“I think a see a miracle at eleven o’clock.” Using the face of a clock to define position, Papa Rose spoke into the mic dangling in front of his mouth like a overfed blowfly. Easing up on the gas, he swerved the Harley Davidson around the corpse sitting next to an abandoned Honda. Lucky bastard. Imagine just sitting down and dying like that.
Some people had all the luck.
“Roger that, Papa Rose.” On the motorcycle next to him, Falcon nodded. Lightning glinted on the ex-Ranger’s ebony helmet. Instead of covering his mouth, his yellow bandanna fluttered against his black neck. “Looks like Santa came early.”
One the seat behind Falcon, Brainiac lowered his face mask before adjusting his mic. “A tanker should keep Palo Verde running until we can join Doc and the others in the safety of the mountains.”
More than enough. Unfortunately, Papa Rose had hoped to buy a one way ticket to ground zero. God needed to stop fucking with his plans.
He hopped the curb and drove down the sidewalk. The semi’s cab tilted down the entrance to a gas station several blocks away. Hoods of cars, vans and trucks aimed at it. The stubble on his bald head stood on end.
Brainiac’s panting came over the wire. He raised the M-4 off his lap, ready to aim left or right. “Anyone else’s oh shit meter pinging?”
Papa Rose scanned the area. Right to left. Left to right. Smoke crept between the open spaces, not thick enough to hide anything. Rats waddled along the debris trimming the storefronts. Car doors remained shut. Windows were rolled up. Interiors were empty. “Where are the tan and browns?”
Bodies decomposed on every corner and street. Every one but this one. That just wasn’t natural.
“Fuck.” Falcon swore softly as they wove through the congestion. “Should we abort?”
Abort? They taken this mission to ensure they died. But…shit. What had been the point of his surviving his wife and kids if he died in an ambush. “Hell no!”
“We need that gas to keep the generators running. Four days.” Brainiac eyed the rooftops, the muzzle of his weapon tracked his progress. “Doc just needs four days.”
Doc. A woman who they’d met once, right before they’d volunteered for this mission. She’d given the survivors hope. And she counted on them. Today was not a good day to die. “I’ll take point.”
Papa Rose added enough gas to dart in the front. The extended front wheel ate up the distance and the throbbing of the engine echoed off the store fronts lining the street. Vertical blinds rattled in the empty window panes. Papers rustled in the gutter. A cool breeze carried the scent of smoky water.
His gaze shifted right then left. Back and forth, to and fro. There had to be some evidence of what had gone down here, of where the people went. His attention dropped to the asphalt. No blood puddled under the trunks. Was it possible they had simply walked away?
A hundred feet from the corner, he eased between a Dodge caravan and a Ford pick-up. He took his hand from the handlebar and skimmed the hood as he passed. “It’s cool.”
“The others were as well.” Falcon confirmed.
The information was paltry and could be lethally misleading if they put too much stock in it. They didn’t know the order the cars had arrived. Papa Rose zig-zagged around the nose of a sedan then a coupe. One more lane of traffic to go. The wind kicked up, tugged at his denim jacket.
“Still looks clear,” Brainiac whispered.
“This has to be the end of the world. We have a squid for lookout.” Falcon muttered. “You’re not looking for rocks, are you Brainiac?”
“Or icebergs.” He joined in the hazing as his front wheel cleared the cars. His heart raced and his palms sweated against the handlebars. The dark glass face of the convenience store stared back at him. What lucked in the interior?
“Actually I was looking at how high the swells are,” Brainiac shot back. “Too bad I didn’t bring my surfboard.”
His tire bumped over the curve. He quickly glanced up at the awning over the pumps. No one peered back. He pulled alongside the tanker and stopped. The engine throbbed between his thighs. His reflection stared back from the shiny tank.
Gravel crunched as Falcon parked behind him.
He killed the engine. After nearly two hours of the hog drumming in his head, the silence nearly knocked his legs out from under him. A breeze stirred the grand opening banner draped from the red and yellow eaves. His nose twitched at the stench of death and the hair on his arms stood up.
He knew what black and tans smelled like long before the Redaction hit.
“I think I know where the people are.” Hooking the kickstand with his boot, he set it down and lowered the bike’s weight onto it. He tugged the Glock from his waistband and nodded toward the double glass doors at the front of the store.
Brainiac hopped off the bike. His finger settled next to the trigger. “I think there’s only black and tans sunning themselves.” He jerked his chin in the direction of the North-bound lane. One lane had been cleared–enough for a stream of cars to get through.
Falcon’s eyes narrowed. He dismounted and fingered the weapons hanging on his belt. Bypassing the knives and machete, he removed a Sig-Sauer. “Give me a status on the tanker, B.”
“Aye.” Brainiac spun on his heel. Keeping alert, he approached the semi.
Keeping the tank at his back, Falcon inched toward the back. The white wall of the building next to the gas station covered their flank–provided no one was on the roof.
But would they risk blowing up the precious fuel to get to them?
Maybe they’d emptied it and stored the barrels inside. Papa Rose stepped toward the convenience store.
“Negative, Papa.” Falcon’s voice swirled inside his ear. “Hang tight.”
He retreated and watched the action from his peripheral vision.
“I”m going up.” Brainiac hitched his weapon over his shoulder, set one foot on the bumper and grabbed the rungs welded to the back of the tank. Metal creaked as it adjusted to his full weight.
“That can’t be good.” A full load would be heavy, certainly heavier than Brainiac who could be carrying a fifty pound sack of flour and still weigh nearly nothing. Damn. This pit stop could be a waste of precious time
“Yeah, I think she’s empty.” Brainiac balanced on top of the cylinder and hunched over as he walked toward the cab. “Notice how hollow my footsteps sound.”
Falcon shook his head. “You keep that racket up and anyone within ten clicks of us will hear. Do you even know what you’re doing?”
“Hell no.” Brainiac grinned at them before crouching low. Metal ground together. “I’m improvising. Isn’t that what you special forces cock-suckers admire?”
Papa Rose coughed over his laugh. Even squid have teeth.
“You’re gonna admire my boot up your ass if your caterwauling gets me shot.” Falcon kicked a rock in his direction. “Stop laughing.”
“I thought you said you barely knew the runt?” The stone skipped over the asphalt and thudded to a stop against Papa Rose’s worn steel-toed work boot. Dots studded the blacktop. Soon the smell of wet asphalt competed with the stench of decay.
Metal clanged together, echoing around the belly of the tanker.
“Empty, just like I thought.” Brainiac straightened and dusted his hands. “Maybe we shouldn’t have driven through the side streets. We might have had better luck looking for a full truck on the interstate.”
Maybe, but there was no point in second guessing themselves. They were almost out of Tolleson and soon they’d be on the open road and could look there. “My momma told me never to crash a party without a gift, and I don’t intend to disappoint her.”
And if they didn’t find any gas between the western suburbs of Phoenix and Palo Verde, well then, they were just going there to piss in the wind.
Brainiac hooked his hand around the handle arcing over the top of the tanker. “Your momma tell you what goes with radioactive fondue?”
“Get your fool ass down here.” Falcon shoved up the visor of his helmet.
“Aye, aye.” Brainiac climbed down faster than a monkey from a tree. With his wiry build, he resembled one too. His heels rapped loudly against the silence when he jumped the rest of the way to the ground.
Falcon swore. “Keep it up and we’re gonna get holes punched in our asses.”
The skin between Papa Rose’s shoulder blades itched. Could someone be watching them from behind the tinted glass? He inched closer to the double doors. Only one way to find out. “Anyone want a Slim Jim?”
Squaring his shoulders, Falcon swung his gaze to the convenience store before nodding once. “How many do you think you can get?”
So the other soldier felt it too. Good to know his spider senses weren’t misfiring. He shoved up his rain spotted visor. “Won’t know until I enter.”
Falcon’s finger slipped onto the trigger. “I got a powerful craving. Stand watch, B.”
Cradling his M-4, Brainiac strode to the motorcycles. “I’d like some chips if you can find any.”
“Sure thing.” Was the kid dense or buying into the game? Papa Rose waited until Falcon fell into position behind him before walking toward the door. Anyone with a lick of sense would recognize it as an offensive position. Still, there was a chance civilians cowered in the dark interior.
He stepped onto the shiny green landing in front of the store, turned his body to make a smaller target then reached for the handle. His fingers across the wet surface before finding purchase then he yanked it open.
The door swung out silently.
Death perfume rolled out along of the opening.
Papa Rose swallowed the bile rising in his throat. Maybe he’d discarded his face mask prematurely.
Lightning flashed in the west, shooting rays of light into the gloom. Empty white shelves protruded like bleached bones from the mass of bodies tossed three and four deep on the floor. Dark stained pockmarks marred one wall. Broken glass glittered like diamonds across jackets and spilled hair.
“Looks like they were herded inside then shot.” Falcon stepped over the out stretched arm of one man and found an empty place next to his head.
“Not all at once.” Locking the door open, He shifted aside an empty potato chip bag before placing his weight on his leg. “Some are stiff.” He pointed with his weapon to the pale, stiff fingers reaching for the blood-spattered ceiling then to the fat woman whose rolls oozed around her limp body and leaked fluids. “Others have been here a while.”
The newcomers would have learned their fate too late to prevent it.
“Should we check to see if any are alive?”
Hell no. Lifeless eyes stared back at him, accused him from death masks etched in pain and fear. Thunder rumbled down the street and rattled the windows. Right, if he wanted to get into heaven and see his wife and kids, he’d better earn it. “I’ll take the right.”
Sliding his finger off the trigger, he crouched down and poked the doughy neck of the nearest body. OneMississippi. TwoMississippi. Three–
A loud thump came from deep within the store.
He shot to his feet, aiming his gun at the swinging doors near the brain studded hot dog carousel. His heart hammered his chest. A few controlled breaths calmed his thoughts. “Could be a rat.”
Falcon crept toward a blood smeared end cap. “What and avoid this smorgasbord?”
Yeah, his thoughts were messed up. But dammit why did he have to keep shooting people when most were going to die anyway? How the hell was he supposed to work off the body count he had already accumulated when he kept adding to it? He’d never reunite with his family this way.
Falcon directed their assault with one hand.
Papa Rose’s finger returned to the trigger. Guess they were going in. Hunkering down, he set on boot on the cadaver’s belly. Gingerly, he shifted his weight onto it. It collapsed in a burst of stink just as he lifted his heel. His teeth clattered and his ankle wobbled as his sole hit the spine.
Falcon’s nose wrinkled in disgust. “Ribs, dip shit.”
Excuse him. He’d never used corpses as stepping stones before. Shaking the tepid goo off his boot, he aimed for the next body’s chest.
“There’s ribs in there?” Brainiac buzzed in his ear like an annoying insect. “Damn, I’m hungry.”
He closed his eyes and shifted his weight. Please don’t splat. Please don’t burst. After a brief wobble, it firmed. The next one shifted as the one underneath it gave way. They’re not people; they’re stones. Stepping stones. Breathing through his mouth, he crept down the aisle. His brain short-circuited, neutralizing his taste buds, planting him firmly in the moment but not the charnel house.
Sweat stung his eyes. Rain pattered the pavement, hissing as it hit. Lightning exploded in the sky and thunder soon followed. He increased his speed, leaving the stones almost as soon as they began to shift. If they waited too long, the storm would disguise the actions of whoever lay beyond those doors.
Falcon stood to the side, out of sight of the glass panes in the black doors, waiting.
Finally, he lowered his foot to the brown linoleum. Two refrigerator cases stretched between him and his target. The tacky blood stuck to his heels when he inched forward but at least his boots didn’t squeak.
The double doors exploded outward with a scream.
A very human scream. The world slowed down as he processed everything at once. A dark shadow cleared the threshold. The doors banged against one wall and Falcon. The impact knocked his weapon off target. A bullet slammed into the racks, spraying metal chips in the air.
Papa Rose raised his gun.
The shadow threw itself against the door holding the other soldier.
Fuck! If he shot, he’d hit Falcon. Muscle coiled around bone and he sprang forward.
Lightning cracked the darkness, illuminating the fear on the kid’s face. Wide blue eyes stared back at him. Dried blood glued the hair to the side of her head.
It’s a kid. The thought skimmed his consciousness just as he tackled her. Twisting at the last minute, he bore the brunt of the impact with the door. The rubber gave just a bit but the crash rattled out his bones.
Falcon’s groan transmitted across the wire.
“Do you need back-up? Brainiac’s question swirled inside his head.
He wrapped his arms around the squirming kid, slithering up and down his body while her heels played his shins like a xylophone. “It’s okay, kid. You’re safe.”
She answered him with a jab in the gut.
“Kid? What kid?” Brainiac spat into his skull.
The door shoved against his spine and he and the kid slid along the floor with the grace of a sidewinder.
“I’ll kill you! I’ll kill you!”
“Hold your position, B!” Falcon’s scream overrode the girl’s threats. “Get the kid under control, Papa.”
“We’re not going to hurt you.” He rolled, pinning her under him.
Her bones, as fragile as a hummingbird’s, shuddered. Once. Twice. A third time. Finally, she lay still. “Don’t hurt me. Please. Don’t hurt me.”
Christ Jesus. What had she been through? A body, decaying inches from her nose, told the story.
“We’re not here to hurt anyone.” Falcon squatted next to her bare feet. “We’re here to help.”
“Help?” She blinked.
He rolled off her. Close enough to contain her, but far enough to give her a little space. “Yes. We’re soldiers.”
She turned her head and stared at him, a wild animal gauging the threat in the darkness.
“You’re safe now.” Lowering his gun to the side, Falcon reached into his pocket and withdrew a packet of cookies. He held them out to her. “We’re going to keep you safe.”
She stared at it for a moment. Her hand shook as she reached for it.
From fear or starvation? He clenched his jaw shut. Not that it mattered. The cookies would hold her until he got a Meals-Ready-to-Eat warmed up for her. The skinny thing needed food and they had extra.
Falcon smiled and dropped it into her waiting hand. His teeth gleamed white against his black skin. “Is there anyone else hiding in the back?”
She paused before biting the package. The corner dangled from her teeth when she ripped it open. She spit it on the ground then dumped the cookies into her palm. One by one, she divvied them up.
Papa closed his eyes for a moment. There was another survivor.
“Toby, you can come out now.” Once done yelling, she popped half in her mouth then fisted the other and pushed to her feet.
He turned to see a toddler dragging a teddy bear emerge from the stockroom. “Daddy?”
Air froze in his lungs. His son Patrick had sounded just like that.
“No, not Daddy.” The girl stumbled over an outstretch hand before reaching the toddler. “Soldiers. They brought cookies.” She cupped his hand and poured his share into it. “See?”
“I yike cookies.”
Falcon cleared his throat and sniffed. “You know what this means, don’t you?”
Yeah, their plans for a one-way trip just crumbled. No way could they have a weenie roast over a nuclear fire when they had kids to get to safety. “I can take ‘em on my bike.”
He’d done it before. His fingers curled into fists. This time he wouldn’t fail. Please, God. Don’t force him to ink another rose onto his arm. He was already fully sleeved.