Bughouse War Zone 1 The Troubles

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The Way Unknown

The storeroom was almost empty. Out in the cracked, scorched parking lot, even loose beans were gone. Some, fearing the future, dragged away the dead for their own purposes.

The back of his neck itching, Jess turned and a bullet rang off the steel door. He dropped, looking at burned out trees and ashes swirling over the lot.

A small movement showed beyond a dead car. Jess wormed his way down to the lobby, but it was empty, people heading for home turf to pray and hope for a better tomorrow.

In the stairwell, Linnet whistled. He looked back. She signed ten men, then five behind the building. Jess nodded and tried to close the door. A shot made steel ring and he jerked his hand down, shaking it of the sting. He spun and kicked it shut, then ran for the elevator.

“All in the nest, Mother Hen?”

She frowned, but nodded. The outer door burst open, but the doors to the elevator sighed shut. Bullets struck them and the elevator sank into the basement.

Just a little annoyed, Linnet said, “What’s with him? He could have got a share, too.”

“Women, they do drive a man to madness.” Jess winked. “Thank the good Lord, else we’d all die o’ boredom.”

Linnet rolled her eyes and groaned. “The pig? Oh, hush up. I only owe an apology to pigs.”

“She got a hold on him,” Jess said. “Donno what, but he loves her.”

He tossed the cell phone to Wainwright, who gasped and snatched it from the air.

“Please, young man. We need this.”

“Can’t ride it, can’t eat it, can’t get help at all from it.” Just the same, guilt burned in his face. It was important to the old man and that should be enough.

Lights flickered and children whimpered, but stood close to Nina.

“Honey, how are you?” Jess smiled at her. “I haven’t had a minute to play with you and I’m sorry.”

“M-Mister Solomon, he’s been playing with us. And Nana Jane. She’s nice, once she got started, and Uncle Andy yelled at her.”

Wainwright came back with the cell phone. “Here,” he said, smiling at Nina. “It’s safer with you than with some men I know. Because,” he said, glaring at Jess. “You’re far more mature.”

“’Cause I’m a cowgirl.” Nina giggled and dashed away followed by the rest of the children.

Danny came up. “Jess, the toilets won’t flush.”

“What? That’s impossible,” Wainwright said. “Not enough water? But, we checked the cisterns. Most were brimming full.”

Jess ran to the back of the basement and climbed a set of stairs to a small door. He threw it open and a flashlight was thrust into his hand. He shined it into the gloom. There was water, but waves of mud showed under bluish lights.

“When were they cleaned last?”

Wainwright winced. “They’re full of mud?”

“And no full of doubt hungry critters like swamp monsters. No one thought to put a filter on the inlet?”

“But, yes.” Wainwright ran to the children and brought back the cell phone. He muttered to it and text opened. 12 June, 2008.

He groaned. “They have to be drained and flushed, but when they were drained, it went into Detention reservoir. Local protesters sued the base. They’ve not been cleaned since. It would have cost too much to haul it to the landfill.”

Jess frowned in anger. “And the farmers didn’t want it? It’s good for tightening sandy soil and t’ loosen adobe. Laws, Doc, but it’s rich in fertilizer. Any loony knows that.”

Wainwright grimaced. “The first decades of the Twentieth-First Century were years filled with idiots.”

“As I recall. Pa took in retired cowboys just to guard the place. Man, back in Twenty-Ten, Mister Hansen, he managed the spread before we got it, tried to chase off two or three dozen men. Turned out they were from Iran. And the government let them loose, then they tried to sue him and he lost the place. Mama got a good lawyer, a ‘skin from the Tohono rez, a Mister Antone. He wrote to papers like the Star. The Star claimed the lawyers for the Iranians were racists, so the feds dried up.” He slid back shouting at the people. “You, mind that most of the water is gone and it’s a long ways off till the male rains--“ To the bewildered scowl on Wainwright’s face, Jess said, “The monsoons. Till they fill the tanks. Those who want, leave. Go to the campus with Danny and his family. There’s a good place there to live, and more food. Mind Packer. You know where she forts-up. She hates other women and she’ll chow down on the kids.”

Silent, frightened people gathered ragged belongings and went to the elevators.

Linnet packed their things while Wainwright fumbled with the cell phone. He scowled and grumbled, and then grinned.

“I have the code to drain the cisterns.” He opened it and a red warning flashed over it. “Those damnable moon calves. They blocked it to stop anyone from draining the mud.” He sank to his heels and his fingers flashed over the keys.

Jess took a bundle, hauling it over one shoulder. The new scars itched, but the stitches were gone, cut free by him. Linnet scowled at the scar, but busied with the baby and Nina, who sobbed at losing her friends.

Jess cleared his throat. “Let’s git.”

Wainwright wandered to them still picking at the keys.

The elevator opened and a man fired at them. Wainwright dropped but Linnet fired the crossbow and the man stumbled back.

Jess climbed to the control room. Escobedo lay over a chair, his throat cut and the door to the roof open. Jess slammed it shut and pressed a hand over Escobedo’ eyes. He spun at a small sound, but it was Linnet. Gaze fixed on Escobedo, she gave a soft cry. Jess nodded, walking by her to the hole to climbed down.

“I’ve got it,” Wainwright said, holding up the cell phone.

Jess frowned and turned. He stilled, head down, and turned back. “Do it, Doc.”

“But, we’ve enough water to last a week or more.”

“Jack can send men for water. He can outwait us and bring in a dozen more. We can try to escape through the drains, maybe.”

Wainwright frowned at the cell phone. He tapped a code and the floor rumbled.

“Over a million square feet of mud,” he said. “To think, had we been allowed to create a life here, this would be a center of learning, which it was meant to be. Since the days of the Hohokam; for more than four-thousand years, it had been a center of agriculture and innovation and the future.” He sighed and the cell phone sagged in his hands.

Jess ran to the trapdoor to peer down. The level sank, inching down but a small explosion sent concrete dust over them. He looked back and signed for the others to come.

“How deep are they?”

Wainwright said, “Four meters. They’re still deep enough to drown us.”

Another explosion dropped chunks of concrete over the floor.

Jess took the cell phone and hopped down. He sank to his chest but the flow was strong and he had to snatch at the ladder.

As it dropped to his waist, he whistled and Linnet came next with the baby in a sling. Wainwright climbed down followed by Nina. Nina squealed at the mud, but sank to her chin. Jess hauled her up to his back and picked his way over a sandy bottom to where water sank from sight. He looked back but the trapdoor was closed and he frowned at Wainwright.

“The museum computer has sealed the building,” Wainwright said. “Unless they have a way out, a hole, those upstairs are trapped without the code.”

“A tomb,” Jess said and frowned at the trapdoor.

“In a few minutes, CO2 will flood all levels.” Wainwright shrugged and stepped close to the hole. He peered down and slipped, dropping from sight. Jess tried to follow, but Linnet grabbed him by the arm.

“Doc?”

Hollow and laughing, Wainwright’s voice came to them.

“It’s all right. Just jump. The mud is flowing out a culvert.”

Jess gave Linnet a look of scorn. He signed, I dare you. Before she could try, he hopped in and landed in a couch, then jumped to one side as Linnet fell and stumbled. She plopped in the mud bottom first, only to spring to her feet glaring at Jess. He frowned and in the glow of Wainwright’s light turned his face to the old man.

Hiding a smile, Wainwright leaned down to peer in the drain. Nina sighed and shook her head.

In a stage whisper that echoed off the walls, she said, “You were supposed to catch her.”

Jess frowned and looked at Linnet. “...Oh.” He stepped to Linnet to lay a hand on her shoulder. She shrugged, but he pressed his face to the back of her head. “Forgive me, please? I’m kind o’ new at this business.”

She gave an angry shrug but didn’t step away. Jess touched her face and she turned to give him a warning frown.

Wainwright stooped, crawling into the culvert. Jess motioned Linnet to follow, then Nina. He frowned at the ceiling, but followed. A camera tracked their movements, which showed in the control room. Outside, a rope hung down to the parking lot but none of the gang left by that way.

The culvert opened to the sky above. Scowling at it, Jess kept them moving. A small rattle shook them and dust filled the storm sewer. Coughing and blinking, Jess grunted.

“Doc? Linnet and Nina, answer me.” Whispers came back and he nodded. “Doc?”

The cell phone glowed with a blue page.

“I’ve lost contact with the museum complex.” Wainwright sighed. “It may no longer be there.”

“Old lady Packer is one stubborn cuss.”

“Apparently. What now?”

“Keep on.” Jess patted Linnet’s bottom and she kicked back. Her foot missed his head but grazed his shoulder and he dropped in the mud. In a flash, she was there, holding him.

“I’m a’right,” he said, but noted her reaction for later reference. A low growl in her throat, she dropped him and crawled away.

For a brief moment, Wainwright’s eyes glowered in the light of the cell phone. Jess scowled back and, smirking, the old man crept ahead.

At the next inlet, they paused to feed the baby. Jess signed he needed to look, but a twig broke. They slid deeper into the storm sewer.

The steel grid over the inlet rasped and a man’s head appeared. Jess ducked, pushing Wainwright’s head down to hide his face from the light.

Matches flared. A muttered voice said, “Nobody is here, Jack.”

Linnet gave a small start, just a push of muscles. It sounded like Danny and Jess frowned.

Then Mrs. Packer said, “I want that kid. I want his balls on a spit over a fire with him still attached.

Linnet glanced at Jess and signed, Nutty.

He smiled and shrugged. Fruitcake tastes better. He had that once, all dried out at the bottom of a freezer. The pantry had been rich with dried fruit and rancid soy, and they ate until even Jack grew sick.

Bitter and harsh, Mrs. Packer said, “Where’s the next one? They can’t have made it that far. You, Danny get down there and follow it to the next drain.”

A moment passed before Jack said, “Do it.”

Danny clambered into the sewer and Jess slid a knife under his chin. Danny stilled, gaping at Jess. Jess nodded a hello and even smiled. Danny started to sweat, but Linnet touched his arm and he sighed. A shadow shifted over the inlet.

Chuck growled something and shouted, “You, kid, make tracks.”

Jess moved the knife and gave him a small push on one shoulder. Danny muttered and scurried away, and the shadow moved from the inlet.

When all sound ceased, Jess slid up and out. He smiled and saw the reason Danny was so shocked to find them. Head to feet, he was covered with sticky black mud.

Tracks showed Jack’s boots and the slippers Mrs. Packer preferred. The tracks of several other men were with them. One set looked like Chuck’s and Jess frowned at the hate he felt. Emotions get you killed. He glanced at the sky and then ducked back through the inlet. Jess took a peek out. A piece of mud lay drying in the sun. He grabbed it, dropping it in the inlet before he joined the rest.

To Linnet he said, “Did you know you’re prettier than a baby pig?” She tried to glare at him, but grinned, and it was the only clean spot on her.

“And smell just as bad, you boar. What gives?”

“He has some new boys. Chuck survived, but he still Miz Packer to drag on him. That’s a big one in our favor.” He nodded and they followed marks in the dirt left by Danny to an underground inlet. The one they were in drained into it and Jess dared to strike a match. Sign showed where Danny fell into it, then crawled up the other side and continued.

Jess dropped the match and sewer gas made small pops of blue. Almost as bad as the baby when she farted, a sulfuric reek drifted from it. He lowered his legs to it. Sign showed Danny had jumped. His tracks were deeper in the new tunnel than the one that ran into it.

Nina coughed and Jess put her on his back. Skinny arms wrapped around his neck and he choked, then had to pry them loose to breathe.

Here, he could walk. Wainwright tried to make Linnet go ahead and Jess cast a warning look over one shoulder. Wainwright frowned and his chest puffed out, but he coughed on the sewer gas.

Inlets went by and it grew harder to breathe. One to a block, ten to a mile and after that Jess lost count. Knees loose and trembling, he stopped to catch his breath. Tiny bubbles rose from the mud to pop, spattering them with more dirt.

Wainwright whispered, “We’re nearing Ten. What then?”

Frowning at an ache in his chest, Jess said, “State Route Eighty-Three goes to Patagonia.” He heard Wainwright stumble and spun, helping Linnet catch him. “It’s the gas. We got to get you out of here.”

“But--” Wainwright choked and coughed. He spat something in the mud and bubbles popped around it. “Jack and that woman.”

“Uncertain at best. Danny headed straight on. We’re moving away from them.”

Jess helped the man up and Nina grabbed Wainwright by the shoulder of his coat. Wainwright tried to chortle, only to gasp, coughing up clear phlegm.

The next inlet they came to, Jess climbed a rotting steel ladder. He inched the grating from the hole and eased his eyes over the edge. He took a deep breath and coughed, but spit down and away from the people.

Glowing white under the sun, Interstate 10 showed in the distance. Windows shattered, a lone farmhouse waited for the wind or fire that would put it out of its misery. Jess frowned at it but climbed out. A woman cried out and he dropped into the sewer. The grate clattered on the road, but he grabbed Wainwright by the arm and threw Nina back over his shoulders. With Wainwright between them, he and Linnet ran.

A gun barked and a man howled.

“Mister Jack, they here, sir. Danny missed them by miles.”

The man dropped and fired. The bullet struck sparks off concrete. Jess shouted and dived to the mud, dragging the others with him.

“Cover your heads,” he shouted and rolled Nina under him. “Cover your heads and hold your breath.”

A small ball of fire blossomed. Then a roar as gasses exploded both ways in the sewer. A blistering heat died as fast as it came and Jess raised his face from the mud. Shrieks of animal pain came from the direction of the shooter. He sniffed, but the air was heavy with CO2. Nina kicked. He jumped up dragging her into the air. She gasped and choked, but grinned.

Linnet forced Wainwright to rise and raised the baby into better air. Soaked with rich, black mud, the child giggled and drooled on him, but Linnet only smiled, hugging her.

Wainwright sagged against the wall. He grunted and snatched the cell phone from the mud, scraping it off and glaring at the screen.

“It’s working,” Wainwright said, showing them the blue screen. He stood and sniffed the air and smiled. “I can breathe.”

“Sewer gas.” Jess shrugged at his look. “You said the diesel generators at the museum used sewer gas to make electric. Where else would they get it, but from storm sewers? Nobody’s flushed a toilet down this way since the war.”

Wainwright gave Jess a look close to awe, but Linnet punched him on the arm.

“Shake a leg, mister. That loony is still out there.”

Jess gave her a crooked grin and she grinned back. He lowered his mouth to hers, but nuzzled her cheek, not kissed it with that thick coating of mud.

He walked down the tunnel towards the interstate.

It opened to an irrigation ditch dried and cracked in the sun. Jess let the pack and a sleepy Nina slide to the ground and hopped up grabbing at crumbling cement. A shower of gravel dropped and Nina muttered. She sighed and yawned and squinted at Jess.

Houses showed to have been blasted by winds. Fire had taken blocks of cheap ranch-style reproductions. No loss there. He dropped and caught himself before taking up the pack. With a smile for Nina, he held out a hand. She left Linnet and came to him carrying the baby, but shook her head at an offer to let her ride.

Jess took point, walking with gaze scowling over the top of the ditch. As they neared Interstate 10, it opened to several gates. He climbed one to frown over the landscape. The sun hung on the horizon and dead brush covered the land. He skidded down the side to walk a little faster.

A quarter mile from 10, he cut over a water gate and waited with the rifle ready. A culvert to draw off water for a former golf course yawned open.

Jess entered and sniffed for sign of human or animal wastes. He backed out and motioned Linnet to enter, then frowned at Nina, who hung back. Wainwright gave her a gentle push and she crawled in.

He stood with Jess and held the cell phone down, away from the rim. It was still blue, but static hissed from it.

Mouth close to it, he said, “We’re well outside of town, so contact will be difficult.”

Symbols flashed over the screen and Wainwright nodded to himself. He snapped the cell phone off and sighed. Jess cut a hand at the culvert. Worry on her face, Linnet glanced back.

Mouth tight, Wainwright said, “I am not helpless.”

“But not landrace, either.”

When Wainwright frowned, Jess said, “Landrace means you’re born to the land, though you’re not a native. Like Longhorn cattle and corrientes, mustangs and so on.”

“I know what it means.” Wainwright scowled, but crawled into the culvert. Though tempted, Jess didn’t hurry him with a tap from the bow.

Once under cover, Linnet handed Wainwright a water jug and an MRE. He ate and drank, then tossed the empty pack out. Jess caught it, handing it over him to Nina, who gave it to Linnet. She stuffed it deep in the pack and went back to feeding the baby from a pack.

Wainwright frowned at this, but said, “...Oh. That landrace.”

Jess settled in to watch and wait. About midnight, shouts came from a housing development, but it was happy, not anger or fear. He huddled against the cold when Linnet touched his arm. She crooked a hand down and he grinned, but she frowned so he killed that in a hurry. She signed again and he crawled over Wainwright and Nina to her. Linnet took the .38 from the holster and crawled to the mouth of the culvert. Jess cut her a bitter look, but curled over a warm place that smelled of Linnet’s sweat and tears. He tugged a ragged blanket over his body and dropped into a deep sleep.

Jack pounded on him with his fists. The man stepped back and rammed the toe of his boot in Jess’s side. Jess grunted, but rolled from it. Jack followed and Jess jumped to his feet with a table leg in his hands. He swung but Jack ducked. Jess leaped at an open window and a fist grabbed his ankle. Jess sprawled on the ground.

Jack crouched in the window staring at him. That was his first lesson in the strength of Mrs. Packer’s hold on Jack. Behind Jack, the blotched, puffy face scowled. She threw Jess’s clothes out the window but avoided touching Jack.

Jess dragged on his clothes. He turned his back on the man and walked to the detached garage that was the bachelor house. Once in it, Chuck smiled and held up his blankets. Jess crept into his own bedding and Chuck grunted in anger. Bill said something and Chuck shoved the man onto his belly.

When Wainwright awoke to take watch, Jess shifted from the nightmare to smell Linnet. Feigning sleep, he eased closer to put an arm around her waist and sighed, just holding her tight. Then Nina wiggled between them and the baby drooled over Jess’s neck.

Someone giggled, and it wasn’t the baby. And probably not Nina, either. Jess sighed and yawned, but kissed the little girl. She was clean, for a baby, and he smiled as her mouth gaped in a grin. A couple of teeth glittered there and he shifted her around so she wouldn’t gnaw on him.

The baby crawled over Nina to squeeze down between her and Linnet. Nina grumbled in her sleep, but held her. The baby grunted, angry, but reached for something in Linnet’s bedding. Jess stifled another yawn and saw a flicker of bright color.

In mutter, he said, “Don’t move. A coral snake is in with us.” His hand reached into the bedding and he felt something soft and it wasn’t dirty bedding. His eyes widened and he eased deeper, looking from the chill in Linnet eyes.

He felt it then, cool and hard, the snake’s tail. It shifted and he ripped it from the bedding to slap it on the wall of the culvert. The snake struck but Linnet was faster, chopping it in two and then pinned the head with the Bowie.

Jess pushed on Nina’s shoulder.

“Out,” he said to her scowl.

She gathered the baby and her things, packing them fast. She saw the snake and smiled.

“Pretty, ain’t it?”

Jess shook his head. “Honey, Mama would call it the beautiful side of evil. A coral snake is about as nice as a scorpion, with less reason to be.”

Mouth tight with fear, Nina shrank from it. She hurried out of the culvert to stand by Wainwright. He frowned at the snake.

“You--” Outrage written all over the pale face, he sputtered and said, “You killed it. How dare you.”

Jess scowled. He flicked the pieces out and the head struck at Wainwright’s foot, the stubby fangs gripping the worn toe of one shoe. Wainwright gasped and kicked it away to die.

“It was in Miz Linnet’s duds.” Jess took the baby and nodded for Linnet to take point. He started back to the irrigation ditch but Nina took the baby, dropping her in a sling. Chubby face staring at Jess, the baby grinned but in minutes she yawned, snoring in a ladylike manner.

At the watergate, Linnet crawled to the top to eye the land. She slid over and Jess handed Nina over it, then helped Wainwright to climb it. He slid over and hands gripping the top rail. Jess wagged his eyebrows. He did a summersault that earned him a severe look from Linnet, with Nina giving him silent cheers. Wainwright only rolled his eyes and the baby snored on.

Linnet brushed by with the .38. Even Wainwright tried to avoid patches of sand, but dust sifted into the ditch. Some day it would fill it, as it filled the irrigation ditches of the Hohokam and later, the Anasazi.

Stark on their horizon, I-10 waited. When Linnet aimed her chin at it, Jess shook his head.

In a mutter, he said, “I lived on this road for a few years. Look for a culvert under it.”

They moved along the ditch cutting across ancient trails and farms. Jess pointed southeast.

Mouth close to Linnet’s ear, he said, “Pantano Wash. If I remember right, they put a wide culvert under the highway.”

She nodded and they picked their way around burned shells of cars and what remained of drivers. Sunday Morning of the Dying had not caught many unawares. The average driver was out, trying to race across the desert before the sun rose. The trailer of a semi lay cockeyed over the drainage ditch. They ducked and walked under it. Jess stopped, frowned, and eased out from under it. He looked over the land and nodded before moving on.

The land showed dagger spires of salt, small ones, but sharp. A swamp formed during the wet season, only to dry to nothing. A salt brush shivered along the edge of a damp spot. Jess eyed it, then frowned. He picked a leaf to show Nina.

“It’s alive,” he said, muttering but happy. “See?” He tore open the leaf. Green showed under a gray crust of salt. “It gets rid of salt in the water by making it form on the leaf. Then it uses the salt to protect the leaf from too much summer sun.” He bit off part of it and handed the rest to Wainwright, who shivered but grinned.

Linnet snatched up dead leaves and tiny winged seeds. “We didn’t bring any salt,” she said. The woman stopped. With her chin, she pointed at a square hole in the swamp. “Somebody making salt, an outsider.”

Jess looked it over. In a sotto voice, he said, “Not now. Last spring, maybe, when the swamp dried up.”

Linnet nodded, but was careful to leave no sign as they went by. A hole showed in the side and Jess eased to his knees and only then leaned over to look. Except for a round circle of land, he saw nothing.

He slid in, crawling forward and came out between the mounds of the interstate. Torn by savage winds from the bombs, tractor-trailers and smaller vehicles scattered over the land in twisted mounds. Between them, grass stood bleached and dead, but not brittle. Jess tugged on a strand of vine mesquite and it resisted his hand. With a glance at the sky, he smiled.

To Nina, he signed, Alive. The grass is alive.

Me, too, she signed and her face showed a lack of concern that the world was going to live. For her, at her age, it always was dead and that it was now alive meant little. He rubbed the mud crusting her head and she scowled, jerking back from the dust.

He entered the second culvert only to find a dead man. The corpse was bloated, but emaciated to the point it wasn’t hard to see he died of starvation. Starved to death, while salt bushes held green leaves and snakes hunted fat rodents and insects amid scattered wreckage.

With a nod of respect, Jess eased by him but Wainwright gagged. All three of them and the baby scowled. With a small grimace, the professor ground his jaws shut but his stomach heaved a few times. When Jess came to the opening, he found a short drop where there should be none. He sniffed and waited, but heard nothing.

They crouched in the wash to rest. Linnet handed him a water jug. It was almost empty and he frowned, trying to hand it back.

“Drink,” she said. “We can fill it in a spring.”

He nodded, draining it of even thin mud before capping it.

“Route Eighty-Three is just east of here. We go south on that.”

Linnet smiled. “Hope the hills are as pretty as the Pelloncilano. Just, not so moving.” She indicated earthquakes and Jess grimaced.

“Lone Mountain water never went sour and I can’t recall a warm spring on the place. Near Lochiel, yeah. The government had a thing to test it year-round, though. It blew off a lot of steam after the Troubles started.”

“The devil’s hole was steaming when we left home,” Nina said. “It made a lot of stinky gas and our horses got scared.”

Jess smiled. “Horses?”

“Cowponies,” Linnet said and sighed. “And I’m riding shank’s mare.”

They followed Pantano Wash to a low dam. Jess looked it over before they climbed around it. Slabs of sandstone rose ten feet and it leveled off to a wide, flat walk. Behind it, an acre of cracked mud showed a thin crust of salts, but no footprints. Wary, frowning over nothing, perhaps, Jess followed a trail. Less than a hundred feet from the dam, he slowed, pointing at a spring trap hidden under a patch of sand.

He eased around it seeking more. Almost invisible, a wire hung an inch above the trail. He followed that into a juniper bush and a worn shotgun. Backing from it, he frowned, but went on pointing at loose rock and then a place a shred of canvas showed in the sand.

In sign, he said, Booby traps. Someone has a serious problem with unwanted guests.

Linnet nodded. Smart of him. She looked over the wash. For a garden?

Jess grimaced, but what the man would plant was anyone’s guess.

He stopped to sniff and frowned at his feet. The smell of human feces was weak, but there. One toe dug into the sand and a piece of tarp came up. He pointed at it and they moved off the trail, away from the wash.

Before dawn, they came to a clearing that held a log house and a barn. The glass was mostly intact, but the few broken windows weren’t repaired. The roof was slate, though. Real slate, not tar and paper, and the plank door appeared strong enough to be a fortification. Jess looked it over. The door panels weren’t weathered, meaning it was fairly new. Black, or darkened by rust, a radio tower stuck up and Wainwright pointed at it, then held up the cell phone.

Jess touched the doorknob and a wail came from inside. Nina fled with the baby while the adults dropped, aiming at the house. The wail stopped and Wainwright rolled over clutching at his heart and laughed.

“An alarm. It’s armed, but the juice too weak to do more than frighten the bejabbers out of us.” Still chuckling, he knelt by a small panel and held up the cell phone. Drawing power from the house, the cell phone showed a series of numbers and letters. Wainwright tapped them in and the faint, frightening cries of the damned faded.

He opened the door and bowed.


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