Andrew Whiteangel tugged his neatly folded hoodie off the cane back rocker in the corner of his bedroom. Drew fingered the neat stitches closing the tears in the hoodie’s sleeve before pulling it over his head. Ellen’s strawberry-scented shampoo tickled his nose. He preferred to inhale it directly off her skin in the quiet hours before he headed out for guard duty.
Ellen Duncan planned to keep Drew in her life.
The world may have lost its lunch basket on the way to the picnic, but Drew’s life had never been better. His boots whispered on the ancient pine planks; his steps automatically avoided the creaky parts of the floor. Baseball bats, hockey sticks, and a couple of golf clubs hung on pegs over the yellowed family pictures lining the hall.
Enough weapons for everyone in the house, including the children.
Over the clang of a pot lid and the rhythmic thump of a chopping knife, feminine voices swirled in the kitchen.
He paused on the threshold of the living room. Shoulders tensed. Wait for it. Wait.
She was safe. He stepped into the living room. The aroma of oregano, garlic, and tomatoes drifted out of the opening to the kitchen. Spaghetti night. Silhouettes drifted over the chipped linoleum floor. Three cooks tonight. No one was ever left alone for too long.
Isolation caused the crazy.
Or one theory about it anyway.
And speaking of completely nuts, but in a good way. He winked at the elderly woman by the window.
Granny Hauf winked back, holding court over four children at the card table. Autumnal light painted her white hair with purples and reds as the sun deserted them for another night. A rifle leaned against the wall within her reach, and a rectangular box of cartridges pressed against her apron pocket. Extra skin on her arms flapped when she shook the red cup in her gnarled hands. “Heading out to the meeting, whippersnapper?”
Ellen’s chocolate lab, Boo, surveyed him with brown eyes before resuming his snooze on the couch.
Whippersnapper. Granny Hauf always had a new name for him. She said she was looking for just the right one to describe him.
He hoped she had quite a few years left until she found it. The old bat had kinda grown on him. Like a fungus.
“Yeah. A meeting.” Drew’s skin itched. Normal meetings usually occurred when he relieved a watcher from his or her post. Tonight was different. All the guards were meeting. His balls drew up. Nothing good ever happened when a routine changed.
“I expect a full report over dinner.” A moment later, Granny emptied the cup, spilling dice across the card table.
The four children around the table leaned over them.
Six-year-old Erin grinned, peeled away from the group and zoomed over to him. “Mister Drew. Mister Drew.”
Two feet away, Erin launched herself at Drew.
It was a routine they’d perfected over the last four months.
“Miss Erin. Miss Erin.” Drew caught her, then spun her about, careful to make sure her bare feet avoided the coat rack and pictures on the wall. He hadn’t broken either of the children yet, but wasn’t taking any chances. He liked them. They were honest, and he always knew where he stood. Coming to a stop, he settled the child on his hip.
Erin flattened her small hand against his cheek. Although her eyes were brown, she had the same oval face, wide cheeks, and bow-shaped mouth as her mother, Ellen. “I got a Yahtzee.”
He scanned her from brown pigtails to painted pink toes. The word tugged at his memories but didn’t connect. He didn’t know what a Yahtzee was, but didn’t see anything different about her. “You did? Where are you hiding it?”
He checked behind her right ear, then her left, before blowing a raspberry on her neck.
She giggled and squirmed out of his hold, landing on her bare feet. “It’s not a thing, silly. I gots all five threes on the dice.”
“I see.” Kinda. Mostly. It was coming back to Drew, but he had never taken the time to play games. There hadn’t been any money in it. Although, he might have figured out a way to cheat the system.
“It’s your turn, Erin.” Her brother, Rafael, snorted from his seat on Granny Hauf’s left. “Yahtzee isn’t a big deal. It took her three tries to get it.”
Pigtails slapping her back, Erin skipped back to her seat. “You haven’t gotten one.”
She stuck her tongue out at her brother.
The twin eight-year-old girls at the end of the table caught their giggles in cupped hands.
Rafe straightened. “I will. You’ll see.”
Drew veered back to Ellen’s son. He recognized the need to have what he didn’t possess. Yet. For Rafe, it was Yahtzee; for Drew, it had been food, clothing, and shelter. He set his hand on the boy’s shoulder—small and sturdy. “I’m sure you’ll get a Yahtzee this game. And when everyone’s had one, I’ll give each of you a special prize. Just tell Granny Hauf, and I’ll give it to her to distribute.”
The twin’s mouths rounded in awe. Erin bounced in her seat.
“Is it toffees?” Rafe tilted his head back, staring at Drew through a curtain of shaggy brown hair. “I haven’t had a toffee in ages.”
“Neither have I, young man.” The old woman’s blue eyes crackled with an amused light. “And if Mister Drew is holding out on us, I say we tackle the scalawag and tickle him until he gives up his stash.”
Erin’s eyes narrowed. Raising her hands, she wiggled her fingers in a tickling motion. “I want candy.”
The white-blond twins mimicked her actions. “We want candy.”
Good Lord, he’d created Frankenstein’s monsters. Sweat beading his forehead, Drew flashed empty palms as he backpedaled. He hadn’t been around children long enough to know whether this was normal or a new kind of sugar-craving crazy. “I promise I’m not holding back any candies. Now put those fingers away.”
“Oh.” The three girls donned identical frowns.
Rafe thrust his pointed jaw out and crossed his arms over his chest. “Then what do we get?”
“It’s a surprise. One you all will get, once everyone scores a Yahtzee.” Drew reached above the door and removed a bolt-action rifle, then retrieved the box of cartridges from the side table, where mail used to rest. The weight was familiar, comfortable, after nearly four months.
Just showEd how upside-down life had become.
He opened the door, leaning against the screen door to push it open. The corrugated metal rattled where it had been screwed to the wooden frame. “You want me to shutter the windows?”
Granny looked up from watching Rafe record his sister’s score on the paper. “No, whippersnapper, I do not. I have to do something to prove my worth around here.”
“Cause sharp shooting, laundry, cooking, cleaning, and watching over the kids ain’t enough?” Drew closed the door before she could open her mouth. Compared to the octogenarian, he was a slacker. He knew next to nothing about farming and less about ranching. Lifting the screen door in place, he double-checked to make sure it was latched.
Maybe he should check the back entrance by the kitchen.
He strode across the porch.
A shadow shifted in the shade of the pine at the corner.
Drew’s stomach leapt to his throat even as the rifle butt settled against his shoulder. Damn, he’d forgotten to load the thing before leaving the house. He reached for the bolt with a slow, smooth action.
White teeth flashed as a big, black man stepped into the fading light. Knots of hair bristled from his formerly bald skull. White striped the baby dreadlocks at Dogooder’s temples. Drew’s brother shook his head and stared down the six feet to the ground. “You came outta the house with an empty gun? You’re gonna get your Casper donkey plugged.”
Donkey. Ass. His brother-in-law thought he was so clever replacing one word with the other so Granny Hauf didn’t yell at him.
Slipping a cartridge from the holder on the butt of his rifle, Drew used the tip of the bullet to slide the round into the follower. Five rounds entered smooth as butter before he closed up the weapon and joined his brother. “I don’t need a loaded gun to beat some sense into your meat head, jack wagon.”
Dogooder snorted and adjusted the strap of his assault rifle on his shoulder. A machete thumped his thigh as they walked toward the barn north of the house. “You and what army, D-bag?”
Drew bumped his brother’s shoulder. Contact was another thing that kept the crazy at bay. Not that he was going all touchy-feely at the end of the world, but damn, it was good to have his brother watching his back. “Don’t need an army. Just a couple Girl Scouts selling cookies to distract your fat ass.”
Granny rapped on the window, then shook her finger at Drew. “Language, whippersnapper. There are little pitchers around.”
Drew’s ears burned. Dang, the old bat had good hearing. He thought folks were supposed to go deaf as they aged. Someone forgot to tell Granny.
Dogooder threw back his head. Laughter bubbled up his throat. “She still hasn’t settled on a name for you?”
“Yeah, well, you were easy.” Drew nudged his brother, enough to send him stumbling into a rut in the dirt road. “Phoenix Dick with a shiny badge. She didn’t even give much thought to calling you Dogooder.”
“You are such a donkey donut.” Dogooder’s boot splashed in the puddle. Bubbles swirled in the murky water when he pulled out his foot. A quick shake and mud splattered Drew’s pant leg.
“Hey!” Drew stomped his sneakers, sinking deep into the mud. “I have laundry duty this week.”
“That’s right.” Dogooder bent and scooped up a handful of mud. “Thanks for reminding me.”
Drew’s grip tightened on the rifle. “Throw that and I’ll play whack-a-mole with your meathead.”
“You think getting blood out is easier than mud?” Grinning, Dogooder squished the mud through his thick fingers. “You need laundry duty more often.”
He had it every other Thursday, rain, shine, or apocalypse. At least the washing machine still worked. Granny Hauf mentioned pounding clothes against the rocks in the East Verde River when the modern marvel failed. Then the world truly would have ended, and not in a good way. Cradling his rifle, Drew peered around the ranch. “Any idea what’s so important that we’re pulling everyone off watch?”
Two people sat on the pitched roof of the barn ahead of them. The red glowing eyes of cigarettes danced among the rows of apple and peach trees. Shaggy wikieups formed rows of man-sized tombstones between the rectangular bunkhouse and the garden. A few horses grazed in the freshly harvested acre of hay. Chickens and peacocks waddled after a couple heading toward the barn.
Dogooder rolled his eyes. “My crystal ball says old man Robelski is tired of you giving cooties to his favorite eldest daughter, and he’s gonna force you to marry Ellen. That’s why everyone’s sporting weapons.”
“Ass hole.” Drew nearly swallowed his tongue. For a moment, he could picture it. Him and Ellen married. It was a nice picture. One he didn’t deserve. Not that he suffered from enough stupid to tell her that.
The line to the barn grew. Ten. Fifteen people. A third of the people on the farm. Nearly all the adults.
He didn’t like it. Not one bit.
“The words you’re looking for are donkey donut. Otherwise, I tell Granny about your potty mouth and give her that lovely bar of lye soap Ellen uncovered from last century.” Dogooder grinned. “That taste you won’t wash out with all that tequila you’re fermenting in the back forty.”
“Bite me.” Drew growled. “The old man likes me.”
Dogooder shook his head. “If I bit you, I’d need all the tequila to wash out the foul taste.”
The rotund figure of Ellen’s father appeared backlit by the strings of electric lights in the barn. The last of the sunlight sparked off the solar panel array by the corral then faded away.
Drew tightened his grip on the rifle as his brother’s words haunted him. Ellen was tight with her family. If one didn’t like him, would she let him go? “Did old man Robelski say something about me?”
Dogooder bumped Drew’s shoulder. “You know this is pretty fertile ground. Might wanna plant and grow a sense of humor.”
Drew’s shoulders relaxed. His brother would tell him if there were rumors. “That’s big words from someone growing dog turds on his head.”
“They’re dreadlocks, D-bag.” Dogooder drilled his finger into Drew’s shoulder as he emphasized each syllable. “Dread-locks.”
“Looks like dog turds.” Drew inhaled deeply. The crisp hint of autumn hung on the air over the fecund scent of the barn and its animals. “Smells like dog turds. Gotta be dog turds.”
“You’re gonna need a doctor to remove my boot from your ass.” Dogooder raised his leg as if to kick.
Drew danced out of range. “Um, you swore. Granny is gonna visit you with her bar of Nineteenth Century soap.”
Dogooder flipped him the flightless bird and filed in behind a couple who’d been hiking the Arizona Trail when the crazy broke out. The granola-eating tree-huggers had quickly picked up a weapon after their first encounter with the crazies on Doll Baby Ranch Road.
Life and death situations had a way of clarifying priorities.
Drew always had his priorities straight. Straw crunched under his boots. Avoiding a chicken, he sidled to the back of the barn along the empty horse stalls.
The others shifted, gathering in a semi-circle around the man who’d opened his family ranch to everyone—Paul Robelski. Sweat glistened on the old man’s bald head. He smoothed a fringe of gray hair forming a horseshoe around his scalp. A scab marred the first of his three chins where he’d nicked it shaving. Although he’d grown up on the ranch, he’d spent most of his adult life defending criminals in Phoenix.
But city life hadn’t made Robelski soft. Round maybe, but not soft. He’d slaughtered a cow and butchered it without blinking.
The guy may look like Santa Claus, but he had a backbone of steel and a rigid moral code, he expected everyone to abide by it.
Drew respected the man. He could count on four fingers the number of people he’d said that about. Although with this lot, that number was growing. He nodded to a few of them now.
A nut-brown woman tugged hay out of her white hair and yawned behind her hand. Beside her, a grizzled man about the age of rocks combed straw from his bushy whiskers. The barn was their domain and no one entered when the doors were closed.
Boots rasped against the metal roof overhead before two thirty-something males peeked over the loft and scuttled down the wooden ladder. They joined the cluster of other single men on Robelski’s right.
The old man looked each in the eye as he scanned the room. Conversations stopped mid-sentence. Men and women straightened.
Drew could see how the old man won so many court cases.
Robelski’s attention paused at Drew.
Drew held his breath. Maybe the old man did have a problem with him. Dogooder shifted closer.
Robelski’s gaze bounced to Drew’s brother-in-law before moving along.
Drew’s skin prickled. What the hell was that about? He glanced over his shoulder.
After a moment of silence, Robelski cleared his throat. “Thank you all for coming, and for everything you do to keep our loved ones safe.”
Nice. A touch of humility always helped bad news go down. Drew had used it when he’d been an up and comer on Wall Street.
Dogooder sieved air through his teeth. As a detective in Phoenix, his brother had to be used to the trick.
Robelski squared his shoulders, not an ounce of weakness in his posture or a wobble in his voice. “I’ll get right to the point. I’m sure some of you are aching for your beds, for dinner, or to get on watch.”
Drew’s stomach grumbled.
Dogooder jabbed him in the side.
“We don’t have enough food for the winter. Not for all of us.” Robelski’s teeth clicked around the words.
There was a collective gasp. People blinked as if to process the thought before it escaped their thick skulls.
The sun-tanned older couple clasped each other’s hands. They locked gazes for a moment before she spoke. “Where we supposed to go? The folks at the Bar Margarita left. It may be six miles outta town, but the crazies found them. Killed them most of ’em. Including the four children.”
“The Rockin’ M is between them.” One of the thirty somethings shifted to the front. “That family was massacred in their beds, along with the folks they’d taken in. Those two ranches are between us and Payson.”
Drew rolled his shoulders. Had they really thought the crazy wouldn’t eventually find them here? He checked their faces. Damn, they actually had believed they were safe smack dab in the center of the Mazatal Wilderness area.
Dogooder nudged him and shook his head once.
Right. Drew had no intentions of busting anyone’s paradigms. He wasn’t a hero.
Robelski flashed his palms at everyone. “We need food. Seeds for next year. And we need ammunition.”
A forty-year old ranchhand with bowed legs and a tear-drop tattoo on his right eye shuffled forward. “We have over ten thousand rounds. How many more do we need?”
Dogooder shifted forward. “Payson has a population of fifteen thousand. The Valley has more than five million. And we’re between them.”
“Surrounded by desert.” The ranchhand snorted. “Most folks will die of dehydration and heat before they reach us.”
Drew clapped his hand on his brother’s back. They always tag-teamed it. “Winter is coming. If we’re running out of food after growing our own all summer, what do you think is happening in the cities?”
The ranchhand scuttled backward and propped up the stall door. His wife, a sturdy woman with mouse brown hair, leaned against him. They’d left their twin daughters with Granny while they’d gone on watch.
Mrs. Nut Brown cleared her throat. “So we draw straws to see who has to leave?”
Leaving here meant death. Everyone knew it.
The single men shifted. Jaws thrust forward. Muscles tensed.
Things could get ugly real fast. Drew shifted his finger closer to the trigger of his rifle.
Dogooder shrugged swinging his assault rifle to the front.
“No drawing straws. No one’s leaving. At least, not permanently.” Robelski kept his arms open, a subliminal maneuver to build trust and transmit honesty. “But we need volunteers to check the ranches closest for supplies, then head farther into town and gather whatever they can to help us through the winter.”
Drew inhaled deeply. Damn. He didn’t know anyone here had a cape to go with the superpowers that mission would require.
“It’s suicide.” Mrs. Nut Brown exhaled.
The single men nodded.
Tear-drop tattoo hugged his wife close. “You might as well just shoot them now and save them the pain of being beat to death.”
Drew would definitely vote for a bullet over a beating.
“Have a little faith.” Robelski strolled in front of the group. “We’ll send a team of our best people to help ferry supplies from the trailhead to the ranch. So no one is going alone. Plus, my middle daughter will tell us where the crazies are. And lastly, the volunteer I had in mind is skilled in urban warfare and survival against the odds.”
The old man stopped in front of Drew.
Drew frowned. No. Oh, hell no. He knew that look. Nothing good ever came of it.
“I have faith in you, son.” Robelski set his hand on Drew’s shoulder. “I know you can get in, get out, without being killed by the crazies. Rest tonight. You’ll leave at first light.”
Drew swayed on his feet. That bastard Dogooder had been right. Robelski wanted Drew out of his daughter’s life and had found the perfect way to achieve it. Sacrifice Drew to the crazies.