I headed back out to my car and drove to the Sheriff’s office, knowing exactly what I was going to find.
I took a very meandering path to the jail, trying to make my way all through downtown. At one point, I saw a beagle dragging his leash as he wandered down the street from shop to shop, sniffing here and there. The column of smoke I had seen earlier was still visible off to the southwest, but it didn’t seem to have changed much.
Once I thought I saw someone in an alley, but by the time I stopped the car and backed up, I couldn’t see anything. I wondered if I were imagining things out of a sense of hope. Surely I wasn’t the only person left alive. I reached for my pocket to get my phone, and then realized I didn’t have it with me. It’s probably still in Kevin’s room. I winced at the memory of my son lying dead on his bedroom floor.
The scene at the Sheriff’s Office and jail complex was much as I had expected. A deputy lay on the ground just outside the jail doors, probably stricken on his way into the building. I still couldn’t understand what could have killed people so quickly. The dispatchers at the police department looked to have died in their seats. This deputy and the detective back at JPD had apparently died mid-step. I couldn’t think of anything natural that killed so quickly. I had learned of stuff in the Army that could kill that quickly—sarin and VX gas were the first to the came to mind—but I would’ve heard the explosions of the delivery system. Those were typically delivered by artillery of some sort, although I supposed that, in a pinch, one could disperse them from a sprayer mounted on the back of a truck. But there’s no way that you would get the instantaneous kill across the entire county. So strange.
The doors to the jail were locked, so I went back to the dead deputy to search his duty belt for keys. He had a key keeper on the back of his belt with a large ring of a couple of dozen keys, so I grabbed that and started working my way through the ring. The next to the last key unlocked the door.
Inside, things were just as they had been everywhere else that morning: entirely too quiet. I checked various offices, finding two more dead deputies. Seventeen. One of them had a larger key ring with a dozen or so much larger heavy brass keys. My heart sank. The objective part of my mind knew that I was at the jail, and suspected there were more than a few inmates in the building. I recalled that the Jasper County jail had the capacity for almost 150 inmates, and had contracts with three surrounding counties. There was no doubt in my mind that there were a bunch of dead people in the building here.
The subjective part of my mind was horrified to consider that there might be inmates still alive who would probably die in their cells if I didn’t release them. But objective me piped up that I had no way of knowing what these people had done to get themselves incarcerated, so what right did I have to release them?
Subjective me responded that I had no right to condemn them to death, no matter what they were accused of. Everybody housed here at the jail was either awaiting trial or serving a sentence for a minor offense. The truly dangerous people had typically already been sent to Beaumont or one of the other state prisons in the region. I grabbed the big key ring and started following the signs to the visitor area. I assumed that, from there, I could make my way into the jail proper.
I found three more dead deputies on my way to the visitors area. Twenty now.
The door to the visitors area was locked, of course. It took a solid five minutes to find the right key on one of the smaller rings. This would be so much easier if I could just grab someone’s radio and ask them to open a particular door. Twenty minutes and three doors later, I stood at a door labeled “Control Room.” This one clearly used one of the keys from the bigger key ring. I was trying the fourth key in the ring when the electric lock buzzed and thunked. I looked around and saw the surveillance camera on the wall to my left, then pulled the heavy door open and stepped into the control room.
“Who the hell are you?”
The voice was coming from in front of me, but I couldn’t see the speaker. “My name is Adam Ktokolwiek. I’m trying to find. . . I’m trying to find out if anyone else is alive.”
“Show me your hands. Put that key ring on the counter.”
There was a counter in front of me with a gate to the left. Beyond that was a control console with several banks of screens and monitors. Whoever I was talking to had probably followed my progress from the time I pulled into the parking lot. I set all three key rings that I was carrying on the counter and stepped back, folding my arms across my chest. “There are the keys. I can’t exactly show you my hands, because I don’t know where you are.”
There were two rooms along the left wall of the control room. I caught just a hint of a shadow in the second room, the one farther away from me. An arm extended from the doorway, a Glock in the hand. A deputy, an overweight black male, peeked quickly around the corner in my general direction, then slowly entered the control room. “You alone?”
“Why are you here?”
“Already told you that. I’ve seen almost two dozen people this morning, and you’re the first live one in the bunch. I live up by the lake. I woke up to find my son dead in his room, and then when I tried calling for help, nobody answered their phones. So I drove into town to see what I can find out.”
“And?” He was all the way out of the room now, but that Glock was still pointed straight at me.
“And what?” I stuck my hands my pockets and leaned back against the wall “What do you want me to tell you?”
“Why did you come to the jail? What’d you think we were gonna be able to tell you?”
“Dude, have you not been listening to me? So far, you and I are the only ones left alive in the town of Jasper. Maybe in the county. And who knows beyond that. I got on the radio over the PD and tried four different frequencies, and nobody responded to me. Nobody from the city. Nobody at the fire department. No Rangers. No Highway Patrol. Nobody here. I’ve seen half a dozen deputies on the ground since I pulled in the parking lot.”
He finally shifted just a little bit. He didn’t really relax, but he did holster his pistol. He stared at the floor. “I watched them die.”
I stared at him for a full minute, blinking maybe twice. I couldn’t quite process what he was saying. “Who?”
“Everybody, I think.”
“What you mean, everybody?”
“I saw Jamison hit the ground outside the door. Grabbed the phone to call the front desk. Right as Barragán picked up the phone, she collapsed. Then Buskirk went to help her, and he collapsed on top of her.” He still didn’t look up. “It was just like one little, two little, three little deputies.” He sniffled loudly, wiped his eyes.
“What about the inmates?”
He didn’t answer me right away. “Most of ’em are dead. I think they mostly died in their sleep. Mostly. I think a couple of them knew what was happening. They tried to get out of their bunks.”
I stepped forward to the counter. This guy had just watched over a hundred people die, and probably spent much of the time wondering if he would be next. I couldn’t imagine what he was feeling right now. “I’m Adam.” I extended my hand. He didn’t move, still frozen where he’d stopped coming out of the side room.
I pushed the gate open and stepped over in front of him. He was still staring at the floor, still weeping. I didn’t know what else to do, so I just rested my hand on his shoulder.
I glanced at the monitors as we stood there, and caught a flicker of movement on one. I watched the screen for it to happen again. An inmate was pacing in his cell. I squeezed the deputy’s shoulder. “Someone’s alive.”
He sniffled loudly and moved to grab a tissue. “I know. Three or four of ’em.” It took a minute of silence from him for me to realize he wasn’t going to say anything else.
I looked at the monitor again. All of the cell doors were closed. “What are you going to do for them? Can they get out of their cells?” The one inmate I could see had stopped pacing and was now leaning through the bars of his cell in that age-old pose so many inmates assume.
“Wasn’t planning on doing nothing. I’m by myself. Not like I can feed them. Not like I can really do anything for them. Probably better off for everyone that I just leave them locked up.” He pushed past me and sat back down on the chair in front of the monitors.
I looked first at him, then at the inmate on the monitor. Was he suggesting that he was just going to leave these guys to die of starvation? “What about you? What are you going to do?” I couldn’t see that anybody was going to be coming to relieve him, possibly ever. “Have you been able to check on things at your home?”
He sniffled again and sighed loudly. “Nobody’s answering at home. Called everybody on the duty roster. Nobody answering there either. Looks like I’m stuck here.”
“Dude, you can’t just stay here until you…” Careful how you phrase this. It took me a moment to come up with better words, but there wasn’t really an elegant way to say this. “Look, your job wasn’t meant to be a death sentence. There’s no reason for you to stay here when no one is going to be able to relieve you.” I replayed the last few months of news reports in my mind, but I couldn’t remember anything very serious. “I can’t imagine any of these guys committed a capital offense.”
He shrugged. “Can’t leave my post until somebody relieves me. So I won’t. And it ain’t my job to let anybody out their cell without an order from the court or the sheriff. Since it don’t look like I’m gonna be getting any of those anytime soon, I ain’t letting anybody out.”
I don’t think this guy is functioning properly right now. Although I sort of understood his position. He’d been on duty since whatever this thing was had happened, so he hadn’t been outside to see what I could see. For all he knew, this was just a weird, localized event, and he’d be getting relieved by the Rangers or DPS troopers any minute now. Although what I suspected was really happening was that he was holding onto this last fraying strand of reality, and obeying his last orders. I thought of the Japanese holdouts from World War II, some of whom had held on into the early 1970s. Was this deputy really all that different from them?
I studied him for another couple of minutes. He hadn’t really moved since he sat down on the chair. He could have been looking at the monitors, but he could’ve been staring off into space too. I sighed quietly. “Okay, then. I’m going to get out of here and see if I can find out anything else about what’s going on. When I was on the JPD radio, I said that I would be back at 1800. I’ll swing by and check on you then.” I grabbed a message pad that was sitting on the counter and wrote down my phone number. “Here’s my cell phone number, but I don’t have it on me right now. I was in a hurry when I left the house and it’s still there. But I’ll be back there in about an hour probably. Call me if you need something.” I started for the door, but then turned back around and grabbed the key rings that I had liberated from the dead deputies. I had a hunch I might need them later.
Copyright © 2019 Bob Mueller
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