Fighting the Dead:The Last Town #4By: Stephen Knight
Reese looked around the command post’s interior. No one said anything, not even Bates. Reese figured that was about as good as it was going to get, so he nodded and got to his feet.
“All right. I’ll get back with Morton and tell him we’re forming up.”
SINGLE TREE, CALIFORNIA
The sun was setting by the time Grady made it out to the highway, his Ford Expedition bumping across the desert landscape. There was a small crowd standing next to a gray and green bus that was mostly unmarked save for a series of registration numbers above the windshield. Just the same, there was something institutional about the vehicle, and Grady would have been able to see that even if he hadn’t already known it was a corrections vehicle.
He pulled up next to the bus and the small crowd gathered there and flipped on the Expedition’s light bar, bathing the area in sporadic flashes of red and blue. He stepped out of the vehicle, adjusting his belt and ensuring his stick, pistol, and taser were in the right places.
“Fourteen, on scene,” he said into his radio.
“Fourteen on scene, copy,” came the response.
The small crowd turned and regarded him, and he waved them away from the bus. “All right, people, let’s step back here,” he said. Not far from where he had parked the Expedition, a tall man in a corrections officer uniform lay sprawled on the ground. He’d been hit by what Grady assumed was a shotgun at relatively close range, right in the head. Half his face was missing. Flies buzzed around the corpse.
Farther downrange, another body lay amidst the scrub. This one had been a fairly portly man in real life, and his skull had actually been smashed open. Insects and dirt had already covered the whitish goo that spilled out of the broken vessel.
Someone alighted from the bus, and Grady saw the always regal-looking Victor Kuruk face him with his characteristic expression of absolute inscrutability. Today, Victor was wearing his “official” uniform—a reservation police jacket over a black T-shirt and black jeans.
“Good afternoon, Chief,” Victor said. Which struck Grady as kind of funny, since Victor was actually a real honest to God chief of a Native American tribe, whereas Grady was just a politically appointed law enforcement officer.
“Hi, Victor. What, ah, brings you here?” Grady asked, even though he didn’t have a lot of time for small talk.
“Some of my people came across the scene and told me of it. I only just arrived.” Victor pointed to the rear of the bus, where his lovingly restored Dodge pickup truck sat. He then turned and pointed back into the bus’s open door. “The driver’s dead. Looks like there were three prison guards, and they were overwhelmed. I don’t know how many prisoners were on the bus, but they’re gone now. Are you going to assist me?”
“Assist you?” Grady asked.
Victor sighed and pointed at the ground. “They’re on reservation territory, Chief.”
Grady almost guffawed. “Victor, I don’t think so. The bus is on the shoulder of the highway.”
Victor sighed. “Which goes right through the res,” he said. “Normally, this would be the Highway Patrol’s bailiwick, but I’m guessing they’re not exactly running down to take a look, are they? Or the FBI?”
“Not able to get through to them,” Grady said.
“Think you can help me with crowd control while I take a look around?” Victor asked.
Grady sighed. “Victor … this isn’t your investigation.”
Victor raised one eyebrow and crossed his arms. “Oh? Very well, then. Do carry on, Chief Grady—I’m not really all that interested in heading up a murder investigation right now. We have something that’s probably more pressing.”
“What’s that?” Grady turned and looked at the people milling around the area. They were definitely motorists, and many of them had likely seen what had happened. He was going to have to conduct a lot of interviews.
“Whomever killed these men are probably criminals, and they have a few hours lead time on us. And if I were them, I’d be headed for Single Tree,” Victor said. “Just in case you wanted to know what my thinking on the matter might be.”
Grady turned away from the crowd and looked at Victor with a frown. A chill ran through him. “Yeah. Yeah, I think you might be right about that.” He reached for the radio on his shoulder.
The news that there were potential murderers on the loose in Single Tree galvanized the town’s small law enforcement team into action. While Chief Grady was tied up out on the highway, that meant Hailey and the others had to start scouring the town, while also remaining available to other calls for assistance. Single Tree was not particularly vast—dimensionally, the town was maybe two miles wide by perhaps four long, but access was restricted by the heavy traffic clogging up Highway 395, which essentially split the town in two. Hailey happened to be on the eastern side of town, keeping watch on one of the local gas stations. There had been two incidents there today already, with exhausted motorists fighting each other for access to the gas pumps. The sun was setting, and the temperature was beginning to drop, but blood pressure wasn’t following in suit. The owner of the gas station had informed him that the underground tanks were running dry, and he estimated that in ten minutes he wouldn’t have any fuel to sell to anyone. Things were going to get ugly. Hailey advised him to close up and head for home as soon as the tanks were tapped. There was no need to stick around, and it didn’t seem like Hailey was going to be returning any time soon.