “We’ll top off the magazine when we get going. Just don’t beat yourself up about not asking before you acted. Tara is right: you’re a grown-ass man, Steve-O. From here on out, I’ll treat you like one. You’re a valuable member of the group. Never forget it.”

Taking a couple of playful swings at his own chin, Steve-O replaced his hat on his head. “That’s the last time I’m going to beat myself up, Lee Riker. I promise.”

“Okay,” Riker said. “Now, let’s go find some rocks.”

“What do we need rocks for?”

“To stack on top of that little girl. It’s the least we can do. I think the one that bit Vern was her daddy. The one in the Mercedes is her mother. If I had a shovel, I’d bury them all together.”

“Why don’t we bury him under rocks, too?”

Riker looked all around. “I don’t think there are enough loose rocks to do the job.”

“Team … together everyone achieves more,” Steve-O said. “Marcy taught me that.”

“Marcy was a smart lady,” Riker said. “I guess if we all pitch in, we can find enough rocks to do the job. Hell, if we don’t hear back from Benny and Rose soon, we might be spending the night here. Driving off the mountain after the sun goes down is one thing. Approaching Navajo land in the dark and unannounced might get us all killed. The Navajo don’t mess around when it comes to protecting their territory.”

“Lots of monsters on this side of the crossing, too,” Steve-O pointed out. “And some of them might be hot with radiation.”

“Good point. Before I take the girl down from the tree, we should probably pass that Geiger counter over her. While we’re at it, we’d be wise to check ourselves for exposure.”

“I’ll go back to Elvira and get the Geiger counter.”

Riker clapped Steve-O on the shoulder. While he wanted to trust the man, give him more autonomy, they had already lost one of their own. There could be more where the Bolt came from. Instead of tempting fate, he said, “Team, Steve-O. Together everyone achieves more. I’ll go with you. I need to grab the satellite phone. And more rounds for your pistol. Wouldn’t hurt to break out the Motorola radios while we’re at it.”

“And the night vision goggles,” Steve-O added, rubbing his hands together. “It’s going to be dark soon.”

“Hopefully, we won’t be here that long,” Riker said, crossing his fingers and showing them to Steve-O. “If Benny and Rose completed their mission, and my overture was well received, we’ll be on the road within the hour.”

Steve-O patted the tarp trapped under his arm. “What’s this for, Lee?”

“It’s to wrap Vern’s body in.”

“We are taking him with us?”

“We don’t leave our fallen behind, Steve-O. Vern’s a warrior. He deserves a warrior’s send-off. And he’ll get one when we get back to Trinity.”

Steve-O harrumphed but said nothing. It was clear to Riker that riding the rest of the way home with a corpse in the cargo area behind him was a bit concerning to Steve-O. That the man didn’t object didn’t surprise Riker one bit. For all his challenges, Steve-O had matured more in a few short weeks than he had over the first forty-five years of what Riker gathered had been a very structured and cloistered existence.

 

Benny had been driving nonstop for two hours when Rose told him they were finally getting close to arriving at the alternate objective on the map. After making it safely out of Santa Fe, they had traveled south by west on Interstate 25, thirty-five hard-earned miles during which Benny had to slow the War Wagon to a crawl to navigate vehicular pileups or to bull their way through pockets of zombies coming from nearby Albuquerque. Save for one stretch of interstate east of the interchange with US-550 North, where they had to deviate from the directions on the map to avoid a caravan of survivors engaged in a bloody melee with a couple hundred walking dead, getting to where they were going was mostly uneventful.

Ten miles northwest of the interchange, Rose directed Benny from the 550 onto NW Loop Road and tapped a finger on the second starred location on her map.

“Should be that cluster of buildings on the right,” she said, scooping up the binoculars and peering through them. “Doesn’t look at all like I imagined it would. Where are the tanks and helicopters?”

Benny said nothing. He was too busy staring at the distant buildings and trying to figure out which one he would call home if he had the run of the place. As he reached the entry to the place and pulled the War Wagon to the side of the road, he got the distinct feeling someone was watching him.

The sprawling complex was on Rose’s side. It consisted mostly of steel-skinned windowless buildings with flat roofs and roll-up doors. Flanking the massive garages was a warren of one- and two-level brick structures with green-tinted windows and no markings to suggest their purpose. He guessed they contained rooms to store the soldiers’ equipment, places for them to sleep when they were here on weekends, and at least one equipped with whiteboards, banks of computers, and PowerPoint projectors—everything the 111th Sustainment Brigade of the New Mexico National Guard would need to plan and execute whatever mission a unit of its type was thrust into.

Two vast parking lots home to an assortment of dusty vehicles encircled the complex of buildings. Several eighteen-wheelers and a number of pickup trucks, all painted desert-tan, sat idle on a smaller lot sandwiched between the buildings. Ringing the entire base was a twelve-foot-tall razor-wire-topped fence. At the end of the short entry drive was a wheeled gate secured with a padlocked length of chain.

Benny heard Rose gasp. “What is it?” he asked.

She pointed at the copse of gnarled trees roughly a hundred yards north of them, just outside the corner of the long run of fence. “There’s a pickup in the shadows. It’s all shot up. And there’s a bunch of dead bodies laid out on the ground.” She lowered the binoculars and looked at Benny. “I’m pretty sure they weren’t one of those things before they were killed.”

“Don’t worry,” Benny said. “My guess is they were caught trying to break in and paid the price. We are not leaving the rig. So put all the scenarios you’re cooking up in your head on the back burner.” He reached into a pocket on the door filled with twenty-year-old maps of the United States. Snatching the lone sheet of printer paper he had stashed there, he handed it to Rose.

She took it from him without comment. During the drive west, she had copied a passage taken directly from Lee’s SMS message onto one side of the sheet. “You sure they’re going to be able to read this tiny font?” she asked.

“Lee’s text indicated the soldiers here have the gate under constant surveillance. I’d imagine right now we are both in the crosshairs of a very lethal long gun. The thing is probably fitted with a scope that can make that cute little mole on your cheek come across looking like a manhole cover.”

“You mean like a sniper’s crosshairs?”

“Exactly. Go ahead and hold it up so Lee’s friend can read what’s on it.”

Rose trapped the message to her window with one hand and held it there. “How long do we wait?”

“Until we get confirmation someone in there has read it.”

Confirmation came three minutes later, when a door on the nearest building sucked in and a woman in tan fatigues filled up the doorway. She had dark brown eyes and a lean, deeply tanned face. The aquiline nose, high cheekbones, and strong chin had Benny thinking her ancestry had roots in the region. In one ear was a flesh-colored bud, the attached cord snaking into her collar. She stared at the War Wagon for a long while before raising a radio to her lips and speaking into it.

“To ensure this is the woman Lee wanted us to relay the message to, can you tell me what’s on her uniform? See if you can make out her name and rank.”

Rose put the sheet of paper on the stunted dash and picked up the binoculars. Pressing them to her face, she glassed the woman. “Her name is Littlewolf,” she said. “The thing I guess is her rank is an oak leaf. And she’s now flashing us a thumbs-up.”

“Major Littlewolf in the flesh.” Starting the War Wagon’s motor, he looked at Rose. “Mission accomplished.” He looked at his watch. “Not a lot of daylight left. Which way do you want me to go?”

Rose waved at the woman. She didn’t know why. It just felt like the right thing to do. Putting the binoculars down, she consulted the map. “Turn around and get back on the 550,” she told Benny. “You’re going to want to get to the interstate. So take a right at the T. Instead of going back through downtown Santa Fe, you’ll take 599 North to the base of our mountain.”

“How many miles to home?” he asked, turning onto 550 North.

She traced the route with a finger. “I’m guessing we’re about sixty miles out. The final twenty miles, from the I-25/599 interchange to Trinity”—she shot him a worried look—“I’m afraid we’ll be traveling in the dark.”

“We’ll be okay,” he said in a tone he hoped was more convincing to her than it had sounded to him. “This thing has more lights than an eighteen-wheeler.”

“That’s what I’m afraid of,” she said. “We’re basically going to be riding in a rolling bug zapper, only it’ll be attracting more than just bugs.”

“You’re going glass half empty on me, Rose. I need something to take my mind off the task at hand. What cassettes did you bring?”

“A bunch of golden oldies. Anything in mind?”

He shook his head. “Surprise me.”

She closed her eyes and plucked a tape case from the bag of them she had brought along. Without looking at the title on the case, she took out the cassette and popped it in. Moments later, Eric Bloom’s opening chords of (Don’t Fear) The Reaper were spilling from the speakers, and Benny was singing along and doing his best not to butcher the lyrics of Blue Öyster Cult’s biggest hit.

 

Chapter 29

 

Jacob Lake

 

The Geiger counter didn’t pick up excess radiation on Vern’s corpse, the Bolt that had killed him, or the ravaged body of the young girl who’d died a horrible death right in front of them. The twice-dead zombies scattered about the base of the tree also came up clean.

The sun had made a brief appearance, warming everyone’s bones as they searched for rocks to place atop the bodies of the girl and the Bolt Riker assumed to have been her father.

Riker had trudged back to the Escalade carrying the Geiger counter and tarpaulin. He wrapped Vern in the tarp and put him behind the Escalade’s third-row seats. Finished with that morbid task, he went around to the G-Wagen and checked the zombies for radiation. Determining they were safe to touch, he put them both down with the Randall. Ignoring the one stuck in the windshield, he opened the door and pulled the female zombie from the G-Wagen’s front passenger seat.

Returning to the clearing, Riker placed the limp form next to the man and girl. As he was crouched next to the bodies, he noticed two things that convinced him the extra effort was worthwhile. The man and the woman were about the same age. And when Riker grabbed hold of the man’s hands to position the body closer to the woman, he noticed the white-gold wedding band. While it wasn’t diamond-studded like the one on the woman’s ring finger, the rings shared enough distinct design cues to convince Riker that the same jeweler made both.

Standing at the head of the makeshift grave, Riker bowed his head. “After a short moment of silence,” he said, “I want anyone who knows the Lord’s prayer to recite it with me.”

Three seconds into the moment of silence, Riker felt a vibration emanate from the Iridium satellite phone in his pocket. Incoming message. Stifling the near-irresistible urge to haul out the phone and see who it was, he waited ten more seconds and then initiated the prayer.

Finished praying, he pulled the phone out and thumbed it to life. The message was from Benny. It was clear from the way he went into fine detail about their roundabout trip from Lazarus to the National Guard Armory that his friend was seeking affirmation for a job well done. Before typing out a reply, Riker called out to Lia. “I’ll help in just a second.” He showed her the phone. “Finally, good news amongst all the bad. Benny and Rose succeeded in getting word to Littlewolf.”

At first, the good news had no effect on the hangdog look Lia had worn nonstop since they had escaped the military complex. Too much loss crammed into one day was wearing on her. It had started with having to leave Cole and the other kids behind. Now, losing Vern, then immediately seeing another kid slip through her fingers, it appeared to Riker that the woman he loved was on the verge of a mental breakdown. Finally, forcing a half smile, she said, “Do what you got to do, Lee. We got this.”

Shorty set a rock on the growing pile. “You can take my place,” he said to Riker. “I have to take a leak.”

Tara said, “Hurry back. It’ll be dark soon.”

Very aware of the fact they needed to get back on the road lest they risk approaching the Marble Canyon crossing in the dark, Riker banged out a reply to the SMS from Benny. He was stooping to grab a rock to place on the pile when he heard a low whistle. It had come from the direction of the gas station. Lifting his gaze, he saw it was Shorty who had whistled. Strangely, the man was facing the station’s rear wall, pants around his ankles, a growing puddle near the base of the wall. Riker couldn’t help but look at the man’s bare butt. It was white as the patches of snow on the ground. The reason for Shorty’s pants-down situation became clear to Riker when he saw that the man was brandishing Shocky with one hand and was gesturing at his eyes with the one that should be holding up his pants. I see something. Then Shorty gestured at the ground with two fingers and scissored them back and forth. Someone on foot coming this way. Next, he flashed a V at Riker. Two people. Finally, capping off the tense yet brief exchange, Shorty stabbed a finger at where the feeder road split from 89A.

Snatching up the M4, Riker told the others to stop what they were doing and to find a tree to take cover behind.

Tara said, “What’s up?

“Two people are approaching from the way we just came,” Riker answered. “That’s all I know.”

Shrugging the MP5 off her shoulder, Tara whispered, “Let me come with you.”

Riker shook his head. “Everyone needs to stay put.” He took out the fob for the Escalade and tossed it to Tara. “If me and Shorty get into trouble, I want you all to get to the rig and drive a hundred yards south. Just get to somewhere you’re out of the direct line of fire. If ten minutes passes and we’re not back to you, assume we’re not coming and leave without us.”

“How are we going to get across the bridge?” asked Lia.

“Major Littlewolf owes me one. She has pull with her people. I’m confident the Navajo will grant you passage.”

Lia said, “Be careful, Lee.” Tears were rolling down her cheeks. “You better come back to me. I can’t bear to lose another person today.”

Riker nodded, then stole a glance at Shorty. The man was now crouching down by the gas station’s rear wall, the Shockwave aimed at the distant corner, his pants still on the ground. Riker looked at Lia. She was still rooted in place. “I’ll be careful,” he insisted as he rose and set off for the gas station. Calling back over his shoulder, he added, “Three guns is better than two. Snap out of it and pick up Vern’s HK.”

Lia didn’t have time to respond because no sooner had the order been conveyed than a booming male voice was issuing a promise that if everyone didn’t drop their weapons and come out with their hands held high, he would order the drone circling overhead to hit them with one of its missiles.

Tara said, “He’s full of shit.”

Steve-O’s mouth opened, but no words spilled forth.

Instead of complying with the barked order, Lia followed Riker’s direction. Scooping up the little sub gun, she went to a knee and aimed it toward the feeder road, where she thought the disembodied voice had originated.

 

Riker had covered half the distance separating the clearing from Shorty’s position behind the gas station when the man started issuing orders. Sounded to him like it was coming from the road to his right. Just as he was trying to decide between joining Shorty or trying to make his way to the road and attempt to flank the man, the decision was made for him when he heard Shorty’s Shockwave roar. The report flushed ravens from the nearby trees. As they lifted into the air, wings shiny with the flat light of pre-dusk, Riker went to ground and aimed the M4 at the front corner of the gas station, where someone trying to flank his friend was likely to appear. At the same time, gunfire erupted to his left. It was directed at Shorty, the closely spaced reports coming from what sounded like a carbine.

Riker saw in his mind’s eye the situation he and Shorty had gotten themselves into. The person shooting at Shorty was near to where the uphill stretch of 89A eastbound began a wide right-to-left arc, bypassing the road fronting the inn and gas station. There were fifty yards of open ground between the gas station entry and the shooter, who wasn’t letting up.

Covering fire. Meant to distract.

When the incoming fire finally let up, Shorty rose and hiked up his pants. Aiming his shotgun down the road, he was off and running toward a row of cars that looked to be repair jobs the mechanic never got to. Ducking behind a pair of sedans sitting on flat tires, he spared a glance toward Riker. Only a couple of seconds ticked by before the shooter was back at it, sending single rounds at Shorty’s last position, keeping the same steady cadence as before.

Now and then, the hollow thwack of a round hitting sheet metal reached Riker’s ears. Where are you? he thought, eyes focused on the gaps of light between the cars nosed in along the feeder road. The shooter laying down suppressing fire had already burned through fifteen more rounds when Riker saw the first flash of movement near the road. It was a soldier in a MOPP suit, sans the hood and respirator. Head bowed, an AR-style rifle at the low ready, the man made it to an older American four-door parked on the road. It was about thirty feet from the station’s rollup door and about fifty feet from the Escalade. Sticking close to the rear of the snow-covered vehicle, the soldier took a knee and shouldered his rifle. He was staring in Riker’s direction, the rifle resting on the car’s trunk, the muzzle unwavering, when Riker noticed that something about one of the soldier’s eyes seemed off. It was red and almost swollen shut. If it was the man’s dominant eye, sighting down the rifle was going to pose a problem.

The soldier was using cover effectively. He wasn’t leaving Riker anything to shoot at. And since Riker wasn’t seeing muzzle flashes or taking incoming rounds, he checked his fire, too. Occam’s Razor said the soldier was stalking Shorty. Riker guessed the soldier was working in concert with the drone he had seen earlier and was awaiting a SITREP.

Come on. You know you want company. Call your trigger-happy friend forward.

As if the soldier was somehow influenced by the unspoken suggestion, he raised a hand above the car’s sloped trunk lid and moved the hand slowly to and away from his face. Although it had been more than a decade since Riker went through basic training, he still recognized the universal military hand signal for what it was—advance on me.

Perfect. Two birds, one stone.

The shockwave boomed three more times. Not opportune timing. Plus, Shorty had just given up his new position. Instantly, a flurry of incoming rounds fired by the unseen shooter answered Shorty’s outgoing fire. Bullets thwacked metal. A window on a car close to him burst and showered the car next to it with pebbled glass.

They’re firing on the move. Stand down, Shorty. Let them come to us.

If the soldiers moved on the blind corner to Riker’s fore, they would find themselves caught in a perfect L ambush. But that was only if Shorty stayed put. Kicking himself for not digging the Motorola two-way radios from the duffel, Riker remained still and prepared himself mentally to engage a man who, up until three days ago, he would have considered an ally.

Riker only needed to wait thirty seconds for the opportunity to go on offense to present itself. Seeing the soldier by the American four-door pivot on one knee and turkey peek around the car, Riker lined up the iron sights on the man’s pronated leg, drew in a breath, then, exhaling slowly, he gave the trigger a single press.

The carbine belched a lick of flame, and the buttstock tapped Riker’s shoulder.

Good hit.

As if someone had kicked the soldier in the leg, the planted knee jerked away to the right. The leg no longer supporting him, the soldier did the splits, howling in pain. Blood was spurting steadily from the hole in his inner thigh, turning the snow crimson near the car’s rear tire.

“Put down the rifle!” Riker bellowed. “You don’t drop it right now, I will kill you.”

The soldier fought to rise off the ground. He grabbed ahold of the car’s chromed rear bumper, steadied himself briefly, and then started to drag the rifle’s barrel level with the ground.

Riker was tensing his finger on the trigger, ready to fulfill his promise when a rock the size of a cantaloupe smacked the guy upside his head, the unanticipated blow turning out his lights and sending him back into the splits. Tara and Lia pounced, the former stripping away the weapons, the latter putting a knee in the wounded man’s back and the suppressor on the MP7 to the rear of his head.

The gunfire coming from across the road had subsided. After waiting a short while, during which the gunman’s rifle remained silent, Shorty popped up from cover and ran toward Riker. Zigging serpentine back and forth, he called ahead, telling Riker he was certain he had hit the shooter.

Hearing this, Riker rose and ran toward Tara and Lia, all the while wondering what had happened to Steve-O.

 

Chapter 30

 

On one knee and staring down at the unconscious man, Riker said to Tara, “If you were close enough to hurl a rock at this asshole, why in the hell didn’t you just put a bullet behind his ear?”

Mimicking her brother’s baritone, Tara said, “Thanks for saving my ass, Sis.”

Riker said, “My bad. Thank you for saving my ass, Sis. But you still didn’t answer my question.”

Tara said, “Apology accepted, Bro.” She opened her mouth to respond further but was forestalled by her usual nemesis.

Shorty had staked out a spot between the American car and a small import to the right of it. He had borrowed Riker’s M4 and had it lying across the car’s roof and trained on the road beyond the gas station. “Yeah, Tara,” he called across the distance. “What were you thinking? Should have just popped him. He was trying to pop us.”

Riker shrugged. He was used to his sister’s attitude by now. Peeling back the MOPP suit top, he stripped off the soldier’s belt. As he cinched it tight around the guy’s upper thigh, a couple of inches above the entry wound, Lia was down on her knees and probing the gash on the side of his head.

“How bad?” Riker asked.

“It’s deep but not life-threatening.” She shook her head. “All this is because of me.”

“It’s not your fault,” Riker insisted. “They would have come after us no matter what. That commander seemed a little off.”

“A little?” she said incredulously. “His elevator wasn’t reaching the top floor. Then you throw booze in the mix. Did you smell it on his breath?”

Riker nodded. “Couldn’t miss it. Smelled like bourbon. Or scotch.”

Tara glared at Shorty. Stabbing the nametape on the man’s uniform, speaking loudly enough to be heard in the next county, she said, “What I was thinking, Shorty, is that Mr. Lassiter here might not have been talking shit about the drone having a missile with our names on it. So just to be safe, he’s going with us. Little Lassie here is going to be our human shield. They wouldn’t kill one of their own, right?”

Riker checked the wound. Saw that Lassiter was no longer bleeding profusely. Looking at Tara, he said, “Good thinking. But you better tie his hands with something before he goes in back with Vern.” He rose and looked all around. “Where is Steve-O?”

In answer to his question, the Escalade’s 6.2-liter engine fired up.

Incredulous, Riker said to Tara, “You gave Steve-O the fob?”

Tara nodded. “I sent him to get the truck. He’s been watching you and Shorty drive for weeks now. He said he could do it. So Lia and I made an executive decision to give him the chance to prove himself. Hopefully, your bad habits didn’t rub off on him. Besides, it’s what … half a block?”

Steve-O reversed the Escalade slowly away from the G-Wagen. At the end of the J-turn, when he applied the brakes for the first time, the big SUV lurched just a little bit. Finally, when the man got the transmission into Drive, he drove the fifty feet at a walking speed and stopped smoothly behind the American car, leaving just enough room for the doors to open fully. After a little bit of experimenting with the buttons, during which the door locks thunked a couple of times and the rear passenger window powered down, Steve-O figured out which button to punch to get his window to roll down. Hanging his elbow out the open window, he said, “I’m an excellent driver. Dad lets me drive slow on the driveway every Saturday.”

Tara said, “Rain Man. That was a fine Raymond Babbit, Steve-O.” Finished cuffing Lassiter’s hands behind his back with one of his own zip ties, she looked up at the Escalade. “Put her in Park and get in back. You can drive some more after we get home. You did great, by the way. You’re an excellent driver, Steven Piontek.”

Steve-O was smiling wide as he elbowed open his door and stepped to the road. “I remember this soldier from the chow line. He was an asshole to me. A real big bully asshole.” He bent down and stared the cuffed man in the face. “So he’s dead, huh? Guess he reaped what he sowed.”

Lassiter’s eyes snapped open. “I’m not dead, motherfucker. If you don’t cut me loose, you’re all going to wish you were dead. A Hellfire missile is the least of your problems now.”

Shorty said, “I still don’t see the other shooter. Doesn’t mean he isn’t out there watching and waiting. If he’s coming with us, you better make the transfer a quick one.”

Riker grabbed Lassiter by the feet and started dragging him around to the back of the Escalade. Along the way, he said, “How many more of you are out there?”

Lassiter said nothing. Just stared murder at Riker.

Riker popped the rear hatch, then left the man lying on the road for a moment. In case there was a drone up there, Riker kicked the leg with the bullet wound to prove to the all-seeing eye in the sky that Lassiter was not dead.

Lassiter squirmed on the ground and spewed a whole bunch of epithets, all of them directed at Riker.

Steve-O said, “Told you he was an asshole.”

Now that proof of life was established for whomever may be watching, Riker bent over and scooped Lassiter up. Then, none too gently, he dumped the man facedown atop Vern’s corpse and slammed the hatch.

In the interim between Tara’s sneak attack on Lassiter and Riker stowing the man in the Escalade, the sky turned gray, and the wind picked up. Now, as the rest of them piled into the SUV, dark clouds drifting in from the north began dusting the area with tiny snowflakes.

“Just what we didn’t need,” Riker grumbled as he climbed aboard. Instructing everyone to keep their heads down, he threw the transmission into Reverse and tromped the pedal. Half expecting the unaccounted-for shooter to start firing on the retreating vehicle, he, too, dipped his head level with the dash. Completing a J-turn that got the Escalade pointed toward where the feeder road merged with 89A South, and still not hearing the incoming fire he was anticipating, simultaneously he stabbed the accelerator and breathed a sigh of release.

Sitting up in his seat, Riker cast a quick glance at his wing mirror. Clear. For now. With no guarantee that Lassiter’s drone threat was real, or just that—a threat—he toggled on the fog lights, gripped the wheel tight, and pushed the SUV to a speed he figured a snow-covered corner wouldn’t send the two-wheel-drive rig into the ditch.

 

Washington had followed Lassiter’s orders and topped off the Oshkosh’s tank. He wasn’t on the road by himself for long. He was stowing the empty gas cans when he heard gunfire up the road. It didn’t sound like a gunbattle. More like a half of a mad minute during which a couple of different caliber firearms had been discharged. Once again following orders, he didn’t get on the radio to inquire about it. When he received the call from King that Lassiter’s ultimatum for the group to surrender had precipitated contact with the enemy, Washington began to weigh his options. On one hand, he could disobey orders and charge forward, bringing the Oshkosh’s M240B machine gun into the fight. That would entail him stopping short of the engagement and exiting the vehicle to access the gunner’s seat. Putting himself in harm’s way to save Lassiter was not happening. Considering the MOPP suit and the uniform and gear he was wearing underneath it, there was no way he could get in back without dismounting. His other option was to stay put and wait for further orders from Joker Six Romeo.

While he had been contemplating his next move, everything that was happening up the road was playing out on the screen courtesy of the Reaper orbiting high above the summit. Shortly after King had reported the first volley of gunfire, the drone operator cycled from thermal to video. Seconds later, the camera zoomed in on the gas station, and Vader started calling out the movements of two unknowns on the ground. Washington watched one of Joker Five’s dismounts get into a gunbattle with one of the unknowns. When the dismount started to limp and retreat from contact, a flurry of movement he could not decipher was taking place on the opposite side of the gas station. He thought for sure one of the dismounts had been hit. He hoped it wasn’t King. He was completely in the dark as to the status of the other dismount until seconds later when Vader radioed that one of Joker Five’s dismounts was hit and retreating north and that the other dismount had been captured. Not knowing who had been hit and who had been taken captive, Washington started the Oshkosh’s engine. Mind racing, he cycled away from the drone’s real-time imagery and put the Blue Force Tracker in its place. A quick glance at the screen told him that the Oshkosh command and control vehicle carrying Joker Actual was a quarter mile out. Which meant the convoy was just minutes from rounding the corner at his six.

Knowing that the newly minted Regional Commander of FEMA Zone 8 was about to empty both barrels on him thanks to a poor decision he had nothing to do with, he was struck with the overwhelming urge to make the Oshkosh invisible to tracking and to put as much distance as possible between him and a probable court martial. But he had heard that deserters caught rabbiting were subject to execution. So, in the end, one hand clutching the microphone, fight won out over flight. Depressing the push-to-talk button, Washington said, “Joker Six Romeo. Joker Five Romeo. How copy?”

Conk’s voice issued from the Oshkosh’s speaker. “Joker Five Romeo. Joker Actual here.” There was a short pause. When Conk spoke again, there was no confusing the anger in his voice for anything but. “What in the blue blazes did I just witness?”

Fuck it, thought Washington. Depressing the Talk button, he said, “Joker Five Actual called an audible, sir. He dismounted and took Sergeant King with him. They were just going to recon and then return to wait for you to arrive, sir.”

“How long has Lassiter been radio silent?”

Washington said, “Two, maybe three minutes.” When he reopened the channel so Conk could take another chunk out of his hide, he looked out across the hood and spotted King. It was clear the man was injured. He would run a few feet, stop, then limp along for a while, catching his breath. When King was fifteen yards from the Oshkosh, Washington noticed that the fingers on the man’s gun hand were slick with blood. And it was still dripping, the droplets turning the snow the color of one of those cherry snow cones Washington used to pay a dollar for at the traveling circus whenever it put down stakes near his childhood home in rural Alabama. There was a long trail of the red stuff. Hundreds of interconnected spatters stretching all the way to the bend in the road where King had first emerged.

Instead of receiving another dressing down when Joker Actual radioed back, Conk ordered Washington to stay put and to fall in behind the column once it arrived.

Washington didn’t have to wait long for Joker Six Actual’s Oshkosh L-ATV to make the scene. One minute into the four-minute wait, Washington was out of the Oshkosh and assessing King’s wounds. Two minutes later, after wrapping King’s shattered left elbow with a QuikClot bandage and helping him to get into the passenger seat, Washington was back behind the wheel and watching on the display the live imagery coming in courtesy of Vader. The black SUV was still in the snow zone and wending its way slowly down the mountain’s eastern flank when Washington heard the unmistakable din of diesel-powered armored vehicles on the move.

Five minutes had elapsed between King’s unannounced return and the arrival of Joker Actual’s Oshkosh and the assortment of vehicles trailing behind it. The convoy did not stop. Just continued the uphill climb, the lagging fuel bowser bringing up the rear.

Having received no new orders, Washington waited until the bowser passed him by, then pulled in behind, leaving a safe distance between his Oshkosh and the vehicle he guessed was still laden with thousands of gallons of diesel.

 

Chapter 31

 

The Escalade was barely a hundred yards down the feeder road when Lassiter stopped his grunting and issued another warning. It was the same as the first, only this time he insisted that the regional commander of Zone 8 would be the one ordering the missile strike. “It’s no bluff. But if you give me back my radio,” he continued, “I can call it off. I’ll negotiate a soft landing for you all. Nobody needs to die today. At the worst, the little lady who survived the Zulu bite will give up some more of her blood to the doc. She might get poked and prodded, but that’s it. The black girl will be given a cush job at the facility the regional commander is set to command.” He drew in a deep, ragged breath. “Unfortunately, you men are facing conscription. That was the plan all along. The Ronin Protocol requires all men of fighting age to serve in the military until the threat to the Republic has passed. Now the retard … not sure how he fits into all this. He’ll be a drag going forward. And he did betray the general’s trust.”

Flicking his eyes to the rearview, mostly just to check if 89A was clear prior to merging than to make eye contact with one of the three passengers in back, Riker found himself engaged in a staring contest with his sister. She had intentionally staked out the third-row seat. She did so because Shorty had professed to the group that if given the opportunity, he was going to stick a finger in Lassiter’s wound, find a major nerve, and stimulate it until the man spilled all that he knew about what the doctor had planned for Lia and those like her. Tara didn’t like that idea. The prisoner had had her brother in his sights minutes ago and would have killed him had she not brained him. Therefore, if anyone were going to try to extract a pound of flesh from Lassiter, to do so they would have to go through her first.

Tara grabbed Lassiter’s jaw and squeezed with all her might. “That person you’re degrading is my friend. You better shut the hell up and not speak again until you’re told to,” she hissed. “If you don’t, I’m going shut you up for good.”

“You don’t have it in you,” Lassiter sneered. “You didn’t have the nerve to put a bullet in me when you had the chance. What makes you think I would believe that all of a sudden you’re a stone-cold killer?”

When they were scrambling to board the SUV and Lia had claimed the front passenger seat, Shorty found himself stuck sitting in the captain’s chair behind her. Twisting around in the seat, he looked at Tara. “Lassiter’s lying. Come on,” he begged, “let me go Paul Harvey on him. A couple of seconds finger fucking that bullet wound and I’ll have him telling us the rest of the story.”

“I was top three in my survival and evasion class,” Lassiter called out. “You won’t break me, you little freak.”

“Nothing I saw on your uniform suggests you’re pararescue,” Riker responded. “Tells me you washed out after SERE. Which in turn tells me you are not a team player.”

“T. E. A. M,” said Steve-O. “Do you know what that means, asshole?”

Lassiter didn’t have a chance to respond. Tara had gotten to her knees on the bench seat and had forced his mouth open with her Glock and jammed the muzzle halfway down his throat before he could spew any more of his bullshit.

Snickering, Steve-O said, “Whatsamatter, tough guy? Cat got your tongue?”

Staring down on Lassiter, her frizzed-out cornrows accentuating the menace on her face, Tara said, “If you tell us what you know, once we’re safely on our way, we’ll have our Navajo friends hand you over to your people in one piece. If you keep filibustering, I’ll tell them you’re a kiddie diddler. You do know what they do to that kind of folk, right? They usually cut their junk off and make them choke to death on it.” She removed her pistol from his mouth and sat back down. “Well? The floor is open,” she pressed. “What do you know? I want it all.”

They were about a mile down the road from the Jacob Lake junction, a couple of hundred feet lower in elevation, when the outside temperature buoyed and all that remained of the hardpack were puddles of water and intermittent mounds of slushy snow. The timing was perfect because mere seconds later, a roadside sign warning of a six-percent downgrade over the next three miles blipped by on the right.

Three turns later, having shed another five hundred feet of elevation, the high clouds all the way to Marble Canyon burned red and orange from the westering sun. The two-lane continued its plunge to the valley floor, scything through the heart of the Kaibab National Forest, a narrow swathe populated by Douglas fir, ponderosa pine, blue spruce, oaks, and scattered colonies of aspens. The Kaibab Plateau bordered the forest to the north. To the south, the forest thinned out near the Grand Canyon’s north rim.

During the rapid descent, Lassiter had sung like a bird. Clearly, the prospect of losing face to his superiors was preferable to being handed over to a group of people with an axe to grind. When he had given up all he professed to know, Tara filled his mouth with gauze from the first aid kit and used strips of surgical tape to hold it in place.

“I don’t know how much of that about the doctor I believe,” Lia said. “But if half of it is true, if we’re about to be captured, someone better kill me first.”

“It’s not going to come to that,” Riker stressed.

“He will have to go through me first,” Shorty declared.

With a tip of his Stetson, Steve-O said, “Over my dead body will they take you, Lia.”

With the decrease in elevation came a thinning of the forest. And before long, the forest was giving way to sagebrush, cliffrose, and Gambel oak, all prominent in the arid lowlands. It was here that they started seeing abandoned vehicles. For the first five miles or so, as 89A snaked east toward Marble Canyon, the sightings were minimal. As 89A cut a laser-straight course south by east, through inhospitable terrain dotted with red rock formations and crisscrossed by shallow arroyos, the number of vehicles left on the sides of the road ramped up exponentially. A scant few had living dead trapped inside them. Most were empty. Strangely, there were no signs of zombie attacks, nor were there zombies trundling the road.

When 89A brushed up close to the Vermilion Cliffs, a steep sandstone escarpment soaring hundreds of feet above the valley floor, bent and broken bodies of twice-dead zombies became a common sight. The corpses, or parts thereof, littered the shoulders and ditches on both sides of 89A. The barbed wire fence running parallel to the two-lane sagged from the weight of the corpses that had become snagged on it. Bodies littered the desert beyond the fence, arms and legs bent at unnatural angles. Riker had no idea how they got there. It was as if an unseen force had scooped them up and deposited them there. After a couple of miles of this, as if a cleanup crew had been hard at work, they started seeing humongous mounds of horribly mangled zombie corpses. As they neared Marble Canyon, the drifts of death began showing up in ever-increasing numbers. Coming out of a depression in the road, Riker glanced to his left and spotted columns of smoke roiling toward the heavens. It looked as if they were coming from something burning near the base of the distant red rock cliffs.

“Funeral pyres,” Shorty said. “Same thing is going to eventually befall all of the mounds we just passed.”

“Til Valhalla,” Steve-O said.

“Not really,” Riker corrected. “That’s reserved for Vern and honorably discharged combat veterans like him. Still better than rotting in the sun for years on end.”

“Sergeant Assitter isn’t going to get a funeral pyre,” Steve-O announced. “He’s not honorable.”

They were close to thirty miles east of the base of the mountain when Riker saw a string of headlights in the rearview. It wasn’t quite dusk yet, but the sheer number made it impossible to miss them. It was the convoy. No doubt about it. From this distance, he couldn’t tell how many vehicles were back there, but going by the length of the column, he figured there were fifteen to twenty.

Looking over at Lia, he asked, “How far to Marble Canyon?”

“Last sign said fifteen miles. I’d guess we’re five or six miles out right now.”

He hooked a thumb over his shoulder. “We’ve got company.”

Everyone in the SUV was reacting to the revelation, craning around to see for themselves, when a minivan on the right-side shoulder a hundred feet ahead of the Escalade suddenly exploded. Flames coming from empty window frames, broken glass skittering in every direction, the bent and broken hulk ended up in the nearby ditch, where it rolled over and settled on its already crushed roof.

Steering left to avoid the debris field, Riker said, “That was a missile strike.” He had seen a couple during his tour in Iraq. Nobody had walked away from them. Had there been people in the minivan, they would all be dead, too. “Probably a Hellfire,” he added. As the SUV passed by the flaming wreck, he couldn’t look away. The sight alone took him right back to Route Irish. It also had him hearing the screams of his friends in his head and replaying the aftermath of the IED detonation that had taken his leg and sentenced him to a lifelong battle with depression and recurring headaches. It also triggered a memory of how human flesh smelled as it cooked.

“Good thing they missed,” Lia put in.

“It was a warning shot,” Shorty added.

Ripping the tape and gauze from Lassiter’s face, taking a good deal of the Hitler mustache in the process, Tara asked, “How many missiles does that thing dogging us carry?”

“Conk wouldn’t waste his last missile for a warning shot.”

Tara said, “So there’s more?”

Lassiter smiled. “Several.”

Lia looked at Riker. “Shouldn’t you be slaloming or something?”

“Won’t help,” Riker said soberly. “They lock on us and it’s all over.”

“All over?” Steve-O said. “As in we are all goners?”

Riker was scanning the road ahead for something to use for cover. An overpass would be better than nothing. Unfortunately, he hadn’t seen one since they were west of Jacob Lake. The buildings around here were mostly ancient artifacts. The only modern structures he remembered seeing on the way west from Marble Canyon was the rest area overlooking the nearby Colorado River, the Marble Canyon Inn, and a lone gas station. The only structure still standing was the rest area. No cover there.

Finally answering Steve-O’s question, Riker said, “I’m not going to sugarcoat it, Steve-O. One of those things hits us, we are all goners. The warhead is powerful. None of us will feel a thing.” It was a lie. He’d seen the faces on the burned corpses in a terrorist technical that had taken a direct hit. The mouths frozen in eternal silent screams. Arms upthrust, the fingers on the charred hands curled as if the last desperate act had been to fight off an unseen enemy. No, Riker thought, none of them were going to die without every nerve ending broadcasting the fact that they were to their unsuspecting brains. It would be quick but certainly not painless. It was a lie he was willing to live with. He didn’t want to unnecessarily spook the man.

Riker spotted an especially large mound of corpses. It was ahead on the left, around two hundred yards and closing. Clumps of gnarled dry branches and sagebrush ringed the base. No doubt it was going to be set on fire the next day. Burning the bodies at night would just draw in more walking dead.

The Escalade was closing fast with the mound when the mound took a direct hit from an inbound missile. As the initial explosion rocked the SUV, gravel, sticks, and body parts riding the shockwave hit it like a shotgun blast. A leg, pale and bare, landed on the hood with a bang. Before the SUV had come broadside to the mound, the avalanche of corpses started by the explosion had covered the opposing lane.

A severed head landed in Riker’s path; then, as if racing the Escalade to escape the intense fireball, the head bounced down the centerline. Riker couldn’t take his eyes off the head as it wobbled toward the far shoulder, the whites of its eyes visible for a split second with each new revolution.

Before the Escalade was clear of the debris field, Riker learned that the parts of twice-dead corpses raining down on the road were the least of his worries. Up ahead, a quarter of a mile or so, a massive herd of corpses trudging eastbound blocked both lanes. No sooner had he spotted the moving wall of carrion than the zombies bringing up the rear began turning around in response to the explosion.

Lassiter was sitting up and had witnessed the strike. He said, “The first one was to show you all what a Hellfire can do to a vehicle.” He chuckled. “That last one was to introduce you to what twenty pounds of high explosive will do to the human body. You give me back my comms, and I’ll negotiate your surrender.”

“Fuck off,” Tara said. “I’m going to start a dialogue with them. Tell me how to work the comms. You give me any shit”—she wagged a finger at him—“I’ll stab you in the dick.”

“Conk isn’t stupid,” Lassiter said. “He’ll know you’re trying to stall.”

Riker said, “Give her the quick tour, Lassiter. Just get her up to speed.” To Tara, he said, “For now, I just want you to listen in on them.”

Riker was listening to Lassiter instructing Tara on how to operate the headset comms when he saw a glint of light far off in the distance. After watching it drawing nearer, he determined he was seeing the western sky reflecting off something at the far end of the valley floor, near where he remembered passing by the burned-out hotel and vehicle-choked chain gas station. Whatever it was, it was in the center of the road and moving westbound at a high rate of speed. The closer it got to the zombie herd, the more confused Riker became. “What is that thing?” he finally asked Lia. “Glass it with the binoculars.”

Lia raised her seat all the way to the stops to get a better angle. She scrutinized the vehicle, describing what she saw as it continued to close with the herd.

“It’s the tractor minus the trailer,” Lia announced. “And it has two big sheets of metal up front. They form a wedge and are close to scraping the road. I’ve been to dozens of alpine towns here and abroad. I have never seen a snowplow like this one.”

“Because that’s not a snowplow,” Shorty interjected. “The Navajo have constructed themselves a meatplow. Just think, days ago, when we slipped through here, their zombie eradication operation relied on only dismounts employing medieval weapons and tactics to cull the dead. They’ve come a long way, baby.”

“It’s because the asshole Conklin had his friends drop a nuclear bomb on Las Vegas,” Lia said. “No doubt many of the corpses we’re about to be exposed to have been irradiated.”

“And we can’t see radiation,” Steve-O reminded everyone. He started scratching the bare skin on his arms. “It’s on me, isn’t it?”

“We can’t see ghosts either,” Shorty added. “You think there’s one giving you a lap dance?”

“I don’t know what that means,” Steve-O replied. “But I do know it’s not safe to drive through a hot zone without protective gear.”

Riker said, “Quit worrying about things we can’t control.” He looked at Lia. “Who’s driving it?”

“I can’t see right now. There are too many flying zombies in the way.”

They were close enough now that even Riker, who needed prescription glasses, could see that the zombies meeting the plow head-on were being flung high in the air. The vehicle was nearing the end of the column, bodies raining down in its wake, when Lia spoke up again. “The driver is wearing a biological warfare suit and respirator,” she noted. “I see thick gloves gripping the steering wheel.”

“I can feel the radiation,” Steve-O said, tension in his voice. “Who has the Geiger counter?”

“The meatplow is turning around,” Lia said. “And it’s stopping.”

Tara said, “I bet it’s going to escort us to the crossing.” She turned and looked at Lassiter, whose mouth she had again taped shut. “What say you, Mr. I Like To Ambush Civilians Minding Their Own Business?”

Lassiter was grunting a response when Tara heard a voice in the headset’s left earpiece. Slipping the right earpiece over her ear, she pressed down on both and listened to the man who identified himself as regional commander of FEMA Zone 8 tell her she and her friends had thirty seconds to turn around and begin driving back the way they had come.

Actuating the headset’s push-to-talk button, she said, “What are you going to do if we don’t?” She looked out the rear window and saw the headlights were still back there. Her brother having to slow and take evasive action after the second missile strike had allowed the convoy to close to within a quarter of a mile of the Escalade. Too close for comfort. In place of a verbal reply to Tara’s challenge, a volley of machine gun fire passed close by the Escalade’s passenger side. It was like a string of red Christmas lights slinking by the vehicle. They had seemed close enough to touch, the deep window tint insufficient to keep the red glow from infiltrating the cab.

“Tracers,” Riker stated.

“That was fucking close,” said Steve-O.

Eyes wide, Tara removed the headset. “The dude says they’re done talking. Fifteen seconds, and he’s giving the launch order.”

Riker saw the meatplow’s taillights flare one time and then dim. The modified truck was just getting underway, the hundred-foot buffer between vehicles quickly diminishing, when Riker’s gaze was drawn to something above the cliff band. While the meatplow’s intercept rate had seemed rapid, the black aircraft diving down the cliff face was putting it to shame. It was an AH-64 Apache helicopter. Riker had seen his share of them in the sky over Baghdad. It was just leveling off, still on the other side of Marble Canyon and a couple of hundred feet above the desert floor, when he saw a pair of missiles leap from twin clusters of them hanging from pylons under the helo’s stubby winglets.

 

Minutes Ago

 

Keekuk “Kenny” Black Horse was down on his stomach on a large sandstone shelf three hundred feet above the desert floor. At the thirty-five-year-old’s back, rising another five hundred feet over his perch, was the sheer face of Echo Cliffs. Anchored by pitons driven into the cliff wall to his right was the coiled length of climbing rope he would eventually use to rappel back down.

Since dawn, Black Horse had been monitoring movement on the wide-open valley called Vermilion Cliffs National Monument. He had already called in multiple herds of walking dead, marking their positions and noting their direction of movement so any that posed an immediate threat to the crossing below could be dealt with. The Native American was a hunter and tracker, had the patience of Job, and was in tune with the pulse of the land his ancestors had called home for over six hundred years.

Black Horse had spotted the drone ten minutes ago. Though the unmanned aerial vehicle was painted a shade of gray that someone at General Atomics had decided was less susceptible to be picked out by the human eye against even the bluest of skies, the setting sun had been at just the right azimuth that Black Horse saw its soft orange glow refracting off the UAV’s shark-like underbelly. It had struck him at the time that the racetrack orbit the UAV had adopted over the valley was at a much lower altitude than usual—thousands of feet lower. It was as if the drone operator didn’t care if someone spotted the bird. Another aspect of the tactic, Black Horse concluded, was that the operator was acting on the assumption the drone was in no danger of being engaged by anyone on the ground. At the drone’s current altitude, a single person employing a MANPADS (Man Portable Air Defense System) could easily take it down.

Black Horse dropped his gaze from the UAV to the valley floor and instantly picked up a vehicle moving eastbound on 89A. It was black with splashes of color on the sides. A glint of light off glass had first drawn his eye to the distant spot in the road he knew all too well. It was about fifteen miles out, where the two-lane made a shallow right-to-left bend and crossed over Soap Creek’s north fork. It was also where 89A straightened out and anyone paying attention in the vehicle coming at him would first spot Echo Cliffs. Two minutes later, a column rounded the corner where he had first spotted the lone vehicle. It consisted of MRAPs, some smaller armored vehicles Black Horse had only seen in pictures, and a lone fuel tanker.

Lifting his push-to-talk radio to his lips, Black Horse hailed the commander of the garrison guarding the Navajo Bridge, a quarter mile to his fore. “Goalie. Overwatch. How copy?”

A woman answered the call. “Goalie here. Good copy. What’s up?”

“SUV is inbound. Ten miles out. Confidence is high it’s the one we are expecting.” He went on to tell her about the drone and military convoy in tow. Finished, he lifted his Remington 700, a sniper rifle almost identical to the one he’d used to kill men in the mountains of Afghanistan, put his eye to the high-power Leupold scope, and focused on a large herd of zombies he’d been watching for the better part of an hour. They were in the middle distance, almost equidistant to the SUV and the rest area on a bluff overlooking the manned gate on the crossing’s west side. He conducted a quick headcount then traded the rifle for the radio. “Goalie. Overwatch. We have three hundred ambulatory deceased moving east on 89A. Less than ten percent appear to be flash burned. Just to be safe, I’m requesting you deploy a Street Sweeper.”

“Copy that, Overwatch. I’ll run it all up the chain. Goalie out.”

The response satisfied Black Horse. If his recommendations were acted upon, things were about to get a whole lot more interesting down below.

He kept watch for several minutes, shouldering his rifle again only when the SUV had reached a location on 89A he knew to be exactly five miles out. By this time, the column had drawn to within a mile of the SUV and seemed content to maintain that following distance. It was also where he witnessed a missile fired by the drone strike a static minivan, the explosion and aftermath momentarily blocking the fleeing SUV from view. He concluded it was a warning shot. Seconds later another missile slammed into a mound of zombie corpses awaiting cremation. Another warning.

The fleeing SUV had just finished swerving to avoid striking bodies on the road when a weapon in a turret on one of the armored vehicles belched a stream of tracer fire, the glowing rounds standing out starkly against the desert floor as they passed harmlessly by the speeding vehicle.

Parking the crosshairs on the SUV’s windshield, he studied the faces of the driver and passenger. The African American male seemed to be taking it all in stride, two hands on the steering wheel, a firm set to his jaw. The young woman in the passenger seat was sitting low in her seat. She wasn’t taking it as well as the driver. One hand was gripping the overhead grab bar. Her face was a mask of worry.

Black Horse radioed what he had just witnessed. The response he received had him splitting time between casting furtive glances overhead and witnessing the gory spectacle of the modified Peterbilt scything through the herd. It never ceased to amaze him how high and how far afield the bodies flew. One moment, they were trudging toward their own destruction; the next, they were flying in all different directions, their arms and legs ragdoll limp and flailing the air. It was like watching the exact opposite of a well-choreographed Cirque du Soleil act.

On the promontory where the single-level restrooms and Marble Canyon visitor center sat, a man was exiting the Holiday Inn shuttle bus that Black Horse had watched make the short drive from the checkpoint at the west end of Navajo Bridge. The man went around back of the van, opened the doors, and came out with a long tube. Affixed to the tube was a rectangular box about the size a pair of boots would come in. The man wasted no time shouldering the tube. He aimed it skyward, toward the southwest side of 89A, then leaned forward a bit. It was the type of forward press a person who was about to rip off a long burst with a belt-fed machine gun would employ. Black Horse knew the thing on the man’s shoulder was no machine gun. Confirmation that Black Horse’s second recommendation was being acted upon occurred when the puff of smoke shot from the rear of the tube and the projectile propelled by the accelerant rocketed from the front.

Black Horse tracked the rocket as it climbed diagonally into the sky. Mere seconds after launch, he saw the rocket impact the drone. The follow-on explosion that turned the multi-million-dollar craft into a thousand pieces, scattering them to all points of the compass, was not as spectacular as others he had witnessed.

Seconds later, as the smaller armored vehicles that had broken away from the column were drawing to within a few truck lengths of the speeding SUV, a black helicopter thundered overhead. It cleared the cliff band rim, dipped its nose toward the desert floor, and triggered off a pair of Hellfire missiles.

Coming across a bit blurry because of the exhaust expelled by the rocket motors, the missiles performed minute course corrections as they dropped swiftly toward the armored vehicles. At the last moment, just when Black Horse was sure he was going to be witness to his second recommendation coming to fruition, the missiles changed course, one veering away to the left, the other going into a steep dive. He saw the first Hellfire strike an unoccupied pickup parked on the shoulder a dozen yards in front of the lead vehicle. The explosion sent the pickup spinning away from the road, flame and smoke already pouring from its crushed cab.

The second missile plowed into the road two truck lengths in front of the lead vehicle, peppering its front end with a shotgun-like blast of blacktop and missile parts and causing it to brake hard. There was a puff of smoke from burning tire rubber. The vehicle swerved left and right before eventually straightening out and coming to a full stop a couple of yards short of the crater, where it sat idling, the gun in the turret aimed forward but not engaging the fleeing SUV.

Message received.

While Black Horse had hoped the message was going to be of the fatal variety, he was satisfied. Seeing the armored vehicles commencing J-turns on the road, he dropped his gaze to the black SUV. It was just now catching up with the Street Sweeper. Barely two minutes had elapsed between the first Hellfire missile slamming into the minivan and the lead vehicle in the pursuing convoy firing the long burst of tracer fire at the black SUV. Mere seconds after the Apache gunship had responded with warning shots of its own, the Escalade and modified Peterbilt were braking hard and steering toward the visitor center feeder road. When the Peterbilt finally reached the ramp entrance, it peeled away and parked across both lanes. Black Horse saw a gloved hand emerge from the truck’s cab and wave the SUV toward the ramp.

 

Chapter 32

 

A person in a yellow hazmat suit was waiting for the Escalade at the top of the ramp. They were slight in stature. Because of the mirrored face shield, there was nothing to point to gender or age. Parked in a lined spot behind the person was a medium-sized shuttle van, its left side and rear end emblazoned with a decal featuring a diverse group of smiling people. Posted on the van’s flank in a cheery turquoise font was a list of the amenities one could expect to enjoy if one stayed the night at the Holiday Inn Express Midtown in Albuquerque. A person was at the wheel. Because of the heavy tint on the windows, that was all Riker could discern as he slid the Escalade into the spot indicated by the person in the hazmat suit.

The person in the suit approached the Escalade, Geiger counter in one hand, bullhorn in the other. Lifting the bullhorn to the mask, the person said, “Please stay inside the vehicle. I’m going to check it for radiation.” The voice, muffled by the suit’s mask, was a woman’s and came across a bit tinny sounding. Riker attributed it to an issue with either the microphone inside the suit or the speaker affixed to the front of the mask where the person’s mouth would be.

“After all we just went through, now we’re expected to stay inside here?” Lia lamented. “I’ve got to pee. Nearly pissed my pants when the van blew up.”

“We’re safe now,” Riker said, killing the engine. “That contrail we saw going up into the sky was from a missile engaging the drone. This person is standing in the open, no worries whatsoever. The person at the wheel of the shuttle van isn’t scanning the sky. Gives me confidence that whoever fired the missile succeeded in taking down the drone.”

“It was a direct hit,” Shorty said nonchalantly. “I saw debris falling into the desert southwest of us. The helo loitered just long enough for the convoy chasing us to get moving west, then it dipped over the road and shot off to check out the wreckage.”

When the woman in the suit finished inspecting the outside of the Escalade, she motioned for everyone to exit the vehicle. Backing away from the SUV, she pointed to a yellow line on the ground where they were to assemble.

Beginning with Riker, she checked each person for excess radiation. When she got to Shorty, the last in line, he had his hand raised. “When you’re done with me,” he said, pointing at the Escalade, “we got two more in the back of that thing. The shit bird with a pulse is yours. He’s with the unit that was about to smoke us. He’s got a GSW in the knee area. Do with him what you will. But please do not go easy on him.” He paused and rubbed his eyes. “The body underneath the shit bird is my friend … our friend. He got a bite but didn’t turn. We wouldn’t let that happen to one of our own. And, ma’am, he’s a veteran, so please show him the respect I sometimes failed to.”

As the woman passed the Geiger counter over Shorty, she leaned in close and said, “I’m sorry for your loss. If your veteran friend doesn’t set this thing off, he can stay with you. There’s an American flag in the visitor center. We can wrap him in it before we transfer him to the van.”

Cocking his head, Shorty said, “We’re not leaving in our own rig?”

“You’ll have to leave it here. Since the event in Vegas, only eighteen-wheelers are allowed past this point. Don’t worry. It’ll work out in the end.” Finished, she shuffled off for the Escalade.

Shorty watched the woman lean against the rear hatch, go up on her toes, then look inside. Satisfied with whatever she saw, she popped the hatch and quickly stepped back to avoid getting the suit snagged on it as it opened.

With no way to brace once the hatch was on its way up, Lassiter rolled off Vern’s corpse and crashed to the blacktop.

Making sure the zip tie cuffs had survived the fall intact, the woman checked Lassiter and Vern for radiation. Finished, she dipped inside the Escalade and passed the counter over the gear and weapons. Declaring everything safe, she looked at Shorty. “I need you to have your people take their guns and gear over to the shuttle. I’ll be right back with the flag.”

Looking down the line at Riker, Shorty said, “You hear that, Lee? My people. She thinks I’m in charge.” He looked in on Vern’s body. The man’s face was slack. No hint of fear. He had gone out looking like he had in life: a confident survivor unafraid to die. “You hear that, Mr. Rossi? We are going to wrap you in the flag and take you home so you can be closer to Shane.” He pinched away tears. “I’m sorry I was always busting your balls. I was just jealous because you were the most put-together one in this motley crew. I should have shown you the respect you deserve. I am going to miss you, sir.”

Tara was standing behind Shorty and had heard it all. Placing a hand on Shorty’s shoulder, she said, “Vern got you. Told me so more than once. He’s of a different generation. Didn’t like the crude things you’re prone to spout.” She shook her head. “He didn’t hate you, Shorty. In fact, your doggedness reminded him of Shane. If you had half a filter on that mouth of yours, he would have adopted you.”

Shorty squeezed Tara’s hand then turned toward the others. Raising his voice, he said, “The nice lady in the suit wants us to unload our gear and put it in the shuttle bus.” Turning back to Tara, he apologized to her for being such a pain in the ass. “I’ll try to change,” he added. “I’m going to give it a shot this time. Swear to God.”

“Do what you got to do, Shorty.” She grabbed Vern’s muddied boots and straightened his legs. “Grab his arms and help me get him out of here.”

They removed Vern from the Escalade and put him down gently on the blacktop beside Lassiter. When Tara ducked into the Escalade to collect her gear, Shorty turned his back to the shuttle van and went to his knees beside Lassiter, who was starting to shiver. He slapped the man’s cheek until his eyes snapped open. “Last time I left pissed-off loose ends,” Shorty said through gritted teeth, “people dear to me almost paid for my mistake.” He loosened the tourniquet around Lassiter’s thigh and shoved the bandage aside. Jamming a finger in the wound, he rooted it around until blood began bubbling forth. While Shorty was doing this, Lassiter was shaking his head side to side and moaning softly through the gag. Rising and wiping his hand on his pants, Shorty regarded the dying man and found that he was on the receiving end of a knowing glare that was equal parts fear and hatred. In response, Shorty flipped Lassiter the bird.

“You going to help unload?” Steve-O asked in passing.

“Coming,” Shorty said. Seeing Steve-O climb aboard the SUV, he peered into Lassiter’s glazed eyes. “You’re going to Hell,” he told the man. “Have fun with Hitler and the gang. They’re going to love the mustache.”

Riker stopped and stared down on Lassiter. “He’s on his way out, eh?”

Shorty nodded. “My heart is not breaking over it.”

“You reap what you sow,” Riker said. “Get your shit, Shorty. It ain’t going to put itself into the bus.”

Shorty rose and set off to fetch his pack and Shockwave.

 

***

 

When the woman finally returned with the flag, she was wearing blue jeans, a UNLV sweatshirt, and low-heeled boots. On her hip was what looked like a Colt Python. On her head was a black Stetson, which Steve-O noticed straight away.

“I like your Stetson,” he told her. “Mine is white because I’m a good guy.” Nodding in her direction, he asked, “Why is yours black?”

“It’s the one I wear when I’m in mourning. Been wearing it since the newly dead began to walk.” She looked down at his feet. “And I like your boots. Stetsons, no less. Why red?”

“It’s the color Shorty picked out for me.”

“Shorty is your leader, right?”

Steve-O smiled as he shook his head. “Lee Riker is our leader. But he always asks my opinion. He doesn’t leave anybody out. He even gave me a gun. He’s my best friend. Shorty is my second-best friend.”

“Name’s Lydia Stone. Pleased to meet you, Steve-O.” She unfolded the flag and draped Vern with it. Grabbing ahold of his pale hands, she said, “How about you grab his feet and help me get him onto the bus?”

Following the Native American’s lead, Steve-O grabbed Vern by the ankles, hefted him off the ground, and shuffled off for the bus, where they enlisted Riker to help get the body—already entering rigor mortis—up the stairs and laid out on one of the bench seats. Buckling a wheelchair strap around the dead man to keep him from ending up in the aisle, Riker said to the driver, “I couldn’t see putting him in the luggage hold. The man’s a war hero.”

“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” said the driver, who introduced himself as Sergeant Yazzie.

Choosing a seat next to Vern at the front of the bus, Riker said, “You were at the crossing when we came through five days ago. You were wearing full battle rattle and toting an M4.”

The Navajo PD sergeant nodded. “I remember you, too. A guy of your stature is impossible to forget. What are you, six-three?”

Riker held up four fingers. “Six-four bare footed.” Changing the subject, he said, “Was that you who fired the MANPADS?”

Another subtle nod. “Should have popped the drone after the first missile strike. But like they say, hindsight is twenty-twenty.” He craned and looked at Riker. “You must have done something special for Major Littlewolf. She’s a serious woman. She’s not prone to throwing favors around.”

“Lee Riker saved her mom,” Steve-O interjected. “And a few of her workers.”

“That’s about it in a nutshell,” Riker added.

Lia boarded and sat on the seat beside Riker. Addressing the driver, she said, “Thanks for taking us over the bridge.” She did a quick headcount. “Everyone’s here. Who’s driving our vehicle to the other side?”

“It’s staying behind,” Shorty explained. “Easy come, easy go. Isn’t that right, Lee?”

Riker said nothing. He was distracted by the throbbing behind his eyes and the dull ache radiating from his stump.

“What now?” Tara asked Yazzie. “You driving us to a quarantine or something?”

“Most of us who work the crossing commute here from Tuba City. We pull long shifts at the bridge. Four days on, three off. Shift change is coming soon. I’ll wait and see if anyone needs a ride before moving out. Because we’re practicing a strict blackout policy reservation-wide, you all will have to stay the night in TC. We’ve got a couple of mobile homes and a dozen or so RVs for you to choose from. I’ll be back to get you at first light.”

Tara said, “You can’t just go and take us to your eastern border and dump us there. We’re going to need a vehicle.”

“And some gas,” added Steve-O. “We still need to get home. People are expecting us.”

They had just arrived at the western gate. After a stern-faced elder waved them through, Yazzie said, “I’m just escorting you to the eastern border. Every other day, a couple of trucks filled with a dozen or so foragers drive south to Albuquerque. They usually return with extra pickups full of supplies. Near the trailers you’ll be staying in is a whole field filled with cars and trucks. They are for the taking. We’ve got more vehicles than we have people. Keys are in them. You’ll be able to take your pick.”

Shorty rubbed his hands together. “Oh, I do enjoy shopping for rides in the apocalypse.”

Changing the subject, Riker said, “What’s the story behind the Apache? Timing couldn’t have been better.”

“It is your lucky day, Lee. We offered sanctuary to the National Guard early on. They saw their bases overrun in the first days. The commanders had already stopped getting orders from their superiors. In return for a safe place to operate from, they perform search and rescue for us. It’s rare, but sometimes our people run into trouble while they’re out there foraging. Occasionally, we have their aviators sweep our borders for problems. Usually, it’s the living that end up being the problem. The dead … they mostly stick to the roads in these parts.”

“I saw the Black Hawks and Humvees when we passed through Tuba City a few days back,” Riker said. “I didn’t see any kind of airfield infrastructure. How’d the Apache respond so quickly?”

“Like I said, it’s your lucky day. Wrangler Three-Three happened to be patrolling north of here.”

“Where are they refueling?”

“Tuba City. A group of their maintainers went out foraging two days ago and came back with fuel bowsers they had liberated from Double Eagle Airport. They say the inground tanks there are almost full. Enough to keep the helos operating for months.”

“Where’d you get whatever it was you used to take down the drone?” Shorty asked. “It’s not something you find just sitting on the shelf out there.”

“It was a MANPADS. Man-portable Stinger missile,” Yazzie explained. “Already had a number of them tucked away before all this started. Friends of the Nation wanted us to be able to protect our sovereignty should something happen here in the states. Terrorism. A financial collapse. And something did happen.” He shook his head. “We didn’t have the dead rising on our bingo card.”

“None of us did,” Lia said. “My father is … was an airline captain. Last I heard, he was in the Pacific Northwest. Portland was the place he mentioned in that last message that got through to my phone.” She got quiet and looked at the Colorado River slicing the canyon hundreds of feet below the bridge.

Yazzie waved at the guards behind the heavy machine guns as he wheeled the bus off the eastern end of Navajo Bridge. He had been working this side of the bridge when Riker and the others came through here the first time. He steered the van onto a rutted lot in front of the guard shack and set the brake. “We wait five minutes. Early bird gets a seat.”

Steve-O asked, “What if someone misses the bus?”

Yazzie pointed north. “There’s a flat parcel of land around the bend. It’s full of vehicles that used to belong to people outside the reservation. What’s your name?”

“Steven Piontek. But my friends call me Steve-O.”

“Don’t worry, Steve-O. If they miss the bus, they’ll find a ride south.”

The Apache thundered overhead and made a sweeping turn to the south. It was keeping below the rim of the cliffs towering over the crossing. In a matter of seconds, it was out of sight.

Five minutes came and went. Two Navajo men and one woman took advantage of the shuttle, placing their packs and rifles in the overhead compartment and taking the nearest available seats.

Riker nodded at each person as they boarded. None of them said a thing about the flag-wrapped corpse. They simply bowed their heads as they walked down the aisle. He made small talk with one of the men. Discovered that he had been with a Montana Guard unit. The announcement of the Ronin Protocol led to the unit quickly falling apart. The man said his allegiance was to his people, so he and another soldier liberated a couple of dirt bikes and made their way here.

Before long, everyone on the bus had shut their eyes. Steve-O started to snore.

For an hour, as Yazzie wheeled the bus south, Riker watched the countryside scrolling by outside his window. Like a hood drawn over a condemned man’s head, darkness rapidly enveloped the Arizona desert. Thirty minutes into the trip, Riker had a tapestry of stars to look at. It took his mind off the day’s events. Whenever his thoughts would wander to Vern’s last moments, he would remind himself that nobody, not him, not the driver, nor the commander who had chased them across Nevada and Arizona, was getting out of this thing alive. It set him at ease knowing he wasn’t the one in control. Closing his eyes, he spent the next thirty minutes listening to the thrum of tires on asphalt, the rhythmic breathing of the living, and the occasional call coming in over Yazzie’s radio. They were just pulling into Tuba City, dark as the inside of a crypt, when he heard word come over the radio that the prisoner had died.

Sergeant Yazzie pulled in front of a single-wide trailer. Meeting Riker’s gaze, he said, “Did you hear that?”

Riker said, “Sounded to me like a big can of worms just got opened. I’ll accept full responsibility if anything comes of it.”

“No, you won’t,” said Yazzie. “Littlewolf is in debt to you for life. You saved an elder. Her elder. You’re one of us now. Your enemy is our enemy.”

The three Navajo passengers were awake now. They all nodded in agreement before rising to gather their belongings.

Changing the subject, mainly because he knew there was no way he could change minds firmly set by age-old customs, he thanked the man for the ride.

“I’ll be back before sunrise,” Yazzie said. “That fancy watch of yours have sunrise tables?”

Riker tapped his head. “This is my sunrise table. We’ll be up and ready.”

They unloaded quickly in the dark and moved everything into the trailer. Vern got a room to himself. Not that he knew the difference. The women took the other two rooms. Everyone else grabbed a couch or a spot on the floor. Nobody had eaten much of anything since leaving the Las Vegas Speedway, but they were all too exhausted to dig into their packs and prep an MRE.

After everyone settled down for the night, Riker locked the door, took a wooden chair from the table, and wedged its curved back underneath the doorknob.

Ninety minutes after leaving the Navajo Bridge behind, everyone, Riker included, was sound asleep.

 

Chapter 33

 

After taking over driving duty, Groot wheeled the Ram south by west on I-25. The going was slow. Every mile or two, he encountered a tangle of crushed vehicles. The ones black with soot, the cars and trucks ravaged by fire and resting on warped rims, materialized from the inky black with little to no warning. Every time the Ram’s headlights washed over the latest example of the vehicular carnage created by the frantic diaspora that escaping the zombie scourge had become for millions of American city dwellers, they illuminated the same macabre sights: immolated drivers hunched over steering wheels. The haunting hollow-eyed gazes of passengers who had perished trying to escape the flames and continual pounding of metal on metal as each newly arrived vehicle slammed unwittingly into the growing mass of them. Corpses of motorists who had escaped their vehicles only to be caught and consumed by the ravenous dead.

One particularly large pileup, consisting of sixty or seventy vehicles, reminded Groot of the doozies that occurred regularly in the Midwest during severe winter snowstorms. Hard as it was for him to believe people fleeing a population center would be so preoccupied that they wouldn’t notice the sight of flames or a wall of brake lights looming on the horizon, it wasn’t even in the top ten of the most perplexing things he had seen people do to avoid the reanimated dead.

The short drive from Wagon Mound to where he finally parked the Ram, on the side of I-25 and within view of a roadside sign showing the distance to the nearest city, had taken much longer than he had anticipated. A fact-finding side trip into the city had burned another hour.

Now, with the sun yet to break the horizon, the pre-nautical twilight provided just enough light for Groot to see the slender form stretched out on the Ram’s spacious backseat. The steady rising and falling of Sloane’s chest told him she was still asleep. If there were enough light for him to make out more detail than the outline of her body and the subtle motion of her breathing, he would have noticed her eyes moving spasmodically behind her dark eyelids.

Chance was asleep on the fully reclined seat across the center console from Groot. The kid had been out cold for close to nine hours.

Though Groot had plugged the bullet holes in the rear window with gauze and tape, it was still chilly inside the cab. But that wasn’t the reason he had barely slept. It was the excitement that he was about to learn if the messages on his phone were finally going to lead to answers that had kept him awake. The other reason was out of his control. Every time he had been close to drifting off, Sloane would mutter something in her sleep that sent his mind wandering off on a different tangent. He’d been chewing on her last utterance for an hour. It had something to do with her mom and dad and the latter eating the former. After dragging his mind out of the gutter, he spun his wheels trying to remember if Sloane had broached the subject of losing her parents to Romero. After all that had happened since he had met her and the kid in Iowa, the minor details were proving hard for him to dredge from his memory.

Just as Groot had decided another catnap wasn’t on the docket, he spotted the outlines of two zombies. They were a dozen feet apart and crawling toward the Ram at a glacial pace. Between them, they had three arms and one- and one-half legs.

The crawler in the lead, blessed to have both arms and a leg, had been in the middle of the road near the large pileup just outside the city limit. He guessed the thing had crawled out of one of the wrecked vehicles. Crazy how fate worked, thought Groot. The poor guy had escaped a fiery death only to be set upon by the very things he was fleeing. Becoming one of the flesh-hungering monsters was a kick in the nuts delivered by a cruel world that never ceased to amaze. The things he had seen in his old profession paled in comparison to the depravity on display now. Nine missed meals from total anarchy … indeed.

Groot had first spotted the second crawler on his way into town. It had been propelling itself in the same direction as the Ram—westbound in the fast lane. As Groot swerved to miss it, the Ram’s headlights illuminated the prone zombie just long enough for him to see the creature’s left arm flop forward, the leg on the same side go straight, and the toes on the foot lose their purchase on the roadway. For all the effort exerted, the thing was making little forward progress. Even though the glimpse had been fleeting, Groot saw enough to know that the zombie’s entire right side was gone. Something had sheared it off cleanly, from shoulder to groin. The exposed ribs and vertebra had glowed white when the spill from his headlights infiltrated the creature’s hollowed-out chest cavity.

Returning from the brief foray into town, two miles west of where the Ram was now, he had come across the sorry sight a second time. It had acquired a companion. While he had thought about stopping and putting the crawlers out of their misery, opening the door and letting the cold outside air infiltrate the cab and wake his passengers wasn’t worth the sentiment.

Sloane drew in a breath and held it. It was loud inside the cab. Then there was a thrashing noise back there, and she exhaled sharply. Rising up and grabbing hold of the seatback, she yawned and said, “Jesus Christ, Groot, I needed that. How long was I out?”

“Long enough for me to rebandage my wounds, plug up the holes in the back window, load all of our magazines”—he held up his phone—“and read two hundred pages of the novel I’ve been chipping away at since all this began.”

“That long, eh?” She rubbed her eyes, stretched, then yawned again. “What are you reading?”

“The Swiss Family Robinson by Johann David Wyss.”

“It’s about a family stranded on an island, right?”

“Yeah,” Groot said. “I went out on the water with my dad when I was young. I was always worried our boat would sink. He used to read it to show me that people survived mishaps at sea. It’s helping me to remember him.”

“That’s heavy,” Sloane said. “You think he’s still out there?”

Groot nodded but didn’t take his eyes off the crawlers. The one with both arms was pulling away from the other. The things had been dragging themselves in pursuit of the pickup for hours. It scared the shit out of him that they never gave up. They were tenacious. So damn persistent.

Sloane rose off the seat to see what had captured Groot’s attention. Seeing the crawlers, she said, “Those two followed you back here?”

Sparing Groot from having to recount when he first saw the crawlers, Chance farted himself awake.

Eyes wide, Chance said, “What the hell was that?”

Trying hard not to laugh, Groot said, “The wind. And now that you’re both awake, we have things we need to figure out.”

Crinkling his nose, Chance said, “What’s that smell?”

Groot pointed at the crawlers. “Probably them.”

Sloane ignored his question. Something on the passenger side had drawn her attention. Adopting a tilt to the head, she pointed up the road. “Does that sign say what I think it says?”

“Holy shit,” Chance exclaimed. “You drove us all the way to Las Vegas?”

“Without consulting us, no less,” Sloane said, her voice rising. “You said the place got nuked. Back the fuck up. Now! Get us away from here.” In seconds, she had gone from her usual stoic self to nearly losing her shit. It was a side of her nobody ever saw. At least not since she had signed her first UFC contract and her agent had informed her that her every move from that day forward would be subject to scrutiny by the public and press alike.

Raising his hands in mock surrender, Groot said, “We’re still in New Mexico.”

Chance said, “There’s a Las Vegas in New Mexico? That’s fucking weird.”

Sloane slumped back in her seat. “I’m sorry I freaked out. I like to be able to see my opponent. Radiation is some scary shit.”

Groot said, “Apology accepted. I should have told you.”

Interrupting, Chance said, “What are the things we need to figure out?”

“The place I’m going is northwest of here,” Groot explained. “If we’re parting ways, Vegas is the place to do it. I scouted out a new car lot. There’s a Tahoe that caught my eye.”

Chance said, “How are you going to get in and get it started without a key?”

“There’s a Slim Jim in your B&E bag. My dad was a repo man for a short while. He taught me the ins and outs of the business.”

Sloane leaned over the seatback. “I’m intrigued.”

Groot said, “You don’t think we should split up?”

She shook her head. “There’s an old African proverb my trainer used to use when someone on my team stopped being interested in the main goal, which was winning a title. If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.”

“So we stick together then.” Groot looked at Chance. “Is that cool with you?”

Chance shrugged. “I got nobody.”

Groot started the motor. “I’m still going to get that Tahoe. We’ll convoy to the address I have.” He put his hand out. “Give me my Beretta. It’s in the glovebox.”

Taken aback, Chance said, “What are you going to do with it?”

“I’m going to put the crawlers down. They’re such a pathetic sight. Besides, they used to be someone’s father, husband, brother, son. I’d hate myself if I didn’t put them out of their misery.”

 

Chapter 34

 

True to his word, Sergeant Yazzie had arrived before dawn, zero-dark-thirty to be exact, and had parked outside the trailer and had waited for Riker and Shorty to catch on that he was there.

The rumbling of the 6.6 Liter V8 Duramax Diesel under the hood of Yazzie’s lifted Chevy Silverado 2500HD eventually dragged Riker out of a solid stint of REM sleep. He had quickly strapped on the prosthetic, knocked out his mandatory twenty-five pushups, then dressed in the same clothes he’d been wearing going on five straight days. After gunning up in the dark and putting on his coat, he roused Shorty from the loveseat the little man had claimed eight hours prior.

The gravel lot where they were to pick out their vehicles was only close to the trailer by country standards. It was a mile north of the trailer and directly adjacent to the freshly graded plat of land the National Guard was now operating from. A phalanx of trailers sat before a long row of Humvees, MRAPS, and a couple of the newer Oshkosh L-ATVs. The vehicles were the same shade of tan as the ones Riker had become accustomed to seeing in Iraq. Four different models of helicopter constituted the new Navajo Nation Air Force. There was a pair of AH-64 Apache gunships, close to a dozen Black Hawks, a trio of Chinook CH-47 heavy lift birds, and four AH-6 Little Birds—known as killer eggs by those in the special operations community.

Though Yazzie had said the lot was massive and was home to a couple of hundred civilian vehicles and more than fifty eighteen-wheelers, it wasn’t until Riker got eyes on it that he fully appreciated the ongoing scavenging operation the Navajo Nation had stood up in response to the release of the Romero virus.

Riker’s new Ford F-150 Roush Raptor, white with black accents, was the closest thing to the Shelby Baja he could find. As if someone else already had designs on taking it, it was all alone on the lot’s periphery and came with a full tank of gas. Which was a good thing, considering the 6.2 Liter Rousch supercharged engine was only slightly better than the Baja where gas mileage was concerned.

He was still adjusting to the minor differences between his old Shelby Baja and the new Ford Raptor pickup he had just picked out when the single-wide trailer he and the others had spent the night in came into view.

 

Riker had just cut the engine when Yazzie’s Silverado pulled in close to the Raptor’s right side. Seconds later, the Raptor was flanked on the opposite side by Shorty’s chosen ride: a lifted Ford F-550 dually pickup complete with Warn winch, an obscene array of driving lights, and a six-inch lift kit. The only difference between this shiny black rig and the Earth Roamer was that this F-550 didn’t come outfitted with an oversized camper shell.

Alerted by the noise of the arriving vehicles, Lia, Tara, and Steve-O filed out of the trailer, arms full of gear and eager to see who was driving.

The women went straight for the Raptor, piling their stuff into the backseat area.

Steve-O spotted Shorty in the F-550 and made a beeline for the passenger door. He opened the rear passenger door first and tossed his light backpack on the floor. “I need your help,” he said to Shorty. “Vern is stiff as a board. It’s going to take me, you, and Lee to bring him outside.”

Shorty said, “Is he starting to stink?”

“A little bit.”

“Okay, my man,” Shorty said, shutting off the engine. “Let’s get him aboard.”

Riker was at the door to the trailer when the two men approached. He instinctively knew what was up. Tara and Lia showed up seconds later, both insisting they were not going to be left out of the solemn task.

Under Yazzie’s watchful gaze, the group of five survivors maneuvered Vern’s rigid corpse through the front door and managed to get him down the stairs without banging his head on the jambs or handrails. They walked him to the rear of the Raptor, dropped the tailgate, and slid him aboard headfirst.

Riker closed the tailgate, moved to one side of the bed, reached over the bed rails and tucked the flag tightly underneath the dead man.

The sun was still out of sight, well below the eastern horizon and just beginning to impart a gauze-like quality to the band of high clouds pushing in from the south when the three trucks finally got underway.

Riker took it easy until Shorty’s new ride was within a truck length from the Raptor’s bumper. When Shorty was formed up and they were eastbound on Indian Route 12, the main road cutting west to east through the Navajo reservation, Riker flicked off the lights and accelerated briskly to catch up with Yazzie in the Silverado.

From the backseat, Tara asked, “When’s the last time you checked the satellite phone?”

“Last night before I passed out.”

“So, what, seven or eight o’clock?”

“We were up a little past that,” Lia divulged. “I snuck out and snuggled with him until he started snoring.”

Tara passed the phone forward. “You received a message at 8:11 p.m.”

Lia took the phone from Tara. Regarding Riker, she said, “Want me to read it aloud?”

Riker said, “Maybe just read it first and then paraphrase for us.”

Lia thumbed in the unlock code, scrolled to SMS messages, then selected the latest in a slew of them. Immediately, she saw the incoming text had come from a phone number she didn’t recognize. Drawing a deep breath, she opened the message.

Thirty seconds later, after reading and digesting what she had just read, she said, “It’s from Wade. He’s worried because Benny and Rose didn’t return from their mission. They didn’t call or text him, either. And they didn’t pick up when he called them. That was last night around dusk. He went on to explain why they didn’t go out to search for them …”

“Because they would have had to leave Trinity unprotected,” Riker interrupted. “Dozer isn’t a deterrent to someone hellbent on taking the place for themselves.” He looked at Lia. “Call Benny’s phone.”

She tapped on the screen, then put the phone to her ear. Ten seconds passed. Then fifteen. Finally, grimacing, she shook her head. “No answer. Straight to the default voice mail announcement.”

Riker felt the beginnings of a monster headache. “It doesn’t mean what you two are thinking. There’s a good explanation for them not answering. Benny and Rose will be fine.”

“Wade and Sarah have a frickin’ helicopter,” Tara said, disgusted. “One of them could have gone out.”

“For one,” Riker said, “searching for the War Wagon in the dark, even with NODs, would have been like looking for a needle in a haystack. Especially if the pilot is the only pair of eyeballs doing the searching. Secondly, the noise the helicopter makes coming and going from Trinity draws up a dangerous number of zombies from Santa Fe. If nobody is there to thin the numbers as they arrive, getting our rigs inside the walls isn’t going to happen.”

“I see your point,” Tara said, sitting back in her seat. “It’s pretty cold of them to just cut the cord and leave them hanging though.”

“Benny is a smart guy,” Riker pointed out. “He’s not an alpha, but he’s got a good head on his shoulders. The Wagon’s a relic and has been sitting for years. It may have broken down on them.”

“It’s a rolling command center,” Lia reminded Riker. “Even if it broke down and the gear no longer works, they still have the satellite phone. We all know how anal Rose is about keeping it charged up.”

Riker went quiet for a long spell. Finally, pounding a palm on the steering wheel, he said, “Nothing we can do about it right now. When we get off Navajo land, we’ll go back the way we came in. Benny and Rose delivered the message. That we do know. If they did break down, they’re somewhere between the 111th depot and Trinity. That’s a sixty-mile stretch of road. It’s where I think we’re likely to find them.”

“Makes sense,” Lia said. “Want me to send a text to Wade and Sarah? Let them know the plan?”

“Good call,” Riker said. “Stress that they need to remain at Trinity until we get back.” He looked at his watch. “We should be there around one o’clock.”

Lia tapped out a message, sent it on its way, then set the phone down where she could see it. Out of sight, out of mind had contributed to them not getting the message about Benny and Rose in a timely manner. She didn’t want to repeat what may prove to have been a fatal mistake.

 

The eastern border of the Navajo Nation, a short drive east of the city of Window Rock, was no longer being guarded by just the tribal police and a handful of armed volunteers huddling beneath sun canopies. Singlewide trailers now flanked the only road in and out. A dump truck loaded with desert soil blocked the road. A pair of MRAPs fronted the dump truck, the top-mounted heavy machine guns manned by locals and trained down the road. Partially blocking the eastbound lane was an eighteen-wheeler, the flatbed loaded high with lumber. Tarps hid from view items strapped to the flatbed. Already, the construction of guard towers was underway.

Yazzie braked short of the dump truck, whipped the Silverado into a looping U-turn, then stopped on the opposite shoulder. The tinted driver’s side window motored down and he waved. That was it. There was no small talk. No wishes for safe travel. Just the wave and the man was on his way back to Tuba City.

Riker looked over at Tara. “Better time than any to break the bad news to Shorty and Steve-O.”

Tara was already out of her seatbelt and leaning on her brother’s seat. “I still don’t see why you didn’t just radio them the news when we left Tuba City. The drive across the reservation would have given them time to process what it might mean.”

Riker said, “Steve-O is why.” While preparations were made to move the dump truck, he stuck an arm out his window and waved Shorty forward.

The F-550’s passenger window was already down when the truck slid in next to the Raptor. Steve-O was looking down on Riker, a smile on his face. He said, “What’s up?”

Cutting to the chase, Riker said, “Benny and Rose left Lazarus yesterday in the War Wagon. Obviously, they made it to the Guard armory and delivered our message. The bad news is they didn’t return home and haven’t been heard from since.”

While Riker was talking, Steve-O’s smile was slowly morphing into a frown. Grabbing the brim of his Stetson—a habit that Riker knew meant the man was having trouble accepting the information—Steve-O said, “Did you try to call them?”

Riker nodded.

Tara ran the left-side passenger window down. Regarding Steve-O from the backseat, she said, “We’re all in agreement that this is a vehicle problem. Just because they didn’t use their phone to call for help doesn’t mean they’re in trouble. I can think of a couple of reasons they didn’t.” She forced a smile. “For now, Steve-O, I want you to practice glass-half-full thinking. Be positive. That’s what I’m trying to do.”

“I know, I know,” Steve-O replied. “Prayer works. Worry doesn’t.”

The dump truck reversed off the road and the driver waved the pickups through. On the opposite side, the dump truck already motoring back into place, the occupants of the MRAPs waved and flashed thumbs-up from behind ballistic glass.

“The elder Littlewolf must have been a revered figure among her people,” Lia said.

Riker said nothing. His mind was a million miles away.

 

***

 

Silence filled the cab for the better part of two hours as they drove east from Window Rock on I-25. The conversation centered on the reliability of a satellite phone’s battery as they skirted Albuquerque to the west via Rio Rancho and Bernalillo. Reaching Bernalillo, they passed the 111th Sustainment Brigade headquarters without stopping. No reason to. Littlewolf knew they were grateful for the strings she had pulled to get them across Navajo land. From there, the two-truck convoy jumped on Veterans Memorial Highway, a four-lane that shot north by east through sixty miles of sparsely populated high desert.

After traveling close to four hundred miles across Arizona and New Mexico and having had seven long hours to process what the ever-silent satellite phone meant, Lia drew in a deep breath and dropped the Steiners in her lap. If she were standing, she would have lost her legs, too. For what she had spotted up the road was the manifestation of her worst fears. While the rational part of her brain had been telling her everything was going to be okay, what Lee referred to as her magical magnifying mind had been busy doing the opposite. And as she was focusing on a large cluster of zombies crowding a vintage recreational vehicle, two things happened at once. First, she suddenly realized it was the War Wagon on the side of the road. Then, near instantaneously, a zombie on the periphery of the group jostling to get to the closed side door detected the sound of the approaching vehicles and spun a quick 180.

Tears streaming down her cheeks, Lia said, “Pull over. Do it now.”

“What is it?” Tara asked.

Hands trembling, Lia plucked the binoculars from her lap and offered them to Tara. “It’s the War Wagon. I think one of the zombies on the side closest to us is Benny.”

As Riker slowed and eased the Raptor to the side of Veterans Memorial Highway, he chanted, “Fuck, fuck, fuck.” Setting the brake, he shook his head. “It’s all my fault.”

Tara raised the binoculars to her face. She scanned the crowd of zombies left to right, then swept them back to the left again.

“Is it him?” Lia asked. “Tell me I’m wrong.”

Tara said nothing. Her hands trembled, the Steiners in a tenuous grip.

As the F-550 pulled alongside the Raptor, Shorty’s voice came from the Motorola in Riker’s shirt pocket. “Is that what I think it is?” he asked.

Instead of answering the call, Riker ran his window down. After Steve-O followed suit, speaking across the distance, Riker said, “It is what you think it is, Shorty. That’s the War Wagon. Benny is one of them now. He’s somewhere in that crowd.”

Steve-O yanked off his hat. “Noooo. Where’s Rose? She’s not one of them, is she?”

“The RV door is closed,” Riker said. “That’s a good sign. I’m hoping she’s inside. If so, chances are good she’s safe.”

“You sure Benny’s turned?” Shorty pressed.

“Confirmed by more than one person,” Riker said. Next to him, Lia was weeping.

Tara rolled down her window. Her eyes were red. Lower lip quivering, she said, “I saw him. He got bit on the cheek and throat.”

Pounding the steering wheel, Riker said, “Why didn’t you just wait, Benny?” He shook his head, eyes downcast. “He got his mission. Knowing Benny, he was too proud to use the phone to call for help.”

Calling across the space between the vehicles, Shorty asked what the plan was.

Riker said, “You’re going to drive past the RV and slow down. Honk your horn until you get them all on the hook and then lead them up the road.”

“What about Benny?” Shorty asked. “If we get a good shot, take it?”

Riker nodded. “If you do get a shot at him, take it. Don’t worry about the body. Just keep leading the rest of the herd north. When you get them around the bend up there, break away from them and continue to Trinity. We’ll stop and get Benny. He’s not staying out here if I can help it.”

“If we don’t get a good shot?”

Riker’s eyes flicked from Shorty to Steve-O and back to Shorty. “I’ll figure something out.”

“What are you going to do now?” asked Steve-O. “Please be careful, Lee Riker. You’re my best oldest friend.”

“I will,” Steve-O. “We’ll get Rose and catch up with you guys.”

Steve-O replaced his Stetson and gave Riker a tip of the hat. “See you when we see you, amigo.”

 

Chapter 35

 

Riker stayed back while the F-550, with Shorty at the wheel and Steve-O riding shotgun, sped off toward the War Wagon. Letting the Raptor’s motor idle, he lifted the Steiners to his eyes and waited for the plan to unfold. As Shorty closed with the zombie horde, pulling the F-550 dangerously close to the largest concentration of them, Riker concluded there had to be at least a hundred creatures amassed there. When the undead were on the hook and trundling after the slow-rolling pickup, revealing the War Wagon in its entirety, he saw why Benny had ventured from safety. A jack was supporting the Wagon’s left front corner. On the ground nearby was a tire iron, a tire with a blown-out side wall, and the spare that was supposed to replace it.

Lia said, “Shorty’s stopping.” A beat later, she issued an update. “And now he’s reversing.”

Tara put a hand on her brother’s shoulder. “It’s not your fault, Lee. Benny was a grown-ass man.”

Riker swung the binoculars left and then walked his gaze up the road until he saw the F-550’s brake lights. He had the F-550 fully bracketed with the Steiners, everything in sharp focus, just in time to see a hand holding a pistol poke out of the open passenger-side window.

A trio of dead things had peeled away from the main herd and were closing on the static pickup’s passenger side. The zombie out in front of the others looked like Benny. The height and body type, long and lanky, screamed Benny. Though mussed, the shoulder-length hair was the same, too. As the zombie raised its arms and lunged for the pistol clutched in what had to be Steve-O’s hand, the pistol bucked subtly three times. The zombie that used to be their friend was settling in a heap on the road when licks of flame again erupted from the Mosquito. Riker counted three more shots. The noise from the brief fusillade didn’t carry over the distance. The sight of a second zombie falling to the road beside the first was heart-wrenching, to say the least.

Lia said, “Was that Rose?”

Before anyone in the Raptor said a word, the Motorola crackled to life. “It’s done,” Shorty said. “They got to Rose, too. Bite marks all over her arms. I’d bet they’re defensive wounds.”

In the background, Steve-O could be heard mournfully stating that his friends were going to be together forever in Heaven.

As the F-550 disappeared around the distant corner, the rest of the herd following blithely behind, Riker handed over the binoculars, took his foot off the brake, and steered the Raptor toward the War Wagon.

Stopping a dozen feet short of the RV, Riker and Tara dismounted.

Armed with the MP5, she started a counterclockwise recon around the RV.

Approaching the RV’s door, he climbed the steps and peered through the small window. All he could see in the narrow seam between the blinds’ horizontal slats was a bank of computer monitors and the backs of the chairs pushed up in front of them. Nothing moved inside. Wanting to prolong the grisly chore awaiting them up the road, he mounted the deployed steps and banged hard on the door. Getting no response, he tried the knob. Unlocked. Deciding to wait for Tara before going inside, he instead went to his knees and peered underneath the RV, looking for zombies snagged on the undercarriage or wrapped around the axles. Other than an abundance of blood and gore indicating more than one zombie had been sucked under the RV between leaving Trinity and it ending up here, nothing he saw explained the destroyed front tire. He did notice something rectangular in the gloom and strained to reach it. When he got his fingers around the item, he knew instantly what it was.

Riker was just rising off the road when Tara returned from her recon. She was flashing a thumbs-up to indicate the coast was clear when she saw that he was holding a satellite phone. “Where’d you get that?” she asked, a slight tilt to her head.

He gestured toward the road underneath the War Wagon. “It was under there. I’d be willing to bet it dropped out of Benny’s pocket while he was working on changing the tire. He went to get it, and a Bolt got the drop on him.”

“How do you explain Rose?”

“She was probably out on the road and was supposed to be looking out when it happened.” He shrugged. “We all have had lapses in concentration. Being vigilant at all times is not how she was wired.”

“I guess we’ll never know.” Tara gestured at the door. “Locked? Unlocked?”

He mounted the stairs and opened the door.

Recoiling, the MP5’s suppressor swinging up toward the door, she said, “You got to knock first.”

“Already did.” He stepped across the threshold. Over his shoulder, he said, “Stay put. I’ll be right back.”

When Riker emerged, he had the keys for the War Wagon in one hand and a yellow legal pad in the other. His eyes were red. It was clear he had been crying.

“What’s wrong?” Tara asked, instinctively reaching out and hugging him.

Waving the legal pad, he said, “They were planning a life together. House with a picket fence. A garden. Place for Dozer to run.” He wiped his eyes. “And Rose thought she was pregnant. It’s all shot to hell now.”

Lia had seen what was transpiring and jumped down from the Raptor. She caught the part about Rose being pregnant and that Lee now felt responsible for three deaths instead of two.

“Let’s go,” Lia said, tugging on Riker’s shirt sleeve. “You can sit this one out. Watch our backs while we load them in back with Vern.”

Saying nothing, Riker looped around the Raptor and climbed inside. When everyone was aboard, he drove the half mile to the spot in the road where his friends and their unborn child lay. He put the truck in Park and set the brake. Since the herd was a safe distance away, and there was nowhere a straggler or Bolt could be lurking nearby, he took Lia up on her offer, opting to remain in the cab and provide overwatch. While he watched the two most important people in his life performing a grim task that he should have been doing, the satellite phone in the center console emitted an electronic trill. With hot tears wetting his cheeks, he hit a key and lifted the phone to his ear. It was Wade. After filling the man in on what had happened at Jacob Lake, and then breaking the bad news about Benny and Rose to him, he sat for a minute and just listened. He was still listening and nodding when Tara and Lia climbed aboard. He ended the call and looked up to see the two staring expectantly at him.

“Just an update from Wade. They’re clearing the entry for us. They need a few more minutes, though. I need one of you to radio Shorty and have him wait for us at the base of the mountain.”

Lia snatched up the Motorola and relayed the request.

“Will do,” Shorty radioed back. “We’re closing on the highway. The herd is a couple of miles behind us. We’ll be waiting for you all on the west side of the highway. And I’m really sorry about Benny and Rose. Tragic loss of life.”

“You don’t know the half of it,” Riker responded. “How is Steve-O taking it?”

“Fine as can be expected,” Shorty replied. “He’ll be okay. He’s a grown-ass man. I’m glad he was the one who did the deed instead of you or Tara. Nobody should have to live with the memory of putting down family or old friends. We’ll be waiting. See you when you get here.”

 

***

 

Ten minutes after leaving the War Wagon behind, Riker was pulling in behind the parked F-550. Five minutes after reuniting, and with Shorty out in front, they had crossed the highway and were tooling up Paseo Encantado Drive, the long winding two-lane that eventually linked up with Trinity’s private drive.

Entering the home stretch to Trinity, a straight private drive that dog-legged right before terminating at the cul-de-sac fronting the entry to the mansion, Riker spotted something out of place. Rising above the picket of mature trees behind the mansion’s outer wall was the turret atop the great room. It was the only part of the mansion visible from the mountain’s lower flank. Someone, Benny, he guessed, had gone up on the roof and had covered all of its windows with some kind of fabric. Looking at Lia, he said, “Either of you hear anyone saying they were going to cover up the windows in the turret?”

Neither Lia nor Tara had a clue.

With the window thing still bugging him, he slowed the Raptor to put room between it and the F-550 as Shorty steered the big dually around the blind corner. When the brake lights on the F-550 flared red, and the pickup came to a sudden lurching halt, the driver door whipping open and Shorty leaping out as if his life depended on it, Riker steered to the left and craned to see what he already had a hunch was about to happen.

Tara said, “What the fuck is wrong with that man?”

Lia simply shook her head. “He’s a loose cannon.”

As Riker steered the Raptor around the F-550’s open driver’s door, mere inches to spare on either side, he was first to spot the white Chevy Tahoe parked on the right side of the turnaround. Behind it was a red Dodge Ram, the bullet holes in its left flank and rear window impossible to miss. Behind the Ram was a mound of twice-dead corpses. It rose to the top of the Tahoe’s roof. Standing behind the Tahoe, both dressed in the gear Rose and Benny usually wore when they did the culling, were Clark and Rhoads. They each had an MP5 and were standing guard over a trio of people he had never seen before. It was a man, a woman, and a kid. The man was tall and lean. He towered over the woman and kid. By the time Riker had squeezed the Raptor past Shorty’s rig and was bringing it to a slow-rolling stop, everyone aboard reacquired Shorty. He was running and nearly equidistant from his pickup and the new arrivals.

Lia said, “Wade and Sarah sure are trusting. I’m beginning to think those two aren’t on our side.”

“They are,” Riker assured her. “Wade told me these people showed up unannounced a couple hours ago.”

Tara said, “So we’re in the refugee business now?”

“It’s not like that,” Riker insisted. “Wade vetted them.”

“What? He just asked them if they were bandits or murderers? I don’t like it.”

By now, Shorty was two-thirds of the way across the cul-de-sac and looked as if he was beginning to tire. Clark and Rhoads and the others had looked up and turned to face him.

Tara said, “Shorty is heading straight for the Amish dude?” She paused for a second, then turned to face her brother.

Shorty didn’t slow or deviate. Just hit the man and wrapped him in a bear hug. Because of the difference in height, Shorty’s arms only reached the man’s ribcage. It looked like a kid embracing a father. In fact, it was the other way around. And Riker was the only one in the cab privy to that fact. Smiling, he said, “That’s Shorty’s son. Apparently, Shorty called him with the iPhone I gave him when we parted ways in Mississippi. He had Matt’s phone number memorized. It went straight to voice mail, so he left a message and included the address to Trinity. I had written the address on the back of one of Wade’s business cards. It happened to be the one I gave to Shorty when we dropped him off at the Ford dealership in Mississippi.”

“Wade and Sarah just took their word for it?” Tara said, voice betraying her skepticism.

“He showed Wade and Sarah an old photo of the two of them in better times,” Riker explained. “They were in Florida, on a boat at sea. To back it up, Matt showed Wade multiple pieces of photo ID. Last name is Twigg. Same last name as Shorty. After all that, he showed Wade his Chicago PD credentials and the badge to go with it. So Wade agreed to let them wait outside. When the zombies that had followed them up the hill caught up with them, they got out of their vehicles and started putting them down.”

Lia said, “So that explains why Wade and Sarah are out here.”

Riker nodded. “They were outnumbered and needed help,” he explained. “Plus, after all the bad news of the last couple of days, they wanted to see the reunion up close. See something to be happy about for a change.”

“So it was Wade who asked you to keep it to yourself?” Tara asked, incredulity creeping into her voice. “And in turn, you thought it was okay to keep it from us? Not cool, Bro.”

“You left Shorty hanging,” Lia said. “You’d want to murder someone if they did that to you.”

Riker pointed across the dash. “Does that look like the pissed-off version of Shorty? That version we’re looking at just had his world righted. He’s happy as a clam.”

Steve-O was out of the F-550 and trudging slowly toward the commotion. It was clear he didn’t know what to think of it.

Tara elbowed open her door. “You’re right about the good news. Considering what’s in the back of this truck, we all could use a dose of it. Let’s go meet these folks.”

 

Epilogue

 

The Next Day

 

It was the first time every chair around the long table in the great room had a butt in it. Ten, to be exact. Even Dozer had staked out a spot on the floor near the head of the table where he could survey the room. Anything that happened to find its way onto the floor was his. The spread on the table was from a stash of food Lia, Tara, and Rose had been adding to since the first time they had ventured down off the mountain. It had been Vern’s idea to surprise the rest of the group with a special meal between Thanksgiving and Christmas. He figured it would boost morale. Surprise feasts had been a Godsend for him and the other troops in country during the Vietnam War. Sadly, he wasn’t here to see the joy it was bringing people who had just suffered monumental loss.

Riker sniffed his shirt sleeve. Crinkled his nose. It still smelled of smoke. A sad reminder of the morning’s events. An hour earlier, they had all been down the valley, in the backyard of one of the homes in the subdivision Rose had had her eye on, the funeral pyre supporting the bodies of Vern, Benny, and Rose fully engulfed. The flames from the burning mesquite and dry sagebrush reached heavenward. They stayed only long enough to pay their respects to the veteran and their friends from another life. With the conflagration still in full swing, the thick black smoke twining the air becoming a visual dinner bell for the dead, they had reboarded their vehicles and sped away from the scene before they could attract a following.

Now, after having said another prayer for those lost, past and more recent, Shorty lifted his glass to give a toast.

Acknowledging Shorty, who was sitting next to his son, Matthew, and looked like an entirely new man, Riker rose and tapped a butter knife against his glass.

When the din of conversation subsided, Shorty cleared his throat. Eyes wet with tears, he thanked each and every person around the table, finishing with Sloane and Chance, whom he singled out for helping his son get away from having to serve in what he had come to consider a warped version of the pre-Romero military. “For if it wasn’t for Matt making it to the address I left on a voicemail before I lost the phone Lee gave me in Mississippi, this reunion wouldn’t be happening. Furthermore, if Matt wouldn’t have made it here, I would have never learned that my daughter … Matt’s sister, made it out of Jersey alive. I gleaned enough from those last voicemails she left on Matt’s phone that I’m confident she found safe haven as the first waves of dead were spreading from the big cities.” He wiped his eyes. “I made a pledge when the phones went down that I would go to where my kids were last and at least try to find them alive. I tried to make it to Chicago”—he shook his head—“but there were too many Zulus.” He smiled. “That’s what these guys call the infected. I kind of like it. Has a nice ring.”

“Cut to the chase,” Tara chided. “My pressed ham and turkey loaf is going cold.”

“And the jiggly cranberry sauce is calling my name,” Steve-O put in.

“Long story short,” said Shorty, “me and Matt are heading east to see if we can find Megan. At the very least, we’ll get some closure.”

Riker said, “Glass half full, Shorty. You have to act as if she’s alive. Keep the ember burning.” He fist-bumped Matt. “I’m in. Anyone else?”

Hands shot up all around the table.

“We’ve got a lot of preparation to do,” Riker pointed out. “Maps to pore over. Gear to fix. Weapons to clean.”

Steve-O said, “And a War Wagon that needs fixing.”

“That too,” Riker said, smiling in spite of all that had happened recently.

Sloane said, “What’s your toast, Shorty? My food is getting cold.”

Shorty made a show of putting up his fists. “Wouldn’t want to get my ass beat by a girl.” He raised his glass. “To Rose and Benny. May their adventures in Heaven be better than those on Earth. And to Vern. A man who deserved more respect than I gave him. For that, I am truly sorry.”

Glasses full of sparkling cider clinked all around, then everyone dug in, savoring every bite of what could very well prove to be their last meal together.

 

THE END

 

Riker’s Apocalypse will resume with Book 6: THE PLEDGE

 

 

 

 

Shawn Chesser on Facebook

 Shawn Chesser Facebook Author Page

Shawn Chesser on Twitter

ShawnChesser.Com

 

Also by Shawn Chesser

 

Surviving the Zombie Apocalypse

 

TRUDGE

 

SOLDIER ON

 

IN HARM’S WAY

 

A POUND OF FLESH

 

ALLEGIANCE

 

MORTAL

 

WARPATH

 

GHOSTS

 

FRAYED

 

DRAWL: DUNCAN’S STORY

 

DISTRICT

 

ABYSS

 

GONE

 

HOME

 

FURY

 

FAMILY

 

The Hitter

 

QUIET WAR