Authors: Nora Roberts
“Wait. Kim Jong-un? He's dead? When?”
“Two weeks ago. They're claiming he's alive, but that's bogus. You can take it to the bank. If there's still one open. But that's not the biggest buzz. It mutated, Arlys. CarnegieâPOTUS for a day? Well, three days. He had sores, sores broke out all over his bodyâand inside delicate orificesâbefore he showed the expected symptoms of the Doom. He was sealed tight, under watch twenty-four-seven, tested three times a day, and it still got him.”
“If it's mutatedâ¦”
“Back to the drawing board with two billion plus and counting. But here's the big boom: They don't know what the fuck it is. The bird flu line? It's bullshit.”
“What do you mean?” Arlys demanded. “They identified the strain. Patient Zeroâ”
“It's bullshit, Arlys. The dead guy in Brooklyn, maybe. But the
Doom ain't no bird flu. Birds aren't infected. They've been testing chickens and pheasants, and all kinds of our feathered friends, and nothing. And four-legged animals? They're just fine and just dandy. It's just humans. Just people.”
Her throat wanted to close, but she forced out the words. “Biological warfare? Terrorism.”
“No buzz on that, just nada, and you bet your fine ass they've been looking. Whatever the hell it is, nobody's ever seen it before. What's left of the powers-that-be? They're lying, falling back on the let's-not-cause-panic bullshit. Well, fuck that. Panic's here.”
“If they can't identify the virus, they can't create a vaccine.”
“Bingo.” Chuck shot up a finger, made a check mark in the air. “They've got another route, and it doesn't inspire confidence. I'm hearing chatter about military roundups, pulling people who areâso farâasymptomatic out of their homes, and taking them to places like Raven Rock, Fort Detrick. They've set up checkpoints, and they're doing neighborhood sweeps, closing off urban areas. If you plan to get out of New York, sugarcake, do it soon.”
“Who'd report the news?” But her stomach clenched. “And how would I talk to you every day?”
“I figure I've got time before they come knocking, and I've got an escape hatch. If you use this, Arlys, no shitting around, get gone. Get supplies you can carry and get out of the city. Don't fuck around.”
He paused, shot her that grin again. “On that note. Hit it, Frank!”
Arlys closed her eyes, let out a weak laugh when she heard Sinatra crooning “New York, New York.”
“Yeah, I'm spreading the news.”
“He sure made it. Skinny guy from Hoboken. Hey, I'm a skinny guy, too. It's got a ring, right? Hoboken.”
His grin stayed wide, but she saw his eyesâhis intense and serious eyes. “Yeah, I did a fluff piece there a million years ago.”
“Podoken Hoboken. It ain't no Park Avenue, but its number-one boy sure went places. Anyway, gotta book. I was hackedy-hacking till three in the a.m. Three in the morning's past even this boy's bedtime. Keep it real.”
“You, too, Chuck.”
She ended the call, pulled up a street map of Hoboken.
“Park Avenue,” she mumbled. “And found it. Number One Park Avenue, maybe? OrÂ â¦ Park crosses First Street. Park and First, three a.m. if I get out of Manhattan.”
She got up, paced, trying to absorb all Chuck had told her. She trusted himânearly everything he'd told her up to that morning had been verified. And what hadn't been officially verified had swirled into the anonymous-sources category.
Two billion dead. Mutated. Yet another dead president. She needed to do some research on Sally MacBrideâAg Secretary turned POTUS, according to Chuck. She'd be ready if and when the change of power was announced.
If she went on the air with that, the uniformsâor the men in blackâwould certainly swarm the station. Take her in for questioning, maybe shut it all down. In the world that had been she'd have risked questioning, risked being hauled into court to protect a source. But this wasn't the world that had been.
She'd stick with officially verified reports for her morning edition, that and her own observations. Then she'd write up copy from Chuck's intel. Monitor the InternetâLittle Fred could help her with that. If she could name another source, even from the deep Web, she'd protect herself and Chuck. And the station.
She knew there were people who depended on the broadcastsâfor help, for hope, for truth when she could find it for them.
She sat back down, poured more coffee, wrote copy, refined it, rewrote, printed it. She'd have Fred set it in the prompter.
She took the copy with her to wardrobe, picked a jacket before
going in to do her own makeup and hair. The world might be ending, but she
look professional when she reported same.
In studio, she found the bouncy, redheaded Little Fred chatting with the sad-eyed cameraman.
“Hi, Arlys! You were working away and I didn't want to break your rhythm. I got some apples and oranges, put them in the break room.”
“Where do you find this stuff?”
“Oh, you just have to know where to look.”
“I'm glad you do. Can you set my copy up?”
“Sure thing.” She lowered her voice. “Steve's feeling low. He saw some asshole shoot a dog last night. By the time he got down to the street, the guy was gone, and the dog dead. Why do people have to be so mean?”
“I don't know. But there are people like Steve who'd go down on the street to try to help a dog, so that's the other side of it.”
“That's true, isn't it? Maybe I can find him a dog. There are so many strays now.”
Before Arlys could comment, Little Fred dashed off to load the prompter.
Arlys walked behind the anchor desk, fit on her earpiece.
“Am I coming through?”
“We've got you, Arlys.”
“Good morning, Carol. I've got ten minutes of hard, another ten of soft. Little Fred's loading it up.”
They talked production, added in copy Carol and Jim had written, worked out the opening story, the closeâthe unicorn got the closeâand calculated they could offer a full thirty-minute report.
“When we get through this, Arlys,” Jim said in her ear, “and the world's sane againârelativelyâyou're keeping that anchor desk on
The Evening Spotlight
The big guns, she thought. And thought, too, of what she'd learned from Chuck. It would never happen.
“I'll hold you to it.”
Fred set the written copy on the desk, and a mug of water. “Thanks.” Arlys checked her face, smoothed her long bob of deep brown hair, ran through some tongue twisters when she got the thirty-seconds mark.
At ten, she rolled her shoulders, at five turned to the camera, waited for Steve to give her the go.
“Good morning. This is Arlys Reid in New York with your
. Today, the World Health Organization estimates the death toll from H5N1-X at more than one billion, five hundred million. Yesterday, President Carnegie held meetings with officials from the WHO and the CDC, including the heads of both organizations and scientists who are working around the clock to create a vaccine to combat the virus.”
I'm lying, she thought as she continued. Lying because I'm afraid to tell the truth.
Lying because I'm afraid.
While Arlys gave her report, Lana listened to the ugly news layered on ugly news as she looked out the window.
She loved the loft's floor-to-ceiling windows, loved being able to look out at what had become her neighborhood. How many mornings had she or Max run across to the little bakery for fresh bagels? Now, instead of a display window filled with tempting pastries and cakes, boards covered the glass and obscene graffiti covered the boards.
She tracked her gaze down to the corner deli where she'd so often joked with the cheerful woman behind the counter. Doris, Lana remembered. Her name was Doris, and she'd always worn a white cap over tight, tight gray curls and bright, bright red lipstick.
Only the day before, Lana had looked out this same window to see the once-busy, family-run deli reduced to charred brick, still-smoking wood, and smashed glass.
Surely for no reason other than vicious glee.
So many shops and restaurants she and Max had patronized, had enjoyed, were closed now or had been destroyed by looters or vandals.
Other lofts and apartments were empty or locked up tight. Did the locked ones hold the living or the dead?
No one walked the sidewalks this morning. Not even those who sometimes ventured out to scavenge for food or supplies before they locked themselves in again. Not a single car drove past.
They came at night, with the dark. The self-dubbed Raiders. Was there any other word for them? Lana wondered. They came out, roaming in packs like rabid wolves, roaring along the streets on motorcycles. Firing guns, heaving rocks or firebombs through windows. Smashing, burning, looting, laughing.
The night before, awakened by the shouts, the gunshots, Lana had risked a look. She'd seen a pack of Raiders all but on the doorstep of their building. She'd watched two argue, fight, draw knives while others circled to cheer on the blood. They left the vanquished bleeding on the streetâbut not before kicking him, stomping on him.
Max had called the police. His own growing powers helped him boost the signal, as phonesâlandlines or cellsârarely connected now.
They'd come, clad in riot gear, a full hour after the call. They had bagged the body and taken it awayâbut hadn't bothered to come in and interview her or Max.
She could see the blood on the street from the window.
How could the world have gone so dark, so cruel? And at the same time when such light had come into her? She felt it bloom, felt it glow, felt that rush of power whenever she opened herself to it.
She knew it was the same for Max, that blooming, that discovery.
She'd seen for herself there were others. The woman she'd watched
leap off the roof of the building across the street. Not in despair, but to soar joyfully on luminous, spreading wings.
Or the boy of no more than ten she'd watched skipping down the street, turning the streetlights off and on with his waving arms.
She'd seen the dance of tiny lights, watched some flutter close enough to her window that she could make out their figuresâmale, female.
Wonders, she thought. From this very window she'd witnessed wonders. And viciousness. Human cruelty that rampaged with guns and knives and wild eyes. The dark side of magicks that tossed lethal balls of fire or struck others down with black, screaming swords.
So even as her light grew, the world died, in front of her eyes.
With a shuddering heart, Lana thought of the numbers reported by the woman on TV. More than a billion and a half dead. A billion and a half lives wiped away, not by terrorism, not by bombs and tanks or mad ideology. But by a virus, germs, some microscopic bug scientists labeled dispassionately with letters.
And people more succinctly, to her mind, called the Doom.
Arlys Reid was now Lana's primary touchstone with the world outside the loft. She clung to the daily broadcasts because the reporter seemed so calm, so impossibly calm as she spoke of horror.
And hope, Lana reminded herself. The continuing work on a cure. But even when it cameâwould it come?ânothing would ever be the same again.
The Doom spread its poison so fast, while magicks, both the dark and the light, rose up to fill the void death created.
What would be left at the end of things?
“Lana, come away from the window. It's not safe.”
“I shielded it. No one can see in.”
“Did you bulletproof it?” Max strode to her, pulled her back.
She turned into him, squeezed her eyes shut. “Oh, Max. How can this be real? There's smoke to the west. It's all but blocking out the sky. New York's dying, Max.”
“I know it.” Enfolding her, he stared over her head, at the smoke, at what looked to be birds, black against the gray, circling. “I finally got ahold of Eric.”
Lana drew back quickly. Max had been trying to reach his younger brother for days. “Thank God! He's all right?”
“Yes. He hasn't been able to reach our parents, either. With them traveling in France when this hitÂ â¦ There's no way to know. I haven't been able to push the signal that far. Yet.”
“I know they're all right. I just know they are. Where is Eric?”
“Still at Penn State, but he says it's bad, and he's going to try to get out tonight. He's going to head west, get away from the city. He's got a group of people to travel with and they're stockpiling supplies. He was able to give me the location before the signal dropped. I just couldn't hold it any longer.”
“But you reached him, and he's all right.” She held on to that, and to Max's hands. “You want to go, find him.”
“We have to get out of New York, Lana. You said it yourself, the city's dying.”
She glanced back at the window. “All my life,” she told him. “I've lived here all my life. Worked here, met you here. It's not our home anymore. And you need to find Eric. We need to go, find him.”
Relieved she understood, he rested his cheek on the top of her head. He'd found his place here, in this city, considered it his power centerâfor the writing he loved, the magicks discovered inside him. Here, he'd truly begun, studying, practicing the Craft, building a satisfying career. Here, he'd found Lana; and here, they'd started to build a life together.
But now the city burned and bled. He'd seen enough to know it
would take them into hell with it if they stayed. Whatever else he might risk, he wouldn't risk Lana.
“I need to find Eric, but youâkeeping you safeâthat's the most important thing to me.”
She turned her head to brush her lips over his throat. “We'll keep each other safe. Maybe one day we'll come back, help rebuild.”
He said nothing to that. He'd been outside the loft, he'd scavenged the streets for supplies. His hopes of coming back had already died.
“One of Eric's group's family has a vacation home in the Alleghenies, so they're heading there. It's fairly isolated.” Max continued to watch out the window where birdsâwere there more of them now?âcircled in the rising smoke. “It should be safe there, away from urban areas. I've mapped out the route.”
“It's a long way from here to there. Reportsâthe reliable Arlys Reidâsay the tunnels are blocked. And the military has barricades up now, trying to keep people contained.”
“We'll get through.” Drawing her back, he gripped her shoulders, ran his hands down her arms as if to transfer his determination to her. “We'll get out. Pack up what you need, only what you need. I'm going to go out, get some supplies. Then we're going to steal a carâplenty of them abandoned. I can start it.”
He looked down at his hands. “I can do that. We'll head north, get into the Bronx.”
“The main problems are the tunnels and bridges. We'll need to get over the Harlem River, but the last I heard, people aren't being stopped from going into the Bronx.”
“How do we get there?”
“The Park Avenue Bridge looks like the quickest.” He'd been studying maps for days. “It's a train route, but a truck or SUV could
handle it. It's only a little more than three hundred feet, so we're off nearly as soon as we're on. And we keep going north until we can cut west into Pennsylvania. We have to get out of New York. Worse is coming, Lana.”
“I know. I can feel it.” Gripping Max's hand, she turned toward the TV. “She's saying that the government, the scientists, the officials are all claiming they're close to a vaccine, but I don't feel that. I don't feel that, Max, as much as I want to.”
Resolved, Lana stepped back. “I'll pack, for both of us. We won't need much.”
“Warm clothes,” he told her. “And wear something you can move in, run in, if necessary. We'll pack up foodâbut keep that light for now, too. Flashlights, extra batteries, water, a couple of blankets. We can get more supplies once we're on the road.”
She looked at the wall of shelvesâfloor to ceiling like the windowsâand the dozens and dozens of booksâsome with his name on them.
Understanding, he shrugged. “I've read them anyway. I'm going out, getting us a couple of backpacks. Meanwhile, pack one bag, Lana, for both of us.”
“Don't take any chances.”
He cupped her face, kissed her. “I'll be back in an hour.”
“I'll be ready.” But as her nerves skittered, she held on another moment. “Let's just go now, Max, together. We can get whatever we need once we're out of the city.”
“Lana.” Now he kissed her forehead. “A lot of people who took off unprepared ended up dead. We're going to keep our heads, do this step-by-step. Warm clothes,” he repeated, and went to put on his own coat, pulled on a ski cap. “An hour. Bolt the door behind me.”
When he went out, she turned the locks he'd installed since the madness began.
He'd come back, she told herself. He'd come back because he was smart and quick, because he had power inside him. Because he'd never leave her alone.
She went into the bedroom, stared at the clothes in her closet. No fun or pretty dresses, no stylish shoes or sexy boots. She felt a little pang, imagined Max felt the same pang about leaving the books.
Necessity meant leaving things they lovedâbut never each other.
She packed sweaters, sweatshirts, thick leggings, wool trousers, jeans, flannel shirts, socks, underwear. One blanket, one big, warm throw, two towels, a small bag for basic toiletries.
In the bathroom she sighed over her collection of skin-care products, hair products, makeup, bath oils. Convinced herself that one, just one, jar of her favorite moisturizer equaled necessity.
She walked out into the living room as Arlys Reid ended her broadcast with a report of a naked woman riding a unicorn on Madison.
“I hope it's true,” Lana murmured, shutting off the TV for the last time.
For sentiment, she selected her favorite photo of her and Max. He stood behind her, his arms around her. Her hands crossed over his. He wore black jeans and a blue shirt rolled to his elbows, and she a floaty summer dressâwith the lush green of Central Park around them.
She packed it, frame and all, between the towels. And slipped in a copy of his first published novel,
The Wizard King
For hope, she went into his office, took his flash drive where he backed up his work in progress. One day, when sanity came back to the world, he'd want it.
She set out the two flashlights kept in the skinny kitchen closet, the spare batteries. She gathered bread she'd made only the day before, a bag of pasta, another of rice, bags of herbs she'd dried,
coffee, tea. She used a small soft-sided cooler for the few perishables, some frozen chicken breasts.
They wouldn't starveâfor a while at least.
She unrolled her knives, the gorgeous Japanese blades she'd saved up forâmonths of scrimping, but so worth it.
She probably shouldn't take them all, but she admitted leaving any behind would break her heart more than abandoning her wardrobe. Besides, they were tools.
She rolled them up again, set them aside. Her tools, she thought, so she'd carry them in her backpack. Her tools, her weight.
However foolish it was, she went in, neatly made the bed, arranged the throw pillows.
She dressedâwarm clothes, thick socks, sturdy boots.
When she heard Max's knockâseven times, three-three-oneâshe all but flew to the door, yanking at the locks. Then flung herself into his arms.
“I wouldn't let myself worry while you were gone.” She pulled him inside. “So it all crested and ebbed the second I heard your knock.”
Tears swam into her eyes, shimmeredâand she burst into laughter when he held out a burgundy backpack with candy-pink trim.
He grinned back at her. “You like pink. They had one in stock.”
“Max.” Blinking away the tears, she took it. “Wow. Already heavy.”
“I loaded them both upâyours and my manly camo.”
Though he didn't tell her his held a 9mm and extra clips he'd found in a looted storeroom.
“I got each of us a multi-tool and a kit for filtering water, some bungee cords.” He took off his hat, shoved his fingers through his hair. “We're New Yorkers, Lana. Urbanites. We're going to be strangers in a strange land out there.”
“We'll be together.”
“I won't let anyone hurt you.”
“Good. I won't let anyone hurt you, either.”
“Let's pack up the rest. We might have to hike awhile before we find something drivable. I want to be out of New York before dark.”
As they added to the backpacks, he eyed her knife roll.
“All of them?”
“I didn't take a single pair of Manolos. That stings, Max. It stings.”
He considered it, then chose a bottle of wine from the rack, slipped it into his pack. “Seems fair.”
“It does. You have a knife on your belt. That's a knife sheath, isn't it?”