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Authors: James N. Cook

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BOOK: The Darkest Place: A Surviving the Dead Novel
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I ran to her side and looked her over. One eye was badly swollen, and there was a nasty split on her lower lip. But aside from a few scrapes and scratches where her blouse had been torn away, I couldn’t find any other injuries.

My father kept a pocketknife in his bedside table, which I used to cut away Lauren’s restraints. She was still only half conscious, so I tapped her on the cheek and said her name. Her eyes rolled, fluttered, then looked at me and began to focus. I pulled up a corner of the tape on her mouth and said, “Ready?”

She nodded, and I ripped it away. Her eyes watered from the pain. “Caleb, are you all right?”

“I’m fine, Lauren. Are you hurt?”

“My head…” One of her hands gingerly touched the swelling around her eye. I grabbed it and put the hand back down at her side.

“How bad is it?”

“One of them…hit me…”

Her eyes aren’t tracking. Concussion. She needs an ambulance.

“Listen, Lauren. How many of them were there? Was it just the two, or are there more?”

“Just two, I think.” Her voice was getting stronger.

“Okay, just stay here. Try not to move, okay? I’ll be right back.”

I did a quick sweep of the house and found no other intruders. Before going back upstairs, I called 911, explained the situation, and requested police and medical assistance.

“Are the intruders still in the house?” The dispatcher’s voice was female, older sounding, but firm and confident.

“Yes ma’am. Two of them. They’re both dead.”

A pause. “Are you sure?”

“Yes ma’am. One of them took a shot to the head, and the other took three slugs to the heart. I checked them both for a pulse.”

“Did either one of them have a pulse?”

“No ma’am.”

“And you were the one who shot them?”

“Yes. I already told you that.”

“Do you still have the weapon?”

“Yes. I’m going to unload it and put it on the coffee table in the living room.”

“Okay, I’ll let the responding officers know. Are there any other weapons in the house?”

I pinched the bridge of my nose. “Have you dispatched an ambulance yet?”

“Yes, I have. They’re on the way. Can you stay on the line with me until they get there?”

“How long until they get here?”

“I’m not sure, honey. They’re on the way, though. It shouldn’t be long.”

“I’m going upstairs and staying with my stepmom until they get here.”

“That’s fine, honey, just try not to move her, okay?”

I bit back an irritated retort; I probably had more first responder training than the paramedics answering my call. “Okay,” I said. “I”ll be careful.”

I knelt next to the bed, held Lauren’s hand, and kept her talking. Perhaps three minutes later I heard sirens coming down the street. I went outside, flagged them down, and then showed them where to find Lauren. I will never forget the looks on their faces when they saw the bullet-riddled corpses of the intruders.

“Jesus Christ, kid,” one of them said, a big Hispanic guy. His nametag read Ortez. “You did all this?”

I nodded.

Ortez went to look over Lauren while his partner, a pretty blonde woman with brown eyes and strong, useful looking arms checked the corpses for signs of life. When she finished, she stepped in front of me and placed a gentle hand on my shoulder. Despite her outward calm, she positioned her feet like a fighter and there was a touch of wariness in her eyes.

“Can you wait downstairs for the police to get here, please?” she said. “Don’t worry, we’ll take good care of your mom.”

I thought about correcting her that Lauren was my stepmother, but decided against it. I simply nodded and went outside to wait.

Sitting there on the front porch, I thought about that hole in the drywall next to my head, and remembered something my dad once told me about marksmanship and ballistics. I think I was maybe eight or nine at the time. We were eating kabobs at an outdoor picnic table at a bar-b-que place near downtown.

“Here’s something you need to understand about shooting, son,” he said as he slid the meat and vegetables off a kabob and pointed it at the sky. “Here’s where you are when you’re shooting.” He pointed at the bottom of the kabob. “And here’s the bullet.” His finger touched the tip. “Any little movement on this side here at the bottom translates to a much larger movement here at the end.” He pivoted the kabob from left to right like the striker on a metronome. Looking at it that way, I understood the concept. A fraction of an inch of movement at the bottom of the kabob became several inches of movement at the pointy end.

“See what I’m saying, son?” he asked.

“Yeah, I think so. If I move just a little bit when I’m shooting, it doesn’t look like much, but the bullet is going to travel for hundreds of yards. That little movement of the barrel makes a big difference as to where the bullet ends up.”

Dad smiled. “That’s right.”

The guy who shot at me as maybe ten feet away when he pulled the trigger. The bullet hit the wall about ten inches to my left, and to hit at that angle, it must have traveled over and across my face from the right. Judging by where it punctured the wall, I figured it missed me by no more than three inches. If the intruder had aimed the barrel just a bit lower, or had the presence of mind to make a follow up shot, I would be the one dead and not him. And God only knows what would have happened to Lauren.

As the sirens grew louder and my hands began to shake, I remembered that commercial again, the one with the coach giving a speech to his team. The old fellow had it right.

Life really is a game of inches.

EIGHT

 

 

Hollow Rock, Tennessee

 

A few minutes after midnight, Caleb stood up and returned to the kitchen for another drink. He felt Miranda’s eyes on him as he poured it and leaned against the counter. 

“The cops found their car a few blocks down,” he said. “Said it was full of stolen property. Jewelry, mostly. Some old coins, cash, a few laptops, prescription drugs, that kind of stuff. Things they could fence easily and carry out in briefcases to avoid rousing suspicion.”

Miranda shook her head sadly. “Clever. Devious, but clever.”

Caleb nodded. “When they searched the bodies, they found a set of lock picks on the guy who shot at me. They’d been breaking into houses all day. Never hit more than one house on any block. Mine was the only one where someone was home.”

Miranda’s pale eyebrows pinched together. “If they were just petty thieves, why did they attack Lauren? Seems like a big jump from breaking and entering to sexual assault.”

“From what the cops told me, they had done that kind of thing before. Departments in four different states were investigating similar crimes. With the DNA and fingerprints they got off the guys I shot, they were able to wrap up all but one of them.”

“Jesus Christ.”

“I doubt he had anything to do with it.” 

Caleb returned to the living room and sat down. Miranda scooted closer to him and rubbed a hand across his chest. “So what happened when your dad got home?”

“He wasn’t very happy, as you can imagine. He made sure I was okay, then rode in the ambulance with Lauren. I met them at the hospital.”

“Was she okay?”

“Yeah. Had a concussion, bumps and bruises. They kept her overnight, then released her the next morning. The real damage was emotional.”

Miranda’s face darkened. “I can imagine.”

He looked down at her and remembered the night she was rescued, and what she and the other former sex slaves had looked like. Not all of them survived their injuries. Some had diseases, while others buckled under the pain and took their own lives. Of all of them, Miranda seemed to be making the best recovery.

Caleb tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. “Yeah. I guess you can.”

“I’m tired, Caleb. I think I’ll go to bed. You staying up for a while?”

He nodded. “Not sure I can sleep right now.”

She kissed him softly. “Don’t forget to set your alarm clock.”

“I won’t.”

He watched her walk into the bedroom, silhouetted against the window, and thought how much she looked like another girl he had loved. She had been gone only a little over two years, but it felt like a lifetime.

He managed two more glasses of grain liquor before he passed out on the couch.

 

*****

 

Morning. Bright sunlight through the window.

The piercing rattle of Caleb’s wind-up alarm clock ricocheted behind his eyes like a swarm of angry hornets. He checked the time—0700—and had a moment of panic thinking he was late for duty. Then he remembered it was Sunday, and he didn’t have to be at the VFW hall until 0800.

With a groan, he stood up from the couch and stumbled into Miranda’s bedroom. She lay on her side, pillow clutched to her chest, snoring softly. As quietly as he could, he peeled off his sweat-soaked uniform, folded it neatly, then stepped into the bathroom and closed the door. After brushing his teeth, he turned the shower knob and stepped into the narrow stall.

The water was surprisingly warm. Caleb guessed the bright sun shining on the water tower across town must have heated it. He relished in the balmy flow as he grabbed bar of soap and a washcloth and began scrubbing away old sweat and dead skin. Beyond the frosted glass of the shower stall, the bathroom door opened and Miranda’s distorted, flesh-colored shape stepped in. Caleb listened to the sound of water running, her toothbrush going to work, and then she opened the door to the shower.

“Mind if I join you?” she asked.

Caleb took in the sight of her bare alabaster skin in the morning light, soft blonde hair spilling down delicate shoulders, amorous cheekbones, bottomless sapphire eyes, the mobile, graceful curve of sensuous mouth, heavy breasts, rigid stomach muscles, broad flare of womanly hips, strong, supple planes of muscular thighs. His heart pounded in his chest as he stepped back to allow her inside.

The shower was small, but Miranda was very flexible. When they stepped out a short while later, spent and smiling, Caleb decided it was a good start to the morning.

 

*****

 

The sun was well into the sky by 0900.

Caleb sat on the front porch of the Hollow Rock General Store, his back against an awning post, waiting patiently for the arrival of Delta Squad and Sanchez’s militiamen. The store was open but had yet to see its first customer of the day. Miranda was inside updating the inventory logs, straightening merchandise on the shelves, and deciding what items to discount for the day.

While the two of them no longer made any effort to conceal their relationship, Miranda had made it clear he needed to respect her space when she was at work. Caleb knew she loved her job and took it seriously, so he kept a respectful distance while she was on the clock. There was an unavoidable desire to go inside and help her, but he knew he would only be a distraction. So he stayed outside, and sat, and waited.

Eric Riordan was the first to arrive. He had trimmed his blond beard since the last time Caleb had seen him and had put something in his longish hair to slick it back. From a distance, Caleb thought he looked a bit like the British actor Charlie Hunnam. The effect diminished as Eric drew closer and the crooked ridge in his nose—obtained during his time infiltrating the now-defunct Free Legion—became visible. Eric had once shown Caleb a picture of what he looked like before the Outbreak, and Caleb had a hard time reconciling the lean, weathered, hard-eyed man he knew against the gym-muscled, hair-gelled, dimple-cheeked pretty boy in the picture.

Eric stepped up on the porch and thumped Caleb on the shoulder, speaking in his North Carolina drawl. “You’re awful early. Nothing better to do this mornin’?”

“Like what, wait for somebody to put me to work? Hell no. Sergeant Kelly had our passes ready to go when I got to the VFW Hall. Took off as soon as he signed me out.”

“Any clue where the other guys are?”

“Sleeping, last I saw ‘em.”

Eric pursed his lips and nodded. “Figures. Miranda inside?”

“Yep.”

“Need anything? Had breakfast yet?”

“I’m good.”

“Cool. Be back in a bit.”

The door shut behind Eric. Caleb heard muted voices as the R in G&R Transport and Salvage exchanged greetings with Miranda.

He knew the story of how Eric and Gabriel Garrett, Riordan’s business partner and best friend, had rescued Miranda from the Free Legion. He also knew that while the two men accepted his relationship with Miranda, they were also ever watchful, and as fiercely protective of her as she was unswervingly loyal to them. Although he didn’t need it, it was good motivation to treat her with the utmost kindness and respect. Riordan and Garrett were two men on whose bad side he had no desire to be.

At 0915, Sanchez and his crew arrived. They greeted Caleb with smiles and loud talking. He nodded silently in response, accepting handshakes when they were offered. Private First Class Anthony Vincenzo took a seat next to him.

“Nice morning, huh?” he said in his pronounced New York accent.

“Yep. Sure is.” Caleb was silent a moment, then said, out of curiosity, “Say, Tony, what part of New York are you from?”

Vincenzo took a small bag of rare and valuable tobacco from his pocket, papers from another, and began rolling a cigarette. “Brooklyn. Why?”

Caleb shrugged. “Just wondering.”

“You’re from Texas, right?”

“Yep.”

“What part?”

“Right outside of Houston. Small town.”

“I been to Houston.”

Caleb looked at him. “No shit?”

“No shit. Had an aunt lived down there, my mother’s sister. Used to live in Poughkeepsie. Went down there for business and met some guy, worked for an oil company. Moved down to marry him. Ma took me and my sister to see her when we were teenagers.”

“Huh. Small world. What’d you think of the place?”

“Tell you the truth, when Ma told me we were going, I was pissed. All I knew about Texas was shit I saw on TV. Nothing that appealed to a New Yorker, you know? But I was surprised when I got down there. It was nice. Cleaner than New York. Open. Felt like I’d been inside this box, and didn’t know there was a world out there, and somebody opened the box and let me out. The first morning we were there we were staying at my aunt’s place, and she lived in this nice little suburb, clean air, plenty of parking, and I woke up before everybody else and stepped out on her back patio and took a breath, and it was the cleanest breath I’d ever taken. Felt like I was breathing for the first time. Years later, I always wanted to go back. I love New York, don’t get me wrong. But I always told myself I’d get back down there someday. Breathe that air again.”

Caleb looked out across the distance of the town square, and time, and said, “Sorry to disappoint you, but there ain’t much left of Houston, now.”

Vincenzo lit his cigarette and inhaled. “I remember from the news. Fires were pretty bad down there, right?”

“Bad is an understatement. The sky was black and orange like a campfire at night. Ash fell from the sky like snow. The wind was hot and dry, like standing in front of the world’s biggest blow dryer. You couldn’t go outside without goggles and something tied around your nose and mouth. The fires drove the infected out into the countryside, thousands and thousands of them. We were lucky any of us managed to get out of there alive.”

Caleb watched a robin bouncing around in the grass a few feet away, the images of that era of his life flashing before his mind’s eye. More than a minute passed before he realized Vincenzo was staring at him.

“Sorry,” Caleb said, glancing aside. “Got lost for a minute there.”

Vincenzo patted him on the back. “Don’t sweat it. Happens to me all the time.”

The two soldiers shared a comfortable silence as they waited for the rest of Delta Squad to arrive. As minutes ticked by and Delta did not show up, Sanchez’s squad of militiamen grew increasingly impatient. One of them asked Caleb where the hell his guys were, to which he responded with a condescending, “How the hell should I know?”

“They’re your squad.”

Caleb stood up and held out his arms. “You see a radio anywhere, dumbshit?”

The militiaman sullenly relented.

Eric came outside and looked around, one hand shielding his eyes from the sun. He looked at Sanchez. “No sign of them?”

The former professional boxer—once known to the sports media as the Pride of Hermosillo—shook his head. “
Nada, jefe
. Something’s not right. They should have been here by now.”

Moments later, the clomping of hooves sounded in the town square a few blocks down, preceding the appearance of a rider around the corner of town hall. The man in the saddle was Quentin Reid, an earnest young sheriff’s deputy who, while off duty, utilized his family’s brown Saddlebred mare to earn extra trade by working as a messenger. He had another horse in tow, one of Echo Company’s quarter horses.

“Please tell me something good,” Eric called out as the deputy approached. The young man shook his head.

“Delta Squad’s been called to company HQ, along with the rest of their platoon. Lieutenant Jonas sent me here to round up Specialist Hicks.”

Without a word, Caleb stood up, walked over to the quarter horse, and swung into the saddle. The creature accepted his weight with meek indifference. He guessed it at about seven years old, Kentucky bred, and by the sway in its back, had spent its years under the weight of countless heavy burdens. Whoever saddled the beast had done so sloppily, with no regard for the animal’s comfort. Caleb rubbed its neck and inwardly vowed to track down the responsible party and correct this affront to the dignity of such a humble, affable mount.

As they turned their horses to leave, Eric called out to them. “Has First Platoon left yet?”

Deputy Reid looked over his shoulder. “No, not yet. They’re waiting on Hicks.”

Caleb met Riordan’s eyes and knew what he was thinking.
Nosy bastard.
“Come on then,” Caleb said. “I’ll tell the Lieutenant you threatened to buy his gambling debts if I didn’t bring you along.”

Eric grinned savagely as he accepted Caleb’s hand and climbed into the saddle behind him. “You know, that’s not such a bad idea.”

Caleb fought down a laugh as they took off in a clamor of iron-shod hooves on crumbling pavement.

BOOK: The Darkest Place: A Surviving the Dead Novel
2.36Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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