Apr 24 2012 1:30pm
An excerpt from Patient Zero, the first in the Joe Ledger Echo Team paranormal crime series by Jonathan Maberry.
When you have to kill the same terrorist twice in one week there’s either something wrong with your world or something wrong with your skills . . . and there’s nothing wrong with Joe Ledger’s skills. And that’s both a good, and a bad thing. It’s good because he’s a Baltimore detective who has just been secretly recruited by the government to lead a new task force created to deal with the problems Homeland Security can’t handle. This rapid response group is called the Department of Military Sciences or the DMS for short. It’s bad because his first mission is to help stop a group of terrorists from releasing a dreadful bioweapon that can turn ordinary people into zombies. The fate of the world hangs in the balance. . .
When you have to kill the same terrorist twice in one week, then there’s either something wrong with your skills or something wrong with your world.
And there’s nothing wrong with my skills.
Ocean City, Maryland / Saturday, June 27; 10:22 A.M.
They came for me at the beach. Nice and slick, two in front, one big cover man behind in a three-point close while I was reaching for my car door. Nothing ﬂashy, just three big guys in off-the-rack gray, all of them sweating in the Ocean City heat.
The point man held up his hands in a no-problem gesture. It was a hot Saturday morning and I was in swim trunks and a Hawaiian shirt with mermaids on it over a Tom Petty T-shirt. Flip-ﬂops and Wayfarers. My piece was in a locked toolbox in the trunk, with a trigger guard clamped on it. I was at the beach to look at this year’s crop of sunbunnies and I’d been off the clock since the shooting pending a Monday-morning officer-involved discussion with the OIS team. It had been a bad scene at the warehouse and they’d put me on administrative leave to give me time to get my head straight about the shootings. I wasn’t expecting trouble, there shouldn’t have been trouble, and the smooth way these guys boxed me was designed to keep everyone’s emotions in neutral. I couldn’t have done it better myself.
“Mr. Ledger ...?”
“Detective Ledger,” I said to be pissy.
No trace of a smile on the point guy’s face, only a millimeter of a nod. He had a head like a bucket.
“We’d like you to come with us,” he said.
“Badge me or buzz off.”
Buckethead gave me the look, but he pulled out an FBI identification case and held it up. I stopped reading after the initials.
“What’s this about?”
“Would you come with us, please?”
“I’m off the clock, guys, what’s this about?”
“Are you aware that I’m scheduled to start at Quantico in three weeks?”
“You want me to follow you in my car?” Not that I wanted to try and give these fellows the slip, but my cell was in the glove box of the SUV and it would be nice to check in with the lieutenant on this one. It had a weird feel to it. Not exactly threatening, just weird.
“No, sir, we’ll bring you back here after.”
I looked at him and then the guy next to him. I could feel the cover man behind me. They were big, they were nicely set—even with peripheral vision I could see that Buckethead had his weight on the balls of his feet and evenly balanced. The other front man was shifted to his right. He had big knuckles but his hands weren’t scarred. Probably boxing rather than martial arts; boxers wear gloves.
They were doing almost everything right except that they were a little too close to me. You should never get that close.
But they looked like the real deal. It’s hard to fake the FBI look.
“Okay,” I said.
Ocean City, Maryland / Saturday, June 27; 10:31 A.M.
Buckethead sat beside me in the back and the other two sat up front, the cover man driving the big government Crown Vic. For all the conversation going on the others might have been mimes. The air conditioner was turned up and the radio was turned off. Exciting.
“I hope we’re not going all the way the hell back to Baltimore.” That was more than a three-hour ride and I had sand in my shorts.
“No.” That was the only word Buckethead said on the ride. I settled back to wait.
I could tell that he was a leftie from the bulge his shoulder rig made. He kept me on his right side, which meant that his coat flap would impede me grabbing his piece and he could use his right hand as a block to fend me off while he drew. It was professional and well thought out. I’d have done almost the same thing. What I wouldn’t have done, though, was hold on to the leather handstrap by the door like he was doing. It was the second small mistake he made and I had to wonder if he was testing me or whether there was a little gap between his training and his instincts.
I settled back and tried to understand this pickup. If this had something to do with the action last week on the docks, if I was somehow in trouble for something related to that, then I sure as hell planned to lawyer up when we got wherever we were going. And I wanted a union rep there, too. No way this was SOP. Unless it was some Homeland thing, in which case I’d lawyer up and call my congressman. That warehouse thing was righteous and I wasn’t going to let anyone say different.
For the last eighteen months I’d been attached to one of those inter-jurisdictional task forces that have popped up everywhere post 9/11. A few of us from Baltimore PD, some Philly and D.C. guys, and a mixed bag of Feds: FBI, NSA, ATF, and a few letter combinations I hadn’t seen before. Nobody really doing much but everyone wanting a finger in the pie in case something juicy happened, and by juicy I mean career beneficial.
I kind of got drafted into it. Ever since I’d gotten my gold shield a few years ago I’d been lucky enough to close a higher-than-average number of cases, including two that had loose ties to suspected terrorist organizations. I also had four years in the army and I know a little bit of Arabic and some Farsi. I know a little bit of a lot of languages. Languages were easy for me, and that made me a first-round draft pick for the surveillance van. Most of the people we wiretapped jumped back and forth between English and a variety of Middle Eastern languages.
The task force seemed like it would be pretty cool but the reality of it was that they put me on wiretap in a van and for most of the last year and a half I drank too much Dunkin’ Donuts coffee and felt my ass grow ﬂat.
Supposedly a group of suspected low-level terrorists with tenuous links to fundamentalist Shias were planning on smuggling something in that we were told was a potential bioweapon. No details provided, of course, which makes surveillance a bitch and largely a waste of time. When we (meaning us cops) tried to ask them (meaning the big shots from Homeland) what we were looking for, we were stonewalled. Need-to-know basis. That sort of thing tells you everything about why we’re not all that safe. Truth is that if they tell us then we might play too significant a role in the arrest, which means they get less credit. It’s what got us into trouble with 9/11, and as far as I can tell it really hasn’t gotten much better since.
Then this past Monday I caught a little back and forth from a cell phone we were spooking. One name popped up—a Yemen national named El Mujahid, who was a pretty big fish in the terrorist pond and was on Homeland’s must-have list—and the guy talking about him spoke as if El Mujahid was somehow involved in whatever the crew in the warehouse were cooking. El Mujahid’s name was on all of the DHS lists and in that van I had nothing to do but read, so I’d read those lists over and over.
Because I rang the bell I got to play when the takedown was scheduled for Tuesday morning. Thirty of us in black BDUs with Kevlar body and limb pads, helmet cams and full SWAT kit. The whole unit was split into four-man teams: two guys with MP5s, a point man with a ballistic shield and a Glock .40, and one guy with a Remington 870 pump. I was the shotgun guy on my team and we hit this portside warehouse hard and fast, coming in every door and window in the place. Flashbangs, snipers on the surrounding buildings, multiple entry points, and a whole lot of yelling. Domestic shock and awe, and the idea is to startle and overpower so that everyone inside would be too dazed and confused to offer violent resistance. Last thing anyone wanted was an O.K. Corral.
My team had the back door, the one that led out to a small boat dock. There was a tidy little Cigarette boat there. Not new, but sweet. While we waited for the go/no-go, the guy next to me—my buddy Jerry Spencer from DCPD—kept looking at the boat. I bent close and hummed the Miami Vice theme and he grinned. He was about to retire and that boat probably looked like a ticket to paradise.
The “go” came down and everything suddenly got loud and fast. We blew the steel dead bolt on the back door and went in, yelling for everyone to freeze, to lay down their weapons. I’ve been on maybe fifteen, eighteen, of these things in my time with Baltimore PD and only twice was anyone stupid enough to draw a gun on us. Cops don’t hotdog it and generally neither do the bad guys. It’s not about who has the biggest balls, it’s about overwhelming force so that no shots are ever ﬁred. I remember when I went through the tac-team training, the commander had a quote from the movie Silverado made into a plaque and hung up in the training hall: “I don’t want to kill you and you don’t want to be dead.” I think Danny Glover said that. That’s pretty much the motto.
So, usually the bad guys stand around looking freaked out and everyone bleats about how innocent they are, yada yada.
This wasn’t one of those times.
Jerry, who was the oldest man on the task force, was point man and I was right behind him with two guys at my back when we kicked the door, hustled down a short corridor lined with framed inspection certificates, and then broke left into a big conference room. Big oak table with at least a dozen laptops on it. Just inside the door was a big blue phone-booth-sized container standing against the wall. Eight guys in business suits seated around the table.
“Freeze!” I yelled. “Put your hands above your heads and—”
That was as far as I got because all eight guys suddenly threw themselves out of their chairs and pulled guns. O.K. Corral, no doubt about it.
When IAD asked me to recollect how many shots I ﬁred and who exactly I ﬁred them at, I laughed. Twelve guys in a room and everyone’s shooting. If they’re not dressed like your buddies—and you can, to a reasonable degree of certainty, determine that they’re not civilian bystanders—you shoot and duck for cover. I ﬁred the Remington dry then dropped it so I could pull my Glock. I know the .40 is standard but I’ve always found the .45 to be more persuasive.
They say I dropped four hostiles. I don’t notch my gun, so I’ll take their word for it. I bring it up, though, because one of them was the thirteenth man in the room.
Yeah, I know I said that there were eight of them and four of us, but during the firefight I caught movement to my right and saw the door to the big blue case hanging loose, its lock ripped up by gunﬁre. The door swung open and a man staggered out. He wasn’t armed so I didn’t ﬁre on him; instead I concentrated on the guy behind him who was tearing up the room with a QBZ-95 Chinese assault rifle, something I’d only ever seen in magazines. Why he had it and where the hell he found ammunition for it I never did find out, but those rounds punched a line of holes right through Jerry’s shield and he went down.
“Son of a bitch!” I yelled and put two in the shooter’s chest.
Then this other guy, the thirteenth guy, comes crashing right into me. Even with all that was going on I thought, Drug addict. He was pale and sweaty, stank like raw sewage, and had a glazed bug-eyed stare. Sick bastard even tried to bite me, but the Kevlar pads on my sleeve saved my gun arm.
“Get off!” I screamed and gave him an overhand left that should have dropped him, but all it did was shake him loose; he blundered past me toward one of the other guys on my team who was blocking the door. I figured he was making for that sweet Cigarette outside, so I pivoted and parked two in his back, quick and easy. Blood sprayed the walls and he hit the deck and skidded five feet before coming to rest in a motionless sprawl against the back door. I spun back into the room and laid down cover ﬁre so I could pull Jerry behind the table. He was still breathing. The rest of my team kept chopping the whole room up with automatic ﬁre.
I heard gunﬁre coming from a different part of the warehouse and peeled off from the pack to see what was happening, found a trio of hostiles in a nice shooting blind laying down a lot of ﬁre at one of the other teams. I popped a few of them with the last couple of rounds in my mag and dealt with the third hand-to-hand and suddenly the whole thing was over.
In the end, eleven alleged terrorists were shot, six fatally including the cowboy with the Chinese assault rifle and the biter I nailed in the back—who, according to his ID, was named Javad Mustapha. We’d just started going through IDs when a bunch of Federal types in unmarked black fatigues came in and stole the show, kicking everyone else out onto the street. That was okay with me. I wanted to check on Jerry. Turned out that none of our team was killed, though eight of them needed treatment, mostly for broken ribs. Kevlar stops bullets but it can’t stop foot-pounds of impact. Jerry had a cracked sternum and was one hurting pup. The EMTs had him on a gurney, but he was awake enough to wave me over before they took him away.
“How you feeling, dude?” I asked, squatting next to him.
“Old and sore. But tell you what. . .steal me that Cigarette boat and I’ll be feeling young and spry.”
“Sounds like a plan. I’ll get right on that, pops.”
He ticked his chin toward my arm. “Hey, how’s your arm? The EMT said that fruitcake bit you.”
“Nah, didn’t even break the skin.” I showed him. Just a bad bruise.
They took Jerry away and I started answering questions, some of them for the Feds in the unmarked BDUs. Javad hadn’t been armed and I’d drilled him in the back so there would be a routine investigation, but my lieutenant told me it was a no-brainer. That was Tuesday morning and this was Saturday morning. So why was I in a car with three Feds?
They weren’t talking.
So, I sat back and waited.
Easton, Maryland / Saturday, June 27; 11:58 A.M.
They put me in a room that had a table, two chairs, and a big picture window with a drawn curtain. An interrogation room, though the sign outside had read Baylor Records Storage. We were somewhere in Easton off Route 50, more than seventy miles from where they’d picked me up. Buckethead told me to sit.
“Can I have a drink of water?”
He ignored me and left, locking the door.
It was nearly two hours before anyone came in. I didn’t kick up a fuss. I knew this routine. Park someone in an empty room and leave them to stew. Doubt and a guilty conscience can do a lot when you’re alone. I didn’t have a guilty conscience and no doubts at all. I simply lacked information, so after I did a visual on the room I went into my own head and waited, reviewing the number of thong bikinis I’d seen. I was pretty sure the count was twenty-two, and of those at least eighteen had a legal and moral right to wear a thong. It was a good day at the beach.
The guy who finally came in was big, very well dressed, maybe sixty but there was no trace of middle-age soft about him. Not that he looked especially hard, not like a muscle freak or a career DI. No, he just looked capable. You pay attention to guys like him.
He took a seat opposite me. He wore a dark blue suit, red tie, white shirt, and tinted glasses that made it hard to read his eyes. Probably on purpose. He had short hair, big hands, and no expression at all.
Buckethead came in with a cork restaurant tray on which was a pitcher of water, two glasses, two napkins, and a dish of cookies. It was the cookies that weirded me out. You generally don’t get cookies in situations like this and it had to be some kind of mind trick.
When Buckethead left, the guy in the suit said, “My name is Mr. Church.”
“Okay,” I said.
“You are Detective Joseph Edwin Ledger, Baltimore Police, age thirty-two, unmarried.”
“You trying to ﬁx me up with your daughter?”
“You served forty-five months with the army, honorably discharged. During your time in service you were involved in no significant military actions or operations.”
“Nothing was happening while I was in the service, at least not in my part of the world.”
“And yet your commanding officers and particularly your sergeant in basic wrote glowingly of you. Why is that?” He wasn’t reading out of a folder. He had no papers with him at all. His shaded eyes were fixed on me as he poured a glass of water for each of us.
“Maybe I suck up nicely.”
“No,” he said, “you don’t. Have a cookie.” He nudged the plate my way. “There are also several notes in your file suggesting that you are a world-class smartass.”
“Really? You mean I made it through the nationals?”
“And you apparently think you’re hilarious.”
“You’re saying I’m not?”
“Jury’s still out on that.” He took a cookie—a vanilla wafer—and bit off an edge. “Your father is stepping down as police commissioner to make a run for mayor.”
“I sure hope we can count on your vote.”
“Your brother is also Baltimore PD and is a detective two with homicide. He’s a year younger and he outranks you. He stayed home while you played soldier.”
“Why I am here, Mr. Church?”
“You’re here because I wanted to meet you face-to-face.”
“We could have done that at the precinct on Monday.”
“No, we couldn’t.”
“You could have called me and asked me to meet you somewhere neutral. They have cookies at Starbucks, you know.”
“Too big and too soft.” He took another bite of the wafer. “Besides, here is more convenient.”
“For. . .?”
Instead of answering he said, “After your discharge you enrolled in the police academy, graduated third in your class. Not first?”
“It was a big class.”
“It’s my understanding that you could have been first had you wanted to.”
I took a cookie—Oreo for me—and screwed off the top.
He said, “You spent several nights of the last few weeks before your finals helping three other officers prepare for the test. As a result two of them did better and you didn’t do as well as you should have.”
I ate the top. I like it in layers. Cookie, cream, cookie.
“Just noting it. You received early promotion to plainclothes and even earlier promotion to detective. Outstanding letters and commendations.”
“Yes, I’m wonderful. Crowds cheer as I go by.”
“And there are more notes about your smart mouth.”
I grinned with Oreo gunk on my teeth.
“You’ve been recruited by the FBI and are scheduled to start your training in twenty days.”
“Do you know my shoe size?”
He finished his cookie and took another vanilla wafer. I’m not sure I could trust a man who would bypass an Oreo in favor of vanilla wafers. It’s a fundamental character ﬂaw, possibly a sign of true evil.
“Your superiors at Baltimore PD say they’re sorry to see you go, and the FBI has high hopes.”
“Again, whyn’t you call me instead of sending the goon squad?”
“To make a point.”
“About. . .?”
Mr. Church considered me for a moment. “On what not to become. What’s your opinion of the agents you met today?”
I shrugged. “A bit stiff, no sense of humor. But they braced me pretty well. Good approach, kept the heat down, good manners.”
“Could you have escaped?”
“Not easily. They had guns, I didn’t.”
“Could you have escaped?” He asked it slower this time.
“Mr. Ledger . . .”
“Okay, yes. I could have escaped had I wanted to.”
“I don’t know, it didn’t come to that.”
He seemed satisﬁed with that answer. “The pickup at the beach was intended as something of a window to the future. Agents Simchek, Andrews, and McNeill are top-of-the-line, make no mistake. They are the very best the Bureau has to offer.”
“So. . . I’m supposed to be impressed. If I didn’t think the FBI was a good next step I wouldn’t have taken your offer.”
“Not my offer, Mr. Ledger. I’m not with the Bureau.”
“Let me guess. . .the ‘Company’?”
He showed his teeth. It might have been a smile. “Try again.”
“Right league, wrong team.”
“No point in me guessing then. Is this one of those ‘we’re so secret we don’t have a name’ things?”
Church sighed. “We do have a name, but it’s functional and boring.”
“Can you tell me?”
“What would you say if I said ‘but then I’d have to kill you’?”
“I’d say drive me back to my car.” When he didn’t move, I added, “Look, I was army for four and Baltimore PD for eight, the last eighteen months of which I’ve been a gopher for the CT task force. I know that there are levels upon levels of need-to-know. Well, guess what, Sparky: I don’t need to know. If you have a point then get to it, otherwise kiss my ass.”
“DMS,” he said.
“Department of Military Sciences.”
I swallowed the last of my cookie. “Never heard of it.”
“Of course not.” Matter-of-fact, no mockery.
“So. . . is this going to turn out to be some kind of cornball Men in Black thing? Thin ties, black suits, and a little ﬂashy thing that’ll make me forget all this shit?”
He almost smiled. “No MIB, nothing retroengineered from crashed UFOs, no rayguns. The name, as I said, is functional. Department of Military Sciences.”
“A bunch of science geeks playing in the same league as Homeland?”
“More or less.”
“I’m no longer in the military, Mr. Church.”
“And I’m not a scientist.”
“So why am I here?”
Church looked at me for almost a minute. “For someone who is supposed to have rage issues you don’t anger very easily, Mr. Ledger. Most people would be yelling by this point in an interview of this kind.”
“Would yelling get me back to the beach any sooner?”
“It might. You also haven’t asked for us to call your father. You haven’t threatened me with his juice as commissioner.”
I ate another cookie. He watched me dismantle it and go through the entire time-honored Oreo ritual. When I was done he slid my glass of water closer to me.
“Mr. Ledger, the reason I wanted you to meet the FBI agents today was because I need to know if that’s what you want to be?”
“When you look inside your own head, when you look at your own future, do you see yourself in a humorless grind of following bank accounts and sorting through computer records in hopes of bagging one bad guy every four months?”
“Pays better than the cops.”
“You could open up a karate school and make three times more money.”
He smiled as if somehow he’d scored a point and I realized that he’d tricked me into correcting him out of pride. Sneaky bastard.
“So, tell me honestly, is that the kind of agent you want to be?”
“If this is leading up to some kind of alternative suggestion, stop jerking me off and get to it.”
“Fair enough, Mr. Ledger.” He sipped his water. “The DMS is considering offering you a job.”
“Um. . .hello? Not military? Not a scientist?”
“Doesn’t matter. We have plenty of scientists. The military connection is merely for convenience. No, this would be something along the lines of what you do well. Investigation, apprehension, and some ﬁeld work like at the warehouse.”
“You’re a Fed, so are we talking counterterrorism?”
He sat back and folded his big hands in his lap. “‘Terrorism’ is an interesting word. Terror . . .” He tasted the word. “Mr. Ledger, we are very much in the business of stopping terror. There are threats against this country greater than anything that has so far made the papers.”
“We—and when I say ‘we’ I embrace my colleagues in the more clandestine agencies—have stopped fifty times as many threats as you would believe, ranging from suitcase nukes to radical bioweapon technologies.”
“Yay for the home team.”
“We’ve also worked to refine our definition of terrorism. Religious fundamentalism and political idealism actually play a far less important role, in a big-picture sense, than most people—including heads of state, friendly and not—would have the general public believe.” He looked at me for a moment. “What would you say is the most significant underlying motive for all world strife—terrorism, war, intolerance. . .the works?”
I shrugged. “Ask any cop and he’ll tell you that,” I said. “In the end it’s always about the money.”
He said nothing but I could sense a shift in his attitude toward me. There was the faintest whisper of a smile on his mouth.
I said, “All of this seems to be a long way from Baltimore. Why’d you bring me here? What’s so special about me?”
“Oh, don’t flatter yourself, Mr. Ledger, there have been other interviews like this.”
“So, where are those guys? You let them go back to the beach?”
“No, Mr. Ledger, not as such. They didn’t pass the audition.”
“I’m not sure I like how you phrased that.”
“It wasn’t meant to be a comforting comment.”
“And I suppose you want me to ‘audition’ next?”
“How does that play out? Bunch of mind games and psych tests?”
“No, we know enough about you from your current medical records and fifteen years of psych evaluations. We know that in the last couple of years you’ve suffered severe losses. First your mother died of cancer and then your ex-girlfriend committed suicide. We know that when you and she were teenagers you were attacked, and that some older teens beat you nearly to death and then held you down and made you watch as they raped her. We know about that. We know you went through a brief dissociative phase as a result, and that you’ve had some intermittent rage issues, which is one of the reasons you regularly see a therapist. It’s fair to say you understand and can recognize the face of terror when you see it.”
It would have felt pretty good to demonstrate the whole rage concept to him right then, but I guessed that’s what he would be looking for. Instead I made my face look bored. “This is where I should get offended that you’ve invaded my privacy, et cetera?”
“It’s a new world, Mr. Ledger. We do what we must. And yes, I know how that sounds.” Nothing in his tone of voice sounded like an apology.
“So, what do I have to do?”
“It’s quite simple, really.” He got up and walked around the table to the curtain that hung in front of the big picture window. With no attempt at drama he pulled back the curtain to reveal a similar room. One table, one chair, one occupant. A man sitting hunched forward, his back to the window, possibly asleep. “All you need to do is go in there, then cuff and restrain that prisoner.”
“You kidding me?”
“Not in the least. Go in there, subdue the suspect, put him in cuffs, and attach the cuffs to the D-ring mounted on the table.”
“What’s the catch? That’s one guy. Your goon squad could have—”
“I am aware what overwhelming force could do, Mr. Ledger. That’s not the point of this exercise.” He reached into his jacket pocket and produced a pair of handcuffs. “I want you to do it.”
Easton, Maryland / Saturday, June 27; 2:08 P.M.
The first thing I noticed when I opened the door to the interrogation room was the stink. Smelled like a treatment plant. The guy didn’t stir. He was slim, probably shorter than me, dark-skinned—Hispanic or Middle Eastern. Black hair that was sweat-soaked and lank. He wore a standard orange prison jumpsuit and he seemed completely out of it, his head hanging almost down to his knees.
I stepped into the room, conscious of the big mirror on my left. Mr. Church would be watching me, probably eating another vanilla wafer. The door closed behind me and I turned to see Buckethead staring at me through the glass. For a second I thought he was smiling, and then his expression registered. It was more like a wince, a ﬂinching twist of his face as if he expected a scorpion to jump out at him. Even behind a steel door the agent was spooked by this guy. Swell. I held my cuffs in my right hand and extended my left in a calm, assertive gesture, palm outward. It looks placating but it’s right there in case you need to block, grab, or hit.
“Okay, pardner,” I said calmly. “I need you to cooperate with me here.” A beat. “Can you hear me, sir?”
The man didn’t move.
I angled around the table, coming up on his left. “Sir? I need you to stand up with your hands on your head. Sir. . . Sir!”
I moved closer. “Sir, I need you to stand up—”
And he did. All at once his head snapped up and his eyes popped open as he shot to his feet and spun toward me. My heart skipped. I recognized the guy. The pale, sweaty face, the glazed pop-eyed stare. It was Javad—the terrorist I’d shot and killed back in Baltimore. He hissed like a cat and threw himself at me. He was maybe one-fifty, five seven, but he hit me in the chest like a cannonball, driving us both across the room so hard that my back crunched against the rear wall. I hit my head and sparks burst in my eyes. I jammed my forearm under his chin as Javad snapped at me like an animal, lunging forward over my arm, his teeth banging together with a weird porcelain clack. He grabbed my shirt with both hands, trying to pull us closer together.
The DVD player in my head kept running and rerunning the scene back at the warehouse where I’d shot him in the back. Granted, I wasn’t the one who checked his vitals afterward, but I’d put two .45 slugs in him from fifteen feet. Pretty much does the trick. If it doesn’t then your only logical ammunition upgrade is Kryptonite. But for a guy who should be dead, he was pretty damn spry.
Even though this was all happening too fast I still had time to register the look in his eyes. Despite the twisted, ferociously hungry snarl of his face and the snapping of his teeth, his eyes were totally empty. No flicker of awareness, no trace of self-knowledge, not even the ﬁre of hate. This wasn’t the deadeye stare of a shark, nothing like that. This was freak-show stuff because there was nothing there; it was like looking into an empty room.
I think that terriﬁed me more than the teeth that were biting the air an inch from my windpipe. Right then I knew why the other applicants had failed this audition. They’d probably been big men like me, strong men like me, and maybe they’d been able to hold him off this long—just long enough to look into those soulless eyes. I think that’s when they failed. I don’t know if Javad tore their throats out. I don’t know if this was the point where they started screaming for help and Church sent Buckethead and his goon squad in with Tasers and riot sticks. What I did know was that looking into those eyes nearly took the soul out of me. I could actually feel my throat closing up, could feel an icy wire sending electricity down through my bowels.
I saw terror and hopelessness there. I saw death.
But here’s the thing, you see, I’d seen those things before. I may not have been on any of the world’s battlefields, but Church was right when he’d said that I’ve seen the face of terror. It went a lot deeper than that, though. It isn’t just terror that I understood. . . I knew the face of death. I’d been bedside when cervical cancer took my mom. I was the last thing she saw before she slipped into the big black nothing, and I saw the light and life go out of her; I saw her eyes change from living eyes to those of a dead person. You can never forget that; the image is burned onto the front of your brain. I was also the one who found Helen after she’d swallowed half a bottle of drain cleaner. She’d left a goodbye message on my voice mail and was already gone when I kicked in the door. I saw her dead eyes, too.
I’ve also looked into the dead eyes of men I’ve killed on the job. Two men in eight years, not counting the four at the warehouse.
So, I’d looked into dead eyes before, I know what I saw there. I saw death and terror and hopelessness. Not my mom’s, not Helen’s, not the criminals I’ve killed—no, the deadness I see is my own, reflected in eyes that have nothing of their own to show. You can’t fake that dead look. A lot of warriors have that look because they are in harmony with death. Church probably knew all this. He knew everything else about me. He knew my psych file. That bastard knew.
Javad lunged forward again, his fingers tearing my shirt, his stink that of a carrion bird. No. . .that wasn’t right, that wasn’t it. Javad’s smell was that of carrion. He smelled like the dead. Because he was dead. This whole train of thought shot through my brain in a microsecond, its speed and clarity amplified by terror.
Terror’s a funny thing, though. It can take your heart from you and bare your throat to the wolves; it can make you go all hot and crazy, which almost always gets you killed. . .or it can make you go cold. That’s what happens to warriors—real ones, the kind who are deﬁned by conflict. Like me.
So I went cold. Time slammed to a halt and the whole room seemed to go quiet except for the muffled hammering of my own heart. I stopped trying to get away from something I couldn’t escape—I was jammed into a corner and Church wasn’t sending the damned cavalry— so I did what Javad was doing. I attacked.
I swung my right hand around in a palm shot that turned his head so hard to the right that I heard his neck bones grind. It would have stopped anyone; it didn’t stop him any more than the two slugs had stopped him. But it gave me a few seconds’ escape from those teeth, and even as Javad started wrenching his face back toward me I hooked my leg around his and chopped at the back of his knee. Maybe he couldn’t feel pain but a bent knee is a bent knee—it’s a gravity thing. He canted to one side and I used his sagging weight to spin and drive him into the wall. I caught him by the back of the hair and slammed him face forward into the wall once, twice, again and again. His jaw disintegrated; but I grabbed what was left of his chin and twisted my fingers into his hair and then I pivoted my hips as hard and as fast as I could, taking his head with me. My body turned faster and farther than his neck could.
There was a huge wet snap!
And then Javad was gone. His body switched off like someone had kicked the plug out and he simply dropped. I stepped back and let him fall.
I could barely breathe; sweat poured down my face, stung my eyes. I heard a sound behind me—I wheeled around and Church was leaning against the frame of the open doorway.
“Welcome to the new face of global terrorism,” he said.
Easton, Maryland / Saturday, June 27; 2:36 P.M.
“What was he?”
We were back at the table. They’d let me clean up in a bathroom. I showered and dressed in borrowed gym clothes. The shakes had started in the shower. Adrenaline accounted for a lot of it, but it was more than that. After thirty minutes my hands were still trembling and I didn’t care if Church saw it.
He shrugged. “We’re still working on a name for his condition.”
“Condition? That son of a bitch was dead!”
“From now on,” Church said, “we may have to consider ‘dead’ a relative term.” I had to sit with that for a while. Church waited me out. “That is the same guy I shot at the warehouse, right? I mean, I put him down hard. I saw blood and bone on the walls. . .”
“Javad Mustapha, an Iraqi national,” Church agreed, nodding. “Your shots were mortal but not immediately so; he was still alive when he was transported to the hospital where he was pronounced DOA. He ‘revived’ shortly after arrival.” He spread his hands. “We controlled that incident and you won’t find speciﬁc mention of it in the papers or in any official report.”
“Holy Christ. . . are we talking zombies here?”
Church smiled faintly. “We’re calling him a ‘walker.’ Short for ‘Dead Man Walking.’ The head of my science team has too much of a pop culture sensibility. And before you ask, it’s not anything supernatural.”
“How did this happen? Some kind of toxic spill. . .a plague. . .?”
“We don’t know. A prion disease, perhaps, or a parasite; maybe both, but certainly something that causes hyperactivity of the stem cells. True to the nature of parasites, the infected have a totality of purpose built around procreation. Not sexually, of course, but through a bite that is apparently one hundred percent infectious. We’ve only begun to research it.”
“Is it only his bite that’s infectious?” I asked. It felt like ice-cold army ants were marching around in my gut.
“We’ve done a number of tests on sweat and other body fluids but the strongest concentration of the disease is in the saliva. The bite transmits the infection.”
I looked at the bruise on my arm. “I’m not wearing Kevlar. If I’d been bitten in there. . .”
He looked at me.
Anger was a white-hot furnace in my chest. “You’re a total rat bastard, you know that?”
“As I said, Mr. Ledger, this is the new face of terrorism. A fierce, terrible bioweapon we don’t yet understand. It may take us months to even construct a viable research protocol, which means that time is completely against us. We think that your friend Javad in there was the bioterrorist approximation of a suicide bomber, that he was the ‘patient zero’ for an intended plague directed at the U.S. The blue case recovered at the scene was some kind of climate-controlled containment system, quite possibly to protect the other cell members from their own weapon. None of the others at the warehouse showed any signs of infection.” He paused. “We think we stopped them.”
“You. . . ‘think’?” I heard how he leaned on the word.
“Yes, Mr. Ledger, but we don’t know. And we have to know, just as we have to be ready in case this happens again. If Javad is the only plague vector then we’ll scratch one up for our side and start looking for their next trick, or try to be ready for whenever they try this trick again. If, on the other hand, there are other teams out there ready to launch others like Javad. . .well, that’s part of the reason the DMS was formed.”
“Then you’d sure as hell better check with the task force commander because two panel trucks pulled out of that warehouse the night before we hit it. We tracked one and lost one. . .”
“Yes. Losing one was sloppy.”
I fought the urge to ﬂip him the bird. “Who’s behind this? Is this an Al Qaeda thing, because the task force was never able to pin that down?”
“That’s still uncertain, though we have some suspicions. The other members of the cell were a mixed bunch. Al Qaeda, Shia extremists, two Sunni extremists, and even one from the Egyptian Islamic Jihad.”
“Shia and Sunni working together?”
“Interesting, isn’t it?” Church said dryly. “The name you picked up in your wiretap—El Mujahid—lends a little weight to the idea of collaboration. He’s been known to work with several of the more extreme splinter groups.”
“I assume you interrogated the surviving cell members?”
He said nothing.
“Well. . .?”
“They’re all dead. Suicide.”
“How? Didn’t you search them for cyanide pills in their teeth and all that shit?” Church shook his head. “Something a bit cleverer than that. Each of them had been infected with a pathogen of a type as yet unidentified; they needed to take a drug every eight hours to keep the disease dormant. Without the drug the disease becomes active with incredible speed and immediately begins to erode vascular tissue. We didn’t know this until they started bleeding internally, and even then we barely got enough information out of the last one to understand the shape of it. The control substance was hidden in ordinary aspirin tablets. We would never have known to look.”
“Is this the same disease that my dancing partner in there had?”
“No. And as far as we can tell it’s noncommunicable. I have some of the top scientists in the world working with the DMS, and so far they’ve been scratching their heads. Some of them are actually impressed.”
“So am I. This is some pretty sophisticated stuff we’re talking about.”
“And yet simple; you wouldn’t even need much in the way of guards and threats. One person with the pill bottle to control them all is all they’d need. Very easy to manage. This level of sophistication raises our opinion of this cell and makes their potential that much greater.”
I said, “What happened to the other guys? The ones who auditioned before me? Did they get bitten?”
“One did, I’m sorry to say. Two others did not.”
It was an effort not to leap across the table and tear his throat out. I watched Church’s face, saw the shift of his body language as the anger in my voice registered. If I’d gone across that table he’d have been ready for me. “What about the other two? You go rescue them?”
“No. They both managed to cuff the suspect.”
“Then I don’t understand.”
“It isn’t only the physical component of the test that matters, Mr. Ledger. Each of them faced the moment of truth, as you yourself are doing now, and each of them reacted . . .” He paused, pursing his lips. “Inadequately.”
“In what way?”
“In ways that identified them as unsuitable candidates.” He waved his hand, dismissing that line of discussion.
“Why am I here?”
“Ah, the golden question. You’re here, Mr. Ledger, because we are scouting for candidates to flesh out our DMS team. We’re a new agency. We have lots of funding and we have a nicely vague set of parameters. Our intelligence division is hard at work to infiltrate and report on cells such as the one your team took down in Baltimore. We’re surveilling the location where the first panel truck went, and we have high hopes of discovering the destination of the other.”
“And you want me to sign up?”
He showed his teeth again. Kind of a smile. “No, Mr. Ledger, I want you to go to the FBI academy as planned.”
“Only now you’ll have a clearer focus on which parts of that training to pay more attention to. Medical and management courses would be worthwhile. You can probably imagine which others would be of use.”
We sat for a while with that comment hanging in the air.
“And when I’m done?”
Church spread his hands. “If the threat is over—truly over—you may never hear from me again. If you look for proof of my existence, or of the existence of this organization, you’ll find nothing of any use; and I don’t advise trying. You will of course say nothing about what happened here. I make no threats, Mr. Ledger; I believe I can trust both your intelligence and common sense in this matter.”
“What if there are more of these things, these. . . walkers?”
“In that eventuality I will very probably be in touch.”
“You have to know that this isn’t over. It can’t be. Nothing’s that simple.”
“I appreciate your cooperation today, Mr. Ledger.”
With that he stood and offered me his hand. I looked at it and then at him for maybe ten full seconds during which neither his hand nor his eyes wavered. Then I stood and shook his hand. As he left Buckethead and the others came for me and drove me back to my car. They didn’t say a word, though on the drive back each of them cut me wary glances every now and then.
As they drove off I memorized the license number. Then I got into my SUV and sat for maybe twenty minutes, staring through the window at the beach and the happy people playing in the sun. A second wave of the shakes hit me and I had to clamp my jaws shut to keep my teeth from chattering. It was like the way I felt after 9/11. The world had changed again. Just as “terror” had become a far more common word to us all then, terror was a much scarier word to me now.
What would I do if Church called me back?
Copyright © 2009 by Jonathan Maberry
Jonathan Maberry is the multiple Bram Stoker Award-winning author of The King of Plagues, The Dragon Factory, Ghost Road Blues and Rot & Ruin, among others. He also wrote the novelization of the movie The Wolfman. His work for Marvel Comics includes Captain America, Punisher, Wolverine, DoomWar, Marvel Zombie Return and Black Panther. His Joe Ledger series has been optioned for TV by Sony Pictures. He has been inducted into the International Martial Arts Hall of Fame.