DOG DAYS: CHAPTER 23

In the darkest depths, a corrupting evil stays vigilant. The duty of every Finisher is to maintain integrity in every action and thought—to be honest with others as well as themselves. Ask first what is best for the militia, not the individual. For each member is a wet stone to an ever-growing blade—admired for its balance and edge.

Rule 13: There are no secrets between branded.

An open palm hides no dagger.

Rule 14: Never lose sight of the greater good.

 Justice for one means justice for none.

Rule 15: Be honest in your self-assessment.

Acknowledging one’s weakness is strength.

Chapter 23:

Gray Scale

Storms damned the soil and the tarp above Jake’s head. He had not slept, opting to sit at the opening of his tent to observe The Dust patrol the grounds. They directed a glut of cars and trucks onto the property, leaving muddy craters in their wake. Jake recognized the vehicles from the factory parking lot. These people would make up Eustace Bully’s funeral procession.

Jake watched their tracks overflow with water, wishing The Dust’s cavern base would drown as easily. He imagined Grit afloat in the deepest recesses—his bloated gray corpse anchored by his wheelchair. How many could they have saved if they just didn’t hide?

He could think of one. News of Bully’s death brought a cavalcade from Bridgeview stretching beyond the ether. Jake could count the number of men at Sammy’s burial on one hand. With her killer gone, Jake sat there paralyzed. Her justice would remain half-done. You cheated me, Lord, thought Jake. How will you make this right?

A figure approached through the rain. Looking closer, Jake saw Terry had been outfitted by The Dust. His standard issue fatigues hung baggy about his legs—stuffed haphazardly into his boots. His headphones had been upgraded—metallic enclosures clasped around his neck with a microphone reaching for his mouth. A wire snuck down from them into the pocket of his new overcoat, and his sling had been replaced with a hard cast. Don’t be fooled by their generosity, thought Jake.

“Those buildings behind you are called ‘barracks,’” said Terry. “Know what those are for?”

“I’m not looking to get as comfortable as some,” said Jake. “My tent will do.”

“It’s rude to turn down hospitality.”

He must bathe in politeness. “How many have come?”

“More than I imagined. They closed the factory after I sent word of Euwie. They couldn’t get here fast enough it seems.”

“What of Monty and the boy?”

“They’re still a ways out,” said Terry. “I’ll admit you’re taking this better than I thought.”

I don’t know how to take it yet. Jake stared at the puddles.

“We still have a job to do, Jake.”

“Tell me how he died.”

Terry took a deep breath. “Monty and Dwayne’s stories contradict each other. I’ve asked Grit to provide rooms down below for a proper interrogation to get things sorted out.”

One of them got Eustace killed. I’m sure of it. “Whatever they’re hiding I’ll find out.”

“You won’t be joining us.”

“That’s bullshit!”

“Keep your voice down. They’re watching everything. As soon as I find out what happened you’ll be the next to know.”

Jake lowered his voice to a growl. “I’m still commander of this militia.”

“Dwayne isn’t militia. He never signed the doctrine. As such, he’s not required to tell us anything.”

“Then we force him.”

“Dwayne joined this mission when no one else would. He has something important to say, but only if he gets an escort out of here, and if you’re far, far away. We owe him, at the very least, that courtesy.”

Why is he defending the boy? “It was him, wasn’t it? He got Eustace killed.”

“Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t. But by the time you find out he’ll be long gone.”

“You expect me to just wait here?”

“Like I said, we still have a job to do. Grit’s lieutenant has prepared a briefing with our guys later today. I suggest you play nice with her if you still want your chance to kill Dan.”

Jake stood. “What do you mean ‘if’!? Bully’s death changes nothing!”

“Then go to the briefing, don’t lose your shit, and start pretending like you want to fucking be here. You can start by changing your clothes; it’s been almost a week.”

Terry withdrew into the crowded courtyard. Jake pictured the depths of the mine, past the elevator and beyond the firing range where the bits of wolves lay rotten. Grit would take the boy there for questioning. The lord will make it right today, thought Jake. Sammy’s justice will be complete.

*****

A Hummer rolled across the flooded lot. When it came to a stop, two soldiers emerged to open the back doors for their passengers. Dwayne was the first to step out—his face pale and weary. Monty came after. He looked behind him as if he could feel Jake watching. It was difficult to tell whether it was rain or sweat that dripped down the schism of his face. They were soon escorted to the mouth of Grit’s abyss.

“Any questions so far, Mr. Reto?” said Soot.

Jake turned his focus from the window. Soot waited on stage in front of fifty or so Finishers for an answer. Her sleeves were rolled up high, revealing the extent of the gray hue along her shoulders and down to her fingernails—her jet hair tied back in a bushy ponytail. The argyria had grown less distracting. Jake could now appreciate the striking radiance of her slate-colored eyes, even if they were filled with contempt.

Soot was joined by a soldier covered head to toe in combat gear. He wore a ski mask under a hood to camouflage something strapped to the side of his head.  A scale model of the Bedlam Complex sat on a table between them. A closer view was projected onto the west wall. Colored markers dotted the model. Gray markers were placed by a fence near the North building. Red markers surrounded the complex and an area almost off screen.

“I assume the gray pieces are The Dust?” said Jake.

“As you can see, the majority of Dust forces will line up at this section of the fence. Intel shows that the fence posts have not been cemented here. This will be the breach spot after our snipers have cleared the Bedlam lookout points. Meanwhile, Finishers will maintain a perimeter around the complex and a drainage pipe nearby. Reports also show that Bedlam numbers are at almost three-hundred—a third of those are children and the elderly. Don’t be fooled by looks. They’re still dangerous, and none should be allowed to escape.”

“Grit mentioned he wanted footage of his weapon. Who’ll be in charge of that?”

“For this operation we’ll be using Tac II night vision cam kits. The snake cam will be mounted to your helmet with a strap while the mic will be fastened over your right shoulder. A second camera will also be mounted to your gun barrel. Everything gets connected to a Spec Op DVR in your field pack. Under no circumstances are you to remove your cams. This may be our only opportunity to see the Dust Bomb in action the way it was meant to be seen.”

“How many Finishers will be equipped with these cameras?”

“Very few—the majority of you won’t be around when the bombs go off.”

“Where will I be?”

“I seem to have awoken Mr. Reto.” Soot picked up a red marker and dangled it between her thumb and index finger before placing it in the outer perimeter.

“I need to be at that breach spot,” said Jake.

“You need to be where I tell you to be. Expect more specifics regarding positioning in the coming days.”

“We don’t have days. Now is not the time for hesitation.”

“There is a difference between hesitation and timing. We have intel that the Bedlam have celebrations the night before a full moon. This ensures that few will be off the premises during the operation. This next two weeks will also allow the Finishers to condition to the level we are accustomed as well as learn how to use our tools—case in point.”

The soldier on stage lifted his rifle to firing position.

“The Dust use smart rifles in the field. For those of you unfamiliar with smart rifles, these weapons are registered to each soldier’s unique bio-data, meaning it will only fire when the registrant pulls the trigger. If you see these smart rifles unattended on the field, do not attempt to fire them. The Dust take waste seriously, gentlemen. Every bit of silver is precious.”

The Finishers began to clear the ballroom after the briefing. Soon only a few were left in their seats.  Jake approached Soot as she attempted to leave.

“I don’t believe I made myself clear earlier,” said Jake. “We have reason to believe that one of our men has been taken captive. I need to be among the first inside if I’m to have any chance of rescuing him.”

“Your friend is already dead if they check his hand for your brand. We never put new people in the first wave. It would be irresponsible of me to do so.”

“I’m not exactly new to this.”

“You’re new to me, Mr. Reto. My decision is final.”

I’ll just have to go over your head to Grit. Nothing is final, Lieutenant Soot. Jake thought of Grit again, deep in his bloodstained dungeon at the bottom of the mine. Dwayne and Monty must still be inside. Jake surveyed the room for anyone else. The only one still there was the soldier used to demonstrate the gear. As he walked past, Jake noticed the name “Hucks” embroidered across his uniform, and that he and the soldier were the same height and build.

“Excuse me, private Hucks?” said Jake.

“It’s pronounced ‘Hewkes.’”

“Forgive me. I have more questions regarding this mounted camera system.” Jake grabbed the snake camera from the table. “Can you show me how it connects to the DVR unit?”

“How many times do we need to tell you, old man? Alright, but pay attention this time.” The soldier lowered his back pack to remove the DVR from the outer pocket.

Jake wrapped the camera cord around the private’s neck. He tightened it until the black cord disappeared into his throat. The private thrashed against the table, knocking the model and markers to the floor. Jake pulled back harder as his arms shook with adrenaline. You’ve got my attention, Hucks. He could feel the soldier’s heartbeat through his back before releasing him to the floor. Jake picked up the smart rifle nearby and drove the butt into the back of Private Hucks’s skull.

*****

Jake traversed the yard in his new skin, holding the rifle to complete the illusion. The rainfall aided his disguise as The Dust continued their patrols of the premises. The Finishers clustered in groups across the lot. Jake listened to his men talk. He found comfort in knowing they too had misgivings of The Dust. Some still spoke of Jessup and the mystery surrounding his disappearance. What will they say when I bring him back to life?

He followed behind a group of four soldiers as they pressed through the double doors. Jake kept his gaze straight as they passed the security cameras. They were waved past the checkpoint into the flashing red room of the elevator platform. He took his place against the railing, staring into the dark pit below. His boot knife rubbed against his calf. Today I’m ready for Hell.

The soldiers continued down the corridor, opening a set of doors into the florescent lights of the firing range. The soldiers lined up into empty stalls and began their practice. Each smart rifle had been customized to match the personality of it’s wielder. Jake’s weapon was plain compared to the others. He wondered if it was standard issue, or if private Hucks lacked any personality.

He approached the sealed door to Research and Development. Before he could touch the scanner for entry, the doors slid open. They’re expecting me.

“You’re almost there, Reto.”

Jake turned around to find the blue glow of a butane lighter. Grit’s gray lips puckered around a cigar as a soldier waved the torch spires evenly against the tip. He took a puff before clearing his throat.

“Just let me know when you’re done playing spy,” said Grit.

You ratted me out, Terry. Jake pulled down his hood and removed the mask.

“Now that that’s done, you may follow me. You missed the first act, but things really pick up in act two.”

They proceeded down ramp after ramp. Footsteps echoed overhead until only the squeak of Grit’s wheel chair remained. They entered a room where Soot waited in the corner with her arms folded. On either side were sheets of two-way mirrors. Through one Jake saw Monty sitting at a table, wiping his foreheads with a towel.

“His face was more interesting than his report,” said Grit. “I think you’ll be more intrigued with what’s behind door number two.”

The other window revealed Dwayne sitting at a table, his leg bouncing to the side. He fiddled with the World Series ring he had stolen from the house in Saugatuck.

Terry walked in with a clipboard and took a seat across from Dwayne.

“Now that we’ve traveled to the center of the Earth we can finally talk about what happened yesterday,” said Terry.

“And Mr. Reto’s not gonna hear this?” said Dwayne.

“You won’t have to worry about Jake. Can I get you some water before we begin?”

“No, I’m good.” Dwayne leaned closer to the table. “So, each day we watched the Bedlam. We didn’t have binoculars, so we used the scopes on our rifles to see what was going on. Well, Monty has troubling looking through it with his face and all, and Walt had trouble seeing anything after…you know, so they asked me to be lookout.”

“So you were pointing a loaded weapon in the direction of the Bedlam Complex for hours a day?”

“No, Monty thought it was a good idea to unload the rifle so there’d be no accidents.”

“But something went down?”

“Yeah. I recognized Mr. Bully’s Buick. It was shot to shit, though. The back windows, the doors—and he wasn’t alone. There was a woman sitting in the passenger seat and some skinny kid with his feet up in the back.”

“Can you describe the kid?”

“Well, he wasn’t a kid kid, closer to my age, maybe a little older. He had a buzz cut; that’s all I remember.”

The son of the man Walt killed, thought Jake.

“Then what happened?” said Terry.

“I said somethin’ like ‘it’s him’ or ‘it’s Bully’.” Dwayne paused. “You promise me, Mr. Reto won’t hear this?”

“You have my word, Dwayne. Please continue.”

“Walt grabbed the rifle out of my hand and pulled the trigger. I heard the click. When it didn’t fire he threw it to the ground. Maybe he thought it was jammed or somethin’. He pulled out a handgun and snuck down there to get a closer look. Monty handed me a box of rounds and told me to cover them. Then he followed after Walt. There were two little Bedlam kids down there—real little, like eight years old or somethin’. They had guns tucked down the back of their pants. I saw one reach for it, so I got a bead on her, but…”

“Dwayne?”

“I couldn’t do it. I knew she was corrupted, but it was a little girl, man. Soon it didn’t matter. There were gunshots. Walt shouldn’t have been that close. He shot that girl…her neck just…”

“So you don’t know whether Monty or Walt fired first?”

“No, sir. I hit the ground after that. When the fire stopped I peeked over with the scope. Eustace looked bad, the woman too. The younger guy got dragged out. He had his hands up before they knocked him out. Walt was being carried over some big guy’s shoulder. They put bags over their heads—even Euwie and the lady. I don’t know why they’d put bags over dead folk’s heads.”

Terry looked down at the table and tapped his pen to the clipboard. “Is that everything?”

“I’m real sorry how things went down, but I couldn’t shoot that girl. I was thinking about it all night and on the way here. I don’t belong with ya’ll. I’m just gonna get someone killed.” Dwayne removed the ring from his hand and moved it across the table. “I don’t feel right keeping this. Ya’ll deserve more than I can give.”

Terry took the ring. “You did the right thing today, Dwayne. The hummer is waiting for you topside. These gentlemen will escort you up.”

“Thank you, Sir.” Dwayne stood up and proceeded to leave with the soldiers.

Jake took a step back from the glass and rubbed his eyes. It was Walter. How could I think it would be anyone else?

“I’m sorry about Eustace,” said Grit. “But that doesn’t give you the right to do whatever the hell you want in our base. Terry’s a good leader—why you wouldn’t trust him is, frankly, upsetting. It looks like the Finishers have trust issues.”

“I needed to hear it myself,” said Jake.

“It sounds like that Walt character was out for revenge against Eustace. Let me guess, Eustace killed his wife, or maybe it was his daughter?”

“What are you getting at?”

“This idea people get about revenge has destroyed more groups than I can name. We don’t tolerate such ideas here. They’re poison to us. Isn’t that right, my dear?”

Soot nodded her head, staring at nothing.

“If I were you, Mr. Reto, I’d remove Walt from your group, if he isn’t dead already. As for you, I’ll have my men move your little tent into our holding cell. You’re out of control.”

You don’t want to know what happened to the last man who tried to put me in a cell. “Be reasonable, Grit. How would it look to my men if their commander was put in a holding cell? How could they focus on conditioning or the operation? What if we work out another arrangement?”

“They do seem to be awfully concerned about what you think. What did you have in mind?”

“Probation—under the watchful eye of Lieutenant Soot. I’ll never be out of reach, and we can continue to discuss preparations for the operation at length.”

“What do you think, my dear?”

“I think Mr. Reto will deeply regret his new arrangement,” said Soot.

“Fantastic. Let’s shake on it, Reto.” Grit extended his hand.

Nothing is final, Lieutenant Soot. Jake took Grit’s hand.

“Lay a finger on any of my men and you’ll never see the sun again,” said Grit. “Do I make myself clear?”

Dan Bully is an island, thought Jake. If I have to choke the sea with the bodies of your men to reach him, I will. “Completely, Commander Nann.”

Jake left the interrogation room, catching a glimpse of Terry spinning Dwayne’s ring on the table. A good leader indeed.

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