Cole swallowed and let the horrific image of him eating the man’s face pass. He forced it to pass.
Too horrible, he thought. Too goddamn horrible. What’s wrong with me? Not you, not you...
Indeed, very soon Cole would be unfit to lead...unless...God, was there hope, after all? Cole had assumed he would devolve into one of the walking nightmares that were being reported around the globe—some of whom he had seen firsthand.
I don’t want to be like them, he thought. But he had accepted his fate. Accepted it, that is, until this recent bit of news about Stetson’s improvement.
Dr. Kaplan studied the Agent in Black with unease. He didn’t tell Cole that he’d personally read some of the intel reports. He didn’t tell him that some of the afflicted in other parts of the world had not only killed but eaten humans. And most of all, he didn’t tell him that some third-world countries reported rioting and out of control violence and murders and, of course, cannibalism. Additionally, some major military bases were under complete lockdown, with no communication at all. Forces were en route right now to try to contain many of the situations.
Or so they hoped, thought Kaplan grimly.
Kaplan withheld this information as ordered. He wanted to keep Cole as calm as possible. Kaplan wondered how long that would be. Probably another twenty-four hours, if the Agent in Black progressed as the others did. Insanity set in at about thirty-two hours. Kaplan shuddered, wondering what it would be like to totally lose control of one’s mind.
God help us all, he thought.
The news that some of the infected were showing signs of recovery did not fully hearten Dr. Kaplan. He knew, along with only a handful of men around the world, that so far, no one had been able to actually kill any of the infected victims.
Maybe they haven’t tried hard enough, Kaplan thought, and stood up.
Either way, Dr. Kaplan understood that this outbreak could become a pandemic unlike anything the human race had ever seen.
As Kaplan watched Cole, he wondered if it was too late to kill the man...or was there still time?
Anna and Jared were playing checkers when they heard it…a crash from somewhere in the house. Anna and Jared both gasped.
Her father, who seemed to be coming down with a cold, was asleep in the room next to them. The sound couldn’t have come from him.
“It’s them,” said Jared. “They’re here!”
Anna yelped and scrambled over Jared and dashed into the next room, shaking her father. “Daddy! Daddy!”
* * *
I was surrounded by thick fog.
I could barely see my own feet as I wandered through a maze of trails. No matter which way I went, I wound up back in the same place. Water ponds often blocked my way. That was strange because there were no natural ponds up here. I had to be careful; I knew if I fell into one, I would drown. I was a great swimmer, but these pools of water were deadly.
I was more afraid for my daughter. She was up here somewhere, too. In danger. She had someone tracking her. I heard her labored breath as she tried to get away. From what, I didn’t know. She whimpered—no, she yelled: “Daddy! Daddy!”
My eyes flew open, and I sat up so quickly that I bumped heads with Anna.
“Ow!” she said, stumbling back.
“Sorry, honey. What’s wrong? What’s the matter?”
I was disoriented. I had been in a forest, in the fog, searching for my daughter. God, my head hurt, and my skin felt as if it were on fire. I was in my house. No, I was in my ex’s house. We were upstairs. Hiding. My brother was visiting. No, my brother was a prisoner, in the basement.
Not a nightmare after all. I was living a nightmare.
I was about to ask again what was wrong when I heard a bang from inside the house. The sound was metal against metal.
“Did you hear that, Daddy?” asked Anna, whispering.
I threw off the blanket and stood. They were doing something more than just standing down there in a daze.
He’s my brother, I thought. Not the enemy. He’s just sick.
No, he’s infected.
“I’m going to check on them,” I said.
Anna headed for the door. “I’m going with you—”
“Hell, no.” Adrenaline started pumping. I checked my gun and took up the knife I’d kept next to me. It was still early morning; I’d had only a couple of hours of sleep. That didn’t matter. “I’ll go. You and Jared stay here.”
“No. I want to come. We want to come. Right, Jared?”
Jared’s nod wasn’t all that convincing.
“You two will stay here while I go check things out. That’s an order, young lady.” I caught Jared’s eyes, asking for his support, his obedience. He nodded quickly.
“For God’s sake, Anna, would you just listen to me for once? I don’t know what I’ll find down there, but until it’s safe, you’re going to stay here with Jared. Period.”
“Maybe he’s right, Anna,” Jared said.
She gave him what I called her look of death, which she reserved for her moments of pure fury or disgust. And in general, just for me. She turned to me. “Please don’t hurt Uncle Joe. Promise me.”
I took in some air and realized I couldn’t make that promise. Not to those big, innocent eyes. The truth was, I had no idea what I might find down there. “I’ll do my best not to hurt them.”
I headed for the door, not feeling so great myself. I had thought I could sleep off the flu I suspected I was coming down with. No such luck. Damn. And my hand, dammit. My hand wasn’t getting any better either. The redness seemed to be spreading. I needed to have a doctor look at that.
No time now, I thought. Later.
Anna plopped down on the bed and folded her arms. She looked up at me as I paused in the doorway. “But—”
“I’ll be back in less than five minutes. But if I’m not, I want you to climb down off the patio.” We were in my bedroom with its French doors and connecting patio. There was some latticework that Anna, my little tomboy, had used to climb down in the past. I turned to Jared. “Lock the door behind me.”
He nodded and I tossed him the keys, which infuriated Anna even more. I didn’t care. Sometimes you had to do what you had to do.
* * *
I waited until I heard the key turn, then drew my gun. I unlocked the safety and made my way carefully down the stairs and into the kitchen.