Self-publishing sensation D. J. Molles’s sixth and final book in the thrilling post-apocalyptic series about a soldier’s final mission: to rebuild his world
We need to do this my way, LaRouche had told them. No shock troop bullshit. Slow and quiet and then we take them quick. If you trust me, trust me to handle this.
LaRouche threaded his way through cold, bare trees, trying to keep his feet light on all the dried leaves. First he would look around, standing as still as the trees around him. He would see if there was anything straight ahead of him, and he would listen to the woods. They were quiet in the way that only winter could bring. No insects to chirp. No night birds to call out. The odd, basal rumble of the world existing in silence. Like if you listened hard enough, you could just hear the gears in the center of the earth churning as they kept the planet spinning. The sense of some vast machinery. It was an odd noise that came in wilderness places, and it was a noise that LaRouche had never become accustomed to.
Then he would bring one foot forward and slowly ease it down into the leaves, watching where he was stepping, trying to decipher in the starlight the difference between leaves and branches in the jumbles of shapes underneath him. He would take a few slow steps and then he would stop again. It took time to make up distance this way, but that was what he had told them – slow and quiet.
Behind him, he could just barely hear the footsteps of Clyde, moving as stealthily as LaRouche was. LaRouche had not learned to move in the woods from the military – with so much taking place in urban environments or rocky desert, they didn’t spend a whole lot of time teaching woodland movement. What he knew of moving through the woods he learned from a lifetime of bow hunting. It would be bow season right now, come to think of it.
After maybe an hour of moving this way, they came to the point where LaRouche was beginning to recognize things. The white farmhouse set back in the trees. The cluster of tents and campers and shanties. The dirt road that plunged straight through the trees to this little hideout in the woods. A single campfire smoldering. The shape of a man with his back to the embers.
LaRouche sank down into a crouch and looked behind him. A few yards back, he could see Clyde standing there, half concealed by the trunk of a tree. The lenses of his glasses shone faintly in the starlight – not enough to give him away, unless you were already looking for him. LaRouche reached out a hand and motioned Clyde forward with a single wave of his fingers. The other man chose his footing carefully and made his way to LaRouche in a few steps, kneeling down close enough that their shoulders brushed. He knew as well as LaRouche that voices carried a long, long way, and in order for them to communicate, their whispers had to be quieter than rustling leaves.
LaRouche leaned in close to him. The man who had saved him. And cursed him all at once. Rescued? Captured? What difference did it make? LaRouche was a device that was useful for little else besides hurting and killing other people. It was his talent. It didn’t matter whose hands swung an axe – it cut wood all the same. LaRouche was that axe, doing what it was made to do, but maybe providing fuel for the fires of the wrong people. Could you blame the axe for that?
You are not an axe, and you will burn in hell for the things that you do.
You are a man. A bad man.
With his mouth almost to Clyde’s ear, LaRouche whispered, ‘We’re going to do this a little different than what we said.’
Clyde looked at him, alarm clearly on his face. His hand snaked up to his face, a single finger pushing his glasses back up. ‘LaRouche . . . ’
‘We’re here for the guns and the food,’ LaRouche said firmly. ‘That’s it. No prisoners. No women. Guns and food.’
‘So what are you gonna do?’ Clyde’s voice went scarily close to getting too loud, but he seemed to catch himself and brought it back down. ‘You gonna let ’em all go?’
LaRouche nodded. ‘The women and children.’
‘They’re going to die without protection. Without food.’
LaRouche considered this. It was true. Did it make a difference? Perhaps the women and children were better off being captured by the Followers. But was he capable of being the one that lined them up and turned them over? He didn’t think so. Odd, where one sees fit to draw his moral lines in the sand.
‘We should stick to the plan,’ Clyde urged. ‘Let’s just take out the sentries and send up the signal for the others. If anyone finds out that you intentionally let them get away . . . fuck, man. You’re gonna blow all that trust you just built up for yourself.’
LaRouche chewed his lip. ‘Fine. But we’re not . . . I’m not . . . ’ He growled and shook his head. ‘I’m not killing them if they run. If they run, they get away. Period. If anyone has a fucking problem with that, then they can stand me up in front of a firing squad. I don’t give a fuck.’
‘Hang you from a telephone pole would be more likely,’ Clyde said.
LaRouche refused to acknowledge what Clyde had said. He rose from the ground. ‘Come on.’
The two men began moving forward, but they split in different directions. LaRouche began to angle for the dirt road that the first sentry was watching, while Clyde began to swing out wide to LaRouche’s right. LaRouche crept as close as he could, and when he was among the shacks and tents and campers that were sprawled through the trees, and perhaps ten yards from the sentry who was sitting, dozing off with his back to the fire, LaRouche stepped out from concealment, displaying an obvious limp, his rifle hanging loosely from his weak hand, while his strong hand was held palm up.
The sentry jerked when he saw LaRouche and started to open his mouth to sound the alarm.
LaRouche shook his head. ‘Sshh! It’s Sergeant LaRouche . . . please . . . be quiet . . . I need help.’
The sentry blinked rapidly. Recognition came over his face as the sleep fled from him. ‘Sarge? Is that you?’ he said quietly.
His near-sleep state was making him compliant. If he’d been more awake, he might have been more difficult.
LaRouche continued forward. ‘Yes . . . please . . . I need help.’
The sentry stood up and moved quickly to LaRouche, reaching out a hand to offer support. His eyes were filled with concern, and for that LaRouche felt the tiniest measure of guilt, but he had not wanted to be friends with these people to begin with. That was Wilson and Father Jim. They were the ones that wanted to fucking befriend every goddamned lost puppy.
‘What happened?’ the man asked, looking over LaRouche’s limping frame for a wound that wouldn’t be there. As his hand touched LaRouche’s elbow, a shadow slid out from between two tents. It swept the rifle out of the sentry’s hands, then clamped a forearm over the sentry’s mouth and nose to stifle any cries. The sentry’s head was pulled back, exposing the throat.
LaRouche pulled a knife from its sheath on his belt and inserted it into the side of the sentry’s neck, then sawed across, cutting the larynx and the carotid arteries in a few quick motions. The sentry thrashed and jerked and made quiet choking noises, but Clyde held him and guided his weakening body to the ground. LaRouche stepped back away from the gouts of blood and immediately started scanning to make sure the other sentry had not been alerted.
There were no shouts of alarm. No movement save the sentry’s feet scuffing in the dirt, getting slower and weaker by the second until there was nothing left but twitches. LaRouche looked down at the man and tried to remember his name, but couldn’t, and then thought that might be best. The second sentry was easier. They were able to catch him unawares at the back of the farmhouse, keeping an eye on the forest. A strike to the back of the head with a rifle butt stunned him, and then LaRouche put the knife into the base of his brain.
Bad man. That’s all you are.
The two men didn’t die silently, but they didn’t die with enough noise to wake the people they were trying to protect. LaRouche crept back through the camp with Clyde, looking at the little places where small families were holding on, and wondering if they would die. The men would die, that was for certain. But the women and children . . .
What do you care about women and children? Bad men don’t care.
At the dying fire, Clyde slung off the satchel strapped to his back and opened it. The smell of pine forests wafted out. Fresh evergreen boughs were stuffed in the satchel, bristling with needles. They dumped them into the fire and then crouched down, scanning three-sixty. On the hot coals the green branches began to blacken and gouts of gray smoke started to waft up, carrying with them the scent of the trees that reminded LaRouche perversely of the holidays: shopping for a live tree while the sellers stuffed the trimmed branches into a fifty-gallon drum and burned them, filling the air with pleasant-smelling smoke. But though this smoke smelled the same, it was a signal for the others that were lurking in the woods. A signal for them to come, and to kill.
It didn’t take them long. They must’ve been close by. Within minutes the shapes of men armed with rifles appeared, slinking through the smoke like ghosts. They made very little sound, and Patterson Place kept on sleeping. The shapes all went to different places, some of them to the flaps of tents, others to the doors of the one or two campers, and still others stacked up on the front door of the farmhouse. LaRouche and Clyde watched them from where they stood by the fire, and the dark shapes of men watched them back.
LaRouche made the motion. He brought his hand up, and then down, almost lazily.
Tent flaps unzipped, camper doors were ripped open, and the front door of the farmhouse was kicked in. There were shouts, and then screams, and then gunfire, and all the little domes of tents and the windows of campers pulsed in the smoky darkness like luminescent fungus in a foggy swamp. There was wailing as women and children watched husbands and fathers die, and then were killed themselves, and probably for no real reason.
Bad men, one and all.
LaRouche turned away from the sights and sounds. His eyes fell to the corner of the house and he could see a woman and a child there, just stepping out and ready to make a break for the woods. There were no tears in their eyes, because they had not had time for tears. Only shock and panic. They stood there, stock-still, staring right back at LaRouche, as though they were trying to figure out whether he could see them or not. All around him the night was turning into hell. And he was the devil, standing with his back to the flames, the planner, the orchestrator, the executor.
He wondered if they recognized him.
Sorry, ma’am. Those guns I gave your people . . . I need them back.
LaRouche didn’t raise his rifle. He stood as still as they did, a scene set in stone. Then he nodded to them. They broke and ran. Into the woods. The woman was barefoot. The child had no coat. Neither had a weapon or a pack. No food or water. Nothing to protect themselves.
They will die. You didn’t murder them with your hands, but they will die all the same.
They disappeared into the trees. To freeze. To starve. To be eaten.
As suddenly as the chaos had erupted, it died. Or at least the gunfire did. All the threats had been eliminated. But there was still wailing. Weeping and gnashing of teeth. Now there was an apt description of what LaRouche had created.
Are you okay with this?
Of course I am. There’s nothing to it but to do it.
LaRouche turned to face the fire where the green branches had all but burned away. He looked up at Clyde and found the other man’s eyes fixated on the burned branches. Neither spoke. For a time they stood there, and the sound around them melted into a slurry that they didn’t pay attention to. Eventually it felt normal again.
A man approached. One of the Followers. He stood between Clyde and LaRouche, looking rapidly between the two men as he spoke. ‘We’ve secured all the weapons. Still gathering the ammunition. So far we have ten of the M4 rifles, and about a half-dozen other long guns. And a few pistols.’
Clyde didn’t respond, so LaRouche took it upon himself. It was, after all, his plan.
He nodded to the man. ‘Good. Everyone did good. Gather the weapons and ammunition. If Chalmers wants the women and children, he can come back for them. If any of them are still alive.’
Clyde looked up sharply at LaRouche.
‘You mean . . . ?’ the man stammered.
LaRouche’s placid face turned dark. ‘Leave them. And if anyone has a problem with that I’ll gut them. I promise you that.’ LaRouche leaned into the man. ‘What about you? You got a fucking problem with it?’
The man didn’t cave like a coward. He stuck his chin out. But he also appeared to be seriously considering what LaRouche had said. Not many of the men truly knew LaRouche, but word traveled fast in the camp. Everyone knew what LaRouche had done to a certain commanding officer with a bottle of whiskey. They might not like it, but everyone knew that the new guy LaRouche might have a screw loose, and not many people wanted to fuck around with that.
Finally, the man nodded. ‘Fine. I’ll pass the word along.’
* * *
It’s a trick, Abe kept telling himself. It’s a trick, it’s a trick, it’s a trick.
Don’t let your guard down.
He was finding it difficult to stay awake. The antibiotics weren’t a cure-all, and the fever was still making him nauseous, and he would cough wetly every now and then. But he felt better knowing that the infection had at least been treated and he wasn’t going to die of pneumonia. It was dangerous for him to be thankful for anything they had given him, including his full belly and the warm cell he was now sitting in. It was all too good to be true. It was just a trick to try to get him to relax.
He hated it, but the exhaustion was catching up to him and he thought that their plan might be working. His eyes kept drooping closed. It was so wonderful to be warm again. So wonderful to have food in your stomach, even if you felt like you might throw it up in a minute. It was the best he’d felt in days. Or weeks. However long they’d had him locked up in this place.
The man calling himself Carl Gilliard seemed to be saying that he was not aligned with President Briggs. And honestly, Abe’s mind was so befuddled with everything that he was having a difficult time figuring out which way was up, never mind the delicate details of political intrigue. So he pretty much had to take Carl’s word for it, though he still felt suspicious about it. Couldn’t figure out why. Maybe it was the torture he’d endured. You just don’t trust someone after they do those things to you. You can’t become friends with them after that.
But were they allies?
Because an ally was very different from a friend. They say that an enemy of your enemy is your friend, but actually that person is just your ally. Useful. Sometimes faithful, to a point. But not your friend.
‘He’s not even an ally,’ Abe muttered, speaking just to keep himself from falling asleep. ‘He’s just a guy . . . just a guy who wants to hurt me. No. Not gonna. I’m gonna . . . ’
He realized he should be quiet, in case people were listening.
I’m gonna get out of here. I can’t sit around and wait to see what’s up this guy’s sleeve. I need to get free or he’s going to kill me. I don’t know how or why, but I just know that it’s going to happen. I just fucking know it.
But how? It was one thing to be determined to break free, but an animal in a cage can pace and growl and batter the bars all it wants and never really have a chance of breaking free. It wasn’t about determination. That came after. Determination was what got you through the race. That was what he would need to get out of this compound once he’d busted out of his cell. Determination was what he would need to get through the guards and to get through the woods and back on the road. And determination was what he would need once he was on that road, to somehow find his way to friendly territory.
You have no friendly territory right now. No matter where you are, you’re an enemy.
No, determination did him no good right now. Smarts. That was what he needed to summon up. Some clearheadedness. Some out-of-the-box thinking. Some cleverness. A little maliciousness. Find a way to get out of here. Find a way. Find a way.
Abe realized his eyes had been closed the whole time. He blinked rapidly and sat up, then scrambled to his feet. His head spun and his vision threatened to blacken. He tightened his core and grunted loudly to get some blood back into his head. He bounced on the balls of his feet. His heart labored to get moving. He shook his arms out, swung them back and forth, like a fighter limbering up in his corner. He needed to get his heart rate up. Blood flow equaled brain flow. Shit starts to get hazy when you curl up in a little ball. When you’re moving you’re thinking. It’s all just a complicated mess of biochemistry. Ideas came from the brain, and the brain needed oxygen, and blood carried that oxygen, and movement forced more oxygen.
So move. Move!
He squatted down, then straightened up. Down, then up. He wondered if anyone was watching and if they were wondering what the fuck he was doing in there. A sheen of sweat had broken across his brow, and he was breathing heavily, even from that extremely small exertion. That just showed him how weak he’d become.
That’s bad. That’s real bad. Can I even overpower someone?
No. Obviously not. You’re not going to muscle your way out of this situation.
It’s brains over brawn, but you’ve done that before.
Abe was never big. Through every unit he’d ever worked with, he’d always been one of the smaller guys. The big guys tended to muscle their way through things, but Abe had always been forced to use his head. It was no different now.
Just remember who you’re dealing with, Abe told himself. These boys seem like operators. They know what they’re doing. It’s going to be tough to catch them with their pants down.
His hammering heart and hard breathing were making his stomach fall into rioting. He gagged, burped, and tasted Salisbury steak and gravy, churned through with his own stomach acid. It burned in the back of his throat.
What are you gonna do?
I’m going to puke. And I’m going to pass out. And I’m going to hope to God that someone is watching . . .
Abe sank to the ground. He could see just under the door. A tiny crack, and on the other side he could see the bottoms of boots and the shadows cast by a pair of men. Probably Norseman and his smaller partner, if Abe were to take a wild guess. Maybe they were paying attention, or maybe they weren’t. Maybe they had cameras in the room. In any case, there wasn’t a whole lot that Abe had going for him. He was improvising with nothing.
He began to rock back and forth on his knees. Just the thought of it was already making saliva coat the sides of his mouth. He took a few short breaths, eyes locked on the underside of the door. He scooted a little closer. He made a strangled cry, and then said, ‘Help me . . . please . . . ’
Then he shoved two fingers down his throat. His throat seized around them. Then he could feel everything opening up as Salisbury steak and gravy came rushing back up. He retched once with nothing, and then it all came out at once, a light brown chunky mess that spewed out onto the door and the floors. He retched two more times, and then collapsed in a puddle of his own vomit.
His eyes rolled back. His eyelids fluttering while his body shook violently. His face and lips were smeared with his own vomit. The pool of the mess he had just created began to seep under the narrow crack at the bottom of the door.
It took a moment, but then there was a cry of alarm from the other side of the door. Shuffling of feet, rubber boot soles squeaking on linoleum tiles. A few loud curses. Then the door was flung open. The air outside was noticeably cooler, and it chilled Abe’s vomit-covered face. His eyes were still looking up into his own head, and he could not see who it was that was standing in the doorway.
‘Holy fuck . . . ’
‘Hey! Get the fuck up!’
‘Dude, he might be for real.’
‘God damn it . . . call the doc.’
Abe coughed and spluttered and took shaky breaths. He blinked rapidly. It was Norseman standing over him, straddling the puddle of vomit, leaning down with his hands on his knees and inspecting Abe with a suspicious eye. His leaner partner was just outside the door, nose wrinkled in disgust, but eyes softened with pity. The leaner one pointed. ‘Roll him on his side so he don’t choke on his vomit.’
Norseman avoided the puddle of vomit and stepped over Abe’s legs, reaching for his right shoulder to pull him onto his side.
Abe did the only thing he could – he kicked with everything he had, and landed a hard blow into Norseman’s groin. The air came out of the man’s lungs in a whoomph, and he made a sound like groaning steel as he toppled forward onto Abe. The man was a righty, and his pistol was on Abe’s left. As Norseman landed on him, Abe’s left hand snagged the pistol from its holster on his belt – a simple quick-draw design with no safety retention in place. And then Abe was almost smothered by the man’s 250-pound frame.
The lean man jumped forward, his pistol appearing in his hand, but then saw the pistol in Abe’s hand, and jumped back out of the doorway. Abe was almost completely covered by the big man. Even a good pistol shooter would have had to take a second or two to properly aim at the inch of Abe’s face that was peeking out from under the moaning form. The lean man hesitated, and didn’t take the shot.
Abe did. Firing weak-handed with a man on top of him. He fired rapidly, hoping his volume of fire would make up for the lack of accuracy. But out of five rounds, four struck home except for the last one, which went high and to the left. The lean man, standing half in and half out of the doorway, yelped and danced as the bullets plunged through him and he fired reactively, the bullets slamming high into the wall behind Abe. Abe cringed when the man shot but forced himself to fire two more times, one striking the man low, on his thigh, and the other catching him right in the clavicle and cutting off his voice. The man tumbled against the wall, his chest still hitching for life though he was, for all intents and purposes, dead.
Abe heaved with everything he had and managed to get the big man off of him. Norseman’s body was stiff, his arms beginning to work again as he was regaining some of his faculties. A blow to the testicles could be quite a shock to the system, but Abe needed to be out of arm’s reach by the time the man was back into fighting capability, because he held no illusions that he would win a grappling contest with him.
Even as he was squirming, the man reached out and tried to grab hold of Abe’s neck, cognizant enough to know that Abe was trying to get away. Abe managed to pull out of his reach and then the man’s hand started grabbing at anything it could. Abe hit it hard with the slide of the pistol, right on the wrist where the nerve endings were. The Norseman growled and retracted his hand, but his body was rising up onto his knees, one hand still hovering protectively over his lower abdomen and groin.
Abe scooted back, his feet slipping in his own vomit, but he managed to get out of striking range, with his back up against the wall. He switched the stolen pistol to his strong hand, and sudden, full-blown panic hit him hard: What the fuck was he thinking? He just fired shots inside of a building. If there was anyone else in this building, they were coming, and they were coming prepared for war.
What the fuck was I supposed to do? I can’t overpower them.
You needed strength to make a silent kill. Strength and endurance, of which Abe had neither in his current state. But whether or not taking shots was his best or only chance was a moot point now. It had happened. And he didn’t have a lot of time. He had to assume the cavalry was already on its way.
He began to crawl up the wall and onto his feet, the pistol pointed at Norseman. ‘Don’t. I’ll fucking put one through your head.’
The big man stared at him, still recovering, his face pale, but there was enough hatred in his eyes that Abe thought he could still be dangerous. If the man rushed him, he would have to take the shot. He wasn’t going to risk a physical confrontation with someone close to twice his size.
‘What are you doing?’ the man said, accusation in his tone. ‘Same fucking side, you piece of shit. Unless you really are from President Briggs.’
Abe shook his head, felt it swimming. He wasn’t going to go down this road. Maybe the man was being clever and trying to set Abe off balance, or maybe he was telling the truth. There wasn’t time to find out. ‘I’m not from Briggs. But I have no way of knowing if we’re on the same side, and I’m not taking my fucking chances. Where is my friend?’
‘Captain Lucas. My friend.’ Abe felt his voice rising. ‘I want to know where he is.’
‘I don’t know who that is.’
‘The man that was with me!’ Abe shouted. ‘He was with me when you took me prisoner! I need to know where he is!’
The man opened his mouth, but Abe could already tell that it was going to be another denial, and he simply wasn’t going to have it.
Abe fired a shot that struck the big man in his shin, likely shattering the bone in two.
The man screamed and Abe felt panic rise again. Another gunshot? Another one?
Fuck it. If they’re coming, they’re coming. I’m completely fucked either way.
Even if he did make it out, what did he expect was going to happen? He was sick, partially starved, mostly dehydrated, with no transportation, no weapon save what he held in his hand, and barely any clothing to protect himself from the cold. He wasn’t going to get far. But these were worries for another time and another place. Right now all that mattered was momentum.
‘Where is he?’ Abe demanded.
The big man had his eyes squeezed shut. The shot to the shin had been convincing enough. ‘He’s in the other detainee building. Across from this one.’
‘How many guards?’
‘Fuck . . . ’
‘Two. Just like for you.’
‘Where’s the device?’ Abe said, stepping forward, beginning to shake.
‘I don’t know . . . ’
‘No!’ Abe bent down, still out of arm’s reach, but close enough. ‘You need to tell me where the fucking device is. It is very, very important that I get it back. You don’t understand what the hell is going on right now! You’re fucking killing everybody, you stupid sonofabitch! Don’t just follow orders – think for yourself! Think this shit through!’
‘What is it?’ the big man said through clenched teeth.
‘It’s something that doesn’t belong to you. It belongs to someone else, and he needs it back. And if he doesn’t get it back, lots of bad stuff is going to happen, do you understand me? Bad, bad things. And bad, bad people.’ Abe pointed the pistol at the man’s other leg. ‘Tell me now, or you’re not walking for the rest of your life. This ain’t last year, big guy. These are the bad times now, when they can’t fix shattered legs like this. You think anybody has time to teach you how to walk again, motherfucker? You want to walk, you tell me where it is.’
‘Jesus . . . ’ The big man was sweating profusely, rocking back and forth. ‘Carl has it. In his office. I don’t know where.’
‘Where is his office?’
‘I can show you . . . ’
‘You can’t walk. Where is it? Tell me how to get there.’
The big man took a few breaths to steady himself. ‘It’s in this building. Top floor. Has a sign on it that says, BEWARE OF DOG.’
‘Good.’ Abe made a wide circle around the man. ‘Scoot in here. Scoot in.’
The man did as he was told, the two of them trading places. Abe was now standing in the doorway. Abe bent down and scooped up the other guard’s pistol, shoving it into his waistband. He turned back to the big man, who was leaning against the far wall of the cell now.
‘I’m sorry about your partner here. I didn’t want to kill anyone.’
‘You traitorous piece of shit . . . ’
Abe closed the door on him, making sure that it was locked.