“OK I have to level with you,” Sheppard said as he crouched behind the counter of the TPE with Malcolm Buck. “I’m not a scout for the Majors.”
“If you’re trying to distract me with disappointment it’s not work---”
“--- I came here to warn people of the danger.”
“You’re a little late don’t you think?”
Malcolm reached for the rifle he kept below the cash- a Winchester handed down from his father, the wooden butt shined to perfection, its thirty inch barrel still intact- a true marvel of simpler times. The occasional shot still rang out as the Trooper aimed for another target, or stopped to reload his revolver. Malcolm twisted around so his back was now to the counter. He held the rifle tight to his torso, gripping the bolt. “What would make a State Trooper go off his rocker like that? And those people? What were they thinking?”
“He’s trippin’? On what? He’s a cop for Christ’s sake.”
“A cocktail of diphenhydramine and atropine among others.”
“Any number of ways; airborne; through the water system; in over-the-counter pharmaceuticals, food. I don’t know for sure. All I know is this is where they planned to carry out the experiments.”
“Experiments? On who? Us? How do you know this?”
“My name is Sheppard. I used to study this stuff in California,” Sheppard said eyeballing the firearm and wondering how much he should disclose to a man with a loaded weapon. “At one time I had access to certain levels of classification and I stumbled on something called Project Eden. An experiment in cutting down the population, or enslaving it, whichever way you want to look at it, it isn’t good. And I know that what’s going down here is just the beginning of something bigger. It’s going to get worse and not just here, everywhere. You need to get out of town as soon as possible and warn others, but they’ll be watching the roads soon. Is there another, less conspicuous, way out of Coram?”
“Through Glacier Park, but it goes on for miles. You need a guide over that terrain.”
“You’ll have to take it.”
“I can’t. My wife. She’s too ill to travel.”
“Look, what I’m telling you is the truth. You must leave here if you want to live. If you stay here you’ll die and she’ll die for sure.”
Buck cocked the rifle, his finger now resting on the trigger. “I’m not going anywhere. And I’ll tell you this Mr. Sheppard; I’m no lab rat who’s going to take a prod in the asshole while I still have breath in me.”
Sheppard inched higher so he could peek over the counter. The Trooper was walking down the center of Route Two, his gun, back in an unbuckled holster, his hat hanging from its chin loop down his back like some western deputy waiting for a showdown at high noon. His mirrored sunglasses gave him a lifeless quality. He stopped and stood motionless with his legs apart and his hands dangling at his sides wiggling his fingers, waiting for his next victim, the Sheriff, Billy the Kid, whomever. Sheppard was reminded of Yul Brenner playing the robotic gunslinger in West World when the computers had run amok.
The Trooper’s police radio no longer barked orders at him from a distance. He’d shot it out after the first wave of killing. The dead lay strewn about the road and sidewalks like ragdolls tossed aside in boredom. The blood from some of the victims had joined into bigger pools being fed by the reddish-black tributaries of carnage mixed with the rain. The light over the intersection turned green. Sheppard lowered his frame and sat back down next to Malcolm Buck.
“So what you’re telling me,” Buck said. “Is our own Government is doing this to us?”
“These people go way beyond government.”
There was another volley of gunfire and the screeching of tires followed by an ensuing crash.
“We have to stop this guy,” Buck said. “There won’t be anyone left in this town if we don’t.”
Sheppard felt for his gun under his shirt. If only he had followed his initial instinct and shot the Trooper when he’d had the chance, all this bloodshed could have been avoided. But how was he to know the officer would go ape shit and start blowing people away.
Buck eyed Sheppard’s piece and nodded. “Good thing I didn’t see that when you walked in, or else we might not be having this conversation.”
Sheppard gulped. “So how do we do this?”
Buck jerked his head toward a doorway near the counter. “Through there is the stock room. You’ll find a door leading to the back of the store. I say we come at him from two angles. One of us is bound to take him down.”
Sheppard wasn’t too anxious to explore this plan if it meant going out into the rain. If this Hallucinogen was airborne, it sure as hell was in the rain. He’d get it all over him and he didn’t think the element of surprise would be an ally if he were holding a bright blue umbrella. But he wouldn’t need to....
“Hello?...... Knock, knock. Anyone home?” It was the same voice that had told Sheppard it was his lucky day. How ironic that statement now seemed. If this was lucky, Sheppard didn’t want to see the alternative.
The Trooper had entered the TPE and was walking around with slow deliberate steps. “Come out, come out, from wherever you are.”
Are you kidding me? This isn’t some fucking game.
Malcolm Buck tensed up, but held his rifle cocked - ready to answer this lunatic. Sheppard had also moved his gun and held it upside his head like he was listening to the trigger’s intimate secrets.
The feet walked slowly to the counter where the two men hid. “Are you hiding? I know you’re here. I saw you playing peek-a-boo through the window.”
Suddenly an explosion lit the store in a yellow glow and Sheppard half expected to see the blood of Malcolm Buck all over him, but it was the vehicle the Trooper had shot at. It burst into flames across the street. Must have taken out one of the pumps at the gas station when it crashed?
Malcolm Buck was quick, in fact, in a scary kind of way for a man his size. With lightning action he was on his feet- a jack-in-the-box popping out of the counter. The Trooper had turned to face the fireball. He had no time to react as the store owner’s blast hit him in the shoulder to the left of his vest sending him backward and on to one knee. His sunglasses flew from his head landing with a scraping clatter on the tiled floor and the gun dropped from his hand.
“You shot me!”
“I’ll shoot your mouth off if you don’t shut up!”
“I need an ambulance!”
“Half-an-hour wait, or so they tell me. Get down on the ground and stay still!”
The Trooper threw his head back and opened his mouth like he was trying to catch snowflakes. The fire from outside the shop danced on half of his face, dousing it with madness. He let out a hideous burst of laughter- guttural in nature. “You shot me,” he said again. He slowly brought his head back to level and stared back at Malcolm Buck. His pupils were as big and dark as two black moons. “Now it’s my turn.” He stretched out toward the revolver. Buck fired again. This time the shot was fatal, hitting the Trooper in the ear, before it entered his skull with fragments of splintered bone. The spray from the exit wound splattered all over a row of food products in a gush of brain, bone and blood. The officer dropped to the side with an involuntary twitch of his left leg squeaking on the floor and he was dead.
Malcolm Buck slowly placed the rifle on the counter and backed away from it like it was evil personified. Sheppard slowly stood to his feet and placed his gun back in his pants. The big Indian turned to the side of the counter, grabbed a wastepaper basket and threw up into it.
Sheppard placed a hand on the man’s massive back. “You had no choice. You had to kill him.”
Buck wiped his mouth with his sleeve. “Go! Don’t worry about me. Get your own ass to safety.”
“Not without the Bradley boy.”
“What? I thought after all this...?”
“You were right about the kid. He is special, but not because he’s fast. There’s something more about him. I don’t have time to explain, but I have to find Rabbit and get him out of Coram.”
Buck tossed the waste basket into the corner. He grunted and hacked the acid taste of vomit from his vocal cords. It resonated through his nasal cavity, sharp and potent. He reached to a stand at the right of the counter and gave Sheppard another map. “Take this. It has the system of trails in the park, even the lesser used ones. The map you bought is for shit unless you want to do some fly-fishing. And grab a compass- third row top shelf near the front.”
Sheppard did as he was instructed, stepping over the fallen police officer and turned back to the big shop-keep to try and persuade the man to at least come with him to the Bradley’s. Malcolm Buck’s eyes told him all he needed to know. The big man wouldn’t hear of it.
Buck motioned to the door. “Now, go on and good luck.”
Sheppard left the TPE and wandered out onto the deserted street. It was more like a war zone with the bodies scattered about the ground; the rivers of blood now snaking their way to sewer grates in a trickling procession. Except for the sound of the burning vehicle overturned and resting on top of a place where a gas pumps used to be, all else was silent. Plumbs of gray smoke and ash billowed into the sky above. The, charred remains of a body spewed out of a driver-side window like a blackened tongue. Yet all Sheppard could think, was how strange it was to be standing in the midst of this madness beneath a bright blue umbrella.
Sheppard turned to the Trooper’s cruiser; its lights still flashing- a beacon for the carnival of the damned. He trotted to the vehicle. The keys were in the ignition. He climbed in, folded the umbrella and tossed it in the back seat. He slapped the map and compass down on the seat next to him. Sheppard turned the key and drove off in the direction Malcolm Buck had told him. He had to find the Bradley boy. With everything unravelling around him, it would have to be soon, before someone else found him first. Rabbit’s abilities in the wrong hands.......Sheppard didn’t want to think of the consequences.