I pull my finger out. He lets loose another banshee howl, and I cup his chin, forcing his mouth closed. I don’t move slow. I don’t go gentle. I ram another wad into the wound. Dumbo is jerking against me, sobbing helplessly. I lie on my side behind him and throw my leg over his waist to keep him still. “One more time, Bo,” I whisper. “Almost there . . .”
Then it’s done. The gauze pokes out of the wound; I can’t push any more inside. I tear open a bandage with my teeth and slap it over my handiwork. I roll onto my back, pulling hard for air. Probably too little, too late. Beside me, Dumbo continues to cry, the sobs dwindling to whimpers. His body shudders against mine; he’s going into shock.
Back to the bag to find something for the pain. He’s on his way out, he’s dying, I’m pretty sure of that, but at least I can help him go easy. I tear open a morphine syrette and jab the needle into his exposed hip. The effect is almost immediate. His muscles relax, his mouth goes slack, his breathing slows.
“See? Not so bad,” I tell him, like I’m settling an argument.
“I’m coming back for you, Bo. I’m finding the bastard and then I’m coming back.”
Oh boy, Zombie, you’ve done it now. The promise feels like a death sentence, a cell door slamming shut, a stone around my neck that’s destined to carry me down.
BACK AROUND THE COUNTER to fetch my rifle. Rifle, sidearm, knife, a couple of flash grenades. And one more thing, the most essential weapon in my arsenal: a heart full of rage. I’m blowing the bastard who shot him back to Dumbo’s favorite town.
Scooting on my hands and knees down the hallway to the emergency exit door (WARNING! ALARM WILL SOUND!). Onto the side street, beneath the cold starlight. I’m alone for the first time since my family’s murder—not running away this time, though. No more of that.
I head east. At the next block, I turn north again, paralleling Main Street. I’ll cut back after a couple more blocks, cross Main to the next street, then come at the shooter from the rear. Assuming he hasn’t already crossed the street to finish the job.
Might not be the Silencer. Could be a civilian who’s learned the first lesson of the last war.
Not that it makes any difference.
Back at the safe house, Cassie told me about finding a soldier inside a convenience store while she was foraging for supplies. She killed him. Thought he was pulling a weapon that turned out to be a crucifix. It tore her up. She couldn’t get it out of her head. He must have thought he was the luckiest son of a bitch on Earth. Separated from his unit, badly wounded, unable to do anything but wait for a rescue that would probably never come, and then out of nowhere this random girl shows up; he was saved. Then the random girl opened up with her rifle and turned his body into a pincushion.
“Not your fault, Sullivan,” I told her. “You didn’t have a choice.”
“Bullshit,” she snapped at me. She tended to snap at me a lot. Well, not just me. The girl’s a snapper. “That’s the lie they want us to believe, Parish.”
Back on Main. Easing up to the corner, I peek around the edge of the building toward the coffee shop. Directly across from it is a three-story, windows boarded up on the bottom floor, fractured on the top two. Nothing glows in the windows or on the roof; no green balls of light through the eyepiece. I hold for a few seconds, watching the front. I know the drill. That building has to be cleared. We practiced it a thousand times in camp, only we had seven guys to do it. Flint, Oompa, Ringer, Teacup, Poundcake, Dumbo—down to just one now. Down to me.
Hunched over, I trot across Main Street, every inch of my body tingling, expecting the punch of the sniper’s bullet. Whose bright idea was it to cut straight through Urbana? Who put that guy in charge?
Keep moving, stay focused, check those windows up there, those doors over there. The street is choked with trash and broken glass, slick with the residue from ruptured sewer lines and water mains, puddles of oily water glimmering in the starlight. One block over, then cutting back south. The building is straight ahead at the end of the block, and I force myself to slow down. You’re taught to stay in the moment, but the moment I’m in is the one that happens after I’ve neutralized the shooter. Do I abort the mission to find Ringer and Teacup? Get Dumbo back to the safe house? Or leave him here and pick him up later on my way back from the caverns?
I’ve reached the end of the block. Time to make the call. Once I penetrate the building, I’m all in, there’s no going back.
I step through a broken plate-glass window and into the lobby of a bank. A carpet of paper covers the floor: deposit slips and brochures and old magazines and the remnants of a banner (OUR LOWEST RATES EVER!) and bills in every denomination—I can see hundreds among the fives and tens.
The damp, rotting carpet squishes beneath my boots. I sweep the room in less than thirty seconds. Clear.
I find the stairway door opposite the elevator and ease it open. I’m down to zero visibility, but I’m not risking light; I might as well scream out my name or yell Hey, bud, here I am! In the stairwell, the door clicks shut behind me, sealing me inside absolute darkness. One step up, pause, straining my ears, another step, pause. Faintly, the building groans around me like an old house settling. The harsh winter, the broken pipes within the walls, water worming its way into the mortar, freezing, expanding, breaking apart the bones and sinews that hold the structure together. If the Others weren’t dropping the bombs in four days, Urbana would crumble on its own. In a thousand years, you could hold the entirety of the city in the palm of your hand.
First landing, second floor. I keep moving up, one hand on the metal railing, step, pause, step. I’ll start on the roof and work my way down. I don’t think he’s nesting up there; Dumbo and I were hunkered by the back counter, and the trajectory from the rooftop into the coffee shop is too sharp. More likely the sniper’s set up on the second floor, but I’m going to be methodical about this. Think through every move before I make it.
I smell it halfway to the second floor, on the landing where the stairs turn: the unmistakable stink of death. I step on something small and soft. Probably a dead rat. In the tight, closed-in space, the stench is overwhelming. My eyes pour water, my stomach rises into my throat. Another good reason to blow up the cities: It’s the fastest way to get rid of the smell.
Above me, a razor-thin bar of golden light shines beneath the door. Holy crap and WTF, he’s a brazen bastard.