Let it be known that the role of Commander cannot be attained by lesser men. The position is held by the strong, of both body and mind, that they may enforce the doctrine in the gravest of circumstances. The Commander is the ox that threshes the grain. It is the responsibility of all branded to ensure that the ox is not spared the goad.
Rule 4: Each Militia will have one Commander; the burden of the group is theirs to carry.
May many voices become one—a shout in the face of adversity.
Rule 5: The Commander is chosen at the end of a thirty-day vote. Only those with the mark may participate.
The hands of the knowledgeable are easily identified.
Rule 6: In a Commander’s absence, his role will be filled immediately by the lieutenant of his prior choosing, with all inherit power therein.
Power recognizes power; leaders recognize leaders.
Same as the Old Boss
Jake grimaced at the light near his face, his neck too sore to turn away. Monty helped by crouching down between Jake and the lantern. “Quit whining,” said Monty. “I need to be able to see.” He ran a wet cloth across Jake’s face, removing blood that had crusted from his forehead down to his mouth. Jake tasted it on his lips as he waited for the rag to leave him.
When his eyes adjusted, Jake could see every inch of Monty’s sundered wreck of a face. Multiple surgeries failed to repair the site, parted down the middle by a wolf’s cruel touch. What remained had not aligned, and Jake wanted to reach out and shift Monty’s face back to normal as if it were as easy as brushing hair from one’s eyes.
“Don’t move so quickly,” said Monty as he helped him sit up.
“Where’s Terry?” said Jake.
Monty pointed over his shoulder with his thumb. “By the campfire. I was able to set his wrist, but he won’t be using it for a while. Thank God it wasn’t his shooting hand.”
“And the others?”
“Battered, but still with us. I might actually look better come to think of it.” His smile had once been charming. “You might want to say something to the rest of us next time you decide to ram an SUV into a ditch.”
“What happened to the driver?”
“Never mind that now. Take off your shirt; it wasn’t red a minute ago.”
Jake slid off his overall straps and peeled the stained shirt over his head. He discovered a wound under his armpit that spilled down his side.
“Missed one,” said Monty. “My vision isn’t great at night, even with this thing.” Monty petted the lantern like a small dog. “Tuck your shirt under your arm and apply a little pressure. I’ll go get another roll of gauze.”
Jake reached for Monty’s arm, but he was too slow to stop him. He sat with his shirt in one hand and his head in the other. Two weeks, six days, two hours, thought Jake.
“So what came first: the bullet wounds or the skin grafts?” said a voice.
Jake scanned the forest and found the new hire perched on a log, using the butt of his rifle as a chin rest.
“My dad got burned in a grease fire a few years back. Freak accident—burned over half his body. He stopped working on cars after that. Those grafts are unbearable, right? How did you get yours?”
Jake hated dwelling on pain; he hated it even more when others dwelled for him. “What happened to the driver from the other car, Wayne?”
“I don’t know. They told me to keep an eye on you while they took care of him. And the name’s ‘Dwayne’ by the way. ”
“Go get Terry, Dwayne.”
“No problem, Mr. Reto.” Dwayne hopped down from the log and headed in the direction of camp. He paused and scratched the back of his shaved head. “Terry’s the black fella, right?”
Jake took a deep breath. “He sure is, Dwayne.”
The boy left with a nod.
Relieved to be alone, Jake listened to the muffled traffic through the trees. It reminded him of rapids and how cool the whitewater felt against his face. The outdoors had always been his escape, especially in times such as these. He planned to take his girls camping after the next full moon had waned. He would introduce Tara to the virtue of autonomy, unlike his sons. The thought of them made him spit in the dirt, but he was angrier with himself for tailing Eustace too closely and ruining hours of work. He did, however, manage to salvage the night. The Escalade from Naperville had been deserted by Eustace, and only one course of action felt appropriate to Jake.
His attention turned to shattered glass and gravel crunching underfoot. Monty kneeled beside him and cleaned the wound.
“What happened to your scout?” said Monty.
“He wouldn’t shut up so I sent him to get Terry.”
“First mission jitters I suppose,” said Monty as he rolled a strip of gauze around Jake’s chest. “The good thing about the young ones is that they’re eager. ‘Be a sponge’ I say. ‘You might become the next… Jake Reto.’”
“We’ll see how eager he is when we find Bully.”
“I overheard him ask about your scars. Not my best work I’ll admit, but then again, we all thought you were dead that night anyway.”
“He needs to learn to keep his fucking mouth shut,” said Jake, unaware that Dwayne had returned with Terry.
“There’s food in the backseat of Jake’s truck,” said Terry. “How ‘bout you guys go help yourselves and keep an eye on our guest?”
Dwayne and Monty left for the campfire.
Jake reached over and lowered the intensity of the lantern. “How generous of you to offer my rations.”
“No one’s eaten since lunch. They’re too busy being ordered to track down Bully, become crash dummies, and get their fucking wrists broken.” Terry brandished his makeshift cast.
“You would let them get away?”
“You could’ve kept followin’ the Escalade.”
“He was going in circles, Terry. Either he was lost or he knew we were on him. It took us five hours to get out here. I wasn’t about to wait another five to see where he’d wind up.”
“Do you have any idea how lucky you are to have this group tonight? And you still jeopardized their safety to track down a college kid?”
“It’s doctrine; what more is there to say? Either that means nothing to you or it’s just not clear.”
“You’re pissin’ away your power. That much is clear.”
“You’re mad at me about how things shook out with Jessup, aren’t you?”
“What happened to talking with him, Jake? No one knows what happened in there, but rumors are already going around. The next in line was Eustace, but with him gone leadership falls on you. People made their own conclusions, how could they not?”
“You didn’t see him, Terry. Jessup wasn’t fit to lead anymore.”
“And what do you think they’ll do to you when the rumors get louder?”
“‘Rumor is no substitute for truth.’”
“The militia won’t wait for ‘truth.’”
“They won’t, but what’s their alternative? Even at his most delusional, Jessup would never kill me. He’d try like hell to get his point across, but even he knew the group wouldn’t last without me. They all know that—whether they want to admit it or not.”
“And I thought we agreed on two weeks for Eustace?”
“You saw how Euwie looked at us today. We could have given him two years and he wouldn’t have killed Danny. I need to put this to bed before it becomes a bigger problem for all of us.”
Terry shook his head. “What’s done is done, Jake, but I don’t think you realize what kind of shit you’re in. You can’t keep being so impulsive, especially with people’s lives. The moment the Finishers don’t think you’re worth following, you and your entire family are on the chopping block. For Nicole and Tara’s sake, your demeanor has to change. Do what you have to do with Bully, but let your people know that you’re putting the good of the militia above everything else. Give them a reason to look the other way on Jessup, and you just might survive this.”
“What do you suggest?”
“Talk to them. Listen to them.”
“It’s a start.”
“And you think I can trust this group?”
“Monty saved your life once and the boy just started here. He hasn’t learned to hate you yet.”
“Walt was one of Jessup’s guys. Think of this mission as an opportunity to win him over. Convince him that you’re the right man for the job and you’ll get more of Jessup’s guys backing you at the plant. It’ll be close to impossible, but you’re going to have to be likable.”
Jake remembered what Jessup had said about the plant closing down soon. He wanted to let Terry know, but he refused to allow more distractions. Jake extended his hand up for assistance and Terry stared at the hand annoyed. Jake placed it back on the ground and raised the other.
“That’s better,” said Terry as he pulled Jake to his feet. “And just so you know, not everyone is as in love with the doctrine as you are.”
As they made their way to camp, Jake heard talking.
“Of course he killed him,” said Walt. He veered away from Dwayne when he saw Jake coming. I should have been more careful handling Jessup, thought Jake, but then where would we be? He knew that the population of wolf-blooded had diminished rapidly over the last decade, but he had seen outbreaks take away entire towns in just one night, and they had taken enough from Jake already. You were right about one thing, Jessup, the boy will die.
Jake found his group gathered around the fire, their faces tired and miserable in the glow. They gnawed on expired protein bars and washed them down with bottled water from Jake’s truck. The truck had busted its headlights and most of its windshield while the Escalade had its driver side smashed in as if it had been caught by a cannon ball. Its cargo hold had been deemed a suitable prison with Terry standing guard.
Jake peered into the back window. “Has he moved at all?”
“Monty checked him out before we put him in. Said he was knocked out cold, but alive.”
“His shoulder looks—“
“Dislocated. We had a hell of time getting those cuffs on him. I also managed to find a few things you should check out.” Terry handed Jake a leather wallet. Inside, the ID read “Tim J. Lucero” from Naperville, Illinois. “He’s also been getting calls from someone named ‘Kalvin.’”
“Let me see the phone.” Tim had received four missed calls within the last hour. “That must be his son driving Eustace. Why does Eustace need them? Why two cars?”
“Maybe they were planning on coming back with a lot more passengers than Danny.”
“Regardless, this capture is a godsend. Not only do we have someone who can lead us straight to the boy, but we now have a bargaining chip if need be.”
“We’re still not killing anybody, right? Or has that plan changed, too?”
“The plan stays the same, Terry. You have my word.” Jake watched his group finish eating.
“Your people await,” said Terry.
They exchanged nods before Jake cleared his throat and approached the flame.
“Get your fill now,” said Jake. “We’ll need our strength for the next leg of the pursuit.” He surveyed the fire, impressed by its build. “Who did this?”
“I did, Sir.” said Dwayne.
“You have matches?”
“No sir, just a firesteel on my keychain.”
“You did good; you all have. I’ve asked a lot from everyone tonight, I thank you for rising to the occasion.” He glanced at Terry again. Terry motioned for Jake to continue with his good wrist.
“This is just an iota of what we do, Dwayne. You’ve seen firsthand the dedication we expect from our members. I hope you’ll learn from these men. There isn’t one among you that would turn their backs on duty.”
“I heard a lot of Finishers talk about how much they liked Mr. Bully,” said Dwayne. “Are we going to have to hurt him?”
“That’s up to Mr. Bully. He’s served well for years, but now, he seems to think that the rules don’t apply to him. His son is corrupted; he’ll be put to death just as all our infected have been in the past. In a perfect world I’d want him by our side when we return to the plant, but it’s looking less likely that we’ll all walk away from this.” Jake felt lightheaded and took a seat by the fire. I’ve lost more blood than I thought. “I won’t stop my pursuit, but I know that I may have recruited more than necessary for this mission. Before we go any further, I will ask this once. Does anyone want to turn back?”
Walt’s hand rose. “I have a question. How long will your pursuit last? Jessup’s been missing for almost two days now, or have you forgotten?”
“I don’t know Jessup well,” said Dwayne, “but I’d like to help you find him. He gave me my first job, after all.”
Jake looked to Terry again and found him waiting for the answer, calm-eyed and patient as usual. Jake knew he would have to address the Jessup rumors at some point, but it would not be tonight. “I haven’t forgotten anything, Walt. Dwayne, you’ll learn eventually that Jessup’s drinking can lead to much longer stretches than this. If every man does their part, we’ll be back at work by Monday morning. For all we know, Jessup will be there waiting for us. We’re close, gentlemen. We can’t lose the trail. As soon as the prisoner gains consciousness, he’ll be interrogated and we’ll be on our way. Now, are there any more questions?”
Dwayne raised his hand next. “I didn’t have a chance to ask this in the truck, but I’ve been curious ever since we started. What were your first kills like?”
The fire crackled as the men looked to one another speechless.
“I remember shooting a coyote by accident when I was eleven,” said Monty. “Not incredibly interesting…”
“I meant your first wolf kill. The first time you ever put down one of those things.”
Monty adjusted himself on the log. “That seems like a lifetime ago. I want to say ’94 or ’95, around that time. That was during my pacifist phase, living in the plains to the west. A lot of people discovered that loud noises spooked wolves, so I rigged my house with sirens and trap wire. I thought I could keep them away without firing a bullet. They went off every couple of hours. I didn’t care. It wasn’t like I was going to get any sleep those nights anyway.”
Jake had heard this story a dozen times before; each version had grown in absurdity.
“One night, a storm knocked out my power and I had to go to plan ‘B.’ It was dark and I wasn’t great with a rifle to begin with, but there I was—sitting in my kitchen with another chair to keep my gun steady.”
“You stayed like that all night?” said Dwayne.
“Had to. I must have been the only morsel for miles ‘cause they came pouring in through the windows. They would have come in through the chimney if they could fit.”
“What did they look like?”
“Never saw one of them alive. I waited until I could hear the creaking of the floorboards and unloaded into the darkness. If it wasn’t for the lightning that rolled through, I’d of been ripped to shreds. In the morning I had eight dead wolves in my house.”
“It was three,” said Walt.
“It was at least four,” said Monty. “They must have been purebreds ‘cause their coats were damn near perfect. I spent that summer practicing taxidermy on what was left over. Back when they were still a novelty, I was able to prop one up by the street and charge two bucks for folks to get their picture taken with them. I made enough to repair my windows and get a backup generator.”
“That assault on your house,” said Dwayne. “Is that what happened to your face?”
“Jesus Christ, Dwayne,” said Walt.
“It’s okay. He’s just curious. No, Dwayne. This happened years later when I joined the Finishers. I don’t think any of you were with me that night.”
“I was,” said Terry.
“That’s right! You drove me to the hospital. A wolf was loose in someone’s house and we were called over to deal with it. I hear people say that wolves can’t control themselves after they’ve turned, but I swear to God that wolf waited for me. It lured me into the basement and, well, you know the rest.”
“You’ve never seen one, Dwayne?” said Walt.
“Not in person. My family would just hunker down in the cellar all night. I’d hear the sounds they’d make and I always wanted to just peek through the doors, but I never did. I’ve seen pictures and videos, but they’re not the same.”
“I wasn’t much younger than you when I saw one in person,” said Walt. “We were a farm family, owned eighty-five acres in Southern Illinois. There were a lot of us—three sisters, three brothers, mom and dad. Dad used to go into my youngest sister’s room at night; that was our family secret for years.” Walt shook his head at the dirt and went silent for a moment. “When she was nine she turned while we were all in the house and dad told everyone to run for the barn. I’ll never forget running that fast across that field. And here’s the part that I think of every time Monty tells that story about his face. My little sister blew right past me. She darted past my mom, my other sisters, my brothers, but she sank her teeth into dad’s calf and ate him from the legs up.”
“She still knew,” said Dwayne.
Walt nodded his head. “She could have murdered any one of us. I wouldn’t have believed it had I not seen it myself.”
Jake needed few reasons to continue killing wolf-blooded, but Walt’s story was exactly what he wanted Dwayne to hear.
“He’s awake, “said Terry. “How do we want to do this?”
Jake rose from his seat. “I’ll do it. Everyone else stay perfectly quiet.”
“I’ll help you out,” said Walt. “You still look wobbly.”
Jake held down the release button to pop open the back door. The prisoner squirmed along the cargo liner with his hands bound behind his back and a bandage tied around his eyes. A rag filled Tim’s mouth, and Terry’s headphones had been placed on his head to sever him from the world. Jake gazed down at the confused prize with satisfaction, although there was little time to relish.
Walt reached in and lifted the prisoner by his dislocated arm to sit him upright. Tim’s muffled screams caused the tendons in his neck to bulge. Walt gripped around the back of Tim’s knee with both hands and yanked him closer until his legs dangled off the edge of the SUV. The prisoner cringed to protect himself from whatever would come next.
“Careful with him!” said Jake. “You want him to fucking pass out again!?” Jake turned around and saw the others staring back at him from the campfire. “No names once these come off,” said Jake. He pulled the headphones away from the prisoner’s ears, lifting them cleanly from Tim’s head. Jake held the lip of the rag that dangled from his mouth. “I have no reason to hurt you, Tim. Don’t give me one. Do you understand?”
The prisoner’s head nodded.
Jake pulled out the rag and tossed it aside. “Where is Eustace Bully going?”
“I don’t…I don’t know.”
“Let’s try again. Is he staying in Michigan? Is he staying in the country?”
“Remember what I said about reasons, Tim?”
“I know…your type.”
Jake and Walt exchanged glances. “Can you tell me who Kalvin is?”
Tim opened his mouth but the words struggled.
“He’s your son, isn’t he? He was driving Eustace’s car. Why?”
“My son knows where his son is. I… wasn’t told.”
“I have a hard time believing that, Tim.”
“It doesn’t matter what you believe…you’ll kill us all.”
Walt drew his pistol and pressed it against Tim’s temple. “Watch your fucking tone.”
“Put it away.” Jake raised a hand to steady Walt. “We won’t hurt you, or your boy, or even Eustace. That was never the plan. But Dan Bully is dangerous. If Kalvin is being used to find him that puts your son in a bad situation.”
“I…I can’t. I can’t tell you anything.”
“Give me something, Tim, for the sake of your son.”
“I already gave up Bridgette.” Tim’s body trembled to get the words out. “I won’t let you take my boy.”
The words reminded Jake of Eustace, how selfish he had become. Jake lowered his hand and allowed Walt to move in. Sic him.
Walt wrapped his hands around the prisoner’s throat. The veins protruded from his arms as he wrung the man’s neck. Tim wheezed as he fell to his side, his face bloated and red in the light of the flame.
“That’s enough,” said Jake, but Walt persisted. His thumbs dug into Tim’s jugular.
He bounced the prisoners head against the liner. “We said no names, Jake!”
He doesn’t care about finding Danny. He just wants to go home, thought Jake. He’ll kill Tim before I get anything. “Listen to me, Tim! You don’t have much time! You will die tonight if you don’t give us Dan’s location!”
“Liars!” said Tim with a wheeze. “You’re all liars!”
Walt pulled his gun out again and tapped Tim’s head with each taunt. “Tic! Tock! Tic! Tock! Tic! Ta—“
Tim’s time had run out. He slumped to his right and his head emptied onto the cargo liner and spilled onto the dirt.
Walt let the gun slip through his fingers, agape at the sight of the lifeless body. “I don’t know what happened,” said Walt. “I must have turned off the safety somehow…I wasn’t going to shoot …”
Jake lunged at Walt, tackling him to the ground. He pummeled his face into the blood and dirt, knocking away Walt’s hands when he attempted to protect himself. His bandaged wound seared with each blow. He wanted Walt to dissipate into the pool of sludge. No one had tried to stop him.
When the onslaught was over, Walt’s face looked worse than Monty’s. Jake stood over Walt’s body, his dressing covered with filth; although he had no idea whose blood it belonged.
“We’re not too far gone, Jake,” said Terry. “Please stop and listen to me!”
Jake walked to the campfire and pulled out a flaming log with his bare hand. He tossed it into the Escalade through the driver window. He then shoved Tim’s remains back and slammed the cargo door shut. Within seconds the SUV was engulfed and he ordered his men to carry Walt to his truck. He placed his burnt hand on Terry’s shoulder.
“We’re not done yet,” said Jake. “Give me his phone.”