Authors: Charles E. Yallowitz
Copyright 2016 © by Charles E. Yallowitz
All Rights Reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system without the written permission of the author, except where permitted by law. Reviewers may quote brief excerpts in connection with a review.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Cover Design & Illustration by Jon Hunsinger
Her breathing ragged from running for so long, Cassidy wipes sweat from her scarred brow and flicks a blonde bang out of her chocolate eyes. The decade of unchecked growth has turned the park into a messy forest, which is harder to traverse than expected. Roots catch her booted feet and she bounces off thick tree trunks whenever she focuses on listening for her pursuers and companions. The sounds of crashing footsteps and disturbed squirrels come from every direction, so she chooses the path with the least amount of noise and prays that it brings her out of the wilderness. Cassidy is tempted to draw her gun and make a stand, but she knows the prison guards are only doing their job. More importantly, bullets are not cheap and she is the only member of the group who is armed. At least as far as she knows, since the seven prisoners could very well be hiding homemade weapons in their clothes.
Glancing over her shoulder, Cassidy frowns at the bright orange jumpsuits that her panting companions are still wearing. The six men and one woman stand out in the early morning forest, making it easy for the guards to see them through the trees. None of them have bothered to stop and remove the eye-catching garments, which is a mistake that has already cost one of their former allies his life. Having happened while Cassidy was distracting the guards, she has some regret about not being able to prevent the death. She notices that the two men in the back are still sporting the drying blood and brain matter from the deceased, neither of them caring about the gore. Thanks to her stolen uniform, the blonde has managed to send several of their pursuers in the wrong direction, but the trick always means abandoning the others. Sadistic murderers and traitorous thieves though they may be, she broke them out for a reason. Every death is lost time and a step in the wrong direction for the journey she has planned.
There is an air of tension and aggression that is growing stronger by the hour even though nobody has spoken since escaping Rikers Island. Cassidy is sure that every criminal is hoping the others are killed and can act as a distraction. She is surprised none of them have attempted to betray the group and escape in the chaos, but she senses that her little insurance policies are paying off. Strapped and locked to their right ankles, strange devices blink and occasionally hum to remind the prisoners that they have to behave. Until they figure out where their unexpected savior has hidden the remote for the small bombs, the escapees cannot act on their thoughts of betrayal. From what Cassidy can tell, this takes a lot of effort for some of them and she can feel their stares boring into her back. Having survived the Shattered States of America for the last ten years, she has become used to the waves of mistrust and aggression, but these people are on a level that makes even her calloused skin crawl.
Cassidy hears the snap of a branch to her right, drawing her attention to a trio of faint shadows in the distance. At first, she thinks it is a group of guards and is about to veer to the left when a foul smell hits her nose. The stench is sweat, urine, rotten food, and a feeble attempt to cover the other odors with a strong perfume. It is the fourth smell that gives Cassidy hope since real Wilders would never bother to use, much less trade, for artificial scents. Waving her arm and pointing toward where she prays is salvation, she charges ahead and breathes easier when the others match her pace. A high-pitched yelp is heard soon after she passes the huddled group and she looks back to see one of her companions has kicked one of the campers. The man’s reward is a rusty fork to the thigh, which gives him a painful limp as he continues and grumbles about getting revenge.
Within five minutes, Cassidy notices that they are sprinting over the remains of old baseball fields. Remembering the map she studied before infiltrating Rikers Island, she knows they are heading toward LaGuardia Airport. Once they cross the border, the only way the guards can follow is if they plan on losing the trade agreement they have with the airport owners. Even if the warden, who she imagines is fuming in his office, makes a deal for their return, Cassidy and her new bodyguards will be long gone before the contract can be inked. The metallic ding of a bullet ricocheting off a vine-covered pole snaps her back to reality and she races ahead, barely noticing the crumbling remains of a fence.
Bursting from the forest, the criminals find themselves sprinting toward large containers that have long been abandoned. Bullets fly from the trees and hit the rusty carcasses of trucks, several of the vehicles showing signs of being used for housing. A ricochet strikes the limping prisoner in the chest and he stumbles for a few steps before crashing to the ground. Gasping for air, he tries to crawl after his companions, none of who stop to help. He is surprised to hear scuffling from one of the nearby vehicles and turns to see shadowy faces watching him take his final breath. Managing to stand, the desperate man takes another bullet to the back of head and flops down dead. The guards leave the forest to check the body, but they cannot go further since the other escapees have crossed into the LaGuardia territory. Cassidy waves back at the departing figures and tosses her identification card into a sewer, the expensive item no longer useful or salvageable.
Coming to a small booth outside a former rent-a-car building, the blonde shows a wrinkled man in a tuxedo her pass. The yellow, crinkled paper is taken by shaky hands that fumble to get a key off a hook and hand it to the toe-tapping woman. Growing impatient and nervous, Cassidy jogs through the building and sheds the top of her stolen uniform. Enjoying the touch of air conditioning on her bare arms, she tosses the shirt into a trashcan and is vaguely aware of the female escapee snatching it up. The other woman can have it, considering Cassidy has no intention of returning to Rikers Island and is still amazed her plan worked. Even more impressive is that she managed to get eight other people out of the prison and only two died after reaching the coast. As she hurries across a parking lot and climbs the stairs of a grounded airplane, the tired woman wonders if anyone would believe she pulled off such an insane stunt.
Leaving the six prisoners in the main cabin, Cassidy locks herself in the cockpit to finish changing. It is a welcomed luxury to put a barrier between herself and the primal aggression that wafts off the others. Having rented out the winged apartment beforehand, she finds her bag is still stashed behind the captain’s chair. Changing into her favorite pair of jeans and a black, sleeveless shirt, she pauses to put her weapons in all of their familiar places. A black handgun is tenderly caressed and strapped to her hip, a few experimental draws making sure it is in the perfect position. She dangles a dented, silver locket in front of her face before giving it a kiss and putting it around her neck. From the bottom of the patch-covered duffle bag, Cassidy pulls out a black pea coat and puts it on even though it is early summer. She adjusts it so that a frayed bullet hole is over her heart before fixing her hair and using a wipe to get some of the sweat off her face. Exhaling slowly and letting her muscles relax, a mask of calm confidence covers her face and she prepares to speak with her companions.
“What the fuck happened!?” Cassidy shouts as she opens the door and steps on a blood-oozing finger.
Four bodies are sprawled on the carpeted floor and the fifth is propped against the barely open exit. Body parts are scattered about, some of them clearly having been removed with a blade and others possibly torn or bitten off. Two of the unattached hands are holding steak knives, which are surprisingly clean of blood. Cassidy cannot see any other weapons, so she assumes the others either fought with their fists or tried to escape. The carnage is so widespread that she cannot figure out what happened, but she senses that there is a touch of playfulness to the mess. All Cassidy knows for sure is that she has gone from having six hardened criminals as bodyguards to being stuck in a plane with a solitary psychopath.
Admiring his handiwork, the chuckling escapee is no longer wearing his orange shirt and his white t-shirt is covered in blood. Tall and lanky, the man picks a tooth out of his shock of ebony hair and flicks it over his shoulder. Slowly turning toward Cassidy, he raises his hands and lifts his shirt to show off his collection of scars, including one on his stomach that is shaped like a koi. Satisfied that she has had a good look at his imposing trophies, the man lets his shirt drop back into place and stick to his skin. Juggling the combat knife he stole off a guard during their escape, the man randomly pauses to aim it at Cassidy. He laughs whenever her hand goes for the handgun, but she never draws the weapon. Tossing the blade onto a chair, the killer wiggles his fingers and licks his lips like a predator.
“I should point out that I don’t play well with others,” he replies, nudging a gutted leg with his bare foot. He shifts the limb out of his way and takes a few steps closer to the young woman, stopping when she touches her gun again. “Always been a solo act. At least I was before I got locked up and the country went to hell. Not much news in Rikers, so I’m surprised the place is still standing. You’d think with the global blockade, DC being nuked, and humans being humans that only ashes would be left. That’s really the only reason you’re still alive. I need you to tell me what this new world is like because I don’t want to embarrass myself.”
“You just killed five people and ruined my plans. Not to mention I can’t get back my deposit on this thing with blood and body parts everywhere,” Cassidy answers, her eyes never breaking away from the man’s cold stare. She silently runs through the names and crimes of the escapees, the identity of the man before her making her mouth go dry. “You’re Lloyd Tenay. I was thirteen when you were big news, but I remember a bit. Killed fifteen men and women in five states over the course of two years. That’s not counting the missing people you claimed responsibility for, but couldn’t confirm. You were captured in the Bronx Zoo and the trial took only a week because you pled guilty. My teacher had us write a paper on the events. I’m surprised they didn’t kill you or give you the death penalty.”
“First of all, I really wanted to see the baboons,” Lloyd says with a relaxed sigh. He goes to move the dead body from the doorway and opens the entrance to enjoy the breeze. “Second of all, I’m not going to share if you’re only interested in playing little games. We both know you were well aware of who and what I was when you freed me. Don’t act like my presence and reputation is a surprise because that insults us both. Besides, this isn’t the proper time for an info dump. You could lose the audience before the fun stuff.”
“What are you talking about?”
Cassidy rubs her eyes and struggles to hold off a migraine, the cost of medicine briefly running through her mind. “I can’t walk away from this gamble empty-handed, so you’re my only prize. Can’t believe I’m going to say this to a serial killer, but I’ve dealt with worse. You’ll find out what that means if you stay with me and avoid getting killed. Now please tell me you had a good reason for murdering the others.”
“Well, the big guy over there, there, and there, came at me with a knife. Seems he forgot why I was given my own cellblock, which I thank you for getting me out of,” Lloyd explains while raising his leg and poking at the device on his ankle. One of the lights flickers and his finger comes away with flecks of metal on the nail. “After the collapse, the guards enjoyed . . . feeding troublesome prisoners to me, so I’ve kept in killing shape. Not the same as going after an unsuspecting victim or somebody that I simply don’t like, but I had to get my action where I could. Especially since conjugal visits weren’t happening. Anyway, I killed Captain Chubby and that panicked the others. One attacked, the others tried to run, and I fell into old habits. Now, would you explain why a child rapist was on your team?”
“Decoy and expendable resource,” Cassidy swiftly answers, drawing a wire-covered rectangle from her pocket. She flicks a switch on the side and the bulb at the front turns bright red. “I’m going to remind you that this will set off the bomb on your ankle. It might not be enough to kill you, but how far do you think you can get with one leg?”
“Ruthless and cold. I like it. Still, I don’t think you can do what you promise.”
“I dare you to test me.”
With a charming grin, the lanky serial killer lunges forward and grabs the young woman by the wrist. He coils his leg around hers while placing his thumb on the detonator’s trigger. The pair remains quiet and motionless for several minutes, neither wanting to give an inch or take a step. Lloyd yawns and uses his free hand to tickle the side of Cassidy’s neck, but she never laughs or blinks. Bored with the standoff, the killer hops them back to the open doorway where he can enjoy the wind. He spies a few people outside and is confused at how they are wearing clothes that are fairly clean. Gazing at his surroundings for the first time, Lloyd realizes that the decimated landscape he always dreamed of is nothing more than a fantasy. In fact, the crumbling country looks so normal that he cannot stop himself from sighing in disappointment. The brief relaxing of his muscles is enough for Cassidy to free her leg and wrest control of the detonator, but there is no resistance from the black-haired man.
“Go ahead and hit the button. This place isn’t the chaotic playhouse that I wished for. Make my end quick,” Lloyd dramatically states, falling on his knees and holding up his arms. With a laugh, he rolls forward and does a handstand against the wall, his legs crossed to avoid hitting the overhead compartment. “On the other hand, you’re holding a television remote with junk welded to it. This ankle bomb is nothing more than a ball gag covered in blinking Christmas lights. You were smart to put these on us in our sleep and wake us to run nonstop, but there’s no way all of us would fall for this trick once we stopped.”