Once I made it to Walmart, I left Minion in the truck and made a beeline for Housewares to grab the totes I needed, then over to Automotive for gas cans and some extra oil for the truck and the chainsaw. I figured it was better to get things when I knew I could instead of pitching a fit on the side of the road because I’d forgotten something. I made one last pass through Men’s Wear to see if I could think of anything else I’d need, then headed for the doors.
I was pretty sure I was alone in the store. At least I had been. There hadn’t been any new cars in the lot. The two bodies I’d seen the other day had been right where I’d last seen them, the man’s body in worse shape than the woman’s. They’d both been picked over by scavengers, but he was more decomposed than she was, I guessed because she was in the shade.
They coughed again. I left the cart and headed for the women’s department, thinking they were over that way but didn’t hear anything for several minutes. I wasn’t so much concerned about someone else being in the store as I was curious since I hadn’t seen that many people still alive. I turned around to go back to the cart, and Damion was standing there, hanging onto one of the clothing racks to hold himself up. He’d been beaten badly. His left eye was practically swollen shut, and both lips were puffy. His left arm was hanging at an odd angle as well.
“You said you was gonna come back.”
My stomach sank. “I did. Drove by the gas station then came over here and didn’t see you either place.” I took a step toward him. “What happened?”
He shifted his weight a bit. It looked like his left leg was giving him trouble. “Some asshole from the Sheriff’s office. Dude snuck up on me when I was picking out some clothes, and clobbered me with his nightstick. Tried to fight him, then he knocked me down and started kicking the crap out of me.”
I had a hunch but had to ask. “You know his name?”
“Silver or something like that. Didn’t know him.”
“What happened after he was kicking you? How did you get away?” I looked him over for other injuries but didn’t see anything obvious.
“Somebody else came in right about then, and he took off to go after them. I went and hid out in the back for a while then came out here. Dragged a mattress and some sleeping bags back into the back and slept there last night. I’ve been up for a while, trying to figure out what I was going to do next. Ate some Pop-Tarts for breakfast and drank some milk. Then you got here. I was hiding because I didn’t know it was you. Wasn’t sure if that Sheriff’s dude was coming back.”
What am I going to do now? I’m supposed to be on the road now, going after my daughter. The only two people I had really spoken to were Rory and Ramiro, but I didn’t know if either one of them could really take Damion in. Rory already had plans of his own to leave town but I didn’t know how soon. “Damion, do you trust me?” That was asking a lot of him since he’d expected me to be there for him yesterday.
He wouldn’t look me in the eyes. Gave a little shrug. He wiped his face, a tear having started out of his eye.
I explained my travel plans in as much detail as I thought he needed. “There’s two guys I know of who survived and who I would trust to take care of my kids if I had to leave right now. One guy owns the Gun Bunker. Rory Wilson.”
“I know him. My cousin didn’t like him, because he wouldn’t sell him a gun one day.”
I stuck my hands in my pockets. “How come?”
He shrugged. “Don’t know. My cousin said it was because he didn’t like black guys. But my cousin been in jail a bunch.”
“I know Rory well enough that I don’t think it was because your cousin was black. Once you’ve been to jail a few times, you can’t own guns, so that was probably it.”
“Who’s the other guy?”
“You know Constable Thomas? Out in Precinct 1?”
He smiled a little bit. “Yeah. Everybody knows Rami.”
“Let me give Rami a call and see if he’s got any ideas. You okay with going out there to his place? His wife is okay. They haven’t heard from their kids.”
He nodded after a long minute, then wiped his eyes again.
It took me an hour to get everything taken care of for Damion. We made a quick run through the store to pick up some clothes for him, and I grabbed a few things from the first aid section just in case Rami wasn’t well-stocked. I suspected Damion’s arm was broken, given the way he was holding it. I wasn’t sure what anyone was going to be able to do as far as fixing it though. Jasper’s hospital had some excellent doctors, but who had survived?
Rami and Sylvia met us at my truck when I pulled up their driveway. There was another lady with them that I guessed was Stephanie Diaz, based on what Rami had said earlier. Given that they were likely the two highest-ranking government officials left in the county, it made sense that they would both be looking into what had happened to Damion. Sylvia led the boy into the house, Minion following them in.
“He say anything else about what happened? Ramiro asked.
I shook my head. “Pretty much just what I told you on the phone. You know, I never met the guy before this happened, so I don’t know anything about him. But I’m really beginning to not like him.”
“Adam?” The lady extended her hand. “I’m Stephanie Diaz. The constable told me what you told him about things at the jail. Are you sure Deputy Desilva was responsible?”
I shook her hand, then scratched my head. “No ma’am, I’m not certain. But I didn’t see any signs that anyone else had been in the building in that time. He said he wasn’t going to leave, but then he wasn’t there when I got back, and six people had been shot to death in the time I was gone. Those are pretty damning coincidences in my book.”
“Yes, well. Thank you for taking care of that boy. Constable, I’ll meet you inside.” She nodded to both of us then went into the house.
Rami shook his head. “You know, in any other situation, I’d go talk to the sheriff, and we’d bring the guy in just on the basis of the kid’s complaint. This? I’ve got no idea how to handle it. Stephanie wants to declare me sheriff, but I don’t know that we need to do that. I’ve got authority all across the state except for traffic offenses, and I don’t think anybody’s gonna be messing around with speeding tickets right now. But she’s got it in her mind that I need to be sheriff before I go arresting a deputy. I don’t know.”
I didn’t envy the situation he was in. “I think you’re right about not needing to be named sheriff. And if we’re getting technical about things, does she even have the authority to appoint you sheriff??”
“I’ve wondered that myself,” he said. “Haven’t researched it, but I don’t think she does. But I don’t know that I can convince her of that, and I don’t know what kind of a kink it would put in things if she is determined to make me sheriff and I refuse the post.”
I was torn, but only a little bit, if I were being honest. I really wanted to stay and help them sort this out. But my bigger responsibility was to my family. Hannah was waiting on me, and I still hadn’t made contact with Taylor or my ex-wives. I needed to be on the road, like now. We talked for another minute or two, and I gave him a couple of ideas. Then I went inside and said goodbye to everyone, and Minion and I hit the road.
We headed east on 63. I saw more of what I had seen the first day: several cars in ditches, and a couple of crashes at side roads. I wasn’t trying to set any land-speed records so it took me twice as long to get to Burkeville as normal, meaning fifteen minutes. Burkeville wasn’t quite half the size of Jasper, maybe a couple of thousand people, and it wasn’t even an incorporated town. But it was the first place outside of Jasper that I’d been to since this happened.
I stopped in the middle of town, which is to say I pulled up to the stop sign at 63 and 87 and shut the truck off for a minute. I had the windows down anyway because if you put aside the idea that most of the people I had seen in the last couple of days were dead, it was a pretty nice day out. Minion sniffed at a couple of scents that only he could pick out, swiveling his ears once or twice.
I couldn’t hear a thing.
This intersection wasn’t high-traffic. I wasn’t expecting a bunch of cars, but after ten minutes I hadn’t heard a single vehicle. A couple of birds chirped off in the distance but that was it as far as animals went. If I hadn’t been on a mission, I’d have poked around a couple of houses. But nobody was parked at the Family Dollar to my left, and there was only one vehicle at the parking lot for the Shell station, so I didn’t really see a point in nosing around. After another few minutes, I started the truck back up and continued east.
I paused for a minute or two as we crossed the Sabine River. I told myself that it was because I was looking for boats or fishermen or something like that. The reality was that after six years, I was leaving my adopted home for possibly the last time. I was still having trouble grasping the idea that my son was dead, along with millions of other people in the country, and probably billions worldwide. It had been one thing to sort-of abstractly say that I wouldn’t go back to Jasper. It was something else entirely to cross the river like this, to cross such an obvious border marker. Texas was behind me, Louisiana was in front of me. The past was behind me, and I knew little about the future that lay ahead.
We drove on.
Thirty minutes later, I let the truck idle through Leesville, Louisiana, the home of Fort Polk. There were 8,000 or so troops stationed here, supported by about twice that many civilians, although many of the civilians were family to the troops. Because Fort Polk was also one of the Joint Readiness Training Centers, it would more than occasionally have a couple of battalions or a brigade of troops gearing up for deployment to “the sandbox,” as so many people referred to Southwest Asia. Back in my day, the post had been home to the 5th Infantry Division, with about 20,000 troops stationed there. But that was back in the years right after the Cold War ended when the U. S. had lots and lots of troops and nobody for them to play with.
Leesville was about the same size as Jasper, if not just a little smaller, at least by population, but it was a very busy place and felt larger, because of all the military activity in the area. On the west edge of town, I saw four people knocking at the door of one house. One person wore Army ACU camouflage, but the other three were in civilian clothes. As I drove by, they stuck a sheet of paper on the door and headed east to the next house.
Two streets later, I noticed papers on other doors. I stopped the truck at one house, too curious to ignore what I was seeing. The sheets were similar to the markings on doors used by Urban Search and Rescue teams after hurricanes. This particular sheet had “4-D” written at the bottom. If these teams were using the same codes FEMA used, there were four dead people in the house. I sighed and made my way into the center of town.
Two Humvees were parked at the intersection of Texas and 5th Street, where LA-8 teed into US 171. It didn’t look like a roadblock, or even really like a checkpoint. One truck sat in the police department’s parking lot and the other waited caddy-corner by House of Prayer Outreach Ministry. I slowed to a stop by the first one. There was a sergeant, a black woman, standing by the driver’s door, and another soldier poking through the roof with what looked like a SAW in the gun mount. The other Humvee was parked on the other side of the street with a remote weapons station gun mount, but I couldn’t see inside. Minion let out an earsplitting bark as the sergeant approached, but his tail was going a mile a minute.
“Afternoon, sir. Where you headed?”
“The short version is, east. The longer version is that I’m heading up to Pennsylvania to get my daughter.” I stuck my hand out the window. “Adam Ktokolwiek.”
“Sergeant Jamal, 204th MPs from Fort Polk. Where are you from?” She shook my hand, then pulled a notepad from her uniform pants pocket. I recognized chemical detection tape on her uniform.
“Jasper, Texas. About sixty miles west.” I looked around at the downtown area. Several blocks down the road, a car crossed the main drag. I had already seen more survivors here in Leesville than I had in Jasper. I look back at the sergeant. “It’s safe to assume that whatever happened is much more widespread than anyone could really imagine, isn’t it?”
“We’re still running accountability on post, but… Yeah, it’s not pretty.”
“You know, I was sent to South Korea as a supply clerk back in the nineties, in 2d Infantry, and we knew the Soviets had had a whole bunch of chemical weapons that could kill pretty quick, and that they had probably given them to the North Koreans or the Chinese or both. We used to do chemical attack drills all the time over there. But none of the stuff they trained us on could really kill this quickly, could it? On this kind of scale?”
She shook her head. “Whatever caused this, there’s nothing showing up on any of our NBC equipment.” She pointed to a gadget on her body armor. “We’ve run test kits on every body or vehicle we could, and nothing is registering. I’ve deployed three times, and we’ve come across some old stockpiles of things left over from the Soviet occupation, and stuff Hussein was playing with, but there was never anything I saw over there that could kill this many people so quickly.” We both looked around at our surroundings in that age-old manner of soldiers and cops everywhere who like to know where the lethal things are. “So would you mind giving me any information you’ve got? The garrison commander really just wants us to gather as much intelligence as we can right now.”
That made a ton of sense to me. I pulled my wallet out and handed her my license just for ease of passing information. “How bad is it on post?”
“Can’t say exactly, and you know how OPSEC is, but my guess is we’re down to about ten percent strength at best. The garrison commander right now is a captain from 49th Engineers. She’s the highest-ranking officer we’ve found.”
“Have you been able to make contact with any other units?”
“Here and there. One Cav squadron at Fort Hood. A few people at Lackland. A Coast Guardsman in Houston. I think we’ve made contact with Barksdale, too. Not sure who else.”
Barksdale Air Force Base was the closest installation I could think of in Louisiana. It made sense they’d been in contact with them. If all else failed, someone could drive up there to see what was going on. I had to ask one more question. “What about NCA?” National Command Authority referred to everyone in D. C.: the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Secretary of Defense, and the President.
The sergeant stopped writing and stared at me for a long time, then went back to making notes without saying a word.
That was not good at all. In an emergency like this, the radio and computer nets should have been jammed with messages between major commands and NCA. That’s how they set things like DEFCON and THREATCON. It’s how units knew when to get ready to deploy. If an Army post wasn’t in contact with NCA, our military was basically decapitated.
Then again, I doubted anybody was in any condition to attack us. Unless this was the attack. That didn’t make sense though. Whatever this Event was, it seemed to have killed entirely randomly, at least so far.
Sergeant Jamal handed my license back. “How are things back in Jasper?”
I shrugged, then told her what I knew, only hinting at the problems at the jail. I gave her Rami’s phone number, too, figuring that it couldn’t hurt for that kind of information to be passed around. “Can you see any rhyme or reason to who lived?”
She was quiet for a minute, swallowing hard, and I wondered who she’d seen die. “No, I guess I haven’t. Seems like the people who were asleep when it happened slept really heavy though. Like they didn’t even hear their alarms. I’m usually up by 0530, but with this, I didn’t wake up until one of my MPs smashed a window to break into my quarters. That was after eight. I never sleep that late, even on a weekend.” She looked away, but not quickly enough for me to miss her wiping her eyes.
She shrugged. “Charlie Mike. Continue the mission, right? What about you?”
“My son for sure. Haven’t been able to reach my exes or my other kids. They’re in Ohio and eastern Pennsylvania.” It was getting easier to say that Kevin was dead. Sort of.
She took a half-step back. “I should let you get going. Didn’t mean to keep you.” Her voice was a little softer now, not as business-like. She offered her hand, and we shook again. “Be careful out there. Don’t have much to tell you about conditions. We’ve got patrols out looking for information, but they only started today.”
“Minion will take good care of me, but thanks. You, too.”
Sixty miles later, I rolled into Alexandria.