Easing in front of her, Eddie aimed his shotgun at the restaurant’s dark kitchen. “Come out, or I’ll shoot.”
Audra swallowed the lump of fear wedged in her throat and tiptoed into place behind him. Stupid! How could she have been so stupid? She’d been so busy showing Eddie that she knew her way around the fast food place that she hadn’t even remembered her flashlight. Now, it sat on the drive-thru window and she was defenseless.
Hadn’t her daddy always said pride was a pitfall?
Eddie stepped sideways, sweeping the muzzle of his gun from side to side
What was he doing? That wall might hide someone but it protected him, too. She tugged on his shirt. “Stop moving.”
He wiggled as if to escape her hold. “I’m giving you to the count of three, then I’ll start firing.”
What! From this range? Was he nuts? The blast wouldn’t go that much farther than the staging area. And didn’t shotguns only hold two shells? “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
What if there were more than two people back there?
“One.” Eddie steadied the gun, pointing it toward the dark aisle leading to the grills.
“Don’t shoot!” A man’s voice echoed off the tiled walls. “We’re not armed.”
“We?” She gathered the fabric of Eddie’s shirt in her trembling hands. Her tongue felt like foam in her mouth. We meant more than one, but how many more? There was only a baker’s dozen adults left in her group and so many children. Where they outnumbered? Evenly matched?
Could she take a chance on either? Using a toilet wasn’t worth the risk and they had enough fuel for a while, at least until they reached the soldiers.
“The mask is over my mouth, not my ears, Princess.” He stepped closer to the kitchen, yanking his shirt out of her grip.
She leaped after him, fisted the camouflage and tried to reel him back. Not one more person would die because of her mistake. Not one. “Maybe we should leave them be. Get out of here while we can.”
While everyone was alive.
God help her, if she lost people like she had in Casa Grande.
“No. We need that oil to reach the soldiers or my brother died for nothing.” Muscles bunched in Eddie’s back.”Come into the light. I want to see you.”
The shadows shifted by the deep fryer near the drive-thru window. “How do I know you won’t just shoot me?”
Her fear ebbed under the warm glow of hope. She’d walked by the fryer. If they’d meant her harm, they could easily have snatched her up while Eddie was locked outside. That had to mean something, didn’t it?
“Why would I do that?” Her would-be protected adjusted his aim a little to the left tracking the sound.
Could she take the chance that they were friendly?
“Others have.” The stranger volleyed back. “For less.”
Audra swallowed despite her dry mouth. They sounded like a bunch of preschoolers arguing. In her limited experience, thugs didn’t argue they bullied and threatened, occasionally flat out stole. One of them had to be the first to believe in the harmless intentions of the other or the soldiers would depart will they continued this showdown.
Taking a deep breath, she stepped out from behind Eddie’s sheltering body. She trailed her fingers over the half wall separating the dining room from the ordering area. If the stranger and his followers did have weapons, perhaps she could dive behind it before getting injured.
“We mean you no harm. Please come out.” She set her hand on the shotgun’s muzzle, pushing it down slightly.
“What are you doing?” Eddie hissed.
“We’ve heard that before.” Shadowman answered.
So had they. Throbbing started at her temple, but that she couldn’t live her life like this. Her stomach knotted. Then again, if this was another Casa Grande, she wouldn’t be living much longer.
“Is that why you’re hiding?” Eddie shifted on his feet but didn’t raise his weapon.
“No, we’re hiding from the gang that just came through here.”
She sucked air in through her teeth. People had caused the explosion. People with bad intentions. She glanced over her shoulder. On the other side of the tinted windows, storm clouds dimmed the weak sunlight. Children lined up to use the toilet at the gas station, but she couldn’t see the field or the neighborhood where the explosion occurred.
Were the bad guys already making their way back to them?
Her toes tapped out the seconds. It was time to be all in or cut their losses and leave.
“They’ve been harassing us for the last two days.” The man’s voice broke before he continued. “Picking us off. Stealing our food.”
“And what? They just magically didn’t come in here?” Eddie jerked the muzzle free and aimed it at the kitchen again. “The only restaurant that was open during the Redaction was magically bypassed?”
A shadow morphed into a silhouette then a man emerged from the darkness. Pale skin, black Polo shirt, dark slacks and brown hair. Lines bracketed his mouth and fatigue hung on his eyes. “Haven’t you heard the broadcasts?”
He certainly looked like a man being harassed. “What broadcasts?”
Fabric rustled behind him. Just how many people were back there? There was only one way to find out. It was time to cooperate and a Silvestre’s duty was to lead.
“We drove up from Tucson last night and our radio is dead.” Crossing the ordering area, she set her palms on the counter between them, proving she was unarmed. Trustworthy “What do these broadcasts say?”
“There’s a radio under the counter.” The man took another step toward the serving counter. “I’ll get it and you can hear for yourself.”
“Hell no!” Eddie charged the counter.
Raising his hands, the man backpedalled until he crashed into the staging area. Metal clanged as his heels hit the stainless steel cabinet. “Okay. Okay!”
A muffled cry came from the back.
“That’s enough!” Geez, these two were worse than tweens. “I’ll get the radio.”
“Audra,” Eddie growled. “He could use you as a hostage.”
“I would never!” The stranger protested.
She shoved her bangs out of her eyes. Did he think she was completely naive? “They had plenty of opportunity to do so when I entered and you were locked out.” Still, Eddie had a point. Keeping her eye on the stranger, she rounded the corner of the counter and pushed at the fake wood door cordoning off the area.
“You won’t take it, will you?” His hands dropped from ear-level to shoulder. “We need it to find the soldiers.”
Soldiers. The magic word. Practically the keys to Heaven. “You’re looking for the soldiers, too?”
With the stranger and the kitchen in her peripheral vision, she ran her hands under the stainless steel counter. Nothing sat on this stack of plastic trays. Clearing the first register, she skipped the cup holders. A dark lump sat on the tower of trays.
“Yeah, they’re supposed to be evacuating the city, but no one showed up at our gathering point so we’re heading out along the route as directed.”
“The fires don’t seem so bad here.” Eddie approached the counter. The muzzle dipped a bit.
She snatched up the radio and stabbed the on button. Nothing. Not even static. Please God, can’t they get one break. Was there really a broadcast?
“The fires aren’t the problem.” The stranger reached for the radio before raising his hand again. “With the soldiers gone, some folks have just gone a little… crazy.”
Eddie nodded. “We know.”
“Batteries are dead.” She set it on the counter. Not that it changed anything. They would still head for the university’s east campus. The news had showed images of the soldier’s temporary base there.
“It’s a wind-up. No batteries.”
The side door banged against the wall. A gust of wind blew half charred leaves across the tile. Eddie swung around aiming for the new intruder.
Jacqueline Silvestre marched through the side entrance. A small pout tugged at the corners of her eyes when she spied the weapon pointed in her direction.
Eddie pointed his weapon at the ground.
“Really Audra, how long can…” Her mother trailed off as she spied the stranger.
“Mother.” Hitching her behind on the counter, she swung her legs over and spun around then dropped to the other side. “You were supposed to wait for me to signal the all clear.”
“You didn’t answer the walkie-talkie, dear.”
“It was on the entire time.” She reached for it on her belt to show her mother she wasn’t completely stupid but her fingers encountered empty air.
“You lost the walkie, Princess?”
She pinched the bridge of her nose to stop the pounding from blowing off the top of her head. “It might have fallen off when you pushed me through the window.”
“The children couldn’t wait, dear.” Her mother snapped her fingers and two lines paraded toward the restroom.
“You have children.” The man jerked his chin toward the back. “We do, too.”
“How nice.” Mom smoothed her hair. “Since that is settled, Audra, I really must insist that the children be permitted to make use of the facilities.”
Audra threw up her hands. Obviously the wrong Silvestre was in charge. Turning back to the stranger, she scanned the ground. Her walkie-talkie squatted like a black bug near the staging area’s kick plate. “Do you have anyone using the facilities?”
“No. We’re all in the back.”
“Go ahead, Mother.” She watched two lines of children march by.
At the restroom doors, Mom parted them, sending half into the boys room and half into the girls. Their murmurs and whispers blended with the swell of voices coming from the back room. Now for the hard part.
To take them or leave them?
“I can get that going for you, Audra, isn’t it?” The stranger held out his hand for the radio.
Since he called her by her name and not that odious Princess like some people did, she picked it off the counter and placed it in his palm. “You have me at a disadvantage, Mr….”
A muscle ticked in Eddie’s jaw. Strangling the shotgun’s stock with one hand he stomped around the counter and snatched up the walkie. “What is this an apocalyptic tea party?”
“Manners are important. Now more than ever.”
“Yeah.” Eddie snorted before shaking the walkie. “Right.”
Faces emerged in the gloom behind the stranger. Men. Women. Young. Old. Burning with hope; tempered by fear.
“Actually, I’ve found most people to be polite and helpful.” She smiled at the newcomers.
“Even the ones shooting at you?” He smacked the walkie against the counter then used his thumb to work the switch. “It’s dead.”
“As the woman, this Doctor person in charge said, we’re all in this together.” A soft whirring sound filled the air and the stranger’s torso shook as he spun the crank. “I’m Stuart. Stuart Graham.”
He didn’t offer his hand, but then they were full with the radio. So that was all right then. “I’m Audra Silvestre.”
Eddie snorted. “And I’m Eddie, Eddie Buchanan. Now can we listen to the stupid message and get going, Stuey?”
“Stuart.” The stranger turned the radio on before leaning it against the cash register. “Stu and Stuey sound a little too much like dinner.”
Static crackled through the radio’s speakers before a woman began to speak.
“This is Doctor Mavis Spanner, Surgeon General and acting commander-in-chief of the United States Armed Forces. On March Fifth, our country was attacked by a foreign government. Instead of bombs, the enemy used biological or germ warfare, specifically Anthrax.”
Ripples of fear traveled out her fingers and toes. Anthrax, not the influenza. That explained the odd symptoms. And… She swallowed hard. And meant, she wasn’t immune. Although, the attack had happened on the Fifth and here it was the Twelfth and still she hadn’t gotten sick.
Eddie reared back. “What the fuck! I thought we were fighting the Redaction.”
“Shh!” She held her finger to her mask. “We need to listen to what she says.”
He wedged his hand through his hair but fell quiet.
“The spores were delivered in the plush toys promoting the new film Hatshepsut.”
The world swirled around her. Audra blinked bringing the posters promoting for the movie of the Egyptian pharaoh, Hatshepsut, into focus. Oh, no! No. No. NO! Anger boiled through her until she was sure her hair caught fire. White powder dusted the toy bins under the counter across from her. A growl rumbled up her throat. She wrapped her fingers around the warm barrel of the shotgun and yanked.
Eddie jerked forward before ripping the weapon out of her hold. “Calm down, Princess.”
What was wrong with him? He’d been willing to shoot the treacherous stranger earlier. Now, when he learned allowed to willy-nilly enter this place of death, he backed down. Fine, let him be that way. She reached over the counter. Hard metal pressed against her stomach. Shallow breathes minimized the discomfort while she searched. There had to be a weapon here, somewhere. “You let me bring children in here! They could catch this anthrax bug and die.”
“It’s clean.” Stuart ran his hand over the prep counter then flashed his fingers at her. “See.”
“Fire will not destroy them.” The doctor continued as if listening to the conversation.
Oh God. Oh God. Fabric cut into her belly.
“Easy, Princess.” Eddie hooked a finger through her waistband. “Let’s hear the rest of it before you release your inner psycho.”
Her fingers skimmed cups as she was pulled backward. They clattered and bounced on the tile. She caught the edge of the counter. “You don’t understand. He’s killed us all.”
“I understand.” Squeezing his hand between her stomach and the counter, he flattened his palm against her bare skin.
His rough skin branded her. Sucking in her belly, she jerked upright. What right did he have to do that to her?
“If we end up dying, I promise we will shoot him first.” His breath disturbed her hair.
She pushed off his hand and jerked her shirt over her skin. Was he raised in a barn?
He winked at her before backing up a pace.
“As such,” the acting Surgeon-General continued, “I have ordered the evacuation of all cities. Directions for your egress routes will follow.”
And to think, she’d been about to invite them to join her? She could have killed everyone. So much for the Silvestre’s divine duty to lead, to know the right decision.
“Anthrax is not contagious. While the sick cannot pass it to one another by coughing or sneezing, I ask that you continue to wear your face masks. The spores are in the air and the masks will protect you.”
She nodded. They’ve all been wearing their masks. That was good. She checked her hair. Perhaps, her anger had been a touch hasty.
“The trek ahead will be long and dangerous. While we have laid in food, water, shelter and medicine along the routes, you will need to depend on one another to survive.”
Stuart looked toward the window. “That gang, they control the supplies on this side of town. When we refused to give them what they wanted, they killed…” His Adam’s apple bobbed in his exposed throat. “There were more of us an hour ago.”
She nodded. Stuart and his group had their own Casa Grande. Not that it justified allowing her to walk through a potentially dangerous area. Lord a’ mercy! What if she hadn’t been wearing her mask?
The doctor continued talking. “You will need to stand for what is right, although there may be no one to witness your transgressions. Discord cannot be allowed to gain even a toehold or we may all still perish.”
Goosebumps blistered her skin. Her daddy used to say things like that. God, it was like a voice from beyond the grave. She couldn’t leave them now.
“Please follow the routes. Please join us. Now, more than ever, every person counts. You count. And we need you. We can and we will overcome this tragedy. With your help and your hope, the human race shall remain.”
A man’s voice replaced the woman’s. “For those in North Phoenix–”
Stuart shut off the radio and began cranking the handle. “The East Valley is the last one mentioned.”
Audra adjusted her mask. With that in place, she was safe inside. “How many people do you have?”
His cranking slowed. “Twenty-four adults. Sixteen kids.”
Forty people. They could replace those they’d lost. They were familiar with the city and it’s dangers. As long as Stuart didn’t place her or her children in jeopardy again, they would get along fine. “We have room on the buses but you’ll have to split up.”
“Some of us are sick.”
“That Doc lady said it wasn’t contagious.” Eddie cradled his shotgun. “The government may lie but the Surgeon Generals kept getting fired for telling the people the truth about the Redaction. I say we trust her.”
Audra rubbed her forehead. The throbbing increased as she processed Eddie’s statement. The Surgeon General was part of an untrustworthy government but they could trust it? “Okay…”
Stuart shrugged. “The soldiers will be following her orders.”
She expected reluctance from Eddie–the man took great pride in heckling her, but Stuart’s reluctance stuck in her craw. Perhaps, he needed to lead to compensate for other shortfalls. Not that she cared. She’d only taken charge because it was her duty. A Silvestre always did her duty.
And as soon as she reached the soldiers at the Polytech Campus that would end. In the meantime, she’d fall back on the old drill. “Everyone who’s sick needs to board bus two-eight. Those who aren’t sick, find any jugs of vegetable or cooking oil.”
“Cooking oil?” Stuart leaned against the counter and crossed his arms.
She swallowed the bitterness in her mouth. Her buses, her rules. “We need some gas to tied us over until we reach the campus.”
Behind him, people began to shift. A few coughing individuals shuffled around the counter. Her flashlight was passed forward.
“Gather every useable item you can and load them onto bus niner-niner.”
“We’ve already collected all the canned goods. Unfortunately, it’s not much food.”
She hadn’t expected there to be. “What about paper products?”
Stuart frowned. “You can’t eat paper.”
No, but it has other uses, not that men always needed it. And the whole world seemed to have been picked clean. She wasn’t about to pass up an opportunity. “Ask six of your strongest men to help unload the departed. Everyone who doesn’t have any oil, please take as much as you can carry. Food first, then paper products.”
The people glanced at her before focusing on Stuart. He nodded once then they began to move.
Principle Dunn jogged in, waving his pistol. “Company’s coming from across the field. I think they have weapons.”