He jumped up, strode to her side and gunned down seven of them. But the gun pops and screams brought more zombies in, pouring into the room from two different directions. He grabbed her by the waist and forced her to the floor while taking out a dozen more. Halfway through the massacre, the magazine emptied. He loaded another and finished the job.
Echoes from the gunshots reverberated in their ringing ears when the battle ended. The place was a mess; walls splattered with fresh blood and bone. The metallic stench of infected hemoglobin sickened them both. He reached down and took her shaking hand, helped her to stand.
“Don’t look,” he told her. He gave her a moment.
Cole knew the gunfire would draw more crazies, which is how he preferred to refer to the infected. After all, zombies were the stuff of fantasy... and these critters were definitely real.
“Listen,” he said, “I don’t know you and you don’t know me. But this place isn’t safe. I’m leaving. Now. You can come with me if you want. But before you do, you should know I have some unpleasant business to take care of.”
The woman’s face was stone. “What kind of business?” she finally asked.
“I’m not going to lie to you. I’m at war with these creatures. They make me sick. I’m going to fight them. And fight them hard. Not just defense. Offense.”
She took in his deadly glare and stepped back. Cole knew she was weighing her options. “I can keep you safer than most people on the planet. But like I said, if you come with me, you’re with me. No matter what.”
“Sounds like you’ve got more than killing them in mind,” she said.
“I do. I have other scores to settle, too.”
“What are they?”
“Nothing for you to worry about.”
“If I’m coming with you, I could stand and fight. You could teach me. But I want to know what I’m getting myself into before I say yes.”
The agent in black, like the Devil himself, liked to mix the truth with lies. “Let’s just say I’m going to take care of the men who started this whole thing.”
She searched Cole’s eyes; he met her gaze, unflinchingly. She shrugged her shoulders and picked up the empty weapon, mimicking how he holstered the other one. “Count me in.”
* * *
Her name was Julie.
As Cole drove, he massaged her with questions. Julie’s home was in Seal Beach, not far from the base. She and her husband—who was now missing and, she presumed, dead—had raised their only son there, and lived there for thirty years. Her son was back east now, in college.
About a week ago, Julie’s husband had been mugged. Or that’s what she’d thought at the time. A wave of these attacks had come over their quiet beach neighborhood, and then people started getting sick. Her husband included. He’d become so irrational that she’d had to leave. She had gone to a friend’s, but the house was empty.
More and more became sick, and Julie was frightened. People were roaming the streets in a daze, incoherent and unaware of their surroundings. Reluctantly, she returned home, only to find her husband missing. She waited for him until someone tried to break in. By then, she had become so frightened that she took off running.
Cole listened to her story. He wondered how many more communities were like this. He’d expected the worst. And was finding it.
“What about you?” Julie asked him. “Are you going to tell me where we’re going and what we’re doing?”
He gave her a sidelong glance. “Are you sure you want to know? Be careful what you wish for.”
“Well, you saved my life, you’re taking me with you, and I agreed to stay with you and fight. I will, but I do want to know. Who are you going to war with?” Julie had caught a glimpse of the multitude of weapons under the tarp in back. But that was after she’d given her word to stay with him. Perhaps she might have thought twice if she’d known the truth about his mission.
Cole gave Julie a limited version of all that had taken place. He explained how two sailors had contracted the infection. He explained that they had tried to kill him. He also proclaimed himself as one of the highest-ranking military officials in the country and an expert in these affairs.
Her eyebrows went up, both impressed and suspicious.
Cole told her the two sailors were with a dangerous group of people, and that Cole had to take care of them before he could start setting other matters right. He also explained the infection was spreading all over the world. Nothing would ever be the same. But Cole also assured her that he knew how to survive under the most trying conditions. He wanted Julie to feel safe with him. For the time being, at least.
He didn’t tell her he was taking her far up into the hills of Los Feliz or that they’d be alone to defend themselves, exposed to the elements. And he didn’t tell her of his newly formed plan for the girl, Anna.
Julie had been traumatized. Cole knew she was in a particularly vulnerable state of mind, and would cling to him for protection. He could have told her almost anything right now, and she would have believed him.
At present, both wore blood-spattered clothing. Julie didn’t seem to notice or care. But her sun dress and sandals wouldn’t do for hillside hiking. Cole exited the freeway and headed for a sporting goods store. As he pulled into the parking lot, he was relieved to see it was closed and locked up.
“Come on,” he said.
Once he kicked in the front door and they were inside, he advised her on what to procure. “Get the best walking shoes and hiking boots. Layered tops. Get a warm jacket.”
She didn’t ask questions. Surely she would look at this as stealing, but he knew in time she would adjust. While he waited for her, he picked up a few things, too. Hats, sunglasses, a lightweight torch, and an extra pair of hiking boots for himself.
* * *
A few hours later, after he and Julie had parked in what seemed like a secure spot near the observatory, he covered the SUV with branches and they made their way up the hillside to get closer to the main building. Julie did as she was told, which was what he had hoped. Darkness approached, and in the cool evening breeze she donned her jacket. A campfire would be tempting, but too risky. She understood, and the small lightweight tent provided protection from the elements, and once Cole made sure it blended into the hillside, they settled in for the night.
Once Julie was comfortable and at peace, Cole staked out a spot behind some nearby brush. The perfect vantage point where he could clearly see the building housing his prey. He put on the night vision goggles and waited.