A LIVE EXCLUSIVE EXCERPT
ONE | Denial 101
It took ten minutes to figure out something was wrong. I should have fucking seen it. I should have been paying attention. I saw the look Clara was directing at us. I saw her get up and follow Alexis down the hallway. I just didn’t think that Clara would have the stones to pull off something like this. She was such a behind-the-scenes operator. She never got her hands dirty.
It took me by surprise and I don’t like surprises.
I just sat there waiting on an emotional high because of what we had accomplished today and what might happen tonight. No alarm bells, the hyper-awareness that I’m so proud of failed me. Of all the times, of all the situations!
Four tours, four official tours at least–don’t get me started on unofficial ones–and I didn’t sense the danger staring me right in the face. Danger from an enemy that I had brought to our gates. I had brought her in. I had given her a free pass.
Bubba was the one that alerted us, fucking Bubba was the only one paying attention. He came barreling through the front doors like an enraged bull. His hollering caused everyone to jump to their feet scared and on alert. The first thought in my mind was that we were under attack. He had been grabbing a smoke outside and saw the entire thing or at least the part where the SUV rammed the gates of our compound and headed off to God knows where.
“Who’s missing? I need a headcount now!” Zach yelled when Bubba ran in and reported the breach.
“I think it was Alexis who was driving, and she had someone else with her,” Bubba panted.
Everyone had been at the party except the four on guard duty and they all radioed in confirming they were still at their posts. It was obvious there were only two missing from the party as we milled around counting heads.
“Alexis and Clara,” Baby shouted after she had made a circuit around the room. I knew this, but the confirmation was crippling.
“Get a vehicle loaded up, Hannah, I want you and Romeo fully armed with us. Grab the spotlights,” I yelled. “Now!” I reiterated when she stalled and looked to Zach. Six months away and now she second guessed me, deferring to Zach, fuck.
“You can’t go out at night, Blake. You don’t know what you’ll find out there.” Grace Peters walked up to me.
I didn’t need arguments. I didn’t need resistance. I needed action. I said nothing to her and whatever was visible on my face had her stepping back and grabbing her husband by the arm as if to protect him. I wasn’t going to take her husband with me. I don’t know why she would even get involved in this situation.
I needed to find Alexis now. Day, night, nothing mattered but finding out what was going on. I needed to know why Alexis would have rammed the gates and taken off with Clara. Why would she have done that?
What would have made her do this? Did Clara threaten her with something or did she take Clara to get rid of her? I couldn’t believe either scenario.
“We have no other choice. It’s either now or we might as well write them both off as dead,” I said through clenched teeth when Cole Peters tried to take his wife’s side, arguing about the lack of visibility.
“Hannah, Romeo, you down?” I didn’t want to force anyone to go out at night, but I was going with or without them. Both of them nodded in the affirmative.
“Fall out, two minutes,” Zach called, and I rushed upstairs and quickly slipped on my arm guards, thick leather jacket, and random pieces of bite-proof armor. I armed myself quickly, slipping enough ammo and weapons to take down an army into my many pockets and holsters. I was back down in the cafeteria in less than 60 seconds and in under two minutes we were sliding into the SUV with Zach behind the wheel.
He stopped long enough to shout to Martinez, who was about to go on guard duty, “Get the gate fixed STAT!” Then he tore off, gravel shooting out from the tires as he raced to the bridge.
Zach followed the most logical path in a slow methodical pace. We drove up the main drag and Baby and I shined the spotlights on the marsh next to the road, looking for any sign of the missing SUV. We found nothing, nothing at all. When we hit Highway 90, we had two choices, left or right, to New Orleans or Mississippi. Which way would she have gone? Who was in control, Clara or Lex?
All these questions stormed around in my head, but it came down to one…who was in control?
It had to be Clara. Alexis wouldn’t have done this; Clara was the unstable element in this equation. It was the only logical conclusion. Her actions had been illogical and erratic for the past year and had only increased in oddness since we got to the compound. She claimed it was because of her pregnancy and the miscarriage, something about postpartum, a fact I doubted. I had begun to doubt the pregnancy altogether on the trip back from Houston. She would have said anything to get me to Texas. It took going out there, unfortunately, to realize this. The fact that she continued with her charade even after the infection happened showed how off-base she was. She would have done and said anything to get me to go to her and now that she didn’t get her way she was taking it out on Alexis, the easiest person to blame.
It rang true. My instincts never lied.
“Right,” I called to Zach. “She would have gone right.” She knew about the men we had tangled with earlier; it was the most convenient out for her. Blame them, play the victim, something she was really good at.
It took us ten minutes to find the SUV. It was crashed into a guard rail, the keys still in the ignition. I jumped out of the vehicle, gun drawn, but there was no sign of life. We were maybe twenty minutes behind them, but they were both gone. Hannah had the spotlight and was shining it on the ground around the SUV. The driver’s door was open, and there was glass all over the ground. I had Baby point the spotlight at the ground by my feet.
“Shit,” I cursed.
Scattered on the ground was glass from the passenger side window and I could see the unmistakable red tint of blood. I looked into the vehicle and saw a casing on the floor of the driver’s side. I picked it up. It looked like it was from a 9-millimeter round. It obviously discharged in the vehicle and blew out the driver side window. What was the blood from? The driver fell out of the car and bled onto the glass from a wound sustained by the shot fired? It wasn’t a lot of blood, the injury must not be that bad. It was hard to tell. Now the question was, who was driving? Who fired the weapon? Who was hit?
Bubba had said he thought it was Alexis driving.
“Blake, look at this,” Zach said from the passenger seat. I went around to his side and immediately noticed the dark wet stain on the cloth seats. The seats were a dark gray, so on first glance it could be anything, water, piss…I ran my finger through it and it came back red.
“That’s a lot of fucking blood,” I said. The seat was saturated. It was a lot more blood than what was outside mixed in with the glass.
“The shot came from the passenger seat, but it looks like the passenger sustained the most damage.”
“Got something out here,” Baby called, her light pointed at the road. I quickly walked from around the vehicle to the middle of the highway. There was more blood and Alexis’s knife, coated in blood, was just lying there on the asphalt. There was a piece of material on the ground. I recognized it immediately as coming from her shirt.
“There are tire tracks over here,” Romeo called. He had been scanning the area with the other spotlight. “It looks like they turned around and headed east.”
“Shit, what the-” Romeo yelled, and his light clattered to the ground.
I holstered my gun and withdrew my machete from the homemade case I had rigged at my hip and rushed to Romeo’s side. There were three Z’s coming at us. One was on him, yanking at his thick clothing. I dispatched the first one, the one closest to me; it was a male, and it only took one slice to cut in deep enough to take him out. The blade went in cleanly and I yanked it out without any resistance, wiping the blood off on my jeans.
I turned and saw Baby had her spotlight up and was shining it on the area surrounding us. Romeo had taken out the other two.
“Are any of them her?” Zach called, desperation evident in his voice.
That idea hadn’t even crossed my mind. But now, after Zach voiced it, the thought overtook me, my breath hitched in my chest, panic flooded my system. Was this what a panic attack felt like? I shined my light on the three dead Z’s that lay at my feet. They weren’t fresh. Their flesh was decomposed so badly that they were hardly recognizable as human. Their eye sockets were gaping holes; their lips were eaten away and their noses were only a fleshy mound of cartilage. She wasn’t one of them.
“She’s not one of them.” I put a hand reassuringly on Zach’s shoulder as he walked up to me. He was shaking. I could feel the trembling through my gloved hand. I had served two tours with Zach and I’d never seen him break a sweat, much less physically react to a situation. Zach was always cool and collected, an ice man compared to me and the other Raiders. I had felt like some emo douche next to him, all fucked up over Clara and her bullshit, and now with Alexis and this stupid crap between us. My off-the-cuff emotions were always getting me in a bind. Zach had been the voice of logic and reason, and now he was about to tumble over the edge. It was sobering.
“What the fuck did that bitch do to her?” His voice was tight, and it came out in a growl.
“We don’t know if this was Clara,” I said. I was used to defending her. It was second nature even though I knew it had to be her. She had to be behind this.
“You’re a fucking idiot.” He turned to face me and there was pure hatred in his eyes, so much so that I stepped back. I didn’t want to see that hate directed at me. This was Zach. The same Zach who had my back for the last eight years that we had known each other, who always set my ass straight without so much as a raised voice.
“You’re right.” I held up my hands in a “we come in peace” gesture to placate him. His hands were clenched in fists like he wanted to hit something and I didn’t want that something to be me. “It had to be Clara. She must have forced Lex out here, but someone else got them…” I backpedaled, not enjoying having to back down, but I couldn’t make excuses for Clara anymore. My instincts told me she masterminded this. I didn’t like admitting to Zach that my ex was responsible for it though. This was a person that I had brought into our sanctuary. This was all my fault.
I did this.
I fucked up again and Lex was probably going to die because of my stupidity.
The feeling was too much. I squeezed my eyes shut and turned around, slamming my fist into the side of the wrecked SUV. The pain in my fist shot sweet clarity through me. She couldn’t die. I wouldn’t let her die.
“You think someone else found them, maybe heard the gunshot?” Baby said, her voice calm and level-headed compared to my chaotic insanity.
“It had to be unless Clara had some arrangement with another group. Did you come across any other people on your way here? She hasn’t left the compound since she got here, right?” Romeo asked me. I could tell by his calm tone that he was trying to talk me down. I rubbed at my face trying to think. She hadn’t left the compound since we got here. She had been so lazy since we arrived, not doing anything that required manual labor, no supply runs, no clean-up, nothing. I should hate the bitch.
“No, the only other group we came into contact with I took care of. The others we brought along,” I said, surprised at how calm my voice was.
“It could be those men from earlier; maybe they were scouting the area trying to locate our compound. They had to know we were in this part of the parish,” Zach said. He crouched down next to the tire tracks and ran his fingers through the disturbed mud.
“They’re the only ones in the area that we know of beside the family in Venetian Isles,” Romeo added. “It’s a logical place to start.”
“We’ll send someone over to Venetian Isles first thing. We need to ask those people if they’ve noticed anything strange lately or any movement. We need to get a line on this group near Pearl River. If it is them; if they’re the people that took Alexis, I’m going to kill them,” Zach stated calmly.
“Oorah,” I said in agreement.
“Then I’m going to kill Clara.” Zach declared as he caught my eye and didn’t blink. My whole body clenched in denial at his statement. He was talking about a woman I had married, a woman I had known since high school, someone I thought I loved, a non-combatant female to put it simply. No matter what she had done, I couldn’t just sit back and accept his cold declaration. I had no issues with killing the enemy, predators, criminals, especially ones that preyed on the weak. I had even taken down women in the sandbox. They weren’t my proudest moments though. Those had plagued me more than the rest, even though they had been trying to kill our men. They always came in with bombs strapped to their chests on a suicide mission–chaos and death the goal. Those were few and far between, but it didn’t matter. They were still female. I had still taken their lives no matter what the intentions were. I wasn’t programmed to hurt women, regardless of the circumstances behind their actions. I couldn’t let Zach kill Clara, no matter what her intentions were. Yes, if she came at him with a gun, but not in cold-blooded revenge.
But from what I could tell, her intentions had been to take out Alexis, to either force her from the Compound, forced exile or to bring her out here to kill her. It was the only thing that made sense. For Lex to drive out here, to break down the gates, Clara must have had her at gunpoint or was threatening her with something. God only knew what. All I knew was that Clara had stepped over the line. She had tried to hurt Lex. Clara, my ex, the one I had left Alexis for, the one I had brought into our Compound. The one I had ignored and figured would get the picture. She had attacked Alexis. Alexis, the woman I loved, the woman I wanted to be with, the only thing that had brought me joy in this fucked up world. We couldn’t prosecute Clara. There were no cops, no jails. Killing her would be an eye for an eye, apocalypse justice, but I couldn’t let that happen without some explanation for her actions. There could be something we were missing. We had to implement some kind of order, if not we were no better than the men we pursued. I didn’t want to argue with Zach right now, but I knew if I gave him time, he might rethink his position. So I just held his gaze and stated plainly, “We’ll find them and then we’ll take care of business.”
We would and there was no question about that. There was no way we had come this far to have it end like this.
TWO | Self-Control is for Pussies
The humming in my ears, the thick thrumming of my own blood pumping through my veins had finally settled. I had paced the scene for the last hour, trying to figure out what the fuck was going on. I had finally centered myself and figured we had gathered as much information from the scene as was possible at this late hour and couldn’t go any further.
Getting behind the wheel of the busted SUV and driving it back to the Compound was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do. It was like giving up on Alexis. I wanted to keep going; I wanted to find whoever took Alexis and I wanted to eviscerate them. I wanted to rip out their fucking intestines and feed their shit-packed guts back to them, but I knew there was nothing we could do in this oppressive darkness. The roads were pitch black. Even PreZ, this area of the state had been dark and hard to access. Now without the lights of New Orleans giving us reference, we might as well be in outer space. There was no point of reference, no way of telling how far we had come or how far we had to go. We wouldn’t be able to spot any Z activity or any of the living, even with the assistance of the lights of the vehicles. Unless they put up a big neon sign that said “we are here,” we were out of luck.
The moon was in its last quarter, barely giving off any light, allowing millions of stars to show in the night sky. I made a mental note to get my hands on astronomy texts. In this new world, knowing how to pinpoint your location using constellations would be vital, kicking it real old school. I should have done that when the shit first hit, but there was no use dwelling on it, hindsight, and all that shit.
I didn’t want to study the stars though. I wanted to beat someone’s face in. I wanted to get my hands around Clara’s neck and fucking squeeze the life out of her. I didn’t want to think about the fact that those rednecks might have Alexis and were doing God knows what to her.
“Fuck!” I punched the windshield, a large crack spider webbing across its face. My knuckles stung, and when I glanced down at them, I saw that they were bleeding. I gripped the steering wheel tightly. The pain felt good.
“Can you see through that?” Blake asked calmly. I don’t know how he could deal with this shit. He was acting all laid back, like this was just some normal night, some normal patrol. He had broken down after I had called out Clara and threatened her life. Yeah, that got him all hot in the ass, but now he was all cool and calm…and he claimed he loved Lex, fucking bastard.
I picked up the shotgun next to me and smashed the rest of the windshield out. The destruction and the sound of breaking glass felt good.
“Now I can.” I put the SUV into gear and did a quick turn heading back to the compound.
“We’ll find her,” Blake said quietly.
“This is all your fucking fault!” I yelled, unable to hold it in anymore. I knew it was unfair the moment it was out of my mouth, but I had to blame someone and Blake was convenient. I looked over and he was looking down at the Glock he had in his hand. He wouldn’t look at me.
“It is. I shouldn’t have left in the first place. I know that shit, but I couldn’t–I just couldn’t…and I think the people I picked up are good people. We’ve become close, almost family. I didn’t realize Clara was this fucked up. I should have realized it, but I didn’t. I regret not being more aware of what she was doing. I’ll take the blame for that, Zach. Let me have it. I thought if I ignored her she would move on. I would never have thought she would do this though.” He still wouldn’t look up from his piece.
“Crazy bitch,” I muttered. But I got it. I should have known there was a threat within our walls. I should have seen that Clara was unstable. But Blake should have known that Clara would take crazy to a whole new level. Why didn’t he see it? Why didn’t we both see it?
“Who do you think grabbed them?” he asked.
“My bets are on the Pearl River group, those fucking rednecks. They had to be scouting the area, looking for movement, any sign of our base. The gunshot and the sound of the crash must have led them right to the women.”
“Yeah, there is no one else in the area, it’s gotta be them,” he agreed.
“I don’t know what their intentions are, hold them for ransom, or maybe for their own uses. It’s driving me crazy. All I know is someone took her. She wouldn’t have left on her own.”
“Well, whoever took her, it’s going to be the last thing they do,” Blake growled, finally showing some emotion.
“They have no idea what they’ve started,” I said under my breath.
“It’s been awhile since we kicked in doors together, brother.” Blake finally looked at me and I recognized that look. I hadn’t seen it in a long time. It was hungry, not for food, or sex, or even power, but blood.
“I have a feeling this time it’s gonna be a lot more satisfying,” I laughed and knew I was sporting the same look.
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