Apocalyptica (book 2): ran

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ApocalypticaPart TwoRan: Book One

 

Joshua Guess

 

 

 ©2016 Joshua GuessAll rights reserved

An important note for the reader:

 

This eBook is the first part of a serialized novel. It is not itself a complete book, though I did my absolute best to make it a complete story. I’m putting this warning here because this is my first attempt at releasing a serialized novel in this way, and inevitably someone will purchase it thinking it’s full-length and get upset when they see it isn’t. I’m not casting blame, as I have done that exact thing myself more than once. Just wanted to give everyone who picks upApocalypticafair warning.

Also by Joshua Guess

 

Living With the Dead

With Spring Comes The Fall

The Bitter Seasons

Year One (With Spring Comes The Fall, The Bitter Seasons, bonus material)

The Hungry Land

The Wild Country

This New Disease

American Recovery

Ever After

 

The Fall

Victim Zero

Dead Will Rise

War of the Living

Genesis Game

 

The Next Chronicle

Next

Damage

 

Ran

Apocalyptica (Serialized into multiple parts)

 

Misc

Beautiful (An Urban Fantasy)(Novel)

Soldier Lost (Short Story)

Dog Dreams In Color (Short Story)

 

With James Cook

The Passenger (Surviving The Dead)

8

 

 

 

In the movies, searching for people usually comes in the form of an exciting montage or a beautifully dramatic journey through questionably constructed buildings. In real life it’s incredibly boring. Admittedly our experience was different given the inclusion of zombies, but still. Mostly boring.

We took the Jeep. I hauled out the small flatbed trailer I kept in the back yard and hooked it up. Jem eyed me when I handed him a backpack. Then he looked through it.

“Why do we need all this stuff?” he asked, pawing around in the carefully packed food, water, and spare clothes. The clothes I was especially proud of having on hand, since he couldn’t wear any of my stuff. Granted, it was just a few t-shirts I’d picked up in a package deal at a flea market, along with a pair of fleece pajama bottoms, but that I had anything at all was kind of amazing. I ask you, who could resist buying that stuff for just a dollar? No one, that’s who.

“These shirts are neon orange,” Jem noted. “The bottoms are...”

“Camouflage,” I finished super helpfully. “The guy selling them called it a ‘hunter’s combo’ deal. We’ll pick you up some other clothes out there.”

“I still don’t get why we need this,” he said, waving a hand at the bag.

I shrugged. “Hoping we don’t need it, but I’d much rather have something to eat, drink, and change into should we get stuck away from here and find ourselves hungry, thirsty, and covered in blood.”

Jem stared at me for a long few seconds. “Most women don’t pack with concerns about starving or being showered in blood.”

“Most men don’t hesitate to stereotype women into broad categories of acceptable and unacceptable behavior, but you don’t hear me complaining,” I said.

Jem did the wise thing and said nothing.

I’d spent the planning stages of the trip multitasking, which by my definition meant doing most of the work while explaining to Jem why and what I was doing. He was a smart guy and understood immediately once I nudged him in the right direction, but he was still having a hard time dealing with the change in context. Jem Kurtz operated in a world based on order in many variations, and all those kinds of order were now pretty fucked.

I let myself get into a flow of running babble as I checked guns and filled magazines. I reminded myself, when it got a little annoying, that most people don’t have the sort of childhood that prepares them for the end times. Oh, sure, a lot of people out there liked to go on about the apocalypse, but that was usually used as a political hammer or a fund-raising tool. I hadn’t seen any horsemen trotting around, though I graciously stipulate that it’s a big planet and they probably have more important places to be than rural Indiana.

The Jeep handled most of the junk on the back roads with ease. There wasn’t a lot of it this far into the county, but the occasional spray of random household objects at intersections spoke of families—or possibly looters—taking trucks full of hastily-packed belongings through corners at speed.

Wallace itself was a different story.

Our town is pretty small. Not Mayberry small, but definitely still not large enough to require, say, more than one McDonald’s. Or more than three Starbucks. Honestly, I think we could have got away with two Starbucks. Having access to espresso in its infinite configurations within a triangle stretching no more than four miles on a given side seemed almost like too much civilization.

Where was I? Oh, yeah. Small town.

First-world community dwellings in the form of towns and cities all follow a similar growth pattern. You have the old, central element that is either—or sometimes both—composed of ancient buildings deemed historically necessary, or the largest, newest structures imaginable. Wallace had both. The absolute center of town was a strip of restored brick buildings with a road a hundred and fifty yards long between them. No cars were allowed on St. Agatha Street, commonly called Agatha Square or just Agatha, which turned it into a pleasant shopping center and thoroughfare.

Fact: Hector’s, a barbecue place housed in Agatha, was the five-time reigning state champion for ‘best barbecue’ at the state fair. It was a title well earned.

Growing in a ring outside this quaint setup were the hallmarks of the modern age. Office buildings, a parking structure, the library, and plenty of other concrete blocks posing as modern architecture. A curious feature of Wallace was the change in its population; on a given weekday, it increased by half. This was thanks to the assorted state government facilities housed around town. Small towns have cheap rents, and even rural parts of states need a central location from which to manage a given area.

From that hard nugget of commercial real estate sprang—sprung—grewthe suburbs. Not the way you’re thinking. Not like Chicago or Atlanta, where entire towns are suburbs of the giant-ass city in question. No, I mean the quiet spreads of housing tracts whose reasonably large yards fit on geometrically perfect streets all loosely interconnected by county roads and a similar position on the overall socioeconomic spectrum.

A lot of people describe cities as organisms, usually like cells. I like to think of them in less complex terms.

The town of Wallace and the surrounding Louis County were like a boob.

Hear me out.

The center of the city, in terms of size, is the nipple. It’s the prominent, obvious part everyone pays the most attention to. Around that is the areola, the band of less interesting but still notably different material marking the buffer zone between the nipple and the rest of the boob in this metaphor.

Then there’s the county, the suburbs, all of that. That’s just the skin making up the majority of the boob.

Wait, whatsizeare we talking about here? Uh. Pervert. This is just a visualization. Don’t be creepy.

The point is that the concentration of human beings in Wallace and the directly proportional volume of debris were both predictable variables. The closer to the center, the more dense it was going to be.

Except I didn’t think about the obvious. People’s homes were on the outside circle, the largest circle. When you’re terrified of losing your family, your dog, or maybe just your stuff, you get home. Damn the consequences.

It looked like someone took the level of crazy in Wallace and overrode the safeties to crank it up to eleven.

“Why didn’t we see this yesterday?” I said, leaning against the steering wheel as I gaped at a three-way intersection packed with stopped cars. Some were wrecked, many others trapped by those wrecks. Every one of them had been ransacked, clothes and supplies strewn about in every direction. Many dead bodies sat inside vehicles, blood splashed inside and out.

Jem studied the scene. “If I had to guess, I’d say most of them were either at home or got there fast when all the craziness started. Not hard to imagine a lot of people hunkering down and hoping things got better, then making a run for it when they didn’t.”

I steeled myself against a rising flood of anger and bitter sadness. Jem just looked pissed off.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

He glanced at me sharply. “For what?”

I nodded at the vista of broken lives in front of us. “I made you take me home. If I hadn’t, you might have been out here to help some of these people.”

Jem chewed on that for a second, then shook his head. “You didn’t make me do anything, Ran. I chose to help the person I actually could help. Look at that out there. Part of my job is—was—knowing how to see the limits to what I could do. Yesterday I agreed with you. Today the world is a much different place.”

We drove methodically, slowly. Jem mapped out a number of routes using an actual map from my glove box. The problem we faced was the spread of locations where his friends lived. Of the five or six people we were going after, only two had homes on the outer edges of Wallace. The others lived in various apartments between here and there, one of which sat on the top floor of a building in Agatha Square itself.

The Jeep had a bench seat in the back capable of holding three people. I’d given Jem a host of reasons why taking one vehicle was a safer bet, and pointed out that several people could squeeze into the cargo space behind the bench. Both of us knew the likelihood of finding everyone on his list alive was vanishingly small.

Even if the trip netted us zero survivors, it would be worth it if we could snag enough supplies. I had food at my house, but things were going to get worse soon. Sure, the power was still on, but there were signs things in the wider world had taken bad turns. Fewer channels were airing anything at all, none of them regular programming. Blackouts were rampant, and I think Wallace and the counties nearby got off easy because of the nuclear plant we used for power. That wouldn’t last.

Farms were surely producing food, but the complex system of arteries feeding the rest of the country their product was effectively gone. The roads existed, but chaos and death made the organized transport of goods almost impossible.

So while we were absolutely going to help people if we could, it wouldn’t be at the expense of leaving behind stuff we’d need to survive.

It took fifteen minutes to find a road into town not saturated with too many bodies and cars to drive through. In a stroke of luck it happened to intersect a road near our first stop, only a handful of blocks south.

“I’ll tell you when to turn,” Jem said as we made our way through the neighborhood.

I nodded. “Who is it we’re going after?”

“Carla Wilson,” Jem said. “She lives in a big double lot on Van Santen street.”

The name tickled something in my head. When making the list he’d only mentioned first names. “Why does that sound familiar?”

“She’s the county attorney,” Jem said. “Also an avid Diablo 3 player, if that helps.”

A light went on in my head. Like many small-town officials, she also had a day job. I’d seen ads for her law office before. She must have gotten her fix for serious legal work from handling government cases, because she mostly advertised for divorces and low-cost business stuff like incorporating. I had actually considered using her when I made my business into a corporation.

I was more stoked by the idea that she was a gamer.

There were a few more twists and turns than I’d have liked in getting to Carla’s house, but in the end we managed. It was a two-story affair painted in a pale blue. It had a big picture window in the front, but luckily the first floor was raised up four feet off the ground, making breaking in through windows problematic at best.

The foundation had windows, barred with stout iron mesh, and I caught a flicker of movement inside when we stepped out of the Jeep. I pushed my door closed gently. Jem, on the other hand, pushed his shut like a normal person who didn’t live under threat of being eaten alive.

In the unnaturally silent morning around us, the sound was as loud and echoing as a gunshot. I turned a glare toward Jem that four out of five boyfriends agree could melt the paint off a battleship.

“Sorry,” he said. “I didn’t think.”

Rapid footsteps thumped inside Carla’s house followed by a series of clicks from the front door as locks were thrown.

The face revealed by the sunlight streaming in was not the carefully-posed image from the ads. This woman was devoid of even a particle of makeup, had dark hollows beneath her eyes, and wore what looked to a bloodstained set of sweats.

She said nothing, only waving her arm frantically for us to come inside. The movement sent her messy ponytail bobbing, and I didn’t need to be asked twice. I hauled ass.

Jem was right behind me, but I could hear the approaching crowd of zombies even over his heavy footfalls.

9

 

 

 

The door slammed behind us. A few seconds later the sweet, gentle tones of slavering hordes of raving cannibals could be heard outside. I was alarmed. From his expression, Jem was also—very reasonably—alarmed. Carla just sighed with the long-suffering resignation of a woman who has Seen Some Shit and is no longer impressed by it.

“That was not my fault,” Jem said. “They had to have been coming before I shut that door.”

I grimaced. “Yeah, that’s probably on me. I should have thought of the sound of the Jeep attracting attention.”

“You guys want some Kool-Aid?” Carla asked, shuffling through an open door to the basement.

I glanced at Jem, asking the question without saying a word. Is this normal? Does this woman seem like her usual self, or at least close enough given what the world is doing right now? Or are we about to walk down these steps and have our heads cut off and our bodies turned into jerky?

Jem’s answering expression was a shrug. Thanks, Jem.

The basement wasn’t what I expected. Solely from an architectural point of view, it was unique. My guess was that the modern house above had been built on a refurbished and much older foundation. The ceilings were low enough that Jem had to duck pipes in a couple places. The floor was bare concrete, relatively new, but the walls were patched fieldstone.

The big ass steel door set in the far wall was definitely new. Like,reallynew. The stone around it was cut where the door had been added, the exposed inner stone still unstained by the air.

I took in the facts.

Woman living alone with a front door strong enough to stop the beating arms of violent attackers. She had paid an undoubtedly large sum of money to have a panic room installed in her basement, unless I missed my guess. She had none of the markers of someone on the edge of losing her grip. The rush of chemicals in her brain causing fear and panic were familiar friends. In short, my first guess was right. Shehadseen some shit.

Fact: women who have witnessed the remarkable, especially the remarkably terrible, can smell their own.

Jem gently reached out and touched Carla’s shoulder with the tips of his fingers. “You okay?”

She glanced back, one hand on the metal door. “All things considered, sure. Come on in.”

The door opened silent and easy, revealing a room five feet deep and twice that wide. There was a small bed and table where two pistols sat, one in a holster.

A pitcher of Kool-Aid rested on a built-in counter alongside a hotplate. Carla grabbed a pair of red plastic cups from a stack and wiggled them at us. “So? Can I tempt you?”

I glanced at the pitcher. “What flavor?”

“Red,” Carla said.

I raised my hands in surrender. “Red me up, then.”

Jem was looking around the small room with an annoyed expression. “Does every woman I know or meet have a secret underground room? Did I miss out on a trend?”

Carla looked at me curiously.

“Sex dungeon,” I said. “Jem was very impressed.”

“No! No, do not tell her that, she’ll believe you.”

Carla frowned thoughtfully. “Yeah, I kind of suspected Jem had a little freak in him.”

“Jesus Christ,” Jem said. I was delighted to note his neck turning pink with a blush.

I took the proffered chalice of sugary fruit drink and sipped. “So, Carla, I’m Ran. Nice to meet you.” I put out a hand.

Carla shook it. “Likewise, especially if you came to get me out of here. My car was trashed ten minutes after I got home and I’ve been staying in the panic room most of the time, or close to it. I wasn’t really prepared to be stuck here.”

“Did you have this put in?” I asked absently as I noticed the uneven lay of the floor and the overall shoddiness of the room.

“Not exactly,” Carla said. “The house already had this little space. Part of a bomb shelter in the back yard. Knew that when I bought the place, but didn’t know it was about to collapse my foundation. So I had it filled in except for this part, which I had reinforced and made into my little getaway here.”

“Crazy ex?” I asked.

Carla shook her head. “I lived in Chicago until a few years ago. Have your house broken into enough times and you develop a healthy paranoia.”

“See?” I said to Jem. “Some people agree that paranoia can be healthy.”

“Yeah, that’s great,” he said. “How are we going to get out of here? Will those things go away?”

Carla walked over and sat on the edge of the bed. “They come and go in waves. I’ve seen a couple people who were waiting in their houses try to leave. It didn’t end well for most of them once the meal bell went off.”

The key to most problem-solving was using what you knew and what resources you had by utilizing a combination of knowledge, logic, and experience. Less often solutions were a function of how much risk you were willing to take. In this case, whether or not I had a death wish.

“I think I have an idea,” I said.

 

***

 

Let me preface this by pointing out that I’m well aware of how dangerous certain things are, and when they’re appropriate. Deciding to see how high you can jump, for example, is an acceptably risky activity on the ground but not one you want to partake in while riding a roller coaster.

So when I say that running through the back door of Carla’s house was our best option, trust me to know my business.

The only part of me not covered in body armor was my head, and let’s face the facts: if I found myself in a situation where my head was a concern, I was probably screwed anyway. The armor fit well, a little stretch at all the joints for mobility, with thin, hard plastic plates protecting most of the vital areas. I had done a fair amount of stress-testing on the original armor the company had given me to try out for them, so I knew it could hold up to a lot of punishment.

I was counting on the tear-resistant cloth to keep me safe if any stray hands grabbed onto me as I ran.

“Over here, assholes!” I shouted as I weaved between houses and made my way to the street. The crowd wasn’t huge, maybe forty bodies, but still enough to kill me many times over if I stumbled or fell. Every one of them flinched, a weird sort of shared involuntary reaction, and turned to face me. It wasn’t the kind of predator behavior you saw in documentaries about wolves or big cats. No momentary pause while new information was being processed and added. This was more like a total reset, an almost mechanical reorientation.

As one, they moved forward. I wasted no time making sure I had the whole posse on my ass, mostly because I couldn’t do anything about it if I didn’t.

I ran at full speed for about ten seconds, trusting my ears to judge how far the eighty scraping footfalls were behind me. I glanced over my shoulder and saw a comfortable margin, maybe thirty feet, and slowed my pace a little. No bomb to help out this time around, and I needed to give Jem and Carla enough time to do their part.

I was starting to get a stitch in my side when the Jeep rolled by—and partially through—the crowd of zombies. As agreed before I set out on this happy jaunt, I burst into a full sprint to create some space between us and the zombies before Jem slowed the Jeep enough for me to hop onto the trailer. As the Jeep moved forward, though, I took note of a couple zombies already on the trailer. I guess they’d grabbed it on instinct, but it was not a safe option.

Carla, in the passenger seat, rolled her window down a few inches.

“I just saw that,” she said. “Should we slow down so you can jump in through the door? I can climb back and open it.”

I shook my head. Trying not to wheeze like an old lady, I steadied my breathing as best I could. “Too risky.” I scanned the street in front of us. “Okay, I got it. Have Jem slow down a little and tell him to drive past that pickup down the road and get as close to it as he can.”

If this bothered or confused Carla, the woman didn’t show it. Instead she nodded sharply and rolled the window up as she turned to pass on the information.

I rarely put my trust in other people. Not in a misanthropic way; I don’t hate people as a class. I simply lack whatever structure or chemical some brains have that results in the ability to thoughtlessly assume other people will come through.

Adversity is a pressure cooker able to fuse the elements of trust into something new, even if it’s brittle. The insane twenty-four hours I’d spent surviving with Jem spawned that seed crystal, apparently, because I didn’t hesitate. I reached deep down and hauled out every watt of energy my body could muster and ran like a scalded dog.

I thought my legs were going to burst into flame when I reached the bed of the pickup, and in the fraction of a second between the act of lifting my foot toward the rear bumper and my boot finding purchase, I realized I had no idea what was in the bed. There could be half a dozen zombies laying in a puppy pile, just waiting for some dumbass to fling themselves in.

The permutations flashed through my head in a flare of incomplete possibilities, ranging from gnashing cannibal death to tripping on a bunch of random junk possibly littering the bed.

My boot met bumper and I slapped armored gloves over the tailgate, hauling myself up with the manic energy of someone who very much does not want to die, and especially not in a stupid way. I planted my other foot on the top of the tailgate andpushedwith everything I had, not bothering to look down for a nanosecond.

I landed on the diamond-plate toolbox and stepped onto the roof. The Jeep rolled past two seconds later and I casually stepped onto its roof.

Then Newton had something to say about it re: objects in motion and objects at rest. I wasn’t exactly at rest, but the Jeep was moving way faster than me.

My legs were jerked out from under me, and only a frantic scramble for the luggage rack kept me from that stupid death I was trying so hard to avoid.

After a breather and thirty seconds of berating myself I carefully turned myself around on the roof and got flat onto my stomach. Surface area sufficiently spread out enough to keep me from sliding—and desperately hoping Jem didn’t have to brake hard—I locked my feet against the luggage rack and pulled my gun.

The Jeep did buck a little when I killed the first stowaway zombie hitching a free ride on my trailer. Shooting from the top of a moving vehicle was way easier than I’d have thought. I give you that my targets and I weren’t moving relative to each other, but I’d still have thought the tiny bumps and jolts of driving would have made it harder than it was.

I picked off all of them in short order, my ears ringing from the shots. Should have remembered to put in my earplugs.

We drifted back out onto the county roads, dragging our train of zombies behind in a race with a widening lead. I stayed there for a few miles, Jem content to create a safe distance and me content to watch the bodies recede into it.

One rescue down. If the rest were this easy, I’d be dead before lunch.

 

10

 

 

 

 

The second name on our list, Randall Kallenburg, wasn’t just dead when we found him, he wassuperdead. I didn’t say that out loud, not wanting to make light of Jem’s grief, but Randall was the most dead I’ve ever seen a person. And I’m counting every horror movie in my extensive viewing history.

We didn’t even have to get close to his place to know. The front door of the pleasant old apartment building was ripped halfway off its hinges, a sight that filled me with a vague sense of dread I couldn’t nail down. Every window in the place was broken, and shredded bodies lay like fallen dominoes across the yard. Most of them were eaten, but Randall’s body was the worst of the lot.

He had been eaten and ripped apart, though I’m not sure it was in that order. His head was prominently displayed, spiked on a branch of a tree in the yard. From the driver’s seat, Jem cursed at the sight. Randall had a mane of long, coppery hair waving like a flag and a beard to match. His body rested beneath him, flesh almost gone from limbs laid out in the roughest parallel to their normal configuration, but much farther apart than they should have been. The arms were where arms should be, but several feet away, etc.

The layout bothered me in that vague way again, and then my brain clicked.

Jem, however, got there first.

“This wasn’t zombies.”

Carla, still in the front passenger seat, shot him a worried look. “Jem…he was clearly eaten.”

“No, what I mean is that people attacked here.” He pointed at the door. “A person couldn’t have done that with their bare hands. Someone forced that door, maybe with a tool but I’d guess they hooked something to it and pulled with a vehicle. Look at the way Randy’s body is laid out. Like someone butchered him and left him as bait. The zombies didn’t even take the pieces away, probably just crouched down and ate him there.”

He was right, maybe more than he realized. I saw it, too, his words painting the entire grisly picture. “That’s exactly what they did. Someone hit this place, used your friend as a distraction. Killed those other people, then...what, just tossed the bodies through the windows?”

I didn’t know the details, but I knew I was right. It was the only way the scene made sense. The human race, everyone. Less than a full day into the end of the world and our murderous true colors come shining through. And for what? Food? Money now useless as anything but kindling? Or was it the shiny loot like gold and jewels which have fascinated people through the endless, shitty ages of people being dicks to each other in the name of greed?

“If I run across whoever did this,” I said, “I’m going to shoot them in the face.”

“Goddamn right you will,” Carla said. “I had no idea it was this bad out here.”

I could see Jem’s knuckles go white on the wheel. “Neither did we.”

Our path wended through town, featuring the random turns and byzantine detours quickly becoming the norm. No small part of what ate up our time was avoiding zombies, or else stopping to deal with them. On the one hand, they mostly seemed to give up after a while, maybe in a dim recognition that moving metal boxes containing people were a harder and less reliable source of food than hunkering down and waiting for pedestrians.

“Oh, shit,” I said, leaning into the front and sticking out a hand. “We have to stop there.”

“Where?” Jem said. “The bank? I don’t see anything special.”

I grinned. “Oh, Jem my son. You have much to learn about our little berg. Trust me on this. I’ll show you where to park.”

Five minutes and one broken lock later, we moved cautiously through a small store whose only entrance was in an alley between the bank and a church.

“Welcome to Yoder’s Artisanal,” I said, sweeping my flashlight around the dark store. “This is a gold mine.”

Carla, in the relatively safe spot between me and Jem, raised an eyebrow at me. “Is this place run by Amish hipsters?”

“Eh,” I said. “More like hipsters stole the whole artisanal thing from the Amish. When you make everything by hand, everything qualifies.”

I loved the place for a host of reasons, quality being a major one. I’d bought one of the cured hams hanging over the register and it was the best meat I had ever eaten. But I would be lying if I said that a large part of the appeal, overcoming my base setting to buy everything as cheaply as possible, wasn’t from the fact that this place catered to people with tastes that were deliberately out of the norm.

I wasn’t about to admit I paid five times the going rate for tomato seeds simply because they were unusual heirloom varieties, though.

“I’m mostly thinking food, but I want to grab seeds and maybe a few basic tools, too.”

Carla glanced at Jem, who looked mildly upset. “I’m not sure how I feel about looting this place. It looked like Randall was killed by looters.”

“I get that,” I said. “The difference is we’re not hurting anyone. If the owners were here, I’d leave empty-handed. My guess is they’re giving this place up as a loss, considering how risky it would be to come here when they have way more of this stuff out on their farm. I’m not willing to leave resources laying around if we can take them with us.”

Jem walked over to a wall of preserves resting on hand-made wooden shelves. He picked up a jar and examined it in the dim light. “I do love strawberry jam...”

 

***

 

Twenty minutes later we set off again, this time with a cargo area full of pilfered Amish goods. There was far too much useful stuff in the place to fit even a tenth of it in the Jeep, so I’d taken the time to remove some choice items and hide them in several places. I doubted looters would be cracking open air vents to look for supplies.

Next on our list was Tony Williams. His apartment wasn’t quite in the middle of town, but neither was it very far off. “The Meadows,” Jem said when I asked him where we were heading. “Really? Isn’t that place super expensive?”

Jem smiled. “It is, but when you buy the lots and build the place yourself, you can afford to live a little better. Tony got into the construction business after he shredded his rotator cuff.”

“What did he do before?”

Jem chuckled. “Two years of pro baseball. He wasn’t anything special—even he’ll tell you that—but he saved all his money and started a business. Don’t worry, if Tony’s alive he’ll tell you about it in extreme detail every chance he gets.”

Carla stuck her chest out an spoke in a deep voice. “Spent all my high school years building houses with my dad. Promised myself I’d never have to do it again.”

“Your Tony impression needs work,” Jem said.

The Meadows apartment complex didn’t live up to the name. To be fair, I hadn’t seen very many that did. Except for River View apartments, the place I moved into when I became a legal adult, which did indeed have a view of a river.

Taking up a full block, Meadows was interesting. The whole property looked like an unbroken wall of brick from the street, with a tall arch in the middle leading inside. There wasn’t a gate to keep people out, but not many ignored the private property signs.

We ignored them. The apocalypse hath its privileges.

The interior was a narrow road styled into a rough circle with a large patch of grass dotted with a few trees in the center. A small playground sat nestled to one side, while on the other side of the road sat the apartments. Each had their own two-car garage at the bottom, the apartments themselves stacked atop them.

No one was in sight, living or dead. I was also surprised by—and mildly suspicious of—the absence of any of the debris and carnage the rest of Wallace was marred by. I might not be a statistician or scientist, but even I knew that something so out of the norm with the rest of the town had to be on one of the extremes. Either it was really bad or really good, and my natural inclination was toward expecting the worst.

“Weird,” Carla said. Apparently she got the same vibe. “This place is super clean.”

Jem navigated the narrow road slowly, riding the brake the whole way. “There’s something...ah. I get it.”

“What?” I asked.

Jem tilted his head slightly, as if afraid to point. “Something was off, and it took me a few seconds to understand what it was. It’s the windows. None of them have any depth. Look at how the sun hits them. You should be able to see variation in the shadows if there’s a room behind them, or at least curtains. I don’t see any of that. I think someone has painted the windows in these first few apartments black.”

“Is one of them Tony’s place?” I asked.

Jem shook his head. “He’s three quarters around the circle.”

I checked the magazine in my Glock. “Well, let’s not take our time. If people are in those buildings, I don’t want to give them any ideas about us being targets.”

We slowed to a stop in front of Tony’s place. Carla unbuckled herself, leaving Jem as our wheel man in case we needed to get out in a hurry. I stepped onto the thin strip of pavement between Jeep and curb to act as lookout and to provide cover.

The tiny hairs on the back of my neck were on end. Something was wrong here, the anxiety made worse by not having the first clue what it might be. I held my pistol low in both hands, ready to snap it up and fire and half worried I’d do it at an innocent person by pure reflex.

I heard the door handle rattle behind me as Carla tried to go in Tony’s house. Not drawing attention was a solid life plan at that point, so knocking was out of the question.

To my surprise, the sound of someone running heavily down a flight of steps followed. Tony, or someone in his home, had responded at once. I risked a look over my shoulder when the door opened.

Tony was a black guy about six feet tall and medium built. He looked more like an accountant than a construction boss, with his wire-rimmed glasses and business shirt. A massive sports duffle bag was slung over his shoulder, the handle of a baseball bat poking out.

It was the look of shock and anger on his face that made me whip my head back around.

A handful of people stood on the other side of the circle, every one of them with pistols raised. Without conscious thought, I stepped forward and raised my own, though I kept myself from actually firing. We were far enough away that I’d probably be wasting bullets.

The enemies, whoever they were, didn’t have my frugal streak. They opened fire with abandon. I ducked low and to the side, trying to find cover behind a tree.

Over the din of gunfire I heard someone shout in a deep voice.

“No! Don’t—”

I stepped behind the tree and felt something constrict around my heel. Before I could fully process what was happening, I was yanked off my feet and across the grass for several yards. I saw the rope and reached to pull it loose, but something pulled on it again.

I was being dragged across the tiny meadow by the enemy. They’d set traps. The kind meant for people. I knew then who I was dealing with; these people killed Randall, a man I had never met but who certainly had not deserved what came to him. Maybe not these specific people, but of the same class.

Monsters. I’d seen their kind before.

As I bounced and skidded across the brittle grass, I sucked in the biggest lungful of air I could manage and screamed.

“Get them out of here!”

Jem Kurtz, true to his calling as someone who protects and serves, did just that.

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