Damn Lister and the camel he humped his ass in on. Former Sergeant-Major David Dawson raised the bottle to his lips and tilted back his head. Watered brandy hit the back of his throat and burned down to his gut. Droplets ran down his chin. They hung suspended for a moment. He pinched the slick material of his white biohazard suit and held it away just as gravity freed the drops. They plopped onto his shirt and disappeared into the weave.
Great! Now, he’d smell like a drunken loser. Just what he’d been going for. Straightening, he plucked the bottle away from his lips. Fisting the amber glass, he lifted the bottle to eye level and blinked at the remaining liquid. Half gone. Well fuck. He wouldn’t be able to keep this up much longer.
Very carefully, he lowered the bottle to the floor. Glass scratched the concrete. With a sigh, he let his head fall back against the lead-plated wall at his back. A cold breeze stirred the ribbons attached to the vents of the greenhouse. Growing from the black loam boxed in wooden rectangles, verdant corn stalks scratched the sleeve of his suit. Another day loafing around, drinking and what did he have to show for it?
A broken relationship with Mavis Spanner, the most powerful woman left on the planet.
The men of his unit scattered to various mines and caverns in the valley.
The men of his former unit.
His lover had discharged the remaining men and women in the US Armed Forces. A hundred men in their cave system. Maybe a thousand total on the continent. He grabbed the bottle, raising it high.
Thanks for dying in droves.
But your services are no longer required.
David took a swig. Heat unfurled in his belly, seeped into his limbs. Don’t let the door hit your ass on the way out. He pulled the lip away from his mouth with a hollow pop. And here he sat, waiting–endlessly waiting for a purpose in this fubared world. He scratched the stubble on his chin.
He set the bottle on the floor. Too bad he hadn’t come up with another option. Red light strobed the greenhouse in bloody hues. The ribbons deflated to flaccid pink lines on the dingy walls and the air handlers in the vestibule roared to life. Water gurgled through the white pipes over his head. Someone was in decontamination, washing the alpha, beta and other Greek radioactive particles from their protective suits.
He was about to have company. His heart raced. For a moment, he was a soldier hunting his enemy. The moment faded. He no longer wore uniform, carried a M-4, or had his men at his back. Those days died in the radioactive haze poisoning the planet. He was a man alone. No one covered his six, let alone knew where he was. Pulling his legs against his body, he pressed closer against the greenhouse wall.
The newcomers wouldn’t see him unless he wanted it. An alarm blared rattling the triple paned windows. The door was open.
“Come on,” a man growled. “The shift will start in fifteen minutes.”
David raked his fingers through his hair. Great! A work crew. They’ll be here for hours. He fished the cork out of his breast pocket and rammed it into the bottle’s neck. Once again he’d wasted his time. Might as well head back to the mines. Maybe a rock would fall on his head. At least, then he’d have something to show for his time.
“Nah, they’re going to be delayed.” Another man chuckled. His deep baritone was followed by a clang and hollow thud. “Someone forgot to fill their oxygen.”
David froze. This was not the farming crew after all.
“They can always come without it,” a third man piped up. His voice was reedy as if it hadn’t settled into his body.
Younger perhaps. David wedged the brandy between his covered boots. With steady hands, he parted the drooping foliage of the immature corn stalks. A screen of green blocked his view. Damn.
“And risk lung cancer?” The baritone laughed. “I don’t think so.”
Looking up, David stared at the readout on the wall. Nine-thousand-two-hundred-forty-four. And climbing. And that was this hour’s radiation blitz of their little valley. Anyone exposed to that amount could count on lung cancer, bone cancer and several other cancers only the survivors of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Chernobyl had ever heard of before.
If these men really had swapped full oxygen tanks with empty ones, the cocksuckers had just sentence three people to a horrible, drawn out death. Pushing the bottle against the side of the planter, David leaned forward. He wanted to see the bastards’ faces.
“Yeah, well, I don’t like waiting until the last minute for our harvesting.” Reedy squeaked. “We could get caught.”
David flattened his palms against the concrete. Cold leached into his hands. On all fours, he crawled toward the aisle between the planting beds.
“We’re not going to get caught.” Baritone tsked. “The bossman is smart.”
“So is the Doc.” The growler countered.
Mavis was smart. But so far she hadn’t been able to stop the poachers from stealing the fresh fruits and veggies from the communal gardens. David peered around the edge of the two foot high planting beds. No one stood at the end of the twenty-five foot aisle.
He scanned the center planting area. Metal tripods supported bush beans and pea vines. Through the leaves and stubby vegetables, he made out the white thighs of the newcomers and the helmets concealing their heads. The open visors were good but they’d have to look directly at him if he hoped to see their faces.
“She’s not that smart.” Baritone smacked one of the bean heaps. The tripod supporting it wobbled but didn’t fall over thanks to the wires running up to the beams supporting the greenhouse’s roof. The UV lamps overhead wobbled. “Besides she has her hands full now that her lapdog has run away.”
David stiffened. Fuckin-A. Lapdog? Him? Rolling back on his heels, he smoothed his khaki shirt, ignoring the rips and stains. He was a United States Soldier. And a damn good one, too.
“You think the rumors are true then?” Reedy’s voice wavered over the muffled tap of their protective boots. “The Sergeant-Major has left her for good?”
What? David blinked. He thought the rumors had Mavis tossing him out on his fatigue-covered ass.
“I didn’t hear anything about it.” Grumble’s voice flattened out as if the subject bored him.
Hell, it bored David, but that didn’t mean he didn’t want to hear the gossip. No, not wanted, needed to hear the gossip. Maybe one day, he’d hear something good. Through the beans, he watched his targets close in on the hydroponics baths on the other side of the greenhouse. Their white suits blocked out the globes of ruby red tomatoes.
“That’s because it’s all hush-hush.” Baritone snorted. The velvety green bush trembled and the ripped fruit disappeared into a pockets designed to hold a spare oxygen tank on their back. “But the Bossman knows. He said, the Bitch Doctor underestimated the lapdog’s loyalty to the service when she disbanded the military.”
At least the assholes had gotten that right. With narrowed eyes, David peered through the foliage. A red ball shot up through the greenery. It fell and was caught by a hand with hairy knuckles. He’d bet his purple heart, that was Baritone.
“Guess the Sergeant-Major has a pair of balls after all.” Baritone chuckled. The tomato flew up again. This time no hand caught it. “Oops!”
David winced at the watery splat. Maybe he should introduce the jackwagon to the balled up fingers at the end of his wrists. He’d oops the cretin’s teeth right out the back of his skull for wasting food.
“What if the break-up is a set up?” Reedy’s voice cracked over the last word.
David scuttled backward. God he could be such an idiot. He hadn’t thought people might dissect his personal life, twisting his misfortune into their own entertainment. Then again, these were criminals of the worse kind. Stealing from the community for their own purposes–whatever they might be. Thinking others were deceitful was in their nature. Baritone pulled two green tomatoes off the vine and dropped them on the floor.
“The Bossman has ears inside the Doc’s quarters. It’s not a setup.”
Flinching, David collapsed against the wall. A listening device in their room explained Reedy’s version. He swallowed the lump in his throat. And they had heard Mavis beg him to stay, then her defeat when he couldn’t be swayed from his course. Not after–
Baritone pivoted on his heel and closed in on the next bush. “Stop being a pussy, Quartermain.”
Quartermain. David’s muscles twitched. Holy shit! No wonder the voice sounded young. Justin Quartermain was just seventeen. And he was the grandson of Mavis’s late neighbor. This betrayal would hurt her almost as much as his leaving.
“I’m not a pussy!” Tomato guts oozed between Justin’s fingers and leaked into the gloves suspended from his wrists. “The Sergeant-Major is a trained investigator. He could be undercover. He could be looking for us.”
David carefully adjusted the corn fronds, concealing him better but still giving him line of sight. Everyone who’d attended the psychopath’s trial knew he’d investigated murders. Yet, most people remembered him and his men giving their departed loved ones a little dignity when they’d been collected for mass burial or doling out food that helped them survive the flu pandemic. So why did Justin only see him as an investigator?
“David Dawson is a grunt–cannon fodder.” Baritone snapped the main trunk of the tomato bush then moved on to the next one. “He’s not even a real officer.”
Justin shambled behind him. The biohazard fabric whispered where it rubbed together. “He brought down the preacher man–took him out to the dessert and put a bullet through his brain.”
If only. David pressed his palms on the cold cement to keep them from rolling into fists. Trent Powers had deserved a bullet through the brain for caving in Private First Class Singleton’s head. Instead the bastard had gotten eaten by coyotes. Not that Powers’ fate was common knowledge. Of course, that didn’t make the scumbucket any less dead. Or dampen the military conspiracists enthusiasm.
Baritone grunted and continued to pick the next bush clean. “Dawson’s nothing. A nobody. He’s incapable of thought beyond yes, sir and saluting.”
David rolled his shoulders against the soft fabric of his shirt. Nothing wrong with showing a little respect. Besides, the trio of tomato terrorists weren’t exactly pillars of leadership, otherwise why would they need a bossman?
Grumble shook his head but swallowed his disagreement. “I’ve got the last of the tomatoes.”
Baritone plucked the plants out of their buckets. Blobs of vermiculite and a length of cord swung down causing dark liquid to dot his suit. He threw the plant on the ground and stomped on it. Twisting his lower body, he ground everything in to the concrete. “Let’s get the potatoes.”
David thighs quivered. If the bastard was alone, he’d beat the shit out of him. But Baritone had company. And that bossman asshole would probably just send someone else to destroy the gardens. David inhaled to a count of four then exhaled. His muscles slowly relaxed. He would find them again, in the dark caves.
Baritone and Grumble’s wet soles squeaked as they stomped toward the tire forest. Green leaves sprouted from the stacks of black rings. When Baritone reached the first set of five tires, he rammed it with his shoulder. The tower toppled over vomiting black loam and fist-sized potatoes.
David ground his teeth together. God dammit! Those potatoes were supposed to be French fries on his dinner plate. Now they were being used for God knew what. Well, he’d follow the bastards and get the vegetables back. Justin would be the easiest target. But why start doing things the easy way now? He’d go after Baritone.
Justin picked up a plant, plucked the brown spuds from the hairy roots then stuffed them in his spare tank pocket. “Aren’t we saving any for the others?”
Baritone kicked the other potato beds over. “Hell, no. Bossman says we’re to take everything that’s edible.”
“Why?” Justin shook the plant in his hand. Dirt dusted his suit and the small potatoes swung in circles from their stems. “We’ve always left stuff behind.”
“Because the bossman said so.” Baritone shredded plants after he ripped off their fruit. “The sheep following the Bitch Doctor need to be taught a lesson.”
Grumble stared at the ruins lapping at his feet. “They could starve.”
“So?” Baritone whipped around on his heel and grabbed the front of Grumble’s suit. “Sheep are made for sacrifice.”
Grumble’s suit shrink-wrapped his scrawny frame when he wiggled. “I didn’t sign on to kill folks.”
Baritone shoved his face into the other man’s until their helmets tapped. “Either you believe we survived the apocalypse to remake humanity or you don’t. I’m sure the Bossman would want to know which side you’re on before he ascends to power.”
A chill snaked down David’s back. Son of a bitch. That bastard Trent Powers had said similar things when he’d traveled with them. Someone had been listening.
And that someone was still in the group.
After a moment, Baritone released the man with a shove. Grumble slipped on the loose dirt before falling. The single oxygen tank on his back clanged when it hit the floor.
Baritone loomed over him. “Which side are you on?”
On all fours, Grumble scuttled backward. “Yours. Yours, of course.” About six feet away, he stopped, raked the plants into a pile before shoving them stalks and all into the pouch at his back.
Shaking his head, Baritone retreated. “You’re on the side of the righteous, those worthy of being saved. We will guide the sheep onto the path of grace.”
Christ! The man was a religious nut job. Mavis hadn’t gotten rid of Trent Powers fast enough. His poison was still here. Still spreading. But how? Most of the bastard’s minions had been killed with him. The answer illuminated David’s thoughts. Well, hell, two minions had survived: Dirk Benedict and Jake Turner.
David smiled. So much for his boring afternoon. Hell, if he was right, he wouldn’t even get to finish Lister’s brandy before nabbing the bad guys. With luck, he’d be back in Mavis’s bed by nightfall.
“We shouldn’t take it all.” Justin added more potatoes to his pack. “They’ll start looking for us.” He dropped the smaller ones to the ground, still attached to their roots and leaves.
Well, damn. David licked his lips. Maybe he should start with the kid. Except for the fact that Justin viewed him as the bad guy, they might just have a common aim.
Baritone kicked at the soil, spraying it in the air. “They’ll be too busy in the week ahead to look for us. And the Bossman says we’ll need to lay in supplies because things are gonna get real ugly, real quick.”
Dirt showered David’s position. Fuck. Lister was right. The vegetable thieves were after more than fresh salads.
Regime change was on their menu.
“What’s he want with all of this anyway?” Potatoes wobbled in Justin’s fists. “I know he’s fat, but he can’t possibly eat this much food.”
Fat meant Dirk Benedict. Jake Turner was medium build. Was it possible not everyone knew Bossman’s secret identity? Or had David gotten it wrong? Maybe Jake Turner wasn’t involved at all. Nah. David shook his head. His gut told him the wormy lawyer was up to his briefs in sabotage. But he had to prove it.
“You want me to tell him you said that?” Baritone hurled a potato at Justin. “You’ll be at the bottom of the food chain when he rises to power with the rest of the murdering soldiers.” Mu
rdering soldiers? David filed away the information. Maybe it would provide the key to Baritone’s identity.
With a hollow thump, the spud hit Justin left of square in the chest. The kid raised his hands to catch it. The potato bounced from hand to hand before falling to the ground.
David chewed on his bottom lip. Interesting. Justin Quartermain had the reflexes of a hunting panther. So why had he fumbled the hot potato? Perhaps, the boy was involved in his own investigation. But at whose behest? Lister? Nah, the general wanted this kept in the military family. The lights blinked off then on. No. No. Not now. David glanced from the door to the thieves.
“What the fuck!” Grumble screeched. “I thought you said they’d be delayed.”
“They should have been.” Baritone sealed his pack. “Let’s get out of here before they come down the mountain.”
“Bossman will meet us at the secret entrance, right?” Grumble yanked out several plants before closing his bag.
“Of course.” Baritone zipped down his visor.
Secret entrance? These fuckers had a secret entrance? Christ, what if they didn’t seal it properly. The cave system could become irradiated and then where would they go? They had about twenty radiation suits between all the caves, and they could only pump half an hours worth of oxygen into each tank.
David shuffled his priorities. First, he’d find the asshole’s secret entrance, arrange to have it sealed forever, then he’d have a little chat with Quartermain.
Fabric swishing, the trio jogged toward the vestibule.
Red light strobed through greenhouse. The light died, leaving only the buzzing UV light. Seven. Eight. Nine. Ten. Ready or not, here I come. David peeked over the tops of the corn plants before straightening. Vertebra popped. Damn, he was getting old. He picked up the brandy bottle, then collected the cameras stashed in bean tripods in the center of the room. This one might give him a visual on their faces.
Whistling, he strode to the front and grabbed the camera wedged in between the corn stalk and leaves. This one definitely would show him his enemy. He kissed the rectangular body then tucked it into his pocket.
Water gurgled through the pipes just as he set his helmet on his head.
Shit. Shit. Shit. Either age was slowing him down or the workers were getting faster. So much for plan A. And getting caught would end his investigation just as he’d finally gotten a break. Avoiding the dirt scouring the floor, he raced to the back of the greenhouse. He parted the black flaps and slid inside the portal.
One way or another, he get out of here and track the bastards.
No one threatened Mavis.