Book 4 of the Plagued States of America series
When zombie research scientist Doctor Wendy O'Farrell is abducted by fanatics who live deep within the Quarantine Zone, she must struggle to protect the recently cured daughter of a powerful Senator while being forced to deliver a curative to the infected friends and family of her mad captors.
It looked like any other zombie hunting rig. That's what fooled everyone, including Dr. Wendy O'Farrell. She hurried past, hoping to outrun the cold wind blowing through the parking garage beneath the Elevated Platform Station—everyone who lived here called it the EPS. On a normal day, she may have noticed how the giant truck sat lengthwise in front of the other vehicles instead of being parked properly, or how the man in the driver's seat ducked low beneath the steering wheel at the sight of her, just the round of his wool hat peeking above the dash to give him away. It might have been enough to save her, but then again, she hadn't had a normal day in weeks.
At the steel door along the far end of the parking structure, she leaned her upper arm against a black sensor pad. It scanned the RFID capsule beneath her skin, making a beep as the lock clacked to let her through. Without taking her hands out of her jacket pockets, she yanked open the door and ducked into the equally cold man-trap. At least there was no wind. The door wheezed shut behind her.
Reluctantly, she took her hands out of her pockets to push back her upturned hood and tighten the ponytail holding up her thick red hair. This daily ritual gave her a moment to compose herself before scores of cameras recorded her every move. One watched her now. She hid behind her arm, tugging her hair again, even though it wasn't coming loose. Taking a deep breath to calm herself, she let out a sigh that turned into a cough.
The man-trap had two doors, the one she came in, and the one leading into the kennels—what the EPS guards affectionately dubbed the place where they kept the zombies locked up. She leaned into the second door sensor and a small light on its biometric reader blinked red. When she put her thumb on the pad beside it, the light changed to yellow, flashed twice, and finally lit solid green. The second door clacked, releasing magnetic locks, and she yanked it open, escaping the man-trap and bitter cold.
"Morning, Mike," Wendy muttered, stifling another cough.
Mike sat behind a huge plate of bulletproof glass consuming most of the far wall of the waiting room. A cluster of monitors showed video footage behind him, each screen displaying a different security checkpoint inside and outside the kennels.
"Morning," Mike replied, his voice an echo through the speaker. He wore a black military uniform with sewn-in arm, leg, and body armor that was basically lightweight padding, designed to be bite-proof, not bulletproof. His zip-up neck guard hung loosely over his shoulders.
Wendy caught a glimpse of herself in the monitors as she walked to the door beside the glass. She didn't like what she saw. Sleeplessness had definitely taken its toll, showing every one of her thirty-three years. Couple that with barely eating and she looked a lot like the zombies she cared for. She was so sickly pale these past few days that the only tan was on her freckles, as her mother would put it—when was the last time I talked to mom? She wanted to believe it was just the cameras or the fluorescent lights in here, but the mirror in her apartment reflected the same gaunt husk of a woman.
She coughed again, sniffled, and breathed in deeply to clear her nose. That's when she smelled the odor of cigarettes, the kind of staleness that followed a smoker into a room. She knew Mike didn't smoke.
Behind her, hardly more than ten feet away, a rugged man in his fifties leaned low in a chair along the wall.
God, I'm losing it. How did I miss him?
He smiled at her and nodded, sliding his jacket zipper up and down in quick jerks. His eyes grazed on her from head to toe and back again. He winked, smiling broader to show his worn out, yellowing teeth. He typified the kind who inhabited the Quarantine Zone, a rough zombie hunter with dirt-stained hands, fingernails ringed in black, a pair of loosely-tied boots, thick pants, a heavy hunter's jacket, four days of facial hair, and a greasy salt-and-pepper mop pasted to his scalp from days of his own sweat under a hat that probably should have been thrown away before the zombie war even started.
Wendy sighed in disgust. Just a hunter dropping off his catch, or maybe checking in on his sales records. She didn't really care. She just wanted to get through the door and away from him.
"Any weapons?" Mike asked through the hollow speaker.
For a second, Wendy thought Mike was asking the hunter sitting in the corner. When she realized he meant her, she raised an eyebrow at him.
"Come on, Doc, you know I'm required—"
"No," she said, her voice a little raspy. "No weapons."
"Step onto the yellow pad."
Wendy coughed into her sleeve before stepping in front of the door. Beneath her feet was a worn, large square of yellow that sagged slightly as she put her weight on it. A bar in the door frame slid out from the top and shot to the floor on a hidden rail. It then rose smoothly and steadily with an electrical moaning, scanning her for several different substances, including metal enough to make a gun or weapon. Given that this was the last barrier of safety between the entirety of the EPS and a horde of infectious zombies, the precautions seemed reasonable even if they were tedious.
"Come on in," Mike said as the bar retracted into the wall. The door buzzed and Wendy pushed it open.
Simon, the other handler, stood just inside the door in the cramped little nook where they kept the sign-in terminal and filing sheets. They didn't call themselves guards in the kennels because they were specially trained to handle zombies. In front of Simon stood another stranger. This man didn't have the hard, weather-worn appearance that the smoker in the waiting room did. He was a lot younger—Wendy's own age—with a clean-shaven face, blond hair, soft skin, blue eyes that glanced her way, and a curl to his lip that seemed entirely too familiar.
I know him.
But she didn't know how. It was just a feeling, one that stopped her in her tracks until the door pressed against her. The blond fumbled the clipboard he was holding. Instead of catching it himself, he batted it past Simon, who reached for it as it tumbled by.
By itself it may have been comical. Maybe the blond hunter recognized her, too, and in his surprise, he fumbled with what he was doing like a schoolboy, but the rush of footsteps behind her gave her that sudden realization that something wasn't right. An arm pressed against her back, shoving her past the door and against the wall.
She knew it was the smoker. There was no one else in the waiting room, after all. He gave her a little extra shove as he moved past, tossing something gently to the blond man. The dark object flew without tumbling, and Wendy knew by its size and shape exactly what it was. Catching it, the blond turned it on Simon in one quick motion.
"Don't move," the blond man said, holding a small, snub-nosed revolver pointed at Simon's chest.
The smoker stepped into Mike's booth a second later, pointing another pistol at the handler's back. "Don't touch that," the smoker warned Mike, who was standing to reach for the red alarm button on the wall. "Sit down and slide back nice and slow."
The door to the waiting room clicked shut, locking them all inside.