Authors: Greg Shows,Zachary Womack
Echoing Titman, he asked, “Who the hell would know how to do this?”
“Terrorists,” Titman replied, sounding certain now, his mind made up that Islamic idiots or White Power pissants would be hiding behind every dusty gray bush.
Blakely reprimanded himself for not keeping his thoughts to himself. Titman’s paranoia was bad enough without Blakely stoking it.
Blakely went back to the front of the store, opened the cold cases and shined his light inside. Surprise stabbed him in the guts when he saw the blue plastic Rice Krispie wrapper on the floor at the back of the case.
He moved down the row of glass doors, opened the one where the shelves had been knocked out, and stepped over the ledge and into the case. He took a few steps forward, shining his flashlight over the floor.
He was at the ready, prepared to bolt if he caught a whiff of chlorine through his respirator. The respirators Titman had issued when he arrived weren’t designed for chemical warfare. They could only filter particulates, which worked great if you wanted to avoid breathing volcanic ash and the radioactive dust from the plants whose waste piles had gone up and been carried on the ash flow. But the respirators weren’t designed to keep you from coughing your guts out after a gas attack gave you a lung full of poison.
Blakely picked up the blue wrapper. It was dust-free and still smelled like the candy it had recently contained. His stomach clenched, and for a second he almost believed that the crazy man on the pink bike was about to pop out and scream “Peek-a-boo!”
But the moment passed and his rational thoughts returned and he was left wondering if whoever had been in this 7-Eleven had somehow been connected to the crazy bastard back in Meadville.
“Sir?” Duck said, “You got something?”
“No,” Blakely said and stepped out of the cold case.
“What the hell happened here?” Titman asked, “I want some goddamned answers, Blakely.”
Blakely felt an urge to rip the headset off—just so he wouldn’t have to hear the general’s voice. He circled the store again, stepping over the dead dogs, working with the headlights as well as his flashlight, trying to put together everything he saw.
It wasn’t an easy fit.
He couldn’t explain the body in the back room. Bones had been torn off and gnawed, but the body was mostly bones with a little soft connective tissue remaining. The dogs hadn’t killed the man or woman. A shotgun blast to the head had. Months ago.
Blakely went back to the chlorine bomb and nudged it with his foot. He’d never heard of Black Swan Manufacturing, but he had to smile. It was an ironic name, considering the implications the term had taken on in the years before the Big Blow Off. An unexpected event that changes everything for the worse was about the best description of a super-volcanic eruption you were likely get.
Then he noticed the rungs of the ladder.
He looked up.
“Shit,” he whispered, and gave a low whistle.
When Duck hurried back to stand behind him, Blakely pointed up. The roof access panel was gone and the beam from his flashlight was shooting out through the hole, into the dusty darkness above.
Blakely gave Duck a hand signal.
Duck nodded and angled his rifle up, moving back to the locked rear door.
“Someone cut the lights on the Humvee,” Duck whispered into his mike.
Twenty seconds later the headlights went out.
“What’s going on in there?” Titman asked.
Blakely rolled his eyes. Then as quietly as he could, he leaned his M4 against the wall next to the ladder and tucked his flashlight into a pocket. He dropped his night vision goggles down over his eyes, pulled his 9mm out of his hip holster, and stepped up onto the first rung of the ladder, one hand steadying him. As he climbed, sweat dripped down his forehead, ran behind the lenses of the goggles, and dribbled into his eyes, making him squint against the sting.
He paused long enough to clamp an elbow over a ladder rung, move his goggles aside, and swipe at his face with the shoulder of his fatigues. As his uniform deposited a smear of gritty dust over his forehead and the bridge of his nose, he wished he was wearing one of the fancy, air-conditioned Halo helmet prototypes he’d seen back in the days before everything went to shit. But then he reminded himself of the worthlessness of wishing, and readjusted his goggles.
“Fucking dust,” he whispered, and Duck, jumpy and jacked up on adrenaline, had to stifle a guffaw. He quacked quietly instead, and watched Blakely take another step up the ladder.
Blakely continued up, his boots deftly landing on the rungs with total silence. Once the top of his combat helmet came to within a few inches of the open access hole, Blakely paused again, giving Duck a sign then flexing his knees several times in preparation.
After sucking in a huge breath, he exploded upward with a grunt, pistoning his knees quickly as his feet ran up the last four rungs and he folded his body over the lip of the access hole.
Like he’d done a million times throughout his years of training and combat, Blakely somersaulted and rolled up to a kneeling firing position. When he wasn’t ripped to shreds by bullets, he pivoted, right to left, his right arm out, his pistol ready to fire.
“Clear,” Blakely said once he’d made a three hundred and sixty degree turn.
He moved quickly, ready to get out of his exposed position on the roof. He swung his gaze over the dunes of gray dust that had accumulated on the roof, studying the empty bottles and cans and the old cast-off Igloo coolers.
He saw motion at the edge of the roof and felt a slight breeze against his neck. He moved closer, already certain of what he was going to find, but approaching the roof edge anyway.
He bent down quickly, knowing as he did he was screwing up royally. It was another Rice Krispie treat wrapper, crisp and unfaded and half buried in the gray dust.
It was fresh.
He looked around suddenly.
It was a set-up. A trap to get someone to stand still long enough to get whacked. Any second he’d feel the pressure shock of the bullet hitting his helmet or chest or back. In the moment of extreme terror, the image of his daughter, who would be nine now if she were still alive, came to him, and he thought her name—Camille—as he prepared for the killshot to come.
But no shot came, and Blakely exhaled.
It was a tactical screw-up coming up onto the roof like he had, but at least he hadn’t paid for it.
“Titman’s incompetence must be rubbing off on me,” he thought, and went into motion, scanning the roof as quick as he could.
Blakely kicked the old backpack aside, then noticed the drag marks leading away from the lawn chair next to the roof access hole. The drag marks had covered the footprints of the person who’d done the dragging, but it hadn’t covered all the footprints.
At the edge of the hole, he noticed her tracks.
And he did mean
It had to be a woman. The footprints were small. The stride was short.
“It’s a chick,” Blakely yelled. “There was a team working this, and one of the killers is a chick.”
“Bullshit,” Titman responded, as Blakely was climbing down the ladder, but Blakely could tell the general wasn’t completely skeptical. Perhaps the idea of getting his hands on a woman was getting him all tingly inside.
It all made sense now, though. The girl had hidden in the store and waited for the contact to arrive, hiding out in the cold case. It was a perfect ambush point, right at the meeting point, with rear access for escape. After her accomplice confronted the contact, the girl could have shot the him from inside the store.
“Got to check the scene again,” Blakely said, then broke into a jog, hopping over dead dogs so he could get out of the store and over to the contact’s body before Titman or the soldiers trampled the area too much.
Sure enough, the footprints were there, circling the area where the contact had been killed, then heading away to the south while the other killer’s tracks headed west.
“Get the Humvee,” Blakely told Duck, and inside two minutes he was walking down the street, following the girl’s tracks.
Duck was twenty yards behind him in the Humvee, weaving in and out of the abandoned cars as he paced Blakely. Hider and Meadowlark, who’d recovered enough from their chlorine gas exposure to keep from puking every ten seconds, were sitting in the backseat while the new gunner, George Sparks, sat in the gunner’s sling with his fingers on the trigger of the .50 cal.
Titman, safe and secure in the command Humvee, followed the four man detail as they tracked the larger pair of boot prints they’d found.
“Man carrying kids,” one of the soldiers said. “Running from dogs.”
“Got the dogs,” another one said. “Two of them. He put down the kids and killed them.”
Just as Titman’s squad was finding the dogs, Blakely found the blue tarp.
“She took his bike,” Blakely said over the comm.
“Goddamn it,” Titman said, and almost as soon as he said it, gunfire erupted. Bullets slammed into Titman’s Humvee, clattering against the roof above Titman’s head like a troop of elves tap-dancing in iron-soled shoes.
Out in front of the Humvee, the four soldiers dove to the ground, rolling through the dust and slithering behind abandoned cars, searching for the source of the fire raining down on them. It was hard to see anything because of the lightning flashing in the west.
Blakely could hear through the com that the men were on the verge of panic.
“Stay down, we’re on the way,” he yelled.
Blakely and the grunt behind him jumped into the Humvee and Duck spun it around, knocking a Hyundai out of the way as he went. Then they raced along a narrow gap between cars, clipping fenders and open doors, sending arcs of gray dust rooster tailing up behind them.
Blakely slid the night vision goggles over his eyes as Duck took them around a corner. Titman’s command vehicle was six blocks west of Blakely’s Humvee, but Duck stomped down on the accelerator and sent them careening among the abandoned cars, up onto a sidewalk, smashing into newspaper racks, metal trashcan shells, abandoned suitcases and bicycles and the occasional dessicated corpse.
“60 seconds ETA!” Blakely said into the mic.
“Hey!” Hider yelled as he saw the street lamp pole in the headlights as it raced toward them, but Duck cut the wheel at the last second and sent the Humvee skidding over the dusty sidewalk to his right. Just like he’d wanted, the Humvee slowed enough to let the wheels catch traction and straighten the Humvee out.
Hider gasped as they shot through the gap between the pole and the front of a brownstone apartment.
“Shit!” Sparks yelled from the gunner position on top of the vehicle. He was getting knocked around hard, his chest slamming into the edges of the turret hole, his sling seat jerking his hips side to side as Duck took turns at speeds so high it felt like his wheels were in danger of coming off the ground.
In less than a minute, Titman’s Humvee was in sight, and a few seconds later Duck was slamming the brakes, sending the vehicle into a wild, sideways slide that put it right in front of the command car.
Bullets began to bang against Blakely’s Humvee, but then Sparks opened up on the muzzle flashes he saw coming from a corner window halfway up the side of an eight story building on their left. More flashes were coming from the corner of a shorter, three-story building across the street. But then lightning flashed, and the world went white and the soldiers had to fire blindly, doing their best to estimate where they’d seen the muzzle flashes.
Blakely grimaced as he stepped out of the Humvee and went around to the back of it. He felt like he was watching himself from above again, knowing exactly what needed to be done, and doing it.
The attackers had screwed up. The fire position buildings were a full block away, and if the gunners in those corner windows had sat tight, if they had allowed Titman’s Humvee to get into the excellent kill zone they’d set up, the crossfire they could rain down might have taken it out. It would have certainly damaged or disabled it. But the enemy had gotten jumpy and fired too soon. Now they were going to pay for it.
Sparks’s .50 cal had no trouble sending a stream of lead tearing into the masonry and windows of the fourth floor. Blakely used this cover to open the rear hatch of the Humvee, reach in and open a small compartment in the side of the vehicle, and pull out an RPG launcher. After loading the weapon with a warhead and preparing it to fire, he put it on his shoulder, stepped out from behind the Humvee, and took aim.
He could almost hear the gunners in those buildings saying “Oh shit!”
From at least a dozen yards above himself, he watched as his instincts took over and he pushed the trigger that launched the rocket.
Yellow sparks and tongues of fire lit up the night, and the rocket shot out of the tube, racing away and zooming ahead toward the enemy on the left, leaving a yellow-orange trail as it screamed into the side of the building and ignited.
The warhead detonated on impact and an orange fireball rolled up the corner of the building, sending flames shooting into the sky. Very quickly the interior of the building began to catch fire, lighting up the darkened downtown buildings around it.