Previous Story: 4. Scouting the City
Whenever Buck sat at his desk, he felt useless.
He needed to be out on the streets; where the real work happened. Of course, paperwork and training and everything else was important; but nothing could beat the buzz of arresting a suspect, settling an argument, helping someone out of a jam.
And now, in the middle of a crisis that had run into weeks, he believed his role was more important than ever. The military and the authorities were gone, leaving the residents of San Lazaro to fend for themselves. And – apart from Buck – the vast majority of police officers had also departed or were now holed up with their families. Buck was glad that he’d sent his wife and son to her sister’s place up the coast early on. He wished coms were still working; that he could reassure them he was okay. But his wife had watched him leave home thousands of times and always come back alive. She knew he was a survivor.
Even though he was alone at the Eighty Fifth Street station, Buck was determined to do some good. That meant patrols in the daylight hours, during which he had killed several Crazies, assisted eight individuals and located some valuable supplies. He wasn’t sure many would have had the stomach for what he’d endured. He had seen many dead, including woman and children; young and old. And he had seen the Crazies doing terrible things. Whatever had happened to them, Buck believed they had forgotten all humanity. They seemed almost comatose, unthreatening until they suddenly struck with lethal brutality.
Before the avian flu outbreak and the confusing, devastating chain of events that followed, San Lazaro had been like any other city: a place with problems but with more people dedicated to solving them than creating them. Buck had always felt a kinship with the teachers and the nurses and the social workers and the firefighters. Like him, they tried to bring order to chaos and he felt a responsibility to keep that flame alive.
The truth was, he was almost enjoying himself. His wife often referred to him as ‘boy scout’ due to his love of equipment and weaponry. Buck took pride in always being prepared. He reckoned he might be able to recruit some help if he could find the right people but for the moment he was on his own. Though it was well past midnight, he just couldn’t fall asleep. So he prowled around the station’s first floor, looking down at the darkened street for any signs of trouble or anyone seeking help.
As Buck yawned, he heard a sound from below: something scratching against metal. He swiftly pulled on his bullet-proof vest and picked up his shotgun. Both had served him well on the streets in recent days. Once ready, he stood still, listening intently. He didn’t hear the sound again but his instincts told him to investigate.
Buck left the office and headed down the stairwell to the back door. This was secured by two bolts and a voice-recognition system, but with no power the system was out of action.
He heard the scratching noise again. It sounded close. Part of him thought he should stay inside but Buck was innately curious. The station was protected by a gate and a high wall but if some Crazy was nearby, he wanted to know.
He pulled back both bolts then opened the door, one hand gripping the shotgun. Once the door was open, he wedged it with a chunk of concrete he’d left there on purpose. He took out his flashlight and turned it on, using the same hand to support the barrel of the shotgun.
The flashlight beam illuminated the gate directly ahead of the door. Between the building and the wall was ten feet of open space. Buck swung the beam left and right, as far as the corners of the station. To the rear was the parking lot and the back entrance but he didn’t want to stray that far, especially with the door wedged open.
He heard a distant shout. Such noises had been common in the first few days; less so now. It was impossible to tell if the person was in difficulty. In any case, Buck wouldn’t risk leaving the station at night time. There were simply too many dangers: not only the Crazies but also the looters, thieves and criminals he’d observed. The looters he left to their own devices; he couldn’t blame them for trying to survive. But he had foiled an attempted rape and several robberies on occupied properties. Then there were the gangs: one night he had seen a gunfight with more than twenty shooters. San Lazaro had never been so dangerous.
Silence returned. It still didn’t seem normal. No drone from the freeway, no honking of car horns. No crying kids. No noisy teens. No warring couples. No one.
Buck swept the area again with the flashlight. He aimed it up at the wall and scoured the ground. He spied footprints but it took him only seconds to conclude they were all his.
He turned the light off, allowed a little night vision to return. Away to his right were the huge, dark skyscrapers of the commercial district. Not a single window was lit. Nobody was inside these cavernous spaces. No one.
Buck put his head back and gazed upward. Not a single light in the sky: no passenger jet or private bird or news helicopter. Nothing. No one.
And yet his heart was beating quickly and his instincts told him someone or something was close. He just knew it.
He turned the flashlight back on, swept the area again.
Only when he turned back did he see the marks on the door. That was what the sound had been. The metal had been raked or clawed.
Something landed behind him. As Buck spun around, finger ready on the shotgun trigger, the creature hissed.
The black cat looked up at him, tail curling.
Buck let out a long sigh of relief.
The cat slid past his leg, already on its way inside. Buck blocked it with his foot, then guided it away from the door. He wouldn’t have minded a dog for company but he’d never liked cats. They were as dead-eyed as the Crazies.
‘Sorry, buddy. You’re on your own.’
Buck returned inside, shut the door and slammed the bolts.
But then he realised that he could have been talking to himself: he was the one on his own.
In the few seconds it took for his mind to change, Buck wondered if he was actually coping with the crisis as well as he presumed. He swiftly opened the door and turned the flashlight on. But there was nothing to see. The cat had gone.
Next Story: 6. The Forest Heights Puzzle