Authors: Jacqueline Druga
Book Two: Last Days Trilogy
Last Days Trilogy
Last Days, Exodus, Purge
By Jacqueline Druga
Copyright 2016 by Jacqueline Druga
Original Copyright 2003, (Shroud – Final Battle)
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to any person or persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
Thank you so very much to Kira and Shona for all your help with this series.
A special thank you to John P. Rutledge, Michael J. Vaughn and Dead End Street LLC for their extensive editing of the original book. And to DES for giving it its first chance.
Cover art created by Christian Bentulan
http://www.coversbychristian.comIntroductionWesting Biogenetic Institute - Chicago, Illinois
It was a nightmare. The only problem was, Marcus Leon was not sleeping. It wasn’t for lack of trying. He would doze off for spurts of time, nothing deep or long enough to actually be called sleeping. How could he? He had the weight of the world on his shoulders and the weight of the building teetering over his head.
The world went crazy. Not as if it weren’t crazy already, but a simple scientific experiment. One Marcus deemed as no more than an experiment became the focus of the world.
Even with his Christian upbringing, ninety percent of Marcus believed the image on the Shroud of Turin wasn’t really Christ. Christianity’s Savior, but a lot of people did. He still wasn’t convinced the image was Christianity’s Savior, but people did. Especially when the clone not only looked like what history depicted Christ to look like, he grew at an astronomical rate and against every scientific explanation.
Whether or not the image on the Shroud was indeed, Christ, the clone was not. He was an imposter, an evil entity who had waited for an opportunity, a vessel, and the body of the clone was a perfect shell for him to slip inside.
Unfortunately, not many saw the ‘bad’ in the clone, like Marcus. They were deceived by him. Marcus was not and made the vow to destroy the clone. He had the means. There was a control in the clone’s DNA and a simple injection would initiate that control and the clone would die.
That was Marcus’ plan. He had every intention of doing so until the explosion destroyed the Westing building and he and Reggie were trapped beneath the rubble.
They had only a few minutes warning and were able to gather some supplies and make their way to the escape route. They were so close to getting out and then boom.
Reggie didn’t project that she was scared, but Marcus, having known her his whole life, knew she was. When Reggie joked, Reggie was frightened. Right there and then, though, Reggie slept. Her head nestled on Marcus’ lap as he sat with his back against a wall. Her last words before she fell asleep were wise crack. They had tried and failed at an attempt to dig out. After some rest, they’d try again.
Marcus wanted to rest, but not only did his mind spin, he was uncomfortable. To his right was a duffle bag, Reggie’s purse and a briefcase. The blanket they had grabbed when they ran out of the apartment covered Reggie. He thought, perhaps if he built an arm rest he could lean on it. Pulling the duffle closer, he propped it next to him, then on top of that the briefcase and then Reggie’s purse. It ended up being the perfect height, until Marcus leaned on it and Reggie’s purse fell. When it did the contents spilled.
“God, Reg, what all is in this purse,” he said.
Marcus had to reach to clean up the mess. Reggie groaned as if she were complaining.
It was quite a reach to get all the items. Gum, her wallet … make up? He couldn’t even recall Reggie ever wearing makeup.
His fingers grasped on to the expensive smart phone he had bought her for Christmas. The screen was busted and the phone was dark. His own phone had died as well. Just as he had all the items almost back in her purse, he saw it.
“No,” Marcus said out loud, chuckling with some disbelief as he grabbed the flip phone Herbie had bought for Reggie. She never used it, but charged it. Marcus made fun of her for not knowing how to set up something so basic, he promised to show her. In fact, the phone had the cord of the charger still attached and a rubber band held them together.
He undid the band and flipped open the phone. He gasped out a single ‘Ha.’
The phone not only was unharmed, it worked.
“You’re kidding me. A six hundred dollar phone breaks and a ten buck phone from Bargain Mart survives. I’ll be damned.” The first thing that came to his mind was to call for help, but he saw the signal was weak. If he did manage a call, it would drop. He certainly couldn’t text 911, but he could text someone else. Anyone and tell them he was alive. Maybe if someone knew, they would send help.
Marcus’s own phone was busted, and he wasn’t sure if he knew anyone’s cell number off by heart. So before he wracked his brains for numbers, he went into Reggie’s flip phone. Since she hadn’t used it or set it up, he was pretty certain the contact folder would be empty. He was wrong. There was one number in the contact folder … Herbie.
Herbie wasn’t the smartest human being, in fact, Marcus believed most third graders were far more intelligent. But Herbie’s number was in there. And texting a dumb person to find help was better than no one. Pulling on his retro key numeric phone skills, Marcus wrote a text to Herbie.
CHAPTER ONEChristian Central Network, Chicago, Illinois
“Yes.” Rev. Bailey nodded into the telephone. “We’ve got only two more hours. I’d like to be able to go out and redirect traffic.” He nodded. “Sounds wonderful. Get right back to me.” He hung up and glanced at Devante. “Well.” He cleared his throat. “Seems we may be able to move to Soldier’s Field after all. We’ll know in about ten minutes.”
“Soldier’s Field?” Devante said blankly.
“It’s a coliseum. Our auditorium is packed, and we’ve got mobs of people still trying to get in. But I’m sure you are no stranger to crowds.”
“No. Not at all.”
“Good. Can I get you anything?” Rev. Bailey walked over to his desk and sat on the edge. “A Coke maybe?”
“A beverage. It fizzes.”
Rev. Bailey saw his confusion. “Bubbles.”
“In a beverage?” Devante asked. “How do bubbles quench a man’s thirst?”
“It’s the soda pop around it that does that.”
“I am not sure I want to indulge in your... soda pop. Water would be fine.”
“Water it shall be.” Rev. Bailey slid from the desk and walked to the door.
“Before you go...” Devante spoke. “You have enhanced my curiosity. I would like to take a moment to read this New Testament you have mentioned.”
“Why, certainly.” Rev. Bailey walked back to his desk, picked up his Bible, and flipped to the New Testament. He pulled the ribbon marker forward and handed it to Devante. “I’m sure you will find it interesting. It’s sort of like a biography of your life.”
“Then I’m sure I will find it most informative.” Devante took the Bible.
“I’m interested in what you will say. I look forward to it, in fact.”
“I doubt that very much.”
Rev. Bailey felt a sudden chill. He wondered about the remark, but something told him not to ask questions. Who was he to question God?
“Yes, well. I’ll get your water.” He continued to walk to the door and picked at the plant in the box near the door. It was dead. “Seems maintenance forgot this one as well.” He carried it with him, thinking about the fresh flowers. He shivered anew.
The office door closed. Devante smiled and opened the Bible.
Westing Biogenetic Institute - Chicago, Illinois
To Marcus and Reggie, the drilling and digging was music, a symphony of salvation. They sat on the cold floor, waiting. Herbie had pulled through. After going round and round via text messages with Herbie on why Marcus was using Reggie’s flip phone, Herbie finally got the point.
Reggie smiled and looked up. There was a sound of concrete clunking. “They’re making progress. Remind me to thank Herbie.”
“Yes, he’s a real hero.” Marcus said sarcastically.
“Um, they’re saving us because of him. So yes.”
Marcus handed Reggie a cracker. “Here, eat.”
“Apparently talking about Herbie is out. So finish telling me about Rose and Tom..”
“As I was saying …It wasn’t like me, that’s all.” Marcus shrugged. “When Rose died, how it could be misconstrued, the circumstances, the cop questioning me. Until the next day, when I got a phone call from the detective again telling me not to leave town...” Marcus shook his head. “Then it dawned on me, I was a suspect. But that wasn’t it. It was a combination of things,” Marcus tried his best to explain. “You helped as well.”
“Me?” Reggie asked.
“Yeah. I didn’t think about it at first. You made a comment about Devante being a great illusionist. And then about Tom’s resurrection expiring.”
“Yeah, big joke.”
“I ran some tests. Reg, Tom never actually came back to life. His body, cells, dead. No heartbeat. And yet he walked and talked. I watched him go into rigor mortis. All that was left was his soul. He was still there, mentally, but he couldn’t move.”
“Oh my God,” Reggie said, “he was a smart zombie! And you’re positive about this?’
“I wouldn’t say zombie. Maybe … no, he wasn’t just … a dead body with a soul. And I am sure. I was with him when... oh shit.”
“I left him there,” said Marcus. “I left Tom in my office. He was there when the building exploded.”
“Maybe the explosion saved him, released his soul.”
“Or damned him. Either way, it seems to prove that Devante is the antichrist. And when I dreamt as much... well, that’s when I decided to liquidate the assets in my Cleveland accounts.”
“Your dream?” Reggie chuckled. “When have you ever based a decision on a dream?”
“Never. But this one made sense. I was a marked man. My father... my father died in the dream protecting me. With that guard lying to set me up for Rose’s death, I made a snap decision. And I’m glad I did.”
“So did Jenny give up the key to your safe deposit boxes?”
“She said she had to find it.” Marcus dusted off his hands. “Which is bullshit. But what can I do?”
“Marcus,” Reggie asked. “Do you honestly think money will be of any value if God’s ending the world?”
“It’s not the end of the world, Reg,” Marcus said with certainty. “And I need the money because I’ll be unemployable. I have to live some way.”
“But, you say Devante is the antichrist.”
“God has no intention of ending the world, Reg. But Devante does.”
“You’re contradicting yourself,” Reggie said. “You say that God’s not ending the world; that Devante is. But that’s exactly what the Bible predicts.”
“True, but,” Marcus held up his hand, “in the Bible, everyone is deceived. Now it’s a different story, because we know who he is. I can bring him down before he destroys us all.”
“Marcus?” Reggie nibbled on another cracker. “He’s a... he’s a pretty big man.”
“Gees, Reg, I know. I’m not going to wrestle the guy.”
“Sorry,” Reggie snickered. “So,you’regoing to bring him down? Aren’t you being a little blasphemous… depicting yourself as the Savior?”
“No!” Marcus snapped. “I’m not saying I’m the Savior. I won’t do it alone. I’ll need lots of help. I have to do it, not as some savior.” He nudged a giggling Reggie. “I have to do it, because I started the whole mess. And I, Reg, have to end it.” He looked up and around at the sounds of the rescue team above getting closer. “But first, we have to get out of here.”
The crowd let out a deafening roar as Devante stepped onto the makeshift stage. From the podium, he looked out at the multitudes in the stands and on the field. He solemnly tapped the microphone, then stood there in silence.
Rev. Bailey’s assistant nudged the reverend. “Is he all right?”
“Probably a tad stage-struck, that’s all. He’ll be… What’s he doing? Darn. Security!” Rev. Bailey and his assistant raced to where Devante, microphone in hand, had just jumped off the stage.
The horde beset him in screaming adoration, suffocating him as they tried to draw closer. Devante kept moving, far into the crowd.
Then he stopped and lifted the microphone that Rev. Bailey had taught him to use.
“Please sit. I go nowhere. I am here to talk to you.” He waited until the voices turned to murmurs and the rustling of people subsided. Finally the stadium was quiet, with only the sounds of a cough here and there, and a child’s wail. Devante looked to a woman who sat on the ground before him. She held a baby, and Devante stepped up to her.
He lifted the child from her and held the baby in his arms. “A simple child holds the answers. The openness of their minds. Believers in all that we tell them. How shameful that we lose this ability as we become older.” He ran his hand over the baby’s face and handed her back to her mother. “Money, lust, greed, power, these change us. They make us into people who fear the tax collector more than God. You search with questions, yet when you are given the answers you turn your heads.” He paused and scanned the horde. “I knew I was returning to this earth long before those who re-created this body did. Yet when they told you I was coming, the people of this world scoffed. They ridiculed, were outraged and rose up in violence. To what purpose? To stop my arrival on this earth. History does indeed repeat. The man who created this new body is the Pontius Pilate of our time. You search for him in the rubble of a building destroyed for my freedom. But, he is not there. He plots to take my life, to take me from you. How do I know this? Because, I know all.”
The crowd murmured quietly.
Devante pivoted slowly as he spoke. “And you know why I have returned.... The time for the end is at hand!”
The stadium filled with screams and cries. Devante held up his hand to quiet them. “The numbers of believers will be small. The doubters will not listen to what I say, nor will they believe what will take place until they are blasted with the truth. And until all believe in who I am, the devastation will continue.” He paused. “The first of such events will take place in two days, when the sun is at its highest in the sky. Right here where I stand. In the city of my birth. The appointed new Babylon of this world.” Devante’s voice deepened with power. “With a mighty vengeance, fire will fall from the sky, tossed with the hand of strength upon this city. The ground will shake, buildings will crumble, and in a burst of the sun that will land upon the earth, all life within the city will cease. When the silence happens… when the dust of destruction settles... I will speak again. And then, more people will listen and believe.”CHAPTER TWO
Los Angeles, CA
The quiet chuckles emanating from the living room disturbed the reverend, but he couldn’t afford to let it get to him. Still, Devante’s Bible reading had unsettled him. Rev. Bailey had just turned off the news and left his gin-soaked wife upstairs. He was reluctant to return to his houseguest and hear him laugh his way through the New Testament. But he did return.
“You, uh... like that, do you?” he asked Devante.
Devante looked up from the Bible. “It is informative.” He reached to the table next to him for a large mug. “And this beverage. I like it. It is warm, sweet and energizing.”
“Mocha latte. I find it refreshing after flying, myself. Jet lag, you know. Our cook makes the best. Indulge; you can have another if you like.”
“I will, while I read.”
“May I...” Rev. Bailey stepped closer. “May I have your attention for a moment?”
“Yes.” Devante closed the Bible.
“Good.” Rev. Bailey walked over to the television. “You told the people they have to believe. Correct?”
“Well, I was hoping you might speak to this man.” Rev. Bailey turned on the television and switched the channel. On the screen appeared the Pope delivering a message to a throng at Saint Peter’s Basilica.
Devante watched silently for a couple of minutes, seemingly spellbound. “Who is he?” he asked finally. “And how does he have all those people listening to him?”
“He’s what they call The Pope.”
“Catholics believe he’s God’s right-hand man.”
Devante seemed offended. “There is no such thing.”
“You and I may know that. But...” Rev. Bailey pointed to the television. “...not these people. They listen to his counsel.” Rev. Bailey paused. “And he’s telling them... not to believe in you.”
Devante looked at the Reverend, then back to the television, and smiled.
Kyle tried to filter out any religious bias when he watched the news about Devante. To Kyle, Devante was a walking, talking contradiction, an anomaly. Not to mention all the phony trappings: the grandeur of his speech, the stadiums, the all-believing crowds, the cheesy script from a dog-eared Bible. Kyle cheered the young U.S. President when, during an emergency press conference, he denounced Devante as a dangerous religious eccentric and scoffed patently at his prophesies of biblical disaster. Kyle literally applauded when the President scolded a reporter for suggesting that the Federal Emergency Management Agency evacuate Chicago.
Then came the black rain. It was a rain with the consistency of black tar that fell thickly upon the Vatican, until it was transformed into millions of snakes, dropping from the sky as the Pope called for all believers in God to unite against Devante.
Kyle began to reconsider.
Later that afternoon, the tenor of the news changed drastically, and with it Kyle’s now-mercurial beliefs. Kyle’s head spun. But it didn’t spin enough for him to lose focus of what he had to do.
“...with the plan set to be in full swing within one hour in an attempt to evacuate three million-plus people who live in Chicago and the greater vicinity before the noon-time destruction predicted by Devante.”
Kyle looked once more to the television, then to the revolver on his lap. He checked the chamber and placed it in a knapsack.
“The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Jack Ross is confident about the evacuation plans, and says if everyone follows the procedures posted on the emergency broadcasting station or at local municipal buildings, a safe evacuation will be complete hours before the deadline.”
Kyle unfroze at Eliza’s words as she stood at the kitchen door. “I can’t believe you’re doing this,” she said. “Herbie got the help there.”
“And I appreciate Herbie. But …they’re evacuating, Eliza. How long do you think they’ll keep on digging?”
“Army transport vehicles, buses and planes are being moved into the city as I speak. Authorities are urging all those in Chicago to comply by the evacuation rules and obey martial law, which officially went into effect at midnight. Downtown Chicago is the central starting point for evacuation...”
“See?” Kyle pointed to the television. “That’s where the Institute is located. Center of town. They’ll stop digging. You have the money right? I’ll need it if I’m to get them two out of the city... if I can find them, that is.”
“I have it,” Eliza sighed. “You’re going straight to the Institute?”
“Yes. They’re in there and alive. Herbie said their phone was gonna die, but they would too, unless we get them out.” Kyle set the knapsack on the floor.
“...Joliet, Aurora, and Gary, Indiana will be the seven locations set up for camps where Chicago residents will wait until the all-clear is given.”
Kyle grabbed his keys and rushed to the smaller bedroom, where his grandson Seth sat playing games. “Hey. I’m off.”
“You’re gonna go get mom?” Seth asked.
“I’m going to try,” Kyle said, and then walked over to say goodbye. “Now, Eliza will stay here with you. I’ll only be gone a day or so, so you be good.” Running his hand over Seth’s head, Kyle bent down and kissed him.
Back in the living room, Kyle listened to the latest on his blaring TV.
“...ninety-four, two-ninety four, eighty, seventy-six, fifty-seven, fifty-five. Once again, these are the major interstates now closed to incoming traffic, beginning seven miles from the city limits in order to optimize highway access and use. Evacuation busses will be on hand to transport people from their vehicles if necessary.”
Eliza shook her head, eyes closed. “A nightmare. They’re just rattling directions as if it’s an everyday occurrence instead of the end.”
“Don’t say that,” Kyle exclaimed. “If they don’t hide their feelings, people will panic.”
“It’s too close to home. Chicago is just too close. Is it going to happen, Kyle?”
“I don’t know. I know if it affects us, we’re ready. Right?”
“But we can’t sit by with our kids trapped in Chicago.” He picked up his knapsack. “You keep this place locked tight. The keys to the Chevy are hanging by the kitchen door if you need them. I shouldn’t be gone long.” Kyle grabbed his belongings. “Thanks for watching Seth.” He walked to the door.
“Kyle,” Eliza called. “I’ll pray for you. Bring our children home.”
Kyle paused for a second in the open doorway, eyes fixed in the distance. Then he nodded, smiled, and said, “Count on it.”
Westing Biogenetic Institute - Chicago, Illinois
“Whoa,” Marcus uttered as the ground trembled and pieces of plaster rained down on him and Reggie as they sat on the floor. He swept his hand over his head, clearing the dust and debris.
“You think they’re trying to shake a way loose?” Reggie asked.
Marcus shrugged and muttered. “Has to be a way out. We’re breathing, aren’t we?”
“Yeah, but we don’t know how much air we have,” Reggie said, half smiling.
“You may be right about shaking things loose.”
“You really think that’s good?” she asked.
“Fifty-fifty. It could crush us, but it could open up a passage.”
“Yeah. How long do you suppose it will take for them to find us?”
“Depends on the amount of rubble, their manpower, and how long they’ll stay at it.”
No sooner did Marcus say that than the drilling stopped. He and Reggie both looked up.
“Dinner,” Marcus said. “They stopped for dinner.”
“Dinner? Wonder what they’re having,” she mused sarcastically.
“Why else would they stop?”
“Are you trying to convince me… or yourself?”
“Neither. No convincing needed. They stopped for a break.” Marcus glanced up at the roof, trying to shake off the anxiety of this new silence.Los Angeles, CA
Rev. Bailey peeked into the living room to see how his wife and Devante were getting along. He saw Devante’s annoyance immediately. He couldn’t blame him. Her high pitched, rapid accent could bore a hole in a vault. And yet, Bailey felt a vicious humor. The divine Devante was, at least temporarily, trapped with Grace, who was still in her robe, and jabbering a mile a minute.
“And then I said to my mother… She’s eighty-two, you know. I said to her. We should be packing up and going to the hills. But my mother insisted that we stay put because the hills would crumble. Isn’t that right? I heard that was right. You would know, wouldn’t you?”
“Which do you desire to know of the sundry questions you have asked in these past twenty seconds?” Devante sighed.
“If you know if we should head for the hills. Or is that giving away family secrets? I think my mother’s wrong. She’s eighty-two years old, you know. She could go to bed and not wake up. Of course, with the world ending... we could all go to bed and not wake up. But, then again, we would wake up, wouldn’t we? In the kingdom of God. But you above all would know that.”
“Woman! Silence!” Devante flung out his hand, his face registering disgust.
She was out like a light. A gin catnap.
“I am so sorry.” Rev. Bailey said on his way in, stifling a smile “I didn’t mean to take so long and leave you. But that crowd...” He saw Grace and smiled. “Oh, God bless gin.”
“She speaks so much and too fast.”
“I agree. Anyhow,” Rev. Bailey exhaled, “the crowd is tremendous outside. The news media is well-represented, and the L.A.P.D’s falling all over themselves to clear traffic. It’s blocked for miles. There is nothing I can do...” the reverend smiled smugly.
“Why do they not just go away?” Devante asked.
“They want to see you.”
“Will they disburse then?”
“Nevertheless, we shall try.” Devante stood up and started for the door. “We will give them what they want, and I will request that they return to their homes.”
“I don’t think that will...” Rev. Bailey tossed up his hands when Devante kept moving. “I urge you...” He followed him into the foyer. “Please do not open that...” Rev. Bailey cringed as the screams of the crowd flooded into the sound-proofed home. Devante was already outside.
A black cloud hung over the Vatican. The clergy was disturbed, Cardinal Welsh included. The Pope had not shown his face or left his room since the doctors ordered a few hours of bed rest. It had been a while since anyone had spoken to him, so Cardinal Welsh approached the Pope’s private quarters.
The Cardinal carried his entire ruse, a tray of food, as he moved down the plush corridor to the private bedroom suite. He hesitated before the huge double doors, knocked once, then, balancing the tray with one hand, stepped inside.
“Holy Father,” he called out softly.
The television was on. The Cardinal saw only the Pope’s hand resting on the arm of the chair, its back toward him. Toting the tray, Cardinal Welsh couldn’t help but see the latest spectacle: Devante arrogantly raising his arms above the masses, gathered as if for a trip to the Heavens.
“God will hear our prayers.” Devante cried to the murmurs and shouts of the believers.
Cardinal Welsh spoke. “I brought you something to eat.” He set it on the table next to the chair. “Holy Father?”
He walked around the table. “Holy Father, are....” Cardinal Welsh gasped.
The Pope sat peacefully, eyes closed, head slumped. Reaching out tentatively, Cardinal Welsh touched his face, still lukewarm, but clearly and sadly dead.CHAPTER THREE
Westing Biogenetic InstituteChicago, Illinois
Squatting over the blanket, Marcus accidentally dropped the pencil, then brightened as he watched it roll away from him. He picked it up and dropped it again.
“The floor’s buckling,” he muttered to himself.
He saw Reggie gagging over the sink in the dim light.
“Still sick, Reg?”
“Yes,” she replied weakly. “Can’t help it. Grape Gatorade and mint toothpaste.”
“Brush with water.”
“You said it would be harmful if I drank it.”
“Reg, you don’t have to drink it, just brush.”
“I might accidentally let some slip down my throat,” she said. “Or convince myself that it did and then I’d get sick anyhow.”
“Sorry I asked.” He tossed up his hands. “Suit yourself.”
“I will. And I’m surprised you aren’t sick.”
“From what?” Marcus questioned.
“From drinking the water.”
“I don’t swallow when I brush my teeth,” Marcus said with an edge to his voice. “I’m normal.
“Don’t snap at me.” Reggie wiped her mouth.
“Sorry.” Marcus said. “I don’t think our rescue workers broke for dinner last night. I think they broke for Milwaukee. They aren’t coming back.”
“What are we going to do?”
“Get out.” Marcus crossed the room to the door. “This room is close to the side door. Maybe if we can get a crawl space going, we can get to the glass out there.”
“We weren’t able to budge any concrete before.” Reggie came over to join him.
“There’s been a lot of shaking and trembling. Maybe something shook loose.”
“Well...” Reggie joined Marcus at the mound of rubble. “Let’s dig then.”
“...tragic day for Christians and Catholics as they awoke this morning to learn that Pope John Paul had passed away last night from an apparent heart attack. Officials from the Vatican are saying...”
Kyle shut off the radio to catch his bearings. He knew if he kept driving east he’d run into far too many people. The refugee traffic was already beginning to bottle up. They came from Chicago and the surrounding communities and as far away as Gary, Indiana, the closest refugee camp. So Kyle cut south onto a small two-lane road. Even though the traffic flow was heavy, he figured the authorities wouldn’t bother closing such a small road. He was wrong.
He turned off the ignition when he saw the Army barricade. Traffic was steadily flowing out of Chicago, and none was going in.
He rolled his window down when the soldier approached.
“Road’s closed, sir,” said the soldier.
“I didn’t know, I thought I could get in,” Kyle told him.
“No, sir. You’ll have to back up and turn around.”
“But I need to get into Chicago,” Kyle pleaded.
“No one gets in,” the soldier repeated with strained politeness. “Please back up.”
“My daughter is in there and I need...”
“There is a full-scale evacuation. If she’s in there, we’ll get her out.”
Kyle tossed the truck into gear and leaned out the open window. “Son, are all roads closed? Can you suggest a way I may be able to get in? I have to find her.”
The soldier hesitated, and then flipped through his clipboard. “There’s a route 30 that breaks off up by North Aurora into a secondary road. I don’t think that’s been closed yet.”
“Thank you.” Kyle smiled, sincerely. “Thank you very much.” He backed the truck up and turned into the grass off the road. He pulled out his map. “Thirty. Thirty. There.” He saw it was a good distance north and would take a while. But he had to try.
Los Angeles, CA
“And they make these every day?” Devante sat in the dining room of Rev. Bailey’s home, staring at the front page of a newspaper.
“Every day. And that’s not the only one,” Rev. Bailey said. “However, most people read the online version of these.”
“The internet it connects the world.”
“No wonder word of my presence has spread over the countryside.”
“You’re trending on social media.”
“What is that?”
“People open pages, it’s a way to connect.”
“Do I need one of these social media pages?”
“At this point a Devante Facebook profile is not needed.” Rev. Bailey sipped his coffee.
“What does this mean? The phrasing is odd.” Devante showed Rev. Bailey the headline of ‘FEMA takes over smoothly in evacuation.’
“The Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA. And Chicago getting blasted by fire from the sky is definitely an emergency. They have to get as many people out of there as possible. And by the headline, I would say it’s going well.”
“God does not intend for these people to get out.”
“God probably wasn’t thinking of...” Rev. Bailey peeked at the paper. “FEMA and Jack Ross.” He winked. “I’m sure God is not going to mind lives being saved.”
“There is a point to be made.”
“And you don’t think the destruction of Chicago, loss of life or not, is making a point?”
“What do you pretend to know of how God feels?” Devante thundered.
Rev. Bailey stammered, but no words came out.
“Would you not think I would be the better judge?” This came softly.
“Yes, but... Devante. Life is so precious.”
“Yes, it is,” Devante answered. “But God’s people waste it. It is time for them to see what they have and what they can lose. You know the reason I am here. And I will speak no more about it until after tomorrow. You have my speaking place chosen. Correct?”
“Yes.” Rev. Bailey nodded, his hands playing with his coffee cup.
Devante turned another page and stopped. “Regina.”
“Excuse me.” Rev. Bailey asked, his eyes going to the paper. Devante looked at a photograph of Reggie and Marcus. “Oh, yes,” Rev. Bailey said, “the woman trapped at the Institute.”
Devante closed his eyes. “I see them running. Free.”
“But they’re trapped. Aren’t they?”
“I see them running.” Devante opened his eyes and stared at the picture again. “Her life essence will not leave this earth.” he muttered. “We must get her. Regina. This Marcus Leon has her against her will. She is not his fiancée. She is nothing but his assurance of safety.”
“Why is she so important to you?” Rev. Bailey asked.
“I feel a connection to her. She was present at my birth. I would like her with us.”
“Then we must find her.” Rev. Bailey said. “I have a friend who works for The Times. Let me give him a call. If they’re out of that building, someone must have seen them.” Rev. Bailey stood up. “You have a vision of her? In these visions, do you see any road signs or landmarks?”
“I see her running.”
“Running. Yes.” The reverend cleared his throat. “Well, I’ll uh... just make that call.”
Devante continued to stare at the photograph of Reggie in the paper. Only at her.
The Ohio Border
For the first time, Kyle fully understood the phrase ‘God forsaken place.’ When he heard the news, he pulled off to the side of the road.
All that morning, as he headed to Route 30, the radio news was rife with FEMA self-testimonials: how efficiently they were evacuating Chicago, how eighty percent of the people were already out, how FEMA’s Jack Ross assured the population that nothing was coming from the sky, nor were there military threats from other countries. Finally, just five minutes before, FEMA went on record to state that the evacuation itself was merely precautionary, since a truly biblical debacle was the only thing that would justify it, and that it appeared nothing would occur.
Then someone mentioned that all rescue efforts at the Institute had been stopped. No one was looking for Reggie and Marcus. Not only that, the news speculated that Doctor Leon and Reggie were already out and on the run. Kyle wanted to believe it, but his feelings were mixed. Marcus was a wanted man, wanted for the murder of his assistant, for the abduction of Reggie.
Hogwash, Kyle thought. How could anyone buy that?
After a five-minute break to hyperventilate and fume, Kyle fired up the engine. Now he had even more incentive to find his daughter. He had to search her out. He had to. No one else was going to do it.CHAPTER FOUR
Westing Biogenetic InstituteChicago, Illinois
Reggie and Marcus had only a sorry-looking pile of displaced rubble to show for their hours of digging. Escaping was hard work.
Reggie’s hands bled at the knuckles, but the worst pain was under her short fingernails from grasping at debris and tossing it out to Marcus.
“Reg.” Marcus held the candle to the hole. “Come on out. My turn again.” He sidestepped a rock as it flew out. “Nice.”
“My last burst of energy. I think we’re making progress...” Reggie giggled. “I’m coming out.”
“You did good.”
“Yeah.” She brushed herself off with a less than enthusiastic tone.
“Here.” Marcus handed her a Gatorade. “Take a drink.”
“I’m fine.” Reggie sniffed, handed him the flashlight, and walked over to the sink. She turned it on and splashed her face, lifting her tee shirt to dry off.
“Did you hurt yourself? How are your hands?”
Reggie held them up. “Hurt.”
“I’m sorry.” Marcus caressed them. “I’ll dig now. Maybe by morning we can get our...”
“No. Don’t dig.”
Marcus shook his head. “Why? You want all the credit for getting us out?” He gave her the candle. “Well, watch how big the pile gets when I get another shot.”
“Marcus...” Reggie said, sadly. “It’s no use. We hit another wall.”
“No.” Marcus slid out. “We were doing so good.”
“We were doing real good.” Reggie swung out her hand. “But it’s another wall.”
“Damn it.” Marcus closed his eyes, and then smiled weakly. “At least we have oxygen.”
“But we’re low on food. We have to find a way out.”
“Yeah, and it won’t be long before they send wrecking crews in here.”
“How long do you think?”
“A few days.”
“Can’t we survive that long?” Reggie asked.
“Yeah, we can. But the wrecking crew won’t be looking for survivors.”
Reggie was speechless.
“The crew digging must’ve made some progress.” Marcus stepped away. “God! If we could just get a break.” Frustrated, Marcus kicked at an empty soup can, sending it rattling across the floor to the stairwell. Marcus turned to Reggie. “I’m sorry I...”
Marcus’ head jerked toward the stairwell, then back to Reggie. “No.”
Like little kids racing for the ice cream truck, Marcus and Reggie bolted for the collapsed stairwell, nudging each other out of the way for position. They dropped to their knees and saw it: at the bottom of the collapsed stairs, a triangular opening about a foot wide.
“That wasn’t here before,” Marcus said.
“No way. We were both here a million times.”
“It must have opened last night in all that shifting.” Marcus’s eyes scanned the room, then stopped at a piece of concrete. He picked it up and tossed it into the hole. Silence, then another splash. Marcus grabbed Reggie’s cheeks and kissed her. He smiled, peered at the hole, caught his breath and calmed down. “All right. It goes down. But... how can we fit through there?”
“We have to make it bigger.”
Reggie hesitated, then placed her hand inside the triangle formed by the staircase and felt the hole. “Wait.” She stood up, raced into the room and returned with a large piece of concrete. She handed it to Marcus and repeated her actions, coming back with a second chunk of wall.
“Why do we need more concrete?” Marcus asked.
“It’s heavy. It’s sturdy enough to pound the hell out of the floor, to chisel away at the hole until it gets big enough for us to slip through.”
Marcus stared for a second. “Will it work?”
Reggie shrugged. “It’s worth a shot.”
“But if the floor’s too weak, it may break through. We could crash down.” Marcus said.
“Yeah but at least we’ll be down there,” Reggie nodded. “So what, we break a bone. At least we’ll be out.”
Chuckling, Marcus adopted Reggie’s attitude, picked up his piece of concrete and started to pound on the floor.
Kyle had wasted too many hours and too much daylight to get north to highway twelve. He had tried every smaller road for access. He also had trouble finding an open gas station. He finally gave up on the smaller roads. Their closings seemed inconsistent anyway. Kyle was so frustrated he decided to try a main thoroughfare. At least that might get him close enough to Chicago to walk in. Once there, he wouldn’t have any problem ‘borrowing’ a car. By now Chicago was a ghost town.
Nevertheless, it was sooner and not later that Kyle ran into another roadblock. But Kyle didn’t stick around to hear the millionth ‘Sorry, road’s closed.’ Before he could be stopped, Kyle pulled his truck off to the side of the road, turned it off, grabbed his keys and gear, and got out.
He started to walk, muttering that the grass and the shoulder were free country, even if the highways weren’t. He passed a long line of cars on his way to the barricade, then kept going.
“Sir!” A soldier, a sergeant, called out. “Stop!”
Kyle turned around.
“Sir, where are you heading?”
“Into Chicago,” Kyle answered.
“Chicago is being evacuated. No one gets in.”
No shit, he thought, then smiled. “I thought everyone just had to get out.”
“Sir, I have to ask you to return to your vehicle.”
Kyle huffed. “And I have to find my daughter.” He looked at the name tag. “Sergeant Wilson. She’s in there.”
“If she’s in Chicago, she’s probably out.”
“I am so tired of hearing that.” Kyle snapped. “You people know nothing. And I can’t argue. I have to get my daughter.” Kyle kept walking.
“Sir.” Sgt. Wilson trotted up, attempting to keep pace. “This area is under martial law. You can’t go in there.”
Kyle moved on.
“You will be placed under arrest.”
Kyle kept on moving.
“Sir, this is a stop or I’ll shoot situation.” Sgt. Wilson grew aggravated.
“Tough.” Kyle called out.
“Stop right now or I’ll shoot.”
Kyle adjusted his bag, walked on and spoke over his shoulder. “I have to try to get in there. If you have to shoot me, shoot me. I’m not turning back.”
Westing Biogenetic Institute - Chicago, Illinois
A chunk of the floor chipped off and fell into the hole. Seconds passed. Splash.
“Okay, try it now, Marcus,” Reggie said, as she scooted out of the way.
Marcus grabbed the flashlight and poked his head into the hole. “Grab my legs.”
“All right. But don’t count on me holding your weight for long.” Reggie secured his ankles.
Marcus inhaled and moved an arm into the hole. “I fit.” He shined the flashlight down.
“What do you see? You must see something!” He came out. “What?”
Marcus smiled. “Steps. I see steps. We have to hang, then drop, but they’re there.”
“I’ll get our stuff.” Reggie scrambled to her feet and raced into the storage room. She tossed her purse into the partly open duffel bag, grabbed it and the briefcase, and hurried back to the stairwell.
“I’ll go down first, okay?” Marcus handed her the flashlight. “Wish me luck.”
“Luck.” Reggie grinned.
Marcus extended his legs into the hole and inched down on his belly, trying to grip the floor. He looked over his shoulder and down. “I need light.”
Reggie slipped her hand into the hole and shined the light.
Marcus took a breath and let go. He landed and stumbled down three stairs, damp from the ruptured pipe above.
“You okay?” Reggie asked.
“Yeah. Toss me our things! Whenever you’re...” He tried to catch the flying duffel bag, and missed. Before he could ask, the briefcase flew down also, and he grabbed it. “Now you. Climb out like I did...”
A few seconds later, Marcus saw Reggie’s dangling legs. He reached up and guided her down. “Good job.” Marcus handed her the briefcase and tossed the duffel over his shoulder. “Let’s get a move-on.” He grabbed the flashlight.
“Why?” Reggie asked. “We’re out of here and... hey!” Reggie looked to her left as soon as she hit the bottom step. “Where’s the door?”
“Not there.” Marcus tugged her in the opposite direction. Their feet splashed on the wet ground. “The hallway that leads to the garage is right... here.”
“Shit.” The door was blocked with chunks of concrete and wood.
“No, not bad,” said Marcus. He grabbed the briefcase from her and set it and the duffel on the ground.
“Marcus, we’re trapped again.”
“Reg, please.” His tone shushed her. “We dug a hole. We broke through a concrete floor. This is nothing. A little debris. We can do this. The door’s right there.”
Reggie smiled. “Our way out.”
Memorial Hospital, Toledo, Ohio
A new wave of nausea surged through Kyle’s knotted up stomach. A god-like baritone voice caused him to think he was dead. But then he recalled his ride to the hospital and his subsequent bitching. The complaining didn’t last long, terminated by another voice saying, “Put him under now.”
Lights out. Anesthesia, Kyle thought. He never handled that well.
Sometime later, Kyle struggled to open his eyes to a familiar voice. One blurry eye, then another. George Leon came into focus. “George?”
“What... what are you doing here?” Kyle tried to sit up. His stomach flopped.
“They called us. Eliza sent me. I’m here to get you.”
“Where am I?” Kyle asked.
“Toledo. They said they won’t be pressing charges. They’re releasing you to my custody. How’s the leg?”
Kyle looked at his bandaged thigh. “Sore.”
“Could’ve been worse. That boy had authority to shoot you dead.”
“Real kind.” Kyle covered his face with his hand. “I failed. I didn’t get them, George.”
“You didn’t fail,” George said. “A man who tries is never a failure. You tried. Now let’s go home.”
Kyle swung his legs slowly over the bed. He saw he was wearing a hospital gown. “My clothes?”
“Eliza thinks of everything.” George held up a grocery bag. “When they said they were operating, she knew you’d need these.”
“Thanks.” Kyle took the bag. “What about my truck?”
“Getting that back may be hard. It’s been impounded by the Army.”
“Shit. It was hard enough getting it back from Medina County.” Kyle shook his head. “Well, I’ll just use Reggie’s. Have you heard anything?”
“News is saying they got out of Chicago.”
“I don’t believe it, but we can hope.” Kyle sighed, then hobbled on crutches to the bathroom to dress.
Westing Biogenetic Institute - Chicago, Illinois
Reggie and Marcus grunted as they yanked at the door. “That might work. I’ll check.”
“Sure. Go on.” Marcus held out his hand for her.
“Thanks.” Reggie climbed the remaining pile of rubble and shined the flashlight through the cracked door.
“Well? Well? What do you see?” Marcus asked.
She slipped back down, looked at him and smiled. “...Fine.”
“Are you joking or being serious.”
“I swear.” Reggie grabbed the briefcase. “The corridor’s clear.”
“Must be the one to the parking garage.” Marcus tossed the duffel bag over his shoulder.
“Which level are you parked on?” Reggie asked.
“Um... I’m not.”“What do you mean you’re not?”
“Reg, just go.” Marcus waved out his hand.
“Please don’t tell me you’re parked in the Westing parking lot.” Reggie slipped through the door. “Watch out, it’s a little bit of a jump.”
They climbed up the rubble, slipped through the open door and jumped the three feet down.
“Now. Where are you parked?” Reggie asked.
“In the Westing lot.”
“Uh!” Reggie shrieked.
“Reg, stop that. This way.” He led her down the corridor.
“I can’t help it. We have to go through downtown, don’t we? I hope all those people aren’t still standing outside of the Institute.”
“Why would they be? The building’s gone.”
“Let’s hope your car isn’t.” Reggie slowed when they neared a set of doors.
“This takes us to the garage. We’ll only have to walk across to get to the ramp that leads to street level.”
“Then we’ll just blend in, right?” Reggie snickered. “They’ll probably arrest us for vagrancy.”
“We have to call our parents,” said Marcus. “Too bad that flip phone died.”
“For a cheap piece of technology, it worked.”
“Yeah it did.”
Reggie halted when she saw the emptiness of the garage. “What day is it?”
“It’s Friday... ” Marcus looked at his watch again. “...morning.”
“Why is this garage empty on a Friday morning?”
“They probably shut it down for fear of collapsing.” The sun was peeking through the ramp not far ahead of them. “We’re out.”
“Let’s run.” Reggie trotted backwards.
“Air, Marcus!” Reggie ran up the ramp, and then shrieked as she poked her head outside. “I’m blind!”
Marcus followed at a trot. He squinted in pain as he kept Reggie from rubbing her eyes. “I tried to stop you. We have to adjust.”
“I can’t see.”
“Is that a scientific thing?” Reggie blinked.
“No it’s a... Reg?” Marcus blinked his sight back.
They focused to a bright sunny day on a downtown street. No people. No movement. The only cars in sight were either wrecked or abandoned, some with doors ajar. The only sounds were the eerie blowing of paper debris in the Chicago wind.
“Was there a plague?”
Marcus grabbed Reggie’s hand and walked her into the street. They looked up and down the long, empty boulevard.
“Do you think they closed down this entire section of town?” Reggie asked.
“I don’t think so. But it’s so quiet. Do you hear anything?”
Marcus took a deep breath and bellowed, “Hello!” His empty greeting careened off the empty streets and buildings. “Oh, shit. I’m in a bad remake ofTheOmegaMan.”
“Oh no, Marcus, tell me a plague didn’t wipe us out.”
“Reg, a plague didn’t wipe us out. I’m positive.” He started walking. “Beside it wasn’t that long ago I texted Herbie. I’m sure he would have mentioned a plague.”
“Oh, shit, Marcus,” Reggie said. “It’s creepy... listen to our footsteps.” Reggie banged her foot loudly. The stomp reverberated like a wrench hitting a pipe. “This is really weird. Hello!”
“Let’s just head back to the Institute to get my car,” Marcus said, dazed.
“Marcus, something terrible happened, didn’t it?”
“I don’t know.” Marcus took a step, his feet scuffling through the scattered papers. “I just know that...” Marcus stopped talking when a newspaper blew up at his chest and stuck to him. “Something is not...” He grabbed at the paper and turned pale. “Reg.”
He showed her the headline.FIRE FROM THE SKY! Chicago Prepares for Evacuation. “That’s why they stopped digging,” he murmured.
Marcus shoved the page of newspaper in his back pocket. “We have to get out of here.”
“What did it say?” Reggie asked, as Marcus pulled her down the street. “When’s the fire supposed to come?”
They turned the block. “Westing is this way. Not far.”
“Today. At noon.”
“Westing.” They arrived on the Institute grounds. “Please,” Marcus pleaded, “please let my car be in the parking lot.” He pulled Reggie in the direction of the lot, but stopped in front of the main building. “Oh, will you look at that,” he said with disgust. “Only the apartment wing was destroyed. That sucks.”
“No, you know what sucks? You made us take the escape route,” Reggie said, laughing.
“I thought it was the best... yes!” Marcus spotted his car. “It’s here.”
“If we would have just gone my way, which was the front door, we would’ve gotten out,” Reggie said, still smiling.
“But what if the whole building exploded?” Marcus said.
“But what if did.” He neared his car and bent down at the back end.
“What are you doing?”
“Getting my spare key.” Marcus unscrewed the license plate, reached behind it and retrieved the key that was taped to it. “Here.” Marcus moved to the passenger’s door and opened it.
Reggie tossed in the briefcase, and then got in. “Hurry, Marcus.”
Marcus raced around the car, tossed in the duffel bag and got in. He started it up, then pushed it into gear, motioning his head to the phone charger between the seats. “Grab my phone from the briefcase, plug it in. Call home.” Turning to look behind, Marcus peeled out of the parking spot.
“Oh, look at you,” said Eliza, as Kyle limped in the door. “You poor man.”
“Thanks,” Kyle responded. “I can’t believe they shot me in the goddamn leg.”
George shook his head. “They could’ve killed you.”
“Does it hurt?” Eliza asked.
Kyle grimaced at her, then heard the phone ring. “It tickles. Can you...”
“Sure.” Eliza stepped to the table by the couch, lifted the phone, and handed it to Kyle.
With a ‘beep’ Kyle answered it, “Hello. Reg?” he gasped and spun toward George and Eliza. “It’s Reggie. Reg, where are you? Are you all right?”
“Fine, Daddy. We’re in Chicago, heading out,” Reggie replied.
“Reg, listen to me. You don’t have much time. I understand, but there’s something else about Marcus you should... shit.” Kyle pulled the phone from his ear.
“What happened?” George asked.
Kyle looked over to the television screen to check the running timer for the destruction of Chicago. He let out a breath of relief. “There’s time. It must’ve been a lost signal, but they know time’s short. She knows they have nearly three hours. ‘Piece of cake.’” Kyle widened his eyes to George and Eliza. “That’s what she said.”
Interstate 90, Chicago, Illinois
Marcus tripped as he stepped out of his car, his eyes wide. “Holy...”
“...shit.” Reggie stepped out her side.
Marcus slammed his car door, stomped his feet and dragged himself in a circle. “No. No. No!” His voice echoed, then burst into incredulous laughter. “Par for the course.”
“Yeah,” Reggie’s head bobbed over the scene on Interstate 90: a flood of deserted cars flowing out of the city as far as they could see. All four lanes, the shoulder and center, packed. “I guess we walk,” she said.
“Well, what else can we do, Marcus, sit around and wait for hellfire? Look at our luck. No one informs us of the bomb threat, then we take the wrong route and are trapped after the building blows up. They start digging. They stop. We get out of that, and the city is deserted and about to be destroyed. We get to the car, we get here, once again... trapped.”
“And your point?”
“My point is,” Reggie said, “that we’re overdue for a break. Let’s get the hell out of here,” she huffed.
“Reg, the city will be destroyed in two-and-a-half hours.”
“Marcus,” Reggie rolled her eyes, “it’s just a little fire and brimstone. Not nukes. How much damage can fire and brimstone cause? Let’s walk.”
Marcus shook his head, rubbing his eyes in frustration. “No, let’s not.”
“What? You want to stay here and wait for it?”
“No.” Marcus hurried past her and started to run up the line of cars.
“He wants to run.” Reggie tossed up her hands. “Marcus! We won’t be able to keep up the pace. Marcus... the bags. Shit.” She raced after him. “Wait.”
“Reg.” Marcus grinned. “A dirt bike.” He pointed to the back of a truck. “A way out.”
“See, our luck is changing. Think positive, no more getting trapped.”
“Yeah.” The smile left his face. “Now, what about keys?”
“Please.” Reggie smiled, rubbing her fingers together. “I’ve worked in my dad’s shop since I was ten. You get it off the truck and I’ll get it going.”
“Deal.” Marcus jumped on the bumper. “Reg, grab the sleeping roll from the back of my car, too.”
Marcus pulled the bike and shook it to estimate the volume of the gas tank. He seemed satisfied as he rolled the bike awkwardly down a plank and off the truck.
“Here.” Reggie said. She dropped their things on the ground, then spread out a map on the tailgate of the truck.
“What are you looking for? We’ll just ride out.”
“But we can’t ride out forever,” Reggie said. “These things don’t hold that much gas. And dodging around parked cars will waste what we have. We have to get off the highway and find a faster route. Worry about direction later.”
Marcus looked over her shoulder. “Do you see one?”
“Yes.” Reggie pointed and folded the map quickly.
“Where? I didn’t see.”
“Don’t worry about it. Just worry about holding on to our stuff.” She lifted the duffel bag and tossed the strap over his shoulder. “And holding on.”
“Holding on to what?” Marcus asked.
“Me!” Reggie bent over the bike and began to work on it. “When’s the last time you went dirt bike riding?”
“Never.” Marcus said. “When’s the last time you went?”
“Never, but...” The bike started and Reggie grinned. “I know how to ride. You don’t.” She straddled the seat. “Get on.”
“We should be wearing helmets,” said Marcus. “Is this strong enough to hold... Shit!” Marcus jerked back as Reggie took off. “I know I should have a helmet.” He held on for dear life as Reggie zigzagged through traffic. “I want it documented that I once was a prudent man!” His last word rang out in a scream when Reggie found an open area and sped off.
The White House, Washington, DC
Twenty-two minutes. Twenty-two minutes until the predicted destruction of Chicago. President Nelson sat behind his desk, lost in thought, eyeing his watch, as he reviewed the successful evacuation report. Political scuttlebutt said his entire political career hinged on Devante’s prediction. Nelson would either be a decisive hero or he would be the laughing stock of the world.
It was a tough call. But snakesdidrain down on the Vatican, which made Nelson’s decision easier. Leaders from the past might have blown the whole crisis out of proportion or handled it wrong. George Bush, Jr., for example, might have forced a confrontation with Devante, maybe arrested him as a terrorist, or had him shot accidentally by a ‘bystander’. If Chicago burned, then Chicago burned, but at least Bush II would have ensured Devante wouldn’t cause any more trouble. But many knew President Nelson as the opposite. He wasn’t confrontational, couldn’t be. He was the ‘peaceful’ President, and explicitly believed Devante’s threats were not threats at all, but Godly attempts at peace.
As far as the destruction of Chicago, only time would tell. And when President Nelson looked at his watch again, he knew it would only be another twenty minutes before that happened.
Route 51, North Indiana
The Army barricade was still there, unmanned, on the anonymous back road. Reggie read it as a clear shot south. What she didn’t count on was the dirt bike running out of gas two miles later. She knew it would eventually, but another ten miles toward the Interstate would have helped immensely.
“Reg, we’re on a dirt road,” Marcus complained.
“No we’re not.” She stomped her foot. “It’s paved.”
“Do you know where we are?”
“Out of Chicago.”
“You should have stayed on the main road.”
“Marcus, quit bitching. We’re out of Chicago. I got us out. Besides, I think we’re at a safe distance.”
“Reg, the last town we passed was empty.”
“Precaution,” Reggie said. “And this isn’t vacant.”
“I don’t see any houses.”
“No, but we saw that hand-painted sign for Buffy’s Diner. Civilization can’t be far off, right? Especially if there’s a diner alongside the main road. It’s a traveler’s stop.”
“It was a hand-painted sign, Reg!”
“Bet that’s it.” Reggie pointed ahead to a speck of silver in the distance.
“Seeing that there’s nothing else around, must be.”
“Hey, it’s food.” Reggie shrugged and moved even faster.
“Let’s hope it’s a safe shelter,” Marcus said, suddenly standing alone, as Reggie moved further ahead. “I’m the only one here and she still doesn’t listen.” Marcus hurried to catch up, mumbling to himself.
Twenty minutes later, they entered the long tubular diner, ringing the overhead bell of the single glass door. The door closed noiselessly behind them. The diner was empty, yet the television still played, dishes were still on the tables, and the smell of burnt coffee filled the air.
Reggie took in the sight. “They left in a hurry.”
“I wonder why.” Marcus pointed to the television. “Four minutes.”
“Oh, they were being ridiculous. This is way outside of Chicago. Hey, look, some cereal. Want some?” Reggie tossed one of the single-serving boxes to Marcus.
“Thanks.” He set down their things and moved to the diner phone by the register. “I’ll call and let them know we’re out.”
“Okay.” Reggie ripped open her box of cereal and watched the news. Engrossed, she finally started eating a minute later when Marcus walked up behind her, returning from his call.
“Got through, but then got cut off again. They know we’re out and reasonably safe.”
“You’re wanted,” Reggie said matter-of-factly.
“Excuse me?” Marcus asked.
“You’re a wanted criminal.” She turned to look at him. “Murder. Rose.”
“Great. Just great.” Marcus tossed his hands up. “What else could happen?”
“Chicago could burn in thirty, twenty-nine, twenty-eight... Marcus, let’s go look.”
“We won’t see anything.”
“Still. Let’s go.”
“All right.” Marcus followed Reggie outside.
“Which direction?” Reggie asked, still munching on her cereal.
“Um.” Marcus looked at the sky. “Noon. There.” He pivoted their bodies to the right.
“You’re right. We aren’t going to see anything.”
“No, it may not be that far but it’s too far to.... oh God.”
Marcus stepped into Reggie and pointed up. “Look.”
Three dots of light appeared, like stars in the daylight sky, growing bigger by the second. When they approximated the size of the sun, they began moving away from it. Alarmed, Reggie moved into Marcus and clutched him, the bowl dropping to the ground. She watched in awe as huge flaming torches, almost harmless-looking at first, dropped from the heavens and out of view.
Reggie pressed her head to his chest, whimpering his name.
Seconds later, sky lit up with the flash of a blinding white light then three sonic booms thundered, like a galactic timpani drum. It vibrated the ground. Marcus turned both their bodies away from the light. But it was so powerful and bright, it seemed to burn though their eyelids. Before they could move, before they could run inside, they heard an otherworldly howling. A wind of mass destruction, heavy and moving. It whistled and moaned as it ripped a path through the land, leaving a wake of destruction. They heard it coming, then felt the heat before it arrived.
“Inside.” Marcus pushed Reggie toward the diner. They raced to the door, arriving just as the wind hit, hot and strong. As Marcus opened the door and shoved Reggie in, she turned and saw the horrible whiteness of the still lingering light, rolling in from the distance. It looked like a large cloud of billowing smoke backlit with white light.
She turned back to Marcus. “Get behind the counter!” he cried.
They bee-lined to the counter, kicking frantically at the stacked dishes underneath to clear an area, then scurried into it just as a deafening ‘bang’ hit the diner, and the trailer-style restaurant trembled and rocked out of control. All Marcus and Reggie could do was close their eyes, hold on, and hope.CHAPTER SIX
Los Angeles, CA
Rev. Bailey’s hand gripped the phone, his throat knotted, but emotionally he was numb. He told himself he had no right to be surprised. He was warned. But a part of him wanted to believe that God would change His mind at the last minute. The reverend turned to Devante in the silent living room. He managed to extricate the phone and hand it to him.
Devante stepped forward and took the phone. “Like this?”
“Yes. Just speak.”
Devante placed the phone to his ear. “Yes?”
Rev. Bailey turned around, arms folded, his back to Devante, listening. He said the word, ‘yes’ three times before the reverend heard the phone being placed down..
Rev. Bailey turned back to Devante. “Well?”
“That was your leader,” Devante stated.
“President Nelson, yes, I know. What did he want?”
“He wants to meet and speak with me. I told him ‘yes’. He is on his way.” Devante moved toward the door.
“Where are you going?”
“Did I not promise to speak when the dust settled?”
“The dust has settled.” Devante walked from the room.
Rev. Bailey’s eyes widened in surprise. “Barely.” He said, then followed Devante out.
The newsman’s list sounded like lottery numbers.“...Juliet, Hammond, Orland Park. All these evacuated cities are reported as buried. Cicero, Oak Lawn, Wheaton, Naperville. Sketchy, reports are still coming in of no signals at all from these locations. This report just in from a chopper says that Lake Michigan is mud. Or appears to be....”
Kyle turned away from the news and faced George and Eliza. They seemed lost. “Okay, let’s think this through. They had two-and-a-half hours to get out of the city. Then, according to Marcus, the dirt bike ran out of gas and they walked. Apparently far enough,” he said. “Now all we can do is wait.” Kyle returned to the litany of destroyed cities.
The diner had long since stopped trembling. Reggie wondered when her stomach would do likewise. Groaning, she rolled out from under the protective shelf. As she stood, her legs wobbled and gave way briefly. She caught herself before she tumbled onto the tiled floor.
A fog of dust threw her into a coughing fit.
She reached back under the counter and offered her hand to Marcus.
“You all right?” he asked, gripping her hand, and emerging.
“Yeah,” she replied, dazed in the darkened diner, the light a mere hint. She scanned the room, everything was scattered about.
“Oh my God,” Marcus uttered. “How did we survive this?”
“Call me nuts but I’m starting to think we’re somehow being tested… or at least prepared.”
“Ask me in a few days. I’ll know then.”
Marcus’ smile was quirky as he shuffled around the counter, tripping over some still intact plates on the floor, his eyes rendered ineffective by the dirt-covered windows.
“Please don’t tell me we’re buried,” Reggie said.
Marcus stumbled over to the window. “No, no,” he said with some excitement. “It’s only a light covering, see, the sun is peeking through.”
Reggie let out a long breath. “Should we go or stay here?”
“Go,” he replied with certainty. “But we should load up on supplies, cereal and such. We may have to walk for a while.”
“Oh, good idea.” Reggie looked around for the duffel bag. “Where did I...?” She saw Marcus pointing up. She glanced to the ceiling where the duffel bag hung on the blade of a ceiling fan. “Swell.”
Marcus pulled a chair under the fan and retrieved the bag. “Could be worse.”
“Maybe it is. Let’s look outside.” Reggie walked from the counter.
Marcus followed her to the door.
Reggie hesitated before she opened it. “I hope it’s better than it felt.”
“Somehow I doubt it,” replied Marcus, leaning over a booth and peering out.
“There’s only one way to find out.”
Too late. Reggie stepped out.
Luckily, Reggie was facing the diner as she took that first step, into thin air. She was able to catch herself, instinctively grabbing for any handhold when the floor dropped out. She gripped the doorjamb, hands clamping true. Then she screamed when the door swung closed.
Seconds later, she felt Marcus’ hands around her wrists. “Hold on,” he said.
“Oh my God.” Reggie looked over her shoulder at a thirty-foot drop.
Marcus levered her and Reggie scrambled up.
“How did we get up here?” Reggie asked.
“I don’t know.”
“Oh my God,” she repeated, and then inched inside. Finally secure, she caught her breath and was able to appreciate the view outside the diner. It wasn’t much. As far as the eye could see all was leveled, a long endless carpet of dirt.
Marcus fashioned a dozen of Buffy’s finest linens into a makeshift ladder and threw it over the threshold. They lowered the bags first, then Reggie and Marcus descended. It didn’t quite make it to the ground, so they had to drop the final few feet. After Reggie descended, the rope snapped, and Marcus crashed down. Fortunately, he landed on a soft mound of dirt.
The cloud of dust blinded him and sent him into a coughing spasm. He waved his hand comically in front of his face as if he could ward it off. “No, Reg. I’m fine. Thanks.”
“Huh?” Reggie turned to Marcus. “Oh shit, did you fall?”
Marcus grunted and brushed himself off. “You were supposed to be watching.”
“Oh, Marcus,” Reggie sighed. “I was. Look.”
Marcus turned to see....
No buildings, no road. Thick brown dirt beneath a remarkably blue sky. The dirt had formed one small cliff like structure and it cradled the diner high off the ground. Almost as if the dirt was a wave.
“What now?” Reggie asked.
“Okay,” Reggie stated. “How do we determine east?”
“I’m a scientist, Reg, please.”
Momentarily impressed, Reggie frowned when she saw Marcus peer at his watch.
“What are you doing?”
“East.” He picked up their gear and turned to the right. “My watch has a compass.”
“Oh my God, you are a nerd!”
“Is that necessary?” Marcus handed her a bag. “Let’s try to head out of this destruction.”
“Devastation of fire and brimstone.”
“What?” Marcus chuckled.
“I did have doubts about Devante’s biblical power of prophesy, but hell, look around.”
Marcus slowed. “Reg, please, it was a meteor. Nothing more, nothing less. A meteor.”
“Are you convincing yourself or me?”
“Both,” Marcus said. “I guess I can’t let myself attribute such power to Devante. I can’t. I refuse.” He paused. “So, a meteor. It’s my story and I’m sticking to it. Not biblical, not supernatural.”
As he said these words, a sudden vibration began, rumbling in the air, and then from the ground beneath. Marcus grabbed Reggie and tried to keep them steady, but it was useless. As they tumbled to the ground, they could hear an ear-piercing creak, like timbers cracking.
Seconds later, speechless and disoriented, they glanced over to see the last remnants of the diner disappearing into the earth. The ground stopped shaking. Dead silence.
Reggie stood and brushed herself off. “‘Nothing biblical,’ you were saying?”
Marcus picked up their bags with trembling hands, and then grabbed Reggie’s arm. “Let’s just walk.”
Dodger Stadium, Los Angeles, CA
“Yes, children, the truth can be frightening.” Devante’s deep voice reverberated over the loud speaker with a slight echo.
This time, however, his words did not bring excited cheers, but sorrowful cries and whimpers. His voice was soothing, comforting.
“It was a painful deliverance. And a necessary awakening. However, the thunder of the sky, the flames of vengeance did not awaken all. There are still many in the world who do not believe. Infidels are forming groups as we speak… to vanquish me. I know this. It has happened before. I am not afraid. But the signs will continue. You, my dear people, have witnessed on your continent what will become of your green earth, indeed of your world, if you do not change. Now, before the sun sets, the other side of the world shall witness it as well. A great sea separates many countries and cities. Today the floor of this great sea will buckle. Water will rise and form a great wall that will wash away the cities that surround it.” He paused as he swept the crowd with his eyes. “There is nothing that can be done. There is nothing that can stop this.” Devante lowered his head as if in sadness. “But... there is still time. You. You who are here. You who listen to me here and through your devices in your homes, you who believe in me, you are shined upon. The others, who do not, must be cast out in order for the destruction to cease.”
A moaning uproar emanated from the crowd, mass questioning, and mass fright.
Devante waited for them to quiet down. “You can say ‘No’. You can allow the unbelievers to destroy your earth. Look around. Look at the trees, the grass, the fields, they die. But, if you go to the home of the man who does not believe in me, see that his home flourishes, his land feeds him. He is protected by a force we do not want to be a part of. As long as he remains, he will take the green land from you.” Devante paused. “Cast him out. Do you know of anyone, your neighbor, your friend, your father, your mother? Do they not believe? Do their gardens grow? They follow the wrong path... Cast them out. Harsh words. Harsh truth. This world will end. You can stop it. Let our numbers alive be greater than the 144,000 predicted in your ridiculousBookofRevelation. Only you can make the change.” His voice softened. “I know you are afraid. You seek these words from the Bible: ‘The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”
Devante paused, looking out among the crowd, his voice a sudden force. “Wrong!” The word echoed throughout the rumbling, murmuring crowd as Devante’s voice grew in crescendo. “Your New Testament... wrong! Everything you have been taught about your God is wrong!”
The people went crazy with panic and screaming.
“Listen to me!” His command silenced them. “God is not a God of love, understanding and forgiveness. He is a God of vengeance, fury, wrath and punishment. Take a look at the place you called Chicago! By our sun’s setting, take a look at the cities that will be buried with the waters of the sea. You want an end? You want the punishment to stop? The wrath to cease? You know what you must do. You know where to look for your answers. Seek!” Devante shouted deeply. “And you shall find....” He dropped his voice. “Me.”
The moment Devante spoke his final word, a rush of people charged the stage, screaming his name over and over, the stadium a sea of waving hands.
Devante stepped back and slipped behind the curtain to the quiet backstage.
The screams faded as Devante retreated into the bowels of the stadium, where Rev. Bailey waited.
Slowly, Rev. Bailey lifted his eyes and shut his Bible.
“I spoke to them.”
“I heard,” Rev. Bailey said softly, his voice spiritless.
“Do you have any questions of me?”
“As a matter of fact...” Rev. Bailey stood from his seat and walked toward Devante. “I do. Why would you say what you did?”
“It is the truth.”
Rev. Bailey’s calmness abandoned him. His face flushed in anger. “You lie.”
“You dare take that tone with...”
“I’ll take any tone I please!” Rev. Bailey charged. “You said not to call you ‘Jesus.’ I wondered why. Now I know. You said God is not a God of love, forgiveness and understanding? How blind can one man be? Yes, I wanted answers, any answer.”
“Do not preach to me!” Devante demanded.
“Do not preach to these people!”
“It is my work!” Devante said. “Do not question it.”
“Like you told those people out there to question the Bible?” Rev. Bailey chuckled. “And I’m as much a fool as them. You denounce the Bible. Why? It holds the truth. You ridiculed theBookofRevelation. Why? Because it tells about you.Youare not the Savior!”
“I am the savior of this earth!”
“No. You are the deceiver.” Rev. Bailey’s arm flew out. “And you are here to deceive the people of the four corners of the earth. Your numbers will be as many as the sands on the beach. And, Dear Sweet Lord in Heaven above...” Rev. Bailey stepped back and breathed out. “I helped you.”
“And you did your job well,” Devante said, and he turned and walked to the door.
Devante stopped cold.
“My job...” Rev. Bailey began, his voice soft and resolute, his hand firmly gripping an extended revolver. “...is not done.”
Devante spun quickly, his eyes piercing. “You dare to aim a weapon at me!”
“Oh, I dare to do more than that!” Rev. Bailey chuckled bitterly. “I have erred. A fool’s choice, a test I failed. Though my mistakes of the past cannot be undone, I can change my mistakes of the future.”
“You ramble like a fool.”
“No.” Rev. Bailey shook his head. “I speak rationally.”
“You think you can destroy me?” Devante taunted, nearing the Reverend.
Rev. Bailey smiled. “I do. You see, even though your being is the bile of hell itself, your body is still that of a man. And you will die as easily as any man.”
“That may be true.” Devante’s voice dropped. “But lest you forget... your soul... is mine.”
On this last word, which penetrated the reverend’s heart, Devante’s hand closed and flashed out in a blur, his massive fist slamming into the reverend’s face. In a split second the reverend was nose-to-nose with Devante a foot in the air. He could smell the brimstone of his breath.
The unearthly scream that followed was as if all the souls of hell were crying in unison.
Devante inhaled deeply. Rev. Bailey shook out of control as his body dehydrated and dissolved, until nothing more than a mass of leathery flesh was left of Rev. Bailey.
Devante turned and walked out.CHAPTER SEVEN
Los Angeles, CA
Devante met with President Nelson at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, aptly enough, in the Presidential Suite. No security accompanied the President, not even the Secret Service. President Nelson sipped on a brandy and paced. Devante sat calmly and comfortably.
“I understand the destruction that could happen,” President Nelson said, forlornly. “I don’t want the world to end.”
“Does any man?” Devante asked.
“But can we stop it?” President Nelson countered. “Truly, can we?”
“You ask me if it can be stopped. I have already told the answer to that question.”
“A harsh answer.” President Nelson paused, and then said, “What it boils down to is you want to pretty much eliminate all those who don’t believe.”
“The people want the believers eliminated. They are the cause of the world’s end.”
“I want to help...”
“Then do it.”
“But the only way is to make a sweep of this country, full force?”
Devante peered up at the President. “I know you are planning to keep order with your many soldiers. It would take little to turn your military into police men.”
“You mean arrest those who don’t believe?” President Nelson asked.
“I have my own people, they will help. They will find the non-believers. But your army must seek them out as well. Find them. Take them.”
“And do what?”
Devante hesitated, dramatically it seemed, before answering coldly. “Kill them.”
“They threaten humanity and the prolonged existence of mankind on this earth.” Devante rose slowly from the couch and looked down at President Nelson. “Soon, all will see that, and you will lose control of your army if you do not partake in the purification. You ask me how to stop this. And I tell you simply. Yet you balk at what I say.” Devante moved toward the door and stopped. “I hear tales about you. Stories. They say you are a leader without a strong will. Or courage. A man without a spine.” Devante paused. “Prove them wrong. Show them that you will stop at nothing to save lives, no matter how extreme.” Devante opened the door and looked once more at President Nelson. “Dream well.”
“Found another,” Reggie called, and then raced through the darkness to the small fire Marcus was building. She handed him a large twig.
“Oh, this one’s good. Thanks.” He began to break it up.
“I was thinking, what I wouldn’t give to have a tree to pee behind. And there it was, just sticking up out of the ground.”
Marcus snickered. “I could think of other things to pray for.”
“I wasn’t praying. I was blaspheming.” Reggie plopped down on the sleeping roll.
“This should do it.” Marcus nodded to the igniting fire. “It’ll burn out quick, but we’ll be sleeping by then.”
“At least we don’t have to worry about starting a forest fire.”
“No, we don’t.” Marcus scooted over next to her. “You cold?”
“No, but I’m tired. You?”
“How far do you suppose we walked today?”
“Miles.” Marcus answered. “Probably ten, give or take, considering the time we started and when it got dark.”
“More than ten,” Reggie said. “At least eight hours, right? At maybe five miles per hour. I think we walked forty.”
“Forty?” Marcus laughed. “No chance. First of all, no way that dirt blasted out forty miles. No way. Look at the sky. Clear as a bell. No dust clouds. That much dust would have clouded up the sky. And you forget, we stopped for twenty minutes every single hour. No, ten. Twelve or thirteen at the most.”
“Fine, get pissy about it. Toss your scientific knowledge in my face.”
Marcus shifted his head toward Reggie. “How is using common deduction scientific knowledge?”
“It’s algebra. I sucked at algebra. You know that. So you used it.”
“I give up.”
Reggie nudged him. “I’m kidding you.” She rested her head on his shoulder. “Look how cute our little fire is.”
Reggie gave no reply.
“Are you all right?”
“Yeah,” Reggie replied quietly.
“You got quiet.”
“I was thinking.”
“About?” Marcus asked.
“Well, what if this is it?’
“Reg,” Marcus chuckled. “The dirt will end. The destruction didn’t....”
“No. That’s not what I mean,” Reggie continued, “I mean, what if this is what will remain of man’s existence? Bleak. Nothing. Our legacy.”
“That’s pretty deep. Usually you don’t go there... you know, to serious places.”
“I know.” Reggie shrugged. “I usually don’t take things seriously.”
“So don’t start now.”
“Don’t start taking things seriously now.”
Reggie looked around. “I have no choice. Devante isn’t God, or Jesus, I’ll grant that,” she said. “But if he is powerful enough to cause this, then isn’t he powerful enough to replicate God’s end?”
“No,” Marcus said resolutely. “Andneversay that to me again. Promise me.”
“Okay, I promise, but...”
“No buts. Only our Creator and demented madmen with a nuclear arsenal are powerful enough to destroy us,” Marcus stated unequivocally. “As for Devante, he is forgetting one thing. I am his creator. So somehow, some way...” Marcus lowered his voice to a whisper. “I feel it. I really feel it, Reg. Somehow, I have the power to destroy him.”
Los Angeles, CA
The President, sweating profusely and on the edge of screaming, insisted on relating his nightmare to John, his White House advisor, who had awakened him in the middle of the night. His dream, he said, was monstrous. The advisor tried to butt in with the latest news, but the President wouldn’t hear it; he had to tell him, he said; had to get it off his chest. His wife burned, he said, staring straight ahead, screaming as she was engulfed by flames, eating up her skin in blackened patches. His sixteen-year-old daughter stood by, held in place by unseen hands, her clothes in tatters from sexual assaults. All the while, a mob of onlookers chanted, “Deceivers and non-believers must pay.”
“You can’t imagine how horrific it was, John.”
“With all due respect, Mr. President, I believe I can,” John replied. “You see, it’s happening now.”
The North Sea had risen up. Earthquakes were rocking Europe, tumbling cities in the United Kingdom and on the Continent. A tidal wave had risen in the North Atlantic and, just hours before, had buried and washed away London, Amsterdam, and Brussels. The Shetland Islands. All of them gone.
Of course, minds turned to the supposed reckless prophesy of an eccentric man who looked like Christ, a man who had told of such events; who had predicted this tidal wave as he did the destruction of Chicago. He was not wrong, men said.
The President, tears welling in his eyes, turned to his advisor. “He told me what to do to stop it. I have to decide and decide quickly.” He spoke in a hoarse whisper, almost to himself. “If he was right about Europe and Chicago, what next?”
“What, Mr. President? I can’t hear you, I don’t understand.” John moved his head closer, trying to hear.
“Religious persecution in exchange for life. Freedom of belief in exchange for death. Devante’s way or no way,” he said breathlessly, his words not quite audible. “Is there really a choice?
They began to spot trees and rooftops sticking up from the ground, then spotlights appeared in the distance.
“We made it.” Reggie said in relief.
“I never thought we would.”
“I bet we walked at least a hundred miles today.”
“Reg, stop that. And we are about to find out who’s right.”
“Halt!” a deep male voice called out. “Identify yourselves.”
Reggie squinted in the bright floodlight.
“Identify yourselves,” the man repeated.
Reggie grabbed Marcus’ shoulder, whispering, “Remember, you’re a wanted criminal. Let me handle this.”
The soldier challenged them once again to identify themselves.
Reggie called out, “Dina Lewis and Jerry Martin.”
“Oh my God,” Marcus moaned. “Not them.”
“What?” Reggie snickered. “He’s young. He doesn’t know.”
“Do you have any identification?” the private asked. He approached warily. He was young, no older than twenty. And short.
“No,” Reggie answered. “And stop.”
“Why?” he asked. “Did you two survive that?”
“Fortunately,” Reggie said.
“Injuries?” he scanned them with his flashlight.
“We need to get cleaned up,” Reggie said.
“And a place to rest. But first,” Marcus looked at the soldier, “can you tell us where we are? We’ve lost our bearings.”
“About two miles east of Valparaiso,” the private answered.
“Yes!” Marcus exclaimed. “I was right.”
“Aw,” Reggie whined. “You win, don’t gloat.”
The private shifted his eyes back and forth. “Do you two need a place to go or what? Because we can’t stand out here all night.”
“Yes. Yes we do.,” Reggie said. “How far is it? We walked a hundred miles today.”
“Dina,” Marcus corrected. “We did not.”
“Seemed like it.”
“I’m sure...” the private interrupted their bickering, “I’m sure we can accommodate you. Follow me.” He started to walk toward the rest of the vehicles.
“Hope you don’t mind but we have to keep our distance,” Reggie said. “We smell pretty bad.”
The private shook his head. “There’s a refugee shelter about five miles from here, or... do you have money?”
“Yes,” Reggie said, “Pocket money. Some. Why? You aren’t going to roll us, are you?”
“No. There’s a small motel four miles away. Not very nice. The owner insisted on staying open.” The private stopped as they neared a jeep. “Your choice. We’re authorized to take refugees to either place. But we have to get you someplace, you can’t be out wandering around.”
Reggie looked at the soldier. “Refugee shelter? Like with tents and watery soup and lots of people complaining?”
“Or a dumpy motel,” Marcus restated. “No choice, I hate crowds.” He turned back to the soldier. “Dumpy motel.”
“Got it,” the private said. “Hop in and I’ll be right back with my book. We have to register all refugees found wandering out here.”
Reggie and Marcus loaded their things in the back of the jeep as the young soldier walked to his Sergeant. They chuckled when he reported he was taking Martin and Lewis to shelter.
It was the epitome of tacky, fake paneling, a lopsided double beds, and the overwhelming odor of stale disinfectant. But it was a roof over their heads. And safety, at least for the night, the first such place in a while.
The soldier supplied them with fresh clothes and the owner of the hotel contributed a razor. Marcus and Reggie thanked them effusively.
In his fatigue, Marcus thought he heard Reggie talking to herself. But when he stepped from the bathroom, clad in his matching military boxers and tee shirt, he found her talking on a phone…the Herbie flip phone. Her peaceful smile gave away the party on other end. He stopped and moved off to the side to watch.
“I know,” she spoke softly. “I have to go. Miss you, too. Love you. Bye.” Reggie stared at the phone for a moment, and then flipped it shut. “I love how that just closes and ends the call.”
“You’ll have that.” Marcus loved when Reggie would magically transform from the edgy, sarcastic, ‘everything is fine’ person to the mellow, loving mother. He stepped to her. “Seth?”
“Yeah,” Reggie smiled. “He’s fine. He misses me. My Dad will be here by morning.”
Marcus closed his eyes. “Thank God,” he said. “And my family?”
“Everyone’s fine, Marcus. More worried about us than anything. He said he wouldn’t go into any details; he’ll update us when he gets here.”
“Did he say anything else?” Marcus asked.
“He said to get some sleep.”
Marcus raised a finger. “Ah, a Kyle instruction I will gladly follow.”
“Me, too. After...” Reggie pointed to the bathroom. “I wash my hair one more time.”
“You go on. I think...” Marcus grinned when he spotted the TV, “I think I’ll watch the television.”
As the bathroom door shut, Marcus flopped down at the end of the bed near the television.
“What is this? The Middle Ages?” he muttered. No cable or remote, only a rabbit-ear antenna. He turned on the set. Just static. But there was hope, a voice. Marcus fiddled with the antenna.
The Capitol Building, Washington, DC
Four police cars, escorting a black limousine, screeched to a halt outside the Capitol building. Leonard O’Neill, the CIA Director, stepped from the back of the limousine and gazed over a throng of reporters and citizens. Joel Carson, Assistant Director of the CIA, greeted him at the base of the steps.
“What’s going on?” Leonard asked. “I just stepped off the plane and no one will tell me anything.”
“We weren’t sure until about twenty minutes ago” Joel replied. He motioned for two of his men to escort them up the steps.
The four Domino Pizza trucks and the ambulances made food poisoning come immediately to Leonard’s mind. “Someone get sick?” he asked.
“The guards stationed in front,” Joel answered, pushing open the lobby door.
On entering, they heard loud sobs echoing in the hollow emptiness of the huge marble building. Leonard’s eyes fixed on the Domino Pizza man who sat in tears down the hall.
“Two guards with bad pizza? What does this have to do with me?” He winced at the loud whimpers of the pizza guy as they neared him.
“Everything,” Joel said.
“Was there a security breach?”
“A national breach.”
“What?” They made their way to the chambers where Congress and the senate met with the President. The closer they got, the more police and agents they encountered.
“We had to wait until you got here before we starting clearing out.”
“Clear what out, for Christ’s sake?”
“Okay, sir, let me start from the beginning,” the CIA man said. “Madeline, President Nelson’s secretary, arranged dinner for the closed session to be delivered at twenty-one hundred hours. The dinner arrived, they started bringing it up…” Joel reached for one side of the closed double doors. “And they found this.” He pushed it open.
Leonard reeled and gasped as an overwhelming foulness assaulted his nostrils. Covering his mouth, he stepped inside the silent chambers, filled to capacity with the members of Congress and the President, all of whom were present. But motionless. Some were slumped in their chairs, others prone on the floor, while the President himself was draped over the podium.
“Oh my God!”
“My thoughts exactly,” Joel said. “It was an emergency and secret session. No designated survivor was in place.”
“What exactly does that mean?”
“That means you need to tell me how to proceed. You’re in charge... Mr. President.”
Wearing a towel and her brightest smile, Reggie flung open the bathroom door with an, “Ah,” she sang out, “my hair finally passed the squeak test.” She stepped into the hotel room. “Six times, Marcus. Six.” She paused when she saw him. “Marcus?”
Marcus didn’t move. He sat on the edge of the bed, his face inches from the television screen.
He turned toward her, fingers over his mouth.
Hurriedly, Reggie sat next to him on the bed. “What’s wrong? What’s happened?”
Marcus placed his hand on her knee and gripped, then released, then gripped, as he deeply exhaled over and over. His eyes traveled back and forth from the television to Reggie.
Marcus swallowed. “Power. Control. Were they reluctant to stop him? Or didn’t they have the means? Is that why they didn’t? There has to be a reason.”
“You’re not making sense.”
“That’s because it doesn’t make sense. Though maybe in the big scheme of things it does. I guess there has to be only one leader. Or... make room for one leader. I suppose that could be it.”
“They’re all dead, Reg.”
“What? Who?” Reggie asked, growing pale.
Marcus shifted his eyes to her. “The House. The Senate. The President. The entire Democratic system...” He looked back to the television. “Dead.”
The Capitol Building, Washington, DC
Were America not asleep, the country might have witnessed what the reporters and people did on the steps of the Capitol, the numbness and shock of the aftermath, as body after body was brought out. At the same time, as the power of presidential ascendancy dictated, the Head of the CIA, Leonard O’Neill was being sworn in as President of the United States.
That was the first order of business. It was done without ceremony. Then he would deliver his first official pronouncement to the American people.
A podium was set up not far from the Capitol steps, surrounded by microphones and a barrage of reporters.
A White House spokesmen, still choking in grief, introduced O’Neill. After simply stating, “There’s been a tragedy,” the White House spokesman announced, “Mr. President” as he moved away from the podium.
Leonard stepped forward, his eyes closed, his bowed head signaling a moment of silence.
Afterward, he shivered out a breath. “President William Nelson. The Senate. Congress. They joined today to discuss a national emergency. At approximately eight-thirty p.m., Eastern Standard Time, a chemical weapon was released into the ventilation system, killing all members of the cabinet, from what we can tell, instantly.” He held his hand up to silence the barrage of questions. “Several...” His tone rose. “Several groups have already come forward, taking credit for this action.”
“Sir!” a reporter yelled out. “Will this be your first order of business as President?”
“Before emergency cabinet members are selected, we must do what we can to take control of the situation. Right now, the FBI and CIA are compiling lists of those involved with these organizations. Arrests will be made. Procedures may not be followed. National security in this instance outweighs civil rights. We will question first, then release. If I have to do it myself, I will. This will be... a massive sweep.” Leonard tried to walk away but stopped for one more shouted question.
“In the wake of all these horrific happenings, can this massive sweep be effectively executed?”
Leonard was silent for a moment, and then stared intently to the woman reporter who asked the question. “I believebecauseof these horrific happenings, we must be even more effective in our execution. I predict a widespread public outcry, a mandate from the American people. In more ways than one.” He paused, and then looked at his audience. “Now is the time for humanity to shine, not to be led like animals to the slaughter, to our own extinction. With the help of the people, and the information we have already received, we will find out who is responsible. No one is above suspicion. We’re ready. We’re going at it full-force. And when we find those responsible, I guarantee a swift and harsh punishment. In fact, it has already begun.”
President O’Neill walked away, escorted by security.CHAPTER NINE
St. Paul’s CathedralPittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Seven o’clock Mass was never a favorite for Father Peter Mahoney. He didn’t usually move well on Sunday morning, as he tended to watch rented movies late on Saturday nights. No organ played and no choir sang when he’d say the first Mass. He didn’t have time for it, and knew those who came to his service that early weren’t up for it either. They, like Father Mahoney, just wanted to get in and out. Back to bed and to sleep was all he thought as he walked back to the altar after communion. He appreciated those celebrants who trickled into his early morning service; they deemed his early Mass the Cliffs Notes of Sunday church.
On this particular Sunday, things were different.
Father Mahoney did expect more than the usual handful in light of the tragic events. But by seven the crowd had swelled so much that he returned to the rectory to awaken Father David. Gazing out at the packed congregation, Father Mahoney couldn’t help but feel a sense of doom in the air, a hopelessness mirrored in the sea of faces.
He felt his flock hungered for words of comfort, but, ill-prepared, all he could do was rattle off his favorite passages and platitudes. What else could he say at a time like this?
“And for that we can only pray.” Father Mahoney lowered his head. “God Bless you.” He stepped back from the pulpit and walked to the center altar. Arms extended, he addressed the saddened faces. “Let’s us stand now and profess our faith.”
The congregation rumbled to their feet, a comforting echo in the church, one that also subdued a foreign banging sound coming from the massive church doors. Fr. Mahoney led them in prayer.
“I believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible....”
Then a second, third, then a fourth bang.
“I believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the Only Begotten Son of God, born of the Father before all ages. God from God, Light from Light …”
Up the aisle of the church came the heavy tromp of boots. Then the shifting of weapons, as a line of soldiers, led by two suited men, walked toward the altar.
“True God from true God, begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father...”
Fr. Mahoney heard his flock stutter momentarily in prayer. “Keep praying,” he ordered defiantly, eyes closed, raising his head to the heavens.
The congregation’s words were laced with fear and hysteria. All eyes were locked on the two-dozen men who had invaded their holy ground.
“Through him all things were made. For us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven
A suited man, one Special Agent Harris, stepped to the foreground and announced in a strong authoritarian voice, “The following people please step forward.” He looked up at the priest. “Father Peter Mahoney.”
“By the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man.”
“Father David Garfield.”
“For our sake He was crucified under Pontius Pilate...”
“Michael Albright. Jason Letterman. Robert Haynes. Donald Cross...” Agent Harris called out each name deliberately and clearly.
As he did, four men stepped into the aisles, apprehensive, but still chanting the prayer, their eyes on the priests, who had gathered on the main altar.
Father Mahoney and Father David held their ground.
“Andrew Michaelis and Anthony Hawkins.”
“He suffered death and was buried. And rose again on the third day in accordance with the scriptures.”
Agent Harris motioned his head. “Let’s go.” He gestured to the two priests on the altar.
“He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.”
Fr. Mahoney and Father David closed their eyes, braced themselves, and prayed.
“He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead. And His kingdom will have no end.”
“No!” A woman cried out, halting the prayer, as four soldiers rushed the altar and seized Father Mahoney and Father David, dragging them from their firm stand.
“You gentlemen are being taken into custody,” Harris declared. “You will be detained for questioning.”
Fr. Mahoney stared at his shocked congregation as he was handcuffed, then began to pray aloud again, “I believe...
“In the Holy Spirit, the Lord the giver of life. Who proceeds with the Father and the Son.”
Cries and sobs, overwhelming, accompanied the prayer.
“With the Father and Son he is adored and glorified.”
The other six men were handcuffed and taken away too.
Harris spoke over the prayers and murmurs of protest. “You will be released. You have done nothing.”
“Who has spoken through the prophets?”
A soldier shoved Fr. Mahoney down the main aisle, needlessly, a scowl on his young face. Two men dove from their seats to stop it.
“I believe in one Holy Catholic and Apostolic church...”
Agent Harris, mildly annoyed, twitched his head and two quick shots rang out. There were screams, the prayers ended. Father Mahoney’s would-be saviors dropped dead in the aisle, each shot cleanly through the temple.
“Move it.” Agent Harris took charge of Father Mahoney as his soldier escorts snapped to about-face, then led the priest down the aisle, flanked by six of his men, saying, “You are being charged with the following crimes: Terrorist threats. Terrorist actions. Crimes against the State...”
Fr. Mahoney sighed and slumped forward, the tips of his shoes dragging on the floor, but mustered the wherewithal to call out to his flock, “Keep praying! I confess....”
“...confess one baptism for the forgiveness of sins...”
“Crimes against the government...”
“...I look forward to the resurrection of the dead...”
“Crimes against the United States.”
“...and life of the world to come...”
“Crimes against Humanity.” The door slammed. Agent Harris was the last one through and he murmured, “Amen,” with a grin.
Peaceful. So green. The voice, soothing.
Yet Marcus couldn’t make out the face. Only the eyes, their corners graced with fine lines, not so much older, but wise.
“I will need her, Marcus,” he spoke. “I will need her.”
“Marcus,” another voice said.
“I will need her, Marcus.”
Marcus opened his eyes. “Reg?”
She was leaning over him as he lay on top of the bed. “Did you fall back asleep?”
“Um, yeah.” Marcus rubbed his eyes and sat up.
“Well?” Reggie stepped back and smiled as she modeled her outfit, a full U.S. Army ensemble. “What do you think? I think the ‘Militant Reggie’ look works. Don’t you?”
“It certainly answers the big question… Is Reggie a lesbian?”
“What?” Reggie gasped. “Who thinks I’m a lesbian?”
“Good, I’m proud of you for that.” She moved to the duffel bag at the end of the bed. “Are you sure you’re okay? You look weird.”
Marcus sat up. “I’m fine.” He swung his legs over the bed, and then stood. “But I need to speak to you. It’s important. About last night…”
“If it’s about all the deaths, don’t.” Reggie held up her hand. “It’s frightening. And....” Reggie took a deep breath. “Right now I don’t want to be frightened. So go on, tell me, but don’t frighten me.”
“It’s not about that. It’s about us.”
“Us? Last night? Marcus, what do you mean?”
“Us... in this...” He pointed. “Bed.”
Reggie shrugged. “Unless something happened that I don’t know about... Marcus, you didn’t...”
“What? No.” He shook his head. “We slept together, Reg.”
Reggie just stared.
“Slept,” he repeated.
“Do you know why?”
“We were tired, perhaps.”
Marcus huffed. “No, I’m serious. Can you be serious for one second? We have two beds, why did we sleep in the same one?”
“For me, I was scared,” Reggie replied. “You make me feel safe,” she shrugged, “and maybe, because the past few nights we’ve been cuddling. I like the closeness.”
“Exactly my point. It feels right.” Marcus snapped his finger. “Which brings me to my talk.” He moved closer to her. “I want to do this with you more often. I want to do this with you all the time. It feels too right, too natural. I want to... I want to be with you more, Reg.”
“No. Don’t say anything sarcastic. We kissed… not last night, not like when we were ten or fifteen, but we kissed. And you know, I thought it might lead somewhere. But then things happened. It never came back up. I’m bringing it back up.”
“With all that’s going on?”
Marcus’ head dropped. “Especially with all that’s going on. With the world so up in the air, you’re the one thing, Reg... The one thing that I am certain about.”
“Oh my God,” Reggie whispered. “You’re serious.”
Marcus nodded. “Very. Marry me.”
“What?” Reggie blasted. “Can’t we go steady or something first?” She suppressed a laugh. “You’re joking.”
“No, I’m not.”
“Marcus, we’ve barely kissed. We haven’t had sex.”
“There’s more to marriage than that.”
“Exactly,” said Reggie.
“And we have it. You and I. We have it. The companionship. Chemistry.”
“Marcus.” Reggie shook her head. “You’ve done the marriage thing enough. You don’t want to do it again.”
“Yes. I do. And maybe, the reason my marriages didn’t work was because they were the wrong people.”
Reggie rolled her eyes. “That’s pretty obvious.”
Marcus stared, then sulked. “You know what? Forget it.” He turned.
“Marcus, why are you so offended?”
Marcus jerked his head back at her. “Because I love you, Reg. I want you in my life. I thought... I really thought, especially after this past week, that you wanted the same.”
Marcus looked up. “Really?”
“Yeah.” She nodded and walked to him. “But you’re throwing me off a little with the marriage thing. Marriage is not what I want to do. I never planned to get married ever again. So, I can’t make any promises. Plus,” she paused, “now don’t get mad, but...” she leaned her face close to his. “...your track record sucks.”
She continued softly, “we can take it one step at a time. How’s that?”
Marcus’ face was inches from hers. “That works.” He brought his lips to hers. “Like this.”
“Like this.” Reggie smiled, inching her lips to his. Just as they kissed, a loud knocking jolted them apart.
“Swell.” Marcus shook his head.
“My father.” Reggie raced to the door and opened it. “Daddy!”
“Hey!” Kyle bundled her in his arms. “Thank God you’re all right. Hey, Marcus.”
“Hi, Mr. Stevens.”
“We’ve been through a lot.” Reggie said, pulling back from the hug.
“I bet.” Kyle stepped into the room and shut the door. He was carrying a bag. “We have to hurry. Things are getting bad. Roadblocks and...” Kyle spotted the still-made bed and frowned.
“Mr. Stevens,” Marcus said, nervously approaching, trying to keep the guilt out of his voice. “It’s, um, not what you think. See, I’m kind of neurotic about making my bed in a motel.”
“He’s lying, Daddy,” Reggie stated. “We slept together last night. I don’t know why he’d lie, I’m a grown woman.”
Marcus was horrified as Kyle’s eyes pinned his. “Mr. Stevens… Reg,” Marcus clenched his teeth, “I can’t believe you told your father that.”
Kyle scoffed. “I can’t believe you slept with Marcus.”
“Hey,” Marcus defended.
“Marcus?” Kyle squinted. “Reggie, if you want to lose your second virginity, why not with someone who wouldn’t do it so... so... textbook.”
“Hmm,” said Reggie. “That makes sense. But, don’t worry, Daddy, we didn’t have sex. Only slept in the same bed. We’re saving sex for after we get married.”
Marcus nodded a ‘so there’ look to Kyle, and then asked Reggie, surprised, “We’re waiting?”
“Married?” asked Kyle.
“Marcus proposed.” Reggie folded her arms.
Kyle glared at Marcus. “Don’t even think about marrying my daughter.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t think you felt that strongly about me.”
“I never minded you until you murdered your assistant.” Kyle winked. “Let’s go. But before we do, we need disguises. There’s roadblocks. And you, Marcus, are a wanted fugitive.” Kyle handed them a bag. “Reg, I brought you the ‘Lester’ costume from Halloween. And Marcus... yours is the best I could do in a pinch. Your mother picked it out.”
Marcus peeked in the bag. “Oh no...”
Reggie looked. “Oh, you’re gonna look awesome.” She turned to Marcus and kissed him on the cheek.
Kyle turned away, grimacing. “Don’t do that in front of me.” He shuddered. “Please.”