Excerpt - Feral Winter

Feral Winter, Feral America Dystopian Suspense.

book cover

Hudson is a nation under martial law, built from the collapse of the USA and the culling of New York City.

Special agent Ava hoped for newlywed nesting this winter. Instead Hudson grumbles with famine. In Virginia, weaponized Ebola returns. And her husband Cade is colder than the Upstate winter.

Citizens grow ornery with fear. Will life ever be good again?

Political concerns thrust the young couple back into the city. Her assignment: to investigate a string of suspicious deaths.

Where they lead could break her heart.

Old demons rise up from the Starve, when she too was quarantined in this damned city to die. Can she find answers in time, before the streets explode in riots?

Ava must confront her gang rat past, in this noir turn in a desperate city.

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Chapter 1

Ava Panic gazed past the snow-drifted humps in the no-man’s land between chain-link fences, to a cardinal perched on a bare shrub. The bird’s brilliant crimson plumage splashed like living blood on the winter-dead landscape. Low-angled sun shot through the leaden clouds for a moment to set ice glittering around the bird, in Christmas sparkles of gold and silver.

Ava hated Christmas. The hint of tinsel set her nerves on edge. The bird was pretty though.

Nothing stirred between the border lines, under their machine gun towers. Ohio had used their time well since last she passed this way. From a simple road checkpoint, they’d built deluxe double-fenced turkey shoots along the Virginia border. Or the eastern end of Maryland not under Ohio authority, she supposed. National borders shifted so often, there seemed little point keeping track of what state the ground used to be.

The far chain-link fence stood replete with razor wire and roly-poly bales of concertina wire, festooned with razor blades. She wondered idly if this was how the Apple Zone epidemic borders once looked, when she struggled on the penned-in side, surviving despite long odds. Living in Manhattan, at the Ebola epicenter, she never visited the distant borders during the year-long quarantine.
The buckeye lieutenant returned to squat beside her. “Clear, miss.”

She glanced at him annoyed. She could see that. But it was time to get the job done. She stood and peeled off her winter parka. In its place she donned a heavy sweatshirt, and then her army hazmat gear on top. Its forest camouflage print took her back to lessons in boot camp.

No one else seemed to be gearing up. “How many are with me, lieutenant?”

“We have orders to cover you, miss,” he supplied. “From here.”

Ava hesitated a moment, and pursed her lips. But her feelings weren’t fair. His unit wasn’t immune to the nightmare they suspected the corpses bore. She was. That’s why she was here instead of safe at home, due north in Finger Lakes.

“Right.” She finished pulling on rubber boots and lashed the arms and legs with Velco straps. The double-nozzle gas mask and goggles, and the cowl marrying face to body, attached last, with a reassuringly sterile smell. She felt her nose dripping inside where she couldn’t reach it. Good. The last thing I want to do is touch my nose.

She’d picked up immunity to a lot. She’d survived Ebola, typhus, and cholera during the Starve, and a few lesser terrors besides. But it was possible the cadavers held some new disease, like weaponized anthrax, or a chemical agent. Some of the nerve poisons could kill with a microscopic dose.

“Got a shovel?” she asked. “Or a strong pole? I need to flip the bodies.”

Lt. Leahy recoiled. “Why?”

Ava felt prematurely aged, a 19-year-old explaining the basic facts of death to this older officer. “Blood pools by gravity. Need hand-warmers, too. Everybody’s. You don’t want them back.”

The foil-wrapped chemical packets were the smash hit product of the season. They lay cold and dormant until crumpled and massaged into life. Then they cranked out enough pocket heat to keep fingers toasty for a couple hours. If soldiers like Leahy’s unit were out on field maneuvers, their heat stood out like a beacon on infrared. But on an icy night with no prospect of getting warm, they felt like a bit of heaven. And sometimes you really needed stiff and icy fingers to work more nimbly than iced molasses.

“A dozen,” the lieutenant conceded grudgingly. “Everybody! Donate one pocket warmer to the Hudson operative,” he ordered his men. They were all men, Ohio soldiers, not her own nation of Hudson. “Don’t give her your last one. Who’s got an entrenching tool?”

The collection came to only nine foil packets, but it would do. Ava gathered them into her sample box with awkwardly mitted hands. No luck on the entrenching tool. The troops were on garrison duty here. One of the privates jogged away to find ‘a broom or something.’

This resulted in a snow shovel. Not quite what she had in mind, but it would help. She left her rifle behind, and set off across the snow, eyes trained on the pretty cardinal.

“Where are you going?” Leahy hollered after her.
“Far side!” she yelled back, much muffled by her gas mask. When he held his gloved hands to his red ears, she pointed with her awkward snow shovel, There!

Ava would have thought that was obvious. The people strong enough to make it across the turkey shoot were the strongest, and probably died of gunshot wounds. She wouldn’t waste time checking those bodies.

But she’d read the action report. Toward the end, after the initial breakthrough and charge against Ohio’s machine guns, Virginia stragglers shuffled through. They died in a pile not far inside the lines, like seaweed deposited at the high tide line. Those were the bodies which carried tales of what was happening inside Greater Virginia.

If anyone still called it that. Neighboring superstates had claimed their adjacent territory. The remaining core, Hudson called rump-VA.

She arrived at a drift of fallen bodies, a ghoulish untangling job, and an unnecessary one for her purposes. She spotted an accidental zig-zag aisle through these, and approached a solo figure closer to the razor wire on Virginia’s side. She imagined Ohio supplied the wire.

A lone figure curled on her side in the snow, a rose puff coat peeking out of the snow. Ava stuck her snow shovel under to flip the girl other-side-up. During the Starve, she’d dealt with dead bodies uncounted. She’d mostly concerned herself with the thorny problems of stench and vermin control from the body piles.

But she’d gotten soft lately, with enough to eat and the means to defend herself. The girl was about her own age. The belly bump she wrapped herself around might have been pregnancy, or distended by malnutrition. The arms were thin as sticks in her pink coat, soaked with stains of assorted vintage.

I don’t want to know her story, Ava reminded herself fiercely. She pulled out her first hand-warmer and kneaded it to set the chemicals cooking. She gulped, and tucked the warming wad inside the girl’s collar, zipped high against the cold, on the side where blood had pooled. She caught herself gazing into the girl’s face again, and abruptly stood to start another cadaver’s blood thawing.

The eighth was a horror, an old man dead of late-stage Ebola. The tell-tale mottling of blood vessels ruptured body-wide. Blood dripped from eyes and nose, ears and mouth. He reminded her all too fiercely of Deda, her grandfather. He’d raised her while her parents worked long hours as travel nurses. Deda looked like this the day she hauled him to a body pile. Cade, now her husband, bore the same mottled skin and blackened eye sockets that day, white sclera and ice-blue irises shot with scarlet. Only days from her own sickbed, she hadn’t looked much better.

She came to herself, hunkered clutching her knees, back turned to the man who reminded her of Deda. She closed her eyes again and blew out. Just blow out. Your lungs breathe in by themselves. The first breath out stuttered as though some rejected part of herself sobbed. By the fifth breath, she got herself back under control.

Seven samples was enough. She returned to the initial girl, eyes averted from her face as Ava inserted a needle to draw a vial from the now-warmed side of the neck. She visually confirmed that the body hadn’t been cut down by machine gun fire. She’d come out of the gate a stone’s throw away. Then Virginians had locked the gate against her, leaving her trapped in the turkey-shoot between the lines.

An unwelcome thought came to Ava. Will anyone tell me the results of these blood tests? Her boss would if she asked, though he likely wouldn’t volunteer the information unless he sent her back to Virginia. Please God don’t send me to Virginia again. In all her travels, Ava’s least favorite trips headed south.

But if she asked, would Skull tell her the truth? Maybe not. She liked Skull, especially his sarcastic black humor regarding her screw-ups. But secrets were his stock in trade.

So against her will, Ava studied the girl’s face again. She’d seen enough death in Manhattan to identify most deadly diseases. The bones protruding from thin skin with cracked lips, a cheek bruise on the side where the blood hadn’t pooled, these simply said the girl had been starving, and slapped around a bit. Any girl looked like that during the Starve. She bore no obvious sign of Ebola or pox. Ava suspected hypothermia, caught between fences on a bitterly cold night.

But why shove her out here to die?

Ava snapped the blood vial into its holder, and punched the discard needle into the refuse can of sharps, with its bright orange biohazard sticker. Then she unzipped the girl’s puffer coat, baring her starved chest. The sample kit provided scissors. Ava cut through layers of sweater and T-shirt beneath to reach bare skin. Lice wriggled near the site of the hand-warmer, so she avoided that side.

Yeah, the girl bore a rash that looked like typhus. And the eighth candidate was clearly Ebola. Ava rose and collected blood from the figures between. The one with badly soiled pants she figured as cholera or dysentery. A couple more looked like typhus. One might be an early stage of a hemorrhagic fever like Ebola. A couple she didn’t spot anything wrong with, besides hunger and desperation.

That left the obvious Ebola victim a mandatory blood draw, the man who reminded her of Deda. She knelt beside him, eyes brimming as she inserted a warmer onto his neck. As she waited for it to do its work, she recalled faces of friends who’d died of each illness she saw here today.

And their ghosts rekindled the rage. Oddly, not the rage of the epidemic year, behind the quarantine lines. She did what she needed to do, joined with Cade to lead their street gang, until the army came and broke the quarantine. She blew out slowly. No, it was after that, that made her see red. While they remained penned up like animals, to endure a second starving winter while the army gradually started to make things better.

The first Starve winter, she kept her pride. The second she ate humiliation.

With a violence unnecessary to the task, she stabbed the old man in the neck too soon. As though to reward her impatience, blood oozed into the vial. Her face burned in shame, her heart pounded with mounting rage, while an innocent man’s blood dribbled with glacial slowness. Or maybe he was a guilty man. The disease didn’t give a damn, and neither did Ava. She’d done what she’d done – all she’d done; she swallowed painfully – because she had to. She’d done the best she could at the time. The gang only kept morals they could afford.

She yanked out the needle while the vial was only half-full, and capped it. She tucked her tools away neatly, and disposed of her sharps, dutiful as a nurse’s daughter. She left the shovel where it lay and jogged through the bodies, across the killing field, back to Ohio’s side. They weren’t her people. Hudson held neither side of this ghastly fence.

She reached the clear space before the gate she’d exited, and dropped to her knees again. Using her wrists, she shoved up the gas mask to vomit in the snow. Then she settled it back in place to pull off her hazmat gear, stowing each discarded piece into a biohazard trash bag.

Fresh air on her face again, cold as a knife, she relocated to another swatch of snow to perform her ablutions with disinfectant, including the exterior of the sample case, taking extra care around the handle and latches. Then she sealed it twice inside clear heavy-gauge plastic bags.

If only the Starve were so simple to seal away, to prevent its horrors from leaching out and blighting everything she touched. Someday maybe she’d be well, her mind clear and happy. She didn’t recall ever being cheerful. But Cade said many holocaust survivors eventually lived happy and fruitful lives, and Hiroshima victims as well.

What a wish, to aspire to emulate an Auschwitz survivor.

Lt. Leahy let her in through the Ohio gate, nervously granting her a wide margin. “When will we know? The results of the tests.”

Ava looked away. That’s what she ought to say. Yes, he’d hear back from the labs. Screw that. “Off the record. I saw Ebola, typhus. Maybe cholera. Dystentery, anyway. Don’t police the bodies until the lice have time to die. Burn them with gasoline if you can.”

She met his eye. “Don’t touch the bodies with anything but a bulldozer.”

The Ohioan looked nervous. “You’re a public health official? From Hudson?”

She snuffed a laugh. Public death official. “I survived the Apple – New York City. Believe what you want. I doubt you’ll ever hear back from these tests. If you do, I wouldn’t trust the answer. But don’t touch the corpses.”

He nodded slowly and worried his lip. Spooked, he glanced away when she met his eye. Neither said what both of them were thinking. Someone was culling rump-Virginia the same way as New York. Who did it, they’d never know. Above their pay grade.

Leahy escorted her politely to her car, while they chatted of army life.

Ask me no questions, I’ll tell you no lies, Ava thought. She drove away to deliver the spoils to a discreet lab tucked among the wooded rolling hills of Pennsylvania.

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