Copyright 2011 W. G. Sweet all rights reserved.
Cover Art © Copyright 2018 W. G. Sweet
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This is a work of fiction. Any names, characters, places or incidents depicted are products of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual living person’s places, situations or events is purely coincidental.
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New York: New York
Carl Evans watched from the mouth of a dark alley. It was one of the things he loved about this place. You could hang out in an alley, smoke cigarettes all day and night long if you wanted to, and nobody said a word to you. Where else, but New York could that be true, he asked himself.
He leaned back against the wall, one sneakered foot propped on the brick behind him to hold him, the other flat on the cobbled stones of the alley. Another thing about New York, he thought as he inhaled deeply of his cigarette, and then let the smoke roll slowly out of his mouth. Old things everywhere you looked. These cobblestones for instance. He wondered how old they truly were.
“Young man.” The deep voice startled him from his thoughts. He lifted his head to see an old, gray haired gentleman standing at the mouth of the alley a few feet away. His face was creased and seamed. His skin so dark it was nearly blue. A cane in one hand supported his weight.
“What’s up, Pops?” Carl asked politely.
The man placed his second hand on his cane and leaned forward. “That cigarette will kill you.”
He held up one hand as Carl began to speak. “Just telling you. Don’t need an argument. It will kill you. The big tobacco’s, they knew about it back in the day when I was a boy chasing that habit. And they knew about it when it was in commercials in magazines, and T.V. and what not. That cowboy died from it you know, they knew it and they still know it. It will kill you. In case you didn’t know it I wanted you to know it.” He straightened his back, lifted the second hand, nodded once, and moved across the mouth of the alley disappearing as though from some sort of magic.
Carl chuckled, lifted the cigarette to his mouth, took a deep drag and then found himself blowing the smoke out, dropping the cigarette, and crushing it. The old man had ruined it for him. He hadn’t smoked in ten years, but it tasted as good now as it had then. And he had figured with the way things were nobody had much time. Certainly not enough time to die from cancer or some other nasty surprise from cigarettes, but just the same the old man had ruined it for him.
He looked down at the blackened mess he had made as he ground the cigarette into the cobbles. Just as well, he told himself, it was time. He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a small silver canister. He inhaled a sharp breath involuntarily. He knew what it was. Knew what he was doing, but he still couldn’t believe he was actually going to do it.
He fingered the small red button on the top of the silver canister, hesitated, and then pushed it down. Something inside clicked. There was no other sound in the stillness. He tossed it down the alley, turned, and walked out to the sidewalk.
Route 81 rest-stop
Outside Watertown New York
A black truck pulled into the rest stop and two men climbed out; walking toward the rest rooms that sat in from the road. Concrete bunker looking buildings that had been built back in the early seventies. They had been closed for several years now. In fact the Open soon sign was bolted to the front of the building; rust streaked the sign surface. It seemed like some sort of joke to Mike Bliss who used the rest stop as a place to do light duty drug deals. Nothing big, but still that depended on your idea of big. Certainly nothing over a few thousand dollars. That was his break off point. Any higher than that, he often joked, you would have to talk to someone in Columbia… Or maybe Mexico, he told himself now as he sat waiting in his Lexus, but it seemed that since Rich Dean had got himself dead the deals just seemed to be getting larger and larger. And who knew how much longer that might last. He watched the two men make a bee line for the old rest rooms.
“Idiots,” he muttered to himself. He pushed the button, waited for the window to come down, leaned out the window and yelled. “What are you, stupid? They’re closed.” He motioned with one hand. “You can’t read the fuckin’ sign or what?”
Both men stopped and looked from him to the sign.
“Yeah, closed. You can read right? Closed. That’s what it says. Been closed for years. Go on into Watertown; buy a fuckin’ burger or something. Only way you’re getting a bathroom at this time of the morning.” He had lowered his voice for the last as he pulled his head back into the car, and turned the heater up a notch. The electric motor whined as the window climbed in its track. He looked down at his wrist for the time, 1:02 A.M., where the fuck was this dude. He was late, granted a few minutes, but late was late.
A sharp rap on the glass startled him. He had been about to dig out his own supply, a little pick-me-up. He looked up to see the guys from the truck standing outside his window. “Oh… Fucking lovely,” he muttered. He pushed the button and the window lowered into the door, the motor whining loudly, the cold air blew in.
“And what can I do for you two gentlemen,” He asked in his best smart ass voice.
The one in back stepped forward into the light. Military type, Mike told himself. Older, maybe a noncom. A little gray at the edges of his buzz cut. With the military base so close there were soldiers everywhere, after all Watertown was a military town. It was why he was in the business he was in. It was also why he succeeded at it.
“Did you call me stupid,” The man asked in a polite tone.
“Who, me? No. I didn’t call you stupid, I asked, what are you stupid? Different thing. The fuckin’ place is closed… Just doing my good deed for the day… Helping you, really, so you don’t waste no time,” Mike told him.
“Really?” The man asked.
Mike chuckled. “Yeah really, tough guy. Really. Now, I did my good deed, why don’t you get the fuck out of here ’cause you wore out your welcome.” He opened his coat slightly so they could see the chrome 9 mm that sat in its holster.
“Really,” the first guy repeated.
“Okay, who are you guys, frick and frack? A couple of fucking wannabees? Well I am the real deal, don’t make me stick this gun in your fuckin’ face,” Mike told them. He didn’t like being a dick, but sometimes you had to be.
“You know what my mother always said about guns?” The second guy asked.
“Well, since I don’t know your mama it’s hard to say,” Mike told him. He didn’t like the way these two were acting. They weren’t cops, he knew all the locals. If it had been someone he had to worry about he would have handled this completely differently. These guys were nobodies. At least nobodies to him, and that made them nobodies to Watertown. If he had to put a bullet in… His thoughts broke off abruptly as the barrel of what looked like a .45 was jammed into his nose. It came from nowhere. He sucked in a deep breath. He could taste blood in his mouth where the gun had smashed his upper lip against his teeth.
“She said don’t threaten to pull a gun, never. Just pull it.”
“Mama had a point,” Mike allowed. His voice was nasally due to the gun that was jammed hallway up to his brain. “Smart lady.”
“Very,” the man allowed. “Kind of a hard ass to grow up with, but she taught me well.” He looked down at Mike. “So listen, this is what we’re gonna do. You’re gonna drive out of here right the fuck now. And that’s going to stop me from pulling this trigger. Lucky day for you, I think. Like getting a Get Out Of Jail Free card, right.”
“This is my business spot… You don’t understand,” Mike told them. “I… I’m waiting for someone.”
“Not tonight, Michael.”
“Yeah, but you don’t.” He stopped. “How do you know my name?” he asked. There was more than a nasal quality to his voice, now there was real fear. Maybe they were Feds. Maybe.
“Yeah, we know you. And we know you use this spot as a place to do your business. And I’m saying we couldn’t care less, but right now you gotta go, and I’m not going to tell you the deal again. You can leave or stay, but you ain’t gonna like staying,” The guy told him.
“Listen… This is my town… If you guys are Feds you can’t do shit like this… This is my town. You guys are just…”
The guy pulled the trigger and Mike jumped. He fell to the right, across the front seat. Both men stepped away from the car, eyes scanning the lonely rest stop from end to end, but there was no one anywhere. The silence returned with a ringing in their ears from the blast as it had echoed back out of the closed car interior. The shooter worked his jaw for a moment, swallowing until his ears popped. He lifted his wrist to his mouth. “Guess you saw that,” he said quietly.
“Got a cleaner crew on the way up. You’ll pass them in the elevators. The boss is waiting on you guys.” The voice came through the implant in his inner ear. No one heard what was said except him.
He nodded for the cameras that were picking him up. “In case you didn’t hear it, someone is supposed to meet him here so your cleaner crew could have company.”
“Got that too… We’ll handle it.” He nodded once more, and then walked off toward the rest rooms as the other man followed.
Once in back of the unit they used a key in the old rusted handset. It only looked old and rusty; it was actually an interface for a state of the art digital system that would read his body chemistry, heat, and more. The key had dozens of micro pulse sensor implants that made sure the user was human, transmitted heartbeat, body chemistry, it could even tell male from female and match chemical profiles to known examples in its database. Above and to the sides of them several scanners mapped their bodies to those same known profiles. Bone composition, old fractures, density and more. All unique in every man or women. The shooter removed the key and slipped it into his pocket. A few seconds later a deep whining of machinery reached their ears, the door shuddered in its frame, and then slipped down into a pocket below the doorway.
A second later they stepped into the gutted restroom. Stainless steel doors took up most of the room; the elevator to the base below. They waited for the cleaner crew to come up and then took the elevator back down into the depths.
The Bluechip facility stretched for more than five miles underground. Most of that was not finished space, most of that was connector tunnels, and storage space bored from the rock. The facility itself was about three thousand feet under the city of Watertown in a section of old caves that had been enlarged, concrete lined and reinforced. The rest area was one of several entrances that led into the complex. An old farm on the other side of Watertown, an abandoned factory in the industrial park west of the city and a few other places, including direct connections from secure buildings on the nearby base.
John Pauls and Sammy Black had Alpha clearance. Both were ex-military, but most likely military clearance was no longer a real matter of concern this late in the game, Sammy thought as they made their way down the wide hallway. The word coming down from those in the know was that in the next twenty-four hours the human race would come very close to ceasing to exist at all. No confirmation from anyone official, but regular programming was off air, the news stations were tracking a meteor that may or may not hit the Earth. The best opinions said it didn’t matter if it hit or not, it would be a close enough pass that there would be massive damage. Maybe the human race would be facing extinction. The government was strangely silent on the subject. And that had made him worry even more. The pass was estimated to be right over the tip of south America. So maybe formalities like Alpha clearance weren’t all that important any longer. If only Mike Bliss had given that some thought before he had pissed him off.
The halls were silent, nearly empty. Gloss white panels eight feet high framed it. It had always reminded Black of a maze with its twists and turns. Here and there doors hung open. Empty now. Always closed any other time he had been down here. So it had come this far too, Black thought. He stopped at a door that looked like any other door and a split second later the door rose into the ceiling and Major Weston waved them in.
Alice, he had never learned her last name, sat at her desk, her eyes on them as they walked past her. One hand rested on the butt of a matte black .45 caliber pistol in a webbed shoulder holster that was far from Army issue. Her shoulder seemed a little puffy on one side… Padded unevenly: Probably injured, Sammy thought: Even so, he had no doubt she could still shoot them both before they could even react.
Alice was etched into one of those name pins that the Army seemed to like so well, but oddly, just Alice, no last name, rank or anything else. She wore no uniform, just a black coverall. The kind with the elastic ankle and wrist cuffs. No insignia there either. He had noticed those months before. Her eyes remained flat and expressionless as they passed her desk.
“Alice,” Sammy said politely. She said nothing at all, but she never did.
“Sit down, boys,” Major Weston told them. He spoke around the cigar in his mouth: Dead, but they always were, and there was never the smell of tobacco in the office. They took the two chairs that fronted the desk.
The Major was looking over a large monitor on the opposite wall that showed the north American continent. This map showed small areas of red, including the northern section where they were. The rest of the map was covered with green. “Where we are and where we need to be,” he said as he pushed a button on his desk. The monitor went blank. He turned to face the two.
“So here is where we are. You know, as does most of the world, that we are expecting a near miss from DX2379R later on tonight.” He held their eyes.
John shrugged. “I’ve been doing a little job, must have missed that. It’s not gonna take us out is it?”
“Saw that on the news a few days back. Guess we dodged a bad one,” Sammy said.
“Right… Right,” Weston said quietly. “But that cover was nothing but bullshit.”
“It’s going to hit us?” John asked.
“Maybe… The fact is that we don’t know. One group says this, another group says that, but it doesn’t matter because it will probably kill us off anyway. Direct hit, near miss, it is going to tip over an already bad situation with the Yellowstone Caldera.” He raised his eyes, “Familiar with that?”
“Yellowstone park?” Sammy said.
John nodded in agreement.
Weston laughed. “Put simply, yes. Yellowstone has always been an anomaly to us. Back in 1930 the Army did an exploratory survey of that area. What we came up with was that there was a section of the Rocky Mountains missing. Looked at from the top of Mount Washburn it was easy for the team to see that the largest crater of an extinct volcano known to exist lay before them.”
“I guess that’s about what I thought,” Sammy agreed.
“Yeah. We all think that. Except it is not true at all because the Yellowstone caldera is not extinct, it is active. Active and about to pop. There have been several warnings, but we took the recording stations off line quite some time ago, so there has been no mention of it in the news. Budget cuts,” he shrugged. “So everyone is focused on this meteor that may or may not hit us and instead this volcanic event is going to blow up and when that happens the rest won’t matter at all.” He clicked the button on his desk and the monitor came to life. “All the red areas are spots where the surface pressure has increased. There was, at one time, many active volcanoes on the north American continent.” He clicked a button and the map changed to a view of the European continent with many of the same red shaded areas.
“All over the Earth… Higher pressures. Up until a few days ago the brainiacs were still arguing over whether this could even happen.” He laughed. “It is happening and they are arguing over whether it can happen. Well, we had our little debates and then we realized that history shows clearly that this has happened before. Several times. Call it the Earth’s way of cleansing itself.”
“But it’s not an absolute, right?”Sammy asked.
“Don’t start sounding like the scientists.” He reached below his desk and came up with six small silver cartridges. Each had a red button mounted on the top with a protective cap over the button itself. He clicked a button on his desk, and a picture of destruction appeared on the screens. It was obviously an aerial shot, looking down at a chain of islands. Smoke hung over the chain, reaching as high as the plane itself. As the plane dropped lower, rivers of red appeared. “That picture is an hour old. That is… Was, the Hawaiian chain.”
Sammy twisted further to the side, staring at the monitor. “How can that be…? I mean everyone would know about it.” He turned back to Weston.
Weston nodded. “And that would be true except the satellites are out because of the asteroid. Shut down to avoid damage. That is the official word.” He clicked the button on his desk and the monitor went dead once more. “I started this out saying that none of it matters and that is true. The Yellowstone caldera is going to erupt sometime in the next few days. Not a maybe, not an educated guess: If the satellites were up you would know that the park is closed. It has already started. We have had a few small quakes, but the big stuff is on the way.”
“Super volcanoes… Earthquakes that modern civilization has never seen… The last super eruption was responsible for killing off the human population some seventy-four thousand years ago. Reduced it to a few thousand. And that is not the biggest one we have evidence of.” He lifted his palms and spread them open, sighing as he did. “So it is a double whammy. If we survive the meteor the volcanoes get us, or the earthquakes because of them, or we’ll die from injuries. And I think those of us who die outright will be lucky. The rest of us will have a hard time of it… Staying alive with nothing… We will probably all starve to death.” He paused in the silence.
“Those cartridges are a compound developed right here in this complex for the armed forces. Project Super Soldier. SS for short. That kept people from looking too deep; they assumed it was something to do with the Nazi youth movement here and abroad. We let that misconception hold.” He waited a second for his words to sink in.
“SS is designed to prolong life past the normal point of termination. It allows a soldier to survive longer without food and more importantly without water. Does something to the cells of the host, I don’t pretend to know what. What I do know is that the people above me made the decision to release this…” He picked up a mug of coffee from the desk and sipped deeply. His eyes were red road maps, Sammy noticed now; like he hadn’t slept in a few days. He picked up the two cartridges; holding them between thumbs and forefingers, rolling them back and forth.
“A few months ago this facility… I fucked up and allowed several vials of the virus to be stolen… The people responsible have been dealt with, but the damage was done.
“Shortly after that theft we began getting credible stories of contamination in Brazil… Nothing else anywhere else, but it doesn’t matter. This virus is tenacious, it will spread from Brazil to the entire world and it will just be a matter of time. The upper ups read those reports from Brazil and believe this may be the last hope for mankind if it is released now… In time to save the world… Before the end comes… So, accidental… Purposeful, I don’t know what that theft and contamination was meant to be, but it tipped the scales and now the entire world is going to be let in on it.” He sighed deeply and rolled the cartridges across the desktop; Sammy and John caught them.
“So this is it for us. I guess you realize that you probably won’t get paid for this. No money is going to show up in your account. I will run it through before I pull the plug, but I truly believe the machinery will be dead by the time payday rolls around. So this is something I’m asking you to do.” He pointed to the cartridges that both men were looking over. Sammy held his as though it might bite him.
“Those babies are really all we have to hope with. Most people will die outright. They will never make it past the quakes, eruptions, and the resulting ash clouds and gases. Up here we should be okay as far as gases go, eruptions, but there are fault lines that crisscross this area. This whole facility is bored from limestone caverns. Probably won’t make it through the quakes, although it is a good eighty miles from the closest line,” he shrugged. “Maybe, maybe not. My point is there should be a good chance for survivors here.”
“So we do what with these? Can they harm us?” John asked.
“Harm you, kill you? No, but you will be infected the minute you push that button. It will protect you the same as anyone else. There is enough in a single cartridge to infect about five hundred million people,” Weston said quietly.
“Whoa,” Sammy whistled. “Why infect… Why not inoculate? And why six cartridges… Three Billion people?”
“Minimum, three billion. That is before those infected pass it along: After a while it won’t matter. As to the question of infected, this is a designer virus. You catch it just like the flu. We infected whole platoons by releasing it in the air over them. Eighty-Nine point seven percent infection rate, but that doesn’t really matter because it infects people close to you and those people will infect you… Sneezing, waste, sex, water, food, it gets into and on everything. And once it is in you, either orally or via bloodstream you will be infected. The human body has nothing to fight it, no reason to be alarmed or believe it’s anything more than a virus. And that same response will help to carry it to every area of the body as your own defenses manufacture white blood cells to fight it. So you may as well say a one hundred percent infection rate.” He paused and rubbed at his temples.
“Be glad they decided on this. They have some others that will kill everybody in the world in a matter of days.” Weston nodded at the raised eyebrows that greeted his remarks. “I don’t doubt that the merits of which way to go were hotly debated,” he finished gravely.
“The virus is designed to live within the host, but it can live outside of the host. It can stay alive in a dead body for days, even if the body is frozen. In fact that just freezes the virus too; once the body is thawed it will infect any living person that comes along. So those,” he pointed to the silver cartridges, “are overkill. Same stuff is being released across the globe. Great Briton… Germany… Australia… West coast just a few hours ago. Manhattan has already been done, all the East Coast in fact. I want the two of you to head out from here. One vial here, then one of you head west, the other south. Go for the bigger cities… Water supplies… Reservoirs… Release it in the air or water, it doesn’t matter. There are men heading out from the south, the west coast. The Air Force will be dispersing the same stuff via cargo planes tomorrow or the next day… As long as they can fly, if we can even make it that long, and that isn’t looking really good right now…” He rose from the desk. “I’ll see you out.” He turned to Alice. “Alice… Pack us up.” Alice nodded as Sammy and John got to their feet, but her hand remained on the butt of the pistol. Rubber grips, Sammy noticed as he passed her.
“Alice,” he said.
“Um hmm,” Alice murmured.
Sammy nearly stopped in his tracks, but managed to hide his surprise as he passed by into the hallway. The Major fished two sets of keys from his pocket. “Parked in the back lot. A couple of plain Jane Dodge four-bys. Drive ’em like you stole ’em. Leave ’em where you finish up. Hell, keep ’em if you want ’em. Nobody is going to care.”
The three stood in the hallway for a few seconds longer. Sammy’s eyes locked with the Major’s own, and he nodded. The major walked back into his office, and the door rose from its pocket behind him. Quiet, except the slight buzzing from the fluorescent lights.
John shrugged as his eyes met Sammy’s, waiting.
Sammy sighed. “You heard the man… West or south?”
“Flip for it?” John asked. His mouth seemed overly dry and he licked his lips nervously.
Sammy pulled a quarter from his pocket and flipped it into the air. “Call it, Johnny.”
“Tails,” John said just before the quarter hit the carpet.
Sammy bent forward. “Tails it is. You got it, Johnny.”
John looked down at the carpet. “West, I guess.” John said.
Sammy nodded, looked down once more at the quarter and then both men turned and walked away toward the elevator that would take them back to the surface.
Market Place: Watertown, New York:
“I don’t give a fuck what you think, girl. Get that fuckin’ money in the bag, and get it in the bag now.” He shifted away, leaning back from Haley, but with the mirrored sun glasses it was hard for her to tell whether he was still looking at her or away from her. The drawer had hesitated opening, the reset from switching to emergency power, just a sticky register, something, she had tried to explain it, but he had taken it personal. Like she had meant to have it happen. Thankfully it had opened immediately the second time. She picked up her cash drawer and dumped it into the green plastic garbage bag he held. The ground trembled a little under her feet causing her to sway, and they both paused, waiting…
There had been earthquakes. A few aftershocks in between the major jolts, and then the power had gone out. This was, Haley hoped, only a tremor.
It had been the new assistant manager’s bright idea to stay open. To be a gathering place for people in the neighborhood until someone in charge showed up. It was three A.M. and no one in charge had shown up. Twenty minutes ago three people had walked through the front door: All dressed in military fatigues; all wearing the mirrored sunglasses and some sort of scarves or bandannas tied around their heads and below their noses. Hair, eyes, all the features you could look for and remember were gone. They would probably never get caught, there was nothing to remember. Never mind the fact that the alarms were out, the cops hadn’t been seen for hours, and they were robbing the market in the middle of some kind of disaster. Haley only hoped they made it fast and didn’t hurt anyone. The oldsters, her nickname for the older folks that lived in the area, couldn’t handle a lot of shock. Already some of them were overly frightened and shaking.
Her eyes swept around to the other two. The one guy seemed slightly heavier through the upper body, but the fatigues were out sized, so it was hard to tell. The last had a deep booming voice that he had only used once when they had come into the market, kicked the chocks that held the automatic doors open out of the way, and announced the robbery. None of the three had spoken since then.
There were twenty-eight people in the market, mostly the oldsters from the Old Towne neighborhood who had come to the market area because the lights were still on, and there were other people there. Old Towne was a far suburb of the city of Manhattan. Some young couples lived here, but getting into and out of the city was sometimes too much and before you knew it a face you had gotten used to seeing was gone. The oldsters with their pensions and fixed incomes stayed. The commute into the city, as rarely as they had to make it, meant nothing to them. Crime was usually low; it wasn’t a bad place to live.
A tremble passed through the floor once more; weaker than the last. It felt like a heavy truck passing over a bridge, no more than that, she thought.
Three earthquakes had hit so far, each one stronger than the last. Haley herself had watched the lights of downtown dim and then wink out. All of those old buildings that had lit up the sky over the old public square every night for as long as she could remember, gone in the wink of an eye. The flat screens that hung above the checkouts had winked out, and the two televisions at the front of the store that were on every hour of every day blacked out and then came back with snow and static. The skyline had lit back up, but it was flickering in places.
Haley had grown up in the Grant projects in Harlem. Six months ago she had made the move north to Watertown. She took a room on the north side of the city and up until a few weeks ago she had still made the trip back and forth every day, but she had found a place, a small walk-up, not far from the market. It was okay for now. And living near downtown suited her, or had. She didn’t know how this was going to change the equation.
The power had not come back on in the downtown district. The lights were running by generator. The generator was necessary for the meat department at the back of the store. It wouldn’t run forever, but it was on now keeping the meat freezers and the cold cases working; running the low powered emergency lighting system inside the market.
The robber that had been in front of her moved down the line to the next register when the shaking stopped, bag in hand: The other two stood silently at the front of the store, some sort of rifles with clips held in their hands, watching, Haley supposed, through their mirrored lenses.
The man with the bag had reached the end of the line when a much heavier earthquake hit and things began to tumble from the shelves, falling into the aisles. Above her she watched the ceiling lift from the painted cinder block walls and then slam back down once more. One second she had been looking outside at the massive bare limbs of the oaks that lined the other side of the street and the next she had been looking at the backside of the corrugated panels that made up the roof of the market. It had happened so fast that she wondered to herself if it had really happened at all. The thin steel roof trusses that held the corrugated panels twisted as the roof slammed back down, squealing as they did. It seemed impossible to her that they could continue to hold the roof.
Her eyes swept quickly around the inside of the market. Most of the oldsters were screaming, cowering where they stood, trying to melt into the floor, but a few were standing stoically; watching parts of the ceiling begin to fall. Haley held the side of the dead conveyor belt in her checkout lane as the floor rose and shook. The robbers scrambled to stay on their feet; the stock tipped and tumbled, rolling across the floor.
The looks on some of the oldster’s faces said, “I knew this is how it would end,” and Haley believed in that split second that they really had known all along that the world would come to an end in the downtown market square just like it was right now. They had been children playing in the school yard, young lovers chasing after one another through the tall grass, parents seeing their child off to school on that first day: Pensioners walking to the box to get their check as the little girls that lived next door played hopscotch on the sidewalk; old folks coaxing the cat into the house through the back door, and they had known. They had known all along. Her eyes swiveled back to the front of the market, and that was when the roof at the front of the store collapsed. The robber, the one with the bigger upper body screamed and jumped back, and Haley understood then that he was a she. Her scream seemed like a signal to everyone, and a fraction of a second later they were all, oldsters, employees and robbers, running for the back of the store as the ceiling of the market collapsed onto the tops of the aisle shelving. The lightweight steel girders grinding and screeching as it came down.
The doors to the back stock room slammed open and the crowd poured into the rear storage area, coming up against the stacks of boxes and crates, and stopping. Just that suddenly the situation had changed. They were no longer running for their lives, they were being herded like cattle by the three and their waving, motioning rifles, holding the doors open, pushing the stragglers, cut and bleeding, into the area as the last of the shaking stopped. Large clips depended in a curve from those rifles, Haley noticed. They were in their hands, but they also had other weapons slung upon their backs by straps that looked every bit as capable as the ones they held in their hands. The one with the thicker chest, the one who at least screamed like a woman, kicked the doors shut and they stood, choking and sneezing as the thick clouds of dust swirled and billowed in the emergency lights.
The old Chevy began to rock on its springs, lunging first right and then left. It took a harder lunge to the right, and then jumped forward and slammed head on into the side of the building.
“Fuck, Calvin. Fuck,” the woman driver screamed. She held a rifle with a long banana clip that slammed into the ceiling. Her finger squeezed the trigger tightly for just a brief second and spat a burst of bright white light and noise; a jagged hole appeared in the roof of the car.
“Bitch, what the fuck?” Calvin screamed as he tried to roll with the shaking car, hanging onto the dashboard. The four in the back added their own comments, and in a second the entire car erupted into cursing and yelling. The ground movement tossed the car once more, picking it up and slamming it sideways into a truck that had slid over three spaces. The screech of grinding metal and breaking glass silenced the screams and yells from the car. The car bounced away from the truck, jiggled from side to side and then settled onto the ground; one tire flat, the nose bent upward.
“Get out… Get out of this motherfucker,” Calvin screamed. Bricks and pieces of concrete block began to tumble from the roof line as the main wall of the market bulged out and the false roof structure that fronted the store titled backwards and fell into the store space. A few of the huge glass windows that fronted the market cracked with loud audible clicks: Spider webs running like bolts of lightning top to bottom, and then shooting off to the sides. Huge walls of glass that were now held together only by the aluminum frames they rested in.
“Jesus… Jesus, those bitches will go… I know it,” one of the men that had been in the back seat muttered, as he tumbled from the car and staggered away. One tall window groaned, splinters of glass shooting onto the sidewalk, and the front passenger side of the car, and then collapsed in a small pile onto the concrete as if to prove him right. Screams surged out from inside the store mixing with their own. A thick cloud of dust billowed out through the opening. The glass glittered like gemstones in the sparse light from the interior of the market.
“Out… Out!” Calvin yelled. A small section of brick bonded to concrete block fell over and crushed the nose of the car, pinning it to the ground. Steam erupted from the buried nose of the car and rose into the cold air, mixing with the dust as it did. Calvin skipped backwards, the hard heels of the combat boots he wore getting little purchase on the asphalt. He fell backwards with the momentum, his hands splaying behind him, immediately cut on the glass and other debris that covered the asphalt. He wrenched himself forward and began to pluck at the pieces embedded in his palms. His eyes rose and swept across the others as his fingers worked. Murder, Shitty, Chloe, Tammy, he ticked off the faces mentally. “Who?” he asked. His quick head count had come up short.
“Rosie,” Tammy said. She was a thin girl with a shock of kinky pink hair. The name was picked up by the others.
Rosie had been in the front with him. She had been the one that had shot through the roof of the car. She was nowhere to be seen. Calvin stood, dusted his bleeding palms against his fatigues and walked around the edge of the car. Rosie’s boot clad feet protruded from under the car. Not moving. A pool of spreading blood seeping past the wheel that rested partway onto her body, and out into the lot. He stopped. “Rosie’s done up,” he said aloud. He raised his eyes from the pavement as a gunshot came from inside the market. He swore to himself. “Better see what’s happened inside. Stay right here,” He frowned as a second shot rang out. “Fuck… Listen, if it goes bad, get the fuck out… Just run.” He waited for Murder to nod. Murder was his first. The one he trusted the most. He trotted toward the front entrance, his rifle in his hands, safety off.
The Stock Room:
Things moved fast after the doors swung shut. The one with the thick chest tore off her bandanna and shook her head as if to get the dust out of her hair. White-blond hair flew about her face. She bent over a second later and vomited. Haley smelled it on the air instantly, and fought the gag reflex that started in her own throat. A few of the oldsters didn’t make it, and the small floor area was covered with sprawled and bent double bodies a second later as more became sick. Haley kept her eyes on the three. A second later the other two tore off their bandannas, and Haley’s heart sank.
The one with the deep voice spoke again: A tall pimple faced white boy, Haley saw. He couldn’t be more than fourteen. “Get these,” he said, as he passed long pieces of plastic to the other two. The plastic made no sense until a few seconds later when the other two began slapping the zip ties around one of the oldster’s wrists and tugging another through the first before pulling them tight.
“Oh God. Don’t do that to me,” Annie, one of the new clerks screamed. She bolted forward as if making a break for the now closed stock room doors, and Haley watched as the pimple faced white boy raised his rifle. He squeezed the trigger once. Annie collapsed to the floor in mid stride, like a kite that had spilled all of its air at once. One leg spread before her, the other at an angle behind her. Her body skidded along the floor an inch or two and then stopped. She sighed loudly. Her mouth was closed tightly in a grimace as she slowly tipped over to the floor. Her eyes were open, and for a second Haley thought maybe she was seeing, but then something in them shifted, and she knew she was gone. Haley turned away as a few of the oldsters began to mutter between themselves, a few others began to cry. Jason, the new Assistant Manager, stepped forward.
“Listen,” he began in a loud voice. “I don’t know who you people think you are, but you’ve killed someone now… Killed someone!” He stopped and looked incredulously at the three who stood closer to the doors. His eyes cutting down to Annie and then up once more. The pimple faced boy raised the rifle once more, Jason opened his mouth, and the boy shot him in the chest before he could say another word.
The blast was amazingly loud in the closed area. Louder than the other shot had been, and a large section of Jason’s smock turned instantly red, puffing out behind him. He sank slowly to the floor, his mouth working as though he had one last thing to say, but he said nothing. He reached the floor, tipped sideways, and a flood of dark blood spilled from his mouth. After that no one spoke: The other two went back to tying wrists with the zip ties, and time seemed to jump forward in quick little jerks as Haley watched them do her own wrists and then move on.
They would kill her now, she knew it. Nineteen years of living through the violence of the projects: Making it out; all to die in the back of some market stockroom over a few dollars that didn’t even belong to her. And they would do it. There was no reason not to now. They had let them see their faces. No reason to tie them. No reason to remove the bandannas. No reason at all.
A sharp banging came from the side of the stockroom and Haley twisted her head quickly. The door that lead out to the sidewalk, Haley knew. A voice calling, and the pimple faced white boy raised his own voice in answer; turning toward the sound.
“We’re good… We’re good,” he yelled in that voice that didn’t seem capable of coming from him. He turned back, his eyes scanning the crowd. They stopped on Haley.
“Where is that fucking door?” he asked. “Where’s it go to?”
She motioned with her head. “Behind the boxes… There, at the end of the aisle. Goes outside… Out front.”
“Show me, Bitch.” He moved forward and his rifle barrel dug into her stomach, and then upward, dragging heavily across the edges of her ribs as he lifted the barrel and motioned with it. She stifled the urge to cry out. She could feel blood trickling downward, across the flat of her stomach under the smock she wore. She walked the short distance to the door, and found herself suddenly falling as he shoved her hard to one side, and slammed down on the door width bar; swinging it open.
Haley’s forehead hit the concrete hard, and she slid forward on her chest, rolling into a skid of cereal boxes. She was out cold before the boxes tumbled to the surrounding floor, hiding her body.
The Padlock Situation:
“What the fuck? The one called Calvin said as he stepped into the room. The pimple faced kid held up the bag of money as he stepped forward to go through the door, the other two behind him. Calvin caught the edge of his shirt and shoved him backwards hard.
“Why’d you kill some? Why’d you do that? Didn’t we talk about it? Didn’t we make it clear? What the fuck?” His eyes swept over the two bodies that lay on the floor, blood running away in small rivulets toward the floor drain near the swinging doors that lead back out into the store area.
“The cunt on the floor tried to rush us… No choice!” The kid’s frightened, pale-blue eyes stared up into Calvin’s own eyes. A small smile played at the corners of his mouth.
“The other guy played hero,” the blond said. Her face was slicked with sweat, making it seem even darker than it was. She stepped forward slightly, trying to hold Calvin’s eyes with her own. Calvin’s hand flashed to his waist, and a second later he bought it up in a sharp thrusting motion. The kid gasped, his mouth opened, and a small trickle of blood ran from the corner and across his cheek. Calvin watched the life begin to bleed from the kids’ eyes before he released him. The kid slid to the floor as if in slow motion. Calvin sheathed his knife: The blonde stepped forward as if to catch the kid, and Calvin raised his rifle.
“You got something to say?” he asked.
The blond wagged her head. Tears glistened at the corners of her eyes. She stared down at the body on the floor.
The Parking Lot:
Chloe looked from Murder to Tammy. She had already started backwards at the shot. It had taken all of her resolve not to run. Tammy stood trembling, her eyes trapped, and unable to stay in one place for long; lighting first on Chloe, then Murder, then back to Chloe.
“Chloe! Fuck. Chloe!” Tammy hissed. “Let’s go… Let’s fuckin’ go.”
Far away the scream of an engine came to her, and Chloe’s eyes swiveled back to Murder. “You know he’ll kill us too… You know it.”
“Shut up! Shut the fuck up, Bitches. Just let me…” Before he could finish the words, Shitty, who had been standing right next to him, had turned and sprinted a few feet away. He stopped and looked back, sweat trailing down his face, panic bright in his eyes.
“That fucking engine, Man. It’s coming here… Listen, Man. Listen.” They all listened for a second. “It’s cops… I ain’t fuckin’ waitin’.”
There may have been some hope of Murder holding them together, but at the same instance he had that thought a burst of automatic gunfire came from the market and he found his own feet moving. He followed the other three as they ran for the shadows at the back of the lot.
Calvin motioned to the blond and the other remaining kid and they stepped through the door out onto the sidewalk and the cold air. The blond started to walk away, but Calvin curled his fist into her hair and dragged her back. She cried out involuntarily as he pulled her around to face back into the stockroom.
“Can’t leave it like this,” he told her. “Your man fucked it up; unless you want to be in there with him you better take care of it.” Her eyes pleaded, but he pushed her away; turned loose of her. He raised his rifle, holding it on her. “Take ’em out,” he said quietly. “Take ’em out.” She turned to him once more, briefly, and then turned back, raised her own rifle, and began to fire into the stockroom. Things happened fast after that.
Calvin turned at the sound of tires screeching on the wet pavement. A kind of low grade squalling as the tires slid to a stop, muted by the rain slicked roadway. He turned, fully prepared to flash the rifle, and show whoever this was that it might be smarter to take off. He wasn’t prepared for the sight that greeted him.
A police van had skidded to a stop halfway across both lanes of the street and cops seemed to boil out of it: A half dozen. All armed. All dressed in riot gear, and bulletproof vests, Calvin saw. He fully intended to keep turning, but at nearly the same time he saw them his legs seemed to be pushed out from under him, and he felt himself falling as an eruption of noise and smoke filled the air all around him. He tumbled through the doorway into the dim interior. Just outside he watched as the blonde and the remaining man sprinted for the only shelter, the stockroom, but the cops were on both of them just that fast. They fell even as they made the doorway, sprawling on the heap of bodies just past him. The rapid shots fell off to single blasts, and then stopped. Two heavily armored cops ran forward, flanking the door, hesitated only briefly, and then jumped through the doorway into the room beyond. The silence held for a brief second longer and then one called back. Calvin fought to keep his eyes open, convinced that if he could do just that one small thing everything would be alright.
“Toast… Done up.”
The one that had called out turned, light flashing dully from his black body armor. He started for the door when his eyes fell on a thick padlock hanging next to the door. He grasped it as he leapt through the doorway; the other followed. They both bent and picked up the few scattered weapons that lay on the sidewalk; tossing them into the darkness of the stockroom, and then the first one slammed the door shut. He ran the padlock through the welded plates on the door and snapped it shut.
Calvin heard the click. His vision was lost in the absolute darkness of the space. He had already tried to move. He couldn’t. It was useless. It had seemed so important to try to move though. So important just a few moments ago. A few…. He blinked, but he still saw nothing. A buzzing started in one ear, and then that ear seemed to fill up with static, breaking the buzzing sound up into little bursts of confusion that tore away into his brain. He blinked and tried to listen harder, but there was nothing to hear, then…
“Come on, come on, come on!” This from one of the cops crouched back by the van where it idled on the roadway: Vapor curling from the exhaust pipe and lifting into the air: The two sprinted back, jumped into the rear of the van; holding the doors partially shut with their hands and the van roared away. It turned two blocks down and disappeared onto one of the side streets. The motor could be heard screaming on the still air for a few moments longer, and then it was gone. Silence held the street, and then snow began to fall lightly. Within a short time the entire street was covered in a coating of snow as lightening flashed in the dark skies above Old Towne.
The darkness began to suddenly take on more weight, and the fear that he might be dying settled in more fully with Calvin’s other scattered thoughts. A puppy he had had… So real… Its whole body was wagging right along with its tail. It was … was… When? What? Gone… A birthday party… Not his… He had no gift… The sound of the lock clicking shut… Echoing, and then as suddenly as the light had left with the slamming of the door it flared back into existence: A bright ball up near the ceiling. A light to be sure, but unlike any light he had ever seen. It flared brighter… Brighter still, and then he felt himself rise, confused at first and then stepping from the shadows of the room and into the bright lights of a hallway. Panic jumped into him… How could he be walking? How could he be?
He spun, meaning to step back into the darkness, but the darkness was gone. All that remained was the over bright hallway that lead to… Whatever it led to. He couldn’t make an answer for it come to him. None at all. He stood briefly, still facing what had been the darkness of the back room, but now was only a smooth white expanse of flat wall, and then he forced himself to turn around… It meant… It meant the end… The end… He slid one foot forward and then the other, forcing himself to walk.
She came awake in the dark. She was shivering, the cold of the concrete seeping deep into her body. Her head ached, but when she tried to lift her hands to it she remembered that they were still zip tied behind her back. Boxes tumbled away from her. That caused panic to settle into her for a brief moment until she realized that whatever had happened was over. The stockroom was graveyard silent, a thin blueish line of light seeped under the swinging doors about twelve feet away. Shadows began to emerge from the darkness as her eyes adjusted: Bodies, and then the thick smells of coppery blood and vomit came to her. She fought the urge to gag.
She was convinced she was alone, equally convinced that this was just a trick. She waited, and then waited a little longer, but nothing changed as she watched the line of light under the door. Occasionally it would flicker. Nothing else. She made her decision, carefully got to her feet, and stepped around the bodies to the swinging doors.
The roof was collapsed onto the tops of the aisles. The steel of the shelving units held it suspended there. Most of the emergency lighting was out, but a few lights were still lit: Some hanging by wires into the aisles. The space in the aisles to the roof was tall enough that she didn’t have to stoop over as she made her way to the front of the store. She stopped in the darkness at the mouth of the aisle, and looked out through the shattered front windows in front of her. Snow fell on the street beyond the glass. Lightning flashed sporadically in the skies, the sound of thunder sometimes close, sometimes far away: The lightening blue-white flashes of light on the snow covered street.
She waited: For what she didn’t know, but nothing came, nothing changed. She stood, listening to the clicking and buzzing from the flickering fluorescent lights of the market. She bumped against the sharp edge of an end cap that had partially buckled, jutting out next to her: Blood trickled away from her arm, rolling to her wrists which were still bound, her hands, swollen, were cold and numb. She turned and used the sharp edge as quickly as she could to cut through one of the zip ties that bound her wrists. Rubbing until one tie flew apart, making a plastic clicking sound as it hit the aisle floor and skittered away. She moved her wrists around in front of her and into the light.
A thin line of blood ran away from the wrist that had been encircled by the tie. Whether from the sharp metal she had used to escape the zip-tie, or the zip-tie itself she could not tell. A few more seconds of careful rubbing with the sharp metal edge and the other plastic cuff fell to the floor. She stood and rubbed feeling back into her hands. They came alive with sharp pins and needles nearly making her cry out. She flexed them, working blood back into them, and looked out at the falling snow. The whole world seemed quieted by it.
She looked around the entire front area of the store. It appeared empty, but it was hard to see anything; there were few lights working. The roof collapse had shortened the entire space, trapping what lights remained working inside the aisles, hanging from their wires. There were no sounds, no movements. She was alone, she decided. She stood for a few moments longer, still rubbing her hands, and then walked past the checkouts, stepped through a shattered front window, and walked off down the street into the falling curtain of snow.
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