“I looked, and behold a pale horse:
his name that sat upon him was Death,
and all Hell followed with him.”
~ Revelation 6:8
PAST: OCTOBER 15, 1998
“Don’t close your eyes,” her father admonished in her ear, as he hunkered down beside her in the brush.
A young buck was grazing in the cornfield not some hundred yards away; its velvet antlers peaked above the tall green husks. The little girl of twelve held the .30-06 Remington rifle steady in her hands and watched as the morning dew dripped down the deer’s antlers, listened to the wind whistle through the trees, and felt her heart beat in her chest. It was time.
“B-but, in the movies the guy always closes his right eye,” she whined, but opened both eyes nonetheless.
Her father adjusted the iron sights carefully and shifted back onto his haunches.
“This ain’t the movies, darlin’,” he said, his gruff voice barely above a whisper.
The buck raised its muzzle, sniffing the air, alert and searching. The little girl and her father remained silent and unmoving until the deer resumed its meal.
“You need both eyes open to see a moving target—but not just yer prey, yer surroundings too. You always have to be aware, Slugger.”
The afternoon sun beat down on her brow, causing beads of sweat to trickle down her temples and hang precariously on her lashes. In that moment, time seemed to stand still as though put on pause. Swallowing hard, she positioned herself in place and raised her rifle, eyes wide open. The buck shook its coat, dirt and hair flying, and she aimed for its upper ribs. The rifle shook in her hands, and she closed her eyes.
“Daddy, I can’t.”
“Yes, you can,” he encouraged softly, holding her shoulders steady. “Aim for the heart, the lungs—kill ‘im in one shot.”
It would die quickly, painlessly, if she knew what she was doing—if she saw the bullet hit home. Resolved, she opened both eyes and aimed.
Take in a deep breath and hold it.
Hold it ...
PRESENT: OCTOBER 15, 2017
The sound of the shot reverberated throughout the valley; the gunfire crackled loudly in her ears, singing its last swan song—a frequency never to be heard again. She had worn earplugs in the beginning, but such commodities nowadays were scarce, a bygone luxury of a bygone era. She would suffer the hearing damage, as would the mangy deer that let out a grunt of air—its last, she hoped—as the wolves scattered to the outlining brush to take cover.
Penny put up her .30-30 Winchester and stood to her feet, squinting against the harsh glare of the sun. Slowly, she began to walk toward her quarry—her pace even and steady with purpose—reloading as she went. The hard dirt crunched beneath her boots as she followed the line of her own shadow. Once finished reloading, she looped the strap attached to the butt of the rifle over her head, slinging the Winchester alongside her back. She then pulled out a black and silver Ruger from one of the holster’s slung across her hips and loomed over the deer. It wheezed pitifully as it tried to stand, feebly kicking its legs in the air. She had shot it in the lungs, but the damned thing was determined to live; like a human, it vainly clung to life. Squaring her shoulders, Penny pointed the pistol between its eyes.
One bullet was all it took, reporting soundly in her hands. There was no breath afterward, no kick. She gave the beast rest, whether it wanted it or not. Death and peace at the end of a smoking barrel. It was mercy at its cruelest, but it was mercy.
Her daddy had taught her the finer points of mercy and how to fire a weapon when she was only ten. He had given her a modest .22 LR for her birthday, only to be used for picking off rats and other vermin in the barn and cornfields. She had become quite skilled with the weapon—a marksman, of sorts—and it pleased her daddy to no end. She had never been too good at sports; to be quite frank, she didn’t like getting dirty. But she was good at shooting, good at killing. Her daddy had called her a natural—an eagle eye able to shoot a tick off a deer’s hindquarters. It was one of the few things in life that Penny had ever been good at. If only her father could see her now ...
“You shouldn’t waste bullets,” came a chastising voice from behind.
Penny holstered her pistol and turned around, giving the man in front of her a calculating look. He was tall and lean, dressed in dark dusty denims, a collared cornflower blue shirt, and a short brown leather jacket. On his hips were the same double holsters with twin Rugers that Penny wore, but on his back was a sawed-off shotgun—Lupara—his weapon of choice. He wore polarized sunglasses that glinted in the light of the early morning sun, and when he took them off his eyes were a cobalt blue and focused intently on her—scrutinizing as he waited for her answer.
She knew that he was right about the ammunition—he was right about almost everything. However, Penny wasn’t willing to admit to that, nor confess to the cold man in front of her that she had killed the deer simply because she couldn’t stand to watch it suffer. She had seen so much suffering these past few months and was powerless to prevent it. At least with the deer she could have some sort of closure. The wolves would have their meal eventually, but the deer had gone quietly and less painfully than it would have at the jaws of its enemy. It made her wonder if she would be so fortunate when her time came—if someone would be merciful enough to put a bullet in her brainpan.
“Yeah, well, you can bill me, Sheldon,” Penny said bluntly, grabbing her own sunglasses from her breast pocket and putting them on. “We’re about to come up to a town in thirty miles. We’ll restock for the two bullets that I wasted when we get there.”
Sheldon regarded her critically for a moment before scrunching up his nose. Then he shook out his sunglasses and slipped them back on.
“Breakfast is ready,” he informed her dully. “We’re heading out in fifteen minutes. We should reach Dubuque by noon.”
Penny nodded curtly in response. There was no need for idle chit chat. Instead, she followed Sheldon back to the camp: a data bunker in Monticello, Iowa. The ultra-secure subterranean facility had been built years ago to host critical infrastructure and was designed to survive and operate during a major disaster. Obvious calamity withstanding, the bunker was now home to the paltry surviving denizens of Monticello—and the lucky few who knew of its location. Its occupants were also host to Sheldon Cooper’s small traveling party, who had spent the past three-and-a-half months journeying northeast across the country from California.
“I don’t trust them,” Penny growled under her breath, as they approached the entrance.
“Neither do I,” Sheldon said in an equally low voice, unhooking the flap to the holster that sheathed his pistol. “That’s why we’re letting them think that O’Connor’s in charge.”
At the entrance to the bunker stood two sentries. After punching in the secret code, one of the men opened the door and stepped to the side, allowing Penny and Sheldon to enter. Taking the first set of stairs down, Penny and Sheldon kept their hands ready on their weapons. Their company had been on bicycles when Operator Hanson and his gang had spotted them. The Monticello group had been armed to the teeth and were traveling via truck, which had given Sheldon good reason to pause. It wasn’t that vehicles were scarce—or gas, if you knew how to work a manual pump—it was that no one who wanted to live traveled by vehicle. Cars made noise; they alerted your presence to scavengers, to marauders, and to Them. They were the ones you wanted to avoid the most, even during the day.
Hanson’s group had called themselves survivalists, but to Penny and Sheldon they reeked of something else, something distinctly related to Them. That was why Sheldon and Penny often referred to such groups as the Others: people who held congress with “the beast” and were far more dangerous than bandits and cut-throat gangs.
“The hunters have returned,” George Hanson announced, as Penny and Sheldon entered the secure room. The younger man welcomed them with outstretched arms and an open smile—a smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes. “I have to say that I haven’t met many people lately who’ve been willing to venture outside to hunt—and return.”
Sheldon and Penny exchanged a brief glance before Penny turned to regard Hanson, feigning her own disingenuous smile.
“We wanted to thank you for your hospitality,” she said through gritted teeth. “Fresh meat is so rare to come by these days.”
Hanson’s grin seemed to widen. “All too true,” he agreed, and then pointed back to the other three members of Sheldon and Penny’s party. “Stick around and we can clean and dress the animal for you. We could all have it for supper.”
Sheldon firmly shook his head and briefly met O’Connor’s eyes.
“That’s considerate, Mr. Hanson,” the elderly priest thanked with an Irish lilt, “but we really must be on our way.”
“Heading southeast, right?” Hanson asked O’Connor, but his eyes were narrowed suspiciously on Sheldon. “What’s down there, if I might ask?”
“We’re hoping to find some leadership in Virginia,” O’Connor said with a hopeful smile. “Before the eclipse hit a brother of mine told me that they were forming a large commune: a group of survivalists, much like yourselves.”
There had been no such thing—no news from another priest before the attacks began. There had been news, but it was nothing conventional and nothing they’d like to share with Operator Hanson. Sheldon and his party were heading northeast, securing safe houses as they went; telling Hanson and his men that was just as bad as informing them that Sheldon was the man in charge. Sheldon’s anonymity was paramount; their survival depended on it.
These were dark days where you did not trust your fellow man, and each man had his side to choose: good, bad or neutral. But there were greater things to worry about—more than scavengers and thieves, more than rapists and murderers, more than the Others. There was Them and you always had to be afraid of Them or else you were a fool.
“But you’re working on chance, Padre,” Hanson said, still smiling that Cheshire cat grin of his. “You don’t know if they’ll be there. They could be waiting for you, you know.” His pale blue eyes glinted in the lamplight. “You could always stay here where you know it’s safe.”
O’Connor smiled, cool as a cucumber. “The Lord will protect us. He will provide.”
Hansom almost seemed to recoil at these words and looked past the priest, focusing his light blue eyes on Sheldon’s.
“You don’t seem like a man of faith—” Hanson pointed his thumb back at O’Connor “—not like our man of the cloth here.”
Sheldon’s mouth twitched and he glanced past Hanson to look at Penny. Her stance was rigid, her spine poker-straight. She looked ready to draw her gun and take out every man in the room—and she would with a single command from him. But Sheldon didn’t want that. Instead, he told her to relax with a simple look, and Penny slowly eased up, looking over to Eve and Cecilia. If anything, she had to be cautious for them.
“We’re all traveling for our own reasons,” Sheldon answered mildly, his focus returned to the Operator.
Hanson swiveled around to look at Penny, appraising her for a moment before turning back to Sheldon. He nodded, as though understanding, but he didn’t. Not really. How could he possibly know? He could only assume. And what Hanson believed was that Sheldon wanted to protect his three women from a group of men. It made sense and it was one of the reasons why the women were itching to leave, but it wasn’t Sheldon’s main concern—and he certainly wasn’t going to correct Hanson on the issue. He wasn’t about to let them all know that he knew who Hanson and his men really were.
“Well, let’s get some breakfast in ya,” Hanson said, slapping his thigh.
He then motioned for them to take a seat at the table, and they all sat down to a meal of oatmeal, beef jerky, canned orange juice, and some very strong coffee. Cecilia, a woman of thirty with short brown hair and dark brown eyes, took Eve’s hand and led her to her seat. The nine-year-old had kept her eyes downcast, picking up a spoon only when prompted. She had been traveling with Sheldon and Penny since Nebraska and had not once said a word. Cecilia, who they had met on the border of Iowa, had taken an instant liking to the small red-haired child and never left her side. The girl, however, remained mute. With no voice to give her name, O’Connor had christened the girl Eve—and Eve was the name she responded to.
“Coffee, Tex?” Hanson held up the kettle to Sheldon, who bristled at the abbreviated nickname before politely declining.
Sheldon had refused to give his real name to the Monticello group and had encouraged Penny to do the same. In the presence of strangers, it had become routine for Sheldon to call Penny “Nebraska” while she called him “East Texas”. Originally, she had called him Texas but he had immediately corrected her, saying that he was from East Texas and not from any old place on the Confederate map. As much as Sheldon had changed over the course of their time spent alone together, some things had remained the same.
O’Connor offered a prayer before they ate while Hanson and his men shifted uncomfortably in their seats, if only for a moment. Sheldon observed them with piercing blue eyes and waited for the Father to finish his psalm. Once the blessing was complete, the rest of them ate their breakfast in uneasy silence while Penny played with her food. She couldn’t wait to leave and she knew that Sheldon was already mentally calculating escape routes and stratagems to throw the Monticello group off their trail. Getting away without being followed, however, was the tricky part.
Sheldon had a feeling that Hanson knew who they really were, who Sheldon really was. He didn’t need to be intuitive like Penny. He had only to rely on cold logic and he knew that their party stuck out like a sore thumb on the road, which was why Hanson’s men had so “charitably” taken them in.
“We’d like to thank you for your generous hospitality,” O’Connor said to Hanson as he rose from the table, “but it is time for us to be back on the road.”
Hanson stood up with the rest of them. “I can’t convince you to stay?” He directed the question at O’Connor, but he was looking directly at Sheldon.
The priest shook his head. “It is His will that we follow—” he looked up at the ceiling “—and we are but slaves to His design.”
“Unfortunate that,” Hanson muttered darkly, taking a bite out of the beef jerky in his hand. “We wish you a safe journey.” He offered a free hand to O’Connor to shake, and then held it out to Sheldon.
Sheldon stared at Hanson’s hand for a moment before lifting his gaze to the younger man’s eyes and glared. Penny took this moment to intervene and extended her hand in turn.
“Sorry, East Texas here is a bit of a germaphobe,” she explained, smiling falsely.
Hanson raised an eyebrow incredulously. “In this day and age?”
“It’s kinda comforting to hold onto something familiar, isn’t it?” Her smile had vanished. “Makes you feel normal in an abnormal world.”
Hanson nodded in understanding and let go of Penny’s hand. “Let us escort you to the city limits.” He smiled a wolfish smile. “Wouldn’t want any of you to get hurt.”
Penny looked at O’Connor, hoping that he could read her answer—and Sheldon’s—in her eyes. When the priest nodded a solemn thanks to Hanson, she knew that the three were of the same mind. If they had rejected Hanson’s wishes for a third time, he might not have been so lenient. He might have held them prisoners right then and there. This way they could appear unsuspecting and Hanson’s men would follow them. But Sheldon would find a way to elude them. He always did.
Hanson’s men had dropped them off at the city limits, as promised. Penny watched to see if they lingered behind, but they didn’t seem to follow. Sheldon assured her that Hanson would and that he had most likely deployed trackers the moment Sheldon and company had left the bunker in Monticello.
Their traveling party had made it to Dubuque, Iowa by noon, as Sheldon had predicted—with Cecilia and Penny taking turns driving the bike with the side car for Eve. They used bicycles rather than motorcycles as bicycles made less noise and you didn’t have to worry about gas. The other problem was that most vehicles didn’t work due to the electromagnetic pulse that had been unleashed across the country a couple of months back—the government’s last plan to fight back against Them.
Predictably, it didn’t work.
After having lunch inside a church, the gang made their way into town to look for a gun shop. Most stores were raided the first day of the eclipse; however, some of the shop owners had been prepared for the looting, storing their guns and ammunition in a locked cellar or basement. They key was knowing where to look. Besides, even if Sheldon and company didn’t find anything in the stores, they could just search the surrounding homes. Most cities of moderate population had become ghost towns or completely destroyed. Such was the case with Dubuque, which had been pelted with a hail of fire and brimstone, leaving some of the buildings still smoking four months later.
Stepping past the charred ruins, Sheldon and Penny entered the gun store while O’Connor and Cecilia kept watch with Eve. Although it was daylight and the town appeared deserted, there were still many factions to be wary of: scavengers and marauders—just to name a few. Someone was always out to take what was yours. Or there were those who just wanted to torture and rape for the sake of it. Humans were no less depraved after the apocalypse than they were before it; now they just had no excuses and no laws to prevent them from acting upon their ungodly impulses.
“Penny, help me with this,” Sheldon ordered from inside.
He shouldered his rifle and leaned down to put his hands on a solid metal cabinet that was lying on the floor of the empty shop. Penny walked over to where he stood and reached down with both hands, finding her footing. Counting to three, they both pushed the cabinet toward the wall, revealing the outline of a door with a metal ring in the middle on the floor. Sheldon knelt down and hooked his fingers through the iron loop and pulled. It was resistant at first, and Penny was about to offer help, when the trapdoor began to creak and groan until it finally gave way.
Sheldon wiped the back of his hand along his sweaty brow and peered down into the hole. He then got down on hands and knees and began to reach out and feel down the sides of the trapdoor, lifting up the remnants of a rope ladder. Penny took out her flashlight and gritted the tooth guard between her teeth before instinctively lowering herself down the narrow passage with Sheldon’s help. It was a six foot drop to the ground, and she felt her bones rattle as she landed on the hard dirt floor. She then took the flashlight out of her mouth and began to shine it around the dark cellar.
“What’s down there?” Sheldon asked from above, taking out his own flashlight to have a look.
Penny cautiously walked forward until she approached what looked to be a misshapen wall and reached out with her fingertips to touch burlap. Pulling down the material and a thin layer of dust and sediment with it, Penny took in a deep breath and coughed before smiling brightly.
“Guns—” she coughed again “—lots of them.”
She ran her fingers over the metal and stepped over to another section, pulling back blankets covering boxes of ammunition and other items.
“Take what you think is appropriate and hand it up to me.”
Penny nodded, even though she knew he couldn’t see her. She handed Sheldon the ammunition first and then a box of grenades, letting him sort through what they needed since it was brighter up top. As she began to pick through the weapons, only taking a few extra handguns and holsters, she saw another wall covered with canvas. Tearing it down, Penny grinned wolfishly at what she saw: a longbow with a quiver filled with several dozen arrows.
She gathered all that they needed and, when done, Sheldon helped her out of the cellar. Closing the trapdoor, he had Penny help him push the heavy cabinet back over the door, just in case they came back this way again. That way they’d know where to go for weapons and ammunition.
While they were packing their gear, Cecilia gave a short call—their code. Sheldon and Penny immediately drew their weapons and left their packs behind, cautiously making their way over to the window. Cecilia and Eve were crouched down low behind a mailbox while O’Connor was standing in the door of the shop next to them. Cecilia made a motion with her index and middle finger, pointing at her eyes, and then made the sign for six before pointing behind her.
Standing sill against the wall near the window inside the shop, Sheldon took a compact mirror out of his pocket and positioned it so that he could look out onto the street behind Cecilia. There, prowling down the road, were a half-dozen children, ranging from six to thirteen; each were armed with an automatic weapon.
Sheldon took in deep sigh and pocketed the mirror. Penny nudged him gently, questioning him with her eyes. He only needed to mouth the words “kids, armed” and she cursed silently. Out of all the gangs one could come across on the road, children were the most dangerous. They were violent and savage, not caring what needed to be done in order to get what they wanted. They had no morals and knew no reason, and too many adults had the wrong idea in pitying them. Those people wound up dead.
Penny checked the magazine on her gun and slapped it back in place. Sheldon was a great shot with a rifle, but with a hand gun—with hitting multiple targets with speed and accuracy—Penny was more skilled. She had better aim and faster reflexes, which meant that she would be doing the killing while Sheldon covered her. Although killing kids was the last thing that Penny wanted to do, what really worried her was the noise that gunfire would make and who it would attract—Hanson’s men, or worse.
As Penny made to move past Sheldon, he raised his hand to stop her. She could see his blue eyes flickering, his mind deep in thought, and he curled his fingers into a fist. He stood up and went over to his bag, rummaging around until he found a flare gun. After a quick mental calculation, he aimed the gun in the air, over top the buildings, and fired. The flare whizzed through the air before cracking loudly in the sky, bursting a deep red color. If Hanson’s men saw it, then maybe they could lure them into the city itself.
Penny already had her mirror out and was checking the streets. The children’s attention was focused on the sky. With them distracted, Sheldon motioned for Cecilia to get O’Connor and for them all to run into the gun shop. Quietly, all three ran inside with the padre throwing himself against the wall. Sheldon was already at the cabinet with Penny was beside him, trying to move it as quietly as possible. Lifting up the door, Sheldon threw their gear down the hole and silently motioned for them all to go down as well. Penny jumped down first and took Eve when she was handed to her and then Cecilia and then O’Connor. Sheldon was last, grabbing a piece of tarp and throwing it over the trapdoor as best as he could while lowering himself down and closing the door above him.
There, down below, they waited. A minute went by and then another before they heard hurried footsteps thudding across the floor above them. There was banging and quiet shouting, as though the children were conversing in some unknown language. Penny could hear them beating on the metal cabinet, perhaps trying to open it. Then, after a few more minutes, the footsteps slowly petered out of the shop and it grew silent once more. Sheldon made them wait a little while longer, sitting down on the hard ground. Five minutes went by before more shuffling could be heard. The kids had returned. More loud whispering and a few grunts before the noise carried off again, leaving the store. They stayed in the cellar for another fifteen minutes until claustrophobia finally set in.
With a grunt, Sheldon pushed open the trapdoor. It thudded loudly on the floor, and Sheldon waited a moment, listening for a sound—any sound. Sure that no one was there—or as sure as he could be—he placed his hands on the outer edge of the door and hoisted himself up. Scrambling to balance on his forearms, he pulled himself out of the hole while Penny was at his feet, pushing him up. As he rose up onto his knees, he threw the tarp back and withdrew his Ruger, pointing it at the street. No one was out there. Furtively glancing around the shop, he slowly holstered his weapon and turned around toward the trapdoor, helping Penny out first.
Once they were all out with their gear on, they hid the trapdoor again and carefully made their way out of the shop, traveling down an alleyway to take a less direct route back to the church where they had hidden their bikes. Dusk was already approaching. They would take refuge in the church that night and leave the city to head northeast at daybreak. Hanson’s men wouldn’t dare enter the church, and they certainly wouldn’t travel at night.
Sheldon’s party began their journey at the crack of dawn, making their way to the small regional airport just outside the city limits of Dubuque. Sheldon took out his map and grimaced. Up until two months ago he had used the GPS on his phone to move from location to location. Satellites were one of the few things still operating, and he even had a betavoltaic battery for his mobile device. Unfortunately, the electromagnetic pulse created by the government’s last ditch effort to eradicate Them had wiped out the power to his laptop and phone when they were on the road in Kansas. If they had been underground, the technology would have been saved. Fortunately, the rest of Sheldon’s equipment was stored in their bunker back in Tehama, California, but that was of no use to them near the border of Illinois.
“Someone’s following us,” Penny informed Sheldon quietly, her head bent so that no one could read her lips.
“Hanson’s men,” Sheldon answered tersely, still examining the map. “They’ve been tracking us since we left the church this morning.”
Penny fingered the strap of the holster on her right hip. “Why haven’t they jumped us yet?”
“I reckon they want to see where we’re going first,” he replied, folding the map carefully and slipping it into the side pocket on his cargo pants. “They need to make sure we’re who they think we are and, if we’re not, then they need to find the right moment to ambush us.”
“And we’re going to give them that moment?” Penny asked peevishly.
“No,” Sheldon replied, sounding thoroughly annoyed. “I plan to turn the tables on them very shortly.”
Penny put a hand on her hip and huffed. “When were you going to fill me in on this plan?”
“Really, Penny,” he began in a familiar patronizing tone, “when have I ever needed to walk you through one of my plans? You’re a creature of instinct, and I use that strength to my advantage.”
Penny lowered her hand to her side, somewhat taken aback by his words. It was true that she often just reacted to each given situation as though reading Sheldon’s mind and knowing what to do on instinct alone. It had always served them well. However, Penny had never expected Sheldon to admit as such. In the past he had always been opposed to her impulsiveness. Now he seemed to value it, to rely on it. Such was the world they lived in.
“The safe house we’re heading to has a warehouse where we can draw them in and dispose of them soundlessly.” He unhooked the flap on his right hip holster. “We’re less than five miles away.”
Just then a bullet whizzed past Sheldon’s left ear, grazing his temple. He immediately threw himself to the pavement and withdrew the Ruger from his right hip. He turned and fired in the direction of where the shot had come from. Hiding behind a tree was a dark man dressed in army fatigues. He took the bullet right in the ear. The missile passed through his head with a splatter, and he fell forward flat onto his face—dead.
Penny and the rest of the gang were already down, seeking shelter behind an abandoned car parked in the middle of the road. Sheldon followed suit, scrambling to his feet and taking off in their direction, barely avoiding the spray of bullets that chased his footsteps. He collided into the car door with a jolt of pain traveling up his right arm, followed by a kaleidoscope of color. His left arm fell limp; his shoulder was dislocated.
“We’re flanked!” Penny growled, firing blindly over the hood of the car before throwing herself back down beside the wheel.
Bullets tore through metal and plastic, and Sheldon let his bad arm hang limply at his side before pulling himself up into a squatting position. He looked up through the passenger window to see how many men were settled in the brush when a bullet shattered through the glass, causing him to duck to the ground.
“They seem to have scattered during the initial attack,” he said breathlessly, wincing as his wounded arm bumped into the side of the car.
“I counted five when I made it to the car, and you killed one,” Penny said, before turning back and firing into the bush. “So there’s at least four left.”
“Five,” Sheldon corrected. “They would have sent two men for each one of us who is armed.” He glanced in the direction of O’Connor, who was cradling the child close while praying.
Penny swore as she reloaded both pistols. “What do you want to do, then?”
Sheldon quickly took in a lay of the land. It was mostly flat terrain with few trees for coverage. There was no high ground to be taken, no large rocks to hide behind. They would have to increase their fire power and the speed of their attacks to ensure any sort of victory.
“Penny, I want you to continue firing over the hood of the car, drawing their attention,” he ordered. “I will throw a grenade and run out toward them, using the element of surprise.”
She grimaced. “Sheldon, we both know women have quicker reflexes. I’m a faster shot and my aim is more accurate.”
Sheldon growled, removing a grenade from his belt. “Penny, this isn’t a time to put your feminist theories to test.”
“Sheldon.” She was looking at his dislocated arm and the blood dripping down the side of his temple toward the corner of his eye.
“Fine,” he hissed, handing her the grenade before taking out another one for him to use. “After they return fire, take a note of where the majority of the gunfire comes from. When I start shooting again, you’ll throw the grenade in that direction and then run out toward the bushes.” He leveled his cold blue eyes on her. “You’ve got that?”
Sheldon immediately opened fire, and Hanson’s men returned it. Estimating the general direction from where the gunfire came from, Penny pulled out the pin to the grenade and held onto the clip. When Hanson’s men stopped firing to reload, Sheldon looked up at Penny and nodded, standing up to fire over the hood of the car. Penny threw the grenade and waited for it to explode. When it did, and the earth rose up in giant clumps to meet the sky, she ran out past the car and into the brush as quietly and as quickly as possible.
She aimed low, the roar of the 9mm thrumming in her ears. The men were confused, still firing at the car. They didn’t even notice her coming until a hole appeared an inch above the right knee of one of the men who was standing behind a tree not far from her. A dark red stain immediately began to spread, and the man’s mouth opened wide in shock. The surprise died in his eyes when she reported another shot at his head. His neck snapped back and he hit the ground with a lifeless thud.
The others looked up, and Penny smiled darkly. She had used to dread moments like these: taking another man’s life. The first time she had killed she had vomited her breakfast all over Sheldon’s shoes and refused to look him in the eye for three days. Now she approached the task with a cool sort of detachment. It was her duty. She wanted to see the whites of their eyes before she fired. It made it easier to aim.
She squeezed off the rest of the round, shooting the second tracker right through his eye and the third through the throat. The last bullet tore through the fourth man’s scalp, which peeled away like old wallpaper and slapped against his cheek. Blood poured down his face in rivulets, and chunks of his skull and brains had splattered against the tree behind him.
When the dust and the smoke settled, Penny took in a deep breath and leaned against a tree. She let her trained eyes scan the landscape before running back over to the car.
“Did you see that?” she asked excitedly. Her voice was high-pitched and the words tumbled out like a babbling brook. “I got all four and not one scratch on me. Not one shot fired against me.”
“Four?” Sheldon asked worriedly, hurriedly glancing around.
“Yeah, I never saw the fifth,” she said, her heart still racing from the adrenaline rush.
Later she would dwell on what she had done with a cold sickness, but now she could only be proud that she had survived and saved the others in the process.
Sheldon looked down at his dislocated arm and then back up. “Penny?”
For a moment, Penny’s lips could only twist together in confusion before she realized his meaning.
She took his left arm in her right hand while bracing her left hand above his shoulder. With a swift, sickening pop, she twisted and pulled his shoulder back into place. Sheldon gritted his teeth but did not cry out. Instead, he held his injured arm and massaged it, glaring at Penny the entire time, as though it was her fault that he was in pain to begin with.
Then there was a crack, a high note bleeding on air. It struck a discord among them, and they all warily jerked their heads around liker birds, looking for the source of the noise. Sand and ash rattled against their boots and as the silence held, spinning itself out, a sharp gasp came from Cecilia, causing the rest to turn in her direction. Her breath had clogged in her throat and her eyes were wide and stunned. She looked down and clutched both hands at her right side. Lifting them away, she brought them eye-level. They were covered with blood.
“Down!” Penny yelled, throwing herself on top of Eve.
Sheldon did not run for cover this time. Instead, he calculated the direction in which the bullet came from, raised his gun, and fired twice. The shots squeezed out like cracks of lightning and both bullets struck home: one in the assailant’s right cheek, the second between his eyes. He was already dead before he hit the ground.
Dropping his arm, Sheldon holstered his gun and walked over to Cecilia, who was lying bleeding on the ground in shock. Penny already had a makeshift bandage tied around the brunette’s waist, putting pressure on the wound. Sheldon crouched down beside her and slapped Penny’s hands away, lifting up the blood-soaked shirt. He took out a handkerchief and dabbed away at the blood.
Cecilia moaned, rolling her eyes up into the back of her head.
“Don’t pass out!” Sheldon spat, exasperated.
Penny was already slapping Cecilia awake, talking to her and telling her that she was fine—that she was going to be okay.
“The bullet went through the fleshy part above her hip,” Sheldon observed, examining the wound with a concerted effort. “It doesn’t appear to have hit any arteries, bone, or vital organs.” He left the handkerchief on it and then tightly retied the dressing, helping Cecilia to her feet. “We need to get to the safe house right now. There are medical supplies there.”
“I’m not sure if I can bike it there,” Cecilia admitted weakly, her face already pale.
“Yes, you can,” Sheldon said coldly. “It’s a flesh wound that can easily be stitched. But if you worry yourself, you will go into shock and die.” His voice was sharp, and his fingers dug into the fleshy part of her arm. “We’re less than five miles away. You can get in the side car with me, and I will take you there.”
Cecilia nodded fiercely, a bit of color returning to her cheeks, and she allowed him to escort her to the fallen bike. After righting it, Sheldon helped her inside and climbed on the bicycle.
“Try to keep up,” he told the others.
O’Connor was already standing over the fallen men with his bible in hand, quickly giving them their last rights before covering them with branches and what brush he could find. They did not need Hanson to find his men so easily—or them.
Penny picked up the other bikes and took the basket off Cecilia’s before throwing the bike itself into the bush. She then tied the basket to the back of her bike and lifted Eve inside it. Luckily Eve was small enough to fit inside. While Eve could have ridden Cecilia’s bike, it was a lot faster for her to ride with Penny. Without waiting for the padre, and leaving Cecilia’s pack behind for him to carry, Penny took off after Sheldon. O’Connor caught up a few minutes later and, after forty minutes of exhausted biking, they finally made it to Sheldon’s designated safe house. However, it wasn’t a house; it was an industrial building, a manufacturer of textiles or something of the sort. It wasn’t a very large structure, but it had an adjoining warehouse and some trees for cover spaced out in front of a wide field. In the parking lot was an old Jeep and no other vehicles.
Sheldon helped Cecilia out of the side car. She stumbled to her feet, clutching onto his arm for support. He then handed her over to Penny, who followed Sheldon to the main building’s entrance, dragging Cecilia alongside her. Penny had one arm wrapped around the brunette while the other was holding onto her Ruger. O’Connor had a hold on Eve and was following closely behind while an armed Sheldon led the way.
“This is a pharmaceutical manufacturer and regional depository,” Sheldon explained quietly, holstering his gun as he took out a lock pick and began to work on the door. “There’s a lab in the back of the main building near the warehouse where I can stitch up Cecilia.”
Once the lock made a clicking noise and the door opened a crack, Sheldon slowly pocketed the thin metal device and looked up at Penny. She immediately set Cecilia against the wall and nodded, holding her gun with both hands, ready to back Sheldon up. He withdrew his Lupara from its secure place in his backpack and held it up chest-level before kicking the door wide open and stepping inside.