June 16, 4:37 pm
Perhaps the military occupation of the university campus was a sign that Salt Lake City had not been completely forsaken by the outside world. But if so, it was a sign that few of the survivors witnessed. For although small crowds still flocked to places such as the university, hospitals, and police stations, the vast majority of those who had made it through the first day of the onslaught had gone to ground.
Closets across the city were full of terrified survivors, huddling alone. Bedrooms in dark houses had their doors and windows nailed shut from the inside. Dank basements and stifling attics were full of quivering men, women, and children, often barricaded behind boxes of old Christmas decorations or unused furniture. Single people and couples lay in bathtubs or under the beds, praying that the madness stalking their city would somehow pass them by.
Despite the warnings from the now silent news media, most of those who had weapons still held them close, not believing that those weapons could easily be turned against themselves and the people they loved.
And many who had the nerve, or the lack of sense, were still attempting to flee.
Mostly, they were not only hoping to save their own lives, but the lives of those they cared about. A large number actually got as far as the blockades and were sent back. Most submitted to the authority of the men with guns and turned their cars around, praying that they would find some other safe refuge.
Those that tried to bluff or reason or run their way through the blockades met an end just as violent as what they were fleeing.
The quarantine of Salt Lake City was not perfect, and many escaped—especially in the early hours. Those heading north and south had by far the best likelihood of slipping past the Army and National Guard forces that were trying to shut down far too many roads with far too few people. The soldiers there had almost given up hope they could hold their lines, and they already knew that if what was causing the situation truly was a virus, then it had escaped the city long ago. And yet still they persisted, out of a sense of desperation, loyalty, or duty.
There were only a few ways out of Salt Lake to the east, as the Wasatch formed a huge and imposing wall along the city’s edge. Those canyons had been effectively covered, but some back roads and trails still provided a way out, and there had been more than one family who had, Sound of Music style, put on their backpacks and climbed their way out of the city.
Of all the escape routes, the easiest to control was to the west.
There was really only one major road that linked Salt Lake City directly with the Nevada desert, and that was Interstate 80. To the north of the freeway, passage was impossible because of the huge and sprawling Great Salt Lake; a body of water so brackish and salty that nothing more than brine shrimp could survive in it. To the south of the lake, the Oquirrh mountains were spare and inhospitable, with no civilization and few passable roads. And even if refugees had somehow, miraculously, made it past either of those two obstacles, they then faced hundred of miles of barren desert. Cars would get bogged down in the sand or mud of the Salt Flats, and unless you had a dune buggy or motorcycle, your chances of getting through that way remained slim.
So, to get out of Salt Lake City to the west, there were few options other than Interstate 80.
Several platoons from the army base at Dugway had been dispatched overnight to seal up the freeway, at the choke point between the Great Salt Lake and the Oquirrh mountains. They arrived with a caravan of nearly a hundred vehicles, including assault trucks, Jeeps with stable gun mounts, and two HEMTT A2 M977 Mobility tactical cargo trucks.
The principal commander on the ground was Sergeant Gerry Anderson, who led a team of over two hundred soldiers. It was an assault force worthy of any mobilization in Iraq or Afghanistan; two combat theaters in which Sergeant Anderson had served over his nearly thirty years in the service of his country. But no matter how he tried to square it in his mind, Anderson couldn’t shake the disgust that they had asked him to dig in and hold his ground, not against a hostile enemy force, but against American citizens.
This is not what I expected to be doing when I got up yesterday morning, he thought, as he turned back another carload of civilians who looked, for a time, as if they were ready to ram the blockade in their Ford pickup. For the thousandth time he reached up to scratch his nose, but was blocked by the plastic face shield of his hazmat suit.
Until about 3:00 am Anderson had been told to let cars through if nobody in the vehicle was acting strangely. But when the CDC, FEMA and the President sent through the order for an absolute quarantine, to be enforced by lethal means if required, true terror spread through the soldiers. The word “virus” did not appear anywhere in the order they received. But the word “containment” did. Seven times. Each time following a bullet point that was more dire than the one that preceded it. Anderson had never seen an order like this, and it scared the hell out of him.
That’s when they’d broken out the hazmat suits. Unfortunately, they only had enough for the front-line soldiers who were dealing with the vehicles. The snipers just had paper face masks, which had been mouldering in the warehouses since the end of COVID restrictions.
In just over twelve hours, the yellow-suited soldiers had turned around close to six hundred vehicles. And, unfortunately, the snipers had also opened fire on twenty-three that refused to be dissuaded by their show of force. In most cases, they had only needed to shoot the driver, who was invariably male, and invariably had a wife and kids in the car with him. As hard as it was, taking out the driver, then sending the wife and kids back seemed the most humane thing they could do.
Anderson felt like a robot as he talked to the driver of the Ford pickup. He was repeating the same phrases he had been repeating for over twelve hours and listening to the same pleas and arguments. The bullet riddled cars that had been pushed off the side of road, had been intentionally left in view, their bloody and shattered windshields more eloquent than Anderson could ever be. And finally, when all else failed, Anderson would point to the camouflage tarp that covered a large and shapeless mass, from which blood continued to seep into the sand, and he would give the driver thirty seconds to turn the car around or he (and it was almost always a he) would be dragged out of the car and shot.
Thankfully, this family finally got the message without him needing to go that far. They crossed the dirt median and headed back the way they had come. Anderson could still hear the wailing of the twin boys in their mother’s lap, who couldn’t have been older than four.
And already the next car was creeping toward the blockade like a tremulous insect.
Lack of sleep had only aggravated the sickness in Anderson’s gut. For the past several hours, it had felt like he and his fellow soldiers were operating in a strange and surreal dream world. One that they might never escape. It was a dream full of panic, desperation, murder, and a rapidly escalating spiral into darkness.
Still, Sergeant Anderson kept going, because he knew knew his regiment had it easy—at least, compared to what the poor bastards were going through down near Provo and up near Ogden. The reports had been scattered, but where his forces were simply holding down a clean and defensible blockade, the other soldiers were engaged in skirmishes and firefights. And where he had less than two dozen bodies under a tarp, they had hundreds, scattered in fields and back roads.
In a way, Anderson was relieved by the simplicity of his orders. It took away any need to make judgment calls on these desperate people. Now, everything was very simple. Everyone was turned back. Everyone that crossed the thick white line that was painted across the road was shot. It was as simple as that.
High altitude reconnaissance reported that I-80 west was still open and passable out of the city. That is, for those that could find their way past the airport. Before that, it was hit and miss. But once the refugees got that far, the long and open highway had stayed relatively clear. That alone seemed like a major miracle.
Anderson watched as the SLPD cruiser came into view down the long, straight stretch of the freeway. When it got within a quarter mile, the driver switched on the rotating lights on the roof, but not the siren.
Anderson studied the approaching car through his binoculars. No police or other civil authorities had come down this road since early that morning, and it seemed strange now that a cop car would attempt to get through. He knew that even many of the cops were panicking and trying to find their way out of the deathtrap in which they found themselves. He promised himself he’d deal with the cop respectfully, even if it was some coward that had abandoned their post in the city to find a way out.
Everyone gets turned back, he reminded himself. No exceptions.
Slowly, the squad car pulled up to the checkpoint, gliding to a stop in the center of the two-lane highway. Anderson and a half dozen other officers advanced, training their guns on the vehicle, as they had so many times now. The engine shut off, and the driver’s door opened. And to Anderson’s surprise, a single, middle-aged woman cop got out, hands in the air. He could see that she had left her sidearm in the vehicle.
Well, at least she’s smart enough to know the situation she’s in.
“Stop right there,” Anderson barked, his voice clear and crisp in the still afternoon air. “Walk forward to the barricade, and place your hands on the roof of the Jeep. Do not get back into your vehicle and do not take down your hands!”
The cop obeyed without hesitation. It seemed she was not hostile and not argumentative. But Anderson had learned that the calm and friendly ones were the ones you had to watch out for. They were often the ones that thought they could charm or talk their way through two hundred soldiers.
Holstering his weapon, but also glancing at the snipers to his left and right, he approached the cop. He gave her a quick pat down until he was sure that she was unarmed.
“Okay, officer, you can turn around now.”
The cop dropped her hands and turned around and gave Anderson a smile that seemed strangely out of place. It was not the kind he would have expected to get from anyone amid this ongoing insanity. But she cocked her hands on her hips and just looked at him.
Grayson, her name badge said.
“Well, Officer Grayson, suppose you tell me what the hell you’re doing here,” Anderson said, with formality and the full force of his authority. “You have to know this road is shut down. Salt Lake is under quarantine. Nobody leaves the city, by order of the President. So how about you turn around your squad car and head back the way you came.”
“Oh dear, soldier boy,” the woman said with a chuckle. It was a strange turn of phrase that Anderson should have found insulting, but for some reason he didn’t. It almost seemed like she was quoting an old movie or something. “Now, I know you have to keep people in. But I’m on a mission! A mission from God, you might say.”
He squinted at her, trying to see if she was being serious, or if perhaps she had lost her mind. Before he could ask her to explain, she gestured to the police car, still sitting with the driver’s side door open, a dozen steps behind her. And for the first time, Grayson noticed she wasn’t alone. He hadn’t noticed before because the two individuals in the back had been slumped down. He hadn’t seen, but clearly the other soldiers had, since several of them still surrounded the car, and had their weapons trained on the back windows.
“I’ve been ordered to take these two prisoners to Dugway for testing and research, dear heart,” the cop said, as Anderson squinted his eyes in the bright sunlight, trying hard to make out the shapes in the back seat. “The doctors think they may be harboring the virus that is causing the violence in the city. It’s a nasty little buggy!”
Anderson gulped, and took an involuntary step back from the car, and from the woman. “Show me,” he said, drawing his sidearm again and gesturing back to the parked car.
“With pleasure, my dear,” the cop said, already turning on her heels and walking (it almost seemed as if she was skipping) back to the car. When she reached it, she leaned against the front fender and cocked her head to one side. “There you go,” she said with a smile. “These are my lovelies!”
Anderson leaned down to get a better look, past the glare on the window of the back seat. What he saw was a short, chubby man with bandages up and down his arms, who looked to be sunk into a kind of stupor. But he wasn’t alone. Supporting the drowsy-looking man was a huge guy that looked rather terrifying. He was covered with tattoos, had long, bushy black hair, and far from being drowsy, he looked angry. In fact, as Anderson bent down and put his face to the glass, the big man smashed the side of his fist against the glass and screamed.
“Get us out of here! Shoot her! She’s crazy! She’s not who you think! She’s going to kill us!”
The outburst was so sudden and so violent that Anderson instinctively took a step back and leveled his revolver at the back window of the car, which caused the big man to shrink back. “Jesus Christ,” the big man screamed, throwing his gigantic body over the chubby man. “Don’t shoot us! Shoot her! For Christ’s sake, shoot her!”
The cop leaning against the front fender laughed. It was high pitched and girlish. “Well, they are a handful, aren’t they! But don’t worry. They can’t get out. They’re zipped up tight as a beaver’s asshole.”
Anderson lowered his gun and stared at the cop, while the man in the back seat began to once again pound against the window.
“Maybe you better tell me what’s happening here, before I have you all shot,” Anderson said, glancing back to make sure that both snipers behind him still had the cop in their sights. They did.
“It’s simple,” Grayson said, shrugging her shoulders. “This is an epidemic, right? Well, these two are what the docs all call ‘patient zero.’”
“Both of them?”
“Well, patients zero then. Or is it patient zeroes? I don’t know how that works. Mom taught me at home and all, and I didn’t get much book-learning.”
Anderson leaned in the open front door of the cruiser, and the first thing he saw was the cop’s service revolver on the seat. Right next to it was what appeared to be a tire iron, but it was so caked with blood it was hard to tell. It had still been wet and bloody when it was thrown onto the seat, and it had left a series of criss-crossed red lines across the upholstery. The sight of it gave him a chill.
“What’s with the tire iron?” he asked, looking over his shoulder at the cop.
“Oh, it belonged to the big one,” she said with a smile. “I thought I should take it away from him. It’s not a proper toy for a boy, wouldn’t you agree?”
Anderson looked at the two men through the grating behind the front seats. “So, is she right?” he said to the tattooed man. “Are you two infected with this thing? And if you are, then why aren’t you crazy? Your friend there looks like he’s asleep.”
“He’s not asleep,” the big man said, looking surprisingly calm. “He’s injured. His arms are burned. I gave him an OxyContin to help with the pain. He needs to see a doctor and have these bandages changed.”
“Uh huh. Injured, but not infected?”
“That’s right. She’s lying to you. There is no virus. That’s not what’s happening here.”
“Oh really? Then suppose you enlighten me. What exactly is happening here?”
Before the man in the back seat could answer, Office Grayson leaned down, her face near the soldier’s ear. “My dear Sergeant… Anderson, is it?” She must have read it off his uniform. “Are you sure you want to stick your head back in there? Your pretty yellow suit might not protect you.”
With a start, Anderson jumped back. She was right, of course. If these two had a virus, the last thing he wanted to do was get anywhere near them, even with the filtered breathing rig of his suit. He also didn’t want to be anywhere near this cop. She’d been riding in the car with them for who knew how long, with nothing between them but that metal grate.
“I mean, look at how that big one’s acting. Does he seem okay to you? I think he’s more than a little cuckoo.” Grayson twirled her finger next to her temple, stuck her tongue out, and made her eyes go in circles.
Anderson wasn’t sure who was mad here, but it could just as easily be this crazy cop as the two in the back seat. He tightened his grip on his sidearm but kept it pointing at the ground.
“I need to call the base,” he said, after thinking for a moment.
The cop eyed him suspiciously, and he couldn’t help but be grateful that her gun was still there on the front seat. As well as that tire iron, which for some reason, he found more terrifying than the gun.
He checked once more that both snipers still had a clear line of sight on her from behind the barricades.
Slowly, he closed the door of her car and left the cop leaning against the front fender. The big man in the car screamed several obscenities at him as he slammed the door. But that was the least of his worries.
Further down the highway, he could see a knot of soldiers arguing with a man in what had to be a stolen city bus. It was packed with refugees, and a dozen of the soldiers had surrounded it, keeping their guns trained on the faces in the windows. Faces that looked, even from here, drawn, hot and sweaty. It was another crisis on the verge of unfolding, and it threatened to significantly increase their body count, if it wasn’t deescalated quickly.
“Sergeant, it’s been nice talking to you,” the cop said, drawing his attention back to her. “But I really need to get moving. If you won’t let me go, then you need to call Commander Deary in Dugway. I’m taking these two bad boys to him, so that he can…” she recited the next words in a kind of sing-song, as if she had memorized them, but was unsure of herself. “…isolate them in a level four containment area at the Ditto.”
Anderson was surprised, and his attention snapped back to the cop, who was now chewing her fingernail as she leaned against the cruiser.
“I know Commander Deary.” he said.
“Then you know he’s the big man! The ‘head honcho’, as the Mexicans would say.”
Anderson stared at her. Yes, Deary would certainly be the one that could authorize letting this car through to Dugway. But the problem was that there wasn’t any Commander Deary. Not since before they were deployed.
“I’m afraid Sergeant Major Deary is missing,” he said. “He has been since yesterday.”
“No, you silly man! He’s back! Haven’t you heard? He’s sitting in his office waiting for me and my two poopy heads.”
“It doesn’t matter. I don’t have any orders. I’m just not authorized…”
“Call him, you motherfucker!” the woman hissed, her eyes suddenly hard as blue steel. “I don’t have time to fucking waste with you! Do you want to be responsible for killing everybody! Call him now! I told you, I’m on a mission from God!”
Anderson instantly took a step to the right, to ensure he wasn’t in the line of fire from the snipers. He felt suddenly very uncertain this was going to end well.
The officer appeared to catch his glance, and her eyes darted to where one of the snipers was stationed. She smiled strangely.
“Just call him, honey pie. I’ll wait.”
Slowly, Anderson made his way back to the barricades, leaving the strange cop leaning against the bumper of her squad car. She was still chewing on her fingernail, which made his skin crawl. Despite his misgivings, he quickly found a satellite phone, took off his headgear, and put through a call to the base headquarters. Cell service was still out, but the receptionist at the base was able to patch him into the local phone network and ring the desk phone in Sutton Deary’s office.
To his shock, Deary himself answered.
“Commander Deary!” Anderson said, in shock. “Thank God you’re okay, sir. I had understood you were missing. Somewhere in Salt Lake.”
“I’m back, Sergeant. Good to hear from you. I trust the perimeter is holding?”
“It is, sir. Touch and go from time to time, but it’s holding.”
“Excellent. I’m glad you called, because I’m expecting two prisoners. An officer in a Salt Lake Police squad car should be escorting them. I trust you’ll let them through safely.”
Anderson was speechless for a few seconds. “Yes, sir, that’s why I’m calling. But my orders are that nobody gets through. Do you have countermanding orders?”
“I do indeed, Corporal. But the chain of command is balls-up right now. It’s here on my desk, with no way to get it to you. The CDC has confirmed this is viral, and we’ve re-purposed one of the level four labs here to begin trying to track this thing down. The two patients in the car may hold the key to everything. It’s imperative that they get here as quickly as possible.”
“I can let them through, sir. But I don’t know what the roads are like between here and Dugway.”
“I trust you have a Hemit?”
He was talking about the big HEMTT A2 M977 Mobility tactical cargo trucks.
“I do indeed, sir. I have two. But…”
“Send one along as an escort. Those things are beasts. They can clear anything that might be stalled along the road.”
Anderson hesitated. He couldn’t imagine losing one of his Hemits. They had already needed to use them to push cars off the road that had become stalled. Or when they’d been forced to shoot the occupants and their car was no longer functional. He expected they would be useful. Especially once the sun went down again.
“Sir, the Hemits are…”
“I know, Corporal. They’re critical in an operation like this. But I promise, it will be back to you before nightfall. It just needs to get the officer and her prisoners through to Dugway, and then it can head right back.”
“Anderson, I can’t stress this enough. These prisoners need to get here as quickly, and as safely, as possible. This is a presidential order, and the doctors and scientists are waiting. This could make all the difference. You could be responsible for saving thousands, or even millions of lives.”
“I understand, sir. I’ll get them on the road right away.”
There was a click, and the radio went silent. Deary had hung up.
“Are we really going to give them a Hemit?” asked the radio tech, who had been listening in on the call.
“We are indeed, son. Presidential order. Or so I’m told.”
Handing the radio to the tech, he donned his protective hood and walked quickly back to the squad car. The cop was staring at him with a smile on her face that made him think she already knew what he was going to say. It was a smirk of triumph and dismissal, and it made his skin crawl.
“Ma’am, I’m arranging your escort to Dugway,” he said. “We’ll have you on your way shortly.”
The cop smiled even more broadly, and said in a strange, childish voice, “God will bless you, sweet army man! If not here, then on the other side.”
Anderson felt himself grow cold, and the big man in the back of the car pounded even harder on the unbreakable glass.
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.
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Copyright 2021, Wess Mongo Jolley. All rights reserved.