Scott Sigler is the author of Infected, a major hardcover thriller from Crown Publishing. He landed his book deal by giving away multiple novels as free, serialized podcasts that generated a large online following and saw over 4 million downloads of the individual episodes. Scott reinvented book publishing when he released Earthcore as the world's first "podcast-only" novel. Released in twenty weekly episodes, Earthcore harkened back to the days of serialized radio fiction and picked up 10,000 subscribers along the way. His next podcast novel, Ancestor, drew 30,000 listeners and saw 700,000 episodes downloaded by fans. The buzz caused Sirius Satellite to pick up the novel, making it the first audiobook serialized on the satellite network. When Ancestor was released in print from a small independent publisher, it hit #7 overall on Amazon.com despite no marketing, no advertising and no media coverage. Scott's innovative use of technology puts him at the forefront of modern-day publishing, and has garnered brand-name exposure among hundreds of thousands of fiction fans and technology buffs. He's been covered in the New York Times, NPR, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Entertainment Weekly, Publisher's Weekly, The Huffington Post, Business Week and Fangoria. Michigan native, Scott lives in San Francisco with his wife Jody and their two dogs, Mookie and Emma. Visit his website at http://www.scottsigler.com/
Prologue: This Is the Place …
Alida Garcia stumbled through the thick winter woods, blood marking her long path, a bright red comet trail against the blazing white snow.
Her hands shook violently. She could barely make a fist out of her talon-like fingers, nearly numb, wet from the big clumps of snow that fell thick and fast all around her, melting almost as soon as they hit her skin. When the time came, could she even pull the trigger on Luis’s old revolver?
A searing pain in her stomach brought her thoughts back to the mission, the divine mission.
Something was wrong. Well, fuck, it was all wrong, and had been from the first moment she started scratching at her belly and her elbow. But something was even more wrong, something inside. It wasn’t supposed to be like this … somehow, she knew that.
She looked behind her, along the bloody path through the snow, eyes searching for pursuit. She saw nothing. She’d spent years in fear of the INS, but it was different now. They didn’t want to deport her – now they wanted her dead.
Her hands and legs oozed blood drawn by scratching branches. Her left foot bled thanks to the shoe she’d lost some time ago: the snow’s thin, jagged crust made every step a cutting crunch. She didn’t know why her nose bled, it just did, but all those things were trivial compared to the blood she vomited every few minutes.
She had to go on, had to go on, find the place … the place where it would all begin.
Alida saw two massive oak trees, reaching out to each other like centuries-old lovers, a freeze-frame of perpetually denied longing. She thought of her husband Luis again, and thought of the baby. Then she pushed those thoughts away. She could think about that no more than she could think of the nasty thing on her belly.
She’d done what she had to do.
Three bullets for Luis.
One for the baby.
One for the man with the car.
That left one bullet.
She stumbled, then tripped. She reached out to try and stop her fall, but her bloody hands punched through the knee-deep snow. Her frigid hand hit an unseen rock, bringing more flaring cold-numb pain, and she dropped head-first through the white crust. She came up, wet snow and ice clinging to her exhausted face. Then she threw up – again – blood gushing from her mouth to splash bright-red against the white snow.
Blood, and a few wet chunks of something black.
Inside, it hurt. It hurt so bad.
She started to get up, then stopped and stared at the twin oak trees. They dominated a natural clearing, bare branches a sprawling, skeletal canopy at least fifty meters across. A few stubborn, dead leaves clung to the branches, fluttering slightly in the winter wind. She hadn’t known what she’d been looking for, just that she had to walk into the woods, deep into the woods, where people didn’t go.
This was it, this was the place.
Such a long journey to wind up here. She’d taken the man’s car back in Jackson. The man had said he wasn’t la migra, wasn’t the immigration police, but those people had chased her all her life and she knew better. He had stared at the gun, said he wasn’t la migra, said he was just looking for a liquor store. Alida knew he was lying. She had seen it in his eyes. She had left him there, taken his car and driven through the night, then abandoned the car in Saginaw. There she hopped a freight train and just started watching for big woods. As long as she kept moving mostly north, it didn’t matter.
Moving north, really, was the story of her life. The farther north you went, the fewer questions people asked. Childhood in Monclova, Mexico. Teenage years in Piedras Negras, then at 19 she snuck across the border and started moving through Texas and beyond. Seven years of working, hiding, lying, always moving north. She’d met Luis in Chickasha, Oklahoma, then together they worked their way through America: St. Louis, Chicago, joining her mother in Grand Rapids, Michigan. A brief change, heading east when Luis found regular construction work in Jackson.
Then the itching started. And not long after, the urge to move north again. No, not just an urge, as it had been before.
But finally, after twenty-seven years of life, she could stop moving. She stared at the oak trees, the way they reached out to each other. Like lovers. Like husband and wife. She couldn’t stop thinking of him anymore, couldn’t stop thinking of her Luis. But it was okay now, because she could join him.
She looked back one more time. The thick, falling snow was already covering the comet path, turning the red to a fuzzy pink, soon to be all-white again. La migra was looking for her, they wanted to kill her … but unless they were only fifteen or twenty minutes behind, her trail would soon be gone forever.
Alida turned again to stare at the trees one more time, the image a glorious sculpture in her brain.
This is the place.
She pulled the old .38 revolver out of her pocket and pressed the cold barrel against her temple.
When she pulled the trigger, her cold fingers worked just fine.
Chapter One: Captain Jinky
“FM 92.5 morning call-in line, what’s on your mind?”
“I killed them all.”
Marsha Stubbins groaned. Another ‘I’m so funny’ asshole trying to take the weird route to get on the air.
“Did you now? That’s nice, sir.”
“I have to get on with Captain Jinky. The world has to know.”
Marsha nodded. It was 6:15 am, just about time for the loonies and the jerks to roll out of bed, hear Captain Jinky and the Morning Zoolanders goofing off on the air, and feel they had to be part of the show. This happened every morning. Every … single … morning.
“Captain Jinky has to know what, sir?”
“Has to know about the triangles.” The voice was soft. The words came between big breaths, like someone trying to talk just after an intense workout.
“Right, the triangles. Sounds more like a personal problem, sir.”
“ Don’t patronize me, you stupid cunt !”
“Hey, you don’t get to scream at me like that just because I’m a phone screener, ok?”
“It’s the triangles! We have to do something . Put me on with Jinky or I’ll come down there and put a fucking knife in your eye!”
“Uh-huh,” Marsha said. “A knife in my eye. Right.”
“I just killed my whole family, don’t you get it? I have their blood all over me! I had to! Because they told me to! ”
“This isn’t funny, you idiot, and by the way, you’re the third mass murderer that’s called here this morning. If you call back I’m calling the cops.”
The man hung up. She sensed he was getting ready to say something, to scream at her again, right up until she said the word ‘cops,’ then he hung up and hung up fast.
Marsha rubbed her face. She’d wanted this internship, and who didn’t? Captain Jinky had one of Ohio’s highest-rated morning shows. But man, this phone-screening gig, with the crazy calls day after day … so many retards out there who thought they were funny.
She rolled her shoulders, and looked at the phone. All the lines were lit up, seemed everyone in the city wanted to get on the air. Marsha sighed, and punched line two.
In Cleveland, Ohio, there is a room on the 17 th floor of the AT&T Huron Road Building, formerly known as the Ohio Bell Building.
This room does not exist.
At least, what’s in the room does not exist. On maps, building records, and to most people who work on the 17th floor, Room 1712-B is just a file storage room.
A file storage room that is always locked. People are busy, no one asks, no one cares – it’s like millions of other locked rooms in office buildings all over the United States.
But, of course, it’s not a file storage room.
Room 1712-B doesn’t exist, because it’s a “Black Room.” And “Black Rooms” don’t exist – the government tells us so.
To get inside this Black Room, you have to run a gamut of security screens. First, talk to the 17th floor guard. His desk happens to be just fifteen feet from 1712-B. He’s got security clearance from the NSA, by the way, and is perfectly willing to cap your ass. Second, slide your key card through the slot next to the door. The card has a build-in code key that changes every ten seconds, matching an algorithm based on the time of day – this one makes sure only the right people can enter at the right times. Third, type your personal code into the keypad. Fourth, press your thumbprint onto a small grey plate just above the door handle so a fancy little device can check your thumbprint and your pulse. Truth be told, the fingerprint scanner isn’t worth a crap and it can be easily faked, but the pulse check is handy – just in case you’re just a tad overly excited because someone has gun to your head, a gun that was probably used to kill the aforementioned security guard.
If you successfully navigate these challenges, 1712-B opens to reveal the Black Room, and the things inside that also do not exist.
Among those goodies is a NarusInsight STA 7800, a super computer designed to perform mass surveillance on a mind-boggling scale. The NarusInsight is fed by fiber-optic lines from beam-splitters, which are installed in fiber-optic trunks carrying telephone calls and internet data into and out of Ohio. This techno-jargon means that those lines carry all digital communication in Ohio, including just about every phone call made in and out of the Midwest. Oh, you’re not from the Midwest? Don’t worry, there are fifteen Black Rooms spread around America. Plenty for everyone.
This machine monitors key phrases, like “nuclear bomb,” “cocaine shipment,” or the every-popular “kill the president.” The system automatically records every call, tens of thousands at a time, using voice-recognition software to turn each conversation into a text file. The system then scans the text file for those potentially naughty words. If no words are found, the system dumps the audio. If the words are found, however, the audio file (and the voice-to-text transcript) is instantly sent to the person tasked with monitoring communication containing those words.
So yeah, every call is monitored. Every. Single. Call. For terrorism words, drug words, corruption words, all the stuff you’d expect. But due to some rather violent cases that had popped up in recent weeks, a secret Presidential order added a new word to the national security watch-list.
And in this case “secret” wasn’t some document that people discussed in hushed tones with beltway reporters. This time, “secret” meant that nothing was written down, no record of any kind, anywhere.
What was that new word?
The system listened for the word “triangles” in association with words like “murder,” “killing” and “burn.” Two of those words happened to be used in a certain call to a certain guest line for the Captain Jinky & The Morning Zoolanders radio show.
The system translated that call to text, and in analyzing that text found the words “triangles” and “killed” in close proximity. “Put a fucking knife in your eye” didn’t hurt, either. The system marked the call, encrypted it, and shipped it off to its pre-assigned analyst location.
That location happened to be yet another secret room, this one located at the CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia. When a room at the CIA Headquarters is secret, a secret from people who spend their lives creating and breaking secrets, that’s some pretty serious black-ops shit.
The pre-assigned analyst listened to the call three times. She knew after the first listening this was the real deal, but she listened twice more anyway, just to be sure. Then she placed a call of her own, to Murray Longworth, Deputy Director of the CIA.
She didn’t know, exactly, what it meant to have “murder” and “triangles” in close proximity, but she knew how to spot a bogus call, and this one seemed authentic.
The call’s origin? The home of one Martin Brewbaker, of Toledo, Ohio.
It wasn’t the kind of music you expect to hear at that volume.
Heavy metal, sure, or some angry kid pissing off the neighborhood with raw punk rock. Or that rap stuff, which Dew Phillips just didn’t get.
But not Sinatra.
You didn’t crank Sinatra so loud it rattled the windows.
I’ve got you … under my skin.
Dew Phillips and Malcolm Johnson sat in an unmarked black Buick, watching the house that produced the obscenely loud music. The house’s windows literally shook, the glass vibrating in time with the slow bass beat, and shuddering each time Sinatra’s resonant voice hit a long, clean note.
“I’m not a psychologist,” Malcolm said, “but I’m going to throw out an educated guess that there’s one crazy Caucasian in that house.”
Dew nodded, then pulled out his Colt .45 and checked the magazine. It was full, of course, it was always full, but he checked it anyway – forty years of habit died hard. Malcolm did the same with his Beretta. Even though Malcolm was just under half Dew’s age, that habit had been instilled in both men courtesy of same behavioral factory: service in the US Army, reinforced by CIA training. Malcolm was a good kid, a sharp kid, and he knew how to listen, unlike most of the brat agents these days.
“Crazy, sure, but at least he’s alive.” Dew slid the .45 into his shoulder holster.
“Hopefully he’s alive, you mean,” Malcolm said. “He made that call about four hours ago … he could be gone already.”
“I’m crossing my fingers,” Dew said. “If I have to look at one more moldy corpse I’m going to puke.”
Malcolm laughed. “You, puke? That’ll be the day. Say, you going to bang that CDC chick? Montana?”
“Right, Montoya,” Mal said. “The way this case is going, we’re going to see a lot of her. She’s pretty hot for an older chick.”
“I’m fifteen years older than her, at least, so if she’s ‘old’ that means I’m ancient.”
“You are ancient.”
“Thanks for pointing that out,” Dew said. “Besides, Montoya is one of those educated women — far to smart for a grunt like me. Afraid she’s not my type.”
“I don’t know who is your type. You don’t get out that much, man. I hope I’m not your type.”
“Because if I am, you know, that’s going to make my wife nervous. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course.”
“Knock it off, Mal,” Dew said. “We can wallow in your rapier wit later. Let’s get on point, its party time.”
Dew’s earpiece hung around his neck. He fitted it into his ear and tested the signal.
“Control this is Phillips, do you copy?”
“Copy, Phillips,” came the tiny voice through the earpiece. “All teams in position.”
“Control, this is Johnson, do you copy?” Malcolm said.
Dew heard the same tiny voice acknowledge Malcolm’s call.
Malcolm reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a small leather business-card holder. Inside were two pictures, one of his wife, Shamika, and one of his six-year-old son Jerome.
Dew waited. Malcolm usually did that before they talked to any suspect. Malcolm liked to remember why he did this job, and why he had to always stay sharp and cautious. Dew had a picture of his daughter, Sharon, in his wallet, but he wasn’t about to pull it out and look at it. He knew what she looked like. Besides, he didn’t want to think about her before he went on a mission. He wanted to insulate her against the kind of things he had to do, the kind of things his country needed him to do.
Malcolm snapped the cardholder shut and tucked it away. “How’d we get this choice gig again, Dew?”
“Because good ole’ Murray loves me. You’re just along for the ride.”
Both men stepped out of the Buick and walked towards Martin Brewbaker’s small one-story ranch house. An even two inches of snow covered the lawn and the sidewalk. Brewbaker’s place was near the corner of Curtis and Miller, just off the tracks in Toledo, Ohio. It wasn’t rural by any stretch, but it wasn’t packed in, either. The four lanes of busy Western Avenue kicked up plenty of noise – not enough to drown out Screamin’ Frank Sinatra, but close.
In case things got crazy, they had three vans, each filled with four special ops guys in bio-warfare suits. One van at the end of Curtis where it ran into Western Avenue, one at Curtis and Mozart, and one at Dix and Miller. That cut off any escape by car, and Brewbaker didn’t have any motorcycles registered on his insurance or DMV record. If he ran North, cross the freezing Swan Creek, the boys in van number four parked on Whittier Street would grab him. Martin Brewbaker wasn’t going anywhere.
Did Dew and Malcolm get bio-warfare suits? Hell no. This had to be kept quiet, discreet, or the whole fucking neighborhood would freak out, and then the news trucks would come a-courtin’. Two goons in yellow Racal suits knocking on the door of Mr. Good Citizen had a tendency to shoot discretion right in the ass. Not that Dew would have worn the friggin’ thing anyway – with the shit he’d been through, he knew that when your number was up, your number was up. And if things went according to plan, they’d isolate Brewbaker, bring in Grey Van #1 real discreet-like, toss his ass in and haul him off to Toledo Hospital where they had a quarantine setup ready and waiting.
“Approaching the front door,” Dew said. He spoke to no one in particular, but the microphone on his earpiece picked up everything and transmitted it to Control.
“Copy that, Phillips.”
This was their chance, finally, to catch a live one.
And maybe finally figure out just what the fuck was going on.
“Remember the orders, Mal,” Dew said. “If it goes bad, no shots to the head.”
“No head shots, right.”
Dew hoped it wouldn’t come down to pulling the trigger, but somehow he had a feeling it would. After weeks of chasing down infestation victims, arriving to find only murdered bodies, moldering corpses and/or charred remains, they had a live one.
Martin Brewbaker, Caucasian, age 32, married to Annie Brewbaker, Caucasian, 28. One child, Betsy Brewbaker, age 6.
Dew had heard Martin’s call to Captain Jinky. But even with that crazy recording, they weren’t sure yet. This guy might be normal, no problems, just liked to blast his Sinatra on 11.
I tried so hard … not to give in
I said to myself this affair never will go so well
“Dew, do you smell gasoline?”
Dew wasn’t even halfway through the first sniff when he knew that Malcolm was right. Gasoline. From inside the house. Shit.
Dew looked at his partner. Gas or no gas, it was time to go in. He wanted to whisper to Mal, but with Sinatra so fucking loud he had to shout to be heard.
“Ok, Mal, let’s go in fast. This asshole probably wants to light the place on fire like some of the others. We have to take him down before he does that, got it?”
Malcolm nodded. Dew stepped away from the door. He could still kick a door in if he had to, but Mal was younger and stronger, and young guys got off on that shit. Let the lad have his fun.
Malcolm reared back and gave one solid kick – the door slammed open, the dead-bolt spinning off inside somewhere, trailing a few splinters of wood. Mal went in first, Dew right behind.
Inside the house Sinatra roared at a new level, so loud it made Dew wince.
In spite of a warning voice that comes in the night
And repeats, repeats in my ear
A small living room that led into a small dining room, then a kitchen.
In that kitchen, a corpse. A woman. Pool of blood. Wide-eyed. Throat slit. A brow-wrinkled expression of surprise, not terror … surprise, or confusion, like she’d passed on while looking at a Wheel of Fortune puzzle that really had her stumped.
Mal showed no sign of emotion, and that made Dew proud. Nothing they could do for the woman now anyway.
Don’t you know, you fool, you never can win
Use your mentality, wake up to reality
A hallway that led deeper into the house.
Dew’s feet squishing on the brown shag carpet. Squishing because of the thick trail of gasoline that made the carpet an even darker brown.
Mal and Dew moved in.
First door on the right. Mal opened it.
A child’s bedroom, and another corpse. This one a little girl. Six years old, Dew knew, because he’d read the file. No look of surprise on that face. No expression at all, really. Just glassy-eyed blankness. Slightly open mouth. Blood all over her tiny face. All over her little Cleveland Browns T-shirt.
This time Mal stopped. The girl was the same age as his Jerome. Dew knew, right then and there, that Mal would probably kill Brewbaker when they found him. Dew wouldn’t stop him, either.
But this wasn’t the time for sightseeing. He tapped Mal on the shoulder. Mal shut the girl’s door behind him. Two more doors: one more on the right, one at the end of the hall. The music still blared, offensive, overpowering.
But each time I do, just the thought of you
Makes me stop, before I begin
Mal opened the door to the right. Master bedroom, no one there.
One door left. Dew took a deep breath, nose filling with gasoline fumes. Mal opened the door.
And there was Martin Brewbaker.
Mal’s theory back in the car turned out to be prophetic – there was one crazy Caucasian in that house.
Wide-eyed and smiling, Martin Brewbaker sat on the bathroom floor, legs straight out in front of him. He wore a gas-soaked Cleveland Browns hoodie, jeans, and was barefoot. He’d cinched belts around both legs, just above the knee. In one hand, he held an orange lighter. In the other hand, a nicked-up red hatchet. Behind him sat a red-and-silver gas can, lying on its side, its contents making a glistening wet puddle against the black-and-white linoleum floor.
I’ve got you … under my skin
“You’re too late, pigs,” Brewbaker said. “They told me you’d come. But you know what? I’m not going, I’m not taking them. They can fucking walk there themselves.”
He raised the hatchet and whipped it down hard. The thick blade slid through skin and denim just below his knee, crunched through his bone, and chonked into the linoleum floor, severing his leg. Blood sprayed all across the floor, mixing with the pool of gas. His severed leg and foot sort of flopped on its side.
Brewbaker screamed, an agonizing scream that drowned out Sinatra’s jamming orchestra. His voice screamed, but his eyes didn’t – they kept staring at Dew.
That happened in one second. In the next second, the hatchet came up again, and went down again, severing the other leg, also just below the knee. Brewbaker tipped backwards, the now-missing weight throwing off his equilibrium just a bit. As he rolled back, his stubby legs sprayed blood into the air, onto the bathroom counter, onto the ceiling. Dew and Malcolm both instinctively raised an arm to block the blood from hitting them in the face.
Brewbaker flicked the lighter and touched it to the floor. The gas flamed up instantly, igniting up the puddle, shooting up the wet path down the hallway and beyond. Brewbaker’s gas-soaked hoodie snapped into full flame.
In a blur of athletic motion, Mal holstered his weapon, whipped off his coat and rushed forward, ready to douse the flames dancing across Martin Brewbaker.
Dew started to shout a warning, but it was already too late.
Mal threw his coat on the man, trying to douse the flames, and the hatchet shot forward again – burying deep in Mal’s stomach. Even over the Sinatra, Dew heard a muffled chlunk , and knew, instantly, that the hatchet blade had chipped the inside of Mal’s spine.
Dew took two steps into the flaming bathroom.
Brewbaker looked up, eyes even wider, smile even wider. He started to say something, but didn’t get the chance.
Dew Phillips fired three .45 rounds from a distance of two feet. The rounds punched into Brewbaker’s chest, sliding him backwards on the blood-and-gas slick floor. His back slammed into the toilet, but he was already dead.
“Converge, converge! All units move in, man down, man down!”
In concise motions, Dew holstered his weapon, knelt and threw Mal over his shoulder. He stood with strength he didn’t know he still possessed. Brewbaker burned, but the flames hadn’t spread to his right arm. Dew grabbed Brewbaker’s right hand, then stumbled down the flaming hall, carrying one man and dragging another.
(C) Scott Sigler 2008
© Paul Kane 2003-2017. All rights reserved. Materials (including images) may not be reproduced without express permission from the author.