Ruth Long’s Picture Choice: 1
Title: Plan Z
Fifteen minutes after midnight, Franklin punched out for the last time and headed to his locker, emptying the meager contents into his duffle bag.
Hadn’t been much of a job but it was something to pass the time while he got a handle on living stateside again.
The government and population were hardly recognizable when he’d returned after four years overseas and in spite of his military service he’d been lucky to find work.
University rent-a-cop was beneath his expectations and skill level but it came with a clean apartment and paid the bills.
Time to move on now, reunite with his unit, and make an effort to stabilize the country before it tanked for good. He hung his keys on the pegboard, dropped his gear and uniforms in the inventory chute, and headed for his van.
He was pulling out of the parking lot when the dispatch radio beeped. Damn it! He’d forgotten to dump it into the gear bag. But it wasn’t like him to look the other way so he keyed up. “What can I do for you, Collins?”
“That you, Lenny?”
“Yes. Forgot to turn in the radio.”
“I’d be happy to write it off as lost if you’d do me a huge favor and swing past Doctor Weaver’s house on your way off the grounds.”
“Sure. What am I looking for?”
“Babysitter called to say the Weavers are two hours late getting home. No answer on their cell phones. And now some folks are milling around out front of the house. By the time you get there, it’ll probably turn out that the Weavers are out front chatting up the neighbors and just lost track of the time but I’d feel better if you’ll take a look-see for me.”
“I’d be happy to. After I clear the call, I’ll leave the radio in the library dropbox on my way out so you don’t have to file that equipment loss report.”
“Thanks, Lenny. And hey, be careful out there. We’ve been getting some strange reports tonight. Oh, and if you see Simon along the way, tell him to call in. Haven’t heard from him since he arrived on-scene thirty minutes ago.”
“Will do,” he said, signing off and pulling to the curb.
He turned in the driver’s seat to scan the neatly stacked boxes in the rear of the van.
Hard to believe they contained the entire contents of his apartment. Somewhat depressing to consider but there wasn’t much room for personal belongings where he was headed so he didn’t let himself dwell on it. He found what he was looking for and drug it up front, leaving it on the floor between the driver and passenger seats. Been a long time since he’d opened that particular box but if weird was the order of the night it was just what he needed.
He was three blocks from the Weaver house when he came across Simon’s car. Lights on. Doors open. Radio silent. No one in sight. Took him all of fifteen seconds to decide that investigating Simon’s situation was secondary to ensuring the safety of the Weaver household.
He hit the accelerator and keyed the radio. “Collins. It’s Lenny. Found Simon’s car abandoned on Dover Street. Expediting Weaver objective.”
The radio spewed a spitball of static before Collins voice spluttered through the speaker. “Don’t fail me, kid. You’re the only operative I can raise on the radio. If we lose Weaver – geez, kid, I can’t even finish the damn sentence.”
He took the last corner fast but had to brake hard when someone – turned out it was Simon – walked into the street directly in front of him. What the hell? The guy looked totally bombed. Clothes disheveled, dirty and torn. Gait gangly and unsure as a newborn fawn. Gaze so unfocused he didn’t appear to recognize his surroundings let alone his co-worker or the van.
What was he supposed to do? Run over Simon to get to the Weavers? He held still and kept quiet, waiting for the numbnut to move out of the way, but his mind was racing. The Weavers were only six houses down and from what he could see, a dozen or so folks were standing about on the sidewalk and lawn.
He keyed up. “Collins. Lenny here. Found Simon. Guy's off his rocker. Got a group out front of the Weaver’s but can’t approach directly. Advise.”
No answer. He tried twice more with the same results. Running out of time and patience, he put the van in reverse and rolled back into the intersection, slowly, so an not to draw attention to himself. Turning left, he headed for the alley, taking at full clip, stopping behind the Weaver’s property, and blocking the gate with the van.
He turned, flipped the lid off the box he’d moved up front, and hauled the leather case up and onto shoulder. Windows up and doors locked, he climbed the fence and dropped into the backyard.
No movement there. None in the house either. In fact, there were no lights or sound either. Soon as he was on the back patio, he saw that every window had a metal grid over it and the doors were covered with metal grates.
So much for the easy drive by status check. He hauled himself onto the patio roof, up onto a second floor balcony, and went to work on the grid with little handheld drill. Had the grid off and the window open in short order and entered the house.
Locating the sitter and children was his primary goal but not getting himself shot was a close second. The homes in this section of the university property were reserved for tenured faculty and endowed with upgrades, including intercom systems and panic rooms.
He found a com pad at the head of the stairs, entered his pass code, and spoke into the mic. “This is Officer Alderson from University Patrol. I’m here to facilitate the safe removal of the Weaver children and their guardian.”
No response – but then a terrible clash of voices came from outside and the com came to life and a female voice said, “What’s your badge number?”
“Seven two eight.” Or it had been until he pitched down the inventory chute along with everything else that would have evidenced his identity.
“Well, if you’re really from UP, you’ll be familiar with Dr. Weaver’s work preferences and know where to find us.”
So, they weren’t in the panic room? Okay, so he was going to have to stop and figure out a riddle in the middle of a pitch black lockdown high pressure situation. Sure, why not?! Not like he was in any hurry to get the situation under control and ride off into the sunset alive. Emphasis on L-I-V-E.
What he knew of Weaver came down to three words. Biochemist. Classified. Dedicated. She’d have the initiative and foresight to protect what was most precious. She’d deem the panic room too obvious to intruders and the attic too dangerous.
He headed downstairs, careful to clear each room as he went and to monitor the situation in the front yard before ducking into the closet beneath the stairs. Tapping the com set beside the inner door, he identified himself again, and was surprised that she gave him access without another request for identification.
Closing and bolting the door behind him, he followed her down the stairs into the dimly lit basement and breathed a sigh of relief when three small boys came into view – a baby, a preschooler and early elementary aged child. Family located. Check. Now if could establish the whereabouts of Dr. and Mr. Weaver, he could resume his evening as planned.
But when the sitter turned to face him, everything ground to a halt and time slipped away, until he was seven years old again, sitting on the dock beside his brother, her brother – and her, Kinsey Corbin.
He’d been so small back then. Hadn’t been able to save his big brother from drowning that next summer - or her brother from dying in that god-awful car wreck during senior year. But he could save her – here and now.
His surprise was reflected in her eyes as she stood there staring at him, mouth curved into a small ‘oh’ and head tilted in an awkward position.
He nodded in greeting. “Good to see you, Kinsey. There are a lot of things I want to say to you, but not now. What’s most important at the moment is finding Dr. Weaver.”
She motioned him to a corner opposite the children. “She and Mr. Weaver are out front.”
He started up the stairs but she called after him.
He turned back around.
She mouthed the words, “They caught the virus.”
He sank to the nearest step and his breath came out in a woosh of defeat. The one woman capable of developing a cure for the wretched disease was gone. Struggling to process the enormity of that reality, he made an effort to keep this rest of his mission on track.
“Kinsey, there’s no sense in pretending or kidding ourselves about this situation. We need to vacate the house quickly and efficiently. You and the kids go grab some warm clothes and any first aid supplies you can find. I’ll gather up food, blankets and weapons. Meet in the kitchen in ten minutes.”
He went to the upstairs landing, pushed the nearest dormer window out of its casing and slid his rifle out of the case. Using the scope, he sighted on each body in the yard and street, verifying signs of the virus before pulling the trigger. Their bodies dissipated before they hit the ground, courtesy of the specialty bullets he’d loaded.
Front yard cleared, he emptied the linen closet on his way downstairs. He turned up a half dozen empty boxes in the garage along with a pair of handguns and box of ammo. He had most of the dry goods loaded into the boxes when Kinsey came into the kitchen, children and suitcases trailing behind her.
He headed to the sliding door. “Let’s get you and the kids into the van and then I’ll come back for the supplies.”
But when he opened the drapes, a pair of faces were pressed against the protective grates. Looking past them, he saw several more bodies in the back yard. Damn it to hell. One of them must have jimmied the gate.
“Kinsey, take the kids behind the counter and keep your heads down until I say otherwise.”
He went out to the garage, climbed up on the tool bench and unscrewed the airvent.
Three more bodies had wandered in and his stomach knotted up as doubt closed in. He didn’t have enough special ammo to take them all out. He concentrated on taking out the sturdier of the lot and left the weaker ones for a more personal confrontation.
Returning to the kitchen, he called to Kinsey. “Okay. Come on out. We’re going to have to regroup.”
When she stood up, her mouth was pinched tight. “It’s bad out there, isn’t it?”
“Yes, but if we can get to the van, I know a place we’ll be safe. I was headed there when I got the call to come by here.”
She leaned across the counter and put a hand on his arm. “Lenny, I need to tell you something.”
“Can it wait? We really don’t have time to dig up the past right now.”
“Sure we do,” she said, coming around the counter and quickly kissing his mouth.
“Now that we have that settled, I really do have something you’re going to want to hear. Dr. Weaver was supervising my thesis.”
He stared at her, not following what she was getting at.
“I was a biochem major, Lenny. Long story short, I did a lot of side work for Weaver. More than just babysitting. What I telling you is that I have the gist of her virus evaluation data in my head, including many of her ideas for creating a cure.”
His heart lurched. The worry he’d felt about showing up at the base with four extra mouths fell away. Now he could walk through those gates with a smile on his face and hope at his side.
“Look, what I’m going to have to do to get us out of here and into the van is going to be scary and bloody. I need to know that you can handle it, that you can push through the fear, and that you will trust me to keep us all alive.”
She looked at him solemnly. “I have always trusted you with my life. We’ve been through hell, you and me, but I never blamed you. I always believed we survived for a reason. Maybe this is it. Or maybe we’re going to find it along the way.
Whatever it is, I hope we find it together.”
“There any duct tape in the house?”
“That’s a strange thing to ask, especially after I just poured out my rusty little heart.”
He chuckled. “I know. Sorry about that. We can argue about it later. But right now, I need that tape.”
She opened the drawers, searched until she found some, and handed it over. He lifted the baby off the floor, held him against his chest, and wrapped the duct tape around his chest, effectively strapping the child to his body.
“Okay, here’s what we’re going to do. I’m going to button junior here into my vest so he’s accounted for. You’re going to put the curly-headed one on your hip and hold onto the other one by his wrist. I’ll go out first, take out everything in our way by hand. When I signal, you make a run for the open van door. Don’t let go of the kids and don’t stop until you’re inside the van. I’ll keep you covered on the way, secure you inside the van and come back for the supplies. Got it?”
She nodded. “Got it. I’ll follow your lead, Lenny, but fair warning – the baby has been pukey all night.”
“So what? I just condemned my favorite tshirt to certain doom? Damn it but the good news just keeps coming tonight!”
“As a wiseacre said not so long ago, ‘we can argue about it later.’”
He headed out the door, a grin on his face, a baseball bat in his hand and an explosive baby strapped to his belly.
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