DOG DAYS: CHAPTER 13

The sanctity of our homeland is without question. It is the greatest gift we pass on to future generations. This gift is to be granted in a state as pure as when received. Our homeland is cleansed in the blood of the ungodly wolf; that every blade of grass may grow to the sky.

Rule 7: Each member will pledge fealty to the land and keep it pure.

Let no wolf-blooded sink its claws into the earth.

Rule 8: It is the commander’s duty to allow the land to flourish.

All roads to prosperity are dug by the most powerful.

Rule 9: Members who abandon their land will find no home thereafter.

May those who run never stop.

 

Chapter 13:

No Man’s Land

 

The hissing grew louder as Jake examined the landscape, mimicking the modulation of the factory’s machinery. It reminded him of what was waiting back home— an army hungry for his removal by tribunal, or methods more cowardly. I‘ve done nothing wrong, but is it enough to be right? It made no difference. Jake had no interest in appeasing the fickle alliances broken and built for over two decades. If they want a new commander, let them sift through shit. Jake had a mission to finish, and he would succeed, if only the wheezing would subside.

“Make it stop,” said Jake.

Monty tended to Walt’s injuries. The patient laid on his back unconscious in the truck bed. “It’s Walt,” said Monty. “The cartilage caved in; it whistles when he breathes.”

“Then stop his breathing.” Jake focused his binoculars on the fortress among the willows. How could this den have survived so long in our backyard? He detected movement coming from the tall grass in the distance—a child, his neck bloody from scratches. Jake narrowed his sights on a sharpshooter, leaning on the railing of the fourth floor balcony. He followed the perimeter of the four buildings and discovered three more shooters. I won’t be getting in alone.

Jake had been a poor leader, as illustrated by Walt’s crumpled body, but he attempted to gain favor by allowing his men to take what they could carry from the house in Saugatuck. And this time, no one would be leaving a note behind for Aunt Bernie.

Monty had raided the medicine cabinet for Walt’s benefit, while Dwayne had stolen childish things: baseball cards, autographs, jerseys, and a championship ring with a bejeweled tiger. Terry had taken nothing. Instead he proceeded to the kitchen and clubbed his rifle against a marble counter until the weapon broke apart. He appeared calm afterwards, but Jake was uncertain how long it would last. Terry kept quiet that morning, sitting against a tree with his head down.

“I’ve only heard stories about this place.” said Monty, “I’m sure we all have—a handful of guys thinking they can just muscle their way in—stories that end with their names being crossed off the doctrine.”

Names that should never have been written in the first place. “You think we’ve already lost?” said Jake as he continued his surveillance.

“I think we need to talk to each other and see where everyone’s at on this; discuss our options. Maybe we’ve come as far as we can go.”

Jake lowered his binoculars and found Monty’s gnarled visage.

“Now, Jake, I’m not saying we need to change course. I just think we need to have a conversation about these things.” He nudged Dwayne with his elbow.

“I don’t know what to do,” said Dwayne as he rested his gun against his shoulder and admired his new ring. “But I’m ready for the worst of it. I’ll run right up to those gates if you tell me to, sir.”

“You don’t mean that, Dwayne,” said Monty. “Let’s just regroup and figure out if this is really worth doing. Terry, help me out here.”

I think Terry’s all out of help. “A man has died,” said Jake. He opened his case and swapped his binoculars for a revolver. “It’s clear that Eustace has reached out to others to save his son, but I refuse to give his friend or any other wolf sympathizer’s death meaning. Anyone here want to help Eustace? Anyone here want to run?”

“Jessup would never run,” said a nasal voice. The group watched as Walt slid from the trunk bed. He wobbled towards Jake. The bandage on his nose had soaked through with blood and bruises circled, swollen and purple, around his eyes. “If he were here, I’d have told him to ask Allred for help by now,” said Walt. “Who would know how to crack that den better than the head of the Michigan Finishers?”

“If they knew, wouldn’t they have done it by now?” said Monty. “Let’s think this through.”

“He’s an hour away in Detroit,” said Walt. “If the den is impregnable, it’s impregnable, but we might as well know for sure before we throw it all away.”

The clown’s right, thought Jake as he tucked his weapon into his pocket. “I’ll have a talk with Allred, and I’m taking Terry with me.” Jake had hoped for a reaction from Terry, instead he sat there, gazing into the willows with his headphones on. “The rest of you will hold this position until we return. If the boy tries to leave, I want to know. Monty, you’re in charge until we come back. Dwayne, stay alert, and don’t fire a shot unless it’s absolutely necessary.”

“How will I know when it’s absolutely necessary?” said Dwayne.

Jake ripped the rifle from Dwayne and handed it to Monty. He turned to face Terry. “Are you up for this?”

Terry lowered his headphones with one hand. He struggled to pull himself up from the dirt. Jake extended his hand to assist him, but Terry waved it away with his sling. He proceeded to the passenger side of the truck without a word.

*****

                Jake needed little direction; Allred’s building towered among the detritus of central Michigan. The Finishers there had made their money from real estate and car manufacturing before things went dark. Today, they sustained themselves with businesses in pawnbroking and personal protection, but it was hard for Jake to imagine how these meager ventures could afford such opulence in the ruins of Detroit.

Jake drove for miles, coming across few other standing structures. Nature had reclaimed much of the land, letting the brush strangle the rubble. Infected homes were vandalized or burned, but the local militia had gone too far, leaving nothing for people to return to in the process. What have they done? thought Jake as his truck shook over ruptured roads. He had hoped one day to move Nicole and Tara out here when things had improved. Like most problems, Jake would have to fix it himself.

“You can’t keep quiet like this,” said Jake. “The others can become mutes, but not you.”

Terry said nothing, watching the debris roll past.

“Would you have mentioned Allred if Walt hadn’t? Would you have let the mission die so easily? It’s been a long night, but we’re not done yet.”

Terry continued looking out the window as he spoke. “Why say anything? Everyone knows you’re running the show and that’s that. You won’t listen to me; you won’t listen to your men, or any Finishers for that matter. You say the doctrine is above all else, but where does it say to hold your commander prisoner? Where does it say to lay hands on your own? Where does it say to risk the lives of your brothers for one little wolf?”

At least he’s talking again, thought Jake.

“I could have given Danny’s name to anyone,” said Terry. “But it found its way to you. Even if I gave it to someone else, you’d still be out here. Do you even realize how deranged that sounds? ” Terry looked at Jake. “Stop hiding behind the doctrine and just tell me why. Why Dan Bully—why all this for just one kid?”

“Look around you—this is what happens when I trust others to uphold the doctrine. Entire cities have been wiped out because people are too weak to follow rules. We’re the Finishers; it ends with us. We live viciously now so our children won’t have to later.”

“Even if that means being vicious to our children now?”

“Rules are rules.”

Terry returned to his window, letting his elbow hang over the side. “And none of this has anything to do with Sammy?”

Jake pulled his revolver from his side and emptied a chamber through the back of Terry’s skull. He slumped against the door, his brains streaking across the outside of the truck.

“Well, does it?” said Terry.

“No one gets a free pass. Not even Eustace.”

“Why does it feel like there’s more to it than that?”

Jake said nothing.

“You know, it’s getting harder and harder to work with you.” Terry put on his headphones and reclined his seat back for a nap.

Jake felt the handle of his gun prod against his stomach. The feeling is mutual, thought Jake.

*****

                Their footsteps echoed against the tile floor in the lobby of Sabrina Tower, grabbing the attention of the skinny receptionist. She sat at a circular desk in the center of the cavernous room.

“Bull’s-eye,” said Terry with a grin.

Jake watched her smile fade away as Terry approached.

“Oh no! What happened to your arm, Terry?” said the girl.

“You got big mosquitoes out here, Kim—damn near broke my wrist swatting at ‘em.  Is the big boss around?”

“I’m afraid Mr. Allred has appointments scheduled all morning and we’re only open until one today. You should always call ahead. He won’t feel sorry for you just because you’re in a sling.”

“You’re absolutely right, and I respect Mr. Allred’s time, but we’ve run into a problem up North and need just a few minutes of his time today.”

“Well, maybe I can squeeze you in if someone finishes early—if that’s okay?”

“Fine by me, but do be gentle—my arm and all.”

More steps echoed from the back near the elevators. A state trooper marched out with a scowl. Jake thought it was a man until she looked up at him from under her hat. Her glass eye followed him as she passed.

“Looks like some time just opened up for you gentlemen,” said Kim. She pulled a lanyard with a card attached from behind her desk. “I’ll let Mr. Allred know you’re on your way. This keycard will activate the private elevator.”

As they rode the glass elevator, Terry pointed west to a similar building.

“That over there is One Detroit Center,” said Terry. “This building was originally supposed to be its twin. When people started to leave, the project was stopped indefinitely. Allred paid to have it finished, and named it after his daughter.”

“How many times you been here exactly?” said Jake.

“Jessup hates coming to see Clayton in-person. He made me his go-between a few years back.”

They stepped off the elevator into an office. Allred sat at a desk as high as a judge’s lectern. The sun shone behind his head. He clapped his hands and the shades lowered around them. With the glare gone, Jake finally got a look at the head of the Michigan Finishers.

His eyes were a steely blue, calm and regal. They almost matched the silver hue of his slicked-back hair. Despite the July heat, He wore a shirt and tie with the sleeves buttoned at his wrists, his navy suit coat draped over his chair. Allred was a stark contrast to Jessup’s style, or lack thereof. He did not smile, but he welcomed them to take seats.

“I don’t believe I’ve met your colleague, Terry,” said Allred.

“You’ll recognize the name; this is none other than Jake Reto.”

Allred’s lips twitched into something of a grin as he stared into Jake’s eyes. “Indeed I do, although, his scars do give him away. When Jessup did show his face around here you were all he talked about, regaling me with your exploits in great detail. I hope to see my old friend again one day, if possible.”

“We’re here to ask about the den up in Flint,” said Terry.

Allred’s eyes found Terry before the rest of his head followed. “I know why you’re here, Terry. I’m still talking to my new friend.” His eyes returned to Jake’s. “Are the rumors true? Is Jessup no longer with us?”

The boys back home didn’t waste any time crying to daddy. “He’s been relieved of his command; he’s spending his retirement in a cell.”

“Your people suspect you were involved with his disappearance.  If you release him, he’ll come for you; keep him locked away, and his loyalists will come for you. Wouldn’t it have been simpler to take his life?”

“It’s against the doctrine to kill another Finisher, let alone one’s commander.” You should know that well by now.

“You have no idea how refreshing it is to find a Finisher who still believes in honor, if not a tad shortsighted.”

“I did what was necessary for the good of the militia.”

“And what about the good of your family?”

This won’t end well for you if you bring up my family’s safety. “I’ll keep them safe.”

“You can’t possibly believe that. Not in the world you created, a world where you jump at the chance to murder your neighbors’ family without any repercussion. You didn’t think that would catch up with you one day?”

“I do what your people refuse to do! You can’t even clear out a den an hour away! I make the Finishers work; what have you done!?”

Allred took a deep breath and clasped his hands together on top of his desk. “A Mr. Howard Fettel is the leader of that den an hour away. Would you believe he’s been there as long as I’ve been with the Finishers?”

“That’s impossible,” said Jake. “That would make him over sixty years old. Infected don’t make it past forty.”

“It appears Mr. Fettel has found the fountain of youth, relatively speaking. We’ve been watching him for some time now, and our reconnaissance all point to their cocaine-fueled sacrament. We’ve raided convoys and studied their shipments, but frankly, we have no idea what he’s doing to the drugs. If we can find out his process, we can begin testing the effects on humans.”

“You’ve been looking for the secret ingredient this whole time,” said Terry.

“We could be on the precipice of a miracle drug. That little secret could revitalize the entire state.”

“How long do you expect us to wait around until you figure it out?” said Jake.

“The wait is over, Mr. Reto. Our man on the inside tells us that something big is coming, so big that Fettel will be forced out of his hole and into a hidden commune in Northern Alaska. That’s where they make the drug. With that said, I have no use for the Bedlam den anymore.”

“Will you tell us how to get inside?”

“Fettel created a network of underground passages below the complex, a labyrinth with too many dead ends. I’ve sent countless men into the tunnels, but none have returned. The only other way inside is by force.”

“Then how did you manage to get someone on the inside?”

“We’ve found a willing candidate to betray the Bedlam for a price, but there’s only so much money can buy. It’s no secret that the Michigan Finishers are vanishing. With such meager numbers, I’ve been unable to plan a full-scale assault. I’ve even reached out to the Dust.”

“Who are the Dust?” said Terry.

“A private military company that specializes in dealing with infected. They have promised the most effective weaponry on the market, and they’ll bolster my dwindling numbers, but even they have their limits.”

“They think it’s impossible?” said Jake.

“They lack honor. Go meet with their leader. Perhaps talking with a living legend can convince the Dust to take the job. I have associates in Illinois who can protect your families while you’re away. I’ll even take Jessup off your hands when everything is said and done.” Allred held out his hand.

Jake hesitated, realizing that he may be agreeing to a suicide mission. He was unsettled by how all his problems seemed solved by this far too well-dressed man sitting across from him. The doctrine promised him Dan Bully’s head. To make good on that promise, Jake would once again have to uphold the laws that had taken so much away from him. There will be justice for Samantha, thought Jake. This ends with me. Jake shook Allred’s hand.

“You may find the Dust’s appearance…unsettling,” said Allred, “but their reputation precedes them—much like others I know.”

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