I got going decently early, hitting US 30 by just after eight. The first couple of miles were pretty commercialized, but I didn’t see any movement at all. Cars and trucks still crowded the roadway, and more than once I ended up crossing the median to get around a crumpled steel accordion.
Halfway to Gettysburg, I passed a convenience store just as a Jeep pulled in. As much as I wanted to stop and talk to the driver, I felt driven by an urgency I didn’t quite understand to get to Karen’s place, so I drove on.
The town itself was eerily quiet. I’d visited a couple of times with Hannah and, for such a small town, it stayed busy well into the night. Today though, there was nothing moving. There wasn’t even a breeze to shift the flags and bunting that adorned almost every building downtown. I wanted to explore, but that urgency I’d felt at the convenience store hadn’t abated. I stopped at the gift shop where Karen worked just long enough to figure out the door was locked and the lights were off.
My heart kicked into high gear when I turned onto their driveway. Their house sat on the backside of their main three-acre pasture, and I didn’t see any of the horses. The pasture gate closest to the house jutted out across the driveway, an ominous sign. I wasn’t a horse guy, but I knew enough about farms to know that gates were never left open.
Karen and Ben’s place was a couple of miles south of the outlet mall. They’d bought an old horse farm, which confused me at the time because she’d never seemed into horses when we were married. I asked her about it occasionally, but she’d always been kind of vague about any plans for the place other than saying she occasionally gave horseback tours of the battlefield. When I was up for Hannah’s graduation last year, they’d had half a dozen horses and a bunch of 19th-century-looking farm equipment. Ben had said something about a hobby farm but never got around to saying what they were raising there.
I sat in the driveway for a long couple of minutes, my windows down as I listened for any movement or other sign of life. Minion sniffed the air but didn’t really react otherwise. I finally got out, then grabbed the rifle from the back seat. The urgency had shifted to an ominous feeling, my heart pounding in my chest. I slung the rifle on its patrol sling like I’d seen SWAT cops do, leaving it dangling against my chest, out of the way but easy enough to bring into firing position.
The house sat to my left, the garage and shop in front of me, and the barn lay twenty-five yards to my right. I decided to rip the bandage off the wound as it were, and headed for the house. If they were dead, they wouldn’t be in great shape at this point now, five days after the die-off, but right at that second, I wasn’t sure that they were dead. Or at least not dead in the house.
The front door was unlocked so I pushed it open gingerly. “Karen? Ben? It’s Adam. Minion and I are here checking on you guys.” I waited a full minute according to my watch, then took a couple of steps inside. Minion pushed past me with his nose down, heading for the back of the house as though he knew what to look for. I called out to them again with the same silence in response, took a deep breath then began searching.
All I had to show after fifteen minutes was more questions. It looked like quite a few of their clothes were gone, and their pantry had been pretty well cleared out as well. Their kitchen utensils seemed to still be in place though, at least as far as I could tell. It’s not like I really had an opportunity to keep track of what kind of things they had in the drawers. I didn’t get the feeling that whoever had cleaned out the pantry had done so randomly. The house hadn’t been ransacked. It looked like everything that was missing was taken with a purpose. The TV was still on the wall. A couple of game consoles rested in nooks below.
It certainly seemed like they had left voluntarily. But where would they have gone?
Minion had made himself at home on the couch. I wasn’t sure Karen would appreciate that. I called him and we headed to the shop.
I couldn’t remember if I’d ever been in here the two or three times I’d been to the farm. I didn’t think I had, because I didn’t remember the heavy odor of burned coal that hit me as soon as I walked in. The building was the width of a four-car garage, and about forty feet deep, with a metal exterior and a polished cement floor. An ancient Buick station wagon sat in the first bay, its hood up. The second bay held a 90s-vintage F-250 pickup, also with the hood up.
Oil pooled on the floor between them, twin slicks leading back to each one. The sparkplug wires on both vehicles had been cut, and the batteries were gone. I stared at the scene for a long moment, confused at the destruction.
The third space was empty, but I could tell from the dirt pattern on the floor that something had rested there.
The fourth bay had been set up as a workshop. The shop contents looked much older than the exterior of the building would suggest. Near the front of the shop, an ancient drill press and an even older table saw shared floor space with a Shopsmith multiuse machine, still in its lathe configuration.
The back of the shop seemed firmly entrenched in a previous century, though. A forge and its associated equipment sat squat and dark in the back corner, probably the source of the scent of coal I’d noticed earlier. Next to it was an array of older equipment, likely from the late nineteenth or early twentieth century. Much of the blacksmith equipment seemed to be missing. An old workbench sat nearby, the hooks on the pegboard behind it hanging empty, outlines painted around missing tools. Even the anvil was gone. After a moment of studying the area, trying to figure out what seemed wrong with the picture – besides all the missing tools – I realized there was no fuel source for the forge. The fire bed was filled with coal, but I didn’t see a coal bin anywhere in the building.
“Minion, old buddy, what the heck is going on here?” He sighed from the other side of the building, lying next to the Buick.
I shook my head and we headed for the barn.
“Stop there.” The voice came from my right, apparently on the other side of my truck, almost as soon as I exited the door. I stopped. “Set the rifle down.” I did, looking around as I did so. “Step over this way, away from the rifle.”
“Can’t exactly step this way when I don’t know where this way is. Where are you?” I was reasonably certain I was only dealing with one person, and they were hiding on the other side of the truck. But I couldn’t see their head so I wasn’t sure how they were watching me
“Over towards your truck. Keep your hands away from your waist. Who are you?” They sounded like they knew what they were doing, or had at least watched a lot of cop shows on TV.
“I’m Adam Ktokolwiek, Karen’s first husband. Heading over to Philadelphia to check on our daughter, and wanted to stop and check on them.” Minion was completely nonplussed at this turn of events. He sat down when I stopped walking, and now was lying down on his side, tail wagging weakly. I really need to work on training him better.
A minute later a young man, probably in his twenties with dark bushy hair, came around the front of my truck carrying a shotgun in one hand. “You say you’re Karen’s first husband? I never knew she was married before Ben.”
I nodded. “We were married about four years. Got a daughter, Hannah. She lives over near Philly. Then she was married to another guy between me and Ben.”
He nodded, spat a stream of tobacco juice to the side, and looked back at me. “What’s Hannah’s middle name?”
I told him. He nodded, and after a minute raised the shotgun over his head with both hands, twice. Then he lowered it and stepped forward, his right hand extended. “Doug Sands. We live across the way there. Ben asked us to kinda keep an eye on things.”
I shook his hand, and Minion came over to sit next to me tail wagging. Sands bent down and scratched the dog behind his ears. “Did Ben say where he was going? Or when they might be back?”
“Nope. His son showed up late Tuesday, then they loaded up in their wagons Wednesday and they pulled out early the next day.”
Wagons? A son?
“Yep. He had a couple of old Conestoga-looking horse-drawn wagons and had a whole bunch of stuff piled up in there. Took all of his blacksmithing tools and a whole bunch of his hand tools. Well, you saw what was left. He had a bunch of stuff in that shop and I’d say he took over half of it.”
I looked around the grounds of the farm. They had plenty of land here, and it was off the beaten path. There was a stream on the back edge of the property, if I recalled correctly, so they had a source of water. Why would they leave? I posed the question to Sands.
He scratched his head. “I’ve been trying to figure that one out too. I mean, we both know that something big has happened. We’ve got some nice property right here. They’ve got these ten acres, and we’ve got another sixty-five or so on the other side of the road. We could do just about anything we want between all of the farm equipment we had. Granted, most of his was older stuff that didn’t need gas to run, but I don’t see that we couldn’t have taken care of our two families together here. Then again, I didn’t know until this week that Ben had a son.”
That made two of us. “What did you learn about his son?”
He spat again before answering. “Not a whole lot. He’s in his teens. Shows up on a dirt bike the day this happened. He didn’t say much around me, and Ben didn’t offer any information about him.”
While Doug was talking, an older man came riding up on a paint horse, a scoped rifle cradled in his arm. He reigned in a few feet away and tipped his hat. “Jason Sands.”
“Adam Ktokolwiek. Trying to find out what happened to my ex-wife before I go find our daughter. Doug was just telling me about Ben’s son.”
The older man nodded. “He’s definitely marching to a different tune. Not someone to be scared of, but you can tell his drummer ain’t playing the same song the rest of us are.”
I looked at the two men. “And nobody said anything about where they were going?”
They both shook their heads. The old man answered me. “He was kind of vague about the idea. All he said was that he was going to catch up with family, and would I keep an eye on the place. Ben’s got family down in Virginia somewhere, I think maybe near Lynchburg. Can’t exactly remember where he said they were. I got the impression though that it’s a pretty big family. Lots of cousins and uncles and so forth.”
The news didn’t exactly upset me, but it also didn’t fill me with joy and happiness. I knew that at least a couple of days ago Karen was alive and well, and so was Ben, for what that was worth. But now I didn’t know where any of them were. Or where Hannah was.
Six hours later, I arrived in Doylestown. It had taken me almost twice as long as I had expected even given current traffic conditions. An AMTRAK train had crashed into a freight train around Harrisburg, and it had taken me quite a while to work out a detour.
The stench had been horrific.
I wondered about trying to grab some Vicks VapoRub from a drugstore. I’d read about homicide cops using it when they came upon a badly decomposed body, and a couple of the DPS guys that I had interviewed claimed it worked well. I was almost willing to test the theory.
There were people moving in Doylestown, which I thought was a good sign. Hannah had talked about a few roving groups that first day, wondering if they were gangs. Most of what I saw didn’t look to be gangs, but just groups of people trying to gather supplies, or trying to find somewhere new to go, somewhere safe. Who knew what safe was anymore?
As I made my way to her apartment, I was confused by the number of bodies I saw in the street. The die-off seemed to have hit Jasper in the middle of the night, at least as far as I could tell. But here in Doylestown, it looked like it had hit midmorning. I counted at least a dozen people on the ground on Court Street, and three more on Hannah’s street in the hundred feet between Court and her building. I double-parked, assuming that there wasn’t going to be someone coming along to write a parking ticket, and not really caring if it happened. Thought about leaving Minion in the truck but decided to bring him along. I left all of the long guns in the truck and locked it.
There was an older woman on the floor in the lobby, presumably the neighbor Hannah had mentioned as being the first one she found Tuesday morning. It looked like someone had pushed her out of the way.
I headed up the stairs slowly. The unease and urgency that had almost overwhelmed me at Karen’s farm was back and stronger than before. It was strong enough this time that I unholstered my pistol. Minion seemed to feel it too because he was stopping every couple of steps and sniffing the air. Granted, this is a new place for them, but his behavior had changed enough that I thought I should probably trust his instincts.
My heart rate zoomed into overdrive as I got to the top of the steps. Both apartments upstairs had their doors open. Hannah’s was to my left and her neighbor Monica’s to my right. I couldn’t decide which one to check first. My Army training said never leave an unchecked room behind you when you’re clearing a building. Then again, my Army training said never clear a building by yourself
This is going to suck.
I went to Hannah’s apartment first. I quietly put Minion in a sit at the door and made my way in. Hannah usually kept a pretty clean place, but there had obviously been some pushing and shoving going on in here. The sofa was at an odd angle in relation to all the other furniture, and several knickknacks lay broken on the floor. The only bright spot was that I didn’t see any blood.
I inched my way down the hallway clearing the bathroom first then the two bedrooms. Someone had gone through Hannah’s dresser and closet, strewing a ton of clothes across the room. Then again, some of them could have been Ciera’s. I didn’t know if they were living together yet or not.
I holstered my pistol, just starting to catch my breath when Minion growled, loud and low. Then he started barking, a fast, fierce, angry bark. I hadn’t heard him use that one much. I drew my pistol and made my way back down the hallway, stopping just short of the living room. I was ready to call out to whoever was making him bark when I heard a raspy female voice from the doorway. “Sheriff’s office! Make yourself known. Come out where I can see you with your hands up.”
After what had happened the first night at the hotel, I wasn’t going to blindly trust any voice that I heard when I couldn’t see the person speaking. Then again, someone with ill intent probably would’ve just yelled out “Police” instead of “Sheriff’s office.” And this voice had just a tinge of familiarity to it. Still, I wasn’t going to step out in the open without more information. “How do I know you’re really with the Sheriff’s office?”
If she responded, I couldn’t hear it over Minion’s barking. “Minion! Out! Come!” In theory, those commands should have brought him to me. Theories are great when they work. I called him again. He stopped barking this time but still didn’t budge from the doorway. I called out again. “Look, I don’t know who you are, but I don’t think my dog is really impressed with you at the moment. If you’re not with the Sheriff’s office, you probably need to take off.” I couldn’t really think of any better way to run them off. I was all by myself in here, although they had probably figured that out by now.
“What’s your dog’s name again?”
Why did that matter? “Minion. Why?”
“Adam? Adam Ktokolwiek?”That wasn’t Hannah’s voice. “Ciera? Is that you? Coming out.” I dropped my pistol to a low-ready position and came around the corner. My daughter’s girlfriend stood in the doorway, wearing her tactical gear over a T-shirt and jeans. We met in the middle of the room and gave each other a long hug.