“I’m so sorry, angel, that you had to go through this,” Jack told his daughter. He couldn’t believe how beautiful she was. He couldn’t believe he’d ever not loved her as any parent loves a child. And he was astounded that she’d come through all of this...this terror, as well as she had.

“Don’t be sorry, Daddy,” Anna said. “You’re the one who had to...” She couldn’t finish.

He hugged her again. “It’s okay, sweetheart,” he soothed. “It’s over. I’m okay. You should thank your Uncle Joe. And Mike. And Carla.” He looked up to Jared, who was standing by himself. “And, I’m thinking, Jared, maybe most of all.”

Jack looked up at Jared. “Come here, son.”

Jared sat down next to Anna, across from Jack. “I know how hard this was on Anna.” Jack’s words were warm, sincere. “You’ve been her backbone from day one.” Jack thought about hugging Jared, but reconsidered. He held out his hand, man to man. “Thank you for caring for my daughter when I could not.”

Jared took his hand, relieved that everything turned out all right, that this whole mess was solved, that Jack was okay, and that Anna was happy. “You’re welcome, Jack.”

Mike spat out another flush of blood. Mike was satisfied about “mission accomplished,” but he had this damn hole in his cheek to deal with.

“Did I do that?” Jack asked.

“Yeah. You did.”

“I’m so sorry, Mike. I didn’t know—”

“Never mind,” Mike said. “Now, can we get the hell out of this cellar?”

* * *

At last, all was well in the Carter household.

Everyone was healthy, safe and sane. Mostly, they were all exhausted. Carla had dressed Mike’s wounded cheek as best she could. Mike could have used a couple of stitches, but he would have none of it. He settled for some Neosporin and a butterfly bandage.

“You’re gonna have a scar, and I’m sorry about that,” Jack said.

“Hell, it will be something to tell the grandkids.” Mike spoke lightly, but wondered grimly whether he would live long enough to have grandchildren.

They all slept in the Los Feliz house that night. Jared on the floor of Anna’s room—he gave his word to Jack, no funny business—Carla and Jack slept together. They were so tired they fell asleep instantly. Joe and Mike crashed in their respective guest rooms. But before they did, they hashed out a plan to stop the Agent in Black and Stetson.

If the household in Los Feliz had known what was happening outside of their tight-knit world, they might not have slept so soundly. They had no idea that the homeless people Mike had infected had extremely low immune systems. It wasn’t their fault. But this sad fact would speed up their process of transformation, tenfold. No one would figure that out until much, much later.

So they slept soundly, for the last time in a long time. And it was a good thing, too. Because if they hadn’t slept, they might not have had the strength to deal with what was coming...

Chapter Twenty-one

During the whole Jack ordeal, and even before that, Dr. David Stetson had plans of his own.

He’d come to think of himself as the Master Planner, in fact. He’d devised the idea to bring Cole, the head Agent in Black, back to the base. He’d decided to use Joe Carter to discover what was really going on in the world—a world that hadn’t allowed the media to publicize exactly what was, indeed, going on. They were good plans.

Stetson and Joe had decided earlier to search out any wandering souls together, to watch each others’ backs as they fed—and thus fulfill their insatiable appetites. Feeding, Dr. Stetson assumed, would also aid their thinking, and thus their planning.

Yes, feeding.

Feeding.

Flesh.

The Agent in Black was still in what Stetson called the mindless state, but he would soon come out of it. Stetson needed the Agent on his side for his plans.

But the best-laid plans, Stetson knew, often went awry. He’d had a bad feeling about Mike wanting to join them, but Joe would hear none of it. Army buddies were for life and all of that.

Well, Stetson hadn’t trusted Mike from the get-go.

Something was up. Stetson just hadn’t been able to put his finger on it.

Not yet, anyway.

So far, Stetson had controlled his urge to feed, but he couldn’t hold out for much longer. And his thoughts were becoming a little fuzzy. What was he going to do with Agent Cole again? It took him a moment to remember. Yes, back to the base.

So hungry.

Starving.

What was he waiting for? For Joe Carter to return. But why? Why should he, Stetson, wait when he was so goddamn hungry...and where the hell was Carter anyway?

He snarled. He tried to stop himself. But his mouth had started to open and close, open and close, as if he were chewing on something. What was he waiting for? He slammed down his fist on the coffee table, breaking a leg, and causing it to lean down.

Maybe if I eat, I’ll be able to think better, Stetson reasoned. Yes. I have to eat.

His jaws opened and snapped shut.

What was he waiting for?

He couldn’t remember.

The last semi-coherent thought he had was to eat from a handful of people. Just a bite here and there. That way, the disease would spread faster and he could make new friends.

Stetson had no way of knowing that he didn’t have that much time left for sanity. So, he went out the sliding glass door and into the night to find food.

Living food.

* * *

The next morning, Agent Cole felt much better.

He could think clearly. He was now strong enough to wrestle his way out of his bonds. He was hungry, but he wanted to wait for Stetson to return before he made any move.

Cole had no way of knowing that Joe and Mike were coming for him with a plan to cure him. Joe and Mike had decided to be ready for anything, and packed heat accordingly. So, Cole was seated on the couch, flipping through the TV channels when they let themselves in, guns drawn.

Among other things, Cole was a trained killer, but Lieutenants Carter and Mendoza were aware of this. They had the element of surprise on their side. They moved quickly and aimed at Cole’s head.

“On your knees,” Mendoza ordered.

Cole complied. “Do you mind telling me what the hell you’re doing?”

As before, Joe and Mike had agreed to speak as little as possible.

“Yeah,” Joe answered. “We do mind. Where’s Stetson?”

“I don’t know,” Cole answered truthfully enough. “I was better this morning, but he wasn’t here. I had to free myself. I’ve been waiting for him, or for you, to come back.”

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