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The Twelve

The Twelve

Page 16

For the love of God, Kittridge thought. How in the hell had he ended up in a school bus?

"Uh-oh," said Danny.

Kittridge sat up straight. A long line of abandoned vehicles, stretching to the horizon, stood in their path. Some of the cars were lying upside down or on their sides. Bodies were scattered everywhere.

Danny stopped the bus. April and Tim were awake now as well, gazing out the windshield.

"April, get him out of here," Kittridge directed. "Both of you to the back, now."

"What do you want me to do?" Danny asked.

"Wait here."

Kittridge stepped down from the bus. Flies were buzzing in vast black swarms; there was an overwhelming odor of rotten flesh. The air was absolutely still, as if it couldn't bring itself to move. The only signs of life were the birds, vultures and crows, circling overhead. Kittridge moved up the line of cars. Virals had done this, there was no mistaking it; there must have been hundreds of them, thousands even. What did it mean? And why were the cars all together like this, as if they'd been forced to stop?

Suddenly Danny was beside him.

"I thought I told you to wait with the others."

The man was squinting into the sunlight. "Wait." He held up a hand, then said, "I hear something."

Kittridge listened. Nothing at all, just the creak of the crickets in the empty fields. Then it came: a muffled pounding, like fists on metal.

Danny pointed. "It's coming from over there."

The sound became more distinct with each step. Somebody was alive out there, trapped inside the wreckage. Gradually its components began to separate, the pounding underscored by a strangled echo of human voices. Let us out! Is somebody out there? Please!

"Hello!" Kittridge called. "Can you hear me?"

Who's out there? Help us, please! Hurry, we're cooking to death!

The sound was coming from a semitrailer with the bright yellow FEMA insignia printed on its sides. The pounding was frantic now, the voices a shrill chorus of indistinguishable words.

"Hang on!" Kittridge yelled. "We'll get you out!"

The door had been knocked kitty-corner in its frame. Kittridge looked around for something to use as a lever, found a tire iron, and wedged the blade under the door.

"Danny, help me."

The door refused them at first; then it began, almost imperceptibly, to move. As the gap increased, a line of fingers appeared beneath the lip, attempting to draw it upward.

"Everybody, on three," Kittridge commanded.

With a screech of metal, the door ascended.

They were from Fort Collins: a couple in their thirties, Joe and Linda Robinson, the two of them still dressed for a day at the office, with a young baby they called Boy Jr.; a heavyset black man in a security guard's uniform, named Wood, and his girlfriend, Delores, a pediatric nurse who spoke with a thick West Indian accent; an elderly woman, Mrs. Bellamy-Kittridge was never to learn her first name-with a nimbus of blue-rinsed hair and an enormous white purse that she kept clutched to her side; a young man, maybe twenty-five, named Jamal, with a tight fade haircut and brightly colored tattoos winding up and down his bare arms. The last was a man in his fifties with the coarse gray hair and barrel-shaped torso of an aging athlete; he introduced himself as Pastor Don. Not an actual pastor, he explained; by trade, a CPA. The nickname was a leftover from his days coaching Pop Warner football.

"I always told them to pray we didn't get our asses kicked," he told Kittridge.

Though Kittridge had initially assumed they'd traveled together, they had wound up with one another by accident. All told versions of the same story. They'd fled the city only to be stopped by a long line of traffic at the Nebraska border. Word passed down from car to car that there was an Army roadblock ahead, that nobody was being let through. The Army was waiting for word to let people pass. For a whole day they'd sat there. As the light had ebbed, people had begun to panic. Everyone was saying the virals were coming; they were being left to die.

Which was, more or less, what happened.

They arrived just after sunset, Pastor Don said. Somewhere ahead in the line, screaming, gunshots, and the sound of crunching metal; people began to tear past him. But there was nowhere to run. Within seconds, the virals were upon them, hundreds blasting out of the fields, tearing into the crowd.

"I ran like hell, just like everybody else," Pastor Don said.

He and Kittridge had stepped away to confer; the others were sitting on the ground by the bus. April was passing out bottles of water they'd collected at the stadium. Pastor Don removed a box of Marlboro Reds from his shirt pocket and shook two loose. Kittridge hadn't smoked since his early twenties, but what could it hurt now? He accepted a light and took a cautious drag, the nicotine hitting his system instantly.

"I can't even describe it," Don said, ejecting a plume of smoke. "Those goddamn things were everywhere. I saw the truck and decided it was better than nothing. The others were already inside. How the door got jammed I don't know."

"Why wouldn't the Army let you through?"

Don shrugged philosophically. "You know how these things work. Probably somebody forgot to file the right form." He squinted at Kittridge through a trail of smoke. "So what about you, you got anybody?"

He meant did Kittridge have a family, somebody he had lost or was looking for. Kittridge shook his head.

"My son's in Seattle, a plastic surgeon. The whole package. Married his college sweetheart, two kids, a boy and a girl. Big house on the water. They just redid the kitchen." He shook his head wistfully. "The last time we spoke, that's what we talked about. A f**king kitchen."

Pastor Don was carrying a rifle, a .30-.06 with three rounds remaining. Wood was carrying an empty .38. Joe Robinson had a .22 pistol with four cartridges-good for killing a squirrel, maybe, but that was about all.

Don glanced toward the bus. "And the driver? What's his story?"

"A little off, maybe. I wouldn't try to touch him-he'll just about have a seizure. Otherwise he's okay. He treats that bus like it's the Queen Mary."

"And the other two?"

"They were hiding in their parents' basement. I found them wandering around the parking lot at Mile High."

Don took a last, hungry drag and crushed the butt underfoot. "Mile High," he repeated. "I'm guessing that was nothing nice."

There was no way around the wreckage; they would have to backtrack and find another route. They scavenged what supplies they could find-more bottles of water, a couple of working flashlights and a propane lantern, an assortment of tools, and a length of rope that had no obvious use but might find some purpose later on-and boarded the bus.

As Kittridge mounted the bottom step, Pastor Don touched him on the elbow. "Maybe you should say something."

Kittridge looked at him. "Me?"

"Somebody has to be in charge. And it's your bus."

"Not really. Technically, it's Danny's."

Pastor Don met Kittridge's eye. "That's not what I mean. These people are worn out and frightened. They need somebody like you."

"You don't even know me."

He gave a cagey smile. "Oh, I know you better than you think I do. I was in the reserves myself, way back when. Just doing the quartermaster's books, but you learn to read the signs. I'm guessing ex-Special Forces. Rangers, maybe?" When Kittridge said nothing, Pastor Don shrugged. "Well, that's your business. But you obviously know what the hell you're doing better than anyone else around here. This is your show, my friend, like it or not. My guess is, they're waiting to hear from you."

It was true, and Kittridge knew it. Standing in the aisle, he surveyed the group. The Robinsons were seated up front, Linda holding Boy Jr. on her lap; directly behind them was Jamal, sitting alone; then Wood and Delores. Don took the bench across the aisle. Mrs. Bellamy sat at the rear, clutching her big white purse with both hands, like a retiree on a casino junket. April was sitting with her brother on the driver's side, behind Danny. Her eyes widened as their glances met. What now? they said.

Kittridge cleared his throat. "Okay, everybody. I know you're scared. I'm scared, too. But we're going to get you out of here. I don't know just where we're going, but if we keep heading east, sooner or later we're going to find safety."

"What about the Army?" Jamal said. "Those a**holes left us here."

"We don't really know what happened. But to be on the safe side, we're going to keep on back roads as far as we can."

"My mother lives in Kearney." This was Linda Robinson. "That's where we were headed."

"Jesus, lady." Jamal scoffed. "I told you, Kearney's just like Fort Collins. They said so on the radio."

In every group, Kittridge thought, there was always one. This was all he needed.

Linda's husband, Joe, twisted in his seat. "Close your mouth for once, why don't you?"

"I hate to break it to you, but her mother's probably hanging from the ceiling right now, eating the dog."

Suddenly everybody was speaking at once. Two days in the truck, Kittridge thought. Of course they'd be at one another's throats.

"Please, everybody-"

"And just who put you in charge?" Jamal jabbed a finger at Kittridge. "Just because you're all, like, strapped and shit."

"I agree," said Wood. It was the first time Kittridge had heard the man's voice. "I think we should take a vote."

"Vote on what?" Jamal said.

Wood gave him a hard look. "For starters, whether or not we should throw you off this bus."

"Fuck you, Rent-a-Cop."

In a flash, Wood was up. Before Kittridge could react, the man gripped Jamal in a headlock; in a flurry of arms and legs, they went tumbling over the bench. Everyone was shouting. Linda, clutching the baby, was trying to scamper away. Joe Robinson had joined in the fray, attempting to grip Jamal around the legs.

A gunshot slapped the air; everyone froze. All eyes swiveled to the rear of the bus, where Mrs. Bellamy was pointing an enormous pistol at the ceiling.

"Lady," Jamal spat, "what the f**k."

"Young man, I think I speak for everyone when I say I'm tired of your crap. You're just as afraid as the rest of us. You owe an apology to these people."

It was completely surreal, Kittridge thought. Part of him was horrified; another part wanted to laugh.

"Okay, okay," Jamal sputtered. "Just put that cannon away."

"I think you can do better than that."

"I'm sorry, okay? Quit waving that thing around."

She thought a moment, then lowered the pistol. "I suppose that will have to do. Now, I do like the idea of a vote. This nice man in the front-I'm sorry, my hearing isn't what it used to be-what did you say your name was?"

"Kittridge."

"Mr. Kittridge. He seems perfectly capable to me. I say all in favor of his running things, let's see a show of hands."

Every hand went up except Jamal's.

"It would be nice if it could be unanimous, young man."

His face was burning with humiliation. "Christ, you old bag. What else do you want from me?"

"Forty years of teaching public school, believe me, I've dealt with more than my share of boys like you. Now, go on. You'll see how much better you feel."

With a look of defeat, Jamal raised his hand.

"That's better." She directed her attention at Kittridge again. "We can go now, Mr. Kittridge."

Kittridge glanced at Pastor Don, who was trying not to laugh.

"Okay, Danny," Kittridge said. "Let's turn this thing around and find a way out of here."

Chapter 12

They'd lost him. How the good Christ had they lost him?

Last they knew, Grey had been driving into Denver. He'd dropped off the screen at that point-the Denver network was a mess-but a day later they'd picked up his signature from a Verizon tower in Aurora. Guilder had asked for another drone to sweep the area, but they'd found nothing; and if Grey had gotten off the interstates, as now seemed likely, and headed into the sparsely populated eastern half of the state, he could travel for miles without leaving a mark.

And no sign at all of the girl. For all intents and purposes, she'd been swallowed by the continent.

With little to do but wait for news from Nelson, Guilder had plenty of time to ponder Grey's file, including the psychiatric workup from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. He wondered what Richards had been thinking, hiring men like this. Human disposables-although that was, Guilder supposed, the point; like the original twelve test subjects, Babcock and Sosa and Morrison and all the creepy rest, the sweeps were no one anybody was ever going to miss.

To wit: Lawrence Alden Grey, born 1970, McAllen, Texas. Mother a homemaker, father a mechanic, both deceased. The father had served three tours in Vietnam as an Army medic, honorably discharged with a bronze star and a purple heart, but it had done the guy in anyway. He'd shot himself in the cab of his truck, leaving Grey, just six years old, to find him. A series of common-law stepfathers followed, one drunk after another by the looks of it, a history of abuse, etc.; by the time Grey was eighteen, he was on his own, working as a roughneck in the oil fields near Odessa, then on rigs in the Gulf. He'd never married, though that was no big shocker; his psychiatric profile was a bag of problems, everything from OCD to depression to traumatic disassociation. In the shrink's opinion, the guy was basically heterosexual, but with so many hang-ups it didn't even figure; the boys had been Grey's way of reliving his own childhood abuse, which his conscious mind had repressed. He'd been arrested twice, the first time for exposure, which he'd pled down to a misdemeanor, the second for aggravated sexual assault. Basically, he'd touched the kid-not exactly a hanging offense, but nothing nice, either. With the first conviction on his sheet the judge had sentenced him to the max, eighteen to twenty-four years, but nobody did the full bid anymore, and he'd been paroled after ninety-seven months.

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