“Brice?” Jack called out. “Is that you?”
“Jack? Is that you?”
“It’s me.” Relieved, Jack lowered his weapon.
Brice poked his head out. When he saw Jack, his expression changed from one of fear to relief. “Sweet Mother of God, I’ve never been so happy to see someone in my entire life!” He hugged him like a long lost lover, causing Jack to flinch uncomfortably. “And Jared! Oh, Jared! Son, I thought you left with your parents.”
Jared looked surprised. “Where did they go?”
“I don’t know, kid. But I’d heard they left town. And not a minute too soon, either.”
The boy’s face fell. It broke Jack’s heart to share in the revelation Jared’s parents had indeed left him behind.
Pieces of shit, thought Jack, angrily.
Brice blinked as if expecting them to disappear. “Well, where the hell have you both been? It’s been a living nightmare around here. No one left but me. Me and those crazy fuckers.”
“I was just here a couple of days ago,” said Jack. “I can’t believe how quickly this place turned to hell.”
Brice motioned for us all to move back into the living room. He looked beat. He poured himself a cup of coffee while Jared locked the front door. Smart kid.
“Well, I suppose you know now,” said Brice, sitting in a recliner while holding his coffee. Jared and Jack sat in a couch across from him. “Ain’t nobody here to pick up the mess, let alone take care of the animals. They needed food, water, even though I couldn’t take care of them all. Mixing meat and supplements for the big cats takes hours. And the flamingos? Their diet is highly specialized, too. But I can’t just let them go.... Hell, man, their wings are clipped.”
“I see a lot of the grass–eating animals are gone,” Jack advised. “Luckily, this zoo doesn’t have a lot of big cats.”
Brice stared into his coffee. “Had to let ‘em go, a lot of the animals,” he said in a mournful tone. “Figured they’d have a better chance on their own in the hills around Los Feliz than penned up as prey.”
“And your wife?” I asked quietly.
“Sent her off to Arizona. Her sister lives there. I don’t know if it’s any better over there, but I had to do something to get her to safety. I just can’t leave the zoo... not yet. It would be cruel to the ones who depend on me for food and water. I hope Arizona will be safe for my wife. Phones are down. I haven’t got a clue if she even made it.”
Knowing the whole damn country was coming undone, Jared and Jack locked eyes, but kept quiet. Jack shook his head slightly, and the boy nodded imperceptibly. Brice needed something to hold on to—and that something was hope and his wife.
“Well, now that you’re here,” said Brice, changing the subject, “can you tell me somethin’ I don’t know? How in the hell did this happen? And what’s going on out there? I haven’t left the zoo in over a week.”
Jack hesitated. Brice was a good guy. He’d worked at the zoo with his wife for the last thirty-five years or so, after serving in Vietnam. Part of the reason Brice loved the zoo and the animals so much was that he’d been raised on a ranch. He’d expressed to Jack his dismay at watching the animals get killed, and he had vowed to work someday where animals were well taken care of, where they were more than just meat for mankind.
After massaging his eyes and releasing a low sigh, Jack looked into Brice’s eager, heartbroken eyes. Carefully considering how much to tell his old friend, he decided to limit the news to Los Angeles and his own family.
* * *
Brice listened intently to Jack’s account of what had befallen much of Los Angeles. And, who wouldn’t be fascinated by the beginning of the end? The chain of events that had taken place in such a short timespan was truly incredible. Hell, hearing it all over again, coming out of his own mouth, seemed surreal to Jack... completely unreal.
When Jack finished with the news about Anna, Brice made a few sympathetic noises. The old war vet wasn’t much on emotion, but Jack was touched by the pain on his face and knew his heart was breaking for him. Good man.
“But she’s safe now?” he asked, seeking assurance.
Jack nodded. “And resting. It’s partly why we’re here. It’s good to stay busy.”
“I understand, son.”
“Also, I’ve been worried about the animals, and you,” Jack continued. “I’m thankful we found you.”
“Likewise,” Brice stood and put a hand on his arm before returning to the kitchen for more coffee. Jack and Jared declined his offer to join him for a cup. When he returned he focused on Jared. “Sounds like you’ve been a real hero, too.”
Jared nodded but said nothing. Jack could tell he wanted to get back to Anna. Hell, Jack did, too. But it was good to find Brice. Good to see him alive and well and safe. At least for now.
“Why don’t you come back with us, Brice? You’ll be safe, and we can return here in teams to feed and care for the animals.”
“Thank you for the offer, bro,” he said. “I just... well, I just don’t know how to leave this place.”
“It’s not safe here,” Jared emphasized. “You should come with us.”
Brice thought a moment. “You’re right. It’s not safe anywhere, I guess. But there’s safety in numbers. Especially if you agree to my plan.”
“What would that be?” Jack smiled. Brice always had a plan for everything.
“You’ve got to help me free all the animals. And I mean all of them.”
“You can’t let...” Jack fumbled for words. “You’re not thinking of turning a rhino loose. Are you. Brice? You just can’t.”
“Well, how can I get mass quantities of food delivered and paid for and distributed to them? I don’t have the manpower, not even with you guys helping. And the elephants? Without their trainers, they are starting to dismantle their enclosure. It’s just a matter of time before they either escape, or die tryin’.”
“Elephants,” said Jack, chuckling at the thought of an annoyed bull charging through a horde of the undead...
* * *
Julie stayed as far away from the woman cop as she could, fearing her accusing stare. Cole was finishing binding both cops’ hands behind them.
Cole’s accomplice tried to stifle her tears. Never in a million years did Julie imagine she’d end up with someone like this. Or, in a situation like this. Bad enough the world had gone mad.