“Lie down now,” Mike told him.

“Look,” Cole said as he did as he was told. He could fight, but so could these two. And both had guns trained on him. “What are you doing? We had a plan.”

Joe kept his gun on Cole as Mike scouted out the small cottage. He soon returned. “Stetson’s gone.”

“I told you he was gone,” Cole snapped.

Mike looked at Joe, silently questioning. Joe shrugged and nodded. Cole was starting to get a bad feeling about this. He barely had time to register that neither man had any red in their eyes whatsoever when Joe Carter ordered him to put his head down.

Immediately, Cole felt Carter’s heavy boot on his neck. At the same time, Mendoza yanked one of Cole’s hands into a hand-cuff, then the other. As soon as he was cuffed from behind, a blindfold was tied around his eyes.

Cole knew he was in trouble now. He didn’t know what would happen next. His fear showed. Now, he knew how it felt to be on the other side, all the people he’d interrogated through his many years as head of the CREW. Even his new strength couldn’t get him out of those cuffs—and now, he couldn’t see, either.

“Get up, slowly,” Mendoza ordered.

Cole felt the cold barrel of a gun at the back of his head. He rose carefully. “What...look, when we get back to the base, I’ll promote the both of you. We can work together...just let me go...”

“Shut up.” That was Joe Carter, from behind.

Mendoza pushed him from the other side. “Move.”

They shoved him through the hallway and into the bathroom. Cole had no idea what was coming, so it was fairly easy for former Lieutenant Commanders Joe Carter and Mike Mendoza to shove his face into the toilet and start flushing.

Chapter Twenty-two

I had to work early—the morning shift—while Joe and Mike drove down to Seal Beach. Carla had a later shift, so I left her sleeping and wrote a note to have Anna call me. I didn’t like leaving like this, but I absolutely had to get to work. I didn’t want to attract attention with my prolonged absence, and I needed contact with others. Information.

When I got to the zoo, Brice was waiting for me. “Jack! Where on Earth have you been?”

“I’m so sorry, Brice,” I said. “We had a real family emergency. I’m sorry I didn’t call.” It was the truth.

We strolled up the northern road where the zebras, elephants and other African animals made their homes. “It’s all right, I guess,” Brice said, “You never take time off. But I was worried about you. I called, you didn’t answer. Want to talk about it?”

“I’d rather talk about anything else,” I answered. Understatement of the year. “Maybe some other time.”

“You got it.”

“So, anything interesting happen while I was out?” I asked.

“You really have been out of touch.” Brice frowned at me. “Haven’t you been watching the news at all?”

“I really haven’t had time,” I answered. “Why, what’s up?”

Brice’s voice took on a serious tone that I seldom heard. “Slaughters,” he said. “As of this morning, twelve.”

“What do you mean, slaughters?”

“I mean someone, or maybe a group, has broken into the zoo the last couple of days and slaughtered our animals.”

I stopped in my tracks. Jesus and Mother Mary. Brice kept his pace so I hurried after him. “What? How?”

“Whoever they were, they were sneaky. Most of them. Police caught one, and he was described as completely deranged. Unable to speak, extremely violent. They shot him—had to—several times, I hear.”

I had to hold onto a hand rail. It’s spreading. They’re feeding on animals and then they’ll get humans. Mike. He’d admitted to biting someone up in Griffith Park. Suddenly, I remembered a TV commercial that said, “And they’ll tell two friends, and they’ll tell two friends...” I suddenly understood the magnitude of how this disease could spread.

“I didn’t mean to spring it on you like that, bud,” Brice was saying. “I know how you love the animals. We all do. Everyone is just sick about it.”

“What...which ones?” I asked, still holding on to the rail. Anna. She would be heartbroken.

“Well, at first, the farm animals, it seemed. The petting zoo was hit the hardest, a few nights ago. Goats, lambs, a couple of llamas. But then last night, things escalated past the barnyard animals. A zebra was—ripped apart. And then a couple of koalas. All of them had their brains torn out...gone. Don’t know how the bastards got in. News says there’s some sort of infection spreading, and everybody should stay in at night and lock their doors. Call the police if they see anything suspicious at all. Because...”

I was already wondering what Carla would learn when she got to work. “Because what?”

“Because, a few people have been attacked, too.”

* * *

I was still trying to process all of what Brice had told me. I was just about finished with my rounds at the zoo. I’d seen some tracks the police hadn’t found, and called them in to Brice. Then Carla called me.

“Hey,” I said from my truck, exhausted. I was gulping down my second cup of coffee, preparing for my rounds at the observatory.

“Jack!” Carla’s voice was urgent.

“If you’re calling to tell me about the animal attacks, I already know.”

“Okay, what do you know?” she asked. I could tell she was in a hurry.

I explained everything Brice had told me.

“So, you know what the media has officially let out,” she said. “Jack, there’s more. Much more.”

I sighed. Of course there was much more. “Tell me,” I said simply.

“Jack...besides the zoo animals, there have been at least two dozen murders. All of the victims had their skulls bashed in and their brains consumed. Or missing.”

“Jesus.”

“And two of our officers were outnumbered and attacked. Bitten. They said they fired several times, but the perpetrators didn’t stop until they were shot in the head.”

I rubbed my temples with one hand, and felt for my gun with the other. I locked the truck’s cab doors. It got worse.

“They’ve been treated at the local hospital and released.”

I paused. “Carla, you know what this means.”

“I know. But I can’t say anything, Jack. I can’t say anything that would compromise you and your brother. Anna. Even Jared.”

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