June 16, 1:03 pm
Corporal Susan Jarvis saw her commanding officer’s Jeep as it pulled up outside of their office in the Ditto. She breathed a huge sigh of relief, promising herself that she would not let Commander Deary see exactly how worried she had been for the past twenty-four hours.
Susan Jarvis was Sutton Deary’s assistant and (she liked to think) his right hand. She’d been in the army for twenty years, and had worked directly for Sergeant Major Deary for more than half of them. Jarvis was a career military officer whose responsibilities at the Ditto went far beyond just getting her boss coffee and answering his e-mail. For the past decade, she’d been at Deary’s side, and her security oversight role in the chemical weapons testing and CBRN facilities was known and respected, both up and down the chain of command.
As she watched Commander Deary making his way up the wooden walkway to the door of the administrative center, she hoped that his return would bring some normality back to the nightmare they had all been through for the past twenty-four hours. When everything went to shit the previous afternoon she had tried to contact Deary, but he didn’t answer his phone or her repeated texts. To her surprise, she learned that he’d checked out a Jeep and headed into town the night before. Nobody on the base knew why. And as the afternoon had progressed and things had gotten steadily worse in Salt Lake, she had worried that he’d been caught up in the violence. Or even that he had been killed. When the troops at the WDTC went on alert, she could no longer put off telling the brass that the Commander was missing. But, as it ended up, a missing mid-level commander was the least of their worries, and as the base prepared to be mobilized, she was unceremoniously put in full control of the Ditto’s internal security.
As the sun was setting, the base got the word they had been expecting, and for which they had been preparing for much of the afternoon. Salt Lake City was going under martial law, and soldiers and National Guardsmen from bases around the state would be deployed to keep the peace in the city. That deploy order had emptied the military personnel from the Ditto, the airfield, and the associated military barracks. Only a few security guards and the scientists and support personnel remained, and they had been on lockdown throughout the night.
The hours until dawn were marked mainly by what felt to Susan like an oppressive silence, and a darkness that even the floodlights around the Ditto could not keep at bay. The responsibility for the security of the research facility weighed heavily on her shoulders through those dark hours, and she’d slept fitfully in their shared office. Dawn had finally come, but the oppressive sense of doom had not dispersed.
But now that Deary’s back, she thought, maybe I can take a breather…
Sergeant-Major Deary was a good boss, if somewhat by-the-book and bureaucratic. He was extremely capable, respected her, and had always treated her well. She knew he was a loner, with no family to call his own. But he loved his work and was well respected by everyone at the Ditto. And his relationship with Susan had always been warm and less formal than was typical of military culture.
“Jesus Christ, Deary!” she said as the man tromped wearily into the air-conditioned office, leaning more heavily on his cane than usual. “I thought you were dead! I’ve been trying to call your cell phone since yesterday afternoon! Where the hell have you been?”
Deary gave her a mischievous smile, but behind it she could sense the weariness and stress that he was carrying. She could only imagine what he had been through in Salt Lake City.
“Sorry, Susan,” Deary said, shrugging off his army jacket and hanging up his cane. “But you wouldn’t believe the shit I’ve seen in the past twenty-four hours. I just went into Salt Lake for a little R&R. But all hell broke loose.”
“That’s putting it mildly,” Jarvis said, picking up Deary’s jacket from the back of the chair, and hanging it on a hook attached to the wall. She could see that it was covered in dust and torn in several places. She expected to see blood on it, considering how badly it was mangled, but there didn’t seem to be any.
“What happened?” she asked, turning to him, and looking at him gravely.
“It’s way too complicated to describe,” he said, sinking into the big plush green chair that sat behind his desk. “The short version is that I lost my phone when some guy jumped me downtown. I made my way to a police station, but by then, the real shit-show had started.”
“You should have found a phone and called!” she said.
“I know. And I’m sorry, Susan. I meant too. But things just got so crazy, so fast! I got pulled into assisting with logistics with the SLPD, and then ended up in charge of a refugee center at the Salt Palace. I just didn’t think about calling. And by the time it occurred to me, all the networks were going down.”
None of that made any sense to Susan. She knew Deary well enough to know that he was a stickler for by-the-book operations, and the idea that he’d just throw all that away and not check in because things got hairy just didn’t seem like him. She wanted to press him on it, but he looked so tired and bedraggled that she decided this wasn’t the time.
“What’s the news here?” he asked, rubbing his eyes.
“It’s hard to tell,” she said, sitting on the edge of his desk. “I guess you saw that we got deployed. Pretty much all the grunts and commanders are out of here now. The whole place feels… I don’t know. Empty. Abandoned, I guess. It’s just families, scientists, and our security contingent.”
“I saw the troops as I was getting out of town. I didn’t get a chance to talk to any of them.”
“How did you get through? I understand they’ve shut down the city. Both the military and the National Guard were pulled back to hold the perimeter. Nobody in or out, is what I heard.”
“Really? I must have gotten out just in time.”
Again, that didn’t make sense, and Susan felt a strange prickle on the back of her neck. The city had been locked down since the middle of the night. If he’d gotten out before the borders closed, he would have been here hours ago. “Well, you must be a miracle worker. The roads have all been shut down since last night. Or so I’ve been told. It’s hard to know, since all the phone service is out. I guess the satellite phones are pretty much the only communications channel still working in the field.”
Deary looked at her for a moment, and she could see the man’s mind chewing on what she had said. She was convinced that Deary wasn’t telling her everything, or that he was simply lying. It wasn’t like him, and she didn’t know how to confront him on it.
“I guess I’m just lucky,” he said.
She grunted, continuing to look at him. “Sutton, do you need a drink or something? I could get you a brandy.”
“That would be nice, thanks, Susan. A brandy, and then maybe I’ll go take a shower. I’m sore all over. I guess I’m no longer a young man.”
He was right there. His mandatory retirement would come due in a few months, and although she would to hate to see him go, his energy and spirit had really declined the past few years. Looking at him through the corner of her eye as she poured the brandy, she wondered what he would do once he retired.
I worry about him, with no family, she thought. The military has always been his life.
Sipping his brandy revived the old man a bit, and eventually, he looked up at Susan, who felt suddenly self-conscious, like she was caught staring. But she still couldn’t shake the feeling that something was seriously wrong.
“So,” he said slowly, “bring me up to speed. Has there been anything happening here, like in Salt Lake? Any violence?”
“Thankfully, no. The base is still on lockdown, and the security at the perimeter has been significantly stepped up, but whatever is causing the situation in Salt Lake City, it doesn’t seem to extend much farther south than Point of the Mountain. Even Provo and Ogden appear to be mostly immune. Nothing seems out of the ordinary here at all. Except that the Ditto feels like a ghost town.”
“Well, I expect the troops will be back here soon, as soon as things blow over in Salt Lake.”
“Do you really think it will?”
He smiled at her. “Eventually. One way or another.”
She wasn’t sure what to make of that comment, but she let it slide. He paused, then continued.
“Well, I’m glad everyone is safe. Everyone here, at least.”
Sutton set his empty glass down on the desk with a hard rap that made Susan jump.
“So, tell me about the security in the labs. Is everything locked down tight?”
Why’s he asking about security again? I already told him the labs were secured.
“We’re good,” Susan said slowly. “The chemical test facilities are at level five. We have regulars or MPs posted at each of the decontamination zones and the bio-safety perimeters in each of the labs. That’s about fifty folks, total, across the Ditto. Less than half of what we normally have, but adequate, as long as the base is secure.”
“How about the scientists?”
“Most of them went home to Dugway. About a dozen of the most critical labs still have technical staff present, but that’s just protocol. Babysitters, really.”
Sutton was staring out the window now and looking at the array of buildings that could be seen from the Administrative Center. The above-ground entryways to some of the key labs were near them, and his gaze locked on one after another. But of course, there was nothing he could really see from his window. Just featureless and windowless concrete block buildings, and bulletproof glass doors.
“Sutton, are you sure you’re okay? You seem… I don’t know… Distracted maybe?”
“I’m just tired, Susan,” he said, still not turning to her. “I’ll be just fine.”
She sighed, hoping that it was just her imagination, working overtime.
“Listen,” she said, “reports have been coming in from the field. I know you don’t like reading them on the screen, so I’ve been printing them out as they came in.” She tapped an inch-thick stack of paper on the corner of the desk. “You might want to at least glance over them. They’re in chronological order, the most recent on top. It will help you get up to speed with what you missed. I’ll do my rounds and make sure everything in the labs is still secure.”
Sutton was still looking out the window, with a strange expression on his face. Finally, she turned and headed for the door. As she put her hand on the doorknob, he spoke behind her. And for some reason, his voice seemed very different. She tried to put her finger on how it had changed, but failed.
“Oh, Susan, just one more thing…” Deary said.
“Yes?” she replied, turning away from the door.
As she watched, dumbfounded, Sutton Deary, her boss and mentor for more than a decade, pulled a pistol out of his desk drawer, crossed quickly to her, and leveled it at her forehead.
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.
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Copyright 2021, Wess Mongo Jolley. All rights reserved.