Mavis stared at the clump of dirt on the Humvee’s carpet. Black rock in brown soil. Another round pinged the vehicle, freeing emotion from the yoke of logic. Sunnie! Her lungs sawed for breath. Lacing her fingers, she clasped them so tightly her hands shook. Please God. Please. Please, please, let her be alright.
More gunshots merged with the rumble of distant thunder. Was the gunfight over? Could she get up? Could she check on her niece? She tried to straighten but a weight along her spine kept her folded like a table stowed under the seat. Bits of brain matter swung on the strands of her hair and oozed in bloody rivulets down the door.
“Keep down.” General Lister’s warm breath swirled through her hair, filling her cramped space with the smell of stale coffee. “Dawson I need a report. ASAP.”
A cramp stitched her side, sewing up the muscles coiled to spring her from the Humvee. Indistinct voices murmured near her left ear. Forcing her hands apart, she fumbled along her shoulder until she brushed cool plastic. Numb fingers pinched the sticky plastic communicator before she worked it into her ear.
“They’re falling back.” David’s voice parted the static crackling inside her skull. “Shall we pursue, General?”
No! She couldn’t risk losing him, too. Slapping her hand across her mouth, she trapped the words.
“Search and destroy, Sergeant-Major. Put a bullet in every last mother fucker’s head.” Lister’s bark echoed around the SUV. “This is an approved ex-fil route and I won’t have the MFs preying on the innocent.”
“Roger that.” David huffed.
Moans and cries interrupted the static being transmitted. Calls for help came from inside her head and outside the Humvee. So many voices. So much pain. Her mouth dried. Was one of them Sunnie? Had she been killed in the shooting? She yanked out the earpiece and threw it to the floor.
“I want a fucking perimeter set up ten minutes ago!” Lister shouted. Leather creaked as he sat up and the weight lifted from her back. “And someone better start yakking.”
She sprang onto the seat. Where was the walkie? Her fingers crawled like spiders over the seat. She’d had it before the firefight started. Her gaze darted from floor to bench to console to floor. Post-modernism blood spatter decorated the interior. Where could the walkie have gone?
“We have casualties, Sir.”
Casualties. She blinked. This was her fault. She’d plotted this egress route and through the Emergency Alert System told the whole world where to find them. She’d told the bad guys where to ambush them and kill her niece. The knowledge settled in her gut with the weight of a quantum singularity. Get a grip. Get a grip. Her thoughts distorted and twisted before being yanked away. She clutched her head and squeezed. Think. She needed to think.
“How many?” Lister stared at her from under bushy gray eyebrows. His lap contained the cup of a Marine’s skull.
The first victim of the ambush, but not the last, not the only one.
Death was part of the trip. She knew this would happen, had calculated the effects of human predation. She bit her lip to keep from screaming. Why couldn’t she have gone the rest of her life without seeing this again? The scene shifted to distant lands with more sand, turbaned men with covered faces, hot metal, spilled blood and fresh gunpowder. She focused on the scars on her wrists–souvenirs of ropes and shackles. Get a grip. Her presence of mind had saved her from the blinding darkness, the utter aloneness and the indignity of institutionalized hate.
It would save her again.
Save them all. She held her breath until her lungs burned and black crowded her vision. In the hypoxyia, her thoughts queued up in order, forming a plan.
Plans were good.
First, she needed to check on Sunnie. Which meant she needed the walkie. She seriously doubted the general would let her out of the vehicle until David sounded the all clear. “Walkie?”
Lister’s lips twitched. Slowly, he leaned closer. His fingers crept along the bench toward her thigh. “Glad to have you back, Doc.”
At least he hadn’t reprimanded her for her panic. Hell, the man might have had his own PTSD episode. Smell tended to do that. “I wish I could say it’s good to be back, but that would be a lie.”
“True.” He skimmed her thigh before her leg jiggled. “Might want to shake your ass for me.”
She glanced down. He pinched the hard plastic antennae of the walkie lodged under her thigh. She rolled her weight to the side. “Why didn’t you just say I was sitting on it?”
“And miss the fun?”
“Let me know when I have permission to leave the vehicle.” Snatching the device from his hand she stabbed the talk button. “Sunnie? Sunnie can you hear me?”
“I’m thinking it might be safe in Colorado.”
She shook her head. Technically, she was in charge here. But Lister had the gun and she knew he wouldn’t hesitate to conk her on the head for the good of his men. Hell, she would do just about anything to keep Sunnie safe. And speaking of her niece… “Sunnie? Hello? Mr. Johnson?” She addressed the medic. “Is anyone there?”
“Mavis?” A man answered before falling silent.
Her heart slammed to a stop. Oh no. If neither Sunnie or Johnson were answering, it must be bad. She set her hand on the metal door handle. Lister would need his gun to stop her.
“Mr. Q-Quartermain?” She tripped over the name of her neighbor. It must be really bad if he used her first name. He’d always called her Mrs. Spanner before.
“Yes, ma’am.” The old man’s voice warbled before disintegrating into a watery cough. His emphysema sounded worse. “Sunnie slept straight through the whole thing, Mavis. There’s not a scratch on her.”
She bit her lip. Would the old man lie? He too had someone to protect. She shook her head. Lying didn’t make sense. The wily octogenarian would know she’d be around to check for herself. But why was her neighbor answering the walkie and not the medic? Good Lord, could he have gone with David and the rest of his unit? “Is Johnson injured?”
“No, ma’am. He has his hands full at the moment.”
She sucked in a deep breath. Of course, the casualties. Fear had produced tunnel vision. Squeezing her eyes closed, she refocused. All that remained of her neighborhood was in that truck and she hadn’t bothered to ask about any of them. How could she expect them to look after her niece, if she didn’t keep their welfare in mind?
And now, after everything they’d survived together, one had been lost. “Who?”
Their faces played against her lids. Snapshot memories. Mr. Quartermain with his bow and arrows. The twin septuagenarians with identical track suits. Noni with her clacking dentures. The young couple afraid to be happy about her pregnancy. And a handful more. Which one had died?
“No one we knew.” Mr. Quartermain wheezed. “Four of the new arrivals were in too much shock to duck when the shooting started.”
Thank God. She sagged against the seat. Lumps poked her back. “Thanks for letting me know.”
“We gotta look after each other.”
His words resonated inside her, shaking ideas loose. Mavis stared at the silent walkie as the pieces slowly clicked into place. Of course, how could she be so stupid? Before flight or fight kicked in, the body froze.
“Perimeter is established.” Lister nudged her shoulder. “I have men coming with gear. You will wear it or you’ll never leave this car, understood?”
“Yes.” But a helmet and Kevlar vest wasn’t what was needed, wasn’t what would keep people alive. Soldiers on the front line stopped fighting for God, country and cause when the shooting started. They fought for those in the trenches next to them. The survivors may have arrived in groups, but that didn’t make them connected, didn’t mean they had someone to live for.
She needed to give them that.
And she knew just the way. Evolution may favor the survival of individuals, but nature skewed the odds toward those who worked for the group. Deep in their mammalian brains, humans were highly social animals, cooperating with others gave them an edge over the loners.
Two million years of human conditioning was a powerful weapon, and she would take advantage of it
A shadow moved over her window right before her door opened.
A woman in tan and green ACUs shoved a helmet and vest inside. Wind stirred her sandy hair and a droplet winked on the cracked right lens of her eyeglasses. Thunderheads boiled over her shoulder and rain streaked the horizon.
Mavis’s nose twitched as the smell of burning and damp mingled. The storm would chase them North, putting out the fires in front of them. At least something had gone their way.
“The lieutenant will be your own personal bodyguard until we reach safety.” Lister held his thumb to his earpiece while swiping the goo off his laptop.
“Got it.” Mavis plunked on the helmet. The straps tickled her shoulders but she didn’t care. Sunnie might be awake and wondering what the hell was happening.
“You’ve got ten minutes.” Balancing the laptop on his knees, Lister straightened his wire readers. “Don’t make me come looking for you.”
“Since we’re stopped anyway, I want the civilians and every available servicemen assembled in the wash.”
“You wanna expose our folks? Just because your boy-toy is haring after the snipers doesn’t mean it’s safe for everyone to lollygag in the open.”
“If I don’t give people a reason to live, they’re as good as dead.” Slipping out of the car, she quickly eased into the bullet-proof vest and adjusted the velcro until it molded around her body. The weight pressed against her chest and she tugged on the collar brushing her throat. Did they have to make them so high?
“What about those up ahead?” Leaning over the seat, he jerked his head to the dust and smoke trail in the distance. “Want me to call them back?”
She shook her head. Most of the front trucks were sick soldiers and the folks that had brought the farm animals. They already had responsibilities that kept them moving, alive. She was after the singles, the loners, and the orphans. “No need. I just want the civilians.”
He combed the chunks of soldiers’s brain from his buzz cut. “Assemble the non-coms in front.” Using his hand, he covered the mouthpiece. “What about our dead?”
“Unload them. We’ll bury them here.” She rubbed at the blood drying on her face. Sunnie couldn’t see her like this. She yanked the bottle of water off the floor.
“Where? The heavy equipment only dug graves farther down the road.”
She poured some water into her palm before splashing it on her face and scrubbing her cheek. God help her if she was just smearing it around. “This is Phoenix. Practically, everyone has a pool and most were told to use the water to flush the toilets and conserve potable water.” She would know. She’d written that order on her second day working on the Influenza pandemic. “They should be empty or nearly so.”
Instant mass grave.
Lister grunted. “Hell of a brave new world.”
She slammed the door as he started barking orders. Even without her earpiece, her head still rang with his shouts. Her helmet slipped back as she jogged toward the truck behind the Humvee.
“You should probably secure your helmet, ma’am,” the Marine said.
And have something else strangling her? No thanks. She cleared the open door of the personnel carrier. Holes punctured the canvas sides. Dark stained threads fluttered like thin red banners from the opening.
She raised her hand to touch them before curling her fingers into a fist. “How many people did we lose in this truck?”
“I don’t know, ma’am. Shall I check?” Hazel eyes widened behind the lieutenant’s glasses.
Maybe the military wasn’t as occupied as they needed to be to get through this. Surviving wasn’t easy for anyone, add in a healthy dose of guilt and she had a recipe for disaster. Mavis read the name stuck over her right breast. “Do you have a first name, Lieutenant Rogers?”
“Sally, ma’am.” The soldier’s gaze prowled the camp.
“What’s your specialty, Sally?” Not that it mattered, but everyone needed to know that they mattered, that someone cared about them. Mavis would be that person until they found another. And in forging the social contract, more eyes would watch after Sunnie. If her planned worked, everyone would be part of the village.
Whether they liked it or not.
Up ahead, a male Airman planted himself at the end of the truck pulled alongside Sunnie’s. Frustration cut deep grooves into his pale cheeks. “Reverend, I understand your work is important but there are others that request your help.”
“I can tend those in here until the shooting stops.” The whine came from behind the canvas.
Mavis clenched her teeth. Maybe not everyone should be part of the village. Especially men like Reverend Trent P. Franklin. She hated the man on sight and didn’t trust him farther than she could spit into the wind. God forgive her, but she wished the man had been killed in the firefight. “I thought priests were supposed to put others’ needs above their own.”
“He’s not a priest.” Sally’s lips thinned and her eyes narrowed. Contempt twisted her lips when she stared at the Reverend Franklin hiding in the shadows of the truck.
She stopped and surveyed her bodyguard. There was a story here. But was it enough to excommunicate the preacher? “He isn’t?”
“No. Priests are celibate. Reverends and ministers aren’t.” Pink colored the lieutenant’s cheeks. Her jaw worked a couple of times before words came out. “I…I–”
“I understand.” Ew! Sleeping with a snake held more appeal than that blond haired, blue eyed scum bucket. And the snake was still a serpent after shedding its skin. She had a nasty feeling that something far worse lurked under the good reverend’s well maintained facade. She needed to check with the general and see if his men were still keeping an eye on him.
“It was a slip of the tongue. I’m Catholic, so everyone in a collar is a priest to us.” But even preachers usually wore a collar. Reverend Trent P. Franklin had been in grungy street clothes when the Marines introduced the wolf into her flock.
Mavis shuffled to the back of Sunnie’s truck. Two Marines stood at the rear of the personnel carrier. They counted to three before each lifted a blond kindergartener from the truck. The children squealed as they were swung high before being set on their feet.
“Did you know the Reverend from before?” Is that why you slept with such an asshole? To return, however briefly, to your life before the world went to Hell?
A handful of teenagers paused above the dropped gate. The girls accepted a helping hand from the servicemen, but the boys leapt to the ground in splats of mud.
Sally shook her head before tucking a loose strand of hair under her helmet. “No ma’am. I was the one who registered the Reverend when he arrived in camp.”
Ah, yes, Mavis had meant to look into how the military had registered people. That had not been her department with the Surgeon General’s office. Perhaps they had gleaned some nugget she could use.
“You did?” She counted the children as the teens shepherded them passed. Four youngsters and two tweens. Although pale and thin, they appeared unhurt and even smiled. But they’d known each other before. They would do alright. She watched the teenage boy David had brought in teasing two battered teenage girls before chasing after the youngsters. Her gaze swung to the reverend’s spot. Gone but not forgotten.
“I suppose the reverend asked who needed the most attention. And given that you were registering folks, you’d know. Right, Sally?”
Dull eyed adults shuffled along the dirt road. Many had specks of blood staining their clothes. They followed each other in ant lines-stepping where the one in front stepped, moving in syncopated rhythm but not in harmony. Harmony required a connection, these were little more than robots allowing servicemen and women to guide them. These were her high risk category; the ones that would sit down and die.
Sally snorted. “The reverend was more interested in camp politics then ministering to anyone but his needs.”
The hair on Mavis’s nape rose. The wolf was hunting amongst her flock. Like all predators, he was trying to suss out the strong and the weak. No doubt he’d already picked his targets.
He’d find out soon enough, he picked the wrong herd. These folks were under her protection. And she never showed mercy for those that threatened hers.
She shifted to the side, leaned against the truck behind Sunnie’s. Heat wafted from the engine grill. She needed to be smart about culling the Reverend. Killing a man of the cloth wasn’t actually good community building. She needed more data to formulate an effective offense.
Working in tandem, the Marines unloaded first a wheelchair then an old man with withered legs. A red-haired woman tucked a blanket over his lap. He swatted her behind and she straightened with a huff.
“For that Henry Dobbins, you can make your own way down.” With a toss of her head, she tucked a white haired woman’s hand in the crook of her arm and stomped off.
“I intend to, woman.” The old man chuckled. He rocked the chair back and forth a few times. By the time, he got it moving, most of her neighbors had been unloaded. They waved at her before following him along the dirt road.
“Did he talk about himself at all?” With his arrogance, he was bound to want to talk about how smart he was.
“Once he got started, I couldn’t get him to stop.” Sally clasped her hands behind her back. “I thought reverends were supposed to be good listeners.”
Mr. Quartermain climbed gingerly to the ground before his grandson jumped down next to him. Glaring at her, the boy shoved aside his long hair and adjusted the bow and quiver of arrows on his shoulder. She smiled back. No doubt the kid missed his internet full of government conspiracies. Hmmm. She swatted at a fly buzzing in her ear. If the man was half as smart as he thought he was, he might use the general paranoia to institute a regime change.
She’d have to warn Lister.
“What else did Reverend Franklin talk about?”
“Franklin, ma’am?” Sally’s forehead wrinkled.
Mavis watched the man in question finally climb down from the protection of the truck. They were talking about the same wolf, weren’t they? What were the odds that two wolves would appear in her flock? She nodded toward the flannel clad man. “Yes, Reverend Trent P. Franklin.”
Sally’s eyes narrowed. “He registered under Benjamin Trent.”
“Did he now?” Ah, yes, she’d forgotten the man’s disdain for women. Arrogance could be his fatal flaw.
“What information did you gather when he registered?”
As if feeling her gaze, the reverend slanted her a glance. Straightening, he brushed and smoothed his flannel shirt. Annoyance slithered off his face before he smiled.
Shit! The asshole was coming over.
Sally shifted in front of her, blocking her view. “I got his fingerprints. They’re not the best.”
Reverend Franklin slowed.
Fingerprints could open lots of information vaults. Mavis grinned. She could hug the officer and the military for their intelligence gathering in times of a disaster. “I’m surprised he gave them up.”
Doubt tempered her joy. Unless… unless he didn’t have a record.
“Reverend!” A woman shouted. “Reverend Trent!”
He turned in the direction of the call and the smile scurried away from his lips.
Soon, the woman in a blood stained uniform dragged him out of sight.
“Trent refused to give them so I took advantage of a distraction and pressed his hand to the reader.” The lieutenant chuckled. “I don’t think he knows that I did it.”
He would hate knowing a woman got the better of him, especially, if she was able to use it to expose him as an imposter. “Run a background check on him. Full check.”
Every conman left a trace somewhere.
“But ma’am, the electricity…”
Yes, the electricity was out. “The government’s personal generators are still working, which means the computers connected to them are still running. You just have to find a working cellphone signal.”
Sally grinned. “Or I can rig a satellite phone to the handheld and run his background from anywhere.”
Mavis waited until the Marines climbed the tailgate and disappeared inside the carrier before making her way to the back of the truck. “Do it and let me know as soon as you find out anything.”
The sooner the wolf was dealt with, the safer they all would be.