I left my truck at the observatory and hiked down.
Yes, I liked hiking down from the observatory. It cleared my head after a long day of work. And it wasn’t so far that it was exhausting, but it was just long enough to unwind and enjoy nature. I was a park ranger for a reason. I loved being outdoors, immersing myself in the natural world. Except the hike now seemed to take longer than usual. At one point, I actually thought I was lost.
Lost? On trails I had hiked for years?
Anyway, when I got home, the cellar was empty, and the handcuffs were scattered on the ground. They’d been opened. Next to them, I saw the twisted bobby pin.
Joseph, of course. Shit.
Holding my gun with both hands, I worked my way through my house, checking rooms. But they were gone—probably long gone.
God, I was tired. I had to think logically, clearly. I poured about a third of a cup of instant coffee into a mug of water. I drank it down and forced it to stay down. If the coffee didn’t do the trick, nothing legal would.
Anna would be devastated. I paced in my kitchen, feeling like shit, and feeling stupid that my brother had duped me. Then again, what had I expected? I’d locked him up like a goddamn criminal.
I continued pacing, running my hand through my hair. I felt awful, worse than I had in some time.
Where had my brother gone? We were in the hills of Los Feliz, just a hop, skip and jump from Los Angeles. They could be anywhere.
And they were infected. They were still sick.
My every instinct told me they’d put on a show for me. Christ, I was an idiot. Meanwhile, I wasn’t thinking straight myself. They needed help, except I hadn’t figured out how to help them. No one had found an antidote, not yet anyway. Not from the reports I was hearing.
And they were wanted.
Yes, it had been better to keep them on the down low. Maybe they could ride out the sickness. Maybe all of this would blow over.
Or maybe the world was going to hell in a hand basket.
It was late evening. I’d had a long day. I would have been tired anyway. Today, I’d found a pot farm in the back woods, which we were going to wipe clean later in the week. I’d also found a dead deer. It had been thoroughly mangled, and that had concerned me. It had been torn from limb to limb, and eaten. In particular, something had cracked its skull open, and eaten its...
I shook my head and shuddered and, for some damn reason...
My stomach growled.
What the hell was wrong with me?
Yes, my brother and friend had needed help, except they were wanted and were dangerous and I had made an executive decision to keep them hidden and safe from hurting themselves and others.
But they had gotten better. Yes, they had.
And they had fooled me.
Perhaps they were better.
But I doubted it.
I needed to tell Anna that her uncle was gone, but not over the phone. My daughter just wasn’t stable enough to hear this over the phone. Hell, I wasn’t feeling very stable either. And I wasn’t thinking clearly either.
I started to text Anna to meet me at the observatory, but checked that thought. Right now I didn’t want her wandering anywhere by herself. Not even with Jared. Instead, I texted that I’d pick her up in an hour. If I hurried, I could make it.
I filled a couple of water bottles, grabbed my flashlight, and headed back out to the trails.
* * *
Lieutenant Commander Joseph Carter still had good intentions.
Joey, as his family called him, would beat this thing, whatever it was. He turned up the radio in the car he’d stolen. Laughed. It was kind of ironic that he’d learned how to hotwire a car in the Navy. The Navy had prepared him for a lot and disciplined him in ways he never would have on his own. He’d been rewarded, promoted for his excellent skills and performance. And he knew his best shot at getting better was to turn himself in. He was sick, contaminated. He knew, could feel it. But he didn’t care, and as the minutes piled up, he cared less and less. About himself...or others.
No, that was not quite true. He still cared enough to keep fighting this. At least, a small part of him wanted to keep fighting.
The other part of him, well, it wanted to feed.
And—he swallowed hard—it wanted to kill. Yes, to kill and feed on fresh meat. Human meat. Yes, human meat sounded perfect. Just perfect.
What’s wrong with me? Good God, what’s wrong with me?
Too bad that Mike wouldn’t come. Joey had a bad feeling about his friend. But it was too late now. Joey only hoped that Mike didn’t do too much damage. He believed Mike’s promise to stay away from Jack and Anna. As they parted ways on that quiet street, Mike had said he would take his own chances. There wasn’t anything Joe could do about that now.
Onward and upward.
Joey found himself stuck in a sig-alert on the 5 Freeway going south. He grew impatient. He was hungry. He drummed his fingers on the steering wheel. He wanted to get out of the goddamn car, walk over to the closest vehicle on the freeway, reach inside and...
Joey smiled...then frowned.
Calm down, calm down.
He decided to pull off the freeway and eat. Yes, good choice. Luckily, he’d taken enough cash from his brother’s nightstand for gas and a little food.
He parked at a Carl’s Jr. Maybe a six-dollar burger would help, but he doubted it. Entering the place, Joe sniffed. He smelled burgers, fries, meat. Lots of meat.
His olfactory registered something new. People. Standing in line, he hungrily sniffed the woman in front of him. She gave him an irritated glance. Joe backed off, concerned now. The urge was becoming stronger. Jesus. He gripped his hands behind his back. He’d planned on eating inside the diner, but his senses were too sharp right now. So were his cravings. He ordered, grabbed his bag, his drink and ate in the car.
The freeway was still stop-and-go. Joe felt a slight headache coming on. He still felt good. Just as long as I can stay away from people, he thought. He had debated leaving a note for his brother, then finally decided against it. What was he going to say, anyway? “Hey, it was nice being locked up in your cellar, big brother. Let’s do it again sometime.”
He still had his phone in his jacket pocket. He drummed his fingers and considered calling his brother now. Surely, both phones were being monitored. Should he risk a call? Were they actually listening to his calls? Did they really care that much about him, in particular? Surely there were others infected like him. Maybe they had bigger fish to fry.
Finally, after a half-hour of internal debate, he called. Jack answered on the first ring. He sounded winded. “Joey?”