DOG DAYS: CHAPTER 18

“The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” This proverb should be held close to your heart. As we begin to bring all factions together, let us not lose sight of our common goal. Although we may disagree on how to kill the wolf-blooded, the promise of their death should make all parties rejoice.

Rule 10: Each member will respect every human’s right to slay the wolf-blooded.

Let all willing hands pull the beast apart.

Rule 11: The commander will determine which hunting parties should not be trusted.

The weak will be vetted by the strong.

Rule 12: No blood will be spilled during peace talks.

May those that kill like dogs die like dogs.

Chapter 18:

Settled

                The smoke stacks of the facility veered in all directions like spears plunged into a boar. Jake studied the corpse, hoping to discover something tangible about the Dust. The voice over the intercom offered no clues—a static growl belonging to any form of beast. The sectioned-off power plant across the yard still hummed as Jake drove past the security gate. What could be using so much power? Thought Jake as the truck rolled to a stop.

Not for mining, that much is clear. Few mines in the Midwest made fortunes .The majority, like the one sprawled before Jake and Terry, made only rubble.

Terry secured his sidearm in a compartment underneath the backseats. He tucked Jake’s handgun against a rifle wrapped in its case.

“And the knife,” said Terry with his good hand stretched out behind him towards Jake.

I thought he forgot about that. Jake stood with his arms crossed, staring at Terry’s slender fingers.

Terry turned around. “Don’t make this week any longer.”

What good is a secret weapon if everyone knows about it? Jake bent down on one knee to remove the nine-inch bowie knife from his boot. The paracord handle felt good in his hand as he slid the full-tang blade up and out. “You’re sure about leaving everything behind?”

“Not really,” said Terry as he shoved the knife into the compartment, “but I don’t want to give them a reason to feel threatened. My info is sketchy on these guys and I don’t know how we’ll be received. Our contact goes by the name ‘Grit.’”

“All that time spent as Jessup’s liaison and Allred never mentioned the Dust?”

“They weren’t always called the Dust,” said Terry as he closed the backdoor. “I forget what they used to go by. It’s hard keeping track of all these stupid names, but from what I gather the Finishers wouldn’t have existed without them. They deserve our respect.”

They pre-date the Finishers, and I’ve never heard of them? “You don’t need to come with if you’re not up for it.”

“Yes I do. The situation calls for a little finesse, a little…congeniality. Who do you think is going to convince them to go along with the plan?”

Terry was valuable for many reasons; Jake tired of hearing them—even if he knew they were true. Terry took the lead, heading to the doors of the facility.

“Did the group check in?” said Jake.

“Stop asking. I promise I’ll let you know if something blows up.”

“I don’t know why they don’t just contact both of us.”

“Like I said— congeniality.”

They approached the facility, a dilapidated structure without a name. It rested in the middle of nowhere, forgotten.

“You can be the banker,” said Terry. “Just remember that we have about ninety grand to work with.”

“I’d rather not.”

“Just don’t make things worse,” said Terry.

“You’ve asked me to be a banker, a politician, a coward, an oath breaker…”

“I’ve never asked you to be anything you’re not. All I want is that you be reasonable.”

They pushed past the front double-doors to a long hallway. At the end hung a security camera with a flashing green light. As they approached, a voice blared through yet another intercom.

“You Allred’s men?” said the voice, clearer than the one at the gate.

“We are,” said Jake.

“Hold out your hands…palms up.”

They did as they were told. Jake heard mumbling as they waited—it sounded like “fuckers.”

The door lock released and three masked guards stepped out with assault rifles pointed at the floor. Their faces were obscured by gas masks and hoods. The room they left flashed red intermittently in the darkness. They patted both men down methodically, removing their phones and car keys.

When they passed inspection, a guard pointed into the flashing room. “Touch only the railing.”

They felt their way onto a platform. Jake stared at an endless row of lights, plummeting into an abyss. Heat covered his body as his sweaty palms clenched the railing. I swore I’d travel to Hell to kill Dan Bully. Had I known Hell would come today I’d of kept my knife close.

“Should we be wearing masks?” said Terry to the guards. The lack of response made Jake turn around. The guards stood quiet at the doorway, their goggles blinking red in the shadows.

The platform jolted forward before finding its pace down the cavern. Jake listened to a guard say “two comin’ down” over a radio. There’s no going back now. Whoever Grit is, he’s running the show now.

Terry placed a hand on Jake’s shoulder. “We’ll get our man. We always do.”

Coming from anyone else those words would be empty. Jake felt strangely reassured as he watched the lights crawl past overhead. The past week had been a blur. A simple job had turned into a never-ending penance for the evil he had done. He maintained his drive by remembering Sammy, and her tiny lifeless body sinking into the mud.

The elevator latched to the base of the facility. They stepped onto a platform with circles of light leading deep into the facility.

The air screeched with the wail of metal. Jake turned to see if the elevator was being called back, but it remained steady.

“What’s that sound?” said Jake.

Terry pointed at a shadow rolling towards them.

A man in a wheelchair rested just before the light, revealing only his atrophied legs, and his hands resting in his lap in a pair of gray gloves.

“We’re here to meet with Grit,” said Terry.

The figure cocked its head to the side, examining them from the dark. “’Grit’ is my code name. Let me see if I can recall yours. ’Nigger’ I believe. That’s what Allred calls you, anyway.”

Jake realized Grit’s hands were bare. His fingernails jutted out into slate-colored claws.

“Tell me your real names, and I’ll tell you mine.”

“I’m Terry, and this is Jake Reto.”

Grit signaled his hidden sentries to lower their weapons and continue with their patrol. “I always tell him not to judge a man by the color of his skin.” He rolled into the light, revealing the extent of the bluish-gray hue. The discoloration engulfed his bald head and bled into the whites of his eyes. He smiled wide; his teeth were yellow; his gums stained the color of ink. “My name is Joseph Nann, and I’ll be your tour guide into the perfection of mass murder.”

*****

                Florescent light showered on them as the three proceeded into the next room. The stark contrast stung Jake’s eyes. When his vision had adjusted he studied that back of Nann’s head; his complexion punctuated by dark specks and boils. It was the color of a dedicated hunter—a man who would never retreat to civilian life like so many Finishers had done with bandages and palm-sanding.

“What you are about to see are the fruits of an unprecedented flow of funding,” said Joseph. “We were the only government sanctioned hunter group in the United States.”

“What about Chaser or USSW?” said Terry.

“Like Catalyst, and Silver Guard, and all the others—we were all the same group.  Each one torn apart, rebuilt, and rebranded. I served on every last one, gathering the survivors together to form what you see here. A surprising thing happened when I took over and privatized the Dust—everyone stayed alive.”

“I remember you now,” said Jake. “The president awarded you the Waning Moon in ’97. You looked a little different then.”

Joseph laughed as he continued forward. “Fifty-thousand infected wiped out in a matter of weeks thanks to my rot powder, and they had the nerve to give me a medal made of silver. I melted it down the next day. We couldn’t spare an ounce, not for decoration, not for pride. I swore then to do more with less. This abandoned mine, paid for by your tax dollars, is a reminder of what hysteria and wastefulness bring.”

The sound of muffled shots rang throughout the corridor. Joseph dialed a password on a keypad and released the blast doors for them to enter. A row of soldiers fired rifles and handguns at paper targets. They all shared his peculiar complexion.

“We started with munitions and worked our way backwards, developing a bullet that used sixty-five percent less silver than the bullets used in the ‘80s. With a new bullet came custom built handguns and rifles that could fire them with greater accuracy and distance than the traditional solutions. Unlike the rot powder, I was able to patent the designs. We practice with zinc and rubber rounds that mimic the weight of our premium supply.”

“You have some impressive marksmen here,” said Terry.

Joseph slowed past a younger female soldier with long black hair, cupping his hand between her legs before continuing the tour. Jake thought of Nicole and how long it had been since he felt her. He wondered if Allred had followed through with his promise of protection.

They left the firing range to enter R&D. Joseph placed his hand over a scanner and the door lock released. More soldiers populated the dimly lit lab. The walls were lined with mirrors the size of blackboards. The smell would have easily been confused for copper had the blood stains between the tiles not been so visible. Jake looked into a side room as they progressed. It stored a mechanical chair he had never seen before, and two soldiers hosing viscera from the seat. His attention dropped to find drains along the floor of the hallway. What in God’s name happens down here? Soon they had entered a section with no other personnel. Piles of meat and fur rotted in the corners and on the ceiling.

“We were using much less silver, but my mind kept coming back to the rot powder. I began to lead development of a new kind of weapon that could surpass the efficacy of my earlier work. Eventually, we found a way to pulverize silver half the size of a pea and disperse it into the air, and the dust bomb was born. With any luck, we should be able to improve its blast radius to seven feet. We test these sparingly for obvious reasons.” Joseph rolled his wheel into the skull of wolf. The top half of the face rolled up to his hand. Joseph smiled and peeled the face from his wheel. It sizzled in his grasp as he held it to his face and howled.

“With all due respect, Mr. Nann, could we stop in your office and discuss the terms of Mr. Allred’s proposal?” said Terry.

“This is my office,” said Joseph as he tossed the face over his shoulder. “And there is nothing to discuss.”

“Mr. Allred is willing to raise the price another twenty grand. You obviously have the capability and man-power to topple the Bedlam den.”

“What kind of mercenaries refuse a payout that big?” said Jake.

“Is that what he calls us?” said Joseph. “We are who we are, not what Allred wishes us to be. Just as you are who you are—imposters, vigilantes, frauds. It’s funny. You don’t see civilians running around pretending to be firemen. Everyone with a gun and a handful of silver bullets thinks they can kill whoever they want.”

“We all started in the same place, Mr. Nann,” said Terry. “Please understand that we had to adapt to the disease the best we could—”

“Enough with the ‘Mr. Nann’ bullshit. You people are scabs, plain and simple. Now you’ve come begging for help from the people you tried to replace?”

“We did what you refused to do!” said Jake. “You showed up one night a month; where were you the rest of the time!? Somebody needed to …to—“

“Finish it? You got your wish, gentlemen. There are only so many infected left in North America, even less abroad. These are the last days of the war, and I’ve seen enough of my men die. Why should I risk their lives just to wipe out an enemy that’s doing a serviceable job of wiping out itself?”

Jake and Terry glanced at one another. Terry closed his eyes and clenched his jaw.

“I just showed you my retirement plan. Everything you’ve seen today will be handed over to the United States government as preventative measures in the unlikely case of resurgence. I’ll be damned if we lose out on that contract because some drug-dealing corpse from Detroit has a bone to pick with a madman. Do yourselves a favor and let nature take its course.”

“If you’re so concerned about losing men just rent out your tech,” said Jake. “If it’s as potent as you say it is we can handle the rest without you.”

“I assure you, Mr. Reto, the tech is sound. The dust bomb has never been seen outside of this facility. If the enemy gets their paws on it, they can just as quickly develop counter-measures like they did for everything else. We won’t let that happen again. The element of surprise is our greatest resource. What good is a secret weapon if everyone knows about it?”

“We’re not waiting,” said Terry. “Do you have any idea how fast their numbers can jump if left unchecked?”

“That‘s not our problem anymore. Soon they will vanish from the earth just as mysteriously as they wandered into it. Tell your boss enough is enough.”

“I don’t think you realize how many the Bedlam number now,” said Terry.

“A few dozen, give or take.”

“Try a few hundred.”

“It makes no difference. You’ll find no help here.”

“I can’t believe what I’m hearing. You’ve dedicated your life to protecting people from the infected. How can you turn your back now?”

Joseph pulled a radio from the side of his chair and brought it to his mouth. He held down a button with his thumb. “I’m going to need an escort for two down in R&D.”

“There’s a flaw with your weapon,” said Jake.

Joseph slipped his thumb off the button. “And what’s that, Mr. Reto?”

“From the looks of this place, you’ve only tested the bombs on individual threats and small groups in a controlled setting. The government isn’t going to get out of bed to kill small groups. They’ll want products tested on legions of infected in an urban sprawl. That’s exactly what the Bedlam has to offer—the perfect scenario to test the stopping power of your arsenal. If these truly are the last days as you say, this will be your only opportunity to collect that kind of data.”

The woman from the firing range entered the lab with her pistol drawn and two other guards at her side. “You two, come with us.”

“Stay your weapon, Soot,” said Joseph. “These men want us to deploy our team to help level a den.”

“There’re still dens?” said Soot as she holstered her gun.

“You would be leading our forces; the decision is yours, my dear.”

Her eyes darted between Terry and Jake. “How many targets?”

“Two, maybe three-hundred,” said Jake.

“And your numbers?”

“Fifty, if that.”

“There’s seventy grand in it for you,” said Terry.

“Whoop dee doo.” Soot turned to Joseph. “Is the dust bomb an option?”

“Absolutely. You’d be responsible for recording its efficacy.”

Soot turned her gaze back to Jake. “I’ve spent the last six years developing that bomb. I’ve never seen it used outside of this hole. It may be the only time we ever see it above ground. I’d sleep better knowing it works exactly as intended.”

“Then you’ll help us?”

“You two aren’t allowed off the premises until the mission is carried out. You’ll train with us until you understand how we do things, and your men will join us for conditioning and debriefing within 48 hours. The mission will be carried out the night before the next full moon. Do I make myself clear?”

“Very.”

“Looks like we have a deal, Mr. Reto,” said Joseph with a grin.

“On one condition,” said Jake.

“Ha! And that is?”

“I never want to see you smile again. It sickens me.”

Joseph’s smile faded. “Take them topside to their new lodgings.”

*****

                They rode the elevator back to the surface. When they reached the platform they were given back their phones and keys. Terry glanced down at his phone, sullen and defeated.

“We’re doing what needs to be done,” said Jake. “I’m sorry I didn’t have time to work out the details with you. Let Allred know he got his wish, and tell the others to get here ASAP.”

“I just received word from Monty,” said Terry. “Shots were fired at the Bedlam den. Walt’s been taken hostage, and…”

“And what!?”

“Eustace Bully is dead.”

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