Book: Final Days
Copyright © 2020 Jasper T Scott and Nathan Hystad
All rights reserved.
No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other non-commercial uses permitted by copyright law.
This is a work of fiction. All of the characters, names, incidents, organizations, and dialogue in this novel are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
Cover Art by Tom Edwards
Edited by: Scarlett R. Algee
We’d like to thank everyone who contributed to this book in some way. Giving credit where it’s due, our editors Scarlett Algee and Christen Hystad worked tirelessly to prevent sneaky typos from slipping through. And a big thanks to Tom Edwards for bringing our vision for the cover to life. Special thanks to Steve Beaulieu for the epic typography. Finally, we’d like to thank all of our advance readers: Gwen Collins, Rick Woodring, Milt Sanders, Geoff Parker, Davis Shellabarger, Lisa Garber, Raymond Burt, Karl Keip, Mary Whitehead, Karol Ross, Debbie Day, Bruce Thobois, Dave Topan, Jeff Belshaw, William Delaway, Jim Kolter, George Dixon, Gerald Geddings, Wade Whitaker, and Howard Cohen. This book wouldn’t be the same without all of you!
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Light peeked through Roland’s drawn curtains, blinding him temporarily. He glanced at the clock at the bottom right of his center monitor, seeing it was already eight o’clock. When was the last time he’d eaten? The bowl of half-empty cereal four feet away had turned to mush, telling him it had been hours.
He spooned the remnants of warm milk and oats into his mouth, and continued scanning through the files.
“Come on, Rollie. You’re so close. Keep going,” he told himself, blinking his sore eyes.
The living room had become a makeshift office: screens were mounted along the wall behind the desk, intercepting newsfeeds around the world. Roland shifted in his chair, scanning between the monitors. The volume was off, but the graphic images clearly depicted riots in Botswana as toxic fog thickened, rolling across South Africa from the Indian Ocean. People were dying by the thousands, and only half of that number stemmed from the terrible disaster.
The next screen showed hail falling in Iran. Snow blanketed half of Egypt, and people were screaming that the end of the world was nigh. Roland watched the third monitor as a light coating of ash fell over Paris, a precursor of what was to come from looming eruptions in Iceland’s active volcanic network.
Roland had guessed this was coming. Since he was a teenager, he’d followed the erratic weather patterns, and all of it led to this day: this “Doomsday,” as the media was so apt to name it. A convergence of numerous horrifying events could only mean one thing, and Roland thought of the phrase: The Cataclysm of Earth.
“And what do you have to say?” Roland asked the man in a cheap suit and a trench coat on the news feed, standing outside Yellowstone National Park, fear stamped on his face. He flicked the volume on, and observed with interest.
“…when the Yellowstone supervolcano is affected by the tremors, it will erupt, along with a series of volcanoes along the Pacific Rim. Tsunamis will wipe out Hawaii, along with the entire western coast of the United States. Japan has already begun their evacuation…”
Roland turned it off and focused on his work. An email popped up from his source, this one through untraceable channels, and he wondered if they’d finally found the information he’d been searching for. No. It was a video feed from right near his own home. The feed was live, and he watched as the streets filled with people. Looting had begun—police lights flashed as they marched down San Pedro Drive in riot gear, fending off attacks.
Roland stood, heading to the window, and spread the blinds apart with his fingers. The sun was almost below the horizon, and he caught a glimpse of it off the water. Here in Newport Beach things still seemed civilized and normal, at least from the view of his waterfront house.
He wondered what his grandmother would have thought about all of this. She’d been so headstrong, she would have stayed here until the tidal waves tore her home from the ground and dragged her out to sea. Roland wasn’t going to follow her lead. He glanced to the side of the room, where a bag sat packed. He had a plan, but he needed something first. One more email, one last detail, and he’d be able to make his move.
Roland went to the kitchen, taking his empty bowl, and searched for something edible. Dishes were piled in the sink, and he really wished he’d hired a maid. But he couldn’t trust anyone inside his house, not with all the classified information stored in the computer system. Nope. This place was sealed tighter than the Pentagon.
He brewed a pot of coffee, hoping the caffeine would spruce him up, because his head was beginning to swim. The countless shipping manifests and spreadsheets he’d been combing through were affecting his vision.
With a steaming cup, he made his way to his desk, turning off all of the news feeds so he could focus. He clicked a document closed, and spotted a folder on the desktop. He clicked the letters TSP, for “top-secret project,” and retrieved the file he wanted. Inside were details on the billionaire Lewis Hound, and a scattering of blurry pictures of the man. He was rarer than a unicorn, and photographed about as well as the Sasquatch.
Roland zoomed in on one in particular, seeing the short black hair, stoic thin face, the expensive suit, and dark sunglasses covering his eyes. He was at the water, but where? His contact had sent him this, and he wondered if PiedPiper19 had taken the image themselves.
“Lewis Hound owns Trickle Source. Trickle Source is the parent company of Aquaticoli, whose website indicates them as a third-party boat parts distributor.” Roland documented the steps of the supply chain out loud. It was a habit he’d had since he was young, and it always helped him through a problem. “Aquaticoli has received shipments from five major overseas robotics manufacturers, as well as from Boeing and Bombardier, but there are no signs of where the product went after that.”
There was a string of details he was skipping over, about shell companies, publicly traded corporations, and private consultants, but all paths led to one person: Lewis Hound. He stared at the man’s indistinct image for another minute, and something clicked.
He fumbled through his files, searching for something that he’d seen a long time ago, but had brushed off: a town’s name that suddenly felt like it was important. Roland’s hands shook, and his heart raced. Pulling a key from the chain around his neck, he unlocked a drawer on his desk, revealing five pill bottles. He reached for the left one, and dropped two small capsules in his hand, flicking them into his mouth and swallowing them dry.
He found what he was looking for on a two-year-old shipping manifest. Destination Capetown, California. He hunted for another and confirmed the same destination, from the same trucking company. Roland cracked his knuckles and did what he knew best. He hacked into the trucking company’s website, finding easy access into their internal software program. Two hours passed before he discovered a long list of jobs ending at Capetown. Their pickup locations were all over the country, likely trying to hide something, but the product needed to end up there.
The satellite view made available to the public showed nothing but coast at the address given on the manifests, so Roland sneaked into NASA’s database instead, combing the coordinates. His heart beat so fast he thought a bird was trying to escape its cage inside his chest.
He’d found it. The warehouse shown on the screen was immense, and had a private dock near the ocean. There were no signs of vehicles or boats nearby. The image was from satellites, only twelve hours old.
“Bingo.” Roland smiled as he leaned back in his seat. He had a destination.
His smile broke as another message came through from PiedPiper19.
Payday. The subject meant his contact needed funds before sending the final details. This was it. What he’d been waiting for.
He accessed the dark web, finding PiedPiper19 on his list of contacts. He sent the cryptocurrency and hoped it was worth it. With the world ending, he didn’t really worry about money any longer. Anyone looting stores for things beyond water, food, and medication was a fool.
The speakers chimed, and Roland bent forward, elbows on the desk, as he ran his hands through his thick shaggy hair. Once he saw the message, there was no going back.
He opened it, only to discover a countdown to a date: September 30th, 2029. Only ten days left.
Roland leaned over the desk, his fingers trembling as he captured a screenshot.
10 Days Left…
Metallica blasted from the aging speakers of Andrew Miller’s Silverado. The windows were down, and warm air was rushing in. To Andrew’s left, on the other side of the highway, he could see an endless ribbon of white sand running like a gleaming river beside the rippled blue canvas of the Pacific Ocean. A clear blue sky domed the world. To his right, atop dry, rocky hills, wealthy neighborhoods and ocean-view mansions peered through a messy wall of power lines.
Andrew glanced up at those mansions from time to time, wondering if their owners were all just as stupid as his ex-wife’s husband.
It wasn’t long before the transition from Santa Monica to Malibu was complete. The homes on the right had descended to block his view of the beach and water in a hodgepodge parade of capitalistic pride. Traffic clogged the highway, and he began crawling along, never exceeding twenty miles an hour.
Andrew smirked and shook his head as he studied those mansions. None of them had any kind of yard. No greenery of any type, and not even enough space between the houses to be able to walk between them. And the real kicker was that all of them backed right onto a busy highway. This was what had attracted so many of LA’s rich and famous? Well, they could have it. Selena had probably thought she was trading up when she’d divorced him and married Dr. Michael Lewis. Andrew snorted and shook his head. All she’d done was find a bigger box to live in, and a bigger asshole to share it with.
Traffic went from a crawl to a dead stop, and Andrew slammed his horn with his fist in frustration. Someone else echoed his sentiments a few cars behind him. Every other week he made this trip to pick up his daughter, Val, and every other week it was the same. An hour there, an hour back. At this rate they were going to miss the movie!
Andrew caught a glimpse of his eyes in the rearview mirror, and realized that he was scowling. The beginnings of a familiar dark haze were descending on him. He turned the music down, then muted it entirely and began to practice his breathing exercises. It had been a while since his last visit to a therapist or support group, but now that he was divorced, why bother? Besides, even his therapist had admitted that there’s no cure for PTSD. All you can do is treat the symptoms.
The traffic began inching forward again, and Andrew noticed that every other car passing on the other side of the road was a Tesla. He snorted. Figures. A warm breeze blew through the cab of his fifteen-year-old Silverado. She was a gas guzzler and hell for the environment, but at least if he had an accident, he’d know it was his fault and not because of some bug in the latest autopilot update.
After half an hour of crawling along, Andrew finally turned off the highway and up into a hilly residential area, with oversized homes squatting on every available inch of land. Fancy sports cars and luxury sedans were parked on both sides of the street, leaving barely enough room for one lane of traffic. These homes had more green space, but not by much. At least they had the view, though.
Within a minute he reached the end of the cul-de-sac where Dr. Lewis’ mansion sat. It was a pretentious monstrosity with Roman columns and gold doors. Ridiculous in every way, just like him.
Andrew pulled into the sloping driveway, boxing in Michael’s Tesla Roadster and deliberately tapping its rear bumper. Oops. He smiled. He realized he was being childish, but he couldn’t help feeling like Michael deserved it. With all the stories Val had told him about the guy, he was lucky Andrew didn’t put a fist through his plastic face.
Andrew opened his door and jumped out. Striding up to the golden doors, he deliberately ignored the video intercom and knocked loudly instead.
A few seconds later he heard clipped footsteps. Heels. The door swung open and Selena appeared. Andrew’s heart skipped a beat.
“Andrew, finally.” She smiled faintly as she said his name. She was wearing a see-through summer dress that accentuated her natural curves and revealed a bikini underneath. Her long chestnut-brown hair draped over her shoulders. Striking brown eyes blinked slowly at him, and her smile faded. That smile could put a man on his knees. He would know. He’d been there and done that, and had the bruises to show for it.
“Is everything okay?” Selena asked.
“Yeah, sorry. Just tired. Is Val ready?”
Selena crossed her arms over her chest. “She’s been ready for an hour already.”
“Sorry. I got tied up in traffic.”
“Don’t tell me. Tell her.”
Andrew bit his tongue and smiled thinly. “All right, I will. Would you get her, please?”
“Come on in.” Selena spun away from the door and walked inside.
So you can rub my nose in your millionaire’s lifestyle? Andrew wondered as he stepped across the threshold. He didn’t bother to shut the door behind him. Let all the flies come in and sit on Michael’s shit.
“Val!” Selena called as she strode away from the foyer and out of sight.
Andrew glanced about. Expensive-looking art hung on the walls. There was an office to the left, and a sitting room to the right. The main living room and kitchen were on the other end of the hall, facing a wall of windows and a stunning view of the ocean that Andrew could see clear from the entrance of the house. A modern crystal chandelier hung from a high ceiling above the entryway.
This place had to be worth at least five million. I guess that’s your price tag, huh, Selena? Maybe that wasn’t fair, but as far as Andrew was concerned, it was the only way to explain it. Michael was a balding plastic surgeon a decade older than her. Of course, he didn’t look ten years older. With bleached-blond hair plugs and two separate facelifts, he resembled a retired Ken doll.
Valeria came into view, striding ahead of her mother. “Hey, Dad,” she said. They collided in a brief hug at the door, and he kissed the top of her head.
“Remember, you have homework,” Selena said. “You’ve got that essay on climate change to do.”
Val rolled her eyes. “As if writing about it is going to stop it. Besides, this is bigger than that. We don’t know what’s going on.”
“It doesn’t matter. You need to keep your grades up, especially if you want to get into MIT like we’ve been planning.”
Val snorted and shook her head. “Newsflash. MIT is going to be gone along with everything else. Have you even been watching the news?”
“People have been talking about the end of the world forever, Val. This is nothing new.”
“It must be really dark under there.”
Selena shook her head, eyes narrowing swiftly. “Under where?”
“The giant rock you live beneath!”
Selena blew out a breath and glared at Andrew. “You see how she talks to me?”
Val brushed by him on her way out the door. “I’ll be waiting in the car.”
Andrew stood frowning in the entrance. “What are you guys talking about?”
Selena sighed. “Some geology professor published a study about the San Andreas fault line, and now there’s a bunch of copycats all over the world spewing the same doomsday rhetoric about other fault lines. It’s just fearmongering. We’ve been here before.”
“Yeah, we have,” Andrew admitted. A few times, in fact. He did his best to avoid the news, but lately it was almost impossible not to hear about all of the strange things going on: hail in the Middle East, toxic fog rolling in from the ocean and killing hundreds in Africa, massive earthquakes in Asia and Indonesia, Mount Etna blowing its top, Iceland’s volcanoes sending ash as far as Paris… Now, apparently, the paranoia was spreading to the good old US of A.
“Make sure she writes that essay,” Selena intoned, her hand on the door.
“No problem,” Andrew said.
When he made it to his truck and climbed in behind the wheel, he noticed that Val was smiling wickedly at him from the passenger’s seat. “What?”
“You put a dent in the Roadster’s bumper. Mike is going to kill you.”
Andrew smiled and barked a laugh as he backed out of the driveway. “I’d like to see him try.”
By the time they finally reached the Edwards Calabasas theater complex, got their popcorn, and found their seats, the movie was already twenty minutes in. Both Andrew and Val were completely lost, so they passed the time making fun of the plot and bad acting.
“Shut up, old man!” a guy behind them hissed.
Andrew frowned. He and Val were only whispering. He turned around and glared at the guy. The complainer was just a kid, maybe sixteen. He was wearing an Armani t-shirt and sitting beside a girl who was obviously way out of his league. He probably thought his parents’ money made up for that.
“Tell you what, kid. How about you go fight a war in Afghanistan, watch an RPG turn your buddies into spaghetti, and then you come back here and tell me to shut up?”
The kid’s lips twisted into a smirk, and the girl beside him laughed nervously. “People like me don’t fight wars,” the kid said. “We make people like you do it for us.”
The dark haze had returned, and suddenly Andrew couldn’t breathe.
“Dad...” Val whispered. She put her hand on his arm. That grounded him, but only slightly. He turned to face the movie screen with a scowl and dug a fistful of popcorn out of the box he was sharing with Val.
Laughter rippled out behind him. If one of those kids kicked his seat or threw a piece of popcorn at him, he was going to lose it.
“Let’s just watch the movie,” Val whispered.
Fortunately, the rest of their time in the theater was uneventful. Maybe that kid realized how close Andrew had been to tossing him into the aisle, or maybe the big man upstairs was protecting him from himself. The kid’s parents would press charges for sure, and that was the last thing Andrew needed right now.
On the drive to his place after the movie was over, Val came out of her shell. “Mike was drunk again last night,” she said.
“I see,” Andrew said. He wasn’t sure what to say to that. He didn’t like the idea of his daughter living under the same roof with an alcoholic prick, but he wasn’t in a position to judge.
Then again, maybe he was. At least he was working on it. He could feel the weight of the green ninety-day AA chip around his neck, hanging beside his dog tags from the thick silver chain that Val had bought for him last Christmas. She was so proud. That was what kept him sober. He couldn’t let her down.
She caught his eye with a mischievous grin. “He fell in the pool and took out his iPhone.”
Andrew chuckled. “Classic Mike.”
“I might have stuck out a leg to help him,” Val added, “but my culpability is debatable. He shouldn’t have been pacing around the pool and texting after having that many gin and tonics.”
Andrew snorted and shook his head. “Did he notice?”
“Maybe. Who cares? Plausible deniability. I was reading my Kindle, and I didn’t see him coming. Just like he didn’t see me.”
Andrew snorted and shook his head. It was nice to have someone on his side. Val lived with her mom because the court had ordered it, not because she liked Selena better.
They stopped behind a stream of cars at a red light, and his daughter’s words echoed through his head. Mike was drunk again. “So what else does he do when he gets drunk?” The light turned green, and Andrew tapped the gas pedal to follow the blue Toyota Prius in front of him.
“Most of the time he fights with Mom.”
“Sometimes. He yells about stupid shit like wearing my shoes in the house, or forgetting the cereal box and milk on the kitchen counter. At first I did it by accident, but now I do it to piss him off.”
“You shouldn’t provoke him.”
“Really, Dad? Pot, meet kettle; you’re black, too.”
“Has he ever laid a hand on you?”
Val laughed. “If he did, I’d break it off.”
Andrew smiled. “That’s my girl.”
“I’m hungry,” she said.
Andrew checked the time on his dash. Ten o’clock. “Not much is going to be open at this time.”
“What about pizza?” Val asked. “Domino's stays open till after midnight.”
Andrew smiled, his stomach already growling at the thought. “Domino’s it is.”
10 Days Left…
The air was crisp as Special Agent Kendra Baker sneaked into the rear entrance of the squat building. It was getting late, almost ten p.m.: as good a time as any to break into the target’s den. It was dark inside; only a handful of the hallway lights were on. One of them flickered ominously as she headed past it, toward the staircase. She was accompanied by two heavily armed LAPD SWAT members, and they flanked her as she followed them up the stairs. The carpet was stained brown in blotches, exposing the entire place to a sickening smell.
They arrived at the second story, and her heart rate picked up. She was overheating, drops of sweat cascading down her side under the heat of her pantsuit and bullet-proof vest. The male SWAT officer lifted a hand, and she stopped as a door beside them opened wide. Kendra swung her gun around, aiming at the dark shadow in the doorway.
It was an old man, his wispy white hair sticking straight up. He raised his arms, yelling something in Mandarin.
“Keep it down,” Kendra hissed through her teeth at the man, motioning him back inside. He disregarded their orders and followed them at a distance as they kept moving. Months of investigating the smuggling ring had led them here, and Kendra wasn’t about to let this one be blown. Even with all the crap going on outside, she needed this case to be a win.
Kendra stepped over a bag of garbage, and wondered how anyone could live in filth like this. She wanted to scrub her hands clean and take a hot shower, but she pressed on.
A bullet struck the wall beside her, and her local escorts began firing their semi-automatic weapons down the hall, seconds later the entire floor was silent. Kendra glanced behind her and noticed the old man had returned to his suite.
“Front of the building’s quiet. What’s going on up there?” a voice asked into her earpiece. It was her partner, Peter Costella. He always managed to stay out of danger in every altercation. It was his superpower.
“Shots fired, but the halls are empty. We’re going in,” Kendra said, and took the lead, walking over broken glass as they arrived at another door. She assumed the light was shot out, as it was almost pitch black in the hall. The number 203 was labeled with cheap plastic, the three hanging upside down as one of the screws was missing.
Another shot rang out, and the female SWAT officer staggered sideways. Kendra pressed herself against the near wall, and fired her Glock toward the attacker. One. Two. Three pulls, and even in the dimly-lit corridor, she could see the target slump to the floor.
“Are you okay?” Kendra asked the officer, and she grunted in reply.
“Good shot,” she told Kendra, and they moved on, arriving at a doorway. This was what the dead man at their feet had been protecting.
“There could be more inside,” the officer said. “Be ready.” He stepped away, lifting his thick leg. The door sprang open with his kick, slamming toward them as it swung quickly back on the hinges. He tapped it again, and they rushed inside the room.
“Hands up! Hands up!” Kendra yelled, and scanned over the ten or so young girls’ faces lit softly by the glow of a solitary lamp at the edge of the room. “Where are they?”
The SWAT officers ran through the few messy rooms in the suite. “It’s clear.”
One of the girls was crying, and Kendra walked over to her, not sure if the girl spoke English. “Where did they go?”
The girl lifted a shaky arm and pointed out the door, down the hall. Kendra took off toward the other staircase, and heard muffled footsteps. She moved faster, the heavy rhythm of the LAPD officers behind her. The target entered her sights: long dark hair, pulled in a ponytail, flapping erratically as he ran for the door.
She needed him alive. These were at best low-level scumbags, but they would lead to the real source of the smuggling. “Stop!” she commanded as he pressed through the glass doors, heading straight toward the waiting officers.
Kendra arrived just in time to see the man hit the concrete, skidding to a stop. Blood pooled beside him while her partner stood a few meters away, gun raised, and a smile spread over his stupid face.
Instead of confronting Peter, she avoided him, hoping they hadn’t wasted the last two months to emerge empty-handed. A short time later, the girls were wearing blankets, and were ushered toward an ambulance in front of the building. This hadn’t been a waste. Lives had been saved today, and that was good enough for Kendra. It had to be.
* * *
Kendra was surprised by the applause from the City Center East precinct as she and Peter entered the building the same moment that the clock struck midnight. It gave a sense of finality to the day, and she was spent.
The local office’s sergeant came over and shook her hand, then Peter’s. “Great work, you two.”
“Thanks for the assistance,” Kendra told him.
“We’re more than happy to help the Feds,” he said with a smile. This, of course, was a lie. The local departments always bristled when she stepped anywhere near their people or cities. It was an unwritten rule for the PDs to be uncooperative with the agency. She’d given up fighting it years ago. Her initial naive attitude at being a special agent had been washed away with the years and far too many deaths. Lately she just rolled with it, trying her best to keep her head above water.
Today had been tough. Peter was grinning ear-to-ear as the locals talked to him, patting him on the back. All he’d done was wait for her to run the guy out the door, and then pulled a trigger. She’d been the one inside with all the risk. What did it matter?
A woman watched her from near the coffee maker. So familiar. Kendra ignored the sergeant’s comments, and walked away.
“What’s her problem?” the man asked Peter.
“Nothing. She’s a little off,” her partner said. So much for the unwritten rule of partners.
The woman had chestnut-brown hair, longer than her sister’s had been, maybe dyed. Kendra had to stop this. This wasn’t Carrie. Carrie was gone. The woman poured herself a coffee and turned, smiling at Kendra. She was at least ten years older than Kendra’s sister would be, and bore no resemblance to her. She needed to stop fabricating ghosts.
“Everything okay?” Peter asked from behind her, making her jump.
“I need to go to the hotel and rest,” she told him, and he nodded. He tossed the rental’s keys at her.
“Go for it. I’m joining them for a celebratory drink. You sure you don’t want to come?” her partner asked. His eyes were squinting, his hair receding into a thin gray mat.
The thought of celebrating alongside him was disgusting. He’d killed their only lead, but to be fair, she’d shot the other one.
“No. I’ll see you tomorrow. We leave at eight. Be in the lobby,” she told him. From the look in Peter’s eyes, she fully expected him to be there in the morning, having not slept and trying to mask a headache.
She left him there, taking her time on the unpredictable roads to the hotel. Sirens rang in the distance, and twice she had to come to a stop to let mobs of people pass. They were walking the streets with casual disobedience, and she hated what was happening to their society. Three times in the last decade, the fearmongering news networks had riled everyone up, making them think the world was ending, and each time they’d made it through with nothing more than a minor hurricane or earthquake. Kendra didn’t believe the hype, not for one minute.
She eventually arrived at the hotel, and like every time, she wished they were staying somewhere nicer. For once, she’d like to be at the Ritz Carlton. She parked in the lot, noticing most of the cars were absent. It had been three-quarters full earlier in the day.
The neon sign flickered between Vacancy and No Vacancy, and Kendra glanced at the crappy bar to her left, then toward the rooms. With a huff of her breath, she followed the sound of men talking over a cigarette outside the bar.
“I’m tellin’ you, this is for real. My cousin knows a science dude at Berkeley. Says this whole section of the country will be under water in a week.” The man leaned against the brick wall, one foot planted on the building. He tossed his cigarette butt to the ground, and Kendra stepped over the burning stub.
“No way. This is all a bunch of crap the government feeds us every few years. They probably want us to leave so they can wire our houses or some bull,” the other man said, lighting another smoke.
Kendra walked past them without comment, and pushed the bar’s heavy door open. It was almost one, and the place was nearly empty. A man and a woman were playing pool, standing at impossible angles displayed only by those with enough drinks in them. Kendra took a seat at the bar, the surface sticky under her elbows.
“What’ll it be?” the bartender asked. She almost laughed when she saw him. He was the epitome of every small-town bartender in the US. Thirty pounds overweight, prematurely gray hair, and a moustache that cried out for a comb.
She peered behind the bar and noticed the smudged glasses. “Beer. In the bottle,” she said, and the man nodded. The TV behind the bar was playing a newscast, and she watched as it showed a map of the US, and a simulation of predicted tsunamis from the Pacific as they rolled over the West Coast. Swirling hurricanes hit the East Coast, and the supervolcano in Wyoming shot ash over the rest of the country.
“This is messed up.” The bartender passed the beer over, and Kendra took a sip.
“Which part?” she asked, feeling the tension of the day melt away with each tick of the clock.
“What do you mean? They’re evacuating the city,” the man said.
This was news to her. “Where’d you hear that?”
“Just now, on the TV. Guess it’s not enforced yet, only precautionary or something. I got nowhere to go,” he told her.
“Where are they saying is safe?” Kendra asked.
“They don’t have a solution. Guess the best shot is Texas. Least that’s what they’re saying.” The bartender glanced around and poured himself a double whiskey, slamming it back with a smack of his lips.
She didn’t blame him. He thought the world was ending. “What are you doing here if you believe all this?”
He shrugged. “Like I said, I got nowhere else to go. Even if I headed to Texas, those sleazy hotels will be charging crazy rates to stay. The greedy bastards are going to take every red cent they can.”
Kendra couldn’t argue with him. He was right. A commercial ended, and the broadcast started up. The volume was low, but she read the scrolling banner: Dozens missing in California.
“Mind turning this up?” she asked, and the man did so without hesitation. He leaned against the bar, finding her another beer and taking one for himself. Her first was still nearly full.
A woman in a professional blue dress was interviewing a man inside a home office. “And why is the police department not taking this seriously?” she asked him.
“They don’t have the resources, manpower, time, you know, the usual runaround,” he told her. “Let’s face it; missing people are always low on the totem pole. These aren’t kids. For the most part they’re professionals, adults.”
The woman nodded emphatically. “And why do you think they’ve been taken? How can you assume this is nefarious?”
“My sister calls me twice a week. She’s never missed Sunday dinner, and yet, here we are. She’s gone. The hospital hasn’t seen her, her friends haven’t heard from her, and her social media is silent. Her cell phone was inside her condo, along with her purse. I’m the only one with a key,” the man said.
“We wish you the best of luck, Dan. If anyone has any information about Dan’s missing sister or any of these other people”—two dozen photos adorned the screen—“call this number.”
Kendra took another pull of her beer, feeling the effects. It was making her sleepy. Missing persons, and many of them from her hometown of San Diego. She picked up her phone and sent an email to her office, asking to be placed on the case. Her sister might be gone forever, but maybe she could find someone else’s.
9 Days Left…
By the time they finished eating their pizza and pulled up in front of Andrew’s place in West Adams, it was just after midnight. His place was an old two-bedroom bungalow with peeling paint and sagging gutters. It had a tiny yard out back, and a paved one-car driveway running alongside a patchy lawn. A humble abode if ever there was one, but it was close to the garage where he worked, and in a relatively quiet neighborhood. Besides, rent in LA was insane, and a nicer place would have been out of his budget.
Andrew killed the headlights and the engine, and climbed out with Val. He slammed the door at the same time as she did, and they walked up the front steps together. He yanked the screen door open and spent a minute fumbling with his keys in the dim yellow glow of a flickering bug light that illuminated his collapsing front porch. Finding the right key, he unlocked the entrance and swung the ancient wooden door open with a noisy creak. There was a rusting, after-market metal frame bolted around the grid of single-pane windows in the top half of the door, but Andrew was pretty sure that a determined thief could easily rip those burglar bars out of the rotting wood. “After you,” he said, and waited for Val to go in first.
Andrew shut the door behind them and locked the deadbolt with his key. Kicking off his shoes, he angled straight for the living room. He flopped into the couch with a tired sigh, drawing a beleaguered groan from the aging springs. Reaching for the remote, he flicked on the TV. “Feel like watching our show before bed?” he asked, craning his neck to search for Val.
He heard a can of Coke click open, and noticed her standing in front of the open fridge. “Sure, I’ll put my bag in my room and get changed,” she said.
“Okay,” Andrew replied. She had plenty of extra clothes here, so the bag was probably for her homework. She was a straight-A student. Honor roll. And that was all the more impressive, considering she went to one of the best schools in Malibu. She was just too damn smart.
That’s my girl, he thought with a wistful smile. He flicked absently through the thumbnails of different shows on Netflix, looking for the one they’d been watching together. There. Hempel’s Paradox. The thumbnail was a picture of a black raven picking apart a green apple. Val said it had something to do with the name of the show, but whatever it was, Andrew didn’t get it. A lot of the show went straight over his head. It was a soapy, cerebral drama that, if he was being honest, he wouldn’t have watched in a million years if it weren’t for Val.
His daughter returned a couple of minutes later, wearing her black skull-print PJs and carrying a fuzzy pink blanket. She sat next to him and spread the blanket over both of their laps before curling up under his arm.
“It’s freezing in here,” she said. “When was the last time you paid the heating bill?”
“There’s a heating bill?” Andrew deadpanned.
“That explains it.”
“It’s cozier this way,” he said. “Ready?”
Val nodded, and he hit play.
His mind began to wander as the show’s brainy main character (Val’s favorite) launched into a breathless monologue. The character’s sidekick/romantic interest was hanging on her every word.
“Must be nice,” Val said.
“To have a guy look at you like that.”
Andrew turned to regard his daughter with one eyebrow raised. “Are you speaking about anyone in particular?”
That sounded like a lie, but he decided not to press. He remembered what his therapist had said: if you want your kids to confide in you, you can’t pry too much. That only shuts them down. At least, that had been Andrew’s experience.
“So there are no boys you like at school?” Is that prying? he wondered.
“They’re all idiots,” she said. “Either they want to pay me to do their homework for them, or they want... well, you know.”
“Yeah.” He tightened his grip around Val’s shoulders and kissed her on top of her head. “You tell me if you need any help scaring them off.”
Val flicked a wry smile at him. “So you can go into Hulk mode and wind up in jail?” She shook her head. “No, I can handle them by myself, thanks.”
Andrew frowned and nodded absently, his gaze settled on the TV. That quip hurt, but he wasn’t sure if Val understood why. His temper was half of the reason Selena had left. He’d never hit her, but she’d said more than once that she was scared of him. It wasn’t really fair. Selena had known about his temper going into things. They’d met in a hospital while she was tending his broken hand. The kids in the bar had provoked him. Three against one, and they were the ones who got to press charges. It wasn’t his fault that they’d never managed to land a solid blow. The Marines had taught him how to fight, and because of that, he’d wound up looking like the guilty party.
Helluva justice system we have, Andrew thought.
Old wounds burst open, and feelings of resentment and frustration flooded in. A familiar feeling of helplessness followed and quickly spread. Gunfire and screams rattled through his brain, distant enough to be a memory and not an actual hallucination, but it triggered him all the same. He shut his eyes to black it out. Bad idea. His brain filled the blank canvas behind his eyelids with a pink mist, and suddenly he was there in the back of that Humvee again. He could taste the blood and sand in his mouth. A loud skrrshhh roared through the ringing in his ears, and an explosion pounded through the vehicle with a razor hail of shattered glass.
Andrew’s eyes flew open, and a scream tore from his lips. He could have sworn he felt the scalding heat of the flames licking off the hood.
Val was shaking him. “Dad? Are you okay?”
He was staring at the TV without blinking, his heart slamming in his chest. A feeling of isolation, horror, and despair clutched him, making it impossible to breathe. It was as if the memory of that RPG round had been powerful enough to knock the wind out of him and bust his ribs all over again.
“Breathe, Dad. Just breathe, okay? It’s not real. You’re safe. You’re here with me. It’s over.” He could hear the fear and pain quaking in Val’s voice, and it cracked him in half, but he couldn’t just “snap out of it,” as Selena used to say.
After a minute, the feelings passed on their own, and he sucked in a deep, calming breath.
“What happened?” Val asked.
Andrew shook his head. It was usually hard to identify a meaningful trigger. A lot of times it was simply a feeling, or even a hot day and a dose of dehydration. One minute he was fine, and the next he was in the middle of a full-blown panic attack. He was supposed to be stronger than this. He was a Marine, damn it.
“I’m sorry,” he breathed.
“It’s okay,” Val replied, but the disappointment in her voice was almost enough to send him running to the liquor store. “It’s late. Maybe we should go to bed,” she added.
“If you want,” Andrew replied, trying to hide his own disappointment. Most nights he had trouble falling asleep. Staying asleep was a problem, too. His days might be troubled, but his nights were haunted. In his dreams, everything he kept pushing down came bubbling up, and suddenly he could see his buddies’ faces and hear their screams.
“We can hang out again in the morning,” Val added. “We have all weekend.”
Andrew nodded and rose with her from the couch. Val hung onto his arm as they shuffled down the hall to their bedrooms. He felt like an invalid, or a child. It wasn’t right. Val shouldn’t have to take care of him. Again the bottle beckoned. He could taste the bitter heat of a good single malt sliding down his throat, and the blissful numbness that followed. His mouth watered, and he absently reached for the chip around his neck. Val’s gaze flicked to him, and he jerked his hand away.
Too late. “Do you need me to keep your car keys?” she asked.
He shook his head. Get your shit together, Andy. “No. I’m okay. Just reminding myself how far I’ve come.” It’s taken me ninety days of agony to make it here. I can’t throw it all away now.
Val was studying him, trying to measure how much willpower he had left. He turned and kissed her on the cheek. “Love you, Vee,” he said.
“Me, too,” she replied.
Half an hour later he was staring at his bedroom ceiling with his thoughts racing, and a pair of sleeping pills busy dissolving in his stomach. Darkness veiled the room like smoke. The yellow glow of streetlights pooled on the floor around his blackout curtains, and he lay listening to the not-so-distant sound of police sirens and traffic. Five or ten minutes later, a fire truck screamed by.
Sometimes he wished he could pick up and leave it all behind. Find a quiet place somewhere far out in the country, where he could fall asleep listening to the crickets and wake up to the birds. Far enough from the madness that he could stick his head in the sand and the world could fall apart and he wouldn’t be the wiser. He’d get a little boat and take Val out fishing on the lake. They’d raise chickens and grow corn, live off the land...
Andrew drifted off dreaming about that fantasy, of him and Val floating on that lake, their fishing poles dangling over the side of a canoe into mirror-clear water paved with evergreen reflections.
A muffled crash woke him. His eyes flew open and he lay frozen in bed, listening to the distant rumble of cars on the nearby highway. A minute or two passed, and then a subdued thump followed. It sounded like the kitchen window sliding shut. Had he left it open?
Andrew sat up in a rush with his pulse pounding in his ears. He slid the drawer in his nightstand open and carefully removed his Sig Sauer P320 from the drawer. It was a dumb place to keep a gun with a kid in the house, but he’d forgotten to move it to his wall safe before Val came over. Good thing, too. He didn’t have time to punch in a combination right now. He pulled back on the slide to arm the gun, and stood up from the bed. Keeping the weapon aimed at the floor, he padded barefoot to the door and pressed his ear to it, straining to hear through the distant wails of police sirens.
He could have sworn he heard someone step on the creaky floorboard in the hall. Was that Val getting up to go to the bathroom?
Only one way to find out. Keeping the gun out of sight, he spared a hand for the door knob, took a breath, and then yanked the door open in one smooth motion. A shadowy silhouette stood frozen in front of him, wearing a black ski mask and dark clothes.
“Hey!” His Sig snapped up, and the figure darted out of the hall. He pulled the trigger a split second too late, and the bullet crunched into the wall where the man had been a second ago. He sprinted after the burglar.
“Dad?!” Val cried. Her door flew open just as he raced past it.
“Get back in your room and lock the door!” he called after her as he reached the end of the hall and saw the burglar vaulting over the kitchen sink and through the open window. Andrew’s gun snapped up for another shot, but the man ducked out of sight too fast. The trespasser still had to climb over the side fence. That gave Andrew a chance.
He ran for the front door. Broken wedges of glass glittered on the floor beside his shoes. He swiped his keys off the rack beside the coat closet and stood in front of the door with shattered glass cutting into his bare feet. In his drugged state, he missed the keyhole and plowed his hand straight through the broken pane of glass.
A searing heat lit his hand on fire, but he pushed the sensation aside and tried for the keyhole a second time. This time the key glided in. He turned the lock, ripped the door open, and slammed through the screen door just as a shadowy figure went streaking past the back of his truck. Andrew stopped in the flickering light of his porch and took aim with both hands.
The bullet crunched through the wheel well, and the burglar darted around the tailgate and out of sight. Andrew cursed under his breath and flew down the steps after the man. The glass shards stabbed with each step, slowing his progress. A wash of dizziness coursed through him as the sleeping pills won out over the adrenaline flooding his system. He stood leaning against the bullet hole in his truck, squinting blurry eyes towards the street. No sign of the invader. He shook his head and stumbled back up the steps. The screen door banged behind him. This time he took care to avoid the bits of glass in the entrance.
“Dad?” Val asked in a trembling voice. She was standing in the hallway, looking terrified.
“I told you to stay in your room,” he growled as he shut and locked the front door. “Call the cops.”
Wordlessly, he strode through to the kitchen and slammed the open window shut. The latch wasn’t broken, so he must have left it unlocked.
“You’re hurt!” Val cried, seeing the glistening trail of bloody footsteps he’d left in his wake. She ran over to him, and he turned to her with a grimace, suddenly aware that he was still holding a gun. He flicked the safety on, ejected the clip, and then cleared the chamber with a blood-slicked hand. There was a nasty gash in the flesh of his palm where he’d raked it over the broken window. Once the gun was safe, he set it on the kitchen counter with the clip and the bullet from the chamber, and began washing the blood off his injured hand.
“I’m calling 911,” Val said.
“Sure. Tell them we had a break-in.”
An hour later they were sitting on the couch. Andrew’s hand and both feet were bandaged, and his eyes were half-lidded with the residual effects of the sleeping pills he’d taken. A police officer was staring unhappily at him, asking him to repeat his story for the umpteenth time, but Andrew was having trouble focusing on the man’s voice. Blue and red lights strobed through the screen door, flashing off the jagged glass in the entrance and making the smeary mess of blood he’d left on the floor gleam brightly.
“One more time, please, Mr. Miller. I realize it’s late, but please try to focus.”
“I’ve already told you everything!” Andrew snapped. His eyes swam out of focus, and his head lolled to one side. He shook his head to clear it, and the policeman glanced at Val with a frown.
“Has your father taken anything or had anything to drink?”
She shook her head. “No. He’s ninety days sober.”
The policeman arched an eyebrow. “You sure about that?”
“I’m ninety-seven days sober, and yes, she’s sure,” Andrew said. “I took a couple of sleeping pills, that’s all.”
“You mind if I see them?”
Andrew pointed over the back of the couch. “End of the hall, last door on the left. Bedside table.”
The policeman headed off in that direction, and his partner came to take his place, standing with a thumb hooked in his belt and one hand resting on his firearm. Andrew scowled up at him.
Cop number one returned a few seconds later, holding an orange plastic bottle of prescription sleeping pills. He rattled the bottle a few times, nodding his head. “Ambien. My cousin used to take these. Then he started sleepwalking, then one night he sleep-drove his car straight into a telephone pole and woke up with his head on what he thought was his pillow. Turned out to be the airbag.”
Andrew shook his head. “What’s your point?”
The cop looked to Val. “Did you see anyone in the house?”
She hesitated, then shook her head.
“Did you hear anyone come in? Or a window breaking?”
Andrew felt a sick feeling flutter in the pit of his stomach. It wouldn’t be the first time the justice system had screwed him over. “Hey, that’s not...” He trailed off as a stabbing headache flared behind his eyes.
“We found no signs of forced entry besides the damage to the front door, but you said yourself that the intruder didn’t come in there because he couldn’t unlock the door without the key. We examined the window that you said the burglar came in through, but there was no sign of forced entry there, and the neighbors didn’t see anyone climbing over the fence, or running away from your house.” The policeman pointed to Andrew’s bandaged hand. “Here’s what I think happened: you were sleepwalking. You grabbed your gun, fired at an intruder only you could see, and then cut your hand when you plowed it through the glass in a clumsy attempt to unlock the door. Then you fired a second shot at your imaginary friend as he ran around the side of your truck.”
“I’ve never sleepwalked in my life,” Andrew said coldly. “I don’t have the history for it.”
“You live alone, right? And these pills were prescribed two weeks ago, so how would you know if you sleepwalk or not?”
Andrew scowled and slowly shook his head, even as he began to wonder if that was possible. He was definitely still half-asleep.
Beside him, Val bristled and stood up with her arms crossed over her chest. “Okay, well, if that’s true, then there’s nothing else to do here,” she said. “Thanks for your time.”
The policeman shook his head. “I’m afraid it’s not that simple. We’re going to have to arrest your father.”
“For what?” Val shrieked.
Policeman number two grabbed a pair of cuffs off his belt and took a long step toward Andrew. He jumped to his feet beside Val and swayed unsteadily for a second. “On what charges?”
“Negligent discharge of a firearm. Turn around and put your hands behind your back, sir.”
“Hang on! What about my daughter? You can’t just leave her here on her own.”
Cop number one looked to Val. “You have somewhere else you can stay?”
“We can give her a call and wait here for her, or give you a ride. Up to you.”
“A ride would be faster,” Andrew said tiredly. “She lives in Malibu.”
“This is so stupid,” Val muttered.
“I’ll call another car to come pick you up,” cop number one said. “My partner will stay here and wait with you until it arrives.”
Andrew scowled as cop number two locked the cuffs around his wrists. He caught Val’s eye. “I’m sorry about this, Val. I promise I’ll make it up to you.”
She nodded uncertainly, and then her gaze slid away. Maybe even she was beginning to think that he’d imagined the intruder.
* * *
Lewis held onto the railing of the floating docks and stared over the roiling ocean to the darkening horizon. The water was black, frothing from the looming storm. The sky hung close overhead, the clouds thick and purple. The air practically crackled with tension. It was the middle of the day, but it seemed like midnight. This storm was like a harbinger for everything else that was coming. The end of an era, and the beginning of a new one, he thought.
A purple flash of light cracked the sky in half, jagged and wide like a fissure in the Earth. The heavens had their own version of tectonics, and they were bumping elbows now. A distant rumble of thunder accompanied the slash of light, and Lewis began to feel the first pitter-pattering of raindrops landing in his hair and on his skin. He stared at his bare arms, turning them over a few times to watch as fat drops shook the forest of hairs on his arms with strange tickling sensations.
“We don’t have much time,” Eric Keller said.
Lewis flinched, startled by the voice. He’d forgotten Eric was there. He turned to look at his project manager and second-in-command. Eric was short, small, and thin, with an obsessively trimmed beard that he thought could hide his weak chin. There was a sharp gleam in his shifty, dark eyes.
This was a man who’d never been exemplary in his life, but who’d always secretly suspected that he was anyway. Now he’d been elevated to a position of power, confirming his arrogant assumptions of unrecognized greatness. He was an idiot, easy to fool and manipulate, which made him perfect to be the public face of this facility—not that anything about it was actually public. Eric handled the day-to-day interactions with people. After all, Lewis couldn’t have them interacting with him all the time. It was too risky.
“Relax, Mr. Keller,” Lewis said. “Everything is right on schedule. Have all of our agents checked in?”
“And have they met their quotas?”
“All except for one. Wilkes is still working his way down the coast.”
Lewis nodded. “Tell him to hurry up, unless he wants to miss the boat.”
“Yes, sir,” Eric replied.
8 Days Left…
Kendra and Peter rolled into the office slightly past noon. As expected, Peter was hung over and an hour late; then traffic had been congested, with people filtering in and out of the city, not sure who to believe about the impending disasters.
“Home sweet home,” Peter said, grabbing his bag from the trunk. “You won’t tell Carly about last night, will you?”
Kendra shuddered. “What did you do?” Carly was his wife of twelve years. It wouldn’t be the first time Peter had stepped out on her, and whenever they saw one another at a work function, Kendra had to bite her tongue to refrain from warning the woman about her cheating husband.
His eyes went wide, and he smirked. “Jesus. I thought you were there. Never mind. I really shouldn’t have had that last drink.” He rubbed his head with long fingers, and Kendra rolled her eyes at him.
“You’re a pig.” She entered the San Diego FBI office, and saw the place was in disarray. Phones were ringing off the hook, and everyone looked exhausted.
“What’s going on here? I told you we should have avoided the office,” Peter said.
“Shut your trap, Peter.” Kendra shoved him away and went to her office, setting her bag on her chair.
Her boss waved at her through her glass wall where he stood at the coffee maker, and arrived two minutes later with some fresh brew. “Baker. I heard about the takedown. Good work.” He shut the door.
Kendra slumped forward, resting her head on the desk. “Bill, we were so close. Peter killed the bastard,” she told him.
“Indeed. I read the report. You killed someone too. How are you handling everything?” he asked.
The truth was, she hadn’t given a second thought to killing the man guarding the kidnapped girls. He’d deserved far worse than she gave him. “I’m fine. I’m done with Costella. I can’t do this anymore,” she said.
“Baker, look, you’ve had a long month. Have you watched the news? I think you should travel inland. I’m taking Linda and heading with the kids to my cousin’s in Houston. Our office is helping out there,” he said, pulling his glasses off and folding them into his breast pocket. He appeared every bit the government man, his pocket protector keeping his shirt free of ink blotches.
“You’re leaving? What the hell, Bill? Do you really believe this?” Kendra was incredulous.
“I do. The president has gone dark, and that tells me a lot,” he whispered.
“Shit.” That did worry Kendra. “Have you seen a file about missing persons cases in California?”
“There are thousands of those all the time. What are you asking for?” Bill shifted uncomfortably in his seat.
“New one. Doctors, scientists, engineers… a whole bunch of them are missing. I want the case,” she said.
He nodded, and gave her a tight-lipped smile. “I was given something about that. Fine, take the file, but take Peter with you.”
“No. I’m doing this solo. Plus, you think he’s going to stick around when his boss isn’t even crazy enough to stay on the coast?” Kendra asked.
“Good point. Stay in touch. This could be the big one. Be safe.” Bill knocked on the desk and stood up, leaving her alone in the office. A couple of minutes later, Bill’s assistant dropped off a file folder, along with a thumb drive.
Kendra took her bag, laptop, and case details, and left, noticing Peter Costella was nowhere to be found on the way out. She was relieved. Maybe, if she was lucky, she’d never have to see him again.
* * *
Her blinds opened, sending dust particles dancing in the sunlight. It was hard to believe all the talk about doomsday when it was such a gorgeous California afternoon out there. Her AC kicked on as she played with the thermostat, and Kendra glanced around, seeing how sparsely furnished her place was. A layer of grime covered everything, and she spent a few minutes cleaning up.
She’d been gone for a month, so everything left in her fridge had turned. She tossed it all, setting the bag at her front step for the time being. The parking lot in her complex was mainly empty now too, and she was realizing that things were much more dire than she’d thought.
She’d lived in this place for the last five years, ever since she’d made the move from the FBI’s Financial Crimes department to Missing Persons. The change had been significant enough that she’d convinced herself to find a new place to live, bigger than the previous one-bedroom apartment. She’d thought it might help her grow roots, maybe meet someone, start a family. Kendra assessed her surroundings, feeling the weight of the empty condo more than ever. One picture adorned the fireplace mantle. She picked it up, seeing her and her sister’s smiling faces. Had she ever been so young? So happy, so carefree?
This photo had been taken the summer before Carrie had disappeared, and Kendra couldn’t keep the tears from falling as she stared at the picture. “I’m sorry, Carrie. I’m sorry that I couldn’t find you. I’m sorry you had to go alone, and scared. I’m… sorry.” She clutched the photo to her chest and fell onto the couch, staring at the wall with a blank gaze, her vision blurred through the tears.
She couldn’t help her sister, but she could help the people in the file. She set the frame on the mantle, blew her nose, and decided it was time to stop feeling sorry for herself. Soon fresh coffee was brewing, and Kendra called the Thai place up the street, but the line rang without any answer. Maybe they’d left town too. She found some crackers in her cupboard, sat at her empty kitchen table with her laptop, and began to pore over her work. The coffee was strong and dark, since she was out of cream, but she savored it regardless.
Over a thousand people were missing in her state alone, but in California there was no waiting period required to report someone missing. Most of these would be overzealous parents calling in a kid who’d elected to smoke weed behind school before going home from football practice, or custody battle children. She’d need to filter them better, so Kendra spent the next hour finding the list from the news the other night. She cross-referenced them, marking off the spreadsheet she’d begun building with occupation, age, and location last seen, along with home addresses and places of employment.
By the time the sun had shifted enough for the room to grow dim, she’d hacked the list of over one thousand down to under one hundred. Much better.
Her gut was telling her something seriously fishy was going on, and no part of her thought this many people with families and great careers would disappear at the same time. She was going to get to the bottom of it.
* * *
Kendra’s eyes snapped open as someone beat on her door. “Hold on!” She snatched her gun and holster from the side table, pulling the Glock free. She walked to the entrance and peered through the viewer. She slid the lock open and stepped to the side, letting Mrs. Foster in. She was a flurry of leopard print and red-dyed hair.
“Kendra, what are you still doing here?” she asked. Her voice had the rasp only a woman who’d smoked for fifty years could pull off.
“Mrs. Foster, I live here.”
“You know what I mean! I told you God was going to smite us. Didn’t I? Didn’t I?” Mrs. Foster asked loudly.
“You did. On several occasions. I could ask you the same thing,” Kendra said.
“The same thing?”
“What are you doing here?” Kendra turned the question around on the old lady.
Mrs. Foster lit up a long skinny cigarette, and Kendra didn’t stop her. “I’m leaving. I saw your car in the parking lot. Almost everyone is gone. They’re evacuating the city,” she spouted.
“Not yet. It’s recommended, but not official,” Kendra said.
“Nothing but semantics, my dear.” Mrs. Foster headed for the fridge, and frowned when she found it empty. She shut the door with a slam and spun to face Kendra. “Come with me.”
“I said come with me. I have a nephew in Oklahoma. Says it’ll be safe there. Safe as we can be, anyway,” Mrs. Foster said. Her oversized plastic-framed glasses slipped on her nose, and she pushed them up, blinking quickly as she waited for a reply.
“I can’t.” Kendra pointed at the desk full of papers, and the glowing laptop screen. “I’m in the middle of a big case, and these people’s lives are more important than mine.”
Mrs. Foster made a tsking sound and shook her head, grabbing Kendra by the shoulders. “Sweetie, you have to take care of yourself first. You can’t help people if you’re in the middle of the ocean.”
Kendra didn’t know what to say.
“Last chance.” Mrs. Foster moved for the door. She nodded at the bag from LA, full of dirty clothes. “I see you already packed a bag.”
“Have a good trip. I’ll see you soon.” Kendra noticed the grim look on her elderly neighbor’s face, and shut the door as the lady slid into a running minivan.
Kendra pushed the looming dread aside and returned to work. She made notes about where she would visit tomorrow, starting with the university near her house.
8 Days Left…
The door to Andrew’s jail cell swung open with a groan of rusty hinges. “Miller! It’s time to go. You made bail,” the overweight bespectacled guard said.
Andrew waved goodbye to the guy on the top bunk, a little-known actor arrested for a DUI, and nodded to a few of the others on his way out. There were at least thirty people sharing his cell, all on misdemeanor offenses and bunking together while they awaited trial. Andrew had been unable to convince a bondsman to post bail for him, because apparently his boss had decided to fire him when he’d failed to show up for work on Saturday morning.
Instead of waiting for a trial, which could take weeks, he’d called Selena about a dozen times over the past thirty-six hours to convince her to pay his bail. Evidently, one of those calls had finally convinced her.
Andrew walked ahead of the guard down a long gray hall to the elevators. This jail had nine different levels, with all of the most dangerous criminals concentrated in the lower ones.
On his way out, Andrew signed for his personal belongings and got dressed. The guard escorting him swiped his key card at two separate security doors that buzzed loudly as heavy locks slid away. On the other side of the second door, Andrew met his ex-wife.
“Thanks, Sel, I owe—”
She cut him off with a wave of her hand. “Save it.”
The guard behind the bulletproof glass in the receiving area buzzed the front doors, and Selena burst out into blinding sunlight. Andrew felt stupid following her down the steps wearing his PJs and Nikes.
“Do you have any idea how dangerous what you did was?” Selena hissed as they crossed the parking lot together. “You could have killed someone! You could have killed Val!”
A painful lump rose in Andrew’s throat, but he forced it down. “Selena, there really was a burglar. I swear I saw him. I didn’t imagine it.”
Selena stopped and turned to him with her arms crossed over her chest. “You saw him like you see me now, or like when you see the faces of the guys from your old unit?”
Andrew narrowed his eyes at her. “That’s not fair.”
“No, what’s not fair is that your daughter loves you, and now she’s scared of you. That’s what’s not fair. You need to get your shit together before you lose her, too.”
Andrew flinched at those words. A roundhouse slap would have hurt him less. “I’ll fix it. I’ll talk to her.”
Selena shook her head. “She doesn’t want to talk to you.” Whirling away from him, she crossed the rest of the way to her Mercedes. When they reached the car, she rounded on him again from the driver’s side door. “Were you drunk?”
“What?” He blinked in shock, and then pulled out the green chip dangling from his neck. “I’m ninety days sober!”
“Ninety days. That’s only three months, Andy. I might believe you if it was three years.”
Selena smirked. “I’m not yours to screw anymore, remember?” She yanked her door open and ducked inside. “You made sure of that.”
Andrew got in on the passenger’s side and glared at his ex while she backed out of the parking space. On the way to his place she scolded him a few more times, but his pulse was pounding so loudly that her lectures fell on deaf ears.
She pulled up in front of his house. “Thanks for the ride. And bail,” he said. “I’ll pay you back.”
“Don’t bother. Just get rid of the gun and fix things with your daughter.”
“The police have my gun.” One of them, anyway, Andrew amended to himself.
Andrew slammed the door and stood watching as Selena drove away. He felt furious and depressed at the same time.
When she was gone, he dragged his gaze away, up to his crumbling bungalow. How the hell was he going to pay the rent without a job? Forget rent, how was he going to pay a lawyer to defend him on those charges?
Leaden feet carried him up the path to his front door. The damaged pane of glass gleamed in the morning sun as he turned his key to unlock the door. He pushed his recently-stitched hand carefully through the hole in the door, wondering if maybe he really had broken it himself while chasing an imaginary burglar. But how could he have opened that door if he were sleepwalking—or, for that matter, have fired his gun? It didn’t seem possible.
Andrew went inside and stalked across the blood-smeared floor to fetch his wallet from his bedroom. On the way back, he snagged his car keys from the rack beside the coat closet.
Before he’d even fully admitted to himself what he was doing, he was parking in front of the liquor store, walking in, and then whipping out his credit card to pay for a bottle of single malt Scotch.
Soon after that, he was lying on his couch, chugging straight from the bottle. Sweet warmth flooded his veins, and he grew blissfully numb. A world of tension bled out of him, and gradually all of his troubles faded to black. The last thing he registered was the bottle falling from his slack hand to the living room rug with a hollow thump. After what felt like only a few minutes, he awoke to the sound of his phone vibrating noisily against his keys on the coffee table. He stirred and shook his head. An instant pounding headache was the result. His mouth was so dry that it took a second for him to pry his tongue from the roof of his mouth.
He leaned over the couch to catch a glimpse of his phone. It was Selena. He made a sloppy grab for the phone, missed, and knocked his keys off the table. The second attempt was a success. “Hello?” he croaked.
“Andy! Val is missing!”
He sat up, feeling suddenly sober. “Missing how?”
“She went to a friend’s house to study this morning, but she never came home.”
Andrew rubbed his face and scratchy eyes with the hand not holding his phone; then he glanced about to get his bearings. It was dark outside. He checked his watch. 22:08.
“Andrew, did you hear what I said?” Selena pressed.
“Yeah, I heard you. She’s been missing for what, twelve hours? Did you call the friend’s house?”
“Of course I called! They said she never arrived. They thought maybe she changed her mind. What if it’s related to all of the other people who are going missing? What if it’s some crazy serial killer? Or, or... some kind of doomsday cult?”
“What other people?” Andrew demanded.
“Haven’t you been watching the news?”
“You know I don’t.”
“Well, get your head out of the sand! There are hundreds of people missing all over the country!”
“Hundreds?” Andrew whispered.
“Yes!” Selena’s voice was muffled now. She was sobbing into the phone. “I need you here, Andy. Mike doesn’t think it’s anything. He assumes she’s out with a boy... He doesn’t know Val like we do! She’s not like that.”
“I’ll be right there,” Andrew said, and hung up the phone.
* * *
The door of Mike’s mansion swung open, and Selena ran out into his arms. Mike stood in the doorway behind her, sipping brown liquor from a crystal tumbler.
“What are we going to do?” Selena whispered, and sniffled loudly in his ear.
Andrew wrapped his arms around her in a hug and shook his head. He’d been wondering that same thing on the drive over. “We’ll find her,” he said in a voice that sounded more confident than he felt. Selena nodded against his shoulder.
“You mind letting go of my wife?” Mike growled.
Andrew scowled at him, but Selena stepped back, and Andrew let his arms slide away from her.
Mike smiled insipidly. “Thanks.”
“Have you called the police yet?” Andrew asked.
Selena bit her lip and shook her head.
“It hasn’t even been twenty-four hours!” Mike burst out. “In fact, I don’t even think it’s been twelve!”
Andrew stared hard at the man. He looked ridiculous with his baby-smooth, surgically-tightened face and thinning hair dyed a bright blond that he probably couldn’t have pulled off in his twenties, let alone at forty-seven. A vain, shallow man struggling to hold onto his youth. Turning his attention to Selena, he said, “Are you coming? We have to make a report.”
Selena nodded quickly.
Mike snorted. “Have fun. You’ll excuse me if I don’t join you. I have a surgery tomorrow morning.”
Andrew grabbed Selena’s arm and pulled her gently away from the entrance and Mike’s toxic influence. Mike’s eyes blazed as he stared at Andrew’s hand on Selena’s arm. A flash of satisfaction coursed through Andrew with that. She was mine before she was yours, buddy.
Back in his truck, they raced down the highway to the local Malibu police precinct. The GPS app on Andrew’s phone said it was in Calabasas. It was hard to believe he’d been there watching a movie with Val only a couple of days ago. He should have kept her safe, but he’d been in jail, so how could he? Andrew recalled the crime he was accused of, and the police’s assumptions that he’d imagined the whole incident with the burglar. The pieces clicked into place then, and his jaw dropped.
“It wasn’t a burglar,” he said.
“What?” Selena turned to him, her eyes glassy in the dark. Streetlights strobed orange through the windows.
“That guy who broke into my place. It wasn’t a burglar. Ten to one he was after Val. He must have followed us from Malibu, or even from the theater. Whoever it was, he’s probably been stalking her for some time already.”
Selena’s hands flew to her mouth, and she shook her head in silent horror.
“Yeah.” Andrew nodded to himself. “He broke into my place because there’s less security, but he had to assume I was there. God knows what would have happened to me if I hadn’t heard him in the hall.”
“Did he have a gun?”
Andrew frowned as he struggled to remember. “If he did, he didn’t use it. He just ran.”
“But that should help us find her, right? We know who did it!”
“No, we don’t. The police didn’t believe me because there was no sign of the intruder, and I didn’t see his face because he was wearing a ski mask.”
“There has to be something we can do!”
“Yeah,” Andrew said, already turning over options in his head, working the problem.
He pulled off the highway and parked in the lot in front of the police station. Selena ran inside the station ahead of him. He found her screaming at the policewoman behind the desk. The woman stared blandly back at her, waited for her to finish, and then pushed a form through the slot in the bullet-proof window. “Fill this out and a detective will see you as soon as possible.”
“As soon as possible.”
“We need to see a detective now! My girl is missing, do you understand me? She’s missing. They broke into her father’s house and tried to take her on Friday night, but when he tried to report it, you arrested him instead of taking the incident seriously!”
The woman behind the glass blinked once. “Fill out the report, ma’am. We’ll be with you as soon as we can.”
Andrew pulled Selena away by her shoulders before she could fly through the glass. They sat on a plastic bench and leaned against the cinder-block wall. Selena’s hands were shaking too badly to fill out the form, so Andrew took over.
Half an hour later they were sitting in front of Detective Allan Styles, recounting everything that had happened so far. The man sat quietly and listened to their story, stolid but for the occasional twitch of the thick black caterpillar sitting on his lip. When Andrew mentioned the break-in at his house, the detective pulled up the report from that night on his computer, and scanned it with a furrowed brow.
“Says here you were charged with negligent discharge... you fired once inside your home, and then once more from the front porch.”
“How is that relevant?” Selena demanded.
The detective shrugged. “I’m simply reading aloud, ma’am. The report doesn’t help us. Even if the intruder was real and he was the one who later took your daughter, we have nothing to go on. Unless you found some new evidence from the break-in, we’re going to have to start from scratch.”
“Fine, but what are you going to do about it?” Selena demanded. “What are you going to do to find my little girl?”
Allan laced his hands together and leaned across his desk toward them. “I’m going to be honest with you. We have over a dozen missing people in this county alone, all of them within the past few weeks, and with everything else that’s going on, I’d be surprised if we’re not all evacuated from the coast in a few days. That’s not enough time to do much.”
Andrew blinked in shock.
The detective regarded him with a grim smile. “You seem surprised.”
“I...” Andrew shook his head. Maybe he needed to start watching the news, or at least start talking to people. “It’s that serious?” He’d felt the tremors, but when weren’t there tremors in California?
Allan nodded slowly. “The San Andreas fault line is bucking like a dog in heat, and there are so many earthquakes going off under Yellowstone that every damn geologist has crawled out from under their rocks to say that she’s going to blow her top in a matter of days. According to the eggheads, the only part of the country that’s going to be even halfway safe is Texas.”
Andrew could feel the blood draining from his face. “Yellowstone and the San Andreas?”
“Yeah, it’s a perfect F-ing storm, and the rest of the world is experiencing it too. Somehow it’s all coming together at once. This is the big one. The big D. As in doomsday. The apocalypse.”
Selena jabbed a finger at the nameplate on the detective’s desk. “Is that yours?”
The man’s brow furrowed and his mustache twitched. “Yes?”
“It can’t be, because that plaque says detective, and you’re clearly a news reporter.”
Allan Styles leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms over his chest. “Well, ma’am, you can pretend that the end of the world shouldn’t stop me from doing my job, but the reality is, if everything we’re hearing is even halfway right, you’ll probably find out that your daughter is missing because she was taken by the rapture.”
Selena’s eyes flashed. “You’re useless!”
“We’ll look into her disappearance, but there really isn’t enough time to solve a case like this one,” Detective Styles said. “My advice is that you forget about her and save yourselves. I’m sorry if that sounds callous, but it’s the truth.”
Andrew’s blood was boiling. He didn’t trust himself not to reach across that desk, yank the man out of his chair, and beat the life out of him, so he grabbed Selena and pulled her up as he stood. “Thanks for your time,” he said quickly, then turned and walked briskly away.
Selena wasn’t doing much better than he was. Her whole body was trembling with rage as they left. “Did you hear that? They’re not going to do a damned thing!” she said.
Andrew nodded to her as they left the police station and crossed the parking lot to his truck. “Maybe they won’t, but I will.”
“How?” Selena cried.
“I need you to take me to Val's friend’s house.”
* * *
Andrew parked in front of the house—another Malibu mansion. Streetlights flickered as he and Selena crossed the street.
Andrew spent a moment looking around. Sports cars and mansions lined both sides of the street, which curved away sharply beneath them, a winding street leading to the beach. “Which way to Mike’s place from here?”
Selena pointed down the hill. There weren’t any alternate routes to take, so Andrew nodded and started for the sidewalk. Selena hurried to keep up with him. He was walking fast, but his eyes were everywhere, scanning the sidewalk, the street, the hedges and driveways, parked cars...
It wasn’t long before Selena was panting in exhaustion. She wasn’t a gym rat like him. The restless energy of a frustrated addict is great fuel for workouts.
“How much farther?” Andrew asked.
“A few blocks. What are we doing?”
“Assuming we’re right, and Val was telling the truth about going to her friend’s house to study, then she came this way. We’re retracing her steps.”
“How does that help?”
“I don’t know yet.”
They walked on, winding down the hill for another block. Andrew began to think he was wasting his time. This was a dead end, just like the ski-masked burglar.
But then he saw it, lying in the dirt beneath a flowering hedge, gleaming gold in the vermilion glow of a streetlight. He bent to retrieve it: a .50 caliber round. He held it up for Selena to see.
It wasn’t real, of course. It was the novelty pen that Andrew had bought for Val when he took her to the shooting range for her fourteenth birthday. There was an inscription on it that read, HBD #14! Love, Dad.
“She dropped this,” he said.
Selena’s hand flew to her mouth. “But how does that help us find her?”
“It means this is where she was taken,” he said.
Selena made a strangled noise in the back of her throat.
Andrew turned away from her, his head on a swivel, checking their surroundings. There were houses on only one side of the street. The other side was a cliff, a hairpin bend with only three houses in sight. Whoever had taken Val had chosen this spot for its relative isolation. Fewer potential witnesses.
“We need to ask the neighbors if they saw anything,” Andrew said, already stalking up the driveway of the nearest home.
“You can’t just go knocking on people’s doors in the middle of the night!” Selena objected.
“Sure I can.”
Andrew reached the door and banged on it half a dozen times with his fist. Dogs began barking from the house next door. The frosted glass windows flanking the door lit up with a golden light, and then they heard footsteps.
“Go away or I’m calling the cops!” someone yelled through the door.
“My daughter’s missing!” Andrew yelled back. “She disappeared yesterday morning in front of your house.” He pulled his phone out of his pocket. The background was a picture of Val, so he simply touched the power button and placed the phone to the peephole. “Did you see her?”
“Please,” Selena added. “We’re just trying to find her.”
“Mrs. Lewis?” the muffled voice asked.
“Yes! Is that...” Selena’s brow furrowed. “Bill?”
The door swung open, and Bill stood in the entrance, wearing nothing but fuzzy slippers, boxer shorts, and the white hair on his chest. He regarded them with bleary eyes. “I’m sorry, I haven’t seen Valeria,” he said, shaking his head.
“Are you sure?” Andrew pressed, leaning around Bill to get a glimpse inside his house. “We found her pen in front of your house, in the bushes. She must have dropped it when she was taken.”
Bill frowned and shook his head. “I’m sorry, but I wasn’t even here yesterday.”
Suddenly suspicious, Andrew took a step toward the man. “Do you mind if we take a look inside?”
“What? No, I’m sorry.” The door swung shut, and caught on Andrew’s foot.
“I’ll only take a second,” he said.
“Get your foot out of my door before I break it off and shove it up your—”
Andrew cut him off with a burst of laughter.
Selena pulled him back. “I’m sorry to have bothered you, Bill.”
The door slammed and locked in their faces.
Andrew rounded on her. “Hey!”
“Bill didn’t take her.”
“How can you be sure?”
“Because he has no reason to, and he’s almost seventy! Val would have beaten him within an inch of his life if he’d tried to abduct her.”
She was right. Damn it. Andrew stood listening to the dogs barking next door. “What about that house?” He pointed to it.
Selena shook her head. “I don’t know them.”
“Time to change that.” Andrew ran back up Bill’s driveway and crossed over to the house next door. Again, he hammered on the door with his fist. This time the lights didn’t snap on, and no one spoke to them through the door; it just swung open to reveal a middle-aged man in a monogrammed robe, pointing a shotgun at them. “Who are you and what do you want?” he demanded.
This time Selena explained. Andrew showed the picture of Val again, and the man lowered his shotgun. “I think I might have seen her.”
Andrew’s heart skipped in his chest. “When? Where?”
“Just down the street. I was out walking my dogs. On my way up the hill I saw her walking up ahead of me, but she wasn’t alone. There was a young man in a black hoodie accompanying her.”
“Did you see his face?” Selena asked.
“They had their backs to me, but it seemed like they knew each other. He had long blond hair in a ponytail.”
“So how do you know it wasn’t a girl?” Andrew asked.
“Broad shoulders. Masculine walk. I guess it could have been a girl, though. Tough to tell these days.”
“Then what happened?” Selena asked.
“Nothing,” the man said. “They walked around the corner together, and I lost sight of them. By the time I got here, they were both gone.”
“Shit,” Andrew muttered.
“I did see a car come down, though. Maybe not related, but it was...” The man’s brow furrowed as he recalled. “Black. Yes, definitely black. A Tesla, I think. Tinted windows.”
“Did you catch a glimpse of the driver or the plate?” Andrew asked.
“No, sorry. I wasn’t really paying that much attention.”
“This is already a lot to go on. Thank you,” Andrew said. “You’ve been a big help.”
The door swung shut, and Andrew started jogging up the driveway. Selena kept pace beside him. “So we’re looking for a boy with long blond hair?”
“But that could be anyone!”
“Doesn’t sound like someone you know from around here?” Andrew asked. “One of the neighbors’ kids?”
Selena shook her head.
“Probably a friend from school, then. We need to find her friends on social media. Maybe find someone who can hack into her accounts.”
Selena was huffing beside him, struggling to keep up as he ran up the hill to his truck. “I can do it,” she said.
He glanced at her. “You?”
“I installed a backdoor app on her computer and her phone. It gives me access to everything.”
“Nice job.” A thought occurred to him. “Does the software track her phone?”
“Do you think the blond-haired kid abducted her?” Selena asked between gasps for air.
“Maybe. Or maybe he’s working with whoever did. The bait. And even if he’s not involved, he was probably the last person to see Val before she was taken, so he might have seen something.”
“What if we can’t find him? Or what if whoever it was took them both?”
Andrew grimaced. “Then we find the kid’s parents and see what they know.”
“But what if they don’t know anything?”
Andrew stopped running. He grabbed Selena by her shoulders and turned her to face him. “Stop it. You’re spinning. We’ll find her if it’s the last thing we do.”
Selena nodded, her eyes wide. It was a poor choice of words. She didn’t say anything, but he could tell that she was remembering what the detective had said about the news and the looming disasters. At this rate, finding Val might actually be the last thing they ever did.
7 Days Left…
Two days. Roland had stayed at the house for another two days, and he was regretting it. His messages to PiedPiper19 had gone unanswered, and he was done waiting. If something big was happening in seven days, he wasn’t going to be holed up in his grandmother’s house. He had to act.
Roland didn’t know why he was doing this, but he needed to reach Capetown, to find out what was at the end of the rainbow he’d discovered. Someone was in that warehouse, building something, but what? A boat? An underwater city? Capetown was half a day’s drive from here, and with the current conditions outside, he had no idea how long that would translate to.
He’d watched countless feeds of news footage showing everyone getting out of Dodge. It was pandemonium out there. Last night the air had been riddled with gunshots and sirens, and he doubted today would be any different.
No, he was kidding himself. Things were about to get worse. With the ever-growing fear of the coming maelstroms, the public was scared. The wealthy were the first to leave, as always; the poor who relied on food stamps and public transportation were left behind to fend for themselves. It was over a week away from happening, but already, conditions were worsening across the world. If ever there was a world-ending event, it was coming. Roland was sure of it.
He’d be heading up the coast like a madman, while everyone else traveled inland. He hoped this meant smooth sailing on the highways.
Roland scanned the map of Capetown again, agreeing that this really was the perfect place to build. It was out of the way, hours from any real cities. Nothing but empty coast for miles and miles. A person could do a lot out there without prying eyes. It was the exact spot someone like Lewis Hound would use for a foundation.
“He’s built his survival shelter, and I’m going to find it,” Roland said to himself as he crossed the living room. It was messier than ever. He’d managed to eat everything in the place, and empty water bottles littered the floor. His grandmother would be so upset with him. She’d loved to keep it clean.
Roland missed her. She was the only person who’d shown him kindness, through and through. His own parents had thought he was a waste of breath, but she’d always protected him, had taken him in, and when she died, she’d left him the house. He still could hardly believe it. The lawyer had estimated the place was worth one and a half million, and that was five years ago. He doubted it was worth anything now, though, and soon it would be sinking to the bottom of the ocean.
His bags were partially packed, but there were a few loose ends he needed to take care of before he left. He found a box of garbage bags and began to clear the debris from the living room. The least he could do was clean up, in a final gesture of thanks to his grandmother. Soon four bags were filled to the brim, and he wiped his hands, moving for the patio door. The entire house was stuffy, and he wanted to air it out.
For the first time in years, Roland threw the curtains completely to the side, and stepped out onto the deck. The sun was high in the sky, occasionally piercing through gray clouds as they rolled along with purpose. The ocean churned in the distance; a few boats were out there, as if running that direction was going to help anyone survive. Roland had witnessed the simulations on the news.
He placed a hand over his eyes as a visor, noticing an unmarked white van on the street below his property line. A momentary panic coursed through him, and the van fired up its engine, pulling away. Sunlight glared off the windows, and he couldn’t see the occupants.
The van left, and Roland rushed inside. They were here for him.
“They aren’t here for you, Rollie. It’s just a coincidence. There are a lot of vans out there,” he told himself out loud, hoping to calm his fears. It didn’t work. He’d been paranoid his whole life, feeding himself a constant stream of conspiracy theories and digging where he shouldn’t. He knew too much, and there were probably a half dozen agencies out there that were searching for him, or at least for his online moniker.
“Get it together!” he shouted, and took a deep breath. Computers. They were a priority. He unlocked the drawer, pulling his pill bottles out. He swallowed two pills from the second bottle to the right, and reached into the deep part of the open drawer, pulling out a black box. It had a scanner on it, and he used his thumb, pressing it firmly on the small square.
It flashed green and clicked open. A shiny metallic thumb drive with chrome finishing sat inside. He flipped it around in his hand and pressed it into the desktop computer. A window popped up, and he confirmed he wanted to use the drive.
A bar appeared on each monitor, displaying the progress. Everything he’d ever worked on, his entire twelve-year obsession was being wiped away by the worm. It ate all of it, tracing his movements through the internet, both public and dark, as well as clearing anything saved to a cloud. The entire process took only twenty minutes, and he was sweating bullets by the end.
Roland grabbed his laptop and shoved it into the pack with his clothes. He could access everything he needed from the portable computer, and was glad he wasn’t cut off completely. Most of his life had been spent online, and there was no way he could go cold turkey, not yet.
“You can do this.” Roland’s pep talks rarely worked, but today it sparked hope in his chest. He was at the door—pack in hand, car keys in the other—when the idea struck him. The gun. He needed the gun.
He rushed downstairs, flicking the light on. He’d only been down here a handful of times since his grandmother passed away, and it was full of all her old furniture. He hadn’t been able to live in the house with it stored upstairs, not when he could picture her sitting on the floral-print couch, watching daytime television with a smile on her face.
He pushed it all aside, and moved through the blanket-covered curio cabinets and stacks of dishware. He found the gun cabinet where it had always stood, ever since he was an inquisitive little boy. He recalled the code, emblazoned in his brain along with so many other numbers and facts. He pressed the numbers—3, 7, 4, 9 —and it opened. Inside sat a rifle and a handgun: an old 9mm pistol. He took the handgun, made sure it wasn’t loaded, and grabbed the box of ammo before running upstairs.
With a final moment of silence for the house he’d called home the last twenty years, he opened the door, and saw the van parked in the driveway. A man and woman stepped out, slamming the doors shut. They were in suits, and Roland didn’t think they planned to spread the good word. He slammed the door just as he caught the flash of steel in the man’s hand. They were coming to kill him.
All those years of believing he was crazy. It was all true. Someone had found him, and they were going to end him. He needed to escape and somehow reach Capetown. He bolted the door shut and ran to the patio, chucking the pack to the grass below. He wasn’t athletic, but he managed to climb over the railing and dangle toward the ground. With a deep breath, he dropped, his ankles rolling as they hit the grass. He fell to his side, the gun jostling from his belt. He snatched it, took the pack, and crouched beside the house.
He could hear them knocking on the door, and it quickly escalated. That sound could only be the big guy trying to kick the door open. Roland moved faster than he imagined he could, rushing along the untrimmed hedges that lined the property.
He glanced toward the front of the house, and saw the woman was missing. Roland kept moving to his car, which he always left parked on the street. He didn’t want it seen in the driveway, and didn’t trust it in the garage, where he could easily become boxed in. At that moment he was glad for all his paranoia and foresight.
Roland fumbled with his keys, dropping them as he reached the driver’s door. The car was old, a classic from before the era of computers and key fobs. He twisted the key in the rusty lock and slid inside, peering at the rearview mirror. The woman was running toward him.
Roland turned the key, the engine struggling to fire up. “Come on! Damn you, start!” he shouted, and it turned over, rumbling to life. A black cloud erupted from the tailpipe as he raced away. Gunshots rang out, and he ducked, trying to avoid the other cars on the side of the road. Another shot, and the rear windshield was hit, spiderwebbing on the passenger side. Soon he was down the block, speeding away from his home.
7 Days Left…
Andrew and Selena stayed up all night, snooping through their daughter’s accounts on both Facebook and Instagram. Selena’s nosy parent app provided the passwords they needed to access both accounts. Now, over four hours later, the sky was bright with the morning and they were both ready to give up.
All of the blond-haired guys on her accounts had short hair, not shoulder-length. There were plenty of girls with shoulder-length blonde hair, though. Andrew began to wonder about that. Maybe that neighbor really had mistaken the kid in the black hoodie for a boy. He started checking girls’ profiles one by one. Selena stood up and began pacing her living room, biting her nails. The ocean looked angry in the distance behind her. Andrew could tell that those waves had to be massive. The surfers must be happy.
Andrew shook himself out of his distraction. The crazy weather wasn’t his concern right now. Finding Val was.
“What else can we do?” Selena asked.
“We keep searching until we find something,” Andrew insisted, scrolling mindlessly through his daughter’s Instagram feed on his phone.
“We’ve been at it for hours! There’s no one matching that boy’s description!”
“There has to be, because Val knew whoever it was that she was walking with.”
“Maybe they weren’t friends on social media.”
“You’re talking about the wrong generation. They were definitely connected online.”
“Then we’re missing something,” Selena decided.
“I can’t keep my eyes open,” Selena said. “You want some coffee?”
Andrew nodded absently and waved her away. She returned a few minutes later with two steaming cups and handed one to him. There was a suspicious, soapy cap of foam floating on top of his. “What’s this?” he asked, sniffing at it suspiciously.
“Thanks...” He took a sip and grimaced. She must have dumped the whole sugar bowl in his cup. Selena had obviously forgotten that he liked his coffee black.
She leaned over his shoulder. “What are you looking for?”
“But the neighbor said—”
“That he was too far away to be certain. Lots of girls have shoulders wider than their hips. Add a manly walk to that, a tomboy maybe, and we have our guy. So to speak.”
Selena pulled up a chair and sat down beside him. He went on scrolling, taking periodic sips of his coffee despite the tongue-curling taste of it.
“Wait!” Selena grabbed his wrist suddenly. “Go back up.”
He did as she asked, then stopped and stared. It was a photo of Val and a girl with shoulder-length blonde hair. Val was blowing a kiss to the camera while making bunny ears behind the girl—a girl wearing a black hoodie.
“Jackpot,” he whispered.
The name tagged in the photo was @Ana_Claremonte. Selena reached past him and tapped a shaking finger on the girl’s name to check her profile. A few useless lines of emojis and text appeared to describe her profile, things like CaliforniaGurl!!! followed by three heart emojis.
“It doesn’t say where she lives!” Selena said.
Andrew shrugged. “Maybe it doesn’t have to.” He checked at least a dozen photos from the girl’s account, looking for a location tag. Nothing. Maybe she was taking Internet stalking seriously.
Then he had a thought and set the phone aside in favor of Selena’s laptop. A quick search of Val’s friends on Facebook found an Adriana Claremonte, and one glimpse at Adriana’s photos revealed she was the same girl. Unlike the Instagram account, there were some real, meaningful details about Adriana’s life on Facebook.
“She lives in Santa Monica!” Selena said.
“Yeah... nothing more specific, though. We’re going to have to dig a little deeper. Did you find any messages on her WhatsApp from someone with a name like Ana or Adriana?”
Andrew turned to his ex. She was blinking rapidly, staring off into the distance with a faraway look in her eyes. “Maybe? I don’t know! She was talking to at least a hundred people on there!”
“Well, go check!” Andrew snapped.
Selena got up and ran to fetch her iPhone from the opposite end of the dining room table. She sat down and began swiping through messages. Meanwhile, Andrew busied himself by clicking through Adriana Claremonte’s friends. He found a Justin Claremonte listed as her brother, and clicked on his name. Maybe he’d have more details listed in his bio.
“Hey! I think I found something! There’s a conversation here from someone called Miss C. Monte.”
“That sounds right.” Andrew jumped up and ran over to see.
“Look,” Selena prompted.
He read over her shoulder as she scrolled through recent messages between Miss C. Monte and their daughter.
Miss C. Monte: Hey gurl! Justin is coming back from uni this wknd. You HAVE to come out with us!
Val Miller: I’m there! When? Where?
Miss C. Monte: No deets yet. I’ll let u know!
Val Miller: Great! :D.
Miss C. Monte: Betta make him ur BAE before some slutty uni gurl does ;).
“He’s in university?” Andrew thundered.
“Just keep reading,” Selena urged.
Val Miller:... well, if that’s what he wants, I’m gonna be a real disappointment.
Miss C. Monte: You’re such a slug! When are you gonna give up your V card anyway?
Val Miller: Gotta wait for the right Mr.
Miss C. Monte: Whatevs! Chat soon BAE!
Val Miller: Call me, BAE ;).
Andrew and Selena stared at each other. “That’s it?” he asked.
“That was the last message.”
“Did she call?”
Selena flipped over to a call log report and scanned it briefly before nodding. “Yes. One call from Miss C. right before...” She clapped a hand to her mouth and shook her head. “This was only an hour before she left for her friend’s house!”
“What did she say?”
Selena scowled. “It’s a spy app, not the FBI!”
“Right.” Andrew returned to the computer. “Maybe their parents have their number listed in a public directory.”
“Yeah, because they’re eighty years old!” Selena scoffed.
“Hey, my number is listed.”
“Forget it. No one lists their number anymore. Try checking her brother’s accounts. Maybe you can find out where his parents live.”
“I already checked,” Andrew said, shaking his head.
Andrew clicked over to Justin’s Facebook page and checked the about section of his profile. “See?”
Selena reached over his shoulder and stole the mouse from him. She scrolled through the about section to Family Members. Three names were listed: Rick Claremonte, Adriana Claremonte, and Tina Claremonte. She clicked on Tina, and a middle-aged woman appeared. Her 'About' page listed a real address: 238 Hill St., Santa Monica, CA. “Parents are the worst about listing their real addresses. They never stop to think that a stalker might dig more than one level deep,” Selena said.
“A stalker like you?” Andrew asked.
She smiled tightly at him. “I’m the worst.”
“I believe you,” he said.
Her eyes flashed with hurt, but they both dropped the topic there.
“We have an address,” Andrew said, standing up from the table. “Let’s go.”
Selena drained her cappuccino, and they hurried out the door.
* * *
They found Ana’s house on Andrew’s GPS app. The drive from Malibu to Santa Monica was suspiciously quiet. The streets were deserted. It should have been rush hour, but instead it was smooth sailing. It was as if there really had been a rapture.
Andrew parked out front of Ana’s house and ran up the walkway with Selena. They reached the door, and Andrew pounded on it with his fist. Selena gave him a sharp look and then touched a finger to the doorbell.
Oops, he thought, and flashed a charming grin at her. The grin gradually fell off his face when no one answered the door.
“What if they evacuated already?” Selena asked.
Andrew didn’t have an answer ready for that. If they’d evacuated, then this was a dead end, and they were going to have a hard time dredging up another lead.
Selena pressed the doorbell again. And then ten times more, stabbing it repeatedly with her finger.
The door swung open a minute later to reveal a haggard-looking man with thinning blond hair and glasses. His face was drawn, eyes dull and empty. “What?” he asked in a dull voice. He didn’t sound angry that they’d interrupted him with about a thousand dings of his bell. This had to be Rick Claremonte.
Selena spoke before Andrew could. “Our daughter is missing, and I noticed that the last person who called her was—”
“Yours too?” Rick asked.
Andrew felt his eyes narrowing. “What do you mean yours, too? Ana is missing?”
“How do you know her name?” Rick asked.
“Not important,” Andrew said. “What can you tell us?”
“Not much.” Rick sighed and raked a hand through his hair. “The police were no help. They said we should evacuate and forget about her.”
Andrew snorted and scowled at the memory of his meeting with Detective Styles. “Us too. Mind if we come in?” he asked.
The man’s wife walked up behind him. Tina, Andrew recalled.
“Rick? Who is it?” She sounded like she’d been crying.
Rick half turned to her. The woman’s mascara was running down her cheeks in sticky black gobs. “Some people looking for their daughter. They say she knows Ana.”
“How... who are you?” Tina asked.
“Maybe we should sit down for this,” Andrew said. “Do you mind?”
Rick shrugged and stepped aside to let them in. Andrew and Selena walked into a beachy living room with a light, airy decor. White couches and rustic wooden furniture. Blue pillows, shells, starfish, model boats, and even a lighthouse decorated the room. Andrew and Selena sat on one of two couches facing each other across a rustic wooden coffee table with the word BEACH actually spelled out on it in big wooden letters.
Mascara-streaked Tina was a tiny woman with platinum-blonde hair, an oval face, and a stick-thin frame. Her collar bone popped out as she leaned forward. “What do you know about our Ana?” she asked.
“I was about to ask you the same thing about Val,” Selena said.
“They were going to meet up the day our girl disappeared,” Andrew said. “The last call on Val’s phone was from your daughter.”
Rick drew himself up and straightened his glasses. “So you think Ana had something to do with her disappearance?”
“Not directly,” Andrew said. “Whoever took Val obviously took your girl, too.”
Rick and Tina nodded along with that.
Selena spoke next, “Ana said her brother, your son, was coming home from San Diego—Justin?”
“Yes, that’s right,” Rick said.
“Well, Ana was talking about the three of them going out somewhere.”
“And?” Rick asked.
“And the weekend is over, so where’s your son?”
Rick scowled. “He didn’t make it.”
“Just like that? What excuse did he give?”
“You mean besides half of the city evacuating?” Tina demanded. “I don’t know, maybe he had a party to go to!”
“Look, all I’m saying is—”
Rick’s eyes flashed. “We know what you’re saying. That our son is involved. You really think he would abduct his own sister?”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“I think you should leave,” Tina put in.
“Don’t you want to find out where Ana is?” Selena asked.
“If you could help us find her, you wouldn’t be here interrogating us.”
Andrew grimaced. This was spiraling out of control. “Look, just—”
Rick jumped up and pointed at the door. “Get out.”
“Please,” Selena said.
Tina stood up beside her husband. “Now. Before we call the police.”
Andrew smirked. “Yeah, I’m sure they’ll be a lot of help.”
“I have a gun,” Rick said. “You want me to get it?”
Andrew held up his hands and began shuffling toward the door. “Okay, okay, we’re leaving.”
They were halfway through the hall to the entrance when the floor began to shake.
“Earthquake!” Tina screamed. She and her husband flew into the guest bathroom and slammed the door behind them, leaving Andrew and Selena to fend for themselves. Selena clutched Andrew’s arm, her nails digging in. Picture frames on the walls shook, and Andrew had to steady himself on a table in the foyer to keep from falling over. Stunned, he stared at a blurry reflection of a ragged, bearded man in the mirror above the table. Then that mirror leapt off the wall, and he jumped away as it crashed at his feet.
“Come on! We have to get outside!”
They ran for the door, and Andrew struggled to pull it open, cords standing out on his arms as he wrenched on the handle with everything he had. The frame was twisting along with everything else, making it impossible to open the door.
Then the thunderous shaking stopped, and the door flew open. Andrew stumbled back a few steps and ran outside with Selena. Car alarms were going off all over the city. Smoke rose in a dark pillar above the tops of the palm trees that lined the horizon.
Andrew and Selena stood staring at each other in shock before hurrying to his truck. Andrew climbed in first.
“Just a tremor,” Selena breathed as she entered the vehicle and slammed the door.
“How long does the news say we have before the big one hits?” Andrew asked, dragging his gaze from staring sightlessly out the windshield.
“Who knows? Days? Weeks? It’s not that precise. I’d guess it won’t be long.”
Andrew nodded and stared out the windshield, his hands on the wheel, wondering what to do.
“Andy, what if we don’t find her in time? Mike sent me a message. He said we’re packing up and heading for his grandparents’ ranch in Texas to wait out the storm.”
“Mike can wait out the storm in hell for all I care. I’m not going anywhere until I find our daughter.”
Selena nodded and bit her lip as she looked away, her eyes drifting out of focus. “I’m due for my shift at the hospital soon. I haven’t even slept...”
Andrew nodded. “I’ll take you home. I have enough leads to follow on my own for now.”
“What leads?” Selena demanded.
“The brother. I’m going to wait around and see if he shows up. If not, I’ll try to track him down at his university in San Diego.”
Selena seemed torn, still biting her lip.
“Seriously, there’s not much you can do to help me at this point. If something comes up, I’ll let you know.”
“Cross my heart.”
Andrew drove Selena home to Malibu, then pulled into a gas station to fill up on gas and munchies for what was to come. From there, he raced over to Santa Monica to stake out the Claremontes’ place. After about an hour and two bags of potato chips, his eyelids sank shut. He told himself he’d just take fifteen minutes...
And then he woke up in the dark to the sight of red and blue police lights strobing through his truck. He sat up and rubbed the sleep from his eyes, staring hard at the police cars parked in front of the Claremontes’ home. There were three cars. He left his truck and ran up to their front door, ignoring the protests of several policemen along the way. Two of them were standing on the front step, speaking with Rick and Tina.
“Hey!” Andrew called out. The policemen turned, their hands on their guns. They stared at him for a long second, quietly gauging how much of a threat he might be. “What’s going on here?” he demanded, stopping at the bottom of the stairs.
“That’s really none of your business, sir,” one of the officers said.
Tina answered, “Justin is missing, too.” Her voice sounded far away, dull with shock. She shook her head. “He was answering his e-mail, but when I tried to call him, it went straight to voice mail. Then I tried his girlfriend, and she said he was supposed to be here...”
Andrew cursed under his breath and spun away, running back to his truck. The police called after him, but he ignored them. Three disappearances now. They had to be related. Either Justin was the one who had taken both girls, or else he was a third victim. Either way, the only thing left for him to do was to head to UC San Diego and start asking questions around campus.
6 Days Left…
It took Andrew three hours to drive from LA to San Diego. By the time he arrived, it was after midnight and everything was closed. He wouldn’t be able to investigate much until morning, so he pulled into the nearest motel and booked a room. He wasn’t tired, but the alternative was waiting in his truck until sunrise, and he wasn’t sure he liked his odds out on the streets in the middle of the night, with all the looters and crazies emerging from their hiding spots.
Andrew couldn’t help but notice that his truck was the only one parked in the motel parking lot. The street it backed onto was deserted, and the highway on the way down had been suspiciously devoid of traffic as well. The only sounds to break up the ominous silence of the night were the ubiquitous screams of police and ambulance sirens, but how long before even those were silenced?
Andrew strode across the blacktop. It was wet and gleaming, like blood, in the motel’s giant red neon sign. He pushed through the doors into the motel office, but no one was sitting behind the front desk. Stepping up to it, he slammed his palm onto the old silver bell half a dozen times.
Something thumped like a person falling out of bed, and a door creaked open somewhere down the hall. A man in a sweat-stained white tank top crept into view, holding a shotgun.
Andrew slowly raised his hands above his head. “I don’t want any trouble.”
“You here to rob me?” the man asked.
“No. I need a room for the night.”
The man crept toward the front desk, keeping Andrew covered with his shotgun the whole way. He recognized the make and model of the weapon: a Mossberg 500 Bantam. The guy holding it had a shiny runway strip on his head between two thinning tufts of long, greasy brown hair that were sticking out at odd angles above his ears. He bore a striking resemblance to Krusty the Clown. A hairy belly peeked out right above the band of his boxer shorts. All he needed to complete the look of middle-aged desperation was a soggy cigar butt dangling from his lips.
“A room, huh? Are you crazy? Or is that just where you’re gonna stash your loot for the night?”
“What? No, no loot. I’m here for my daughter. I just drove from LA. I’m looking for a place to lie low until UC San Diego opens in the morning. I figured my chances of making it through the night undisturbed would be better with a door and a lock than sitting in my truck.”
“Yeah.” Krusty grinned and nodded slowly. “Sure. That makes sense.”
“So, how much for the night?” Andrew asked.
“How much you got?” Krusty replied. There was a nasty gleam in his eyes that brought Andrew’s guard screaming up. He glanced wistfully at the doors behind him and his truck waiting out in the lot. He had a pistol in the glove box. He should have brought it with him.
“What’s the matter?” Krusty asked. “Someone waiting for ya out there? Are you the bait?”
Andrew heard the action of the shotgun rattle as Krusty raised it to his shoulder. He turned back around and summoned what he hoped was a nonchalant expression. “No, it’s only me.”
Krusty’s gaze darted over Andrew’s shoulder to his truck and back a few times, as if he was waiting for someone to jump out. “All right, then. Hand your wallet over. Nice and slow.”
“Okay, okay, take it easy,” Andrew said. He slowly lowered one hand to his back pocket and withdrew his brown leather bifold.
Krusty spared a hand from his shotgun to pocket the wallet in his boxers, not bothering to check the contents. He’s lucky he has side pockets, Andrew thought. Or maybe I’m the lucky one. Where would he have put my wallet if he didn’t?
Andrew shrugged. “That’s all I’ve got.”
“Yeah? What about that phone of yours?” Krusty nodded to the rectangular bulge in Andrew’s jeans pocket.
He grimaced and removed the phone, handing it over.
Again, Krusty switched to a one-handed grip on his shotgun, this time balancing the stock under a hairy, sweaty armpit while he examined the phone.
“Nice. Latest model Samsung, huh?”
“That might fetch something. What’s the lock pattern?”
“A V, as in veteran. That’s who you’re robbing, by the way.”
“No shit? Thanks for your service, man.” His gaze dipped to the phone to try the code.
Andrew sprang forward, grabbing the shotgun barrel in both hands and forcing it out of line with his chest. A split second later it exploded in his grip as Krusty pulled the trigger. Glass shattered behind him, and Andrew’s hands went painfully numb as pins and needles raced up both his arms. He ignored the sensation, and ripped the shotgun away in one smooth motion. Krusty’s beady black eyes flew wide, and he lunged after the weapon, but Andrew was far too fast for him. He withdrew in two quick steps, pumped a new round into the chamber, and aimed the gun at Krusty’s chest. “Hand the wallet over. Now.”
“Sure, man,” he said, licking his lips and smiling like a true psycho. Krusty placed the wallet on the desk between them, too close for Andrew to safely reach for it.
“And the phone.” Andrew nodded to where Krusty had dropped it in their brief struggle over the gun. “Pick it up.”
Krusty smiled, but he made no move to comply. “Go ahead and shoot me. That’s the new law. Kill or be killed. It ain’t murder. It’s survival. No one blames a lion for killing a deer.”
“Lions and deer don’t even live on the same continent.”
“They do these days,” Krusty said, his eyes gleaming like black pearls. “Shoot me.”
“If you have a death wish, you’re going to have to fulfill it yourself. Now pick up my phone.”
Andrew flipped the shotgun around and smashed the stock into the man’s forehead. Krusty stumbled back a step, blinking in a daze. Andrew swept in behind him and yanked the gun up under his chin, pulling it hard against his throat. The man’s hands flew up, trying to push the gun away, but Andrew was stronger. Krusty tried donkey-kicking a few times, but he wasn’t flexible enough to reach anything vital, and Andrew’s shins could take some kicks. It wasn’t long before the fight left the man entirely and he collapsed on the floor in a stinking heap.
Andrew’s nose wrinkled at the sweat smell now clinging to him. “Idiot,” he muttered, even as he checked the guy’s pulse. Still going strong. He stood up and left the clown lying behind his desk to conduct a quick search of the area. He checked the man’s bedroom first, and found actual handcuffs and keys in the nightstand. He snatched the handcuffs out of the drawer, trying hard not to think what they might have been used for, and tossed the keys under the bed.
Back at the front desk, he used the cuffs to chain the guy to a metal beam that made up part of the desk. The middle-aged motel owner groaned and stirred where he lay, his wrist now bent at an awkward angle. Andrew straightened and plucked the phone off the desk, snapping the cord before tossing it aside.
Andrew spared a rueful glance at the motel owner before grabbing a room key off a rack on the wall. He took the shotgun with him and stalked out of the office. Eventually the owner would find a way to drag his desk into the bedroom, and he’d find the keys for the handcuffs under his bed. But by then, Andrew would be long gone.
Five minutes later he was lying on a bed that he didn’t have to pay for in one of the motel’s many vacant suites. The shotgun leaned against the nightstand beside him for company. Having slept all through the day while staking out the Claremontes’ home, he wasn’t the least bit tired. Probably just as well.
But idleness soon turned to worry, and worry to naked terror as he contemplated how many hours had passed since Val had disappeared. The alarm clock on the nightstand showed 2:39 a.m. Tuesday already. Val had gone missing at about 10 a.m. on Sunday morning, at about the same time that Selena had been bailing him out of jail. He remembered reading somewhere that the first forty-eight hours of a missing persons investigation were the most critical. After that, the trail typically went cold. By the time he could snoop around UC San Diego, it would have been almost exactly forty-eight hours.
Andrew gritted his teeth, vowing to rain hellfire on whoever had abducted his daughter.
* * *
There were far more people remaining at the University of San Diego’s campus than Kendra had expected. Some students milled about, and she stopped a pair of young men on her way towards the registrar’s office.
“What’s going on? Are classes still taking place?” she asked one of them.
He looked her up and down, obviously judging her pantsuit as a sign she wasn’t a freshman. “We were just told the semester’s been put on hold. Can you believe it? They really have faith in this crap about the storms. I bet we don’t even see rain,” the guy said, slinging his pack higher up on his shoulder.
“Thanks,” Kendra said dryly.
She headed to the main office and pushed through the unlocked doors. A red-eyed woman sat at the front desk, her hair a mess, her clothes wrinkled.
“Can I help you?” The words out of her mouth were robotic.
Kendra cleared her throat. “I’m Special Agent Kendra Baker, and I’m here to talk about Professor James Hughes.”
The woman’s eyes went wide behind her plastic-framed glasses. “Mr. Hughes isn’t here.”
“I know. I’d like to speak to someone about him.”
A man appeared from down the hall, sporting a tweed jacket and khaki pants, nodding to the receptionist. “It’s all right, Bonnie. I’ll talk to Ms. Baker.” He was older, maybe sixty, and had perfectly coiffed hair. He smelled like English Leather, even from across the room, the exact opposite of Bonnie.
“Thank you, Mr.…?” Kendra showed her badge, even though he hadn’t asked to see it, and he nodded, turning to lead her to his office. It was stuffy, the lights dim and the window coverings closed.
“Carl Manson. With everything going on out there, I’m surprised to see the FBI sniffing around for one missing man. The police didn’t seem interested in the least,” the man said, with the hint of an English accent. She guessed his parents had emigrated from England when he was young.
“I’ve noticed a trend, and I’m hoping you can help me out. The report didn’t indicate much about what happened, only that Mr. Hughes was gone,” Kendra told him.
“That’s because the police couldn’t get out here sooner. James was absent last Thursday, which in itself didn’t cause us alarm, but on Friday, we began to suspect he was sick or had been hurt. With the warnings starting to trickle in about the inevitable catastrophe, at first I thought he might have headed inland like countless others.
“We’ve had four professors and half of the students absent for some time now, but James wasn’t like that. He was dedicated, and always considerate. I checked his house,” Carl said.
Kendra made notes on her tablet. “You checked his house?”
He nodded. “There was no sign of forced entry, and his car wasn’t there. So I came here and watched the footage.”
“The footage? You have surveillance?” Kendra asked.
“Let me show you,” he said, flipping his desktop monitor around on his cluttered desk. He opened a program and found the correct file, playing it for her.
She watched as a man, presumably James Hughes, slid into a compact blue hatchback and began to drive off. A black Tesla pulled behind him, following him from the parking lot.
“That’s it?” she asked.
“May I?” she asked.
“Be my guest,” he said, relinquishing his chair for her. It was much more comfortable than the hard one she’d first been offered.
Kendra flicked through the feeds and found another angle. This one was from five minutes earlier, as the Tesla arrived. She paused the video and zoomed on the plate, marking the details down. 6TRJ2… The last two digits were blurry. She fought for another angle, but the limited surveillance resources at the university made it impossible to obtain a better viewpoint.
Kendra scanned through the other camera’s footage and found a shot she could use. The driver of the Tesla was wearing sunglasses, but she could tell he had short dark hair and was wearing a black blazer.
“Excuse me. Do you have a printer?” she asked him, and Manson nodded.
“Just hit print, and it’ll come out,” he replied.
Soon she had about five solid images. She’d spent a good day or so combing over the cases, and at least twice there had been mention of a black Tesla at the scene, as well as a tall Caucasian man with dark eyes and hair. This was the guy. She watched him follow James from the lot, and realized she needed to find this man. He was the linchpin in the entire case. She could feel it in her veins.
“Thank you for your help, Mr. Manson.” She shook his hand and slipped her card on his desk. “If you find out anything else, let me know.”
* * *
The next morning Andrew gave the belligerent motel owner a break and fetched the keys to his handcuffs. He also returned the shotgun, minus the shells.
“You’re lucky I don’t call the cops!” the motel owner said while massaging a red mark around his wrist.
“Back at you,” Andrew said.
He left the office at a run, climbed into his truck, and raced out of the parking lot with tires squealing and engine roaring. Not long after that, he stormed the campus of UC San Diego, heading straight for the registrar’s office.
Inside, a woman with frizzy, tangled hair sat behind the front desk. She watched him as he approached, her eyes red from crying.
“Hello,” he said, pretending not to notice her distress.
“What do you want?” she snapped.
“I’m looking for a student who goes to school here.”
“No one goes to school here anymore. The semester has been suspended, pending further notice.”
“Okay, but what if I want to find out about a student who was studying here recently?”
The woman gave him a disinterested stare, eyes blinking slowly, drifting out of focus. “That information is private.”
“It’s tied to a missing persons investigation,” Andrew said.
“Another one? Or is this also about Professor Hughes?”
Andrew’s brow furrowed at that. A professor was also missing? Before he could ask about it, a door clicked open, drawing his eyes to the sound. Two people were stepping out into the hall that ran past the front desk to the school’s administrative offices.
One of them was wearing a tweed jacket, khakis, and brown leather oxfords. The other was a trim, attractive woman with long blonde hair tied up in a ponytail. She was wearing a black pantsuit with a gray mock-neck sweater. Something about the way she moved caught Andrew’s eye: smooth, efficient, and fast, with long, no-nonsense strides. It wasn’t a feminine, hip-swaying walk, that was for sure, and she was wearing black sneakers instead of pumps or heels. All of it added up to the same thing: cop.
Andrew also noticed that she was carrying a tablet, and a purple folder full of papers under one arm. She appeared to be distracted by a hushed conversation she was having with Mr. Tweed Jacket. Andrew overheard snippets about Professor Hughes’ disappearance, and something about a black Tesla following his car. That caught his attention instantly. The neighbor who’d seen Val and Ana walking together in Malibu had seen a black Tesla coming down the same road only minutes after they’d disappeared.
This was San Diego, and that was LA, but it couldn’t be a coincidence, could it? Two black Teslas connected with two separate disappearances? More likely it was the same car and the same driver working his way down the coast.
And who was this woman talking about that car and Professor Hughes? Ten to one she was a detective investigating his disappearance. Andrew’s eyes grazed the purple folder tucked under the woman’s arm. What was in there? Her notes on the investigation? He needed to find out.
The woman noticed Andrew staring at her, and she pursed her pretty red lips as she frowned. He looked away quickly and flashed his most charming grin at the teary-eyed woman behind the front desk. “Thank you! You’ve been a big help,” he said just before spinning away from the desk. He’d judged the moment perfectly. Andrew slammed straight into the detective, knocking the tablet and the folder out from under her arm.
“Oh shit, I’m sorry!” he said. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” she said in a clipped tone. She began bending to collect her scattered papers.
But Andrew beat her to it. “Here, let me help you,” he said, grabbing the files and committing each of them to memory as he shuffled them into the purple folder. The papers were all printout stills of a black Tesla sedan. One of them showed a driver in a blue suit with dark glasses; another showed the license plate—6TRJ2... The last two digits were too blurry to make out, but he repeated them over and over in his head so he wouldn’t forget.
“Here you are,” he said as he straightened and handed the folder and the tablet back to the woman.
“Thanks,” she replied in the same annoyed tone, and he could tell that it cost a lot for her to say that much. The subtle pinching around her eyes suggested she was also suspicious that maybe he’d bumped into her on purpose. Mr. Tweed had a pinch-eyed look of his own. Andrew needed to distract them, to give them something else to focus on.
“You know, you could be a little more gracious about it,” he said. “After all, you bumped into me.”
The woman’s eyes flashed, and she shook her head incredulously. “You’re joking, right?”
“No... I was simply turning away from the front desk here”—he gestured to it—“and then bam: you barrel right into me and act like it’s all my fault. I mean...” Andrew tried on a smirk for good measure. “That’s pretty rude. Maybe you should be apologizing to me.”
“I don’t have time for this bullshit,” the woman said, brushing past him.
“Sir, I think it’s time for you to leave,” Mr. Tweed added.
“There she goes again! Tell me you saw it that time!” Andrew demanded. He nodded to the woman’s back as she headed for the doors, her ponytail bobbing angrily as she went.
“Sir...” Tweed said in a warning tone.
Andrew ignored him and ran after the woman, grabbing her by the shoulder. “Hey! You need to be—”
She spun out from under his grip and pulled out a badge. “You see that?” she said.
“Uh yeah...” he trailed off, pretending to be surprised as he studied the badge. Special Agent Kendra Baker. FBI—that was one better than he’d expected. His eyes widened, and this time it wasn’t just for show. Time to drop the act. She might actually be able to help him if he leveled with her.
“All right, Miss Baker, I’m really sorry, but I’m here from LA looking for my daughter. She went missing, and the last person to see her was a friend of hers. The friend’s brother goes to this school, and it appears that he’s vanished as well. The three of them were supposed to meet up on Sunday, and now no one knows where they are.”
A slight frown creased Kendra’s lips, and her eyes searched his briefly before she gave in with a sigh and shook her head. “They’re not the only ones missing. There’s been a wave of abductions along the coast. Have you spoken to the police?”
“Yes. They were worse than useless.”
“Well, I don’t know what to tell you, other than I’m working on the case. Here—” She walked over to the registrar’s desk and snapped her fingers at the shell-shocked woman sitting there. “Pen, paper!”
The woman passed those items over and Kendra, in turn, passed them on to Andrew. “Give me your daughter’s name and description, and a number where I can reach you.”
Andrew obliged, writing down as many details he could think of. He added both his cell number and Selena’s, along with each of their names. “Now what?” he asked as he handed her the piece of paper.
Kendra slipped it into her folder along with the stills of the Tesla. “Now you go home, or better yet, you evacuate somewhere safe and wait until I call you.”
Andrew scowled, but said nothing to that.
“Do you understand me? We don’t need any more loose cannons running around.”
“Yeah, sure. I get you,” Andrew said, borrowing her clipped tone from before.
“Good.” Kendra spun away and pushed out through the glass doors on her way to the parking lot.
Andrew waited a few beats, and then followed her out as casually as he could. Agent Baker had just become his next lead. Hopefully, she would guide him to whoever had taken Val.
* * *
Kendra glared in the direction of the university. That man had sent her over the edge. His brusque manners and forceful voice reminded her of too many cops she’d dealt with over the years. She spotted him getting into a black truck, and hoped that was the last she’d see of the guy. She didn’t quite believe his story about the girl, but… there was desperation in his eyes, that much was clear.
She had other places to visit today, so she made herself dismiss the interaction as she drove away. The radio was on, the soft droning voices threatening to put her to sleep. She turned the knob, hoping for music, but no one was playing that any more these days. It was all doom and gloom. She tapped the volume up, anxious to see what they were rambling on about today.
“The anti-eruption technology is new, not ready to be used, but we have no choice. I say we head to the lab, grab the damned device, and march it straight to Yellowstone. What do you say, Brian?” The man was clearly the guest, not a practiced radio personality.
“As much as it pains me to agree with you, Don, I think you might be correct. Projections put us at six days from doomsday. Can you believe it? If everything they’re warning us of comes true, we won’t be around to worry about it soon,” the host, Brian, said to the guest.
“Then who’s with me? I’ll be leading the charge, traveling to the facility outside Twin Falls. We’ll force them to take action. What can it hurt?” Don asked, his voice nearly frantic.
Kendra shook her head, imagining the crazed public tearing down the walls of some insignificant research facility so they could drive to the danger zone of Yellowstone to throw a mythical anti-eruption device into the gaping maw. It was like throwing a virgin into the lava on Hawaii, placating some ancient goddess.
She changed to another station as she drove, heading south for the naval base. Traffic was dense: people were in terrible moods, honking at each other and yelling threats from their lowered windows. She hated the vibe of the city lately, the tension palpable everywhere she went.
“The droughts have been going on for months, years, in parts of Africa. Even if disaster doesn’t strike like predicted, half of the continent will be dead in six months, and that number will escalate with the toxic fogs spreading farther with every passing week.
“Things are dire on this planet, and have been for a long time. We have evidence that similar events have occurred in the past, though it’s not public knowledge. Back then there were very few people, and they didn’t have the technology or reference to understand what was happening. This is a cycle,” a woman said. Her voice was cultured, reminding Kendra of a co-worker that had attended Harvard.
“And you think this means what? The speculation is real? Will Earth be able to recover?” a man asked.
A slight pause. “It will recover, yes.”
“Time will tell,” she answered. Kendra took that as a no.
“If this is the end of the world, where are you going, Dr. Fran?” the host asked.
“I’m at home, with my family.”
“What can we do?”
The woman’s voice was strained. “Pray.”
Kendra tapped the radio off, the hair on her neck standing up at the word.
6 Days Left…
Traffic was slow-moving as she wound her way to the naval base, but she made it there eventually in the silence of her car. She couldn’t stand to hear the radio any longer; it was only distracting her from the job at hand.
Kendra arrived at the Navy site, and noticed that much of the stationed Pacific fleet had evacuated from the docking area. Only a handful of aircraft carriers sat alongside a few cruisers now.
She drove to a building that acted as a gate, and a uniformed officer knocked on her window. She rolled it down and flashed her badge. “I’m here to see Captain Henry Truman.”
The man eyed her suspiciously. “Do you have an appointment?”
“Listen, the world’s going to hell, and I’m not here on a social call. Tell him Special Agent Kendra Baker has a few questions about Tess Anderson. I don’t have all day.” Kendra used her no-nonsense voice, and the man’s eyes jumped open at the mention of Tess’ name.
He nodded, and held up his hand for her to wait while he contacted the captain. Kendra glanced in the rear-view mirror. No other cars were lined up to gain access to the base. She wasn’t surprised to see the parking lot so deserted. That was becoming a common occurrence in town. She wondered how many people had fled the coast by now. It had to be at least half of them, with more pouring away from San Diego with each passing minute. Soon it would be a ghost town. She needed to act fast.
While Kendra waited, she had the feeling she was in a huge hourglass, the sand dropping from under her feet, until she’d run out of time. Then what? She’d be left at the coast, watching the tidal waves come for her. Her heart hammered in her chest thinking about it. It was difficult to not take the threats seriously, especially after hearing all the professionals discuss the looming disasters over the radio.
She was convinced that doomsday was upon them. Why should she search for people that would only end up dead in a week’s time anyway?
Kendra tapped her foot on the brake, and moved the shifter to reverse, but then the naval officer waved her forward, lifting the arm of the blockade.
She spent half a second making a decision, and imagined her sister’s face the last time she’d seen her. Kendra put the car back in drive, and forced a grim smile for the officer as she drove past him and into the base.
She drove around a small traffic circle, following the signs to the main office. A quick left, and she veered right on the deserted streets, pulling up facing the brick building. For an operation like this, the entire base felt underwhelming, especially with it being deserted.
Kendra moved for the doors, and a man was waiting for her inside. He appeared exhausted, with black bags under his eyes and deep lines across his tall forehead.
“Agent Baker?” he asked, sticking out his hand.
“Captain Truman, I presume?” she replied, shaking in greeting.
“What do you expect to find here—” He scanned to her left hand. “Ms. Baker.”
“What can you tell me about Tess Anderson?” she asked.
They sat in the foyer, on two hard metal chairs, the kind every building like this had near the entrance. She turned to face him as they talked.
“Commander Tess Anderson is a fine woman, and a great officer. She ran off a week ago,” he said.
“I don’t know what else to tell you. We’ve been aware of the coming storms for a long time. We run the largest fleet in this part of the world, and the tectonic plates have been causing trouble for years. Things have been escalating up to this point, and not just in the Pacific Rim, either. Do you think it’s a coincidence we have poles melting, fault lines expanding, hurricanes doubling in size, and seventy percent of the world’s volcanoes threatening to erupt simultaneously?” Truman asked, and he looked as though he’d aged another ten years in the span of his speech.
“No. I mean, I haven’t thought about it,” Kendra admitted.
“It’s not. The Earth has forsaken us, and we’re not living through this one.”
Goosebumps rose on Kendra’s arms, and she crossed them over her chest. “What are we supposed to do?”
He changed the subject. “Tess ended her shift, and we met briefly to discuss options. She told me she had a brother in Florida. She was going to head there, taking her chances with the hurricanes over the ash clouds that will wreak havoc across our country.”
“So you think she did that?”
“Where else would she have gone?” Truman asked.
“Do you have surveillance here?” It was an obvious question.
“Why are you here?”
“Tess’ husband called a missing persons report into the police station, and I’m working on an elaborate case. I think she was abducted, along with some other prominent members of the state of California, and I intend to locate them.” Kendra’s voice was low, and she saw something break in the hard man beside her.
“Dear Lord. What good is any of this going to do? We’ll all be dead soon enough,” he said.
“If that’s so, why are you still here?” she asked him.
Truman leaned over his knees. “My wife left ten years ago. No kids. I figured, what else is a captain good for if he won’t go down with his ship?”
“Show me the footage,” she told him, and he nodded.
Ten minutes later, Kendra found the date she was looking for, cramped in a stuffy room with five monitors and an archaic computer. Truman brought two cups of black coffee in with him, and settled beside her as she scrolled through the cameras.
“You say she left around seven?” Kendra asked.
“Yes,” he said.
She switched the camera, and saw Tess enter into a gray minivan. “There she is.”
Truman pointed, and Kendra pulled up the feed from the gates, finding what she was waiting for: a black Tesla. Her fingers twitched as she moved to the reverse angle.
There she found something important: the entire license plate number. She’d asked the local PD to run the partials, but they hadn’t managed to find it yet. Now she had the bastard.
The feed continued, and she watched as Tess drove away from the base, the black Tesla following closely behind.
“Find what you needed?” Truman asked.
They stood, and the entire room shook, her coffee splattering on the keyboard. Truman looked grim as the shaking settled, and he held her by the arms.
“Earthquake,” she said, stating the obvious.
“It’s only the tip of the iceberg,” he told her. “Get out of here. Go find a rock to crawl under. It’s every man and woman for themselves.”
Kendra freed herself from his grasping hands and left him there, alone.
* * *
“Just get me the plates, will you?” she urged Barry at her field office. Her cell phone pressed to her ear as she flipped through her files.
“Sure thing. It might be a while. There aren’t many of us left, and you should hear some of the things coming down the pipeline,” Barry said in her ear.
“Barry, don’t mess around. This is important.” She’d already called the local PD, and she was in line there as well. Nothing was being done as pandemonium raged around the coastal city.
Here at the outskirts of town, she found a sense of peace, almost as if the owner of the café was denying what storms were coming in the next few days. She sat at a table near the window, and watched the waves hitting the rocky coast as dark clouds began to drop angry raindrops.
Someone opened the door, letting in a gust of wind, and she heard the voice of the man across the street.
“I looked when He opened the sixth seal, and behold, there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became like blood. And the stars of heaven fell to the earth, as a fig tree drops its late figs when it is shaken by a mighty wind. Then the sky receded as a scroll when it is rolled up, and every mountain and island was moved out of its place. This is the end of days, people. We have sinned, and the Lord brings his final punishments on us!” The man yelled into a bullhorn, and the door shut, cutting off his further preaching.
The man who entered hurried to the counter, seizing every water bottle left in the café and organizing them in a pile. He didn’t wait for the barista to help him. He flung a bill onto the floor and scooped up the bottles, dropping two on the way out.
The barista shouted after him, but he didn’t pay any mind. Kendra watched it all with a disconnected gaze. She needed to focus on her task at hand.
She needed to reach this Mr. Tesla. He was the man that had the answers. If she found him, she’d find her missing people—the doctors, nurses, naval commanders, and biology professors. They were relying on her, and it was the only solace she could give herself before, as the raving man outside could attest, the end of days struck.
Kendra figured it was time to go home, as the sun was setting and the clouds were becoming even angrier. She gathered her papers and laptop from the tabletop, and spotted the older Silverado through the window. She’d seen the same truck at the university, and the man’s eyes bored into her soul from the street.
The moment her eyes met his, she recognized him. He averted his gaze and peeled off down the street. She ran outside, leaving her things, rain quickly drenching her. She chased after the truck, but he ran the stop sign and continued on. She hadn’t caught his plates, but that wouldn’t do any good anyway, not at this rate. Had that man been telling her the truth about his daughter going missing? A teenage girl didn’t fit the profile of the other abductees.
Kendra, wet and tired, picked up her things and headed home, her cell phone close at hand, waiting for the call with the Tesla’s address. She was so close.
6 Days Left…
That was close, Andrew thought as he ran a stop sign to get away from the FBI agent. The idea was for him to follow her, not the other way around. The last thing he needed was to distract her from the investigation or make her think that he was somehow tied to the missing people.
A crack of thunder boomed as he turned up away from the coast, and a blasting wind whistled around his truck, competing with the throaty roar of the Silverado’s old V8 engine.
Andrew wound through the city, weaving through the dense knots of traffic snaking out of the city. Most of those cars seemed to be headed for the interstates. He checked his rear-view mirror periodically to make sure the FBI agent wasn’t following him in her silver Prius, but there was no sign of her. After about half an hour, he realized he was just driving around aimlessly, so he pulled into a deserted strip mall and drove around the rear of a building that stood like an island in the middle of the vast parking lot.
He took a minute to check the sightlines around him. No line of sight to the main drag, and he could only see slices of the side streets. Good. That ought to keep the FBI off his tracks. Looking back to the fore, Andrew noticed that he’d parked in front of a Dunkin’ Donuts. It was closed, the windows broken and donuts scattered all over the floor. A donut burglar? he wondered. The looters were getting desperate.
Another peal of thunder boomed. The storm raged on overhead, rain cascading in solid sheets, turning the world to a hazy white blur.
Now what? Andrew wondered. He leaned over the steering wheel and peered up at the black sky. Nothing to do but wait.
He was waiting for a call. Prior to leaving the university, he’d dialed his buddy, Rian Drake. They’d served together in Afghanistan, but Rian was working with the LAPD now. He’d caught Rian just before the guy left the precinct. Back in Afghanistan, Andrew had pulled him out of a mess of rubble in the middle of a firefight. With that on Rian’s tab, it had been easy to persuade him to run the partial plates from that FBI detective’s files. Unfortunately, with two digits missing, they were bound to uncover a lot more than one hit for a black Tesla sedan.
A dazzling flash of lightning lit up the inside of Andrew’s truck, followed by a cracking boom that shook the vehicle. The rain hammering on the roof was so loud that he would never even hear it if Rian actually returned his call.
Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out his phone to check. Two missed calls, but both were from Selena.
“Damn it,” he muttered under his breath, but he couldn’t even hear his own voice over the raging storm.
He needed a place to lie low and wait. He thought about going to another motel, but his experience with the last one made that thought less appealing.
The Dunkin’ Donuts looked like a good place to hunker down. If he was lucky, the power would still be on and he’d be able to make himself some coffee. Of course, if he was unlucky, another group of donut burglars would show up and blow his brains out over a freshly-brewed Box O’ Joe.
Reaching over to the glove box, Andrew yanked it open and pulled out his Sig Sauer P320. Best to be cautious this time. He ejected the clip—already full—and then checked the safety to find it on as it should be.
He shut the glove box and stared out at the raging storm. He didn’t have an umbrella, but it would only take a few seconds to reach the eaves of the restaurant.
Andrew removed his keys from the ignition and slipped them into his pocket. Taking a deep breath to steel himself for what was to come, he threw the door open and jumped out.
He was drenched in an instant. Cursing loudly to himself, he slammed the door and ran up to the broken windows of the donut shop. His exposed skin began to tingle, then burn. For a minute, he thought that was because of the cold, but then he realized that it was the rain.
Acid. Andrew stared at his bare arms in shock. Since when does acid rain actually burn? he wondered. Probably about the same time that deadly toxic fog became a thing. He had to get it off. Ducking through one of the windows, he ran behind the counter and searched frantically for something he could use to dry himself. He found a dirty, dough-crusted apron on the counter and used it to wipe his arms and neck dry. His skin was still tingling, but at least it was no longer burning.
A few seconds later, he found the light switches and flicked them all on. His arms were pinkish, but there was no sign of bubbling skin. His jacket was wet, but the shirt underneath was dry, and his jeans... well, his legs were also tingling, but not burning, so the acid was probably softening up the fibers instead of him.
“Damn,” Andrew muttered, shaking his head. He grabbed a pair of stale jelly-filled donuts that the burglars had left, and went to sit at one of the tables in the far corner of the place. Blinding sheets of acid rain poured down, turning the world white. Rain that actually burns exposed skin. What’s next? he wondered as he checked his phone again. Still nothing from Rian. He thought about calling Selena back, but he didn’t have any good news yet.
The hours passed slowly, and the storm showed no sign of letting up. He ended up brewing himself some coffee, but it took him the better part of an hour to find the beans, grind them, and figure out how to work the machine. By then, the parking lot was flooded with several inches of water.
“This is ridiculous,” Andrew muttered as he sat sipping his coffee and eating another stale donut. He passed the time obsessively checking his phone. The battery was only at 25%, and he’d left the charger in his car.
No way was he going out there to get it now. The rain had pooled up over the sidewalk and was starting to seep in through the entrance.
“If this keeps up, I’m going to need a boat to make it out of here.” A flash of lightning and a burst of thunder punctuated that thought, and then the lights died. “Great.”
After another hour, Andrew had to prop his feet up on the opposite chair just to keep them dry. Half an inch of water was sloshing around on the floor.
Dusk had fallen, and the rain wasn’t letting up. Andrew wondered if he should make a run for his truck before things got any worse.
But then the steady roar of rain pounding the roof and sidewalk began to fade. Within minutes it was done, and all that remained was the flood slowly trickling into the storm drains. Andrew stared out into darkness, sipping a cold cup of black coffee. He checked his phone again—
And blinked in shock at the time. 1:09 a.m.
Somehow he’d whittled away an entire day, and he still hadn’t found Val. A breathless surge of panic rose inside of him. That’s it.
He dialed Rian’s cell number, and waited while the phone rang in his ear.
“Andy?” the man answered in a groggy voice.
“Yeah. What do you have for me?”
“Two hits in California with the partials you gave me, but the system was giving me grief. It’s too busy, or I don’t know, maybe IT left ahead of everyone else.”
Andrew thought he could hear a car engine in the background. His eyes pinched suspiciously. “Where are you, Drake?”
“Sitting in traffic!” A horn honked. “Listen, I had to evacuate. They shut the place down and locked it up, but I have two addresses with me. I was just about to call you. You have something to write with?”
“Uh, hang on.” Andrew ran over behind the donut counter, his boots splashing in the leftovers of the flood. There were napkins, donut boxes, and... he spied the ragged edges of a receipt sticking out of one of the credit card readers. Popping the back of it open, he yanked out the roll of paper and unfurled a length of it. Another car horn went off, followed by Rian’s curses.
“You still there, Andy?”
“Yeah, yeah...” Casting about once more, Andrew found a pen attached to a chain on the customer’s side of the counter. He ripped it free. “Ready.”
“All right, the first one’s in San Diego. The other’s up in San Francisco.”
“Give them to me, Drake.”
Rian dictated the two addresses, and Andrew scrawled them down in a hurry. “You get all that?” Rian asked.
“Yeah,” Andrew said.
“Good. Hey, listen man, I understand that you’re worried about Val, but I don’t need this biting me in the ass later. What are you planning to do when you find these guys?”
“Less you know, the better. If anyone asks about you running the plates, say you got an anonymous tip. Some looter seen fleeing a 7-Eleven, or something.”
“You’re kidding, right?”
“I have to run, Drake.”
“You owe me after this, Andy!”
“I’m good for it.”
“Assuming we live long enough for me to cash in. Reporters are saying we’ve got seven days before the big one hits.”
“The big what?” Andrew asked.
“Everything! Quakes, eruptions, the whole shebang. Make sure you get yourself away from the coast before then.”
“You’d better do more than try if you want to live, man. Anyway, see you on the other side, buddy.”
The call ended with a beep. Andrew stared at the receipt roll with the two addresses on it. The light in the store was barely enough to see by, but a quick check with the light of his phone’s screen revealed that his writing was legible, at least.
He’d check out the one in San Diego first. Hopefully the guy hadn’t evacuated yet. Andrew read that name and address aloud, committing it to memory: “David Wilkes, 1960 Edgemont Street, South Park, San Diego, California.”
Andrew took a moment to tap that location into his phone’s GPS app. It was six point three miles away.
“Got ya, you bastard,” he muttered. Andrew tore off the piece of the roll he’d written on and went back to the table where he’d waited out the storm to grab his P320. Dumb mistake, leaving it there while he ran around looking for a pen and paper. He needed to be smarter than that if he was going to live through the coming days.
Moments later, he was turning out of the parking lot and then roaring down the street, splashing through residual puddles and pools of water. The streets were a lot emptier now that it was after midnight.
When the app reported he was under a mile away, Andrew glanced at his P320 sitting on the passenger’s seat beside him. Val used to tease him about having a gun in the car, saying he was paranoid. If Selena had known about the weapon, she’d have refused to ever let their daughter ride with him. As it turned out, though, it was a good thing that he was a paranoid bastard who never left home without a gun.
Who knew, he thought with a smirk.
But his expression iced over a split second later as he contemplated what he might actually do with that gun if he found Val in Mr. Tesla’s house.
Andrew turned on the radio to distract himself from the dark turn his thoughts had just taken.
“...the entire West coast is being evacuated as we speak. What we’re looking at is unprecedented in the history of humanity. We’re not dealing with one isolated disaster. This could be an extinction-level event. It’s as if Mother Nature has finally had enough, and she’s conspiring against us.”
Someone else spoke next: “Surely you don’t mean to suggest that the planet is actually consciously aware of us and causing these calamities in order to rid itself of us.”
“Maybe, maybe not, but this sure as hell isn’t random. One disaster looming on the horizon—that’s normal. Two predicted for the same date? That’s just an unfortunate coincidence. Three, well, that’s a pattern. But we’re talking about hundreds of major disasters all commencing at once. That doesn’t happen naturally.”
“So someone might be causing this?”
“Someone or something. Whatever it is, it’s trying to wipe us out, and we have seven days left to figure out how to stop that from happening.”
“How can we stop it? You can’t stop a volcano from erupting, or a tectonic plate from slipping.”
“There’s some experimental tech in the works for the volcanoes, but no, we probably can’t stop any of it.”
“Sobering thoughts. Dr. Cole, do you have any specific advice for our listeners? What would you recommend that they do right now?”
“Take shelter—inland, as far as you can get from Yellowstone and Wyoming. Gather as much food and water as you can. Fuel and guns, too. The people who make it through this will be the ones who are the most prepared, and whatever you do, don’t trust your neighbors. People will be killing each other over a jug of milk soon.”
“Let’s hope not. But I’d like to take a second to answer our more religious listeners. What if this is all supernatural and this really is the beginning of a biblical apocalypse?”
The speaker snorted. “Then someone better find the Antichrist and string him up before we’re all dead.”
Andrew scowled and stabbed the power button on the radio. He didn’t have time for that sensationalist shit. It’s probably all overblown, anyway, he decided. Just another damned Y2K. But that acid rain made him wonder.
He drove down a residential street and pulled up in front of David Wilkes’ house. It was at the end of a cul-de-sac. He could see the number 1960 emblazoned clearly next to the garage door, and on the mailbox out front. Andrew circled around and parked a few blocks over the way he’d come. Grabbing his gun from the passenger seat, he left the truck and locked it with the key. Sticking to the shadows between street lights, he ran down the deserted street. None of these houses had their lights on, or cars in the driveways.
When he reached the house in question, Andrew pasted himself to the garage door, keeping out of sight of the home’s front-facing windows. Then he worked his fingers under the garage door and tried to pry it open. It was a hell of a job to force the door to roll up that first inch, but after that he had a better grip, and the rest was easy. He opened the door enough to slide under. The garage was dark inside. He rolled over, aiming his gun around blindly, waiting for his eyes to adjust to the darkness. Fuzzy shapes became clear around the sides of the garage, along with the obvious fact that the black Tesla wasn’t in here.
Andrew stood up and pulled his phone out, shining the flashlight around to find the garage perfectly empty—except for an old chest freezer, boxes of junk stacked on shelves, and a workbench with scattered tools on it.
He went straight for the tool bench. It didn’t take more than a few minutes to find what he needed to break open the garage door and get inside the house. A club hammer and a chisel, perfect tools to destroy any wooden door frame. Once inside, he was more careful not to make any noise, but all of the lights were off, and there was no sign that anyone was home. He wasn’t really expecting otherwise. The Tesla was missing, and there weren’t any other cars around. Andrew’s own truck was probably the only vehicle parked in the entire neighborhood.
A quick survey of the house didn’t reveal much. No laptop, no phone, no hints or clues anywhere that might indicate where David Wilkes had gone. There was no basement, and the giant firearm safe in the main bedroom was locked. Even if there was something in there besides guns, it would be impossible to access it.
“Damn it!” Andrew screamed. He made a fist and lashed out at the wall of the upstairs hallway, hard enough to put a dent in it. He could go up to San Francisco and check the other address, but chances were it would be abandoned, too. San Diego seemed to be a more likely location anyway, especially with Professor Hughes and Adriana Claremonte’s brother both missing from the area. So what now?
Maybe David didn’t leave, he thought. Maybe he’s just out stalking his next victim. That thought and all of its sinister implications sent a chill down his spine. That was definitely possible. After all, it was the middle of the night.
He needed to wait around and see if time bore out his theory. If David wasn’t gone yet, then he’d be home soon. And if not, then Andrew would head up to San Francisco and check out the next dead-end lead.
He absently checked his phone. He’d been half-hoping to receive a call from that FBI agent. Nothing, but there was another missed call from Selena. Maybe now was a good time to call her and get her up to speed—and to find the charger in his car. His phone’s battery was down to 7%.
Andrew had a few other preparations to make, too, just in case David Wilkes did return. Couldn’t have him tipped off by the busted side door leading to the garage. He’d jam the garage door shut and make sure that Wilkes had to park in the driveway. That would force him to come through the front door instead.
And I’ll be right here waiting for him when he does, Andrew thought.
5 Days Left…
The motel was so stuffy, Roland thought he was going to suffocate. He ran to the windows, sliding them open with a thrust. The frames were dirty, rusted from misuse, but they finally sprang wide, letting in fresh air.
He’d arrived at the vacant property and had let himself in, taking the first unit he found a key for. The closed sign had been on the door, but that was nothing a rock and perseverance hadn’t been able to fix. For two days he’d hidden in the room, somehow expecting the man and woman in the van to track him down and shoot him in his sleep.
The room wasn’t air-conditioned, and it was sweltering inside. Even the breeze finding the inside of his suite now brought a humid, wet feel with it.
Two days of hiding. It was enough. He couldn’t find the warehouse and learn what Lewis Hound was doing if he was too scared to leave this pit behind.
Roland grabbed his laptop and anything resembling his property, and lifted the mattress off the wooden frame. He shoved his gear under it, letting the stained mattress fall with a thud. His pack had three water bottles and some nuts, along with binoculars and his cell phone.
He exited the room, pocketing the key and moving to his truck. He’d traded his car for it with an old man who was heading inland. The truck was worthless, and the old guy had been tickled pink at the bargain he was getting. Roland hoped the gun-wielding duo had chosen to follow his car inland, instead of following him to Capetown. It was a do or die world, and he wasn’t going to feel guilty if the new owner of the car was a casualty of war.
The truck’s engine roared to life, sputtering a bit, but it kept running. Roland leaned forward, trying to see the tops of the immense redwoods all around him. They were at least a thousand years old. Would the trees survive the coming apocalypse? Would nature thrive once again?
“Worry about yourself, not the damned trees,” Roland told himself, and pulled the lever beside the steering wheel, thrusting the beat-up truck forward.
The roads were empty here; no one for miles, it seemed. Roland had watched enough zombie movies, and read enough post-apocalyptic books, to feel uneasy at the solitude. He kept nervously scanning the sides of the roads, half expecting a horde of the undead to emerge and rip him limb from limb.
The fuel gauge was low on the truck, and he cursed himself for not being more prepared. He needed gas, and a jerry can for back up. Old wooden signs stuck out of the ditches, claiming food and lodging ahead. That would mean a gas station.
The truck began lurching, and Roland tapped the dial, hoping the fuel gauge would hop up a tenth of an inch. It did quite the opposite. The truck stalled out in the middle of the road, and Roland cursed his luck.
Rain began falling, a ‘kick you when you’re down’ from the universe. “Rollie, you think you’re so smart, but step out into the real world, and you’re just another dummy trying to survive.” It wasn’t quite the pep talk he needed.
He pulled up the map on his phone, and saw he was two miles from the nearest gas station. Two miles. He could do that. He hopped out, wishing he had a raincoat, and slung his pack over his shoulder, walking towards the right side of the road.
His mood was sour already, and he glanced at his shoes, which were soaked in mere minutes. His long brown hair clung to his face, and he wiped it away. It felt like an hour later when he grabbed his phone, ducking over to keep it from getting wet, and saw that he was only halfway. It had also only been fourteen minutes.
The rest of the trip was a mixture of panic and frustration. His gaze darted to both sides of the redwood-lined road, and he peered behind him every few seconds, fearing the arrival of a white unmarked van. By the time he saw the unlit gas station sign, he was miserable, wishing he’d stayed home.
“Please be functioning,” he told the gas pumps, and saw they were still powered up. There was a shabby house behind the station, telling him the owners lived there. Roland noticed that there were no cars parked near it, and the only truck in the lot was rusted and missing two of its four wheels.
The convenience store attached to the gas station was closed, chains wrapped around the door handles. Roland ducked around the other side, searching for another entrance, and found the back door locked, but not chained. He pulled a loose chunk of concrete from the pad and hefted it at the wooden door, breaking the handle clean off. From there he was able to use his fingers to turn the latch, and the rear door swung wide.
Maybe he was getting the hang of this after all. Hacker turned gas station thief. Wouldn’t his grandmother be so proud? He shook his head, sending water spraying all around the cluttered office, and emerged into the dark store.
No one had pillaged it yet, which was a good sign. Roland set his pack on the counter and began his search for supplies. He found two bright red gas cans and stacked them near the back door, going in for more.
He filled a canvas bag with water, some energy drinks, and chocolate bars, before realizing there might be more useful things like a flashlight and batteries, which he took as well.
His clothes were soaked through, and Roland flung them off, tossing the shirt and sweater in a damp heap near the front doors, choosing cheesy replacements from a clothing rack. His t-shirt was plain, but the black sweater had a picture of a redwood on it, and said: I’ve been to the redwoods and all I got was this lousy splinter. It was terrible, but he donned it with a smile. He was almost dry. A hat was next, and he slipped the green cap over his head.
Behind the counter was a coat hook, and Roland found a yellow slicker that was at least three sizes too big for his small frame. He put it on anyway.
“Time to skedaddle,” he told himself, and moved for the rear exit when the sound of an engine carried to his ears.
Roland’s stomach rose into his throat when he saw the doors of the big truck swing open to reveal two armed men. They weren’t the same ones from his house, but they seemed a lot more nefarious. He pressed his body against the near wall, and watched as one of them stuck his face to the front door, scanning inside.
Roland ducked low, seeing a rifle in the man’s grip. Were they looking for him? He was a dead man. So close, but so far away. Perhaps they’d spotted his truck down the road, and knew he’d come here. What was he going to do?
The rifle rang out, striking the glass doors and shattering one of them. He could hear the man laughing, and he peered around a shelf full of jerky to see the second man, this one as wide as a semi truck, using his leather sleeve to clear shards of glass from the metal frame.
“You done good, brother. Let’s take this shit and keep moving. I always hated the McKenzies. Kind of wish they were still here, though. That daughter of theirs is a real piece of work.” The man’s voice was high-pitched, a contradiction to his immense girth.
Roland had his pack in his hand, and reached inside, feeling the metal grip of his pistol. It didn’t seem like these guys were here for him, but he knew their type. He could only guess what they’d do to a witness out here, and it wasn’t going to be good.
“Remember that time Old Man McKenzie waved that gun in my face?” the man with the rifle asked.
“What a tool. Let’s clear this out and check the house. Maybe he’s in there, waiting for the end of the world,” the fat guy said.
Roland wondered what his chances were of escaping with his life. He glanced at the empty gas cans, aware he couldn’t leave without filling them. He couldn’t go wandering around, searching for the next station. Out here in the middle of nowhere, it could be hours before he found one.
The big truck sat outside idling, and Roland had an idea. He waited until the two men were behind the counter, tearing open the register, and he made for the rear door. He decided to leave the gas cans, taking his backpack as well as the canvas full of supplies, and made his way in the rain around the building.
He stopped, heart pounding in his chest. The pistol was firm in his grip, and he dropped the gun as he adjusted the bags in his hands. It fell into a puddle, and he crouched behind a barrel, hoping the big brothers hadn’t heard anything.
When neither of them emerged through the front of the building, he grabbed the pistol, shoved it into his new rain jacket’s pocket and made for the truck. He was a big yellow target, and he tried not to think about this as he crossed the gravel parking lot.
The shot rang out, kicking up dirt a yard from his feet and he skidded to a halt. “What do we have here, Danny?” The man with the rifle was younger than Roland had thought, maybe only twenty. His big brother sauntered out, a bag of jerky in his meaty grip.
“If it ain’t a yellow bird. What do we do with yellow birds?” Danny asked.
“We hunt them, ain’t that right, Danny?” The rifle aimed toward him, and Roland tried to think of a solution. He dropped the canvas bag to the ground and set his pack gently on the cement, raising his arms in the air.
“I just need gas. I’m not here for trouble,” he said as confidently as he could. It still came out with a waver in pitch.
“Seems to me, you was going to steal our truck, don’t it, Colin?” Danny asked his brother.
The rifle rang out, this time coming closer to Roland’s feet. This was it. He was never going to find out what was going on at Capetown. He’d never see the warehouse with his own two eyes. He’d never even live to see the Earth die.
The big one stepped forward, eying the bag of supplies, then Roland. “What you got on you, son?” he asked, even though Roland was sure he was older than the guy.
“Nothing,” he told them blankly. The man’s weight crunched the gravel as he approached.
Roland’s hand twitched.
A gun appeared in Danny’s fat palm, and he began to lift it up. His eyes were a killer’s, close-set and black. Roland was sure these two had killed already, maybe done worse than kill. He needed to get out of here. He needed to find Capetown.
Roland’s hand jammed into his jacket pocket, pulling the pistol out. He fired two quick shots, both missing the wide target. He ran behind the truck, and ducked so he could crawl underneath. He aimed at the big man’s legs, and found a thigh with a bullet.
Colin was firing the rifle now, and gravel shot out, hitting Roland in the eyes. He blinked the dust away and rolled out from under the truck. Danny was cursing on the ground, and the rifle-wielding brother was running toward Roland.
Roland ran in zig-zags, trying to make himself a hard target. He heard another shot and Colin stopped, attempting to reload. Thunder boomed around them, lightning striking an immense redwood, sending an earth-shattering crash throughout the entire area. Colin stared in the direction of the sound, and Roland took his chance. He ran at the man and fired three quick shots. He stumbled, falling to the ground, and watched as Colin fell to his knees. Blood pooled from his chest, staining his white t-shirt.
Danny was yelling, shooting his own handgun toward Roland from his seated position. Roland grabbed his supplies as he ran by, hopping into the truck’s driver’s side. The side mirror exploded as Danny shot it, and Roland raced off, leaving the brothers in the parking lot, both bleeding in the rain. In the rear-view mirror, he saw Colin fall face-first into a pool of water, his brother struggling to crawl over to him.
It was an hour later that Roland finally slowed the vehicle. He’d raced down the empty streets at seventy miles an hour, skidding through sharp corners, expecting them to give chase. They didn’t, and finally the rational part of his mind told him they were dead. At least one of them was, the other injured from his gunshot wound to the thigh. He wouldn’t be driving any time soon.
Roland’s nerves were fried, and he pulled onto the side of the road, finally letting himself check the map. He’d missed his turn-off, not seeing any signs for Capetown.
He had to double back. Every instinct was telling him to keep driving, farther away from the body he’d left behind, but he fought it. With a grunt, he turned the truck around and finally found the turn-off to Capetown. The entire place was deserted. He passed a single house with a porch light on, shining like a beacon on the dark stormy day.
He kept moving, dead set on the coast. Finally, he could see the water once again. There were a couple houses with For Sale signs on them, but sadly, they would never sell. There was no one left in this part of the world, or at least it felt that way.
Once on the coastal road, he flicked the lights off, but the daylights stayed on. Roland thought about busting the headlights, but continued searching for the warehouse.
Rain was pouring rapidly, the wipers moving so fast it was hard to see anything beyond the windshield. Then he spotted the building a mile or so down the coast. This had to be it. He parked, grabbing his binoculars. The warehouse had a fence all the way around it, a tall one with barbed wire at the top. He scanned the horizon, making out an industrial dock, even in the deluge. From here he couldn’t see any cars or boats, but this had to be the place.
Roland was beat, emotionally and physically drained after the crazy day, and he decided to find a hiding spot for his truck. The rain began to let up, and he found a side road leading to the beach. The truck drove over the rocky pathway with ease, and Roland tucked it in a copse of trees, finding minor shelter from the weather and from prying eyes.
With shaking hands, he popped a pill bottle open, took two, then added a third, and popped them into his mouth, wishing they made him feel better instantly. He sat in silence, searching for signs of humanity, but not seeing any for the next hour. By the time the rain stopped, he knew it was time to scout closer.
Roland chugged an energy drink, then grabbed two water bottles and his gun, pills, and food, filling his backpack. He shoved the bright yellow jacket into the bag, just in case. If he wore it, he’d be the world’s worst spy, but it would keep him dry if the sky wanted to unleash hell upon him again.
The ground was wet, and his pants were soaked to the knees within minutes, but he moved quickly and quietly, with a grace he hadn’t realized he was capable. When he was about half a mile from the fence, he nestled into the forest bed, lying down facing the warehouse. He pulled the binoculars out, and watched.
5 Days Left…
“I don’t give a rat’s ass who you are, there’s no time for idiocy,” the captain said. He was new, brought in from a different precinct after this station’s captain had up and fled for the hills. Kendra suspected they were going to see a lot of that.
“I want any information you have on this Mr. Tesla,” she said, dropping the paper with the plate numbers on it.
He glanced at it and shook his head. “I’ve been told to keep the peace around here, not waste my resources to help a lone-wolf FBI agent going rogue.” He crumpled the paper up and tossed it toward his garbage can, hitting the edge and missing. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have pressing matters.”
Before she let him push her out of the office, she flashed a picture. “This is Officer Lisa Tremble. She’s one of the missing people. For God’s sake, do you care about anyone but yourself?” Kendra shouted. She was growing weary of everyone around her constantly butting heads. Weren’t they supposed to be on the same side?
He glanced at it and shrugged. “I’m new. I haven’t met her.”
“She’s been gone for a week. Her husband’s been here three times, and no one will talk to him. Is that how you treat your own?” Kendra lowered her voice, realizing she’d drawn attention to herself. The officers outside the captain’s temporary workstation were watching them.
A uniformed woman stuck her head in the office. “Captain, the Five is clogged to the gills. We have no idea what can be done. Someone ran into an electrical box on the north end, killing two sets of lights, making it worse. What do we do?” she asked.
“Jesus. I should have retired when I had the chance. Take someone with you, and do some old-school traffic directing, would you?” he asked.
“Excuse me, did you know Lisa Tremble?” Kendra asked the officer, and the captain dropped his pen to his desktop.
“Fine. Tell this special agent what you can, and maybe she’ll stop sniffing around here like a hungry cat.” He ran his hands through his thinning gray hair.
“She’s a good cop. We came up in the academy together. Then last week, she just disappeared,” the woman told her.
“Why haven’t you helped her husband?” Kendra asked.
“Because we don’t have the resources. The world is going to hell, don’t you see that? I don’t even know why I’m here,” she said quietly, leading Kendra from the captain’s office.
“There’s a Walmart on fire in La Mesa,” someone shouted from behind them.
“Send the fire department,” another voice returned.
It was madness out there. The phones were ringing off the hook; the cacophony of noise was sending Kendra into a near panic attack. She had to leave as quickly as possible.
“Do you have any paperwork on—” Kendra started, but she stopped when she saw the president’s face appear on a big screen hung on the far wall. Everyone moved for it, leaving the phones to ring.
“Everyone shut up!” The captain was there, front and center, turning up the volume.
“It brings me tremendous sadness to relay this message to the great people of the United States of America. With the coming catastrophes being predicted, FEMA has declared that the entire West Coast must be evacuated within seventy-two hours,” the president said, his face older and more weathered than ever.
Everyone inside the police station spoke at once, and the captain silenced them with a firm glare. He turned the volume up a couple more notches.
“We’re setting up temporary shelters in Texas and Louisiana. Visit the website below for each site’s location. The following states must be cleared out in the next three days: California, Arizona, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, and Idaho. This includes everybody, with the exception of government mandated personnel.”
“What are we supposed to do?” a man asked, his voice panicked.
“We help. Then we leave,” the captain said.
Kendra was surprised he was even going that far. At least they’d be able to assist the evacuation. Seeing the president speak on this made it all far more real. It was truly happening.
“I’m sorry it’s come to this. We’re working on solutions, so stay tuned for further instructions. We hope to understand more about the activity surrounding Yellowstone’s supervolcano, and will advise on our action plan in the hours and days to come. Godspeed.” The image flashed away to a desk with two newscasters, who looked utterly deflated.
“You heard the man. We need everyone on this. Don’t even think about leaving until we have every damned San Diego citizen two states over. Got it?” The captain’s voice cut over the chatter.
Kendra grabbed her things and headed for a computer, hoping to access the DMV database.
“Can I help you with that?” a man asked. He wasn’t in uniform, but he had the glint of a cop in his eye.
“I need to trace this plate. I need the address,” Kendra told him.
“No problem. It’ll only be a minute,” he said, his fingers flying across the keyboard. It took all of ten seconds, and he printed the address off, passing it to her.
“Thanks for the help,” she told him, snatching Mr. Tesla’s residence. “Did you work with Lisa Tremble?”
“Sure did. Is she okay? Did you find her?” he asked, his face hopeful.
Kendra shook her head. “Not yet. But…” She held the paper up with the address. “I intend to.”
It was raining again outside, and she tucked the paperwork under her jacket, running for her car. A gunshot rang out in the distance, and the now-constant sound of emergency vehicles sang across the air in every direction. With the president’s recent statement, the ever-growing pandemonium was only going to get worse.
Kendra mapped out the address, but it told her to drive directly through town, which she’d found to be endlessly gridlocked. She tried every which way on the NAV, but each of them showed the lines to be dark red, telling her none of the roadways were moving.
She had to make it across town, and most of the people were attempting to merge onto the Eight so they could cut inland, away from the city and the coast. Others were hoping for quieter pathways, and were moving toward the smaller highways on the north and south edges of town. It left Kendra sitting there in the parking lot of the station, wondering where the hell she should go. At the current pace, it told her the normally twenty-minute drive was going to take five hours.
All the work, all the years of effort. Studying harder than anyone at university to earn that damned finance degree from Berkeley, just to make her father proud. What a joke. The same father who couldn’t bear the weight of losing a daughter, and became distant with the one who remained.
Kendra had pushed that aside, her heart growing colder by the year, and she became an agent, hell-bent on finding Carrie, but she never had. Ten years with the FBI. No husband, no real friends, and all she had to show for it was a tiny condo devoid of anything remotely personal on the walls.
She took a deep breath, staring out across the street, hearing the car horns, the sirens, and the thunder rolling in. What was it all for?
She leaned over, tossing the tablet and notebooks onto the passenger seat. It was time to give up the charade. It was time to move away from the coast like everyone else. Three days. This entire city was going to go up in flames before the next seventy-two hours ticked by on the clock, and Kendra didn’t want to be here to see it.
She had a bag of clothes and supplies packed in her trunk. She could just leave. Yes. It was time.
She had a new resolve. No one else might care about what happened to Special Agent Kendra Baker, but she did. She hadn’t worked her ass off all these years so she could sit here and cry about it when times were tough.
Kendra threw the car in drive, checked the passenger-side mirror, and saw a picture that had slid out of the file folder. It was a young woman, a shot from her social media page. Kendra pressed the brake, and pulled it out for a closer look. The hope in her eyes matched Kendra’s own at that tender age of twenty-four. That was around the same time things had started going to crap in her own life.
The woman was a veterinarian, recently graduated. She’d gone missing along with the pile of others. She read the name: Alicia Chang. Alicia smiled in the photo, holding a diploma in veterinary science.
“You can’t let them go.” Kendra rubbed her temples. Her sister would want her to keep searching, to find them before they were killed, either by a maniacal kidnapper or by the harsh elements sure to destroy the West Coast.
She chose the path that gave her the fastest route to Mr. Tesla’s home, anticipating it would lead her there sooner rather than later.
Ten minutes passed, and she was hating her decision. All lanes were filled with cars; no one was obeying the rules of the lights any longer. Cars were randomly running reds, crashing into each other, creating even more chaos.
She turned onto a side street, finding a little reprieve, and made another left, hoping to eventually turn onto the freeway. For now she was moving, albeit slowly, but it was progress. It was a strange part of town, one she hadn’t spent much time in, and the buildings were a little more dilapidated. She passed a few money-lending businesses, a pawn shop, two liquor stores, then conveniently a church, before she spotted the trouble.
The man was clearly high. His movements were too fast, too choppy to be natural, and even from down the block, she could see the entire whites of his wide-open eyes. The gun in his hand flashed around him erratically as he approached a rusty minivan.
Kendra saw the woman behind the wheel try to roll the window up, but he didn’t care. He smashed it with the butt of the gun and yelled at her to step out. Kendra had to act.
She pulled over, jumping out, staying low, and moved around the rear of her own car, crouching as she ran toward the minivan. The man’s yelling was offensive, hard to listen to.
“Get out of the van! I will shoot your children! I will take their bodies with me, and I will eat their hearts! I’m going to let you live, though. So you can remember their faces watching you from the windows as I drive off with them.” He started off screaming his comments, but by the end of his speech, he was casually speaking.
“What do you want? Take the van and leave us alone!” the woman screeched.
Kendra was on the far side of the van now, her heart fluttering in her chest. This was what she was trained for. This was why she spent ten hours a month at the shooting range.
“It’s too late for that, don’t you see? They’re coming. We’re all dead. They’re coming.” The man’s words were clearly those of a drug-fueled mind, but they still sent goosebumps over Kendra’s arms. They’re coming.
“Who’s coming?” the woman cried.
Kendra stood up, peering through the rear window to see the man’s gaze inch up to the sky. His hand rose to point at the clouds, and she knew it was her moment.
She quickly moved around the van, aiming her Glock at the man’s head. “Drop the gun. Get on the ground!”
The man’s eyes opened even wider, if that was possible, and a sick smile spread across his face.
His gun rose in the air, aiming directly at the woman in the van, and Kendra didn’t hesitate. She fired.
It only took one shot. He crumpled to the cement, his gun clattering beside him. The woman was screaming, the kids crying from within the minivan.
Kendra walked over to the madman and kicked his gun away, peering into the van. The middle-aged woman’s cheeks were wet, and three kids howled from their seats.
“Be careful. Do you have somewhere to go?” Kendra asked her.
“Thank… thank you,” the woman stuttered.
“You’re welcome. Do you have somewhere to go?” she repeated.
“Texas. We’re on the list for one of the shelters near Fort Worth,” she told Kendra.
“Good.” Kendra crouched low, picking up the man’s gun. It was scraped on the side, and she released the magazine, checking if there were any bullets. There were five rounds left. She passed the gun to the woman inside the van. “Protect your family.” Kendra wasn’t sure if this was a good move, but she didn’t have time to worry about the moral implications.
The kids stopped crying; one of them choked back a sob. He stared at Kendra, clutching a toy truck in his hands.
“Thank you,” the woman said again, and tore down the road.
Kendra glanced at the body in the street, but left him there to rot. All she felt was a cold detachment as she slid into her car and kept driving toward the address where the man in the Tesla lived. She needed to get to this home, to find him, and find out where he’d taken those people.
She gritted her teeth as she turned at a four-way stop, and saw the long line of red taillights and heard the symphony of honking horns.
It was going to be a long day.
5 Days Left…
Andrew had spent an entire day waiting around in David’s house, eating his food and then cleaning up the subsequent mess to avoid tipping the guy off if he came home. He even returned to his truck in the middle of the day to catch a few hours of sleep. He slept in one-hour increments, setting alarms on his phone to wake him and then leaving it in his pocket on vibrate. He’d only allowed himself to do that because he’d set noise traps in the street to alert him if a quiet-running Tesla cruised past. Beer cans and garbage, mostly, but he’d scattered some broken glass, too, hoping it would puncture the guy’s tires.
But all of those preparations had been pointless. Here Andrew was, almost twenty-four hours later, sitting in the dark at the breakfast table in David’s house. He didn’t want to admit it, but it was time to go. David wasn’t coming back here, and waiting any longer would only ensure that the trail leading to Val grew even colder than it already was.
He checked his phone, an obsessive habit now. No calls from unknown numbers.
A bitter rebuke flashed through his thoughts: Why the hell didn’t I ask for that FBI agent’s number? If he had, at least he’d be able to recognize her call when it came in, or call her to see if she’d turned up any new leads.
Andrew’s heart began to pound with anxiety and frustration. He set his gun down for a second to rub his tired, scratchy eyes.
It was two in the morning on Thursday. That meant Val had been missing for three and a half days. It was too long. He shuddered to think about where she was, who she was with, what her abductors were doing to her and the others they’d taken.
But one thing reassured him: too many people were missing for this to be the work of an everyday vanilla psycho. He ticked off points on one hand: victims were both male and female, of wildly varying ages, and from all across the state—no, all across the country. Wasn’t that what Selena had said? He struggled to remember and mentally kicked himself for never watching the news.
He thought about turning on David’s TV to get an earful of whatever was playing on cable, assuming the guy even had cable. But no; there was still a remote chance that David could come home, and getting shot in the back of the head while he gawked at the news would be a really stupid way to die. Val was counting on him. He couldn’t afford to be stupid right now.
Andrew grabbed his gun and phone charger from the table and stood up. It was time to head for the second address. Maybe both black Teslas were a part of the same operation? Maybe he wasn’t dealing with one car and one abductor, but two.
The guy he was looking for was either David Wilkes, or... He pulled the crumpled receipt from his pocket and smoothed it on his thigh to remind himself of the second address. He had to tuck his gun into his waistband and use his phone’s flashlight to illuminate the piece of paper.
Harry Dorset, 2563 47th Ave., San Francisco.
That was his next stop. Please be there, he whispered to himself, but he knew how slim his chances were at this point. A familiar ache spread inside of him, and suddenly his mouth was bone dry.
Andrew spun around, aiming his flashlight app at David’s refrigerator. The guy had left half a six-pack of beer in there. Salivating at the thought, he warred with himself over reverting to old habits. He drew on his usual source of willpower and summoned Val’s face to mind.
It worked, but it also left him feeling more desperate than ever. What if he never saw her again? What if she wasn’t even alive anymore? He gritted his teeth and shook his head to clear away those thoughts. He couldn’t give up yet. He couldn’t... Andrew realized he was still staring at the refrigerator, but he was frozen in place, unable to turn away. He could have one beer, or even all three. That wouldn’t make him drunk.
But he knew he wouldn’t stop with half a six-pack. He’d dig through the cupboards and find something else, and then he’d wake up blacked out on David’s couch. And if his luck was really shitty, he wouldn’t wake up at all, because David would have come home and put a bullet in his head while he slept off the binge.
All of that flashed through Andrew’s mind in an instant, and he tore his eyes away from the kitchen and the lure of the beer in the refrigerator. He strode back through David’s combined living and dining room, heading for the hallway to the front door.
The beam of his phone’s flashlight app flickered through the dining room. The furniture was ornate and mostly wooden. Maybe this was David’s grandparents’ place. Something caught his eye and he slowed to a stop, staring blankly at a dining room hutch that sat awkwardly in the hall. It was partially blocking the way to the front door. Odd to put a big piece of furniture like that in a hallway.
There was an old tea set inside with floral patterns on it. The hutch sat kitty-corner to a couch, instead of in the dining room where it would have made more sense. Andrew frowned, the placement of the furniture niggling in the back of his mind. He scanned the dining room with his flashlight. There was an empty corner that would have been perfect for the hutch, and a rectangular patch of floorboards stood out in a darker, richer color than the surrounding floor. The hutch used to be there, he realized. Someone had dragged it over here to the middle of the hall.
That was when Andrew noticed the scuff marks in front of the hutch. It looked like it had been repeatedly dragged back and forth.
His eyes widened as he realized what that meant. The hutch was blocking something. Andrew slid his phone into his pocket and dragged the hutch away from the wall. His nerves were tingling with anticipation and dread.
The hutch came away to reveal a door behind it with the knob removed. A deadbolt had been installed instead, and there was a thin metal handle beneath it, both of which had been perfectly concealed by the bulky furniture.
Andrew ran for the side door leading to the garage, burst through it, and grabbed the club hammer and chisel he’d used to break in.
It only took him a minute to open the hidden door. As soon as he did, he set the tools aside and pulled out his gun and phone. He used the flashlight to light the way as he cracked the door open and peered around the ruined door jamb. An unfinished wooden staircase led into a basement, and an awful smell wafted up to greet him.
His sinking feeling turned to gut-clenching horror. Andrew resisted the urge to bury his nose in his sleeve. He could see the faint glow of a light coming from downstairs. Someone was there. Was David with them?
Andrew flicked off his flashlight and began creeping down the stairs. A row of wooden beams came up on his left, and he peered through them.
Now he could see the source of the smell. His heart leapt into his throat, and rage made his whole body shake. His gaze darted, gun and flashlight tracking, his thumb poised to flick off the safety.
The basement was unfinished, the walls roughed in with two-by-fours, so Andrew could see everything in one glance. David wasn’t here, but one of his victims was.
She was lying in her underwear on a bare mattress in the far corner of the basement. There were bruises on her arms, and she was chained to a two-by-four that was part of an unfinished room’s walls. Dark, sweat-matted hair cascaded over the side of the mattress and splayed on the concrete floor beside her.
Terror and fear uncoiled inside of Andrew, and a ragged scream burst from his lips. “Val!”
He ran to her side, but as he drew near, he could see that it wasn’t her. Too old, too mature, too much body fat, and she hadn’t reacted when he’d called out. Andrew feared the worst as he rounded the mattress to examine her face. Her eyes were shut, one of them purpled and swollen.
A standing lamp was the sole illumination in the windowless basement. Andrew dropped to his haunches beside the woman and checked her pulse. A vein jumped weakly under his fingertips. He shook her gently by the shoulder. “Hey,” he whispered.
No response. He tried again, shaking her harder this time.
Still nothing. She was unconscious, probably drugged, but at least she was alive.
Andrew stood up, surveying the scene. A metal bucket sat to one side of the woman, evidently the source of the smell. On the other side he spotted a half-empty case of bottled water, a bar of soap, dirty towels, clothes, and sheets, along with some scattered boxes of cookies and crackers.
This woman had been chained up and left here like an animal. And based on the bruises all over her, that wasn’t the extent of the horrors she’d endured. Andrew’s lip curled. David Wilkes was his guy, all right, but if he’d done this to one of his victims, what had he done to the others? Andrew’s mind raced. Dark thoughts swirled, and he vowed that if he and David ever crossed paths, he’d make the man suffer. He’d...
He shook himself out of a brutal daydream. He had to free this woman and take her to a hospital.
He went to examine the two-by-four she was chained to. It was padlocked, but maybe he could cut it with some of the tools from the garage.
Just then, the plywood ceiling thundered with hurried footsteps.
An electric jolt of adrenaline flooded Andrew’s veins. He flew across the basement and hid under the unfinished stairs.
“Melanie?” a gruff voice called. Footsteps pounded down the stairs.
Andrew’s entire body tensed, ready for action. He judged his moment, and then sprang out of cover and grabbed the man’s ankle through the wall of two-by-fours beside the stairs. “Mela—what the hell?” Andrew yanked his legs through the wall, jamming David’s crotch into one of the two-by-fours. He grunted, and a handgun went skipping down the stairs. Andrew aimed his own gun at the man’s chest and thumbed off the safety.
“David?” he asked, still gripping the man’s ankle and squeezing it as hard as he could.
“Who the hell are you?” the man asked, blinking rapidly.
“I’m the last person you’re ever going to meet if you don’t tell me what I want to know.”
* * *
Andrew tied David Wilkes up with zip ties from the garage, and then chained him to one of the two-by-four posts in the basement, just like his victim. That woman remained unconscious. That was for the best. She didn’t need to see this.
“You don’t know who you’re messing with,” David spat. “If you let me go, I’ll do you a favor and forget this ever happened.”
Andrew ignored him.
“Hey! Are you listening to me?”
He didn’t even spare the man a glance. When he was satisfied that David couldn’t go anywhere, he went upstairs to gather a few things.
He returned with a jerry can from the garage that he’d filled with water, a rag, and a high-backed dining room chair that he could tie David to in order to get the angle right.
David seemed to recognize the purpose of those articles immediately, but he showed no signs of fear. The opposite, in fact; he smirked and shook his head.
“You’re not going to get anything out of me with torture,” he said. David was a big man, fit and symmetrical, with a broad jaw, slick black hair, and sharp blue eyes. He wasn’t a garden-variety perv or psycho, or at least, he didn’t look like one. Adding to that impression, he was wearing an immaculate black suit and a thin red tie.
Andrew smiled thinly at the man and placed the chair on the floor, barely out of reach. He set the jerry can full of water and the rag beside him before taking a seat on the chair, facing David. He withdrew the P320 from the waistband of his jeans and aimed it at the man’s chest.
“If torture isn’t going to work, then maybe I should just shoot you now and save us both the trouble,” he suggested.
“Do that and you’ll never find out what happened to them.” A slow, quirky smile spread across his face. “Not that I’m going to tell you.” With that, David began to laugh in an unhinged way that made Andrew’s skin crawl. The laughter cut off abruptly, and David’s expression blanked.
Andrew’s brow furrowed. “Them? You mean the people you abducted?”
David seemed to realize that he’d already said too much, and he didn’t elaborate further.
Andrew’s aim strayed to one of David’s feet. “We can see how many bullets you live through before the end. That’s a nice compromise between torture and death, don’t you think?”
David began laughing again, and his eyes rolled around in his head like marbles.
Is he high? Andrew wondered. He nodded to the unconscious woman on the other side of the basement. “I bet she’s been wishing she was dead. Who is she, and why did you chain her up?”
“She’s a loose end.” David adopted a giant grin that somehow looked wider than his entire face. “She came looking for her husband. Guess she missed sharing a bed with him.” He chuckled. “I filled in for him as best I could...”
Rage boiled inside of Andrew as his worst fears were confirmed. So David had raped her. It took everything he had to keep from shooting David right then and there, but death was too good for him. “Who was her husband?” Andrew demanded.
“Some professor. I must be getting sloppy. First her, now you. That’s two people who found me.”
“Was the professor’s name Hughes?”
“Does it matter? Maybe. I’m losing track.”
“Here’s one for you. Valeria Miller. Ring a bell?”
David’s face blanked again, and he shook his head. “Why? Is that someone you care about?” He looked genuinely concerned for a moment, but then he began laughing like a maniac again.
“All right, that’s enough. Let’s get started. See if we can clear your head a bit.” Andrew rose from the chair and rested his gun on the other side of the basement, right beside David’s own weapon. When he was done, he dragged the chair into range of David, along with the package of zip ties.
David took his chance, but Andrew was expecting it. He rushed Andrew with what little slack his chain and zip-tied hands and legs could afford. He came waddling like an insane penguin. Andrew sidestepped before David could head-butt him, and stuck out a leg to trip him. With no hands to throw out to cushion his fall, David fell flat on his face with an audible clack of teeth and a nasty crunch. He rolled over, laughing again, his nose broken and leaking blood in rivers down his face.
“Come on!” Andrew hauled him up and shoved him in the chair. Then he zip-tied him to the chair frame and dragged the chair over to a stack of cinder blocks. He used the blocks as a fulcrum to tilt the chair back and keep David’s lungs above his head. That was the key to avoid actually drowning him. With all of that in place, Andrew got down to business, using the jerry can to flood David’s mouth, nose, and upper respiratory tract with water. He added the rag and held it tight over David’s airways while pouring extra water over to keep him from simply coughing the water out. David still tried, and to some extent he succeeded. After about a minute of letting him suffer, Andrew removed the rag and let him cough out the water.
“Tell me about Valeria Miller!” he screamed as tears streamed from David’s eyes.
But as soon as the man recovered enough to breathe, he began laughing like an idiot again. “We’re all going to be dead soon, anyway, so what do you care if I took your daughter? You’re not going to be around to see her!”
Andrew felt a cold shock go through him. Everything went deathly quiet and still.
David seemed to realize his mistake, and he paled.
“I didn’t tell you she was my daughter,” Andrew said.
Before the man could reply, Andrew was waterboarding him again. This time he did it three times in a row, without even taking a break for a question in between. He kept going until David was delirious and sobbing. “It’s not personal!” he cried.
“It is to me! Where is she?” Andrew screamed in his ear.
“Wrong answer!” Andrew grabbed a fistful of David’s hair and yanked it right out of his head. He screamed like someone had set his head on fire—an idea that Andrew was seriously toying with. “Tell me where she is, and I let you go!”
“If I tell you, they’ll kill me! And my son.”
“Yes.” David nodded, sounding somehow less crazy now. Was he somehow a victim in all of this, too?
No. The woman chained up in his basement was clear evidence against that. Growing impatient, Andrew released the chair and went to fetch his gun. He grabbed the P320, flicked off the safety, and marched back over.
“What are you going to do, kill me? Go ahead!”
Andrew placed the gun to David’s kneecap. “Where is she?”
The crazy look was back in David’s eyes, and another wide grin sprang to his bloody lips. His teeth were stained crimson by the river still trickling from his broken nose.
“She’s dead, but we had a real good time first. Me and Valeria. Mmmmm-yeah.” David’s eyes rolled as if with ecstasy. “She was a real fine piece of—”
Gore splattered the concrete behind David’s head.
Andrew stared in shock at what he’d done, an instant-replay repeating it in his head. He’d lost all sense of reason, his body moving before his brain could catch up. Before he could stop himself, he’d jammed his gun into one of David’s rolling eyes and pulled the trigger.
The monster stared one-eyed back at him, his bloody lips frozen in a grin.
Andrew recoiled from the corpse, shaking with horror and disgust. But he wasn’t horrified so much by what he’d done as by what David had just said. It couldn’t be true. He refused to believe it. It didn’t fit the MO. This guy hadn’t randomly abducted a few women and girls for his entertainment. That was a side plot to something much bigger. He’d abducted a professor, and Val’s friend Ana, and her friend’s brother Justin, and possibly others. They’d all been taken somewhere, for some reason. And wherever they were, Val was with them.
But now that David was dead, how the hell was he going to find them?
“Shit,” he muttered. He flicked the safety back on his gun and slipped into his waistband with a shaking hand.
As he did that, he heard chains rattling, followed by a soft moan. He turned to see the woman on the other side of the basement sitting up. Hope soared. Maybe she knew something about where the others had been taken.
He ran over to her, and she scuttled away from him, her eyes wide with terror. “Leave me alone!” she cried.
Andrew raised his hands in a placating gesture. “It’s okay! I’m not going to hurt you. I’m going to free you, okay?”
He cast about for something he could use to break her chains, and he found the padlock dangling from the cuff around her neck. He also noticed the blood crusted around the chain, and the scabbed skin underneath.
“Where’s the key?” Andrew asked.
She pointed with a dirty, shaking hand to where David’s body sat, tied to the chair. “Is he...” She trailed off in a cracking voice.
“Don’t worry, I didn’t let him off easy,” Andrew said.
She nodded, her eyes drifting out of focus.
Andrew went to check David’s pockets. He found the keys for the padlock in one of David’s pants pockets, attached to the same ring as his house keys and Tesla key fob. His cell phone was in his other pocket, and his wallet in the back. Andrew took all of those items and hurried over to unchain the woman. She stood up, hugging herself and looking terrified.
Andrew realized she was still in her underwear, and he grimaced. “I’m going to find something clean for you to wear upstairs, okay?”
She nodded absently, her eyes on a discarded pile of clothes that he assumed belonged to her. He left David’s keys, wallet, and phone in a heap on the floor. “I’ll be right back!” he said.
Andrew vaulted up the stairs. Soon he was rifling through David’s closet, finding suit after suit, and very few actual clothes. Eventually he settled on a black long-sleeve sweater, black pants and belt, socks, and a pair of tighty-whities. It was all probably far too big for the woman downstairs, but at least it was clean.
Andrew ran out of the bedroom and back down the stairs to the basement. “Got something for you to...” He trailed off, looking around for the woman.
She was gone. So were David’s gun, his wallet, and his keys. She’d left the phone, but Andrew could see that the screen was on, with the lock screen visible. She’d only left it because she couldn’t unlock it.
He heard a door slam somewhere upstairs. He flew back up the staircase and ran down the hall to the front door. He yanked it open just in time to see the woman speeding away down the street in David’s Tesla. Garbage and beer cans went flying as she blasted through the remains of the noise trap he’d set for David.
Andrew’s mind raced, his heart thundering in his chest and ears as he struggled to catch his breath. She was a witness to the murder he’d committed. Where was she going? Probably straight to the police.
“Damn it!” Andrew rushed inside, hurrying into the basement. He snatched David’s phone off the floor. If he could open it, there might be some other leads he could follow. He hunted through the rest of the house, moving as fast as he could. It didn’t take long to find David’s briefcase—loaded with items he’d used for his abductions: chloroform, a rag, a taser—and his laptop. There was a chance that the computer contained leads he could follow. Andrew snagged it off the kitchen counter and fled the house, slamming the door behind him and running down the street to his truck.
He needed to get the hell away from here before that woman told her story to the police. No doubt he’d left plenty to tie himself to the scene: fibers, hairs, fingerprints. But with all of the shit about to hit the fan, it wouldn’t matter. The cops were evacuating, just like everyone else.
The FBI agent he’d run into came to mind. She’d been following all the same leads as him. What if she found David Wilkes from that partial plate?
Andrew shook his head. He only had to stay ahead of the authorities long enough to find Val. Saving her was all that mattered.
5 Days Left…
Val sat on the dusty metal floor of the container truck, feeling every bump in the road. The air was close, and stagnant with the sour smell of sweat and urine. They had a few buckets for toilets in the back, but the rough roads had made them slosh over. Val didn’t have a watch or a phone, so she couldn’t be sure, but her best guess was that they’d been on the road for at least half a day.
All around her, people were whispering about their situation, others sobbing shamelessly. Her friend Ana sat beside her, holding her hand in a tight, sweaty fist.
“Where do you think they’re taking us?” Ana whispered.
Val turned her head and caught a glint of her friend’s eyes in the darkness—a sight only possible thanks to a few empty screw holes in the container walls and roof. She took a moment to consider the question. If it were still just the two of them in the trunk of that guy’s Tesla, she would have been too scared to even venture a guess, but this wasn’t that kind of abduction. There were almost fifty people crammed into this 40-foot container: Ana’s brother Justin and his professor from university—along with dozens of men, women, and children that she’d never seen before in her life.
“What if this is some kind of human trafficking setup?” Ana added, her voice spiking to a panicky register. That speculation set off murmurs of fear from nearby passengers.
“No,” Val breathed. “We’re staring down the barrel of a dozen different natural disasters. The last thing anyone wants right now is more mouths to feed. This is something else.”
“How can you be so sure?” Ana asked.
“For one thing, look at the demographics. We’re not all kids. There are middle-aged people here, too. Human traffickers prey on children and young adults, not university professors.” Val added that last part as she gazed past Ana to her brother and his professor. The two of them were engaged in a hushed conversation.
When Val mentioned the professor, he glanced their way. Faint glimmers of streetlight flashed off his glasses. “Unfortunately, that doesn’t make the danger to us any less.”
The truck skipped through a pothole, and the passengers in the back screamed collectively, knocking shoulders and heads.
Justin and his professor came crawling over. “I think I know what this is about,” Justin said.
“What do you mean?” Val asked.
“A few weeks back, I entered a competition sponsored by Mensa. It was a recruitment thing for this super-secret group called Final Days. It’s supposed to be about saving the human race and preserving its knowledge in the face of the looming environmental crisis.”
“And?” Val prompted.
“And I passed, and they said someone would be contacting me soon for a face-to-face interview.”
“So what?” Val shrugged. “You missed your interview?”
Justin’s professor spoke next: “I entered the same competition. I also passed.”
“And the next day both of us are abducted by the same guy as you two,” Justin said.
Val frowned, shaking her head. “But Ana and I didn’t enter that contest. We’re not even members of Mensa.” She nodded to the others in the container truck. “And I doubt the rest of these people are here because they wanted to join some apocalyptic fraternity.”
“That’s not the point,” Justin said. “The point is, whoever these people are, they’ve been recruiting in a variety of places and in a variety of ways. And the recruitment method represented by the competition from Mensa suggests a purpose to all of this. Someone is organizing a group of people that they think will be able to reboot the planet after the dust settles.”
“So you’re saying it’s a good thing that we were abducted?” Ana asked.
The professor pushed his glasses up higher on his nose. “I think what Justin is trying to say is that we shouldn’t give into despair. At least, not yet.”
Val nodded along with that. “I agree.”
“Well, I don’t,” Ana said. “If this were about saving the planet, why send some creepo to abduct us? Why not just tell us what’s going on? And why cram us all into a container like animals? This is what they do with slaves, right before they inject them with heroin and start pimping them out on street corners. I’m not waiting around for that. If I see a chance to escape, I’m taking it.”
“Ana, you could get yourself killed,” Justin said. “These guys all have guns. You saw it when they herded us in here from that basement. They’re not messing around. They’ll shoot us if we try anything.”
“Exactly!” Ana blurted. “Guns, dingy basements, and container trucks! Does that sound like the Illuminati conspiring to save the world to you?”
Val winced, hoping Ana was wrong.
The truck lurched to a stop and they heard doors banging open, followed by muffled voices and footsteps crunching in gravel.
“We’re here,” the professor whispered, his eyes going wide behind his glasses as he turned to look at the back of the container.
Val felt Ana tense up beside her.
Metal bolts screeched, and the rear doors groaned open. Dazzling white light barreled in from glaring spotlights, along with a cool, acrid mist.
“Everybody out!” a man in military fatigues said, his voice muffled by a spray-painter’s mask. He gestured with the barrel of his rifle. A second guard stepped into view—a woman with razor-short blonde hair, also wearing military fatigues and a mask. She stood off to one side, aiming her rifle at them. People stirred and groaned as they clambered to their feet. Others shouted pointless questions like “Where are we?” and “What do you want?”
No answers came. Instead, the nearest of the two guards barked an order. “Everyone into the warehouse! Single file! I don’t have all night!”
Val stood up and shuffled toward the open doors with Ana, Justin, and the professor. She spotted a drone whizzing by in the background, just above a chain-link fence with a curving row of barbed wire at the top. Some kind of government facility? she wondered.
They reached the open doors at the back of the truck and shuffled through a puddle of urine that had sloshed out of the buckets. They jumped down one after another. The professor tried to do the same, but his knees gave out, and he uttered a sharp cry.
“You okay, prof?” Justin asked, holding out a hand to help the older man up.
“I’m fine. Thank you, son,” the professor said as he took Justin’s hand and regained his footing. “My knees aren’t what they used to be, I’m afraid.”
Val stood on the gravel lot, looking around, trying to gain some sense of where they were. Dark shadows painted jagged shapes against the sky behind the fence. Trees. Cliffs. There were several guard towers along the length of the fence, with more guards up there covering them with rifles. Turning the other way, Val saw warehouses and moonlit ocean peeking between them.
“Follow the others!” the man standing by the back of the truck snapped. He jerked his head toward the nearest warehouse. Big metal doors stood open, with another pair of armed guards in military fatigues standing there. Everyone from the truck was being herded through single-file.
Val and Ana hurried to catch up. Justin and the professor stayed close on their heels.
Ana found Val’s hand and squeezed.
“Gurl, are you with me?” Ana whispered.
“Don’t even think about it,” Val whispered back. “There’s too many guards.”
“Not now,” Ana hissed. “Later. When the time comes.”
If the time comes. But Val made herself consider it seriously. She suspected that Justin and his professor were right about this being some kind of end-of-days cult, but even if they were right, did she really want to be a part of that? She would probably never see her family again.
No, Ana was right. They had to escape.
Val squeezed her hand. “I’m with you,” she whispered.
“Good,” Ana replied.
And then they were slipping into a darkened warehouse under the hard, watchful eyes of two burly men with razor-short hair. Val tried to decide if they were in the military. The dog tags dangling from their necks suggested that they were, but unlike the first two, they weren’t wearing fatigues. If this was a government-run operation, it was a black site.
Val stepped into the warehouse, blinking fast to force her eyes to adjust to the relative darkness inside. The doors slid shut behind them, sealing them into a big, empty space. There weren’t any guards on the ground floor, but plenty were standing on the walkways and catwalks of the upper level. Val’s gaze skipped around, taking in her surroundings. Old rusty pieces of ships littered the concrete floor. Pulleys and hooks dangled from the ceiling. The far end was open, revealing a concrete ramp leading to rippled water that was bright with moonlight. This was a dry dock.
“There’s more people here than we thought,” Justin whispered.
Val dragged her eyes away from the water to see that he was right. There had to be at least a few hundred people here, all bumping shoulders, murmuring and muttering, screaming out questions to the guards peering over from the second floor.
A group of four people came striding across a metal catwalk that crossed the cavernous dry dock like a bridge some four floors up. The procession stopped in the middle, and someone with a deep voice began to speak.
“I know you must all have a lot of questions. I regret the necessity of bringing you all here like this. The good news is, it’s over now, and it was all for a good cause. The very best. You’re here to ensure the survival of the human race.”
The speaker paused, and Justin let out a breath. “See?” he said. “What did I tell you?”
Val scowled. Smug wasn’t a good look on him.
“I know that man...” the professor added.
“You do?” Ana asked, squinting up at the dark figure standing above them.
“That’s the tech billionaire, Lewis Hound.”
Val blinked in shock. Everyone recognized that name. Lewis Hound was one of the richest men on the planet. “What’s he doing here?”
Hound went on, “All of you are here because you were chosen, selected personally by me for two important sets of criteria: the first being your exemplary genetics, and the second being your knowledge and skills. Together we are going to survive the final days of humanity, and we will rebuild our great civilization from the ashes of its destruction. Welcome, all of you, to the Eden Project!”
A few cheers went up from the guards on the second floor, along with a scattering of relieved sighs from the people on the ground, but by far the biggest reaction was confusion: more muttering and hushed whispering, followed by a man shouting a question:
“And what if we don’t want to be a part of this project? Can we leave?”
A few others seconded that. Silence answered them. Val held her breath, her gaze skipping between armed guards on the second level. A few of them shifted their footing, their guns rattling ominously. The crowd receded around the man who’d asked the question, as if they were busy worrying about the same thing. You didn’t abduct people at gunpoint just to let them go later without a fight.
* * *
Hours. It took hours and hours to maneuver across town to the Tesla house, and when she did, Kendra was sure she saw the taillights of a familiar black truck tearing down the street. Her pulse quickened as she searched the block, looking for any signs of the Tesla from the abduction footage.
Someone had left in a hurry. Garbage bins were knocked over, pouring their contents out onto the sidewalk. No one was going to pick that up. Judging by the traffic she’d endured today, there wouldn’t be anyone left in San Diego by morning.
Kendra pulled to the end of the driveway, and threw the car in park.
Did it even matter what she found inside? In a few days, it wouldn’t. Kendra rubbed her eyes, watching the house first. Really, she was giving herself time to make an excuse and leave. She had a bag of clothing in the trunk, and she could head for Houston along with everyone else: make camp at the FBI office and live to see another day. That’s what she should do.
People still needed her around. That woman and her children had nearly been killed, but Kendra had helped them. She could do that in Houston. When the world went to hell, she’d be there to pick up the pieces.
“Carrie, what do I do?” she asked her sister. She used to do this all the time, and her own words startled her. It had been at least five years since she’d said her sister’s name out loud in this manner, and she almost chided herself. Her sister had been the family’s pride and joy. She’d enrolled in college at the tender age of sixteen, with full scholarships. She was almost done with her degree in astrophysics when she was abducted from campus.
Kendra recalled the news coverage, her parents pleading for their daughter’s life while younger Kendra stood to the side of the podium, awkward and red-eyed. She felt like that little girl now, and she needed her sister’s advice.
“What do I do?” she asked again, and noticed the door beside the garage was ajar. It wasn’t a sign from her sister, but she thanked her silently for the urging.
Kendra walked the driveway, her 9MM pressed firmly into her grip. It had already been discharged today, and she hoped she wouldn’t need to use it again. Her hand shook slightly as she thought back to the body lying on the street, the once-crazy eyes settled into a vacant stare.
She stepped into the garage, which was empty save for a few tools and a freezer. Not the garage of someone here for a long time.
“FBI! Come out with your hands up!” Kendra shouted as she stepped into the mud room. She listened for any noises within the house, but heard none. She moved now, slowly but effectively. The kitchen had some half-eaten packages of snacks on the counter, and the living room looked like someone had been sleeping on the couch. A cold cup of coffee sat on an expensive coffee table without a coaster. That told her the person wasn’t the homeowner.
Then she saw the hutch. It sat in the middle of a hall, the floor scratched and scraped. Behind it was a small doorway, the jambs torn apart. A deadbolt lay on the first step, still stuck to part of the wooden door.
Kendra could already smell the basement, and she knew the scent only too well. It was the smell of captivity. Working for the Missing Persons department, under the Violent Criminals Apprehension program of the FBI, she’d seen every type of scenario, but almost every time, it ended with a dark room, a mattress on the floor, and that smell. She fought a gag reflex she never used to have, and took one creaky step at a time. She reached the bottom of the stairs and scanned the space.
The far corner held a makeshift bed. There were a few supplies near the area, and the entire sight pushed a profound resentment throughout her body. This was why she worked so hard. This was why she’d become an FBI agent, to stop this from happening. Where was the body?
“FBI. If you’re down there, I’m here to help,” she said loudly, the sound dying on the unfinished concrete walls.
The whole space was bereft of light, and she held her cell up, illuminating her surroundings. The man’s head lolled to the side; a splatter painted the gray walls behind him.
Kendra went to his side, but didn’t need to check his pulse. There was no point. He was dead, shot point-blank by something with some kick to it. He wore an expensive suit, his shoes black and shiny. This was David Wilkes, Mr. Tesla himself.
This was the last thing she’d expected to come across in the house. If he was dead, the answers she’d been searching for were gone with him. How was she ever going to find the abducted people now?
She stepped away from the body, and knew there was only one person who seemed to be one step ahead of her: the man in the Silverado, the man with the pain in his eyes, and the claim that his daughter was taken. How could a civilian have found Wilkes before her?
He had to be in on it. Maybe he was the muscle hired to tie up the loose ends, or he could be the nondescript leader behind it, making sure no one talked. Offing Wilkes would make sense then. Was he the one who’d been chained to the bed? It didn’t add up. She guessed this Wilkes guy had kept someone detained in the basement. It looked like a dozen other crime scenes she’d borne witness to over the years.
Kendra left the basement with more questions than answers. She needed a lead, and was determined to find something in the house. She doubted the guy who’d left the body in the basement would have spent too much time investigating the home, so that’s what she was going to do.
She started upstairs, noticing a dent in the wall. She placed her fist in the hole, and assumed someone had punched the drywall in anger. Did Wilkes have a bad temper? She moved to the master bedroom. The drawers in the nightstands were open, their meager contents tossed onto the floor. So the house had been searched.
She found nothing inside, but continued looking, hoping to find a cell phone or a laptop. The other two guest rooms were sparsely furnished, and resulted in nothing of use. Frustration grew in Kendra’s mind, but she pressed on, checking through the entire main level. She spent two hours rummaging for hidden compartments, for anything that might be of use. She took pictures of the kitchen, the calendar on the wall, but none of the notes made any sense.
She slumped to the couch in exhaustion, and wondered if she’d be able to stand up again. Today had been a long day, mentally and physically tiring, but the memory of the body in the basement and the one she’d left on the street was enough to motivate her after a few minutes’ break.
The fireplace beckoned to her, and she noticed the chip on one of the tiles. She rose from the cushions, her muscles protesting the move, and ran a hand along it. The one-by-three gray slate tile was loose, and she used her nails to pry it off.
“Bingo,” she said, grateful for any sort of win today. A folder sat in a roughly dug-out hole, butting up against the flue of the fireplace. She took it and flipped it open.
“It’s them,” she whispered to herself, seeing the familiar names. They were all on there: Professor James Hughes, Commander Tess Anderson… she scanned the list, wondering after one name in particular, and saw it near the bottom: Valeria Miller. “Son of a bitch.” It was the girl the man in the Silverado had mentioned was his daughter. She wasn’t sure if she could buy it or not, but it was a start. There was only one lead, and it was with Valeria Miller’s father.
Kendra left the house, turning the lights off for no other reason than habit, and for the second time in one day, she didn’t call anyone to tell them of a dead body. No one was listening anyway.
She drove home, the roads much quieter now. Sirens echoed through greater San Diego, like a constant reminder that the world was ending. People blew through intersections, and she was careful to watch for errant drivers as she wound her way toward her condo unit. The parking lot was empty when she arrived, and she hoped that all of them had made it somewhere safe. The odds weren’t in anyone’s favor.
Kendra took the newly-found folder, but left her luggage in the trunk. She couldn’t predict when she’d need to make a quick getaway. Once inside, she locked the door and took a deep breath. This was her safe zone, but there’d be no sleeping without her gun tonight.
Her navy-blue blazer fell to the couch, and she kicked off her shoes, her feet instantly thanking her. She moved to the fridge, and tried to push the events of the last week out of her mind. Empty. She found a bottle of red wine in the cupboard and uncorked it before pulling a glass from inside her cabinet.
She was going to miss this place, her little sanctuary. Soon it would be swallowed by the angry Earth. It might not be lavish, and she could hear the droning of her neighbor’s TV when he had friends over to watch football games, but she’d grown accustomed to all of its nuances. It was the first place she’d ever felt at home, at least since her sister had been with her at their parents’ house.
She’d left too early, too young, leaving Kendra at the mercy of their strict and structured mother. Kendra sat at the island, unbuttoning her shirt. The wine was tart, and she swirled it around her mouth, acclimating her taste buds to the flavor. An old boyfriend had taught her that move. She laughed to herself at the casual use of the word boyfriend. The truth was, they’d gone on a couple of dates, but the moment she'd let herself become vulnerable with Devon, he’d said she was too cold, too distant.
She saw him at her favorite restaurant a few days later with a younger woman, probably a college student from the looks of her. That had been two years ago.
“None of that matters now,” she said out loud, sipping her wine.
Her shower called to her, and she cranked the heat up, the mirror already steamed by the time she stepped into the water. It scalded her, but it was what Kendra needed at the moment. She washed off the blood of the man she’d killed today, atoning for her sins with a burning sensation. She wondered if this was what hell felt like.
Kendra shut the water off, the faucet dripping to the shower’s tile floor, and she slid down the wall, unable to hold in the tears any longer. They flowed like rain, and she rocked herself, trying to calm her fried nerves. Eventually she peeled herself from the shower, and straightened her posture as she looked in the mirror.
The puckered scar where a bullet had torn through her left shoulder six years ago stood pronounced and angry after the hot shower, and she ran a finger over the old injury. Even though she didn’t think of it much after all this time, she was still self-conscious of its appearance, especially after Devon had told her it was a turn-off to hear she’d been shot.
Kendra found her reflection was smiling back at her, and she was startled by it. She felt renewed by the entire experience, reborn. With a new resolve to solve this case, she folded a towel around her hair and threw a bathrobe on. She would find the Silverado in the morning. If Miller was still in town, she was going to find him and get her answers. This might be her last case, but she was going to solve it.
She stared at the list of names, running her finger alongside each person, as if memorizing the missing’s names would make them more real, more tangible.
4 Days Left…
Andrew raced away from David Wilkes’ home, driving aimlessly to distance himself from the body he’d left behind. He couldn’t afford to get arrested, not until he found Val.
He glanced at the passenger seat, where David’s laptop and phone sat. Both of them were password-locked, but that wouldn’t stop a computer hacker. He just had to find one.
Streetlights flashed by in golden streaks to either side. Crashed and looted cars littered the street, especially at intersections where people had run the lights. Somehow, while he’d been in Wilkes’ place, the world had gone to hell. The city was truly deserted now. Scraps of garbage went blasting by in a gale-force wind.
San Diego had probably officially evacuated at this point. The windows of stores and cafes lining the streets were all shattered. Entire plazas were ruined, the parking lots littered with garbage—even a few gleaming specks that he suspected might be shell casings. Andrew drove by a supermarket with a guy doing doughnuts in the parking lot with his truck. The guy in the passenger seat was screaming like a madman and firing a semi-automatic rifle in the air. Not far from that, some kids jumped out in front of him, laughing and throwing empty beer bottles at his Silverado. Andrew cursed and swerved. They narrowly escaped being run over.
Apparently the only people left in the city were either insane or suicidal. Andrew absently wondered where he fit on that spectrum.
It was after midnight by the time he decided to pull off the chaotic streets and take cover around the back of a motel. He was planning to just kick in one of the doors and then block it with furniture while he rested and figured out what to do next, but he’d broken enough laws for one day, so he went to the front office to see if anyone was still around.
This time he was prepared for whatever flavor of crazy the owner might be serving, and he took his gun with him. The front doors were locked and no lights were on. Andrew rattled the doors loudly. A whistling wind blew across the parking lot, and he shivered. This was stupid. No one was here.
He turned away from the doors and walked around to where he’d parked his truck. He entered a dark, open corridor that crossed from one side of the main building to the other. That corridor also housed a stairwell to the second floor.
As Andrew neared the stairs, he felt the skin on the back of his neck prickle, and a deep voice stopped him cold: “Drop the gun and kick it away.”
A familiar click sounded next: the action of a revolver cocking.
Andrew dropped his gun and kicked it a few feet from him before raising his hands and slowly turning to face whoever had just ambushed him.
He was getting sloppy. He should have stayed alert rather than assume the place was abandoned. Better yet, he should have completely avoided motels after his last experience.
The guy covering him was tall and skinny with blond hair pulled into a ponytail, and a thick mustache clinging to his upper lip. Cigarette smoke wafted off the guy’s clothes in noxious waves. The revolver turned out to be a gleaming silver .357 magnum.
“Are you the owner?” Andrew asked mildly.
“What do you care?” the guy challenged.
“I was looking for you. I want a room. I can pay. Cash.”
The owner snorted and made a ‘gimme’ gesture with one hand. “Okay, let’s see some green. Slowly.”
Andrew caught a glimpse of the dog tags dangling from the guy’s neck. It could just be jewelry, but he decided to take a gamble. “Army?” he asked as withdrew his wallet and pulled out two twenties.
“National Guard. 79th Infantry Brigade,” the guy said. He took the bills and pocketed them.
“I was a Marine corporal with the 24th Expeditionary,” Andrew said. “Fought in Afghanistan back in 2008.”
“You don’t say.” The guy didn’t bat an eye. “Is that supposed to make me feel all warm and fuzzy?”
“I guess not. Look, I just need a place to regroup for a bit. The streets are crazy, and I don’t want to get hijacked while I’m pulled over somewhere.”
“I hear ya. The trouble is, I don’t want to get shot in the head for bein’ the good Samaritan who gave you a room, so I’ll tell you what. You want to stay here, you leave your gun with me until you’re ready to leave.”
Andrew considered that. He didn’t seem to have much choice. “All right.”
“Glad we could come to an understanding. Move away slowly from the weapon. I’ll pick it up, and then you follow me to the front office and we’ll set you up with a room key. You got your pick of the whole joint tonight.” The man smiled, revealing cigarette-stained yellow teeth.
Andrew did as he was told and then went with the owner, marching ahead of him with two guns aimed at his back. “What’s your name?” he asked.
“Nice to meet you.”
Andrew was waiting for some indication that he was about to get shot in the back, but it never came. Something about Seth seemed genuine. He pocketed Andrew’s gun and unlocked the front office with one of a thousand different keys jangling on a big silver loop clipped to his belt.
“Why haven’t you evacuated yet?” Andrew asked as he walked into the office.
“To tell the truth, I don’t buy it,” Seth said. He walked around behind the front desk and opened a drawer, making sure to keep Andrew covered with his magnum the whole time.
Andrew heard keys jangling again as Seth rifled around inside his desk.
“I mean, who ever heard of Mother Nature coordinating disasters? Somehow the San Andreas is gonna knock half of the state into the Pacific and at the same time Yellowstone is gonna blow her top? It doesn’t add up. Something else is goin’ on, and I wanna be around to see why they’re really evacuatin’ everyone. That, and I don’t want to come back to find my motel trashed by a gang of drunken end o’ the world partiers.”
“Yeah, that makes sense, I guess,” Andrew said. Maybe Seth was right.
The motel owner handed him a key for room 201. “That’s the best I’ve got. It has a kitchen, a nice view of the city, and it’s on a corner on the second floor, so you’ll have some warning if there’s any trouble coming.”
“Thank you,” Andrew said. “You have WiFi here?”
“Yep. Password is in the room on the nightstand.”
“Perfect. I’ll come for my gun at checkout. Where do I find you? Here?” Andrew suggested, nodding to the front desk.
“Sure, why not.”
Andrew wasn’t sure how far he could trust this guy, but so far Seth hadn’t tried anything. On his way to the suite, he went back to his truck and grabbed David’s laptop and phone. Maybe he’d get lucky and guess one of the passwords.
Up on the second floor he walked around, checking the green doors until he found one with the number 201 stamped on it in cheap peel-and-stick gold numbers. His corner suite stank of smoke and old, musty carpets, but it would do. He locked the chain on the door and jammed a chair under the door handle for added security.
He went to find the WiFi password and connect his phone. Thankfully the connection worked, and Google loaded in just a few seconds. He had a data connection, but it wasn’t unlimited, and he didn’t want to use up all of his bandwidth only to find himself tapped out when he really needed it.
Andrew sat on the bed running Google searches for hackers that he could hire. The second result was:
Computer Wizardry and Hackery for Hire
He tried the link, browsed to the “Contact” area, and filled out the form. He wrote a brief summary of what he needed and why—help breaking into a phone and a laptop, in order to turn up leads and find his missing daughter. He also mentioned his current location as San Diego and left his cell number for an additional means of contact.
When he was done, he hit send, receiving an automatic response from the site:
Thank for your inquiry. The Digital Wizard will get back to you in his next clock cycle.
Andrew frowned at that, wondering if the guy behind the site would actually see his message, or even respond to it if he did.
He picked up David’s phone and depressed the power button. The lock screen appeared. A pattern lock. Maybe he could guess it? He turned off the phone and slanted it toward the light to check the pattern of finger grease on the screen, but it was smeared into oblivion.
He tried five different patterns, all wrong, and ended up locking himself out for a minute. Andrew kept that up for the next hour, waiting a minute between each set of five wrong patterns, but he soon lost track of all the different combinations he’d tried. How many possibilities were there? Thousands? Millions? He gave up and rolled over with a sigh.
That was when his phone began buzzing and ringing with an incoming call. He sat up in a hurry and snatched his phone off the bed to see who it was. Maybe it was that FBI agent.
His heart sank when he saw who it actually was. Just Selena again. This time he answered. “Hey.”
“Andrew, you asshole!” she screamed in his ear. “I’ve been going out of my mind! Where are you? Have you found Val yet? The president issued an official evacuation for the entire West Coast.”
“I’m still here, nosing around. I’m working on some leads.” He didn’t have the heart to tell her that he’d found the guy who’d taken Val. Nor did he want to spread David’s sick and obviously false claims about what he’d done with her.
“What leads?” Selena insisted.
He told her about the laptop and phone he’d stolen that belonged to a guy seen fleeing the scene of an abduction at UC San Diego. He skipped the part about having interrogated and shot that guy in the head.
“You need to see what’s on them!” Selena said.
“I’m working on it. I’m busy trying to find a hacker who can break the security. Listen, I have to go, but I’ll call you if I turn up anything else.”
“You’ve only got four days, Andrew! That’s it! You better find her before that, or so help me...” Selena trailed off in a sob.
“I will. Stay safe and keep your phone close.” He ended the call and sprawled on the bed, staring at the popcorn ceiling and wishing like hell he had a drink. With every setback along the way, his despair and desperation grew, and the monster inside of him with it.
He found himself absently toying with the 90-day sober chip around his neck. That chip was a lie now, but Val had been his strongest supporter, and she’d bought him the necklace that the chip hung from. Right now that thin band of silver felt like the only connection to her that he had left.
A sharp pain began in his throat, constricting his breathing to shallow gasps, and making his eyes feel hot.
“I’m not giving up on you, Val,” he whispered. He’d keep searching to the very end, even if he ran flat out of time and got tossed into the ocean right along with the California coast.
Andrew sat up and rubbed his tired eyes to search for another hacker he could hire. If he contacted enough of them, at least one was sure to answer.
4 Days Left…
The day after the evacuation notice, San Diego was a ghost town. Garbage was strewn about; cars burned on the side of the streets. This is what happens to humanity under pressure. Instead of uniting to achieve a goal, they destroy everything they worked so hard to build. Kendra shook her head as she pushed her disdain to the side.
She’d had trouble sleeping last night, and the coffee wasn’t strong enough this morning. There were no stores open, so she had to rely on her own brew from home, and she took another swig, tasting grounds between her teeth.
When she’d first moved to the city, she’d loved it. She’d had aspirations… so many dreams that never came true. She was going to learn to surf, to buy a paddleboard and spend weekends in the water: just her, the board, the sand, and the sun. She’d only been in the ocean twice over the years, and once was when an old FBI acquaintance from out of town came to visit. She’d wanted to make the woman think she was embracing the coastal dwelling.
The truth was, Kendra had never felt at home here. She missed the smell of crops in the summer, the flat Midwestern land, the friendly faces. She missed her sister most of all.
“Goddamn it, Ken, get it together. She’s gone.” Kendra slapped the steering wheel with a palm, hard enough to hurt. “She’s gone! And if you’re not careful, you’ll be gone too.”
The roads were dead, a complete juxtaposition to yesterday’s entire day of gridlock. A streetlight turned red, and she instinctively pressed the brake, rubbing her head as the car idled at the light. A horn blared, and a banged-up Ferrari tore through the intersection, its exhaust sounding like a sonic boom. She expected to see a plume of smoke as it crashed into a street pole a block away, but it didn’t. She could still hear it as it drove farther and farther away.
“Looky what we have here,” a voice said through her open window, and Kendra spun to see a group of men approaching the car. A few settled in front of the vehicle before she could drive away. They were thugs, undoubtedly. She’d seen their type a million times. They were always lurking in dark corners, waiting for someone weaker than them so they could exploit them, use them, steal from them, or worse. Not today.
More of them emerged from the other alley, and Kendra didn’t hesitate. She pulled her gun out, flashing the steel, and the lead man raised his hands in the air.
“We only want… your car.” He sneered at her with squinted eyes, his face wild, twitchy.
“Move!” she shouted to the guys standing near the front of the car with bats in their hands. She was feeling twitchy herself.
When they didn’t move, she knew what she had to do. It was the end of times, and she didn’t need to play by the rules anymore. It was survival. Someone was at the passenger side of her car, testing the handle, which was locked. He pulled his bat away, ready to smash the glass, and she gunned the gas pedal, sending three men barreling to the side.
One of them was on her hood, and she heard a bottle hit the trunk as the thugs threw more toward her. Kendra panicked, jerking the steering wheel left and right, trying to toss the bastard off her hood. He gripped the windshield wipers, his gap-toothed smile wide. She pulled the washer fluid lever, sending liquid shooting at his face.
He rolled off as she took a hard left turn, narrowly missing a bus bench on the sidewalk as she hopped the curb. Kendra kept driving as the man spun on the pavement, coming to a halt. She was off target by a couple of blocks by the time she slowed, adrenaline pumping through her body.
If anyone had stayed behind, like the group that had come for her, they’d be sticking to the main routes, knowing most people would be using them to get around. Kendra decided to use side streets to the office. With no lights to worry about, or traffic, it wouldn’t take long at all.
She was optimistic she’d find something in the pictures from Mr. Tesla’s house, but she was still pissed there hadn’t been a laptop in sight. Kendra felt this case was slipping away from her.
She slowed at the sight of a low-rent motel. A sole vehicle sat in the parking lot, backed into the spot for a quick exit. It was a black Silverado. Could it be the same one she kept running into? She kept driving, trying to think what her best move was. This guy had talked to her at the university, he’d watched her in the café from the street, and he’d obviously been the one to kill Mr. Tesla. If anyone knew what was going on, it was him.
Could she go cuff the guy and force him to talk? He was tough, and carried himself with a demeanor that shouted ex-law enforcement or military. She wasn’t sure knocking on his door would be the most prudent course of action, so she circled around the block, stopping beside a twenty-four-hour laundromat. The windows were smashed, and quarters spread out across the sidewalk.
Kendra scanned the mirrors, making sure no one was going to sneak up on her, and set her Glock in her lap, stretching over for the glove box. She had a few tricks she kept with her at all times, and she was glad to be able to use one of them. The GPS unit was tiny. She slid it from the matchbook-sized box and placed it on her fingertip. It was no larger than an Advil.
She linked it to her cell phone, and watched as the light blinked, displaying its current location on a map. This guy was either who he said he was, and was the world’s best detective, or he was involved, killing Mr. Tesla to tie up loose ends. Either way, he was going to lead her to the missing people; she was sure of it.
The air felt electric as she stepped onto the sidewalk, her gun safely in its holster. She moved quickly and efficiently, constantly scanning for trouble. A gunshot rang out in the distance, momentarily stopping her, but she moved again, with fluid purpose.
The motel was there, the lights flickering on and off on the red letter M. A shadow moved behind curtains in one of the rooms near the Silverado, and Kendra crouched low, crawling to the front of the vehicle. She crept to the passenger side, away from the windows, and placed the miniature device into the wheel well, making sure it stuck firmly.
She clutched her cell phone as her shoulders pressed against the side of the truck. The light blinked, telling her the GPS was functional. Kendra thought she could hear the man inside, talking to someone—or to himself—and she took a deep breath. It was time to get out of here.
She glanced up at the room. He was so close. She could burst in, point the gun at the man, and demand to know where the abducted people were stashed. Carrie’s face appeared in the back of her eyelids, smiling at her. She pushed it away.
Minutes later she was in her car, heading for the FBI field office, already exhausted from the morning’s events. She arrived unimpeded ten minutes later, and found the glass door to the office locked, with a note taped to it from the inside.
This office is closed. Any agents can reconnect at our Houston office. Log in to your account for more details. We apologize for any inconvenience.
“What a crock,” Kendra whispered as she pulled her key from her pocket.
Luckily it still turned, causing the bolt to snap open. Kendra locked it up again as she stepped into the entrance, wondering why no one had contacted her about them shutting the office down. It was just like them to leave her on the outs. Houston. It felt so far away.
The office was half-empty; the computers sat in a pile, taken apart and beaten, from the looks of it. Of course they would have wiped the drives before doing this, but the image was symbolic for what was to come. This was the end. The president knew it. The FBI director knew it. Kendra had been hoping they were wrong, that the storms, the volcanoes, the tsunamis were only theoretical, but intuitively she’d always known it. The world was about to change. Looking outside, it was clear it had already begun, even without the disasters striking yet.
There had been warning signs, and over the last decade so many disasters had struck around the planet. Had no one been able to put two and two together?
Kendra moved toward her office, and saw her own desktop computer was missing. She didn’t need it. She wondered if her space had been ransacked, but remembered there was nothing in it to start with. No pictures, no personal items, nothing. She’d worked here five years, and there was no evidence she’d ever spent a day in that office.
Houston. Would it be so bad? She could team up with the rest of the Bureau, and try to help after the disaster struck. What would the country look like? What was this going to do to the world? Kendra imagined the new planet after the events transpired. Estimations said that over half of the United States’ population would be gone within the first week after the ash began to fall. The series of brewing hurricanes would wipe out most of the Caribbean. Europe was up in the air, but with the looming eruptions, it wasn’t going to be pretty.
She ran a hand over the file she’d dropped to the desk and opened it up, scanning over the faces of the missing people. Didn’t they deserve a chance? Would their world end as they sat tied up in a basement somewhere?
The entire case had Kendra’s insides twisted up. They had to be connected, especially with the Tesla man being near for a few of them. She was sure the others around the country were taken in similar styles. But to what end? Why abduct doctors, scientists, professors… teenagers as well?
Then it hit her like a slap in the face. Someone planned to start over. To do so, they’d need skilled people on hand.
Her heart raced as she considered the implications, but her attention was pulled away when her cell phone chimed, and she saw what she’d been waiting for. The black truck with the GPS device stuck to it had begun to move.
She grabbed her files and ran for the exit. It was time to find out what the hell was going on.
* * *
Val’s entire body flooded with adrenaline. The guards on the second level of the dry dock looked like they could open fire at a moment’s notice. Her gaze snapped back to Lewis Hound, standing on the catwalk above them. The crowd of abductees was still trying to edge away from the man who’d asked Lewis if they’d be allowed to leave his secret end-of-days club.
“If you don’t want to be a part of the Eden Project,” Lewis Hound began slowly, “then yes, you may leave; but first, I’d like to ask for a fair chance. You need to see what this is all about before you make such an important decision. As such, none of you will be allowed to leave until we arrive at the Eden facility.”
The dry dock filled with worried murmurs and a rising roar of discontent. Now that Lewis had claimed to have a good reason for abducting them, people were becoming more brazen about questioning his motives. A few people even began shouting out insults.
“Come on, don’t be stupid,” Justin muttered.
“Do they not see how many guns are aimed at us?” Val added.
“Don’t worry!” Lewis said, raising his hands for attention. “I’m not here to keep you in suspense. We’re leaving for Eden right now.” He turned and nodded to something out on the water at the open end of the dry dock. It was only then that Val noticed the glinting lights bobbing over the water and the rising whine of motors.
All of a minute later, a group of eight large Zodiac boats pulled up on the concrete ramp at the open end of the dry dock. Armed guards piled out and began gesturing to them. From the catwalk above, Lewis Hound spoke once more: “Who wants to go first?”
To Val’s surprise, Ana hurried toward the boats, pulling her along by the arm.
“Hey, slow down!”
“Let’s go,” Ana whispered sharply. Justin and his professor followed, pushing through the crowd to join them.
They reached one of the boats, and clambered over the front with a group of at least twenty others. There were two people in the back standing under a covered section: a man keeping the passengers covered with his rifle, and a woman manning the controls.
A pair of men crawled in over the bow, and the Zodiac reversed out of the dry dock and went skipping over the choppy water, aiming for a big white and red container ship on the horizon.
“Had a change of heart about this situation?” Val asked over the roar of the outboard motors and the cold wind whipping off the water.
Ana didn’t reply. She was busy whispering something to her brother, and he was nodding along. Both of them were watching the guards in the front of the boat. They were just a few feet away, struggling to hold onto their weapons and stay standing at the same time, perched precariously in the prow like hood ornaments. The water was too rough for them to keep the passengers properly covered.
Val tensed up, suddenly worried about what her friend might be planning. “Guys, let’s not do anything stupid...” she said, but the wind smothered her words.
Ana breathed in her ear, “Follow me. We’re gonna get the guy in the back.”
Val blinked in shock, watching as Justin and the professor began pushing through to the front of the boat, angling for the guards perched in the prow.
They hit a particularly large swell, and the guards in the front almost bounced overboard. Before they could recover, both Justin and the professor had reached them and grabbed their rifles.
“Now, gurl!” Ana hissed, but Val was rooted to the spot, frozen with terror.
Justin seized the upper hand almost immediately and pushed the first man overboard with a cry and a splash, taking his rifle in the same movement. He turned and slammed the stock into the second guard’s stomach while he struggled with the professor. Then that guard went over too, and the professor had his rifle. They turned and swept the weapons back toward the covered section of the boat.
Val spun around, suddenly worried about how Ana might have fared without her help. But Ana had the third and final guard covered with his own sidearm, having opted for stealth rather than brute force. The third guardsman’s hands were raised above his head, far from the rifle dangling around his shoulders. That only left one more, the woman manning the controls, and her hands were busy with the wheel and throttle.
“Drop it!” Ana screamed to the man with his hands raised.
“You heard her!” Justin added from the front, raising the stolen rifle to his shoulder to aim it over the passengers’ heads.
Before the third guard could comply, the driver’s expression tensed, and her eyes hardened. Her arms and shoulders flexed.
A sharp jolt of adrenaline shot through Val’s system as she realized what she was about to do. Val hit the floor of the boat as the driver wrenched the wheel and sent them tipping up on one side. Passengers cried out, and multiple splashes echoed. Val gritted her teeth while clinging to a fiberglass bench seat and the boat’s slick sides.
The roar of motors quieted, and they were turning more gently the other way, bobbing violently in the rough water slapping the sides of the boat.
“Get a floodlight!” someone shouted. Val risked peeking up to see the driver snapping fingers at another man. There was no sign of Ana back there, or of Justin or the professor in the front. At least five or ten others were bobbing around them in the water, screaming for help.
Val stood up and watched as the remaining guard produced a handheld floodlight and began sweeping it around.
“Go help them up!” the driver said.
“Someone needs to keep the others covered, ma’am.”
“I’ll do it. Give me your rifle!”
The man passed his rifle to the driver. She aimed it over the passengers with one hand, while her other stayed on the wheel and throttle.
Val watched as he ran around to help people up from the water one at a time. Other passengers joined in, reaching over the sides to help the ones who’d fallen overboard. She eyed those bobbing faces and stringy mops of wet hair, searching for familiar features under the floodlight.
But there was no sign of Ana, Justin, or the professor. Was this part of the plan? she wondered. Try to take control of the boat, and jump overboard if that failed?
Soon the water emptied out, and they cruised slowly back the other way, searching for the two who’d gone over first. Another Zodiac slowed as it pulled alongside. “Everything all right over there, Sergeant?”
“We had a little mutiny, but it’s all settled now!” the driver shouted. “We have a few men overboard, if you want to help us look.”
The next fifteen minutes were spent circling around, searching the water. They eventually found both men, but still no sign of Ana, Justin, or the professor.
Val shivered and hugged her shoulders.
“That’s it,” the sergeant at the back of their boat said, wheeling around. “Thanks for the help!”
“Don’t mention it,” the driver of the other Zodiac replied. And then both boats were roaring over the water, heading for the container ship.
“Wait!” Val cried. She stood up and stared straight at the woman driving the boat. “What about the others?”
Crow’s feet scrunched up around slitted eyes as the sergeant realized who Val was talking about. “The mutineers?” She shook her head. “They wanted to leave so badly—let ‘em! They’re about to find out why a billionaire spent his fortune on this project. Ungrateful bastards.”
Val swallowed thickly and peered out over the moonlit water to the shore. It was a long way, but Ana used to be on the swim team. She would make it. Hopefully her brother and the professor would, too.
Turning towards the container ship, another shiver coursed through Val. They’d escaped, but what about her? What awaited her at the Eden facility? Was it aboard the container ship, or was that just another stage of the journey? Her gaze dropped to the rippled water racing by in a blurry sheet beside her. Maybe she should jump overboard, too.
4 Days Left…
Roland’s eyes snapped open. He’d been sleeping, and judging by the layer of dew over his body, he’d been out for a few hours. The sun was desperately attempting to sneak through the dark low-level cloud cover, but was failing miserably. Roland shifted from side to side, rotating his ankles and wrists, easing his aching bones.
He was tucked away beneath some leafy tree branches near the edge of the fence, with a clear line of sight on the warehouse’s bay doors as well as the loading pier over the rocky outcropping at the ocean’s coast.
The air was fresh out here, and Roland fought back a sneeze. It had been a long time since he’d been exposed to so many sights and smells, especially in real life. He’d spent the last ten years hiding inside his grandmother’s house, staring at a computer screen.
Part of him was exhilarated to be in the field, to be putting himself out here, having the courage and tenacity to do something like this. The other part was terrified, and thought he was being a dumbass for risking his own skin.
“It’s for the greater good,” he whispered to himself, although that wasn’t quite true. He didn’t care about the rest of humanity. This was more about his innate desire to learn the truth, to discover what exactly he’d spent the last couple of years tracking. If Lewis Hound was here, Roland had to learn why.
He’d stayed here all night, and hadn’t seen a thing. Not one single movement. Had he even heard a bird chirp? He listened, and the sound of birds cawing and singing hit his eardrums. It was funny how many things transpired when you weren’t paying attention to them.
“Okay, so there are birds. But am I too late?” he asked the air. It didn’t answer.
Roland slid his phone out and checked his usual sources. Iceland was worse. Far worse. The mid atlantic ridge was so close to them, and it linked to the others, cutting through the Caribbean to South America.
A thought slapped Roland across the face, and he went completely still, frozen by the mere idea. Had Lewis Hound created something to cause all of these weather disturbances? It wasn’t totally out of the question. If he made devices and planted several of them strategically around the plates, perhaps inside the fault lines and inside the active fissures, then he could speed up the inevitable. Time it just right, and you’d have doomsday.
But what about the hurricanes and the toxic fog…or the droughts? Roland wasn’t an expert on those, but he figured a man of Hound’s means could potentially figure out how to cause those disasters, too.
What was inside this warehouse? Would Roland find evidence of these machines, created to bring around humanity’s demise? Would Hound ransom the world? But to what end? He was already the second richest man in the world. What more could he want?
One word scrolled across Roland’s mind: Power.
He wasn’t sure if this all added up. He was frequently subject to delusional thought patterns, but maybe he was on to something. He couldn’t lie here all day and wait to find out. Roland had to locate a way into the warehouse before it was too late.
He stared at the countdown ticking away on the front screen of his phone and sighed. Four days until the end.
Seeing the time slipping, and the looming chain-link fence around the property, Roland thought about the new truck waiting for him nearby. He could keep driving, head north this time. The roads would be quiet. He could head into Canada. By his estimations, northern Manitoba was as safe a zone as he could find, as long as he didn’t mind the cold.
Before he could consider this, his attention was taken away by a buzzing sound: faint at first, but increasing with each passing breath.
He fumbled for the binoculars, and wiped the lenses before placing his eyes against the cold damp metal. It was a drone, hovering high. He almost panicked, thinking it was heading straight for his hiding spot, but it veered to the right, moving for the fence line.
Something was happening.
Another half dozen of the compact flying drones were released from outside the warehouse, each moving toward the perimeter, and they traveled in a circle, covering the base with eyes and presumably ears.
Things had become interesting. Roland fought the urge to retreat to the truck. He’d ventured this far, and he was so close to learning the truth. His phone was placed beside him, and it vibrated as a notification alerted him of a message. He broke his gaze from the warehouse and saw it was a message from his website, DigitalWizardry. He must have forgotten to shut it off in his rush to escape LA.
The subject line read: Missing daughter. Need your help.
He opened it, only to find the ramblings of a man searching for his abducted daughter. Roland thought about the news articles he’d seen about the hundreds of people across the country going missing in the weeks before the evacuation. The man also said he had a laptop that might contain her whereabouts, but it was locked. Roland was about to decline when the massive bulk carrier arrived, peeking over the horizon.
Roland’s heart nearly stopped as the immense ship cut through the waves, making its way toward the pier. Four white cranes stood up like omens along the center of the flat surface, and Roland watched in morbid fascination as it came to a halt about a hundred meters off the shore. The entire process had taken half an hour, and his bladder was threatening to burst by the time he finally set the binoculars down.
He slowly moved, staying behind the tree cover, and when he was done relieving himself, he returned to his hiding spot to see the unexpected. Zodiacs were racing out from the container ship with a rising roar of outboard motors, and Roland’s hand shook as he noticed the guards inside them, holding guns. AR-15s, if his eyesight was accurate. The Zodiacs disappeared around the water-facing end of the warehouse, and then he heard the motors start up again.
The boats were crowded and heavily laden now, with at least fifteen people aboard each of them. The passengers looked to be a diverse group: teens, a couple of kids, but mostly adults of varying ages and races. Then it all became clear. These were the missing people. Who else was being herded from a warehouse owned by Hound four days before doomsday? He was creating a safe haven, a place to start over from—or else Roland was totally off base. He really wasn’t sure.
He thought back to the email from the freaked-out father about his girl, and he scanned the people on those boats. They were farther away, but he thought there were a couple of women that could be teenagers on one of them. He brought up the email again, and saw the man had used an alias. That would be easy enough to track.
Roland opened an app he’d created on his phone and tracked the man’s IP. It belonged to an Andrew Miller. His thumbs quickly flashed over the screen, and seconds later he was in the State of California database. Mr. Miller appeared to be an ex-Marine. He was divorced, and had three moving violations over the last five years, and four parking tickets. He’d also recently been arrested a few days ago for shooting a firearm.
Roland stared at the man’s image, and found himself shivering at the cold angry eyes. This was who he needed to help him. There was no way Roland was going into that warehouse alone, not after seeing those drones and armed guards. But this… Andrew Miller was the ticket.
He replied to the email, telling the man to bring the laptop to Capetown. He passed his cell phone number on to the guy. Even if Andrew wasn’t who he said he was, Roland’s phone had a custom-built locator inhibitor installed, so the man wouldn’t be able to use it to track him should things turn sour.
Roland would have been able to remotely do the job in a matter of minutes, but there was too much at stake. He needed Andrew so he could show the man this warehouse, and inform him about the group of people boating over to the bulk carrier.
Roland jammed the binoculars over his eyes, and saw the boat begin to move. The guards were on it as well, but that didn’t mean there weren’t more inside. It was time to go. With any luck, Andrew was already on his way.
He was about to gather his meager belongings when a twig snapped behind him. A thousand thoughts flashed through his mind, but it settled on one: protect yourself.
His hand snaked into his pack, and he felt the cold steel of his pistol. He’d used it already, just yesterday, but hated the idea of using it again. He rolled to the side, and hid the gun behind him as he stood up.
“Stop where you are,” the man’s voice said. Roland still couldn’t see his face, but he spotted the polished black military-issue boots, and the gruff voice told him this wasn’t a Boy Scout looking for a badge.
Roland made the decision quickly. “Thank God you’re here. Some guys beat me up, stole my car, and left me here.” His gun was tucked in the back of his pants, and he held his head with both hands. “My head hurts. I threw up a few times… I think…”
“I said don’t move. What are you doing here?” The man stepped into view, and Roland froze. He was big, and his gun even more so.
“I told you… they hit me with a bat…” Roland waited until the gun was lowering, the man’s face confused, and he reached behind him and pulled the pistol, firing it with a wavering hand. The first shot missed, but the second and third rang true. The man stayed there for a moment, blood pooling in his chest. The semi-automatic weapon fell to the forest floor with a soft thud, and the man’s eyes went wide and glassy.
It all happened in slow motion for Roland, but he was already grabbing his pack. He was about to run when he crossed the short distance to the man’s side. The soldier appeared to think Roland was going to help him, but he didn’t. He took the AR-15 and left the man alone on the cold, dew-covered grass as he took his last breath.
Roland’s hands shook as he ran for the truck, and he found a pill bottle in his jacket pocket. He choked two of them down as he approached the stolen vehicle. The engine started fine, and he was about to maneuver the side roads, when his phone alerted him of another message. It was from the ex-Marine.
Be there tonight
Roland headed away from the warehouse. Images of the guards covering people with AR-15s aboard big Zodiacs mixed with the glazing eyes of the alarmed soldier he’d shot as he drove inland.
4 Days Left…
Andrew woke up that morning to his phone dinging with a reply from DigitalWizard asking to meet in Capetown, California. It took him a minute to find the place with a Google search. It was in the middle of nowhere, but maybe that was best, considering that all of the populated areas along the coast had been relegated to thieves and psychos.
He departed San Diego and Seth’s motel at first light. Amazingly, Seth had kept to his word and given Andrew his gun back.
“I wish you all the best, brother. And I hope you find your daughter,” Seth said.
“Thanks,” Andrew replied. “I hope you’re right about this doomsday shit all being a hoax.”
Seth shrugged. “Well, if not, I’m gonna get one hell of a show. Fair trade.”
Andrew smiled, and left Seth on that note. The route to Capetown took him back up through LA, and from there to San Francisco. He saw people on the road, and a few on the streets in both cities, but made sure to keep his distance. Three times he had to stop to fill up with gas, relieve himself, and stock up on snacks and drinks, but each time he picked a gas station in an abandoned town. The cities were too dangerous to stop in—or even to slow down when driving through. The last thing he needed was for someone to steal his truck.
Andrew spent the long hours of the drive north alternating between listening to his old CDs of Metallica and the static on the radio. Every now and then he’d catch snippets of doom and gloom from some amateur radio announcer, or of emergency broadcasts on repeat, telling people to evacuate and to where. At last, more than twelve hours later, he was racing down a winding, two-lane country road lined with dark walls of trees and the dying rays of sunlight flickering through them.
According the green highway signs along the way, he was getting close to a place called Fortuna, but no signs made any mention of Capetown. The only way he even knew it existed was thanks to Google and the GPS app on his phone.
Half an hour later, the sun was gone, and darkness swallowed the world. A glow of light on the horizon appeared soon after that, signaling a return to civilization. A wooden sign saying “Welcome to Fortuna!” flashed by, and then Andrew found himself studying the darkened windows of abandoned shops and homes as they scrolled by to either side.
This was Fortuna. The glow he’d seen on the horizon was just the street lights. It was a ghost town, but at least there didn’t appear to be any psychos or vagrants hanging around.
The town was there and gone in a matter of minutes, and then the shadowy trees and open fields of the country were back. On the other side of the town the road signs began counting down to the next one—Ferndale. And soon he was driving through it, too.
A computerized voice from the GPS interrupted his concentration: “In half a mile, turn left on route 211.” Half a mile later it said, “Turn left on route 211.”
He did what the app told him and raced across a two-lane bridge over the rippled, moonlit waters of a broad river below. On the other side, a patchwork of farmers’ fields shone silver with the moon.
The actual town of Ferndale came next. Once again it was just a small town, and utterly abandoned. Andrew felt exposed driving out here in the middle of nowhere, all by himself. He kept glancing in the rear-view mirror, checking for headlights, but he wasn’t sure what would be worse: seeing someone else on the road with him—maybe following him—or more of the same desolate isolation that had blanketed everything since he’d left San Francisco.
Andrew followed more directions from the GPS, telling him to turn left onto Wildcat Avenue. He could see from the sheer lack of illumination that this was the end of Ferndale. Dark walls of trees soared on both sides of the road, and he was forced to slow down because of all the sharp corners.
Glancing at the GPS app, he saw that he was a little over 20 miles away from Capetown, wherever it was. He still hadn’t seen a single road sign for it.
Sparing a hand from the wheel, Andrew grabbed his phone and tapped out a message to DigitalWizard: Twenty miles out. Where to meet?
* * *
Roland’s body was pressed firmly against the motel room door. He felt every grain of the old wooden slab as he sat there wondering what to do next. They might have caught footage of him killing the soldier; perhaps a drone had tracked his movements here.
Roland was adamant that every passing second would be his last, but they ticked away, and minutes turned to hours. His mind reeled with everything he’d seen, and theories juggled around his hectic thoughts all afternoon.
Was Lewis Hound bringing those people to a private island to do genetic testing on them? Could he be a modern Dr. Moreau, attempting to find a way for humanity to live in a world covered in ash and toxic fog? Skin that could withstand acid rain, and lungs that could breathe in the harmful chemicals and poisons being unleashed by the bowels of the planet?
Then he’d switch to thinking Hound was a humanitarian, selecting a group of people to save based on compatibility for the repopulation of the world. Had other countries experienced the same missing people over the last few weeks? He’d done some digging, but the results were unclear. Europe had seen signs of the coming catastrophes earlier than the others; Africa had been under a drought for ages, in addition to the fog rolling in along the coasts. Only Canada seemed to have any articles about people disappearing, and even then, it wasn’t many.
Roland considered the various components Hound had ordered on all of those shipping manifests he had gathered over months. So many high-tech gadgets and parts. Roland’s blood turned cold. Underwater. Hound had to be building it underwater. He’d thought about that in passing before, but hadn’t given it enough credibility. Now he felt certain.
It could also be a huge boat, one capable of withstanding the elements, and they’d be mobile when the oceans overtook the earth. An ark. Roland was convinced he was onto something.
He opened his laptop, accessing NASA’s system by using an untraceable military-level access portal. He linked to their satellite images of the Pacific coast, and zoomed into Capetown. The warehouse wasn’t visible on the feeds. That was impossible. Roland had seen it with his own eyes, hadn’t he?
For a brief moment, he questioned himself. There were times he’d seen things that weren’t there. That was why his grandmother had him take the pills, but was this one of those hallucinations?
“You saw it, Rollie. I believe you,” he told himself, now pacing the dingy room. His legs bumped into the bed, and he sat on the musky comforter. “You saw it, didn’t you?”
He closed his eyes and pictured the dying soldier. That had been real, right? He went back to the computer, plucking it from the floor, and kept moving the image, scanning for signs of anything in the miles beyond the coastline. He found a few blurry sections out in the middle of the ocean, but those could be anything, and weren’t uncommon. He flagged them anyway, saved the data, and closed the laptop.
His phone buzzed, and he dropped it to the bed as he raced to pull it out of his pocket.
20 miles out. Where to meet?
At least Andrew Miller was real. It relieved Roland to have proof he wasn’t making this all up. There was something afoot after all. He wasn’t going crazy.
“You aren’t crazy.” He repeated that a few times, as he thought of his reply.
Diner on Mattole.
Roland assumed the old diner would be closed, but he needed food, and he didn’t think the owners would mind someone borrowing their kitchen for the emergency meeting. He hoped the Marine liked grilled cheese, because it was his specialty.
3 Days Left…
Diner on Mattole.
Andrew wasn’t sure what to make of that reply until he noticed that he was actually driving down a road called Mattole. Somewhere along the way, Wildcat Avenue had become Mattole Road, and he hadn’t noticed.
“So where’s the diner?” Andrew wondered aloud as he scanned the black walls of trees.
He careened through two more hairpin bends, and then he saw it, cresting above the treetops: Poppa’s Diner. The sign was illuminated by a trio of oversized vintage light bulbs. The trees cleared, and the parking lot rolled out beside him. He flicked off the headlights and drove in. A big, gleaming blue truck sat out front, a Ford hybrid.
The lights were on inside the diner, and Andrew saw someone moving around in there. He rolled to a stop a dozen feet away from the back of the other truck, suddenly wondering if this was some kind of trap. He didn’t know DigitalWizard. What if he was a psycho luring him out here to the middle of nowhere for his own twisted ends?
But that seemed like a lot of trouble to go to for nothing. Andrew wasn’t anyone special, and he didn’t have access to any resources that could help anyone through the coming storm. All he had was his truck, his phone, his gun, the two maxed-out credit cards he’d been using to refill his tank with gas, and about sixty dollars in his wallet.
“Stop being paranoid,” Andrew muttered to himself. Val was counting on him.
He parked beside the blue truck, grabbed his gun from the storage compartment in his side door and, almost as an afterthought, grabbed David Wilkes’ laptop and phone.
Swinging his door open, he slipped the gun behind his back into the waistband of his jeans, and strolled casually up to the glass door of the diner. A bell jingled as he opened the door, and a skinny kid with a patchy beard and a Giants baseball cap looked up from behind the serving counter. Shaggy brown hair cascaded from his cap almost to his shoulders, and his clothes were at least two sizes too big.
“DigitalWizard?” Andrew asked from the entrance. He kept one hand dangling close to his side in case he had to reach for his gun.
A massive grin curved the kid’s lips, and his dark eyes lit up with something bordering on manic glee. “Hey, man! Andrew Miller, right?”
“How do you know my name?” Andrew hadn’t given it in their correspondence—only the short version of his name, Andy.
“I have my ways. They don’t call me the wizard for nothing! You hungry? All I have is grilled cheese.”
“Yeah, I could eat.”
“Good! Pick a booth. I’ll bring it over. You want Coke or root beer?”
“Uh. Whatever you’re having,” Andrew said.
“Coke it is.”
Andrew’s gaze never left the kid as he headed for a booth with clear sightlines on both the serving counter and the front door. He set David Wilkes’ laptop and phone on the table, and eased the gun out from behind him. He left it on the bench beside him, shielded from view by the table and his legs.
DigitalWizard darted out of the kitchen a few minutes later, carrying a tray with two sodas in vintage glass bottles, and two plates with blackened grilled cheese sandwiches piled high.
“Sorry if it’s a bit black,” the kid said.
Andrew shrugged. “Thanks,” he said as the kid put a plate and a glass in front of him.
“So. We meet,” Wizard said, grabbing a sandwich and munching on it absently. “I was wondering if you’d actually show. Lots of shit happening out there.”
“I know how to look after myself,” Andrew said.
“Yeah.” There was that manic gleam in his eyes again. “I bet you do,” he said around a mouthful of grilled cheese.
Andrew inclined his head to the laptop and phone on the table. “Can you help me access these?” He didn’t reach for a sandwich. He was starving, but he needed to keep his hands free, just in case this kid turned out to be as crazy as he looked.
“Yeah, sure, but how are you gonna pay me, man?”
“With money?” Andrew suggested.
“No, no, that’s no good. I have money. I need something else. I need...” The kid trailed off as if even he didn’t know the answer to that. “I need to get to the bottom of this. We’ve got less than a week, man. You have any skills? Anything I could use?”
“I don’t know. Maybe.” Andrew didn’t like the idea of repaying favors with favors, but he didn’t have much choice. Besides, no one was forcing him to repay anything. If it came to it, he could cut and run. “I used to be a Marine. Did a tour in Afghanistan. Since then I’ve worked at a car shop in LA.”
“Marine, huh?” Wizard munched on another sandwich, nodding to himself. “Yeah, that checks out with what I found. So you’re offering to be my muscle if I need it?”
Andrew said nothing to that for a long moment. “Maybe. If you can do what you say you can.”
Wizard squinted at the laptop, then dragged it over and flipped it open. He studied the lock screen for a second, not touching the keys. “Windows,” he said. “That’s good.”
Without another word, he slid out of the booth and ran over to another one. Andrew’s hand landed on his gun, alarmed by the sudden movement. “Where are you going?” he asked.
“Gotta get my kit together.” Wizard stopped and bent to retrieve an overloaded laptop bag from the floor under one of the booths closest to the door. He came back with his shoulder drooping under the weight of the bag, and slid in across from Andrew.
He paused dramatically to rub his hands together and flex his knuckles. “Let’s do it,” he said with another giant grin. Then he withdrew a thumb drive from his bag and stuck it into the side of Wilkes’ laptop.
Andrew listened to him tapping keys on the laptop for a minute, and then a beep sounded as the computer rebooted. “Got it,” Wizard said, turning the laptop around to face him. Now it was showing David Wilkes’ cluttered desktop.
“That fast?” Andrew asked.
“I’m no newb at this.”
Andrew scanned the desktop, not finding anything to catch his eye at first glance. Then he pulled up a browser. No internet. “Do you think this place still has WiFi?” he asked.
“Does this look like the kind of place that has WiFi?” Wizard countered.
“No, I guess not. Shit.”
“You have a phone?” Wizard asked.
“Does it have a signal?”
Andrew checked. “Three bars.”
“Then use a hotspot.”
Wizard snorted and dragged the laptop back over. He produced a cell phone of his own from one of his jeans pockets, and his chin dipped to his lap as he configured it. Some more configuring on the laptop, and about a minute later, he turned the laptop around again and said, “All set.”
Andrew checked the browser history first. He saw Gmail there and clicked it. It loaded up in seconds, still logged in. He started scanning the list of e-mails.
“You said you’re looking for your daughter,” Wizard said. “How does breaking into this laptop help with that? Is it hers?”
“Something like that.” Andrew’s eyes fixed on an e-mail with an interesting subject: Lost Coast Loading Zone. He opened it, but it was only a string of numbers. He shook his head, confused. “I don’t understand. What the hell is this?”
“Can I see?” Wizard asked.
Andrew passed the laptop back, and the kid spent a few seconds studying the screen.
“Holy crap, man! Lost Coast Loading Zone? That’s right around the corner from here. Might even explain what I saw. This has to be related!”
“Related to what?” Andrew asked.
Wizard began rambling about a billionaire and a paper trail, a contact that he had called PiedPiper19, some giant construction project in the area, and a container ship that he’d spotted earlier. He was talking fast, barely making sense, jumping rapidly from one topic to another.
Andrew was getting frustrated. “What does this have to do with anything? This laptop belonged to a man who might have abducted my daughter. I need to know where he took her. I don’t care about billionaires and whatever the hell they do with their money.”
“That’s what I’m trying to tell you, man! This is it. This is what it’s all about. That billionaire is abducting people and taking them to some kind of safehouse. He’s building a bunker or a colony or something off the coast to survive the apocalypse. I saw them marching people out to that freight liner. As in abductees. And this e-mail? The numbers in it are coordinates. They line up with the warehouse where the freight liner showed up. We find out where that ship is headed, and we’ll find your daughter.”
Andrew stared at the kid for several seconds, too shocked to say a word. “Show me the warehouse.”
A shaky grin sprang to his lips, but faded just as fast. He scratched at his scraggly beard. “It’s guarded. You have a gun?”
Andrew’s fist closed around his P320, and he slapped it on the table between them.
The kid’s eyes flew wide, and then his grin returned. “I knew you wouldn’t let me down. I have a gun, too.” He patted his bulky jacket, eliciting a suspicious clatter that might have been the slide on a pistol.
Andrew’s eyes collapsed into slits. What was this kid after? What was his motive? He was tempted to ask, but he wasn’t sure he’d get a straight answer. Maybe Wizard knew someone who’d been abducted, too, or maybe he was hoping to sneak into that billionaire’s refuge before it was too late.
Andrew hoped for one of those possibilities, because the alternative was that he was about to walk into a trap. He decided to keep an eye on the kid until he learned more. No sense getting betrayed after coming this far.
“We can each take our own vehicles,” Andrew said. “You lead, I’ll follow.”
“Oh yeah, for sure,” Wizard said, nodding agreeably. “Thing is, I’m shagged. I was thinking we could go in the morning. If you want, you can come to my motel.”
Andrew scowled. He didn’t want to delay any longer than he had to. “We should go now.”
“You don’t have night-vision gear, do you?”
“Because the guards at the warehouse do. One of them almost fragged me when I was there before. It’ll be safer if we check it out in the morning.”
“At dawn,” Andrew growled.
“Sure.” Wizard’s gaze tracked to the plate of grilled cheese in front of Andrew. “You not gonna eat those?”
“I’ll take it to go,” Andrew said as he stood up from the table.
Wizard stood up next and led the way to the door. Andrew carried the plate of grilled cheese out with him, making sure to keep the kid ahead of him at all times.
3 Days Left…
The drive was long and arduous. On any given autumn day, it would have taken about thirteen hours plus pit stops, but with the recent events, it was closer to seventeen. Twice she’d arrived at blocked intersections, too congested with damaged vehicles to maneuver around. There was no one left to clear the roads, so they sat like that, and probably would forever, if the predictions were accurate.
Kendra had listened to the radio for a while, but there were no active FM stations broadcasting, so she was relying on the antiquated AM networks that had become a rarity with modern technology. The news came in fuzzy and unclear, but she was able to make out enough to understand that things were escalating.
It appeared that the government had attempted to use some new technology inside the Yellowstone volcano after a Japanese firm claimed it worked on one of their forty active spots. It turned out the statement was fabricated by their government to give false hope to a doomed nation, and they’d wasted a few days throwing this Vibration Inhibitor, as they called it, into the gaping maw of the beast.
A war had broken out between Russia and anyone willing to stand against them, as they fortified themselves for the coming epidemic, and China had been eerily quiet throughout the last two days, going radio and internet silent. There was ample speculation about this, and Kendra turned the station off as the talking heads made random conjectures on the subject. She knew none of them provided answers. They were all grasping at straws, but what did it matter? If the world was going to end, worrying about other nations was the least of their concerns.
Kendra wanted to shout at them to go to their families and hug their children. They should be spending every moment they could with their loved ones, because that was all they had left.
The thought made her think about her own parents. Her father’s disappointment at her joining the FBI and throwing a career in finance out the window, and her mother’s sad, vacant eyes. Every time she visited, Kendra knew her mother was seeing Carrie, and when she realized it wasn’t her firstborn, she’d leave the room, crying.
It was too much to take. Even now, with the threat of the world ending, she couldn’t bring herself to call them. It had been too long. Or had it?
It was late, after midnight. Kendra had heard of cell service disintegrating around the nation, but she thought it was worth a shot. She’d overcome a lot in her life, and more so over the last several days, even killing two men. But somehow her hands shook more now as she pulled to the side of the road and checked the GPS. The Silverado that was over an hour ahead of her had finally parked. She wondered if that was his ultimate destination, or if he was only breaking for the night.
Kendra opened her door, sticking her legs out straight, stretching the cramping muscles. She stood up, walking down the road for ten yards while searching for her parents’ number in her directory. When she didn’t find their house number, she realized she’d switched phones three years ago, and had failed to upload a lot of her previous contacts.
There was just one number she’d held onto, and she found it under ‘Mom Cell’. She’d only called it once, and had hung up before anyone answered. Her mom didn’t have her unlisted number, so she couldn’t reach Kendra even if she wanted to. Kendra didn’t expect her to have even noticed.
She closed her eyes and inhaled the scent of early morning country air. She was farther north than she’d ever traveled in the state, and was almost surprised by all the hills and cliffs, surrounded by endless trees. It was hard to imagine the looming catastrophe had the potential to end all of this beauty. What was going to be left of their society in a few days?
Once inside the car, she dialed the number, the call ringing through her speakers via Bluetooth.
“Hello,” a voice said.
“Mom… It’s me.” Kendra’s voice was small, child-like.
“Carrie?” her mom asked, and Kendra fought to keep the tears away.
She wiped her wet cheeks. “No, Mom. It’s Kendra.”
“Kendra. Where have you been? I tried to call you. I tried to contact you, but the FBI numbers I found all went to voicemail. Are you all right?” her mom asked. She’d tried to track her down. Maybe all wasn’t lost.
“Mom, are you and Dad okay?” she asked.
“We’re fine, dear.”
“Where are you?”
“Why didn’t you go to Texas? It’s not safe at home,” she said.
“Kendra, you don’t really believe all this, do you?” she asked.
“I didn’t… but I do now,” Kendra admitted, partly for her own benefit.
Her mom’s voice rose an octave. “Wake up, Harold. Kendra says this is all real. What do we do?”
Kendra sighed and tried to clear her head. “Jump in your car and head for Texas. Go to the Houston field office. I’ll text you a contact’s name.” She’d give them her partner’s name. Even though Peter Costella was a jerk, he wouldn’t be able to turn Kendra’s parents away.
“Okay. Will you be there?” She could hear her dad prompting questions from beside her mom, and could almost picture the two of them lying in bed, disheveled and panicked. Why had she waited so long to reach out to them?
“I’m going to try,” Kendra told them.
“Where are you?”
“Why? You should have left days ago. The entire Atlantic and Pacific coasts have been evacuated,” her mom said in a rush.
“I know. I’m on a case.”
“Mom, take care of Dad, and make sure you get to Houston. Does Dad still have a rifle?” she asked.
“Harold, where’s the gun?” she mumbled through the speaker. “It’s in the garage, dear.”
“Bring it. You’re now living in a dangerous world,” Kendra said. Her tears were dried up, and she felt the need to keep moving toward her GPS target.
“We won’t have to… shoot anyone, will we?” her mom asked.
“Mom, just be careful. I’m texting you the details. Go now, while it’s still dark out.”
“Honey, you have no idea how nice it is to hear from you.” Her mom’s voice was small again.
“I love you, Mom. Tell Dad I love him too.”
“We love you too, Kendra. We always have,” her mom said, and Kendra ended the call, unable to continue talking. It would only make her want to turn around and head to Texas. But she was close to solving this case, and she knew it.
With deft movements, she sent the address and Peter’s number to her mom, and threw the car in drive, leaving the radio off. She rolled the passenger window open a crack, and let the fresh air flow through the car.
She drove the rest of the way in silence, finally exiting off the Redwood Highway around one thirty in the morning. Her gas tank was nearly empty, and she’d already used up the two jerry cans of fuel in her trunk. Instead of heading straight for the blinking light on her GPS application, she pulled over to a gas station after passing a beat-up truck a mile or so down the road.
Even in the dimly-lit night sky, she could make out the body lying on the gravel lot. She parked beside the fuel pumps with her lights aiming toward the person. His white shirt was hard with dried blood. She didn’t need to check if he was alive.
Kendra noted the glass door had been shattered, and she didn’t want to find out if anyone was inside waiting for her. She prepaid for the fuel, relieved she’d remembered her wallet. It was funny how quickly things like credit cards became arbitrary pieces of plastic. Lucky for her, she was still carrying it.
She injected the gas as fast as she could, grateful the pumps were still running. Her gun didn’t leave her holster, but she was fully aware how close it was at hand, confident she’d win a duel on the gravel lot if it came to it.
Kendra shoved the nozzle back and hurried into her car, turning around to reconnect with Mattole Road. Eventually she arrived at a place called Poppa’s Diner. She cut her lights, and parked out of sight on the edge of the road. She killed the engine, but was ready to fire it up and tear out of here if necessary.
When she was certain no one could see her car from the diner, she grabbed her binoculars and scanned the area. Exactly where her GPS showed it, there was the Silverado, parked beside another truck, this one slightly newer and larger. It was hard to make out the color in the dark, but she thought it might be blue. The sign to the diner was still on; three of six vintage light bulbs glowed against it, barely illuminating the name of the establishment.
She saw movement from the corner of her eye, and adjusted the view to see a young man inside. He might have been a teenager, or at least in his early twenties, judging by the patchy beard. He was wearing an apron, and he emerged from the kitchen holding two plates of food. He passed one to the other man. It was Andrew Miller, the man she’d been following, the one searching for Valeria Miller. She was absolutely positive he’d been the one to shoot Mr. Tesla, or David Wilkes, as she now knew the kidnapper to be.
Miller’s eyes were intense, even from here, and he was flipping a coin over his knuckles. He accepted the plate of food, and Kendra watched as he showed more interest in his laptop than what was on his plate. He turned it to face the kid, and he typed away at the keyboard with half a sandwich between his teeth. A minute later the laptop was sliding back across the table to Andrew. The older man’s eyes widened with shock.
“It has to be his computer,” she said, feeling so close to the end of the ride. If that was Wilkes’ laptop, they had whatever answers it contained. She contemplated storming inside, exposing their clandestine meeting, but there were too many variables that could go wrong if Andrew really was involved. Her chances were stronger if she stayed in the shadows, following along until she couldn’t any longer. This way she kept the upper hand.
A few minutes later, the duo was leaving the diner. The younger man flicked the lights off as they exited, and each man got into his respective truck. Kendra’s heart raced as she thought about where they might be going. Would they lead her to the missing people now? She really wished she had a cup of coffee, and briefly considered using the diner to brew a pot.
As the trucks’ engines fired up, their headlights cascaded over the road, slowly disappearing in the distance. Kendra hit the ignition button for her car and put it into drive, making sure she stayed a mile or two behind.
3 Days Left…
The motel where the kid was staying turned out to be up the road in the last ghost town that Andrew could remember driving through. Fernsdale. It was a scenic little town, and the motel was abandoned. Wizard had already taken the liberty of breaking into the front office and stealing a room key for himself, which meant that he’d been staying here for a while already. Now he led Andrew back through the open door where he’d broken a pane of glass to let himself in. He gestured grandly to the place as if he owned it, and then walked around the front desk. “Would you like a room, sir?”
“Just give me a key.”
“Sure thing. Will you be paying with cash or credit, Mr. Miller?”
Andrew scowled at him, glaring death.
Wizard sighed. “No sense of humor.” He turned and grabbed a random key off a decoratively carved and painted key rack in the shape of a redwood forest, then handed the key to Andrew. “You can have the room next to mine.”
“Thanks.” Andrew snatched it away and began to leave.
“Good night! Jeez!”
Andrew regarded the kid steadily. A thought had belatedly occurred to him. “You take off without me, and I’ll hunt you down.”
“Uh-huh. You know that makes me want to take off without you, right?”
“That wouldn’t be smart.”
“Are you threatening me?”
“Are you planning to leave?”
“Then you don’t have to worry about it. Sleep tight.”
* * *
Andrew banged on the door to the Wizard’s room with his fist. “Time to go.”
He heard footsteps. Then the door swung wide and the kid appeared, rubbing his eyes. “What’s going on?” He peered around Andrew’s shoulder to catch a glimpse of the sky. “It’s not even light out!”
“It will be soon. Grab your things and let’s go.”
The Wizard frowned and squinted bleary eyes at Andrew. He gave in with a sigh. “Fine. Give me a sec.”
Andrew averted his gaze from the open door and tapped his foot impatiently, staring up at the charcoal sky. There was a bite to the air. Something bitter.
The door banged shut, and Andrew turned to see the kid in a black hoodie, a cream-filled chocolate packet pastry dangling from his mouth.
“You have your gun?” Andrew asked.
Wizard chomped off half the pastry and spoke through a hail of chocolaty crumbs. “Yeah, man, you?”
Andrew patted the inside pocket of his denim jacket.
Wizard nodded as they crossed the parking lot to their trucks. Andrew fished the keys from his jeans pocket and noticed the kid doing the same.
“Maybe we should take one vehicle,” he suggested.
“Because if that warehouse you found is guarded, two trucks will make more noise than one, and because I need you close to give me directions. We’re not going to drive up to the place. We’ll have to pull off to the side of the road long before we reach it.”
“You think I’m an idiot who’s going to blow our cover,” Wizard guessed.
Andrew shrugged. That, and he didn’t fully trust this kid, so he wanted to keep him close.
“Fine. We’ll take my truck.”
“Try again,” Andrew said, rounding the tailgate of the kid’s F-150 to reach his old Silverado.
“How come you’re calling the shots?”
“Because it’s my daughter who was abducted, and if we screw this up, she’s the one who pays the price.” Andrew stopped beside the driver’s side door. “You have someone who went missing?”
“So what are you doing out here?” Andrew kept his hands loose at his sides, his mind already running through all the different ways to incapacitate this kid before he could reach for his gun.
“Well, I mean...” Wizard’s brow furrowed. He scratched his jaw as he thought about it, as if not even he was certain what he was doing. “I guess I’m suspicious of this Lewis Hound guy. I mean, what’s his deal? Abducting people, building a refuge...”
“Yeah, but what’s it to you?”
“I always hated those elitist clubs I couldn’t get into. The frats, the jocks... drama club.”
“You couldn’t get into drama club? You seem like a natural.”
Wizard squinted at him, as if he couldn’t decide whether Andrew was being serious or not. “Yeah, well, I want into this one. And a couple of goons came to my house with guns, so they made it personal.”
Wizard popped the last of the pastry into his mouth and nodded silently.
“Well, you’ve got your nose in the game, but my blood is in it, so we do this my way, understood?”
Wizard shrugged. “Sure, man. You have the combat experience, anyway. I just like my truck better.”
Andrew snorted and shook his head. “Get in.”
* * *
“All right, we’re close,” Wizard said.
“Another mile and we’ll come to the bend in the road where I pulled off last time I was here.”
Andrew spied an opening between the redwoods on the right, big enough to fit his truck. He hit the brakes and pulled off into it, bouncing over the bumpy terrain and flattening a few ferns along the way.
“Hey, you can pull up a little closer,” Wizard said.
“You said some guys jumped you the last time you were here.”
“So we have to be more careful this time. Can’t use the same approach. We’ll hike in from here.”
Andrew killed the engine, and they exited the vehicle. Wizard slammed his door with a resounding bang, and Andrew scowled. “Quiet!” he hissed.
“Sorry.” The kid came crunching noisily through a bed of dry pine needles as he walked around the front of the truck.
Andrew stared pointedly at the kid’s feet. “No wonder they caught you last time. You’re as loud as an elephant.”
“Dude, we’re a mile away from where I hiked in the last time. That puts us like three miles from the warehouse. There’s no one out here to hear us.”
“You keep thinking like that and we’ll be dead. This is my op, remember?”
“Yes sir, Sergeant Miller, sir,” Wizard quipped in a whiny voice.
Andrew smirked. “I was a corporal, but thanks for the promotion.”
They entered the forest on the right side of the road and began hiking in, with Wizard pointing the way. The rising sun pooled crimson in the sky, and tendrils of mist snaked along the forest floor. That bitter edge to the air was intensifying. At first Andrew thought it might be the forest, but then his head began to feel light, and he started feeling sick to his stomach.
“There’s something wrong with the air.”
Andrew glanced at Wizard to see him holding the collar of his hoodie over his mouth and nose.
“It’s all in your head,” Andrew said.
“No, man, I feel like I want to faint and throw up.”
“Hard to throw up when you’re unconscious,” Andrew pointed out.
“You know what I mean!”
“Quiet. It’s probably just that hundred-year-old Twinkie you ate,” Andrew said.
“It was a Ding Dong.”
“I think this is an acid fog. That shit’s toxic. It killed a bunch of people in Africa.”
“Good thing we’re not in Africa, then. How much farther?”
“Half a mile to the lookout, maybe? We should go back. We’ll find some respirators or something.”
“You know where to find respirators?”
“Then we push on,” Andrew growled. “And keep your yap shut. Half a mile is close enough for our voices to carry.”
Before long, they came to a clearing at the edge of a cliff overlooking the coast. They both pulled out their guns and crept up to the cliff’s edge, flattening themselves in the long yellow grass. It was still wet with dew. The fog was thick as cotton below, rolling in from the ocean like a tsunami.
Wizard pointed to a faint rectangular silhouette, hazy with the fog, just barely visible along the coast. “There,” he whispered. “That’s the warehouse.”
Judging by the outlines of the structures that Andrew saw, the ‘warehouse’ was actually a massive complex ringed with chain-link fences and barbed wire. As if that wasn’t enough, Andrew could see drones buzzing around above it all. He followed the hovering machines with his eyes and saw them flying out over the ocean. That was when he noticed the outline of a container ship out toward the horizon. There were maybe a dozen people standing around on the deck. Andrew glanced back at Wizard to see that the kid had produced a pair of binoculars from his hoodie.
“Give me those,” Andrew snapped, and ripped them away before the kid could object.
“Quiet,” Andrew added as he peered through the eyepieces at the container ship. The people on the deck were all carrying rifles and wearing masks. Maybe the air was toxic after all. He grimaced and turned his attention to the warehouse. There wasn’t anyone left guarding the fence. “We need to get down there and see if they left anything behind that might tell us where they’re going.”
“Yeah—” Wizard coughed into his jacket and then spoke in a hoarse whisper: “It looks abandoned. We should go back to the truck and drive closer.”
Andrew glanced around, then stood up and peered over the cliff. Too steep to climb down. “Where were you the last time?”
The kid pointed to another clearing along the cliff, about twenty yards below their current position. It didn’t look any easier to climb down from there.
“All right, let’s go. We’ll see how close we can get.” Andrew’s own voice was hoarse now, and he could feel his throat burning. The kid was right. This was an acid fog.
They ran through the forest on the way back, trading stealth for speed. The burning in Andrew’s throat and the dizzy, sick feeling spurred him on, but he had to stop frequently to give Wizard a chance to keep up.
“I can’t do this, man!” the kid gasped raggedly while leaning against a giant redwood. “I’m going to faint. Just give me five.”
“You want to die out here?”
Wizard’s face scrunched up pitifully. “No, but...”
“What’s your name?”
“I’m being serious.”
“Great. Now I know what to put on your tombstone.”
“You’re staying here, right? Good luck with that.” Andrew turned and jogged away. A few seconds later, he heard feet pounding the ground behind him, kicking pine needles.
“You’re a jerk,” Roland gasped.
“And you’re dead without me.”
A few minutes later, Andrew spied the road and one of the taillights of his truck, peeking out between a pair of giant redwoods. He aimed for that.
Just as they were about to trade the forest floor for asphalt, Andrew heard something—a whisper at first, but growing steadily in pitch and volume. He swept an arm out in front of Roland to stop him, and cocked an ear to the sound.
“What is it?” the kid asked.
Andrew placed a finger to his lips and peered up the road toward the noise. He caught a glimpse of a silver car and pulled Roland behind a tree. Andrew peered around the side of it. The car slowed as it approached his truck, then pulled off and stopped. Shit, Andrew thought. That spot had looked like a better hiding place at dawn than it did now in the light of day.
A second later, a white van came screaming down the road toward the car and skidded to a stop beside it. The passenger side door flew open, and a man in camo fatigues and a spray-painter’s mask jumped out, aiming a Glock around his door at the driver’s side of the silver car.
“Get out of the vehicle!” the man yelled, his voice muffled by the mask.
3 Days Left…
Kendra’s eyes blinked open, and she instantly regretting her sleeping arrangements. Her back ached, her temples throbbing as she lifted the driver’s seat into an upright position. She’d passed the motel the trucks had stopped at a few hours ago, and had circled over to a nestled spot leading to an acreage down the street.
Outside was foggy, dense like pea soup. She checked the time. It was after nine in the morning, and she jumped in astonishment, hitting her head on the car’s ceiling.
“Stupid, stupid Kendra,” she chided herself. She’d been so exhausted she’d slept right through the GPS movement notifications. It chimed again, and she activated the app.
The truck was twenty miles away, right beside the coastline. That’s where they were; they had to be. She popped her glove box open, discovering a bottle of caffeine pills, and with practiced efficiency she tossed two in her mouth and swigged from her water. She hoped it helped with the headache, and since the truck wasn’t moving, she drove to the motel, finding one vehicle still there. She watched for a few minutes, witnessing no movement inside, and she pulled her gun, testing the handle to the room the younger man had been sleeping in.
It was unlocked, and the room appeared empty. It didn’t look like he was planning on returning. She gave herself two minutes to use the bathroom, and tried to clean herself up. Her eyes were red and puffy, and she brushed her hair with her hands, pulling it into a fresh ponytail.
Satisfied, Kendra returned to the car, and saw the truck still hadn’t left. That was a good sign. She reached for her cell phone, trying to think who she could call for backup. There was no one. The police hadn’t cared about any of the cases, and the FBI had closed up shop, leaving her high and dry. This was a solo mission.
At first she thought the mist outside was fog, but at this point she wasn’t so sure. It had a different quality to it, a sour taste in the middle of her throat. It had to be a version of the toxic fog she kept hearing about. If it had spread to California already, things were progressing faster than expected. She slammed her vents shut, and killed the fan blowing air from outside.
As she headed for the coast, moving west, the fog grew thicker, making visibility on the winding side roads nearly nonexistent. She tried to brake lightly, but came to a sharp corner, not seeing the yellow arrow sign until it was too late. She let out a scream as the car skidded off the road and into a metal guard rail, stopping her from falling over a ten-foot drop.
A strand of hair fell in Kendra’s eyes, and her chest heaved as adrenaline coursed through her veins. “You’re okay. You’re okay.”
She managed to back away from the edge enough to open her door with a clunk, and she climbed out, seeing her front driver’s side tire was punctured. The car tilted toward the ground on that side.
Just what she needed, and only three miles or so from catching up to the Silverado and Andrew Miller. Kendra went through the motions of changing the tire. She jacked up the frame, loosened the lug nuts, and when it came to tugging the tire off, it didn’t want to budge. Something was bent from the impact, and it took all her strength, a tire iron, and a few curse words to have it budge an inch before sliding all the way off. Kendra fell as inertia took over, and the tire flopped to the ground with a thud. She cussed, dusted herself off, and placed the full-sized spare onto the car, replacing the nuts and lowering the jack all the way down.
The whole event took about twenty minutes, and she hoped she hadn’t missed her opportunity. She drove slower, the fog thick and heavy. She needed to find a respirator in case the fumes were too toxic, but for now, she wanted to find the Silverado, and hopefully the faces to go with the missing names in her file.
The last few miles went by gradually, the car constantly pulling to the left. As she came around a corner, the elevations lowered, and she maneuvered down the declining road. The fog lifted here a bit, and she could finally see the ocean in the distance. The blinking light of the hidden GPS on the Silverado was close, a mile from the coast. She slowed, something catching her eye out in the water. Her stomach sank as she grabbed for her binoculars.
It was a bulk carrier, usually used for transporting goods. Shipping containers from China were constantly arriving in the coast’s ports, but this one was leaving with only a few passengers on top. The men and women were armed, and drones hovered over the water, catching up to the vessel. She traced their trajectory, and found the massive warehouse as the fog lifted and broke apart momentarily.
She was too late. They’d moved them onto a boat. She needed to sneak into that warehouse and find out where they’d been taken.
The car was on its last legs, the tire rubbing against the bent wheel well. She could see the black truck parked along the side of the road ahead. It was time to stop messing around. Kendra had to find out what this Miller character knew.
As she veered off the road, steering her damaged car to a halt, a white van raced toward her. It slid to a stop a few yards away and the driver jumped out, using his door for a shield as he pointed a gun at Kendra.
“Get out of the vehicle!” he shouted, motioning with his pistol. Kendra nudged her door open and jammed her hands above her head. The fog was rolling down the side of the cliff, inching towards them, and she noticed the glint of a gun from behind the white van before seeing Andrew Miller’s head. His eyes went wide as he recognized her, and Kendra tried to stay calm as she decided what to do next.
“Good. Now slowly take your gun, and set it on the ground.” The man spoke more softly now, confident of his actions. His voice was slightly muffled from the respirator over his face.
She bent at the knees, placing the Glock on the street.
“Good. Kick it over.”
Kendra made eye contact with Miller and nodded. It was now or never. She kicked the gun two meters to the right of the armed man, and hoped Miller knew what he was doing.
* * *
Andrew couldn’t believe it. Somehow that FBI agent had followed him all the way from San Diego. Had she followed him to David Wilkes’ home, too?
“Good. Now slowly take your gun, and set it on the ground,” the man from the van said through his respirator. There was a deadly calm to his voice that Andrew didn’t like. This guy was going to kill her, no matter what.
The FBI agent bent down and placed her pistol on the blacktop.
“Good. Kick it over,” the guy in the respirator said.
The FBI agent caught Andrew’s eye as she straightened. She’d seen him hiding behind the tree. The expression on her face was equal parts fear and resignation, but there was a spark of understanding, too. She was putting her life in Andrew’s hands.
Andrew grimaced and took aim in a two-handed grip at the man’s back. There had to be another guy in the driver’s seat, and that meant he’d have to be fast. He didn’t have just one target to take out, but two.
The FBI agent kicked her gun, and it skittered two meters toward the guy from the van.
Andrew took a breath and held it. Time seemed to slow, and the world grew deadly quiet. His finger flexed on the trigger. The sound reached his ears, but dimly. He ran out of cover even as the man in the respirator cried out and fell. His gun went flying, but he began crawling to reach it. Andrew pulled the trigger again, and the man’s struggles ceased.
The van’s wheels squealed as they slipped on the road. Andrew shot out the back tire with a bang, and the van lurched to one side before bouncing away at a reduced speed. He ran to catch it, grabbing the door frame and letting the van drag him. A bullet zipped past his ear. He pulled himself up and popped off a shot. Blood spattered the windshield and side window, and the driver slumped over the wheel. The van veered sharply off the road. Andrew jumped and rolled just before it slammed into a tree.
Andrew lay there for a second, dazed and bruised, ears ringing from multiple gunshots. He did a quick mental inventory. No serious pain yet, but that didn’t mean much. Shock could suppress the pain. He eased off the asphalt in time to see Roland creeping out from behind the tree where he’d left him. The FBI agent was running over with her gun in hand.
“Hey!” she said.
Andrew felt around for his pistol, and then spotted it gleaming on the blacktop about twelve feet to his right. Too far to reach it. He was at her mercy now.
She stopped beside him and holstered her weapon before dropping to her haunches to look him over. “Are you okay?”
He nodded uncertainly. “I think so.”
“Nice shooting,” she said. “And timing. Thanks for that. I owe you. Can you stand?”
The woman held out a hand, and Andrew took it to haul himself up. He half expected to yank her off her feet, but she was stronger than she looked. Once he was on his feet, he limped over to his gun and picked it up.
“Damn, man,” Roland said, staring at the scene—his eyes grazed the dead guy and the crashed van. “We need to bug out before more of them come.”
“We need to get to that warehouse,” Andrew countered.
“My car is damaged,” the agent said.
“We’ll take my truck,” Andrew said as he limped over to the guy in the spray-painter’s mask. He pulled the mask off and held it out to Roland. “Put it on.”
“Yeah.” He nodded quickly. “Good idea.”
Andrew headed for the van. He tried a light jog, and was relieved to find that the pains in his legs were only bruises, not sprains or breaks.
“Where are you going?” the agent asked.
He returned with the driver’s mask dangling from one hand. “It’s a bit bloody, but it should keep the toxins out of your lungs,” he said, nodding to the fog still drifting through the trees.
The FBI agent wrinkled her nose at the mask and shook her head.
Andrew shrugged and put it on himself. “Suit yourself,” he said in a muffled voice. “Let’s go.”
3 Days Left…
“Shouldn’t we be a little more cautious?” Roland asked. Andrew wasn’t messing around. He was driving the truck straight towards the warehouse, and Roland had to duck to keep his head from slamming into the vehicle’s ceiling as they bounced around the rough road.
“You saw the boat leave just like I did. The drones were following them too,” Andrew said.
“That doesn’t mean all of them are gone,” the woman added.
“Who the hell are you, anyway? You guys know each other?” Roland asked. They’d worked in unison, as if they’d been partners in crime for years.
“She’s FBI,” Andrew said sharply through his blood-speckled respirator. The entire look was so post-apocalyptic-movie, Roland slunk away, trying to gain distance from the man.
The woman glanced over and forced a smile. “Special Agent Kendra Baker,” she said with a nod.
“I guess titles don’t really hold any meaning these days,” Roland told her.
Her brows furrowed in confusion. “Why do you say that?” she asked.
“Because the world is ruined. Have you looked around? People killing each other in the streets, toxic fog, acid rain… the third largest hurricane ever hit the Caribbean last night, and that’s only the beginning. We’re doomed, lady. Doomed.” He pulled his cap off and ran a hand through his thick hair.
“We might survive,” Kendra said firmly.
“Doubt it. This is it. The big one. Once the quakes start, the tsunamis will roll in, the volcanoes will activate, and half the world will be covered in six inches of ash. Man, it’s going to be a nightmare. That’s why we need to find out what Hound’s doing!” Roland’s excitement was ramping up, and his voice cracked as he shouted.
“What are you going on about?” Kendra asked. “Who’s Hound?”
“Lewis Hound,” Roland said.
“The billionaire?” Kendra asked.
“What does he have to do with all of this?”
“I’ll make it a quicker story,” Andrew started. “The kid went on for an hour about it, and this was the gist: Lewis Hound has been quietly building something in the middle of the ocean for the last few years. Roland managed to track the last shipping point to this very warehouse. He’s also seen people being ferried out to bulk carriers by armed men, and witnessed them departing from shore.”
“The missing persons case I’m working on leads here,” Kendra said, her voice low. “Then your daughter…?”
Andrew nodded from the driver’s seat.
They arrived at the gates, and Roland noticed Andrew scanning the air for drones.
“Do you think they’re all gone? What about more guards?” Kendra asked.
“They’re all gone. Those guards were their last line of defense, but I suspect we’re not going to find much in the warehouse either.” The gates were the kind you needed to be buzzed into before the electric rollers moved it to the side. Roland braced himself as he felt the truck begin to lurch forward. Andrew didn’t ease up; instead, he accelerated as they neared the gates, and the truck busted through with a bang and a clatter. They drove over the mess and kept moving for the edge of the warehouse.
“That’s one hell of an entrance,” Kendra said. “So you’re saying this place is owned by the billionaire Lewis Hound, and that he’s built something in the water? And that he kidnapped people from around the country and brought them here? To what end?”
“You’re the special agent. You tell us,” Andrew said.
“There are only a few things it could be,” Roland told her. “An underwater bunker, set to avoid and survive the coming years of devastation above ground, or a ship like Noah’s Ark, made to travel the world in search of a safe home after the events transpire.”
“And the people are there to repopulate the Earth. Scientists, doctors, farmers… but what about the others? Your daughter is what… fifteen?” Kendra asked Andrew.
“Fourteen,” he said as they arrived at the edge of the immense warehouse. Andrew hopped out in seconds, his gun in his hand. Roland waited for the two armed professionals to assess the area before venturing from his seat. He grabbed his backpack with his laptop in it, and joined them as they moved for the side door.
“What do they want with her?” Kendra asked.
“I have no idea, Agent.”
“Kendra. Just call me Kendra,” she told him.
Roland watched as Andrew tested the door lever. It turned clockwise, and he tugged it open. He glanced at the two of them, surprise in his eyes. “Guess they weren’t expecting company.”
The ocean was loud today, angry waves lapping against the dock a quarter mile from the warehouse. The building was even larger, being so close to it, and Roland’s gaze ran a line up the outer wall, settling on the ceiling a hundred feet or so up. He suddenly felt exposed out here beside the structure, and silently urged Andrew to enter the premises.
The Marine did, with the FBI agent close behind; both of them had their guns raised. The woman, Kendra, was clearing her throat, the toxic fog getting to her. Hopefully it would be better inside, or Roland would have to be forced to offer his respirator to her for a bit. It wasn’t something he wanted to do, especially with his asthma.
“Step inside, Roland.” Andrew’s head poked through the doorway, and Roland jogged over.
The facility was dimly lit without power; only a compact line of windows near the roof overlooking the ocean aided them. The natural light exposed the empty warehouse floor. There was next to nothing inside. It even appeared as though someone had washed the entire concrete pad after evacuating. Roland instantly knew this project was run by someone fastidious.
A couple of skids stood stacked along the far wall, and two forklifts were parked, their power charging cords plugged into two hundred forty-volt sockets. Rows and rows of empty red shelving lined the other half of the facility, the end caps labeled with a structured nomenclature. Roland let a low whistle out. He was impressed.
“What is it?” Andrew asked, glancing wearily at him.
“This place, it’s the real deal. These guys were clearly pros in the supply chain game. No wonder the paperwork was done so precisely. There were a dozen company names under umbrella corps, ordering supplies from suppliers around the world. All the goods ended up here after making stops in various hubs around the United States.” Roland pointed to the far side of the room. Tall robotic arms and machinery sat powered down in dead silence. “Look, manufacturing bays.”
“What does that mean?” Kendra asked.
“It means they built some of the stuff here and shipped it out to the facility,” he answered.
“And where is that?” she asked.
“If we knew that, we wouldn’t need to be in here right now,” Roland said.
Andrew seemed impatient. The man had one purpose in life; that much was clear: to find his daughter. Roland didn’t blame him, but he couldn’t quite grasp the drive. He’d never had someone in his life to care so much about, at least not since his grandma had left the world.
“Let’s keep moving. Where would this computer be?” Andrew asked.
“No idea. Let’s start with the rooms,” Roland said, and Kendra was already taking the lead, walking toward the rear doorway.
“Let’s separate. It’ll go faster,” she said.
“If it’s just the same, I’ll stick with you,” Roland told her, hating how weak it made him sound. Better weak than dead. She didn’t argue, but he saw the slight grin on her face, mocking him. He was used to it.
“I’ll check these out,” Andrew called from the other side of the warehouse.
The first room was dark, and Kendra flipped a light switch on when she entered. She scanned the room from behind her gun, and Roland saw it was a janitorial closet. Stacks of paper towels and cases of toilet paper sat in neat rows; various cleaning chemicals were color-coordinated on a metal rack.
Without a word, she stepped out, bumping into Roland and waving him away with a frown. The next room was empty; the following ones were bathrooms with large clean stalls for the warehouse workers.
They met Andrew again in the corner of the rear storeroom, and he wasn’t wearing his used respirator. He held out three fresh ones, and passed two over. Roland happily tossed the borrowed one to the side, and slid this one over his head, letting it rest around his neck.
“Any luck?” he asked the Marine.
“Nothing resembling a computer room yet, but it looks like the building goes on over there.” Andrew pointed to a double door to the right of the manufacturing bays, and they crossed the space, their footsteps echoing in the vast empty room.
Kendra pushed through the doors and waved Andrew through. Roland took the rear, and was surprised to see a large living space. There was a pool table, televisions on the walls, a coffee bar, and games and books stacked in bookshelves.
“What is this place?” he asked.
“This is where they gave their captives a sense of normalcy,” Andrew said.
“He’s right. They were trying to make them feel safe, comforted.” Kendra walked to the pool table and ran a finger along the wooden ledge. She pushed an errant ball into a side pocket and kept walking. “I suspect we’ll find the accommodations nearby.”
She was correct. There were two sizeable rooms, one presumably for men, and one for women. Each held about fifty bunks, stripped clean of linens and pillows. Roland’s stomach churned at the idea of being trapped in there with so many other people, not knowing your fate. But maybe these were the lucky ones.
Andrew shouldered past Roland, nearly knocking his backpack off. He strode through the bunks, as if searching for one his daughter might have been sleeping on.
He stopped and turned to face Roland, his eyes intense and dark. “Find the computer. We need to figure out where he took them.”
“I’m trying. Let’s keep moving,” Roland said. After stumbling upon an immaculate commercial kitchen and dining hall, they found the employees’ area. The metal door was locked, and a keypad hung beside the handle on the wall.
Andrew fiddled with it, but it wasn’t going to budge. He pulled back, like he was about to attempt to kick open the solid metal door, and Roland reached out, grabbing the man’s shoulder.
“Let me try something first.” Roland set his pack on the ground and pulled a small flathead screwdriver from the front pouch. He pried the casing of the control box apart, revealing wires and a metallic panel. He analyzed it, finding it was more rudimentary than he’d expected. “They could have made this a little more challenging,” he mumbled to himself, and stuck his tongue out the side of his mouth as he cut two wires. He held his breath and tapped the loose ends. The door buzzed and a red light flashed on the panel.
Kendra pressed the lever and the door opened for them. “Nice work, Roland,” she said, and he couldn’t help but smile at the praise from the pretty FBI lady. It wasn’t every day he was complimented. Or ever.
“It’ll be in here,” Roland said with a confidence he’d been missing minutes ago. It was nicer on this side of the complex, and he gazed over the electronics and fancy bar set up with leather seating and a boardroom table.
Beyond the open area was a surveillance room. Dozens of screens lined the wall, none of them currently activated. That gave Roland hope there was no one watching the warehouse any longer. Why bother? It was empty, its purpose served.
He found what he wanted at the end of the room. A black console sat there, unplugged from the server he knew would have been taken. He could only hope there was enough ghost data on the box to roll with.
“This is it.” He took a seat in a cheap office chair and pulled his laptop out, joining the two devices via a cable. The other two lingered behind him, Andrew imposing with his arms crossed, his gun still in hand. Kendra’s Glock was holstered, and she looked at Roland with anticipation, a sense of excitement.
No one spoke as he went through the motions, searching for information that was clearly wiped from the device. “Damn it. This is going to take some time,” Roland told them. He was sure he’d be able to find what he needed, but it would be tedious.
“How long?” Andrew asked, no sense of patience in his voice.
“An hour, maybe three,” Roland said.
Andrew slapped a meaty paw onto the desk, shaking it. “We don’t have that kind of time.”
“What else can we do? Even if we find this location, how are we traveling there?” Kendra asked.
Roland watched as Andrew’s eyebrows lifted. “Eureka!”
“We have a regular Archimedes in the house,” Roland said with a chuckle.
“What the hell does that mean?” Andrew asked angrily.
“Water displacement… old Greek guy… nothing?” Roland started, but realized it wasn’t worth it.
“Eureka. It’s a town a little way up the coast.” Andrew’s phone was out, and Roland saw a map appear on the screen. “There it is.” He pointed to a faint dot on the coastline map. “An hour at the speed limit, but I won’t be driving that slow.”
“What’s in Eureka?” Kendra asked.
“There’s a Marine Corps recruitment station. Also a US Coast Guard base, if I’m not mistaken. We need a boat. They should have them,” Andrew said, already heading for the door.
“You guys are leaving me here alone?” Roland shouted as he heard Kendra chasing after Andrew.
“Find me those details.” She threw a business card on the desk. “Text us the coordinates, and we’ll return for you in a couple of hours.” Roland stared into her big brown eyes. They were deadly serious. “Don’t fail. We need you to do this for us.”
He gulped dryly and nodded as she ran from the surveillance room.
“Better start hustling,” he said out loud, and soon the only sound inside the entire complex was that of his fingers clicking on his laptop keyboard.
3 Days Left…
Kendra slung her seatbelt on as Andrew Miller ripped around the parking lot with his truck, the tires squealing as he peeled away from the large complex.
“Don’t kill us before we have a chance to find anything out,” she warned. He didn’t reply, but she did notice his foot ease off the pedal, if only slightly.
“How did you find me?” Andrew asked without looking at her.
“I saw your handiwork at Wilkes’ house,” she started.
“He was a bad guy,” Andrew told her.
“I assumed as much. I’ve seen enough video of him trailing our missing persons that I knew he was clearly involved, but I didn’t realize at what level.” Kendra kept the window up, and had her respirator hanging below her chin. Andrew did as well.
“You thought I was the ringleader,” he said, and it didn’t sound like a question.
She sighed in agreement. “For a moment, I wasn’t sure. Your story didn’t add up: a missing girl, when the rest were mostly adults and skilled specialists.”
Andrew finally cocked his head to the side and met her stare. “I’m not sure what to tell you, except that Wilkes was a piece of crap.”
“I know. Did you free the woman?” she asked.
“I cut her loose, but she took off before I could help,” he admitted.
“What about you? You didn’t answer my question.”
“I saw your truck at the coffee shop, then tearing away from Mr. Tesla’s,” she said.
“Mr. Tesla,” Andrew laughed.
“That’s what I called him before I knew his name,” she told him, feeling mildly embarrassed.
“It’s a good name.”
“I found you at the motel and hid a tracking device on your truck.” She pulled out her phone, and it showed the blinking light moving along the highway as he drove up the coast.
There was a scattering of cars on the side of the highway, and she could see pieces of the ocean behind open pockets of fog as they drove higher in elevation, then nothing as they lowered on the undulating roads.
“I should have been more careful,” he said. “But I’m glad you’re here. I can use all the help I can get.”
“How did you find the strange kid?” she asked. The truth was, Roland was probably only a few years younger than her, but with his disposition and eclectic style, he felt a decade her junior.
Andrew filled her in about the missing laptop from Wilkes, and how he couldn’t access it. So that was what she’d been seeing through the binoculars at the restaurant the night before. It confirmed her suspicions. She was glad Andrew wasn’t who she’d speculated. He was gritty, on the edge right now, and she noticed him clenching his jaw tight every minute or so. She guessed there were dark secrets in his closet, and she wasn’t about to try to pry them out.
“I killed a man a couple of days ago,” she told him after five minutes of silence.
“Yeah?” he asked, seeming surprised by her news.
“He was trying to take a van from a woman and her kids,” Kendra said.
“That you shot him. The world’s not going to be pretty from now on, and the fewer dirtbags out there, the better it’s going to be,” he said.
Kendra wasn’t sure she liked his vigilante-justice demeanor, but he was on the same side as her. Jurisdiction and law were likely things of the past.
“It wasn’t my first kill.” She subconsciously ran a hand to her left shoulder, where the scar remained. It had been a bloody day, one that had left behind more than a physical scar.
He didn’t press for more details, and she liked him more for it. She could see the body counts in his posture, in the way he averted his gaze from her eyes. He was a trained killer.
“What’s your story?” he asked.
“Kind of a broad query, isn’t it?” she replied.
“What’s a woman like you doing chasing after a case when the world is ending?”
Anger rose inside her veins, pulsing outward with each beat of her heart. “A woman like me?”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“What did you mean?”
“A person. An FBI agent. Jesus, you know what I’m saying,” he stammered.
The fact that he grew uncomfortable set her at ease, and she relaxed. “I had nowhere else to go.”
“No husband? Kids?” he asked.
“Nope. Parents are on their way to Houston.” She stared out the window, noticing the fog was growing thinner the farther north they went. “You? Other than the daughter.”
“Only a bitter ex-wife and her new husband. I’m okay with him meeting his maker, but…” He stopped, and Kendra noticed his knuckles turn white as he gripped the steering wheel tightly.
“Selena. Used to think she was the love of my life. Hard to leave her behind like this,” he said softly, surprising Kendra with his vulnerability.
“What happened?” She knew she’d gone too far, but he’d started the topic.
“The same thing that always happens. Me. I screw it up.” He didn’t elaborate, and she didn’t ask him to.
The ground vibrated, shooting a tremor through the earth. The truck lurched a bit to the left, toward the opposite lane, and Andrew quickly compensated. No one else was on the road, so at least they didn’t have to worry about a head-on collision.
“Earthquake,” Kendra said. “Let’s hope that’s all we see.”
“I doubt it. It was small, and likely only the beginning,” Andrew said. They kept moving, more slowly now, as if he could sense more danger up ahead.
“I’m impressed,” she told him.
“You. You managed to make it all the way here, and we might actually find your daughter,” Kendra said, meaning every word.
“That’s a long shot,” he said.
“Still… it’s more than most people could do. It’s more than I was able to do,” she said.
“You made it.”
“Only because I trailed you,” she said glumly.
“That’s a skill. You adapted, went with your gut, and made it the same as I did. Mine was a fluke too. If Roland hadn’t been here, or if his website hadn’t been working, I would have been driving around in circles somewhere else.”
The town was ahead; a few billboards for chain restaurants and low-end hotels lined the treed edge of the ditches. Kendra didn’t know what to expect from the town, and was almost surprised to see stop lights at all. Once they entered the city limits, they could no longer see the water, and Andrew drove more slowly, probably trying to get the lay of the land. It was desolate. The streetlights flickered on even though it was only noon, a mixture of the overcast sky and the dense fog lingering in the air.
“The recruiting office was in the mall,” he said, pointing to his left. She followed his finger over to a strip mall, with the usual businesses’ signs showing them what to expect from the main road.
“When you said Marine office, I was kind of hoping it was somewhere we could hop onto a destroyer and arm ourselves to the gills,” Kendra told him.
He laughed. “More the kind where you stamp paperwork and measure recruits for clothing sizes.”
“Where’s the Coast Guard?” she asked.
He passed his phone over and showed her the long skinny peninsula. “We have to cross a bridge and backtrack.”
“There’s no other way?”
“Not if you want a decent boat,” he told her.
There were a few cars stopped without visible damage, and some completely demolished in the next intersection, and Kendra idly scanned the area, trying to see if she could spot any people. It seemed devoid of life, like this was a picture of the world to come. It hit her then how real and dire their situation was.
The ground rumbled again, and she heard the grinding of the road as it split open behind them. She craned her neck and watched a lamp post as it crashed down in front of their truck. Andrew cursed and slammed on the brakes, sending her flying forward. Her seatbelt snapped taut, holding her from hitting her head on the dash.
The truck came to a halt, and the ground shook again, this time with slightly less ferocity. The road shifted in response, and Andrew drove forward, narrowly avoiding sinking into the crevasse that had opened up. A car parked on the side of the street fell in, swallowed like a rock into a pond.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
Kendra patted her chest instinctively and nodded. “We have to keep moving. There isn’t going to be much time.”
“That was a decent quake. We’re right on the San Andreas fault line, Andrew. Tsunamis are a real threat here.” She leaned over him and looked toward the ocean, which was blocked from her view by half a mile of industrial properties.
“Wouldn’t that send the waves out into the water?” he asked.
Kendra didn’t know enough about it to be sure, but she’d seen enough graphs and images on the TV over the last week to have an idea. “They’re saying multiple fault lines are active. We don’t know that the earthquakes are starting here. They might be coming from the middle of the ocean. Or Japan, for all we know.”
“We don’t have time to reach the Coast Guard. Damn it. We’ll have to check the local harbor and hope there’s something useful still docked there.” He pressed the gas, careful to avoid the jagged cracks in the asphalt. With a sharp turn, he swerved past a grocery store, steadily driving faster as the roads cleared out. He stopped at an intersection, and Kendra checked the map on his phone.
“Go left. There’s a shipping company on the water two blocks further. Maybe something’s docked there,” she suggested, and Andrew nodded.
A minute later, they pulled into the parking lot and saw the empty pier.
“Marina will be a few blocks over. If there isn’t anything large enough, we can borrow whatever we find and head to the Coast Guard from there,” Andrew suggested.
He tore down Waterfront Avenue, narrowly missing a cat that darted in front of them. The ground shook again, violently, and Kendra half-expected a kraken to rise from the ocean. They exited the truck, and Andrew pointed to the peninsula to their left. The bridge was almost overtopping them on the right, and that meant he was accurate. They were running out of time.
“We need a cruiser, something with the biggest engine we can find. It has to be strong enough to withstand a little battering, and have enough power to move us quickly.” Andrew headed for the marina, where dozens of boats were docked. Most of them were covered boats, though a few fancy sailboats stood out among the others. The whole area was gated, but Kendra knew they could pass through with ease.
He made for the fence when something caught her ears.
“I don’t think that’s a great idea.” Kendra’s breath caught in her chest. The waves were loud, their sound terrifying, and then she saw it, rising above the peninsula. “The tsunami. It’s coming…”
Andrew stared at the inevitable rush of water for a second before his eyes snapped to hers. “We need to find high ground!”
3 Days Left…
Lewis Hound stared at the screens in the drone monitoring room. There were hundreds of them divided across a dozen different security stations, but he had his eyes fixed on just one in particular. It showed a bird’s eye view into his warehouse on the Lost Coast. A young man sat hunched over a desk in the warehouse control center. Lewis leaned forward to zoom in on the screen sitting atop that desk.
“Shit. He’s using a data recovery program,” Eric Keller said. “I told you we should have killed him.”
“I thought we erased all of the data when we left,” Lewis said.
“We did, but nothing is ever really erased. Not until it’s overwritten. We should have taken all of the servers with us.”
“No. We have weight and storage limits to think about. There’s no point in taking more than we can carry.”
“Well then, we should have melted the ones we left behind,” Eric said.
“We couldn’t have known they’d find the warehouse.”
“We had a clue when one of the guards went missing,” Eric argued.
Lewis shrugged. “It doesn’t matter. It’s too late. Even if people found this place, who could actually reach us in time?”
“How about the three idiots who are busy poking through our servers?”
Lewis smiled. It was interesting to hear an idiot call other people idiots. “Let them come. I’ve already sent a team for Roland.”
Eric’s brow furrowed in confusion, and he scratched his chin through his beard. “Why do you care about him?”
Lewis glanced over to the screens. “He’s important. Everyone I chose is here, but Roland is the one who got away.”
“One man is worth risking an entire security team? We have enough people to worry about as it is. You should forget about the kid.”
“You forget, Mr. Keller, that everyone here was chosen for a reason. They’re all pieces of a puzzle that fit together into a perfectly unified whole. Even if you can’t see how the pieces fit, just trust that they do. Trust me.”
But he wasn’t going to let it go. “What is it about them that fits? Eugenics?”
Lewis nodded. “Among other things.”
“Knowledge, Mr. Keller. Preserving the human race isn’t only about people. It’s also about preserving their knowledge. Roland has unique skills that the others will need, skills that he must pass on to future generations.”
“A future generation of hackers,” Eric snorted. “Just what we need.”
“Yes, that’s exactly what they’ll need,” Lewis said, missing the note of sarcasm in Eric’s voice.
“They, sir? You say that like you’re planning to leave us.”
“Leave you?” Lewis shook his head. “No. That’s not my purpose. I must shepherd you all through the coming storm to safety. We can’t have humanity going extinct, now can we, Mr. Keller?”
“No, sir,” Eric replied.
* * *
Andrew and Kendra ran back to his truck as fast as they could. Andrew kept glancing towards the islands in the bay and the peninsula beyond. A frothing wall of water was roaring over the peninsula, sucking low-rise one- and two-story buildings under and knocking down trees. It was still far away, but he could hear it coming, like a distant roll of thunder.
The peninsula would slow it down, but it was only a matter of minutes before the tsunami crossed the bay and hit them, too. Even if it wasn’t moving fast by then, it would be carrying plenty of debris, and it would flood the entire region.
High ground. We have to find... His thoughts trailed off and his heart sank as he noticed that all of the buildings in Eureka were just one or two stories high. They reached his truck and he turned the key, over-cranking the ignition.
“Drive!” Kendra said.
Andrew stomped on the gas and raced down the divided coastal road. The truck skidded through a flashing yellow traffic light, and then he braked and hooked a right at the next. The tires squealed, and Kendra braced herself. “You’re going to wreck us!” she screamed as they careened toward the sidewalk and a ransacked convenience store.
“Let me drive!” Andrew said through gritted teeth.
The truck jumped the curb and mowed over a trash can before Andrew regained control and stomped on the gas again. They flew along a two-lane road, running flashing yellow stoplights and stop signs at almost a hundred miles an hour.
“You need to slow down!” Kendra cried, gripping her thigh and the door in white-knuckled fists.
“Relax! I’ve got this!”
She let out a shaky breath as they flew past homes, small businesses, and restaurants. A gas station and a church were coming up. Andrew debated the church. It looked to be about three stories with the steeple.
“There!” Kendra pointed up ahead to a boxy concrete building that was four stories high. There was a big blue cross at the top next to the name: St. Peter’s Hospital.
“Best we’re going to find.” Andrew slammed on the brakes as they came within sight of the parking lot entrance. It was up a slight hill. He took them through another skidding turn, up the ramp, and crashed through a boom gate. They lurched to a stop in front of the ER, and Andrew shifted into park and threw his door open, not even bothering to turn off the engine first. “Let’s go!” he said, barely remembering to grab his gun from the door before he jumped out of the driver’s seat and sprinted for the hospital.
The approaching wave sounded like a freight train. The ground was shaking and car alarms were going off, only to be suspiciously silenced a split second later. Andrew spun around just before he reached the sliding glass doors of the ER to wait for Kendra. She raced by him in the same instant, her eyes wild with fear.
“Get inside!” she screamed.
Hers wasn’t the only scream he heard. A handful of other people were running into the parking lot, converging on the entrance. Behind them, Andrew saw the tops of a row of silver oak trees that lined the street shiver and then vanish with a crashing roar. Then came a wave of cars, bobbing on a muddy black river.
“The doors won’t open!” Kendra screamed.
Andrew whirled around to see at least eight others hammering on the glass with their palms and fists. Three of them had their fingers worked into the gap, trying to pry them open.
“Stand back!” he yelled. The crowd parted momentarily, and he aimed his gun at the doors, pulling the trigger three times fast. One of the doors shattered under the barrage in a pile of gleaming pearl-sized fragments.
“Everybody inside!” he said, but no one had to be told. They surged through the broken door, pushing and shoving each other in their hurry to escape. It only took a few seconds, but it felt like forever. Andrew watched the swirling river of debris go racing by the hospital and down the street. Water was pouring steadily up the short hill into the parking lot, rising fast. His heart rate rose with it. A frothing wave broke over the body of his truck, spraying above the roof and raging on to the entrance of the ER.
Kendra grabbed his arm and pulled him into the darkened waiting room before it could reach them. The water hit them anyway, spraying through the broken door like a giant fire hose. It knocked them over, followed by several others running down the corridor up ahead. Rocks and debris pelted Andrew, and his mouth and nose filled with grit and salt water. He pushed off the floor, coughing and gasping for air. He grabbed Kendra’s arm and yanked her up, bracing himself against the front desk to remain standing amidst the river now raging through the hospital. “We have to get higher!”
The leader of the survivors was bracing himself in the open door of a stairwell and waving people toward him.
“Come on!” Andrew stumbled ahead, with Kendra’s arm around his waist for support. He clung to the desk and then the walls to avoid falling over, but it wasn’t enough. They slipped and fell several times along the way, as did several of the others. The survivors were crying and screaming to each other as they went. One man was pushing a couch ahead of him, using it like a walker as his daughter clung to the edge of it like a life raft. They crashed into the open door and jumped through into the stairwell with a splash. The man who’d been holding the door disappeared, but the couch was lodged in the doorway, holding it open.
Andrew and Kendra were the last to get there. He helped her over the back of the couch ahead of him, just in time to hear something like a bomb going off. Windows exploded all throughout the first floor, and a wave of water as high as the ceiling came barreling into the corridor.
“Shit!” Andrew leapt over the couch and landed hard in a puddle of dirty water about two feet deep on the other side.
“Come on!” Kendra screamed down to him from the second-floor landing.
The flood tore past the doorway, ripping the couch away and blasting into the stairwell before Andrew could even blink.
The torrent slammed him into the concrete wall opposite the door, dazing him, and then the flood whipped him around like a rag doll. He kept seizing the metal banister before his hands were ripped away. His head slammed into something hard, and he swallowed a mouthful of dirty salt water. His lungs burned and heaved, and he felt himself drifting away in the cold black water. His body grew blissfully numb, as though he’d fallen off the wagon after a spectacular bender. Oblivion beckoned to his battered brain. He struggled to resist, but suddenly he couldn’t remember why that was important. He’d been searching for something… or was it someone?
3 Days Left…
Whoever had done the cleanup was impressive, and Roland would have delighted in meeting them to see how they’d accomplished hiding the files so well. Of course, he was better, and after a few hours of banging away at the borders, he found what he was searching for. The breach was tiny, almost like an impossible entrance into a solitary time stamp of the data.
It would do the trick. The fog had crept through the warehouse, beneath the bay doors and through the edges of the doorways. Roland now wore his respirator, after the fumes had nearly made him lose his breakfast.
The ocean was loud. While his program was plucking and prodding as per his instructions, he decided to take a stretch and see what was going on outside.
He meandered through the staff quarters, and ended up at the main warehouse. From there he opened a bay door, and it lifted with the sound of a rolling chain. What he saw was ominous. The water was churning, the sky pitch-black beyond. It looked like hell’s mouth was about to come swallow him whole, and he fought the urge to run. He had a job to do, and people were relying on him. For once in his life, it wasn’t only about him.
Sure, he didn’t know Andrew and Kendra from Adam and Eve, but he felt an uncanny obligation to them and the missing group of people. He also needed to uncover what Hound had done, and why two assassins had been sent to his house to kill him. Had Hound’s people found out he was searching for them? Had he left a trail of breadcrumbs? The only person that knew anything was PiedPiper19, and Roland had been dealing with them for years now. He couldn’t fully trust an online name, but if he could, it would be PiedPiper19. He had no idea if it was a man or woman, but it didn’t matter. Their information during the last two years had led him to this spot, so he could find the coordinates for the secret project.
He was so close he could smell it, except he couldn’t smell much at the moment, not with the respirator nuzzled over his nose and mouth.
The fog had dissipated slightly, and Roland thought he could see a shiny glimmer in the air, a hundred feet or so up. As quickly as he’d spotted it, whatever it was vanished. Panic hit him in a flash. Had that been a drone? Or maybe nothing, a glint of sunlight from above, pushing through the clouds, then the fog.
Roland walked out farther away from the building, hoping to find it again, and realized his stupidity. If there was a drone watching the warehouse, he was surely being filmed by the thing. He ran back, heading for the open bay door, when the ground shuddered so hard he fell to his knees, scraping them against the cold concrete. His hands spilled out in front of him, skidding on the rough surface.
“What the…” He stumbled onto his knees and felt the ground rumble again. His hands weren’t bleeding, only red and raw from the impact. He stood, feeling the ache in his joints as he limped the rest of the way inside. He slammed the side of his hand against the button, closing the doors. Roland knew what to expect. A tremor of that size wasn’t too devastating. It would stir the ocean, sending waves toward the coast.
If anything stronger hit, he’d be in serious trouble hanging out inside this warehouse. He needed to obtain the coordinates and move inland. How far he had to be depended on the severity and placement of the earthquake. A bad one could travel as far as ten miles inland, but he didn’t expect quite that much damage from this quake.
“You have no wheels.” Roland scolded himself for leaving his truck at the motel. “Why are you so stupid?” Then he remembered the white van, but Andrew had shot out the tire. What about the FBI woman’s car? She’d said it was damaged, but to what extent?
First things first. He hobbled through the maze of rooms and doorways until he returned to the surveillance room where his laptop was chugging away, his screen full of flashing images, the program searching for coordinates.
It gave him a countdown, saying there was only ten minutes left. So far there was nothing popping up for his parameters. Roland heard a crunching noise as the earth trembled again, and he ducked low, remaining under the desk. He doubted it would do much to combat the force of nature, but it was better than sitting out in the open.
He pressed his body against the wall as he curled into a ball, his head between his legs. His hands shook, and he tried to convince himself to be strong, that they needed him, and eventually the shaking and terrifying sounds of shifting metal beams and the breaking coastline ceased.
Roland waited another two minutes before poking his head up to find the room was still intact. Lewis Hound would have made this place far above code, and it had stayed in one piece so far. Roland doubted it would when the force of the coming tsunami hit. He had to be fast.
The laptop chimed, showing him the result of his program searching Hound’s cleared-out systems.
“Holy crap, Rollie. You did it, man!” His fingers flew over the keys once again, and the numbers appeared on the screen in black text over the blue backdrop. They were coordinates, all right. He keyed them in and saw an empty spot in the Pacific Ocean. “Gotcha.”
He slipped his phone out and texted the numbers to Kendra.
Before he put it away, he sent one more message. Need to leave the coast. Tsunami going to hit. Where are you?
He didn’t wait for a reply. He tossed the laptop into his backpack, slung it over his shoulders, and moved for the door. Two men stood in the warehouse, wearing black vests and holding guns at hip level. They had respirators strapped to their faces.
“Roland Martin?” one of them asked, his voice garbled behind the mask.
Roland thought about pretending to be someone else, but they already knew it was him. He nodded slowly.
“You’re coming with us,” the same man said as he lifted his gun in the air, aiming straight for Roland.
He had a decision to make, and not much time. His pistol sat in the bag. He could try for it by pretending to put the bag on the floor, but these two were big guys, clearly trained where he wasn’t. He’d lose the shootout, and then he’d never know the outcome of this whole adventure. He’d never find out if Earth was lost, or what Hound had been up to. His curiosity almost outweighed his own self-preservation at this point.
The second man walked toward him, gun raised. He was an ox of a man, half as wide as he was tall. Roland felt a sinking feeling in his guts. They weren’t going to let him live.
“Give me your computer,” the man said, his voice deep and menacing.
Roland held his pack out and stuck his hand inside, contemplating grabbing the gun.
“Slowly,” the man warned.
Roland’s fingers grasped the edge of the computer, and he slid it out. The man took it in his big hands before it was all the way free, and he tossed it to the ground in anger. He stomped on it one, twice, three times, spreading out the pieces. Roland would miss that laptop. He’d built it himself, a sort of Frankenstein’s monster of computers, and now it was gone. He’d have time to grieve later—if he wasn’t mourning his own death.
“What?” Roland asked.
“I don’t have your number,” Roland said without a hint of a smirk.
The fist flew at his gut so quickly he didn’t have time to clench. He doubled over, falling to the ground. The first man was there in a hurry, lifting Roland up. He fumbled in Roland’s pockets and found it, dropping the thin hacker to the floor.
The armed man opened the phone, about to search it, when the tremors hit again. This time it happened with a bang. The warehouse base shifted hard, and Roland was lifted away from the two men as the wall holding the bay doors crashed open, tearing apart at the seams.
He took his chance and ran for the opening. His leg still ached where he’d fallen on his knee, and his breaths were forced and shallow after having the air knocked from his lungs, but he pushed on.
With a quick glance behind him, he saw the shorter man climb up the fissure and give chase. Roland really wished he had a car parked nearby, and scanned the area, searching for the vehicle these two guards had arrived in. There wasn’t one, and it hit him. They’d come from the ocean.
They might be his only way out here. They had his phone, so he couldn’t contact his allies to pick him up even if he did escape, and Roland had absolutely no clue where to acquire a boat, or what to do if he found one. He was desperate.
He stopped suddenly, and heard a bullet hit the ground beside his feet. He lifted his arms in the air and turned to the gun-wielding men.
“You can tell Hound you found me!” he shouted. “I surrender!” He hoped using the billionaire’s name would spark some hesitation to kill him. It worked like a charm. Even from this distance, Roland saw the effect at his casual use of the name.
The aftershocks hit as the men arrived at his side, but they all managed to stay on their feet.
“Keep moving, kid,” the huge guy said through his respirator.
Roland pulled his mask over his own face, and they didn’t stop him. The fog wasn’t as thick at the moment, but he instantly felt better for the filtration. He had no way to calculate the Richter scale and the distance out it would have come from but assumed they had only minutes before the wave came.
“Get in the boat,” the other said, shoving him forward onto the pier toward a thirty-foot cabin cruiser.
“Are you sure that’s such a great idea, fellas?” Roland asked them as he pointed to the choppy water on the horizon.
“Shut up and do as we say,” the ox of a man said.
Roland didn’t know what kind of boat it was, but he doubted it would be able to withstand the treacherous waters coming their way. He’d been seasick the few times he’d ever been on the water, and dreaded the idea of going on the ocean. This whole time he hadn’t let himself consider the actual journey from the coast to the hideout, but now that it was at hand, his ears started to ring, and he became lightheaded.
They removed the rope from the dock, and the smaller guard moved the ship out. Already the water felt different to Roland: more energized, even nervous.
Roland said a silent prayer to a god he wasn’t sure existed. A mile ahead of them, the wall of water was growing closer to their boat with each tortuous breath.
3 Days Left…
One second Andrew was right behind her; the next he was torn from the bannister, flying across the stairwell.
“Keep moving!” Kendra shouted to the small crowd above her. A man shoved his daughter forward, and Kendra scanned the area, searching for Andrew as the water continued to rise in the open space.
The water was cold, and her legs were instantly numb. She saw his limp body floating along the edge of the concrete wall and didn’t hesitate. Kendra pushed off from the stairs, cutting through the murky salt water like a dolphin, and reached his side quickly.
“Andrew!” She tried to shake him awake, but he was out like a light.
“Bring him here!” The last man of the group had stayed behind, and Kendra feared they’d soon be under water. The level was lifting them toward the ceiling, and she treaded water, the salt burning her eyes as she dipped below the surface. With one hand clasped around Andrew’s wrist, the other stroked vigorously through the water, pulling her slowly toward the steps.
By the time she arrived, the level was higher, pulling her and the unconscious Marine under. She felt the tug from the man on the stairwell, and she was lifted free. She panted, spitting out ocean, and the two of them heaved Andrew up.
He was heavy, limp like a soaked ragdoll, but they managed to heft him to the top of the second floor. “It’s still coming!” the man shouted over the cacophony of sounds echoing throughout the three-story vestibule.
He was right. Water continued up, licking Kendra’s feet even on the second floor. She knew that outside would be worse, and she only hoped they could reach high enough to avoid drowning from it.
She looped one arm under Andrew’s armpit, and the stranger did the same. Together they kept moving, and eventually the others met them on the stairs to help. Everything happened so quickly, and soon they were pressing through the top-floor doors. She slammed the eight-foot steel door shut, twisting the deadbolt, as if the floodwater had the ability to twist the lever.
She fell to the floor beside Andrew, fully winded.
“What are we going to do?” a woman asked. Her heavy mascara dripped in dark lines onto her ample cheeks.
Kendra sat up, trying to assess the situation. There were eight people with them: three women, three men, a girl maybe eight years old, and a teenage boy. One of the women was on the floor, gripping her left ankle.
She rushed to Andrew’s side and checked his pulse. Just as she was about to tilt his head up and start CPR, he spat out a lungful of dirty water and blinked his eyes open. He tried to sit up in a panic, but Kendra rested a hand on his chest.
“We made it,” she told him calmly.
Andrew glanced around, and she noticed him checking to see if his gun was still on him. It was, and so was hers, still seated in the holster.
“Is there another floor? One for staff, perhaps?” Kendra asked, finding the strength to stand. Her thighs shook as she arrived on her feet, and she peered through the rectangular glass on the door leading to the stairwell. The water continued to climb, but slower now.
“It’s the top. Who are you, and what are you doing in my Eureka?” a man asked. Kendra didn’t like the way his eye twitched when he gave the town a possessive ‘my’. He was older, white with receding gray hair. His moustache was droopy, and he wore a short-sleeved yellow dress shirt with a black tie. It was a look everyone in the Bureau used to wear… twenty years ago.
“I could ask you the same question, Mr. ...?” She lifted an eyebrow, waiting for a name.
“This is Jack Pennycoat, Eureka’s mayor,” an older woman said from behind the rest of the group. She leaned against the reception station, appearing far more composed than the others. They were in a pulmonary ward: images of lungs with medical jargon hung on the walls; yellow, green, and blue lines ran along the floors, parallel before breaking apart in separate directions at a fork in the corridor.
“Why didn’t you all evacuate?” Kendra asked.
“Haven’t you ever heard of a captain going down with his ship?” Andrew asked, finally sitting up. His lips peeled out into a strange smile.
Pennycoat scowled at the Marine. “Nothing of the sort. This is all a bunch of hooey, if you ask me.”
Kendra instantly wished the mayor was on the other side of this door. She could sense a troublemaker when she saw one. They needed to keep moving and leave this group behind. Her gaze drifted to the small girl clutching her father’s arm. He watched Kendra with worried eyes.
“What’s a bunch of hooey?” Kendra asked Pennycoat.
“The world ending, that’s what.”
“What do you think just happened? That’s not a rainstorm out there,” Kendra told him.
“That’s it. The water will recede, and we’ll rebuild. It’s what a good city does.” He crossed his arms over his chest, and Kendra saw the older man near the vending machine shake his head.
“I should never have listened to you, Jack,” the older man said.
“You didn’t have to. I didn’t force anyone to stay,” Jack told him.
“Everyone shut up.” Andrew was on his feet. He moved to the injured woman’s side and lowered his voice. His hand moved to her ankle. “Are you okay? What is it?”
“It hurts. I think it’s broken.” The woman was strong, but tears flooded her face.
“Is anyone else hurt?” Kendra asked, and they all assessed one another.
Finally Jack Pennycoat spoke up. “I stubbed my toe.”
Andrew carried the woman toward one of the patient rooms, and Kendra followed. “What’s your name?” he asked, his voice much smoother than Kendra recalled.
“Laurie,” she told him. She was in her thirties, her hair cut in a short brown bob. She was wearing blue-framed glasses, and they were smudged, one of the lenses cracked along the middle.
“I’m Andrew, and this is Kendra, and we’re going to treat your leg.” Andrew pushed by Kendra, and motioned for her to follow. They moved past a half-dozen empty spaces, each room number progressively larger as they went. It still smelled like a hospital to Kendra, a mixture of sterile chemicals and sickness.
“How’s your head?” she asked him as they wound their way through the dark halls. He tried a couple of doors, but kept moving.
“It’s… I’ll be fine,” Andrew said, not sounding so sure. His speech was slightly slurred, and Kendra worried he had a concussion.
Kendra’s phone buzzed in her pocket, and she pulled it out, amazed the waterproof model had actually stood up to the claim. Her eyes went wide. “We have the coordinates.” She looked around, checking if anyone was watching her.
“Lot of good that does us now,” Andrew said.
“We can still make it. We have three days,” Kendra said. She held out her arms while Andrew stacked medical supplies in them. Kendra saw a pack at the side of the room, and used her phone’s light to illuminate the storage closet. She started throwing provisions together, and Andrew muttered before helping her.
“How are we going to get there?” he asked.
“We’re going to find your daughter, Andrew. I know it. We’re so close,” she said, stuffing tensors, anesthetics, antibiotics, and other miscellaneous medical supplies into the pack. “The water will recede.”
“But the boats might be in the center of the city by then, and we might not have time to wait for the water to go down. Plus, this might only be the beginning. More disasters will be coming,” he said, stopping in the middle of the storage closet.
Her hands rested on his forearms, and Kendra stared him in the eyes. She needed him on her side. There was no breaking this team up, not so late in the game. “Andrew, listen to me. We’ll figure this out.”
He nodded and glanced at her hands. She lifted them off, as if only now noticing she was touching him. They filled the bags and rushed toward the injured woman.
The other seven were anxiously huddled in the waiting room, the teenager the only one sitting. He was holding his phone in the air, as if trying to access reception. Kendra was amazed Roland’s message had come through at all. It appeared to have been sent roughly a half hour ago, by the time stamp. By this point her phone was dead, no bars to be seen, so she couldn’t talk to Roland.
“I hope the kid is okay,” Andrew said, reading her mind.
“So do I,” she agreed. Andrew headed into the patient room and began talking to Laurie, while Kendra strode over to the group standing in a circle.
“…no other choice. This will subside, and we’ll be fine,” Jack was saying.
“If everyone is done standing around, we need to accomplish some tasks,” Kendra told them. Pennycoat bristled at this, but she didn’t care. She pointed at the teenager. “You, what’s your name?”
He brushed his long hair from his face and glanced at her with dark brown eyes. “Tony,” he said.
“Tony, go find a radio. Try the AM channels. We need to hear what’s going on out there.” To her surprise, he did what she asked, standing up to begin his search.
“You, what’s your name?” she asked the woman with running make-up.
“Calista, can you find food? We’re going to need to eat. See if there’s a staff kitchen on this level, or else we’ll be breaking into the vending machine there,” Kendra told her.
“See here, we can’t go vandalizing things, Miss…”
Kendra had hoped the man would play along. She pulled her badge out and shoved it toward him. “Kendra Baker. Special Agent Kendra Baker with the Federal Bureau of Investigation. And if I say we break into the vending machine, that’s what we’re going to do. Understood?” She was already tiring of Jack Pennycoat.
He mumbled and crossed his arms again in defiance.
Kendra glanced to the girl. Her hair was in a wet ponytail, and she was shivering at her dad’s side. “What are your names?”
“Bert. This is Diane.” He smiled at her, and Kendra noticed how different they were. She was suddenly not so sure it was his daughter.
“Is she yours?” she asked hesitantly.
He shook his head and took Kendra’s arm, leading her away from the group. “I don’t know what happened to her parents. She was out there alone, and I took her in two days ago. Contrary to what Jack here thinks, Eureka was as bad as anywhere. People were killing each other in the streets during the evacuation. Can you believe it?” His eyes darted around, and Kendra nodded.
“Is he really the mayor?” she asked.
“Yep. Must not have had much competition.”
“Or any.” Kendra went over to the group, and nodded to Bert and Diane. “You two, arrange enough sleeping setups for ten of us. Blankets, pillows, et cetera.”
“I’m Hank. I’m going to search for anything useful. Flashlights. Batteries,” the older man said. He was wearing a dirty black tracksuit, and had to be at least seventy-five, but he moved like a man ten years younger.
“Thank you, Hank,” Kendra said.
“What about me?” Jack asked.
“You stand there and make sure not to touch anything,” Kendra said, wondering if this might be a mistake. “On second thought, can you break into the vending machine and bring waters for everyone? We need to stay hydrated.”
He grunted and moved toward the machine, staring at it inquisitively.
Kendra found her way to the patient room, where Andrew was wrapping Laurie’s ankle tightly. Laurie swallowed a pill, followed by a cup of water.
“How’s our patient?” Kendra asked the woman.
Andrew answered for her. “Don’t think it’s broken, so I splinted it and wrapped it up tight.” He turned his attention to Laurie. “I’ll find you some crutches.”
“Thank you, Andrew,” Laurie said.
Kendra led him out of the room, and leaned against the wall.
“Looks like you have everything under control out here,” Andrew told her.
“They needed some direction.”
“You have a real knack for this kind of situation,” Andrew said.
“What about you? Playing doctor.”
“I had some practice as a kid.” He laughed, and she saw a new side to the Marine. His exterior was a rock, but beneath it was a man trying to help. A man who only wanted to get the most important thing in his life back.
“I won’t ask,” she said.
Twenty minutes later, they were all sitting in the staff kitchen; a few of the battery-powered emergency hall lights had been brought in to light the room. They’d use them sparingly, aware of the limited amount of energy they possessed.
“What are we going to do?” Bert asked as he munched on some chips. They’d raided the shelves and fridge, and had a surprising amount of options. Kendra made sure they were rationing, though Jack had already eaten at least two people’s worth. She didn’t say anything. He was already agitated enough, with her usurping his feeble power.
Jack took the lead on this one. “We’re going to stay here, and wait it out. We’ll be fine.”
The radio was on, and Andrew was slowly moving through the stations, hoping to pick up some kind of transmission. Kendra wasn’t counting on it. All they’d had so far was the crackling of radio silence.
“I hear something.” Andrew held the small silver box to his ears, and turned it up.
“…there’s no telling when it will erupt, but it’s on the verge. Godspeed, America. Godspeed.”
The radio cut out again, and Kendra gauged their reactions. “We can’t stay here.”
“There might not be a choice,” Andrew whispered. She saw something click in his eyes, and he stood up, trying to be inconspicuous. He locked gazes with her, and told the group he was going to the bathroom.
Kendra waited a minute and excused herself. Even before she left the room, Pennycoat was telling them that everything was fine. That the government would send help soon. Somehow, most of them appeared to be buying it.
She curved towards the hall, and bumped into Andrew.
He pressed a finger to his own lips, and pointed up. She followed his finger to the ceiling. “What?” she asked.
“The roof. There might be a helicopter. It is a hospital, after all. Most of these cities have one, especially along the coast.” Andrew’s eyes were bright.
“You check. I’ll keep the peace.” He started away, and Kendra turned to him. “I assume you know how to fly one?”
He smirked. “Doesn’t everyone?”
3 Days Left…
Andrew found the roof access near a room with hyperbaric units in it. The entrance was connected to a separate stairwell, so there was no sign of water flooding it. That was good, at least. He went sprinting up the stairs, and crashed into the metal door at the top. It wasn’t locked. A quick turn of the handle and he was out, stepping into the acid tang of the foggy air. The sky was dark with angry clouds, and the city was gone. He walked up to the near edge of the roof and peered over the side. Black, debris-covered water was racing by two floors down.
He glanced about and saw more of the same everywhere he looked. No trees, no buildings; no cars, streetlights, or signposts. The town was gone, everything sucked under by the tsunami. The hospital was the only building left.
Remembering why he’d come up here, Andrew turned around, searching.
Jackpot. Right behind him, sitting on a helipad, was a red and white helicopter. He ran over to it and tried the side door. It slid open, revealing a roomy interior space with stretchers on the floor, four seats in the back, and two more up front.
Andrew’s brow furrowed. He did a quick mental calculation of the space. There would have been more room for seats if it weren’t for the stretchers and medical equipment. Take that out and they could all fit. They’d have to cram in on the floor, but it could work.
Problem was, they’d be flying too heavy. Their range would be limited. How far was it to that place Roland had found? He opened the co-pilot’s door and rifled around under the seat. He felt a book tucked into the webbing with the inflatable life vest, and pulled it out: the operation manual. It didn’t take long to find the helicopter’s specifications. Range was listed as 370 nautical miles / 426 miles, fully loaded. And the “ferry range,” with maximum fuel and minimum cargo, was listed as 530 miles. A difference of about a hundred miles. It might not be important, but that would depend on how far they had to fly.
* * *
Andrew found Kendra downstairs in the middle of a heated argument with the mayor.
“You need to take this seriously,” she said. “All of you.”
“That’s exactly what a good little government agent would say.” Jack eased off the floor and took everyone in with a sweeping look. When he spoke again, his voice was booming and commanded everyone’s attention: “I’m tellin’ you all now—and you can see I’m not stupid, I don’t wanna die—but this is all just a government conspiracy to remove us from our homes.”
“For what purpose?” Kendra demanded.
“I don’t know, but I don’t trust it. Mother Nature doesn’t work on a schedule. They keep saying we got so and so many days left, and it’s all gonna happen on such and such a date. What was it? September thirtieth? Well, I call bullshit.”
A murmur spread through the room, most people bobbing their heads in agreement, a couple others scowling and biting their tongues.
“This is our town!” Jack said. “And we’re not leavin’ ‘less a bomb blows us outta here!”
“That’s right, Jack!” Calista said. “You tell ‘em.” She glanced around, her rosy cheeks twitching nervously, as if she’d suddenly realized all eyes were on her. “We have to be patient,” she said in a quieter voice. “This will all settle down soon.”
Andrew was just about to march them all up to the roof to see what was left of their town, when the old lady spoke up from where she stood leaning against a wall. There was a fiery gleam in her blue eyes, and she had a familiar-looking leather-bound book in her hands. A Bible.
She cleared her throat.
“And I beheld when he had opened the sixth seal!” she said. “And, lo, there was a great earthquake! And the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became as blood.” She glanced up from the book. “Should I go on, or is that enough to convince you fools that this is the end?”
Silence reigned for a moment. Jack and the old lady glared at each other across the room, two regents warring over the same petty kingdom. Kendra shook her head.
“What if she’s right?” Laurie whispered into the silence. She was back with the others now, lying on a bed of pillows, her twisted ankle elevated.
“Listen up,” Andrew began. “This isn’t the biblical apocalypse, all right? But there is a big earthquake coming. If anyone has any doubts, they should take a look outside. Your town is gone, and that quake and the tsunami that flooded this town are just the opening act.”
“Scaremongering!” Jack spat. “Don’t listen to it! It’s over. We’ve weathered the worst. It ain’t gonna get any worse. We just have to wait it out. That’s it. Wait and rebuild.”
“Maybe all those people who disappeared were raptured?” Laurie suggested.
“That’s right,” the old woman said, nodding sagely. “They’ll come again. On the clouds of Heaven. And the whole world will tremble. Amen?”
“Amen,” a few people muttered.
“What’s your name?” Andrew snapped.
“Reverend Shelley Morris, but you can call me Reverend.”
“Shelley works for me,” Andrew replied, smiling tightly at her.
The old woman’s eyes flashed, but she inclined her head to him. “However you like.”
Andrew turned to address the others once more. “It doesn’t matter if you think this is the apocalypse or not. It is definitely the end of something. Us, if we don’t get out of here.”
“What’s the point of scaring us if we all know that we’re stuck here until the water goes away?” Jack demanded.
“Because we’re not stuck. There’s a helicopter on the roof. I can fly it out of here, and there’s enough room for everyone inside.” Andrew sucked in a breath. He didn’t want to suggest this next part, but he couldn’t insist that they fly to that billionaire’s floating refuge to pursue his own personal agenda. He couldn’t risk their lives along with his. “I can fly us inland, somewhere safe.”
“Where?” Bert asked. “If everything that’s been on the news so far was right, then nowhere will be safe!”
“The mountains,” Andrew suggested, thinking fast. “The Sierra Nevada range. We’ll fly as far south as we can and hide in the mountains.”
The reverend started up again: “And the kings of the Earth, and the great men, and the rich men, and the chief captains, and the mighty men, and every bondman, and every free man, hid themselves in the dens and in the rocks of the mountains!
“And said to the mountains and rocks, fall on us, and hide us from—”
“That’s enough!” Kendra said. “Are you going to suggest a better idea, or just stand there preaching about the end without an actual plan?”
“What makes you think I don’t have a plan?” the reverend asked.
“Then what is it?”
“I agree with the Marine.”
“How do you know I’m a Marine?” Andrew asked.
“I’ve seen enough of your type in my day to recognize a jarhead when I see one. How else could you fly a helicopter?”
Andrew decided that now probably wasn’t a good time to point out how little flight experience he actually had. “It’s settled, then. I’m going to discuss a flight plan with Agent Baker. Everyone else, try to remain calm. We’ll be leaving soon.”
Andrew took Kendra aside into one of the patient rooms and closed the door. She nodded to him. “So you found a helicopter.”
“And you can fly it?”
He hesitated before nodding.
Kendra caught that, and her eyes narrowed. “How does a Marine corporal know how to fly?”
“I logged a few dozen hours as a co-pilot in Afghanistan. When I came home, I took lessons. I was going to become a search and rescue pilot, but then I had to give up on that dream and become a mechanic when Val was born. Life has a way of shitting on dreams.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Don’t be. She’s the best thing that ever happened to me.” Andrew’s cheek twitched as he said that, and he clenched his jaw.
“We’re going to get her back,” Kendra said.
“Yeah.” He swallowed. “I know.”
“What’s this about heading to the mountains? We have the coordinates,” Kendra said.
He shook his head. “We can’t take them all with us over open ocean. What if we run out of fuel, or we can’t find the place?”
“They’re GPS coordinates, Andrew. We can’t miss it.” Kendra held up her phone and showed him a blinking red dot over the ocean.
“Is that a map?” he asked, peering at the screen.
“You still have cell reception? How is that working?”
“I don’t need it. My phone uses a government network, and it’s all satellite-based. How do you think I got Roland’s message?”
“Good point. How far is it to those coordinates? Can you tell?”
“Give me a second. I’ll have to estimate based on the longitude...”
Kendra turned the phone around and spent a moment scrolling back and forth with her fingers. “About four hundred miles from here.”
Andrew blew out a breath. “That’s going to be close. How good is that estimate?”
“Give or take about fifty miles, why?”
“Because that helicopter up there can only fly four-twenty. If we’re flying light, we might make it to around five hundred, but that means we can’t take everyone.”
“We can’t leave them here, either,” Kendra pointed out.
“Now you know why I suggested we head for the mountains.”
“Andrew, if we lose the trail now, we might never have another chance to see what’s out there. All the ships will sink with the next quake. We’ll have to find another helicopter, and all of them will be tied up indefinitely, doing emergency search and rescue.”
“So what are you suggesting?” he asked.
“I’m suggesting that we go back out there and tell people about this billionaire’s refuge and convince them to come with us.”
“What about the range?”
“You said we can make it to four hundred and twenty miles fully loaded, but those helicopters are designed to carry a lot of weight. We’ll ditch as much of the equipment as we can and lighten the load. We’ll make it.”
Andrew nodded uncertainly. “Maybe. But what if there’s nowhere to land out there?”
“It’s a billionaire’s floating safehouse. How do you think he made it there and back while he was building it? There’s a reason it’s only four hundred miles off the coast. He needed to have fast access in case of an emergency. That means helicopters.”
Andrew sighed. “You’re right. Okay, let’s go talk to the others.”
“Something tells me we’re going to have to drag the mayor away.”
Andrew snorted. “He’s trouble. So’s that reverend.”
“Give two dogs a bone...” Kendra said.
As they left the room, all eyes turned to them. “Well?” the mayor prompted.
“We have a new plan,” Andrew said before the man could say anything else. “There’s a refuge out on the water, built by the billionaire Lewis Hound. It’s only four hundred miles from here.”
“How the hell do you know that?” Jack asked.
Andrew felt his blood pressure rising with an angry rush of heat.
Kendra placed a hand on his arm to stop him before he could start a fight. “I’ve been investigating him, along with the disappearances in the state. It all points to the same place.”
“Here”—Jack sounded dubious—“off the coast of Eureka? How come no one else knows about it?”
“It’s off the Lost Coast, actually,” Kendra said. “We had a guy searching their data for coordinates.” She held up her phone to reveal the blinking red dot. “We have those coordinates now, and we can make it out there in the chopper.”
“Said the government agent. Don’t listen to her. They’re gonna take us all into some kind of black site and run experiments on us!”
Some people frowned at that suggestion, but everyone looked worried. Andrew studied the reverend. She was smiling faintly. “Or maybe, they’re going to force us all to take the mark,” she suggested.
Andrew did a double take. “The what?”
“The mark of the beast.”
“I’ll die first,” Laurie said.
Andrew gritted his teeth. “Listen! There’s no mark, and there’s no government black site. We’ve considered all the options, and this is our best bet.”
“What about the mountains?” Reverend Morris asked, tilting her head, her blue eyes pinched to suspicious slits. “What happened to running to higher ground?”
Andrew took a moment to reconsider that option before he replied, but Kendra beat him to it.
“The mountains will be cold. There’s no food. And the water will be snow, or ice, and that will only freeze us further. You don’t want to be stranded in the middle of nowhere with no supplies. We’ll die out there just as surely as we will in here.”
Reverend Morris had her Bible open again.
Andrew held up a hand to stop her. “Before you start, this is not a debate. I’m not asking anyone where we should go, I’m telling you. If some of you want to stay, I can’t force you to come, but I urge you to consider the consequences. You will die here if you stay. So who’s coming?”
Jack drew an old revolver from behind his back. Andrew’s hand flew to his own gun; Kendra’s too. But they were too late.
“Don’t listen to them,” Jack said. “They’re trying to trick us.” His gun was shaking.
“No one is trying to trick anyone!” Andrew cried. “If you want to stay, you can stay! If you want to go, you’re welcome to come with us.”
“Into perdition,” Reverend Morris scoffed.
Andrew was just about to explode, but before he could, something else did. There came a ground-shaking BANG, followed by a long, low roll of thunder.
“What was that?” Kendra asked in a quiet voice.
3 Days Left…
Andrew hurried over to Jack, and the man lowered his gun abruptly. Kendra was surprised the Marine didn’t demand he hand it over.
“This isn’t going to be a democracy, Pennycoat. You’re officially demoted as leader of this town,” Andrew told him.
“What gives you the right?” Jack shouted, his gun pointed to the floor.
“Tell you what,” Andrew started. “You keep the town, but Special Agent Baker is in charge of the hospital. How does that sound?”
“That’s preposterous,” Jack said.
Andrew indicated the stairwell leading to the roof. “All you have to do is go up there and swim to the next building. You can be in charge of the next place you find.”
The conversation went to a lull, and Kendra noted the reverend had a satisfied smirk across her face.
“What was that booming sound?” Laurie asked.
“Another tsunami?” Calista asked.
“I don’t think so,” Kendra said, glancing toward the roof.
Kendra hated turning her back to Jack while he was still armed, trying to act like the cock of the walk, but she was confident the mayor wasn’t going to shoot her. She’d seen his type many times in her career, and he was all about self-preservation through fear, rather than violence. Andrew had temporarily defused Pennycoat, but somewhere inside he was silently ticking away, ready to go off without notice.
She grabbed her phone, hoping the government access was available, but nothing was working. No bars. No private bureau portals. Only the generic home screen wallpaper that had accompanied her phone two years ago when her deputy director had allocated the new devices. She switched to the satellite GPS and found it still worked, regardless of the crashed system. Either way, she had the coordinates saved in a screen shot, and was confident they’d be able to find Hound when they were out among the waves of the Pacific.
Andrew was right behind her as she raced up the stairs. The teenager, Tony, grunted as he followed along. She pressed through, instantly feeling something was amiss. She walked to the edge of the building, her hands landing on the concrete ledge as she cautiously leaned over, trusting the structure’s integrity wasn’t compromised.
“We have to go. It’s bad,” she said. A billboard for a real estate company floated by, showing a smiling middle-aged woman in a bad pantsuit. That world was long gone.
Tony was beside her, Andrew behind them with his arms crossed. “This isn’t subsiding for a while. Maybe never, if the quakes keep coming.”
Kendra pictured the computer-rendered videos she’d seen on the news sections of the coastline crumbling into the ocean. It could happen at any time, and she didn’t want to be around when it did.
“You’re not going to blame me if I end up shooting that little man, are you?” Andrew asked her, breaking the tension. He picked up a radio, turning it on.
She laughed, an alien sound in the thick air around them. “Tell you what, we’ll simultaneously shoot him on the count of three.”
A voice emerged from the speaker in Andrew’s hands. “Listen to this,” he said, lifting the silver radio over his head, the old-fashioned antenna sticking high into the air.
“It’s official. Mount Saint Helens has erupted. Word has arrived that Vesuvius is spilling lava, the worst yet to come from beneath the surface of the deadly Italian volcano. Word is there’s nothing natural about the disasters. Scientists from Sweden claim to have proof of robotic devices in the oceans.
“Dozens of reports are filing in about other catastrophic events from around the world, in as many as eight countries, but we haven’t confirmed the facts. Yellowstone has begun to show signs of eruptions, and experts estimate it will fully blow by seven a.m. Mountain Standard Time. Ash plumes will spread as far as five hundred miles within a few hours. This is it, folks… kiss your loved ones tonight…” Andrew fiddled with it as the signal faded, and Kendra stood staring at him and the teenager, unsure what to say.
“We have to go,” she said again.
Andrew shook his head. “It’s going to be tight. You heard that. If St. Helens erupted, the ash will reach us. I need to ensure this is an option.” He nodded toward the helicopter.
Hank appeared at the doorway, panting slightly as he walked over to them on the roof. He was favoring his left knee. “People are becoming restless, and I’m not confident I can handle it. Thought you’d want to know.”
“How so?” Andrew asked.
The Marine was probably thinking about the gun tucked away in his jeans. Kendra’s own Glock was strapped to her side in its holster, barely hidden by her navy blazer.
“The reverend is talking about some safe zone she has in the mountains along the edge of Colorado. She seems to believe everyone would be okay there,” Hank said.
“What’s Jack saying?” Kendra asked the older man.
“Jack’s a fool. I’ve lived here most of my life, and I’ve never cast a ballot for that blowhard. When you leave, take me with you. I can help out.” Hank’s eyes were wide, but she trusted he meant what he said.
“Me too. I’m good for it. Don’t make me go with them. Please,” Tony begged.
“Where are your parents?” Andrew asked the boy.
He shrugged. “Don’t know my dad, and Mom was out of town on a work trip when everything changed. Lost touch with her. I’m alone,” he admitted, his long brown hair falling over his eyes.
“We’re going to bring you both with us, don’t worry,” Kendra said. “Let’s help Andrew clear the copter of unnecessary weight.”
Andrew glanced to the door, and Kendra considered blocking it for the time being, but decided not to. They spent the next half hour removing the gurneys, supply bags, and even shelving units. Hank turned out to be useful with his hands, and he was on the floor, using a shiny socket set he’d found under the pilot’s seat to undo the shelves from the rear walls. Tony and Andrew hauled them out, tossing them to the roof with a clatter.
Kendra stared into the helicopter, admiring the shell of the inside. It appeared they might be able to fit everyone in now, but the idea they might not make it far enough weighed on her mind.
“The tank is full?” she asked Andrew for the third time, and he reached for her, squaring her shoulders toward him.
“Kendra, it’s still loaded with fuel. Let me get it running. We’ll offer a spot to anyone willing to join us, but there will be no compromising. We’ll need Jack’s gun,” Andrew said as he slid into the pilot’s seat and fired up the engine. The copter’s rotors began swirling slowly, and there wasn’t much time left to stick around.
She waved for Tony to join her, and unholstered her gun. “Tony, be careful. This might escalate quickly.”
Hank stayed behind, leaning against the copter, and Kendra already saw changes as she made a final glance toward the dark sky. Ash was falling like little drops of snow; one landed on the tip of her nose, and she blew it off.
She tugged the door and went first, her grip tight on the gun. She had no idea what the assembled group would say to them being forced to decide this minute, but she didn’t care. They had to leave.
“…settled. We’ll leave at first light. Then we can see if the water level has lowered or not,” Reverend Shelley Morris said.
“I’m sorry to burst your bubble, but we’re evacuating now. The helicopter is ready, and we only have one shot at this.” Kendra cringed at her use of the word as she glanced at Jack, who was still holding his gun.
“We’ve decided that isn’t the best use of the helicopter,” the reverend said, her voice even and calm.
Kendra couldn’t believe the nerve of this woman. Bert stood beside Shelley, and Kendra attempted to understand the group dynamic within the room. Quickly, she analyzed them. Laurie was injured, but she’d sided with the religious end-of-days talk earlier, so she was a wild card. Bert hadn’t said a peep either way. He seemed scared, in over his head, and caring for Diane was something he didn’t have any experience with.
Calista was sitting wearily, eating a chocolate bar, eyes wide and red. Hank was upstairs with Andrew, and Jack was oddly quiet.
“Is that so?” Kendra asked. “If anyone wants to accompany us, don’t hesitate.”
She didn’t turn around this time, and felt the pressure of all eyes on her for a moment.
The little girl started toward Kendra, and she reached a hand out, but Jack’s voice stopped her in her tracks.
“Don’t move another inch,” Jack said. He didn’t lift his gun, but the implications were clear.
Kendra’s training took over. She’d been in too many heated scenarios, had more than a dozen standoffs, and killing someone in the line of duty wasn’t new to her. This was her job. This was her life. She would protect these people, this little girl, from the elements and from themselves… at any cost.
“The volcanoes have erupted. We heard it on the radio on the roof. Ash is already beginning to fall. We have to leave,” Kendra told them.
“How can you be sure? More stories from the government lady. How do we know you’re even who you say you are? You’re in on this, aren’t you? Probably have your friends using scuba gear to loot our homes as we speak!” Jack began waving the gun dramatically, and Kendra took a deep breath. She pulled Diane behind her, and Tony stepped to her side.
Bert finally spoke. “I think we should hear her out, Jack. You’re not making any sense.”
“But understand this: In the last days terrible times will come. For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, abusive…” The reverend’s voice cut through the air, and Kendra felt assaulted by it.
“Listen, feel free to have your religion, but no one is going to be able to help us in twenty-four hours. If you don’t believe me, go to the roof and see for yourself,” Kendra said. “But Jack, you need to give me your gun.”
“I will do no such thing!” he shouted, and Kendra’s finger grew tighter on the trigger.
Reverend Sally raised a hand, lowering the barrel of Jack’s gun. He stared at her incredulously. “Jack, it will be okay. Trust in God.” She smiled at him, and Kendra wondered if the woman was actually siding with her for the safety of everyone.
Jack loosened his tie; his yellow shirt sported fresh sweat stains in the armpits, and his hair was dishevelled. He looked like a madman. He must have caught his reflection in the glass by the nurse’s station, because he stumbled away from it, dropping his gun to the floor.
The reverend picked it up, handing it over to Kendra, handle first. She breathed a sigh of relief as she removed the magazine to check the chamber, finding a live round.
“Let’s go to the roof and see what miracles are in store for us,” Shelley began when Andrew appeared at the doorway leading to the stairs.
He glanced around, and Kendra noticed his gaze settle on Jack before meeting her stare. “We can’t leave. The ash is too thick. Hank and I have tarped her, and I think we’ll be safe to leave when the worst is over in the morning.”
“What about Yellowstone?” Kendra asked.
“There are a lot of what-ifs right now. If the radio was accurate, we’ll have about an hour window in the morning where we should have clear enough skies to leave,” Andrew said.
Kendra didn’t mention that anything else could happen in the meantime, from earthquakes causing more tsunamis, to toxic fog, to a full-blown revolt in their disorganized group. She bit her tongue and forced a nod, hoping for a minute alone to speak with Andrew. She doubted either of them would be sleeping tonight.
2 Days Left…
Andrew sat at the bottom of the stairs to the roof, with the door propped open, his head leaning against the wall. The inside of the hospital was darker than any night he could remember. He could barely see his hands in front of his face, let alone see well enough to keep watch. If he weren’t sitting in the stairwell, he probably wouldn’t notice if someone tried to go up and reach the helicopter.
The only thing he could distinguish in the low light was the faint gleam of metal railings from the rolling beds they’d pulled out of the patient rooms. Everyone was lying on their own cot, fast asleep, and more than one person was snoring. Andrew tried to guess who. His money was on Jack and Calista.
Kendra’s cot was closest to him. She had finally stopped tossing and turning.
Andrew felt his eyelids drooping and checked his watch. 4:32 a.m. He looked to the nearest window, but he couldn’t distinguish anything. The sky was probably still dark with ash, but it was impossible to confirm that without sticking his head outside. He’d have to go up to the roof.
Andrew considered it. It wouldn’t take more than a few minutes, and if that pipe organ orchestra was anything to go by, Jack wasn’t waking up any time soon.
It was worth the risk. If the radio was right, then Yellowstone was due to erupt in just an hour and a half. They could miss their window if they waited any longer.
Andrew thought about waking Kendra first, but he didn’t want to cut her sleep short for a false alarm. No point waking her if it’s still thick with ash out there, he thought.
Andrew sprang lightly up the stairs to the roof, taking care not to make any noise. He reached the door at the top of the stairwell and eased it open. A blasting wind howled loudly into the stairwell.
Muttering curses under his breath, Andrew slipped out and eased the door shut. The air rushing by his face was cool and clear, and only faintly acrid with fumes from Mount St. Helens. The sky was dark, but with clouds, not ash. No flakes fell on his face or clothes. Just to be sure, he paused for a minute with his hands and face turned up to the sky, waiting.
Nothing. The air was clear. It was time to go. Andrew’s heart began pounding in his chest with anticipation. He turned around in time to hear another howl of wind—and the click of a revolver. He picked out the silvery gleam of the barrel and the eyes staring over it.
“Seems like good weather for flyin’,” Jack said.
Andrew’s hand drifted to the P320 tucked into the waistband of his jeans.
“I wouldn’t do that.”
“No? What do I have to lose? You, on the other hand... I can’t fly with a bullet in me.” Andrew’s hand twitched above the grip of his gun.
“I flew crop dusters back in the day. I’m sure I can figure it out. Hand the gun over and we all get to see the promised land.”
“Now you’re sounding like the reverend.”
“It’s nothing personal, Andrew,” Reverend Morris put in.
“Shelley?” Andrew asked, blinking rapidly against the night. He couldn’t see her.
A sudden thought occurred to him. They wouldn’t both be up here pulling a coup without first neutralizing the other threat. “What did you do to Kendra?” he demanded.
“Nothing that a bag of ice won’t fix. Bert is watching her,” Jack said.
“So he chose a side,” Andrew said.
“No one here wants to die,” the reverend said.
“None of us has to!” Andrew thundered. He half turned and gestured to the sky. “It’s clear now! We can go!”
“Which is why we’re all up here,” Jack said. “Ready the chopper.”
Andrew hesitated, his eyes on the gleaming revolver in Jack’s hand. He thought about all the ways he could gain the upper hand, but they all ended with a good chance of him being shot. That meant he’d never get to see Val again, and everyone else would likely die in a fiery crash without him to pilot the helicopter.
“Well? Hurry it up! Give me the gun. Nice and slow.”
Andrew passed it over, grip first. Jack turned and handed the weapon to the reverend, and suddenly there were two guns aimed at Andrew’s chest. “I’m going to need help removing the tarp,” he said.
“Hank!” Jack roared.
“What?” another voice called back.
“Get up here! Andrew needs a hand.”
Jack gestured with his gun to the hulking shadow of the helicopter. Hank came running across the roof to join Andrew and help him undo their work from yesterday evening. “Changed your mind about coming with us, did you?” Andrew asked as they pull the tarp away. Piled ash rained all over them as they did so, leaving both of them coughing and spitting it out of their mouths.
Hank spoke through a sigh that told Andrew he wasn’t a willing participant in this coup. “I just want to get out of here before it’s too late. I have a wife and kid to think about. They evacuated to Texas a few weeks ago.”
“And you stayed?”
“We were divorced. Lisa lives with her mother. I figured I could wait and see and go join them later, if need be.”
“Looks like you waited too long,” Andrew grunted as he heaved with Hank to pull the last part of the tarp off the side of the helicopter.
“Yeah. Listen, I know Jack. He’s not going to shoot you if you do what he says.”
“And if I don’t?” Andrew countered. He couldn’t see anything but the whites of Hank’s eyes. Hank hesitated, but Jack answered for him.
“If you don’t, I’m gonna shoot you in the leg and see if that makes you more agreeable. Now hurry up and get the chopper ready!”
Andrew turned to him with a scowl. “The more you talk, the longer it’s gonna take.”
Transporting everyone safely to the mountains was definitely one better than drowning in the swirling black water when the next quake sent the whole coastline plunging into the ocean, but Andrew still held out a small hope of reaching Lewis Hound’s refuge. Jack and Reverend Shelley were both up here, and they’d left shaky Bert to watch over Kendra, probably with her own gun. She might be able to overpower him, or convince him to join their side. He had that little girl to think about. Did he really want to be caring for her in a frozen range of arid mountains?
Andrew took that hope with him into the cockpit as he flicked the ignition and listened to the high-pitched whine of the rotors whirring to life. Come on, Kendra, this is your chance...
* * *
Kendra instantly felt something was off when she woke up. The clicking of the door caused her eyes to snap open, but she remained still, hoping no one noticed she was up. She listened for signs of movement, and heard Bert muttering under his breath.
Diane was crying, and Kendra reached for her holster strapped to her chest. The Glock was missing. She sat up abruptly, rigid as a strung bow, and jumped to her feet. “What’s going on?” she asked, scanning the room.
It was dark, and her eyes focused in on Bert holding her gun, aiming it three feet to her right. It was clear he hadn’t used a gun before, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t dangerous.
“Bert, I asked what was going on,” she repeated, locking eyes with Diane in the dimly-lit room. She gave the girl a tight nod, as if to relay that everything was going to be okay. It only made Diane sob harder.
Kendra noticed Jack and Shelley weren’t present, and Hank was missing as well. That left Laurie and Calista there, watching from the far edge of the room. “You’re all in on it. A coup d’état.”
“We can’t fly that into the ocean. We’ll all die!” Laurie’s leg was elevated, the whites of her eyes bright even from this far away.
Kendra could taste the fear in the room, not an uncommon sense in a hospital. Her shoulder throbbed at the memory of spending a month recovering from her punctured lung, and she blinked away the thoughts. Where was Andrew? Had they killed him?
“Bert, hand me the gun,” she said calmly, stepping toward the uncertain man.
“Reverend Shelley told me God was on my side: that if you attacked, he’d forgive me for shooting you,” Bert said, walking away from Kendra as she approached. Kendra’s hands were lifted, trying to make herself a helpless ally.
Diane didn’t follow with Bert; she stayed put, and found herself in the middle of the two opposing adults. Kendra briefly considered her options, and dismissed using the girl as a hostage to access the roof. Unlike these cowards, she wouldn’t use an innocent to gain ground. It was over. They’d lose their window, and they’d crumble into the ocean, never having found the missing people, never having known what Hound had constructed.
Andrew wouldn’t be able to hug his daughter again, and Kendra… she’d never solve that final case, the one she’d been chasing since her sister had disappeared so long ago. The weight of it all crashed into her tired mind, and she staggered back.
The gunshot was loud in the otherwise quiet space, and Kendra realized she’d forgotten someone. Tony was on top of Bert, pummelling the man with angry fists. Her gun flew to the side of the room, and Laurie was screaming. Kendra hurried to the Glock, picking up the familiar weapon, and she shouted at the kid.
“Tony, stop it!”
He glanced up, his knuckles bloody, and brushed his hair from his face. He looked at the injured man he’d been assaulting and grimaced.
Diane was at Kendra’s side, crying, not wanting to associate with the man who’d been caring for her any longer. She’d seen his true colors, and even a young girl could sense who was good and bad.
“She’s dead!” Laurie shouted, and for a second, she didn’t understand what the lady was talking about. She crossed the room, seeing the blank stare from Calista’s eyes. The errant shot had hit her in the left side of her forehead.
“Tony, Diane, come with me,” Kendra said, running for the stairwell.
The teenager scooped up the girl in his arms, and followed as she pressed through the metal doors, heading up the stairs. She lifted a hand, telling him to stop, and carefully unlatched the upstairs door, pushing it open an inch.
“If you don’t, I’m gonna shoot you in the leg and see if that makes you more agreeable. Now hurry up and get the chopper ready!” Jack’s voice was strained, alien to her ears.
The helicopter whined to life, and already the rotors were beginning to spin, faster and faster, creating a chaotic setting on the ash-covered rooftop.
She saw the reverend there, proudly standing near Jack, a smug smile on her face. Jack seemed petrified, but there was a sense of resolve about the cocky man. It was obvious this wasn’t going to be a negotiation.
“Stay here until I tell you it’s clear,” she told Tony, who nodded his understanding. She stopped and regarded him. “You did well. Thanks for helping.”
“No problem,” he said, sloughing it off as if attacking a man with a gun was no big thing. Teenagers.
She crept through the doorway and started toward them, the rooftop gravel crunching beneath her boots. The helicopter was making enough noise to hide her arrival. She was about to shout for Jack to lower his gun when the quake hit.
The entire building shook with incredible ferocity, and she stumbled to her knees. Shelley landed on her side, and Jack managed to keep his footing, but the gun fell out of his hand.
Andrew saw her in the midst of the event, his eyes locking with hers. Hank was beside him, next to the open door of the pilot’s side of the chopper, keeping Andrew covered with his own gun. Andrew took advantage of the distraction from the quake and shoved the older man away from him, snatching his P320 back.
Part of the hospital crumbled away from the rest of the structure as the earthquake tore through Eureka. This was the big one, and the coming tsunami would mean certain death. They didn’t have long.
Kendra ran toward Jack as the building shook again violently. The bucking rooftop sent her reeling away from the mayor. He had the gun in his hand again, and he aimed it at her this time.
“Don’t even think about it!” Andrew shouted, coming in from the other direction.
“We could have all worked together!” Jack yelled. “Why did you have to make this so difficult?”
Kendra saw Andrew had it under control, and she motioned to Tony to bring Diane. “We have to leave!” she yelled at Andrew, moving around Jack and Shelley. Jack continued to aim the gun toward Andrew as they passed the duo, but Kendra could see the fire was gone from his belly. His town was being destroyed. His entire identity was obviously intertwined with the city, and she almost felt sorry for the man.
“Give me that!” the reverend shouted, wrestling the revolver from the mayor. He didn’t put up much of a fight. Kendra, Tony, Diane, and Andrew were positioned between the reverend and the helicopter now.
“What about the others?” Andrew shouted over the noise of the helicopter.
“There’s no time,” Kendra said, not sure it was the right decision. They were on the wrong side of the fence, but she had to fight her instincts and leave them behind. There was no other choice.
“Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord!” Reverend Shelley took aim, but the hospital shook again, sending her sprawling to the rooftop. Acid rain began to pour down even as a dense cloud of toxic fog descended on the rooftop.
Andrew stayed put, directing the others toward the waiting helicopter. Kendra’s lungs were burning. They needed to put their respirators on as soon as they could.
The sound of the revolver rang out as they all climbed into their seats. Andrew fired a single shot, but it was pointless. From this distance, with the ash kicking up from the rotors and the fog rolling in, Shelley was nothing but a silhouette, a ghost left behind from another time.
Hank stared at them from outside. “I didn’t mean to do it. I’m sorry. Let me come with you!”
Andrew locked eyes with the man, and Kendra watched the Marine assessing him before nodding. “Get in.”
Hank averted his gaze from the three of them in the back of the helicopter, and Kendra passed around respirators. She held her gun firmly in her hand, not willing to take a chance with Hank, not until they were well away from the others.
“Strap in,” Andrew shouted, though they already had. The helicopter began to lift from the roof as the building beneath them crumbled from the water pressure around it. Kendra thought about Laurie and Bert, still alive inside. Not anymore.
Diane was whimpering in Tony’s lap, and Kendra silently thanked the teenager again for his help. She pulled her cell phone from her pocket, and saw the blinking destination almost five hundred miles from Eureka.
The helicopter hovered there, and as Andrew began to maneuver it away, Kendra saw the hand grasping one of the chopper’s landing skids.
2 Days Left…
Everything was dark. It had been this way for a full day now, ever since the guards rode into the massive wave heading for the Lost Coast. Roland sat in the hard seat, resting his head on the table in front of him. He had no idea what the room looked like, but he could still taste salt water on his lips, and feel the movement of the ocean under his feet, making him wonder if it was a memory or if they were really on the water.
Every few seconds he remembered the crashing waves around the boat as they’d sailed straight into danger, and he had to keep telling himself he was alive. That’s what mattered. He’d survived, and he was now far away from land, and hopefully from deadly tsunamis.
A door opened, and Roland heard a soft click as the latch fell into place. “You can take the blindfold off, Roland,” a voice said. It was a soothing sound, deep and proud.
He hesitated, reaching for the soft gel eye cover. He tugged it over his head. His ball cap was lost in the sea somewhere.
He blinked, trying to acclimate his eyes to the bright space. It was nondescript. A black composite table, a second matching folding chair across from him. He scanned to the wall across, finding a mirror. Two-way, no doubt. Was he at a police station? Maybe a psych ward? Had he imagined all of this? Maybe he’d overdosed on his pills, and there had never been a world-ending catastrophe?
It wasn’t the first time Roland had questioned the reality of his life, and he doubted it would be the last.
“Is that better? How about some water?” A glass of sparkling clear liquid pressed across the table, and Roland’s gaze carried over the hand, to the arm, to the face staring at him. His heart raced as he recognized the man. Usually the pictures he’d seen were grainy, taken from a distance.
“Lewis Hound,” Roland mustered, his voice scratchy. He took a sip of water, then a guzzle, setting the glass down empty.
“That’s right. And you’re Roland Martin, aren’t you?” Lewis asked.
He nodded, taking a good look at the reclusive billionaire. The man appeared far younger in person than he would have expected. He had to be at least forty, but his skin was smooth, his short hair perfectly styled, as if he’d had a personal groomer care for him only moments earlier. Roland noticed his own reflection in the two-way mirror, and cringed at the contrast.
“Where are we?” Roland asked, his voice slightly clearer now, exuding a confidence he didn’t feel.
“You’re in the promised land, my friend.” Lewis poured Roland another glass of water, and took a seat opposite him. His gaze pierced into Roland’s.
“You did it, didn’t you?” Roland asked him.
Hound leaned forward, his fingers steepled. “Did what, exactly?”
“You built it?” Roland asked.
To his surprise, Hound nodded. “I did. And you were the only person in the world who knew about it.”
Roland felt a spike of pride at the words. “It wasn’t that hard.”
“Sure, if you have nothing but time to scour the internet for half-assed logistics pathways leading to Capetown. I must admit, I was shocked when you kept at it.”
Roland’s eyes widened. “You knew?”
“Of course I did. I wanted you as part of my team, but I needed to trust you wouldn’t share the information with anyone. I had to see how far you could actually come, and you made it to the warehouse. That… now that was impressive,” Hound said.
Roland couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “Those thugs at my house. They were yours?”
Hound nodded. “My number one got a little ahead of himself. He wanted to pull you in before you blew the cover. We still hadn’t transported the last batch from the warehouse yet.”
“The last batch?” Roland thought back to the armed guards on those boats, ferrying people to the container ship. “Who are they?”
“They’re the same as you, Roland. People that excel in their fields. People humanity will need for the long haul,” Hound said with a glimmer in his eye.
“You sent them for me,” Roland said.
He nodded again. “I did. You had a little help from friends, too.”
Roland wondered if they’d arrived yet. “Kendra and Andrew. Are they here?”
Hound’s face betrayed him for a split second before returning to his poker face. “I’m afraid they haven’t arrived. Did you send them our location?”
Roland noticed the man’s hands clench, his jaw muscles tensing as he asked. Roland shook his head. No sense upsetting his benefactor—or captor. He wasn’t sure what to call him quite yet.
“I’m glad you’re here, Roland. You’ll be a great asset to our people,” Hound said. “Play the flute and they shall follow.”
Roland’s blood ran cold. “PiedPiper19. That was you?”
“The very same,” Hound said with a satisfied grin.
Roland’s thoughts drifted to the messages, the curious leads his contact had sent him for a price. “Why?”
“I needed you here, and wanted to see how talented you were. It worked out for us both,” Hound said.
Roland recalled the nursery rhyme about the piper who was hired to lure the rats away from Hamelin Town. When the mayor went back on his word about the agreed-upon payment, the piper instead led the entire town’s population of children away, never to return again.
He had the feeling something similar was about to happen, but he had no choice but to go ahead with it all. “Can I… see it?” Roland asked.
“You’re committed, right?” Hound asked, whispering more. “Eric had reservations, but we’re going to prove him wrong, aren’t we?”
Roland had no idea who Eric was, but he nodded along regardless.
“Good. Come with me,” Hound said, moving toward the door. He opened it, and Roland wasn’t surprised to find an armed woman on the other side. She wore the same dark uniform as the ones from the warehouse, her gun strapped to her hip. She didn’t even look him in the eyes as he walked by. “I’ll take you to your room, and then you can meet the others.”
The corridor was like something from a science fiction movie. The walls were curved and molded plastic; computer screens sat every fifty or so yards along the way, and Roland couldn’t wait to explore the software. He still didn’t know where he was, or what kind of structure they were inside. He expected he’d learn soon enough.
The few people in this corridor were all armed, and they each nodded deferentially toward Hound as they walked toward the end of the hallway. Hound leaned forward, a scanner buzzing over his eyes. The thick double door hissed and separated in the middle, revealing a new corridor.
“The quarters are this way. You’ll have your own room. I hope that’s satisfactory.” Hound’s boots echoed on the hard floor, and Roland followed quickly behind.
A few minutes later, they’d passed other regular people, each wearing white jumpsuits, or matching pants and a white t-shirt. They stared after Roland, and he studied their faces, trying to figure out who they were.
A new corridor on the dormitory level appeared on their right, and Hound smiled at a young woman playing on a tablet near her door.
“This is it,” Hound said, tapping the control button, revealing a suite.
“This is mine?” Roland asked.
“It is. I expect big things from you, Roland. Be a leader, and you’ll be doing our people a great service. I’ll send someone to give you a tour in an hour. Shower, get changed, and relax. Welcome to Eden.”
“Eden.” Roland repeated the word, goosebumps rising on his arms.
The door shut, leaving Roland alone in his room. His jaw dropped as he saw through the pane of glass beside the bed.
Fish swam by the window in brightly-colored schools. He rushed across the space, banging his shin against the bed as he did so, barely even registering the pain.
“What have you gotten yourself into, Rollie?” he asked himself. From here he couldn’t see much; only the gentle curve of the structure they were inside. He had no way of calculating how deep they were, but he suspected it was far enough below the surface to withstand the coming calamities. He was safe here, as safe as anyone on Earth could be, and that would have to be adequate.
An outfit was laid out on the bed, and he scanned to find a desk against the adjacent wall. A tablet and computer were also there, shiny and new. To his left was a private bathroom, the finishes stark white and futuristic. He didn’t know where he was, but he could become used to this.
Paradise was sounding better and better. He silently wondered what had happened to the FBI agent and the Marine, but he didn’t think he’d ever find out. With one last gaze into the depths of the Pacific, Roland stripped from his grubby clothing and started the shower.
2 Days Left…
The helicopter listed sharply to one side, and Andrew struggled to compensate in the swirling blizzard of ash that the rotors were kicking up around them.
“What are you doing?!” Kendra screamed, her voice barely audible above the sound of the helicopter.
Andrew risked a glance over his shoulder to see her pulling the reverend inside. “What the hell?” he roared, struggling to gain altitude amidst the storm of ash coming off the roof. “What is she doing in here?”
“I couldn’t just kick her off!” Kendra said as she slid the door shut.
“Everyone sit down and put on your headsets!” Andrew spared a hand from the controls to put on his own headset.
As soon as they gained some altitude, the blizzard of ash parted, and sunlight came pricking through. The first light of dawn was already blushing on the horizon.
As he banked around, heading for the coast, he saw the hospital crumbling into the flood waters below. The water swallowed the entire building without a trace, taking the people they’d been forced to leave behind down with it.
Tilting the helicopter forward for maximum thrust, Andrew raced over the dark, debris-covered water, moving for the choppy ocean beyond. There was no sign of the former coastline, or the town of Eureka, but Andrew did spot a bridge. It crossed over what used to be the bay to the peninsula where the Marines and Coast Guard had their bases. The bridge was elevated just enough to rise above the flood, but now it was bucking hard with the earthquake. Andrew watched as half of the cables snapped and it tipped into the water, collapsing with a giant splash. Only the pillars remained standing.
“We need to fly south,” Kendra said, her voice coming loud and clear through Andrew’s headset. “And we should increase altitude in case—”
She didn’t have time to finish that thought. The black canvas of water and debris below them shivered hard, blurring to an indistinguishable gray sheet, and then it dropped away, vanishing in a dark, sucking canyon. “Shit!” Andrew cried even as the rush of air running into that sudden vacuum sucked them down with the land.
Alarms screamed to life inside the cockpit, and Andrew slammed the throttle all the way up. The engines moaned and shivered, straining to keep the helicopter aloft in the thin air. The water came rushing up to greet them—no longer a solid gray sheet of water, but a marshy field of debris. The floodwaters had momentarily run away, sucked into the Earth along with the California coast. Dead ahead, a sheer black cliff appeared, with water raging over it in a massive wave.
“Look out!” Kendra screamed.
He pulled up hard, shouting the whole way. The wave curled around them, and something tugged the helicopter, slapping the underside and sending them skipping up higher into the air. The crash of that wave in their wake sounded like worlds colliding. It took Andrew a moment to realize that it wasn’t the sound of the helicopter exploding around them.
“We made it,” he breathed.
Banking south again, he headed along that sheer black ridge—an instant mountain range that had formed where the fault line used to be. The tsunami was racing inland, and water still poured over the cliffs in the biggest waterfall that the world had likely ever seen.
“Wow,” Kendra breathed.
“It was all true,” Hank said in a cracking voice. “What are we going to do now?”
A massive clap of thunder interrupted them, and Andrew peered up at the sky, hoping they wouldn’t have to deal with an electrical storm on top of everything else. But the sky was relatively clear, and bright red with the rising sun. The moon hung close above the horizon, blurry with smoke, and almost as red as the sky.
“What was that?” Kendra asked.
No one dared to venture an answer. By now they all had a pretty good idea. It wasn’t long before they began to see the black wall of clouds rolling in from the east. Andrew flew west over the ocean as fast as he could, but the clouds of ash chased them, darkening the sky. Bright, flaming chunks of debris scattered around them.
“What the hell?” Andrew muttered.
“Must be debris ejected from the caldera,” Kendra said. “They’ll burn up on re-entry.”
“We’d better hope so. If a molten chunk of rock hits us, we’re done.”
Reverend Shelley spoke next: “And the stars of the sky fell to the earth, as a fig tree casts its unripe figs when shaken by a great wind!”
“Are you kidding me?” Andrew glanced back. The reverend didn’t even have her Bible with her. She was sitting beside the two kids and Hank, her hands folded in her lap. Kendra was seated opposite, her gun trained on the reverend. “Are you spouting that from memory?” he demanded.
“Of course,” the reverend replied. “Memorizing scripture is an important discipline.”
“Well, stop it. I need to focus on flying. We’re not out of this yet.”
Miraculously, Shelley left it at that. After about a minute, Kendra’s head poked between the front seats. She held out her phone and the GPS app for him to see. She’d zoomed it out, and there were two icons on the map. One was their current location, marked by a white triangle, the other a blinking red dot that marked the coordinates Roland had sent.
Andrew grabbed the phone. “Thanks,” he said, and balanced the screen in the cockpit where he could keep an eye on it and make adjustments as needed. Kendra had found a way to mark the range to the target coordinates, but unfortunately, the distance was still four hundred and seventy miles. “This is going to be close,” he muttered.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Hank asked.
“It means you’d better pray that we make it.”
“I already am,” Reverend Shelley said.
* * *
The farther they flew from land, the more the sky lightened and cleared. The ocean turned dark blue, visibly rippling with waves racing ahead of them. They would turn into tsunamis when they reached Japan and China, but Hawaii would be first, among all the other Pacific islands. Andrew shuddered to think about all the people who were about to get swept away. He hoped they’d already evacuated to higher ground.
“Diane needs to pee,” Hank said.
“Find her a bucket.”
“We ditched everything.”
“Then tell her to hold it.”
“How much farther?” Kendra asked, her head appearing between the seats again.
Andrew frowned at her phone and shook his head. The white triangle that represented them on the map was just a few millimeters from the blinking red dot of their destination, but the fuel gauge was busy dropping below the final dash.
“Twenty-two miles,” Kendra breathed. “Do we have enough fuel for that?”
“Yeah,” he lied. Maybe saying it aloud would make it true.
The engines hiccupped, and the helicopter shuddered.
“What was that?” Kendra asked sharply.
“Turbulence,” Andrew said. He glanced over his shoulder, his gaze impressing upon Kendra the truth. A muscle twitched in her cheek, and she returned to her seat. A second later, he heard her talking to the kids, telling them they were going to play a game. Simon says. Simon told them to tuck their heads between their knees. That charade was for Diane’s benefit, but it was a nice gesture.
The engines hiccupped again, more violently this time, and they lost precious altitude. Andrew tried backing off the throttle to burn less fuel, but that also slowed their airspeed. There weren’t any shortcuts he could think of to get them across the last twenty miles. Besides maybe tossing the reverend out. That could help. He smirked at the thought, then checked himself for laughing about murder.
It wasn’t her beliefs that bothered him; it was her attitude. Of all the attitudes to have at the end of the world, “smug prophet” had to be the worst.
Another hiccup, and this time the engines choked long and hard. They lost hundreds of feet, and everyone started screaming.
“Simon says tuck your heads!” Kendra said again.
Andrew eased off the throttle some more, giving up even more airspeed. That was when he noticed something pricking through the misty horizon: a cluster of ships tossing in the waves. Container ships without the containers. And in the middle of that formation, five fat pillars were rising out of the ocean with a platform raised high above them. It was like a giant oil rig, rocking and tilting with the tsunamis rolling by.
“I can see it!” Andrew said, angling down for the platform atop those pillars.
As they raced over the rippled water, two of the container ships cracked apart and sank before his eyes, amidst gasps and exclamations from the passengers.
“I think we’re going to make it!” Andrew said as the platform grew large below them. Large was an understatement. The facility was massive. The deck was easily the size of a football field, but square, not rectangular. A dozen other helicopters were landed on the deck, all arrayed around a dome-shaped central structure. With the way the platform was swaying in the waves, Andrew was surprised they weren’t all sliding off.
He picked a space between two of them and hovered down, trying to judge the timing of their landing; but with the platform see-sawing under them, he knew it wasn’t going to work.
“Everyone brace yourselves!”
“Tuck your heads!” Kendra screamed again.
One of the skids touched the deck just as the platform came tilting up under them. It kicked the helicopter back into the air. Andrew forced them down again and killed the rotors as the skids hit once more. This time both skids made contact, but the platform came tilting up beneath them, and a horrendous screeching of metal on concrete cut through the dying whine of the engines. They were sliding toward the edge, and a sheer drop to the water below.
“Everybody out!” Andrew cried, already fumbling with his flight harness.
Buckles unsnapped and everyone jumped up from their seats, falling into each other as the helicopter tilted up with the platform.
Andrew felt the chopper starting to tip over, and he threw his door open and pulled himself up until he was standing on the frame around the cockpit door. The chopper was balanced at a forty-five degree angle, the rotors striking sparks against the deck as it slid toward the rippled blue ocean below. The side door slid open, and Andrew clambered over to help people out. The first was Diane, passed up to him by both Kendra and Reverend Shelley. The poor girl was sobbing hard. “You’re going to have to jump!” Andrew said.
“I can’t!” she cried.
The platform began tipping back the other way, and Andrew felt the chopper leaning with it. There was no time to hesitate. He leapt clear with Diane in his arms, and landed hard on his shoulder with a sickening thud. His teeth clacked together and he tasted blood. His shoulder exploded with blinding pain, and he stifled a cry.
Diane was struggling in his arms, terrified and battling to get free, but otherwise unharmed. They went sliding down the other way as the platform tipped. Andrew heard the screeching of helicopter skids and rotors, and twisted around to see the chopper racing toward them. He jumped up and sprinted ahead of it to the next helicopter over. It was clamped to the deck. He all but threw Diane under it, and then dived under himself, just seconds before the two machines collided with a shriek of rending metal.
Andrew’s ears rang with the sound, and then the platform tipped again and they held fast to the skids. More screeching sounded as metal dragged over concrete. The open door of their helicopter swept into view, and Andrew caught Kendra’s terrified gaze as she went sailing toward the edge of the platform and a watery grave below.
“Andrew!” she cried, her knuckles white on the edge of the mangled door.
“Wait here!” he told Diane before springing out of cover.
“Don’t leave me!” she cried, but he didn’t have time to argue.
Andrew ignored the sickening waves of pain from his shoulder as he ran to catch up with the helicopter. Thankfully, friction with the deck made it a lot slower than him.
“You have to jump!” Andrew cried right before he reached Kendra.
Kendra pushed Tony out ahead of her. He tucked and rolled as he leapt clear. Andrew winced as the kid hit the concrete deck just as he had, but he sprang up with the resilience of youth and ran uphill to reach Diane. Andrew followed the helicopter down, running hard. He wondered if he’d end up sailing over the edge with it. Kendra was climbing out now, Reverend Shelley close behind her.
“Stay clear!” Andrew grabbed Kendra’s arm and braced against his own momentum, throwing his weight backward to yank her free. They went tumbling together. She landed on top of him in a provocative pose, but quickly rolled away. Andrew propped himself up on his elbows just in time to see the reverend jumping out.
Hank wasn’t so lucky. He sailed over the side with the helicopter. The reverend sailed down after it, disappearing from sight.
Andrew sat blinking in shock.
“Hank and the Reverend didn’t make it,” Kendra breathed.
“At least we’re alive,” Andrew replied.
Then he spotted a head and shoulders peeking up over the concrete platform. The deck began tilting back the other way, and the reverend came tumbling down. She went rolling by them, her hands scrabbling for purchase. Kendra grabbed her ankle and stopped the woman from going any further.
“Thank you,” Shelley said in a shaky voice.
“We need to get inside before we’re tossed overboard,” Kendra said.
Andrew twisted around, ignoring the pain in his shoulder to check their surroundings. He saw the mangled helicopter where Diane and Tony were huddled, clinging to the skids. His gaze panning away, Andrew spotted what looked like a door in the dome-shaped center of the platform. It was going to be hell to cross the bucking deck to reach it, and who knew if it was even open, but they had to try.
“Over there,” he said, and pointed to it with his good arm.
2 Days Left…
Kendra’s heart pounded against her ribcage, threatening to escape. That had been so close. And here they were, atop a floating rig in the ocean. Clearly this was the right location, judging by the plethora of docked ships and landed helicopters, but she couldn’t help but feel like they were too late. Not seeing Hank standing with them drove the harsh reality home: the world was against them now.
The sky was growing darker, more violent with each passing breath, and she locked gazes with Andrew, then looked toward the door on the domed center of the platform.
The deck continued bucking like an angry bronco, and Kendra set her feet wide apart to keep her balance. Tony was holding Diane close, helping the girl as they waited for Andrew to take the lead. It was obvious to her the Marine had injured his shoulder on the escape from the helicopter, but he moved with ease as he headed for the door, lifting a finger, telling them to wait until he deemed it safe.
“I’m scared!” Diane screamed, tears streaming down her face.
So am I, Kendra thought, but tried to be strong for the girl. “We’re going to be inside soon, honey.”
Even the reverend was unusually silent, the trauma fresh in her aging body.
Andrew ran, his footing confident, even in the turmoil surrounding them. He made it to the dome and pressed a hand against the door, steadying himself. Wind buffeted Kendra, sending errant hairs flying over her face.
The Marine tested the handle, and she instantly knew it was locked. He kicked the metal door with a ferocity she hadn’t seen from him yet. His good arm banged into it, and she heard his voice straining as he called for help.
Tony’s eyes drifted to stare at Kendra, a helpless sad expression on his face. Diane was weeping incessantly, and she fell to the platform, curling into a ball as they rocked back and forth in the undulating waves.
This was it. Their time had come. Kendra imagined how terrifying the events were for everyone around the world. How many people had been killed by the disasters so far? Was there any returning from this? After seeing the destruction firsthand, she doubted it. She could still hear the sound of the hospital being torn to shreds by Mother Nature.
Andrew ceased the banging, and Kendra grabbed Tony by the arm, helped Diane to an unsteady balance, and led them toward Andrew. If they were going to be extinguished by the storm, they should all be together.
Reverend Shelley was on her knees, hands clasped in prayer. Her lips moved quickly, but no words escaped her mouth.
“Come on,” Kendra shouted to the woman, and her eyes sprang open. “No one should be alone!”
Waves splashed around them, and Kendra jumped as another carrier ripped in two, the larger piece tilting toward the sky before slowly sinking.
“I’m never alone! God is with me!” Shelley shouted, and Kendra left her there.
Andrew met them a few yards from the dome and picked Diane up, cradling her into his good shoulder. He cringed at the weight, and Kendra couldn’t imagine the torment he was going through. His daughter was here somewhere. Now he was going to die without ever uncovering the truth.
Then she saw it: a camera mounted above the door, tucked away in an awning. A red light blinked, which meant they were being watched. She waved at it, hopping eagerly.
“Let us in! I’m Special Agent Kendra Baker! FBI! Let us in!” Kendra shouted, unsure if they even had audio feeds, or if anyone was there to see. She kept yelling until her throat ached, her eyes red and watering as saltwater splashed over the edge of the deck, spraying them every few minutes.
“It’s no use. No one’s going to let us in,” Andrew said, pulling her into an embrace with Diane in the middle. His face was close, his stubble-lined jaw brushed her forehead, and she leaned in, accepting the hug. She couldn’t recall the last time someone had touched her in such an intimate way, and she squeezed him tighter, crying against his neck.
Something buzzed: not loudly, but enough for it to perk her ears up. The door clicked, and Andrew stepped away, pressing Diane into Kendra’s arms. His P320 was in his grip instantly, and the man at the doorway only grinned at them.
“Let us past,” Andrew told the man, his voice perhaps a little too loud, even in the raging weather around them.
The man’s eyes were dark, contrasted by his pale skin. He wore a trimmed beard, and had a petite stature; rail-thin, and shorter than her. Kendra wasn’t fooled by the outward appearance. He had a killer’s eyes, a look she knew too well.
“You’re not supposed to be here,” the man said, and Kendra saw two more armed guards behind him.
Andrew didn’t hesitate. He marched forward, pushing his way toward the man who’d addressed them. “We’re coming in,” he said firmly.
Kendra searched for her gun, but her own holster was empty. She grabbed Diane, who was eerily quiet now, and ran over to Andrew’s side.
“Please, let us in. We have children with us,” she pleaded.
The man glanced over her shoulder toward Tony, and then at Shelley, who’d risen and joined them near the dome. He shook his head. “This isn’t for you. I’m sorry, but you’ve wasted your time. How did you learn about this place?”
Kendra saw something in his eyes. Maybe it was fear there would be more people coming, that the location was spread high and low. “Let us enter, and you can have the entire story.”
He appeared to contemplate this, but shook his head once more. “Listen, I’m sorry.” His gun rose, and Kendra saw Andrew tense up beside her. There were three of the guards, maybe more behind, and only Andrew was armed. Kendra lifted a hand and set it on Andrew’s forearm, urging him to lower his gun.
“There has to be a way you’ll let us in,” she said softly, not even sure her words were heard over the elements.
“Eric!” a voice boomed from inside the dome.
The man blanched, and he moved to the side, allowing the newcomer to enter the doorway. He was older, handsome, and sure of himself. He wasn’t armed, and he wore a brown blazer and blue jeans. His eyes glinted as his gaze met Kendra’s, lingering for a moment before taking in the entire scene.
“What are you waiting for? Let them in, Eric,” the newcomer said.
Eric rubbed his beard, but lowered his gun. He leaned toward his boss and said something—maybe trying to talk the handsome man into leaving their group on the platform.
“Nonsense. Come inside,” the man said, waving them forward.
Andrew stayed out the longest, making sure the others entered first, and Kendra walked past Eric, glaring at the man who’d wanted to leave them for dead.
The dome was really just a mud room, twenty yards in diameter. Benches lined the interior walls, and there were storage containers full of mechanical supplies and yellow raingear.
“Welcome to Eden,” the man in the blazer said, sending shivers up Kendra’s spine. Eden. The connotations were deep with the name, and she was curious where they were. “I’m Lewis. You’ve already met my number one, Eric Keller.”
“Wait,” Andrew said. “You’re Lewis? Lewis Hound?”
“That I am,” Lewis said, smiling broadly. The corners of his eyes crinkled, and he winked at Diane.
“Roland was right,” Kendra said, and it was clear she’d struck a nerve.
“Did you say Roland?” Lewis asked.
“That’s right. We were working with him to get here,” she answered.
“It all makes sense. You’re the Kendra and Andrew he mentioned, then?” Lewis asked.
“He’s here?” Andrew asked, visibly relieved.
“He is.” Lewis led them to a spiral staircase and descended the steps, his soft-soled shoes silent as a predator.
“What is this place?” Kendra asked, gripping the handrails. The entire structure rocked back and forth, causing her stomach to churn. She glanced over at Tony, whose face had paled dramatically.
“Eden. I’ve already told you,” Lewis said again.
Is this guy for real? Kendra wondered.
“The Lord shall provide,” Shelley said from behind her. “I prayed for this, and it happened.”
Kendra couldn’t even argue with the woman.
The stairs went on for a ways, and Kendra’s legs were burning by the time they stopped. She set Diane on the ground, and the girl grabbed her hand, clutching tightly.
Andrew was tense, and Kendra could see him boiling beneath the surface. She had only known the man a short time, but she could tell he wanted to throttle someone to find out where his girl was being held. She was impressed at his patience as they reached an elevator.
The guards were at the bottom of the stairs now, Eric in front of the man and woman. “You two stay here, make sure there aren’t any more… drifters trying to come aboard.”
“Yes, sir,” they said in unison.
The oversized stainless-steel elevator doors sprang open with a ding, and Diane peered at Kendra as if seeking permission to go inside.
“Go on, honey,” she said, trying to sound sure of herself. The truth was, she was grateful to be inside, safe from the raging disasters, but she was petrified at the same time.
Andrew glanced over his injured shoulder at the guards before entering the elevator. Tony stood behind him, wet hair plastered to his face. The reverend was on cloud nine, humming a hymn as the doors closed, and they began moving down.
“What is this?” Kendra asked again. “And please, don’t say Eden. Look, I know it’s your place, and we intruded uninvited, but aren’t you at least able to tell us what it is?”
Lewis Hound’s smiled vanished. “This is what saves humanity, my dear. Out there, the world crumbles to a billion pieces, but in here, we’re the future of an entire race.” He stepped closer to Kendra, and she could smell his expensive cologne, his freshly-donned aftershave. “Don’t forget you are guests. If it had been up to Eric, you wouldn’t be. Don’t make me regret my decision, okay?” He spoke low, so low that Kendra wasn’t sure the others even heard him.
Kendra nodded, biting her tongue. She was in Hound’s world now, and no one had told her the rules. One thing was clear; he was in charge.
They moved for what felt like several minutes, and she had no idea how far they were below the Pacific. The doors opened as the lift stopped, and she followed Andrew off the elevator. Eric Keller stayed behind, talking to an armed guard, and Kendra locked eyes with him. He frowned in her direction and averted his gaze. Down here, Kendra still felt the gentle swaying of the underwater structure, but it was surprisingly subdued: more gentle the farther below the surface they went.
The corridor was wide and at least ten feet tall, the walls metal and blue in color. It reminded her of a submarine, an underwater safehouse, maybe. Hound stopped at a massive bulkhead; a huge round hatch opened as he leaned forward for a retinal scan.
Kendra’s heart raced as she stepped over the ridge and into another world. The floors and walls were so different from the rough metal materials of the other side. In here it was luxury, and she thought she could hear classical music playing softly. Diane still gripped her hand, but the girl was already changing, her mood shifting from afraid to curious. Tony smiled as he saw other people down the corridor, milling about in a room full of tables, some of them standing to see the newcomers.
Lewis Hound turned to them, and clasped his hands. “I’ll have Ginny come and find you accommodations. There will be an interview so we can decide where you fit in, and Andrew, I must ask you for your weapon.” He held his palm out, pushing it toward the Marine.
“Where is she?” Andrew asked, his voice almost inaudible.
“Excuse me?” Lewis asked.
“My daughter. Where is she?” he asked.
“I don’t know…” Lewis started, but Andrew grabbed the man by his fancy jacket and shoved him against the molded white wall, cracking a computer screen.
“Where is Val? Valeria Miller,” Andrew said, his voice eerily level and quiet.
Kendra pulled him away, seeing two armed men rushing to their benefactor’s aide.
To her surprise, Andrew let go of Hound, and the man brushed his chest off. “It’s okay,” he told the guards. “Your daughter is onboard?”
“All signs led me to this point,” he said. “Wilkes had something to do with it.”
Hound’s eyes went wide. “Now I know why he never made last call.”
“Is she here?” Andrew asked, and Kendra saw a girl in a white jumpsuit watching the altercation from the other end of the corridor. “Is Val here?” he shouted this time, thick chords jutting from his neck.
The voice was small at first, but clear.
2 Days Left…
For a second, Andrew couldn’t believe his eyes, and then they were blurring with tears and he went tearing down the corridor. He swept Val up into a giant hug, then winced as his wounded shoulder sparked like an exposed wire, and set her down. Val clung to his neck, both of them laughing and crying at the same time.
“How did you find me?” Val asked, her voice muffled against his shoulder.
He set her down and held her at arm’s length, speechless. Afraid he might be dreaming, he bit his tongue until he tasted blood. Not a dream.
“Dad?” Val prompted. She took a moment to wipe the tears from her cheeks.
“I tracked the man who took you,” he said, his voice gruff.
Val’s cheek twitched and fear darted through her eyes. “Is he here?”
Andrew gave his head a slow shake. “No.” She didn’t need the details. Odds were that Val had no idea what a sicko David Wilkes had really been, and she was better off not knowing.
Unable to help himself, Andrew pulled his daughter into another hug. “It’s okay,” he said. “I’m here now. We’re safe.”
“What about Mom?”
That took the wind out of Andrew, and he withdrew. “Well—” He turned his attention to the corridor to find the others approaching slowly. He met Lewis Hound’s gaze. “—Is there any way we could go back for someone?”
Hound just shook his head. “The helicopters won’t reach land anymore. Neither will the ships.”
Val looked to Hound, then to Andrew, her gaze hard and brittle. “But is she... did she...”
“She made it to Texas with Mike. They’re safe. As safe as they can be, anyway.”
Val grimaced. “Can we at least tell her that we’re okay?” Her gaze slid over to Hound.
“The cell networks are offline. All we have left is satellite, and I’m afraid we can’t go around broadcasting anything if we want this place to stay hidden. But... maybe in a few days, when things settle down.” Hound’s lips twitched into a tight smile. “I’ll give the matter some thought.”
“Please,” Val said. “We can’t let her think I’m dead.”
“What’s better: that she thinks you’re dead, or that you actually are dead?”
Andrew rounded on him with narrowed eyes. “Is that a threat?”
“No. It’s a statement of fact. I saved all of you. In order to stay safe, you must abide by my rules. Communicating with the outside is forbidden for a reason. We don’t have room for the entire world in Eden.”
Andrew scowled, but he decided to leave it at that.
“Let us be thankful that at least we have survived,” Hound added. “Shall we go meet the others?” He jerked his chin to the entrance where Val was standing. They walked through into a vast circular chamber—what appeared to be some kind of lobby or lounge. The room was full of people dressed in white jumpsuits, all sitting on couches and at tables. There was a bar, and computer consoles built into the outer walls between windows that peered out into the black water. People looked up as they walked in. One of them turned from a computer console. Another familiar face.
“Roland?” Andrew blurted. He couldn’t believe it.
“Hey, man!” The kid sprang up from his chair and ran over to them. “You made it!”
Andrew pulled him into a back-slapping hug. “Thanks to you.”
Roland grinned, his gaze skipping around to take in the others. “Looks like you brought... friends?” he suggested with eyebrows raised.
“Survivors from Eureka,” Andrew replied.
“I’m Reverend Shelley Morris,” the old woman said, stepping forward to offer her hand. Roland shook it awkwardly.
“A reverend, huh?”
Andrew turned and finished the introductions. “This is Tony,” he said, pointing to the teenage boy, his hair wild and sticking up at all angles. “And Diane.” The girl’s cheeks were tear-stained, and her eyes were red, but she managed a faint smile for Roland.
“How old is she?” Roland asked.
“I’m eight,” Diane replied.
“The youngest passenger we have,” Hound said, placing a hand on her shoulder in a paternal gesture.
Andrew frowned. “Yeah, about that—how did you decide who to...” He was about to say abduct, but stopped himself.
“Who to save?” Hound asked. “Simple.” He spread his hands to indicate the people in the room. “These people are the best that humanity has to offer. One thousand in all. They are the seeds that will sprout from the ashes. A new era is about to begin.”
Andrew did a quick head count. “There’s only a few dozen people here.”
“This facility has over a hundred levels,” Hound replied.
“Oh.” Andrew did a double-take. This facility was the size of a skyscraper, and almost all of it was underwater.
Kendra’s brow wrinkled in thought. “So with us, that makes... a thousand and five?”
“A thousand and six. I wasn’t counting myself. It’s an odd number, but we’ll find space for you. Speaking of, there she is—Ginny!”
A woman in a blue jumpsuit crossed the lounge from the other side. An elevator with glass doors stood open behind her.
She had long, straight red hair, freckled cheeks, and vibrant green eyes. “Hello,” she said, smiling brightly at them. “I’m Ginny Edwards. I’m in charge of supplies and personnel, as well as room assignments. We do have a few spare accommodations, but space is tight on board, and at the moment, those rooms are devoted to storage. It will take a little while for me to clear them out for you. In the meantime, are any of you hungry?”
That suggestion provoked a noisy grumble from Andrew’s stomach.
“We’re starving,” Tony said.
“What he said,” Andrew added.
“Then follow me!” Ginny about-faced and headed back the way she’d come.
“I’ll leave you with Miss Edwards,” Hound said. “You’re in good hands.”
He turned to leave, flanked by his guards. The doors of the lounge slid shut behind him with a muffled bang.
Andrew felt Val tugging on his arm. “Let’s go! You have to see this place,” she said, pulling him after the others. “It’s amazing. Everything seems like it came from the future.”
“Yeah,” Roland added, nodding his agreement. “Don’t even get me started on the computer systems. Now that’s some next-level shit!”
Andrew smiled as they piled into the elevator. Kendra and Roland carried on their conversation about the facility, and Val chimed in occasionally with her own thoughts. He wasn’t paying attention. The sound of their voices enveloped him as the elevator raced downward, the lights of different levels flashing past the glass doors.
He took a deep breath and wrapped an arm around Val’s shoulders, pulling her close. They were all lucky to be here, but he felt luckiest of all. His daughter was alive and safe. He still felt like it was a dream. It couldn’t be real. Maybe the helicopter had actually crashed before they made it here, and they’d all drowned.
If so, then this was heaven.
What does that make Hound? God?
Andrew sobered with that thought, and he glanced at Reverend Shelley. She looked troubled, but whatever was on her mind, she wasn’t sharing it.
This was real. Eden was real. And Hound might not be God, but he was definitely acting like a savior. Maybe he was trying to save the human race, but even a benevolent dictator was still a dictator.
Andrew had a bad feeling that starting over after this cataclysm wasn’t going to be easy. How long were they supposed to stay here before they made for the shore to rebuild? How long would their supplies last? How many people were going to survive outside this shelter, and what kind of society would they string together from the chaos? At this point, he had more questions than answers.
The elevator dinged, and the doors slid open to reveal a room full of tables and chairs, with a long serving counter wrapping halfway around the room.
“It’s a buffet,” Ginny declared. “You can all go help yourselves!”
Everyone hurried out of the elevator, but Andrew lingered until Val had to pull him out. “Come on!” she urged. “You have to try the lasagna!”
“Sure,” he said through a wan smile. He let his daughter pull him along, all the while wondering: what’s going to happen when the food runs out? There was no way this facility was big enough to house a thousand people and still grow food for them. Whatever supplies they had were limited, and when they ran out, that would be it.
Maybe it wouldn’t matter. Maybe they just had to weather the storm and bide their time until things settled down out there.
Andrew comforted himself with that idea as he and the others dished food onto their plates and went to find a table. The lasagna was good—full of meat and cheese, animal products that weren’t going to last long.
Come on, Andy, enjoy the moment, he thought. Hound didn’t put all this together just to watch everyone starve to death down here. He has to have a plan.
But what really worried him was that the billionaire had been talking like these thousand people were it. Like there wouldn’t be any other survivors. But that couldn’t be, could it?
“How’s the lasagna?” Val asked.
“It’s great,” Andrew replied, smiling tightly for her benefit.
1 Day Left…
“You’re going to have to pull your weight,” the woman said. She’d introduced herself as Veronica, and her long black hair and pug nose made Kendra wonder if she’d chosen to rename herself after the comic book character.
“I don’t mind doing work,” Kendra said. Each guest of Eden was responsible for pitching in. There were no staff, no crew to cater to their needs. It was only them, the one thousand guests, each with a particular skill, it appeared.
“What’s the end game?” Kendra asked the woman as they folded the jumpsuits. Today she was on laundry duty, which everyone had to do once a week. It really wasn’t so bad, especially after a quiet sleep in her own room and a big breakfast in the mess hall. Things were looking up after the difficult journey to reach their destination.
“We finish folding these two hundred jumpsuits,” Veronica said.
“No, I mean…” Kendra stopped short, not wanting to bother with this conversation. She idly pondered what Andrew was doing. His reunion had been heart-wrenching, and Kendra was so glad for the two of them. “What did you have that they wanted, Veronica?”
“I’m a neuroscientist,” she answered without the hint of a joke.
“Of course you are,” Kendra muttered to herself.
“What about you?” Veronica asked her.
“I’m…” She considered telling the woman she wasn’t chosen; that if Hound had his way, she’d be dead, cast aside with the billions of other people around the world. “I’m a special agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Or… I was an FBI agent.” That struck home, the idea that she was no longer defined by her job. For most of her adult life, her work had been her life, and now that was gone, along with everything else.
She wondered what had happened to her parents, to her partner, Peter Costella, to everyone she’d ever known and loved. It would be a mystery, like the disappearance of her sister, Carrie.
Veronica didn’t comment further. They folded the jumpsuits, one after the other, while the huge commercial washing machines filled with water and spun, tumbling the next load around in circles.
The laundry room was stark-white, a hospital feeling of cleanliness and sterility to it. Kendra speculated what it was going to be like doing the other tasks. She’d never been much of a cook, so that was going to be an interesting experience.
They chatted a little about themselves, but didn’t speak further about their situation, as if discussing the world’s end would help make it come true. An hour later, they were finished.
“What now?” Kendra asked.
“We take them to level twelve where they’re laid out for tomorrow’s delivery.” Veronica pointed to the carts, which separated the jumpsuits by sizes.
Kendra grabbed the women’s cart and rolled it forward, the door automatically sliding open as she neared it. This place was state-of-the-art, and it was almost impossible to believe they were underwater. With a hundred floors to explore, Kendra had only seen a tenth of what it likely offered.
After Andrew’s reunion with Val, and finding Roland, they’d eaten dinner and settled into their rooms. Kendra was happy to learn she was sleeping next door to the Marine. They were outsiders here, and she drew comfort in knowing the two of them were going to be close at hand. Tony and Diane were taken to a separate level, one with the other teenagers and younger people.
She was told Diane would be placed in some sort of classes for the time being, and that they could see her whenever they wanted. The girl was eight and had been through so much. She’d lost her family like everyone else, but now, here in their new underwater world, she had no parental figure. Kendra wasn’t sure she was the one to take the role on. Surely someone more qualified and maternal would be better suited to the task.
“Here we are,” Veronica said, and Kendra smiled at her, trying to make nice with the woman. She was in a strange mood, but given the circumstances, she didn’t think it was unwarranted. While she was happy to be included in the one thousand people underwater, she still wished Hound would share his plan with them.
Kendra pushed her cart out of the elevator and started down the hall, following Veronica. The rest of them had been there for a month; some a little longer, others—like Andrew’s daughter—only a week or so. Her work partner knew her way around the facility, and Kendra stayed close, watching everything with wide eyes as they walked through level twelve.
Everyone in this section sported blue jumpsuits, indicating they were Hound’s hand-selected administrative team. Kendra heard beeping sounds emanating from a room, and she stopped short in the middle of the corridor. It was quiet on this level, with only a few people about. It didn’t appear that there were residences nearby, and Kendra tried to grasp what the rooms were for.
This particular space gave the impression of a server room. Dozens of silver boxes stood in a row, floor to ceiling. Wires were neatly wrapped above, connecting the machines to one another. The room hummed with energy, and Kendra assumed she’d found the life-source of the underwater facility.
A woman paused and regarded her, before returning her attention to the tablet in her hand.
“Carrie?” Kendra whispered. The woman certainly resembled her sister, but Kendra had seen her almost monthly since her disappearance. She was an apparition, a mask over other people’s faces, a trick of her trauma-riddled mind. This woman wore her hair short; it was darker than Carrie’s had been, and she had better posture, a surer sense of herself, and she didn’t wear glasses.
“Are you coming?” Veronica asked, and Kendra moved forward, forgetting the cart had a wheel lock in place. She bumped her shin against it and hissed out a curse.
“Kendra?” a voice asked.
“Veronica, I’ll be right there,” Kendra said, and it took her brain a second to realize the woman in the blue jumpsuit had spoken to her.
Her blue eyes sparkled from across the server room, and she rushed toward Kendra.
“It can’t be,” Kendra muttered. But this time she knew it was, and tears flowed freely as her sister ran to her, wrapping her arms around Kendra so tightly she couldn’t breathe.
“Kendra,” Carrie said, her voice the same. Kendra leaned into her, the embrace so obviously Carrie’s. She smelled like her sister, she sounded like her sister… her hug felt like her sister’s.
“How?” Kendra squeaked out.
“It’s a long story,” Carrie told her as they separated.
Staring at her now, this was no trick of her imagination. Carrie was here, in front of her, and apparently worked for Lewis Hound.
Kendra laughed, unsure what else to do. A million questions circled around inside her head, but she pushed them aside for the moment.
“I found you. After all these years, I found you!”
* * *
“Rollie, you’re going to get yourself in some serious trouble,” he whispered to himself.
It was late, and everyone was sleeping. Hound had everyone on a curfew: eleven p.m., and Roland was okay with that. It made it easier to sneak around when they were all sawing logs.
Roland’s room was on the thirty-fourth floor, and after eleven, the elevators didn’t function unless you wore a blue jumpsuit, which Roland hadn’t secured. Not yet, but he was working on becoming part of the team. He hoped that showing value would allow him more perks, and with that power would come knowledge. He needed to figure out what was going on. So far no one had spoken about the end game, as if the entire one thousand people brought to the facility were under a non-disclosure. It was eerie, and he didn’t appreciate being kept in the dark.
The message from PiedPiper19 had given him a countdown, which he’d initially thought to be a timeline to the natural disasters’ culmination. Only those were over with, or at least, a lot of them had already occurred, leaving the world in distress.
The information on the screen glowed against his face in the otherwise dark room, and he scrolled through the data, trying to determine what had happened. The last transmission from Japan stated that the majority of the country was under water. Africa’s population had been decimated by toxic fog as the potency had increased over the last week, and Europe was either covered by ash or enveloped by molten lava. Magma had rained mercilessly onto the continent, leaving destruction in its wake.
Roland scrolled to news of South America and the United States, finding the East Coast appeared to have been devastated by hurricane after hurricane; the West Coast no longer habitable. Everything in between was dying, the ash clouds and toxic fog killing the population off.
He wasn’t sure where Hound had gathered all this information, but it was hard to read. Roland closed the window, rubbing his eyes. The screen gave him a headache, the news a heartache. Nothing would ever be the same.
Roland peered over his shoulder, confirming no one was watching, and he set to breaking through the barrier protecting this facility’s network. Hound was smart, and already he saw tripwires strategically placed. Roland carefully sneaked around them, his fingers moving quickly over the keyboard. An hour later, he was confident he’d accessed the deepest level he’d be able to. This was the clearance he’d have if he were one of Hound’s people, so he didn’t feel too bad about hacking into it, confident that role was coming to him soon anyway.
“What are we inside of?” Roland asked quietly. Living underwater long-term made no sense.
Finally, he found what he’d been searching for: schematics of the facility. His jaw dropped as it clicked, the picture coming clear. He kept his eyes on the screen and found a map, a trajectory laid out.
“You have to be kidding me.” Suddenly the countdown made sense. Beads of sweat formed on his forehead, and he wiped them away nervously. He closed the digital window, erasing any sign of his hacking from the server. He couldn’t be traced to this. If what he’d just seen was real, Hound was either crazy or a genius… perhaps both.
Roland sneaked to his room, part of him wishing he’d stayed in that night instead of snooping. He crawled into bed, pulling the covers tightly to his neck, assuming sleep would never come again.
As usual, it was six a.m. when the alarms went off to wake everyone in the facility, but this time there was a message to accompany the alarm, and flashing red emergency lights.
Lewis Hound spoke into the intercom from the control center. “Attention all personnel, please do not leave your rooms. Follow the flashing light strips to the nearest emergency station and unfold it from the deck or wall. Once deployed, lie down and buckle your safety harness. You have five minutes. This is not a drill. I repeat, this is not a drill. You have five minutes to buckle in at the nearest emergency station.”
Eric Keller watched him with a frown, scratching his cheek through his beard. “You should tell them why.”
“And spoil all my fun?” Lewis asked.
“People could get hurt.”
“The worst that will happen is they’ll get knocked around and pinned to the floor. Besides, they need to learn to obey without questioning my commands. If they don’t pay attention to this, what will happen when there’s a real emergency?”
Lewis left the comms station, patting the operator on the shoulder as he went, and walked down a short flight of stairs to a pair of empty seats in the middle of the control center. Eric followed him there, and the two of them buckled in.
“T minus four minutes,” the nav officer called out.
Everyone on the bridge went about their final preparations, and Lewis noticed light pouring in overhead as the dome-shaped center of the flight deck began opening up like a metal flower.
The sky was dark with soot and ash from the volcanic eruptions—not to mention smoke from the firestorms that were raging from the ejecta raining down.
“T minus three minutes!” the nav officer said.
All of the seats on the bridge reclined by ninety degrees until the entire crew was supine, staring up at the seemingly transparent dome above their heads. Of course it wasn’t actually made of glass; the radiation in space was too hazardous to have real windows. There were technologies to deal with radiation, and even to generate gravity and buffer the inertial effects of sudden acceleration, but none of the people on this flight could be allowed to know that he had access to those advances.
“T minus two minutes.”
Primitives, Lewis thought, smirking to himself and rocking his head from side to side on his headrest.
“Is everything all right?” Eric asked, appearing to notice the expression on his face.
“Just fine, Mr. Keller.”
They passed the rest of the time in silence, hitting the one minute mark, and then the nav officer counted out the last few seconds.
“T minus three, two, one...”
A mighty roar started up somewhere far below them, and the deck shuddered violently before they were lifting clear of the launch silo, racing up through falling sheets of ash toward the smoke-stained sky. Lewis was pinned to his seat; the engines rumbled and roared, and dark clouds swallowed the view for several long minutes.
At last, the darkness receded and blue sky appeared. The color grew rapidly deeper and more vibrant as the hazy screen of smoke faded. Blue gradually turned to black, and stars pricked through, quickly multiplying until there was a glittering sea of them. The acceleration eased, returning to normal Earth levels. All of the chairs on the bridge righted themselves, and Lewis reached for the controls in the armrests of his chair.
He toggled a rear view on the dome-shaped viewscreen that capped the bridge and the nose of the ship. Earth appeared, magnificent and close below them, and wrapped in angry black clouds. The dark side of it was peppered with bright orange specks from fires peeking through the smoke. The entire planet looked like the aftermath of a bonfire—charred black, and freckled with glowing orange embers.
Some of the crew gasped. Others began weeping softly. Eric cursed under his breath. But Lewis just smiled.
Everything was going according to plan.
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ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Nathan Hystad is the best-selling author of The Event. He writes about alien invasion, first contact, colonization, and everything else he devoured growing up. He's had hundreds of thousands of copies sold and read, and loves the fact he's been able to reach so many amazing readers with his stories.
Nathan's written over twenty novels, including The Survivors, Baldwin's Legacy, and The Resistance.
Jasper Scott is a USA Today best-selling author of more than 20 sci-fi novels. With over a million books sold, Jasper's work has been translated into various languages and published around the world.
Jasper writes fast-paced books with unexpected twists and flawed characters. He was born and raised in Canada by South African parents, with a British heritage on his mother's side and German on his father's. He now lives in an exotic locale with his wife, their two kids, and two Chihuahuas.