June 15, 10:57 pm
Morgan Jensen went on the air at 11:00 pm, replacing the two deliriously exhausted anchors. And Rhonda was right when she had warned her reporter that this night would be like no journalism she had ever experienced.
For the next hour Morgan reported a never-ending stream of rumors and vague second-hand reports, mixed in with an occasional official announcement faxed in by the Emergency Operations Center at the Capitol. Through it all, she was the only face on the screen, with only occasional breaks for shaky cell phone footage and still photos the public had sent in, and an occasional rerun of footage shot earlier in the day. By midnight she had a nagging feeling that what she was doing was probably of little help to the panic-stricken citizens of Salt Lake City, and might even be making things worse. With little useful information and no tangible help to offer, maybe it was a disservice to everyone for them even to stay on the air. And it didn’t help that she was constantly being reminded by Rhonda and Larry, through notes passed to her desk, that she had to reinforce her inadequate information with ridiculously optimistic banter, about how the authorities were getting the situation under control, and help was on the way.
It all felt like some Kafkaesque nightmare.
Just before midnight word came down that, as expected, the federal government had officially declared the Salt Lake Valley a national disaster area. A disaster declaration was what they had all been waiting for, and had this been a flood or a hurricane, it would mean that the feds would descend on them in force and do what needed to be done—whatever that was. But even as she was reading the declaration into the camera (with as much optimism as she could muster) she knew that nobody was coming. Not now, and not in the foreseeable future.
Shortly after midnight, Morgan got her first break.
A special desk had been set up to track the fire situation, and Buck Jones, the station’s weekend weatherman, had been pressed into service as what they were calling the “fire anchor.” Buck had really risen to the occasion, using his special maps and the software that would normally be used for tracking storms and weather patterns, to keep track of the scores of fires that were still burning throughout the city. They had been cutting to him every hour, hit or miss, since about eight o’clock in the evening, when the fires were at their worst. Fortunately, the number had fallen to just under a hundred by the time Morgan passed him the torch at 12:15 am, because so many had burned themselves out without spreading, and because others had been doused by the flying tankers dispatched from California. If there was one saving grace to Salt Lake City’s wide streets, it was that they provided natural firebreaks. Some blocks were destroyed completely, but the tankers were continuing to pull water out of the Great Salt Lake, and drop it on the worst of the fires. The one bright part of this disaster was that they finally appeared to be getting ahead of the blazes, and (at least so far) whatever was afflicting the city had not spread to the flying fire crews.
As soon as she could pass the camera to Buck, Morgan tore off her microphone and handed it to Phil King, the anchor she had replaced less than two hours earlier. Phil had combed his hair, but if anything, the circles under his eyes looked even darker. He sank into Morgan’s chair without a word. She would have at least five minutes before Buck tried to send the live shot back to the anchor desk, and she hoped Phil could handle things until she got back. She stumbled out of the studio, rubbing her eyes and feeling like a zombie, hoping she would at least have some time to clear her head.
She didn’t get far.
Halfway down the corridor she saw Rhonda, alone in the conference room. She was sitting under the big board, which now looked to have been abandoned in the chaos. Rhonda had her head in her hands, and she appeared to be either weeping or dozing, but Morgan couldn’t tell which. She stuck her head into the room.
“You alive in here, Rhonda?”
The older woman lifted her eyes, and Morgan could see the redness that surrounded them and the dark bags that were developing. Her producer had definitely been crying, but there was something far darker in her face.
Knowing that she would regret it, Morgan stepped into the conference room and closed the door.
“What’s up, woman? You look like shit.”
Rhonda leaned heavily back in the conference room chair, and Morgan could see a dozen pages scattered in front of her. Some were printed, some were faxed, and several had been balled up in what looked like a fit of anger. But from the mess, Rhonda picked up a single sheet and waved it toward the reporter.
“Did you read this? It’s the federal disaster declaration.”
“Yeah, I read it on the air. Mia slipped it to me about twenty minutes ago. It’s a fucking travesty that it took them more than twelve hours to figure out what’s going on here is a disaster. But I hope this means that by morning we’re going to have some additional help here.”
Rhonda looked up at Morgan, then balled up the paper and threw it across the room. “That’s just it. We’re not.”
“What do you mean, we’re not?”
“Just that. We’re now a federal disaster zone. But the government has pretty much told us to go fuck ourselves. There won’t be any more troops. There won’t be any more help. Nothing. The Army and the National Guard have been ordered to pull out.”
Morgan stood, stunned. “How is that possible?”
“The term they’re using is Q&B. ‘Quarantine and blockade,’” Rhonda said with a bitter laugh. “I guess we can blame it on the god dammed CDC. About a half hour before the president signed this, some fucking bow-tied scientist at the CDC went on the air to say that, in his learned opinion, what was happening here had to be viral. I watched him on fucking Fox News. I’m not a scientist and even I could tell he didn’t have a good argument to make. But it was enough.” She waved a sheet of pink fax paper “We’re now officially under Q&B. And that includes the sky. All the flying tankers that were dousing the fires were recalled as part of the declaration. They’d been making good progress on the fires, and some refused to stop. They were escorted out ten minutes ago by jets who threatened to shoot them down.”
“So that’s it,” Rhonda said. “It all boils down to the same thing. No troops. No doctors. No scientists. No fucking CDC. Nothing. All the troops have even been ordered back to the perimeter. Now they have just one job: Enforce the blockade. Close all the roads out of this city. Turn back anybody trying to get out, and shoot anybody that won’t turn around.”
Morgan was stunned. She’d had a nagging suspicion all night that it would not be the Army or the National Guard that saved them. But she hadn’t expected to hear something so stark, so ruthless. For the government to have just abandoned them this way seemed impossible to imagine.
“So what do they expect us to do?” she asked, her voice barely above a whisper in the quiet room.
“Well, let me read to you their suggestions,” Rhonda said, picking up another pink fax page.
“‘All citizens in the Q&B area are advised that the city is under martial law, and a general curfew. Salt Lake City and Utah State Police have been instructed to enforce this order. All citizens are required to shelter in place. Citizens are not allowed to congregate in any large group. Each household is directed to stay in their own home, with all doors and windows locked, and all lights extinguished. Under no circumstances should extended families attempt to reach one another.’”
“Do they really expect people won’t try to find their loved ones?” Morgan asked, leaning heavily against the closed door.
“Oh, you haven’t heard the best part yet,” Rhonda said, clearing her throat.
“‘It is also advised that if there are weapons of any kind in the home, including but not limited to, guns, knives, and’ (I love this) ‘sports equipment, those items must be secured, or preferably, destroyed. Any weapon that remains accessible in your home is more likely to be used against you than it is to provide protection.’”
Morgan paled. She knew that there were nearly as many guns in Salt Lake City as there were adults.
“Is this… quarantine just for tonight? Will they lift it in the morning? What happens if this thing doesn’t pass by dawn? Do they just expect people to stay in their homes and get slaughtered, while the federal government watches?”
“Well, my sense is, that’s exactly what they expect. Morgan, you wouldn’t believe some of what we’ve been hearing while you’ve been on the air, spouting Larry’s sunshine and roses.”
“Things like what?”
“Oh, the conspiracy theories have been going on all day, all over the country. Right wing radio is convinced that this is all a plot of some kind, probably to take away people’s guns, or that it’s the Illuminati, or China, or some other nonsense. Morgan, the country is terrified, like we’re a poisonous tumor or a hand grenade, about ready to explode and take out the entire country. I really don’t know if there is a limit to what people might do in this kind of panic. I’m afraid anything is possible.”
Rhonda paused, as if she wasn’t sure she should repeat what she’d heard. “I hope it’s just a rumor, but someone at the capitol told me a last ditch plan is being floated in Washington… to nuke the city. They think, if it’s really a virus, that might be the only way to stop it from spreading to the rest of the country.”
“But if it was really a virus, wouldn’t somebody be able to confirm that? The doctors at the university hospital, maybe?”
“Morgan, you’re drinking Larry’s Kool-Aid. There might as well be no hospitals by morning. Up at the university they’re trying to stay open, but they’re already over capacity. They aren’t even doing triage anymore. They’re now refusing anyone entry, enforced by their own security guards and some vigilantes. Volunteers have set up makeshift clinics in the parking garages, and they’re doing their best to treat who they can, with whatever supplies the hospitals will let them have. Word is that the hospital staff is terrified, because if a riot breaks out, they probably won’t have the security to prevent being overrun. Some of the doctors and nurses are already fleeing, leaving patients in their beds with nobody to take care of them.”
“Dammit, Rhonda,” Morgan cried out, truly angry now. “Why haven’t I been given this information! People need to know! Who decided to keep all this under wraps?”
“I guess you can blame Wiggins. He’s the gatekeeper. But you need to cut him some slack. He’s been flying by the seat of his pants, like the rest of us. He just wants to prevent panic.”
“I think it’s too late for that,” Morgan said, but she couldn’t meet Rhonda’s gaze.
“In any case, that point’s probably moot,” Rhonda said, sliding the pink paper across the conference table. “When you get back to the anchor desk, you should tell people that they should no longer try to take injured loved ones to the hospitals.”
Slowly, Morgan sank into a chair across the table from her producer. She was silent for a moment, but then said, “Rhonda… I don’t think I can go back on the air. At least, not go back on and not tell people this stuff. They deserve to know the truth. Not just about the hospitals, but all of it. The quarantine. The flying tankers. All of it.”
“And cause even more panic?”
“Are you serious? Rhonda, we’re way past panic! It sounds like everybody in this city is on their own now. Don’t people deserve a right to save themselves and their families, any way they can? Is it better to just tell people to stay in their homes and let this thing eat the city alive like some kind of cancer?”
“That may be better than panic.”
“You don’t believe that, and neither do it. When I go back on, I’m going to tell the truth. You and Larry can take me off the anchor desk if you want. But I won’t be a part of this. Not anymore. I either tell the truth, or I’m out of here. I don’t have any family in the city, but my parents are going to be out of their minds back in San Diego. Either I tell the truth, or I’m going to leave and try to get out of this city. And I don’t think I’ll be the only one. They can’t stop us all.”
If Morgan had expected a fight, she didn’t get it. Rhonda just put her head back into her hands, the way she had been when Morgan looked in the door just a few minutes earlier.
“Do what you need to do, Morgan. I’m not taking you off the air.”
Without another word, Morgan left the conference room. She looked at her watch. It had been ten minutes. Buck had probably thrown the feed back to Phil, assuming the exhausted anchor was still upright at the desk. She rushed through the control room, past the few remaining interns and the skeleton staff, who were staring blankly at their monitors, mouths agape.
When she burst into the studio, what she saw was not what she expected. And it took her mind a few seconds to make sense of what she was looking at.
Phil King was standing. Not behind the anchor desk, but on it. And the portly, middle-aged man looked nothing like the anchor that Salt Lake City had known and loved for twenty years. He looked somehow younger, and the weariness she had seen on his face just minutes before was gone. He was breathing like he’d just finished a race, and his eyes were darting around the room. The technicians were already stepping back from their cameras, but Morgan could see from the overhead monitor that the camera was still on him, at least from the middle of his chest down.
The roar that came from Phil’s throat caused everyone who had not yet moved to scramble backwards.
“Sinners!” Phil screamed. “Sinners, sinners, sinners! All of you! Sinners and apostates and unbelievers!”
He leapt down from the desk and rushed toward the active camera until he was just inches away from the lens. And although it was out of focus, his face now filled the screen as he ranted, his teeth looking strangely yellow and jagged.
“The end of the world has arrived, and God has judged you all! He’s judged you and found you wanting! God is wiping this valley clean and the wild horses will roam here again, through the decaying wreck of this city!”
Reaching down, Phil King grabbed a length of cable from the floor, and ripped it free from the camera in front of him. That caused the camera to go dead, and the monitor now just showed static. But Morgan thought the audio might still be going out. Phil’s wireless mic was still attached to his collar.
Using the length of cable like a whip, Phil darted across the studio faster than any man of his age and girth should have been able to move. Buck Jones, the weatherman turned fire reporter, stared in shock as the man descended upon him. Buck was so frozen that he didn’t even take a single step back before the anchor plowed into him, wrapping the cable around his neck and pulling it taught. The sound the weatherman made could have been a call for help, or just grunt of surprise, as King climbed his back like a tree and drove him face first into the floor. Morgan swore she could hear the man’s jaw shatter against the tile.
The violence finally broke everyone out of their shock. The newsroom erupted as people started rushing both toward and away from the struggling pair. Morgan herself was moving forward, but the first to reach them was Stan, her field partner. He had left his post as cameraman for Buck, and was now trying to peel the anchor off of the hapless weatherman.
By all rights Stan, who was just half of Phil’s age and built like a wrestler, should have been able to subdue the attacker with no trouble, but the two looked evenly matched. It was Levi Cannon, the associate producer, who helped Stan free Buck, and together they pinned the raging anchorman to the ground. As Morgan watched, one of the interns tried to bind the struggling man’s hands behind his back with the very same cable he had used to strangle Buck. All the while the crazed anchorman was ranting, his prophecies of doom now finally being drowned out by the shouts of his subduers.
At that moment, Morgan witnessed something incredibly strange. Suddenly, all fight fell out of Phil King, and he collapsed against the hard tile of the studio floor as if he was a sack of potatoes. He was whimpering now, but there was no more struggle in him.
Instantly Stan fell back and started furiously scratching at his hand, a wild keening already beginning deep in his throat. In the blink of an eye Stan went from slack to rigid, as if his body had turned to steel. His head whipped back and forth three times, and he screamed a guttural cry that made everyone, including Phil King, go suddenly silent. The cameraman rose to his feet, howling.
“Damnation! Damnation! Damnation!” he roared, and knocked Levi across the room. He flung himself at the nearest body, which happened to be a young intern. With a grip stronger than even Stan should have been able to manage, he threw the woman to the floor. As more of the techs and the cameramen rushed toward the melee, Morgan watched in horror as Stan took the young woman’s head in his powerful hands and cracked it against the hard floor. Once, twice, and then he lifted it high to crack it again.
The sound of her skull shattering was like a dropped vase against the hard tile, and suddenly there was blood everywhere.
But then there was a gunshot.
The crack of it was so close to Morgan’s head that it made her ears ring. She instantly fell into a crouch from the shock of it, only vaguely aware that sparks were now spraying from a wounded rack of equipment across the room. She turned her head and saw the security guard over her right shoulder, his hand shaking like an aspen leaf. And he was already squeezing off two more shots, the last of which hit Stan’s left shoulder, shattering bone and spraying blood in an arc across the studio. The impact drove him off the young woman’s lifeless body, spun him around, and he crashed into the base of the anchor desk. As the guard who shot him stumbled forward, Stan groaned and writhed on the floor like a wounded animal. Morgan saw him go rigid, and his eyes went wide. And then he too collapsed, as if he had fallen to the floor from a great height.
Wiggins, the station manager, was on his feet. He locked eyes with Morgan, and then glanced at the on-air monitor, which was still a mass of gray static.
The station was off the air.
“You!” he screamed, pointing at Morgan. “Back to the anchor desk! Get that dead camera out of the way. Levi, get Camera B on Morgan! And somebody get us back on the fucking air!”
But it wasn’t that easy. And at 1:30, an hour after Stan had been subdued, the station was still broadcasting nothing but static. Several of the technicians who could have fixed the problem had fled, and although they probably hadn’t left the building, it was clear now that much of the staff had deserted the newsroom, looking for safer, more isolated spaces in the building.
As the last two techs that remained worked to repair the electronics and patch things together well enough to get them back on the air, Morgan finally made her way to where Stan had been taken, which ended up being the same conference room where she had talked to Rhonda Ferguson, just minutes before all hell had broken loose.
Stan was on the table, and a woman who Morgan recognized as a waitress from the station’s canteen was using some discarded clothing to staunch his bleeding. His feet were bound with electrical tape, but his arms were free.
If he can get some medical attention, Morgan thought, he might be okay. But that’s a big if.
“Hey Morgan,” Stan said, sounding exhausted, but otherwise strangely normal. “Hell of a night, eh?”
Morgan sat in a chair next to him and took his hand. She could see the documents that Rhonda had left were still on the table, now splattered with Stan’s blood.
“Stan, what happened? Can you tell me? I’ve never seen anything like that. One moment, you were fine, and the next moment, you went nuts.”
“I don’t know, Morgan. I was holding down Phil, and he felt like a bag full of iron rods under me. And the next second, it was like every muscle in his body relaxed, all at once. He quit struggling, and just felt like he… melted, or something.”
“I saw that. But then…”
“Then suddenly I felt woozy, like maybe I was going to pass out. I remember my hand itched like crazy, and I started to scratch it, almost out of reflex. But then, everything just kind of started to spin, like the whole room was falling. I actually thought for a second that the building was collapsing, like on 9/11, but then I realized it was just me. I was falling. It felt like it was through water, and I was drowning. There was black water all around me, and the only light I could see was way, way above me…”
“Is that all you can remember?”
“No, I remember hearing a voice that didn’t feel like it was mine, shouting. And I remember grabbing… grabbing that girl… Except it wasn’t me doing it. I swear. It was like I was watching it through some kind of porthole, or maybe like I was in the bottom of a well or something. Somebody else had a hold of her, and I saw my own hands, lifting her head and…”
“Do you remember getting shot?” Morgan interrupted him, hoping to spare him from having to describe the killing of the intern.
“No, I don’t think so. But then it was like something pulled me out of that water, dragged me back to the surface. As weird as it sounds, I only felt the wound when I woke up. But I tell you, Morgan, I am actually grateful for that bullet. It think it saved me from something much worse…”
When someone shouted to Morgan that the cameras were working, and they were back on the air, she knew what she had to do. She knew she would say what she needed to say. Maybe Larry would cut her off, or maybe he wouldn’t. But the lies and the fake optimism had to end. She owed it to Stan, and to everybody that had already died in this nightmare.
She got back in her chair, under the hot lights, and saw the cameraman counting down to broadcast. There were a dozen notes in front of her to read and riff upon, but she didn’t even attempt to put them into any kind of order.
“Three, two one…”
Morgan took a deep breath.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, I’m sorry that we were off the air for the past hour. I hope that most of you still have power, and are still tuned in. We understand that several more sectors of the grid have gone down since midnight. But for those of you still able to hear my voice, here is what we know at this hour.” She looked at her watch. “As of almost 2:00 am, Tuesday, June 16th.”
She looked deep into the black eye of the camera and tried to steady her nerves.
“Many of you want to know what is going on in our city, and I’m afraid that at this hour, we still have no answers. But I can tell you this. We have been effectively abandoned by the federal government. All the national guard and army troops have been pulled back to the perimeter of the city, and their only job now is ensuring that none of us leave. We are under what they are calling a Quarantine Blockade. The United States of America doesn’t know what is happening here, and so the government has decided that until they know more, it is best to just keep the problem contained. And that means, keep us contained. For those of you who have been following the national news, you know that the CDC suspects the cause is either viral, or it is some kind of chemical weapon. Either way, fear of this situation spreading means that for now, we are all on our own. Nobody is coming to save us.”
With that line, she expected to be cut off, so she paused. The red light on the camera continued to glow. She was aware of Larry Wiggins, a silhouette standing behind the camera, unmoving.
“The advice you have been given so far has been good advice. Stay in your homes. Stay alone, or in small groups. Don’t congregate in crowds, and definitely stay off the streets. The curfew will be in effect until further notice, and being outside means you run a risk of being shot by the authorities, or even by a fellow citizen. To this I can add a directive we received some hours ago. If you have weapons of any kind in your home, such as guns, knives, or even,” she knew she had to add this, “sporting equipment such as bats, ski poles, or hockey sticks, please secure those weapons where nobody, including yourselves, can reach them. If possible, it is best to destroy or disable them if you can. We know any weapon is far more likely to be used against you than it is to provide you any protection.
“We can also report at this hour, that medical services are so overloaded that trying to get your injured loved ones to those facilities is not worth the risk it would entail. This will be true at least until morning. If you have injured loved ones, do whatever you can to stabilize their condition overnight. But don’t take them into the streets. It is simply too dangerous.”
She pulled a tissue out of the box on her desk and wiped her eyes. She noticed that the entire staff of the newsroom was looking at her with rapt attention—especially Rhonda Ferguson, who had a small smile of pride on her face. Larry Wiggins had moved into the light, but he still just stood there, his face slack, with an expression that looked like defeat.
“To the civil authorities who may be listening, I have questions to ask, on behalf of the people of Salt Lake City. First, where are you? Why have you abandoned this city? Why do we now hear nothing but silence? And even though you have declared this city a federal disaster zone, why have we been told that no relief is on the way? Why have you closed our airspace, and sent home the flying tankers who were making progress against the scores of fires, still burning around the city? Indeed, why is the city itself now sealed off, and why have you left us to our fate? Have you no shame? We are citizens of the United States of America. Do you not owe us more than your cold shoulder, and your silence?”
She folded her hands on the desk in front of her, and leaned forward, as if she could look into the eyes of the city.
“My message to everyone within the sound of my voice is this: Salt Lake City was founded by a strong people, who faced untold adversity long before they ever arrived in this valley. This city only survived because of the indomitable strength of all of us. This city has always been a sanctuary. To a large extent, we have always been on our own, and so the challenges we face tonight are different only in degree, but not in kind. A spirit of independence and strength still characterizes everyone who lives in this city. Every man, every woman, and every child. If there is any city that can survive what has happened here and rise from the ashes of destruction, it is Salt Lake City.”
She paused for a moment and looked down. She could hear sniffling from the otherwise silent room around her. And she could feel the dozens of eyes watching her, waiting for what she would say next.
“There is one more thing I wanted to tell you at this hour. And that is the reason we went off the air. We had an incident here, in our newsroom. One young woman is dead, and three other people are injured. But I can now report to you firsthand what it looks like as this… phenomenon… unfolds. We had two men affected here in the studio. To my eyes, it looked as if the madness that infected the first, somehow physically traveled to the second. And in that transition, I noticed something strange. I believe that there is a sign we can recognize, that could be a clue that someone is being affected by this madness. And that is, as strange as it sounds, a severe itching. In this case, the man who was affected said that his hand began to itch uncontrollably, just an instant before he attacked the young woman in the newsroom. I can’t say definitively that this is a sign. But please take it for what it is worth. If you see someone scratching uncontrollably, or who reports severe itching, you may only have seconds to get away from that person. To get to safety.”
Morgan felt as if she had run a marathon. And now that she had said what she needed to say, she felt that her body was about ready to succumb to the fatigue that had been building all night. Larry Wiggins had silently slipped into Phil King’s anchor chair, next to her.
“This is Morgan Jensen. We’ll continue to report, as long as we are able. It is the one responsibility we have to you, to ourselves, and to each other. Our responsibility is to endure. And to survive. And with that, I will pass to my colleague, Station Manager Larry Wiggins. He will provide you with additional details, based on what he has learned from the emergency response center at the Utah State Capitol.”
The light on her camera clicked off, and a second camera took over, this one trained on Wiggins, who was sitting just two feet to her right. Without a word, he reached over and quickly gave her hand a squeeze and gave her a weak smile. He then retrieved the stack of papers that were in front of her and turned to his camera. As he began to riff on them, she eased out of the anchor chair.
She wondered if she’d be able to get back into it, ever again.
As she walked numbly away from the anchor desk, she felt the hands of the station staff. Nobody said a word, but each one of them either smiled and nodded at her, or touched her shoulder or arm tenderly as she passed.
Strangely, she couldn’t stop thinking about what Stan had said, about the itching on his hand. She looked at her own hand and was grateful that she felt nothing particularly unusual there. But even as she stared, a strange memory emerged, of someone else that had scratched at his hand violently, before he had erupted into violence.
Strange now to think of him. Even though it had only been a matter of a day or two since she had been covering that story, it now seemed like something from another era. But as she replayed the incident in the hearing room in her mind, she felt certain. What she had seen in Howard was exactly what she had seen with Stan. He too had scratched at his hand uncontrollably and then gone berserk. And this was long before the events of the past fifteen hours.
She reached into her pocket and pulled out her cell phone. She scrolled down her address book to find the name she was looking for, and hit dial. The call didn’t go through, so she tried a second time, and then a third.
She knew she’d have to keep trying. She knew it was important, and that there was one person who might listen to what she had to say.
Her friend, Detective Carla Grayson.
The Last Handful of Clover is a supernatural thriller by Wess Mongo Jolley. Thanks for reading! If you are enjoying this story, please consider supporting the author on Patreon.
For more information (including maps of the story’s world and a contact form) visit the author’s website.
To read previous chapters of this book, go to the Table of Contents page.
If you’re interested in listening to the book, rather than reading it, the audiobook is available at the Patreon link above, and also as a podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Anchor, and all other podcast platforms. Visit the podcast page for more details.
Copyright 2021, Wess Mongo Jolley. All rights reserved.