Bag Men: Siege (Book 8)

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Underwood Gaines, Sergeant, Yuma Army Camp

12:55 a.m., April 14th, 2070

Underwood, by his very nature, had never been much good at waiting. He was one helluva lousy waiter, in fact. All this sittin’ around was killing him. Sure, talking to the captain wasn’t half bad, but he wanted to be out there, on the frontlines, butchering Sackies. He’d seen too many of his friends die to sleep easy, even though it wasn’t just him missing out — the nobles had decided to postpone the second assault until dawn of the third day of the siege, and that annoyed the holy hell out of him.

He reminded himself not to think above his pay grade. He was just a tactics man; the brass was in charge of strategy. If they felt playing a long game of chicken with the Sackies was the best way to win the war, then he, and all the other trigger-happy fighting men of Yuma, would just have to abide.

At least there was one big advantage to holding off on mounting any further attacks: dozens of patrols had been assembled and sent out to track down the spy who’d murdered those soldiers last night. If he or she was still anywhere near camp, getting caught would be inescapable.

So far, however, there’d been no news. Not one sighting. Nothing.

Underwood fumed, silently, as he sat outside the field hospital. He’d told every head of every patrol to send a runner for him as soon as anything was discovered, anything at all related to the killer on the loose.

By then, he’d waited a very long time, and it nearly got to him. He nearly lost his damn mind, staring at specks of dust in the air, at fruit flies dying, at nothing, while Captain Whittom slept half the day and night away.

Finally, he heard the alarm bells ringing again. It came almost as a relief after so many hours had passed without any meaningful events, without any discoveries made.

Underwood rose from his chair and popped his head inside the hospital pavilion. Whittom was asleep but stirring.

The killer ain’t likely goin’ to come for the sick and wounded, I bet. But better be safe. Duty came first and above all. Underwood said, “Sir? Sir, you hear them bells, don’t you?”

Whittom mumbled something. Then, more clearly: “Go, go. Catch the bastard, whoever he is. Kill him. Don’t worry ’bout me.”

That was all Underwood needed. He darted outside again, into the coolness of night. But he still had to wait. He didn’t know which direction he needed to be going.

Fortunately, he didn’t have to linger there long. A wheezing private skidded to a halt in front of him and gave his breathless report: the Resurrectioners, who’d been missing since last night, had reemerged just beyond camp. They were up to something.

“So it ain’t the killer.” Underwood pursed his lips. “Or, maybe they’re all in it together.”

“It must be a trap,” said the private, bullets of sweat dripping from his black hair.

“We don’t know that. Them Resurrectioners is all crazy as rabid raccoons. Could just be one o’ their weird games. Eh, best be prepared, though. Lead me there, then have every nearby patrol you can find head for that point. If it’s trouble they’re brewin’, we’ll put a stopper in it right quick.”

The private saluted and made his way toward the disturbance. He stopped periodically, checking to make sure that Underwood was still following closely. Underwood, meanwhile, put his fingers to his mouth and whistled. Armistead bounded up, barking in greeting, and fell in stride with his master.

If yesterday the mood of panic had been a simmering pot, tonight the water boiled over. Regardless of whether the Resurrectioners were responsible, there had been more murders, apparently. Only a couple, but a couple was enough, when added to those of the night before, to send the fighting men of Yuma into a frenzy. If they didn’t vent their frustrations soon, there’d be a riot. Or, worse still, the non-Yuman majority part of the Army would rebel.

It was, in short, a disaster of horrifying scope. It would be amazing, really, if it turned out that just one person had managed to stir up such a response. The mystery surround the perpetrator was what had sealed the deal: with no face to put to the crime, the imagination was free to run amok; the killer could be a Sackie spy, a Suicide Brigader returned from the dead for revenge, even a demon…

Rather than check out the scene of the latest murders, Underwood felt he had better odds of catching the culprit in the act of the next brutality. He suspected that the Resurrectioners were somehow related to the killer. How, he couldn’t even guess. Still, it couldn’t be coincidence that the cultists disappeared right around the same time as the attacks began. If the Resurrectioners weren’t actively aiding the assailant, they were involved, somehow. Underwood just had to find out the how and why. To do that, he had to make it in time to the where, which is why he pushed himself harder and harder, through the pain in his hip and leg and whole body now, to follow the private leading the way.

Armistead caught a scent; he shot ahead like a velvety arrow.

Then Underwood and the private came up to a squad who must have followed the dog to this point. They’d stopped in their tracks. Armistead sat in front of them, perfectly still, alert, ready for Underwood’s next order. All eyes watched the following scene unfold:

On a patch of dirt about thirty feet away from the outer edge of the camp, a crowd of approximately one hundred men and women had assembled. Most of them clutched torches and waved these in disorienting patterns. All of them chanted gobbledygook that could have been English, if spoken by someone who’d just smoked a whole lot of Slab City Hash. They were gathered in a circle. A weedy young man stood at its center.

As Underwood approached, his men falling in line behind him, he recognized the ginger from yesterday.

“Grady,” he called.

The man in the middle of the ring of people made no move to suggest that he’d heard Underwood speak.

“What’s going on here?” the sergeant tried again, realizing that he probably wasn’t far off the mark regarding his assumption that these hundred fire-twirlers were all as high as a champion pole-vaulter’s jump.

Once Underwood and the other Yumans stood a mere ten feet away from the nearest torch-carrier, Edwin Grady held up a hand. The twirling stopped; the fires were still, at rest except for the faint crackling sounds.

“What in the hell you doin’?” said Underwood.

Edwin answered, “Ascending.”

Underwood scowled. “What?”

“Today is the day I meet my Father, who is me. I will rise to the Heavens and return in three days, proving my divinity.” The smile on Edwin’s gaunt, waxy lips was almost angelic in its peacefulness. “As the Prophet Judas foretold, the day has come. Tonight, you shall all witness a miracle.”

All of the Resurrectioners were dressed in white, all but one. That man, wearing a tight-fitting black shirt and pants, said, “Yes, I suppose I did say so.” Of all of them, he alone seemed vaguely embarrassed to be there.

Unfortunately for him, Underwood didn’t have time to discriminate. There was a murderer on the loose, after all. If even one Resurrectioner were involved in this conspiracy, all of them would pay the price.

“Edwin,” said Underwood, “have you seen her, the woman you were looking for?”

“No.” Edwin’s voice was a blissful sigh. “But it doesn’t matter. She will be my queen. It was written. And she doesn’t need to physically be here, now, to witness this dramatic transformation. All on Earth and in Heaven will know of my ascension when it happens. Dara will know, and she will fall to her knees and worship me. I shall raise her up to be my queen, and the world will know Peace.”

The Resurrectioners, almost in unison, began speaking in tongues, rattling off nonsense at such a high rate and volume that Underwood almost lost his mind, right then and there.

When the ranting subsided somewhat, Underwood shouted over the remaining noise, “How you gonna do that, then? ‘Ascend’?”

Edwin waved, his wrist limp, and smiled again. “Impatient mortal. You shall see. The time is now.”

One of the privates shuffled up to Underwood and said, quietly, “What do we do, sir?”

“Watch. For now. This turns ugly, we can take ’em.”

“Damn straight, sir,” said the private, and he slipped back into line.

Edwin raised both his arms and his voice and cried, “Who among you will do it, then? Who is worthy?”

The Resurrectioners, old and young, man and woman, shrieked in reply: “I will, I will, I will!”

“Who is worthy? Which one of you will become the next saint?”

Underwood smacked his lips. Yep. This is pretty messed up, alright.

His voice shaking as if he were about to blow, Edwin shouted, “Who will destroy this body, this prison of flesh and bone? Who will free your God to ascend to the Heavens?”

“Pick me!”

“I will! I will!”

“Me, my Lord, my God!”

Underwood glanced back at his fellow Yumans; all of them wore expressions of almost comical confusion. The situation might have been hilarious, Underwood thought, had the Resurrectioners not been carrying fire and bladed weapons.

“With this body gone, I will be free!” Edwin said. “Who? Who is worthy?”

Just when Underwood was gearing up to shout Shut the fuck up, already, a singular voice split from the drone of “I will, I wills.” The voice, a woman’s voice, said, “I volunteer for that honor.”

Edwin spread his arms, fingertips extended. The fanatics grew quiet.

From among them a woman emerged, young, in her thirties, brunette with a strand or two of gray that blazed by the light of the torches. She wore a pair of black-rimmed eyeglasses.

She came to stand, hands at her hips, before Edwin. The clueless cult leader made to embrace her.

“You’re finally ready to love me, openly and fully.”

“Yeah,” she said, hopping backward to avoid his hug. “Sure.”

“And you will help me ascend.”

“That’s the plan.”

The moon slipped behind the cover of cloud and all was dark except that ring of firelight. And the camp behind the Yumans, of course, which would still be abuzz with paranoid spy-hunters. Underwood wasn’t looking back, though. He couldn’t look back. His gaze was fixed on the woman.

Though there were Resurrectioners between Underwood and the action, and they shifted around nervously, he could make out that Edwin offered the woman a gun. She, in turn, took the grip and pulled the weapon away from the self-proclaimed Messiah. With the practiced efficiency of a soldier, she flipped checked the cartridge and chamber and flipped the safety off.

One drawn-out moment rolled outward from Edwin’s manic smile. Everyone held their breath.

He began to say, “I’m ready” — but he only got as for as “I’m r—”

The woman raised the handgun and squeezed the trigger. The back of Edwin’s head exploded. A faint arc of brain matter trailing behind his ruined skull, he fell down.

“Amen!” screamed the Resurrectioners all at once as they danced over Edwin Grady’s lifeless body. “Hallelujah! Hallelujah!”

The Prophet Judas, then, let out a shriek as the woman turned on him next and put two slugs in his gut. He dropped to his knees, gone before he hit the dirt.

And, in the middle of the raucous celebrations, the foot-stamping and chest-thumping, the woman shouted, “That’s for Hector, you brother-fucking hicks.”

She grabbed the nearest Resurrectioner by the throat and point-blanked him in the chest. He toppled like a chopped tree as she took his torch from him. (The other white-clothed Resurrectioners were far too busy and loud to notice any of this.)

It was when she dropped the torch on Edwin’s corpse that Underwood snapped out of it and hollered, “Dara Meadowlark. Stop! In the name of the king, stop. You’re under arrest for—” He saw she’d started running. He barked at his men, “After her!”

She literally shot through the crowd, using up her last few rounds of ammo and tossing the gun away just as she made it into the open. She peeled off into the darkness so fast Underwood thought she’d probably lose them — especially since the Yumans still had to shove their way through the ecstatic crowd of Resurrectioners. Underwood lost his patience.

The men and women in white were far too preoccupied with the impending Rapture to pay attention to the Yumans — until they started swinging, that is. Their dirty-white robes were tinted red as the men of Yuma hacked their way through. None of the Resurrectioners would budge until stabbed.

Finally past the ring, Underwood might have lost hope had he not had with him his secret weapon: “Armistead,” he said, and the dog’s ears perked up, “go get ’er, boy. Go get her. Kill, boy, kill!”

In a flurry of limbs, Armistead tore across the field after the retreating woman. Underwood lumbered after them as best as he could; the rest of his men sprinted ahead.

Suddenly, they heard a scream, the woman’s scream. As Underwood drew closer, he could also make up Armistead’s growls. The dog straddled the woman, gnawing at the forearm she’d used to protect her face. Armistead whimpered, then, and leapt away from her. He’d been wounded. There hadn’t been a gunshot — she must have gouged his eyes, or something.

That bitch! Nobody touches my goddamn dog but me.

Underwood hobbled up to her as Armistead circled around the now unmoving body. Her back was to the Yumans. Why was she lying still like that? She should be trying to make a break for it.

The sergeant approached with caution, wondering if this was a trick. Keeping his gun level with her shoulder blade, he reached down with his free hand and rolled her over. Daaamn. So much blood. Pouring down her collarbones. Drenching her shirt.

Her throat had been torn out.

She was struggling uselessly, spasming. It wouldn’t be long now.

“Put pressure on that wound,” said Underwood.

“Sir?” said one of the men.

“Am I fuckin’ speakin’ Spanish, private? Do what I tell ya.”

“Yessir!”

The soldier ducked over the woman and pressed a cloth to her ruined throat.

“Let’s jus’ see if we can keep her alive long enough to look Lieutenant Colonel Wynkoop and Captain Whittom in the eye. Then she can meet her Maker knowing what she done.”

Underwood glanced one more time at the sputtering woman, spitting out her last few breaths. He leaned over and pulled the broken, bloody, grimy glasses from her nose.

Their eyes met.

He tossed the glasses away.

“You two, take her. Let’s go,” he said.

And the band headed back to camp to the sound of war bugles in the night.

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