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Chapter 1: First Kill

“Emily Cricket Hastings!” Sister Marie shouted in lieu of God Almighty as the bullets whistled by and the porpoising ’67 sky blue Barracuda left the road at high speed.

Cricket made a hard right turn and sped the Plymouth convertible through a sunny field of tall grass, aiming for the woods alongside a white farmhouse.

“Stay down,” Cricket yelled, her long, dark hair a war flag, leading the battle.

Inside the forest she slid to a stop behind a row of oaks lining a large meadow and flew out of the car.

“Uncle Tommy!—” Her uncle quickly passed her the Remington, keeping one hand on Diesel, the family’s seven-year-old black Lab lying on the floor.

A bullet snapped off a low branch that landed in front of the Barracuda. “Sister—get down!” Sister Marie peered over the door frame with her short-barrel binoculars before dropping to the seat.

In jeans, pink T-shirt and motorcycle boots, Cricket zeroed in the .270 Remington by resting her left elbow on the hood and looping her arm through and around the sling for steadiness. The powerful scope delivered the shooter to the other side of the dinner table even though he stood roughly 200 yards away next to a large dead tree. Rifle lowered, he tilted his head toward the woods, listening. Cricket drew a breath, remembering her dad’s wisdom: calm hands, clear heart, clean kill.

She paused, spotting a hunched-over figure close by, directing the shooter. Through shadow and foliage and summer haze, the leader was massive, energetic, disciplined. Change of plans: she drew a bead on the leader and fired. Her nearly six-foot slender frame absorbed the recoil energy well as the man’s arms shot over his head like a sports fan starting the wave. He fell backwards and the woods swallowed him.

Sixty-three-year-old Sister Marie Boulding gasped and began praying.

A few moments of deep quiet clicked by. The shooter had disappeared—run off, taken cover?

He suddenly emerged bare-chested in front of the dead tree, waving a red shirt, gun at his side. Cricket took aim and fired, and the man danced backwards and collapsed.

“He was surrendering!” Sister Marie covered her mouth, letting the binoculars dangle from her neck strap.

“Savages don’t surrender, Sister. They buy time. Next you’ll be reminding me to love my enemy?”

“Always,” Sister Marie said quietly, her hands still pressed to her lips, eyeing the field.

“Actually, in his current state I happen to love him very much.”

Sweat dampened the ends of Sister Marie’s curly, gray-streaked hair and most of the front of her short-sleeve blouse. Her voice cracked. “This is not your best moment, Cricket. But I thank you for protecting us.”

“Sister, they were trying to kill us. More than a half dozen shots by my count. I’m feeling a moment of supreme efficiency. Right and wrong. Good and evil. All dialed in. That has to be something God would appreciate.”

Cricket circled the car for damage. “Damn, lost a front headlight. I’ll replace it at the Ledges.” She found a small hole in the rear chrome fender and no other damage. The tires looked good. Her dad had borrowed the big tires from their SUV, giving the Barracuda a serious rubber footprint and off-road capabilities.

The Hastings’ Plymouth Barracuda was the family’s only car to survive a powerful solar storm and an EMP attack two months earlier. First came a geomagnetic storm, wiping out the power grid across the U.S. Next, the Iranians exploded a nuclear device high above Kansas a week later, creating an electromagnetic pulse that pulverized the digital age from singing birthday cards to commercial jets. Aircraft had fallen from the sky. The one-two punch had reduced most of North America to the 18th century.

Great Uncle Tommy smiled. “Cricket, you would have been fair company on Omaha Beach.” He was dressed in his Army veteran’s windbreaker and World War II cap. He looked comfortable in the summer heat. “You took care of a couple of troublemakers in short order. Yep, that’s mighty fine marksmanship.” He petted Diesel who, still on the floor, rested his head on the seat.

Cricket was swapping out her four-round magazine for a full one when her dad flew overhead in his canary-yellow J-3 Piper Cub. Diesel scrambled to his feet for a better look and stepped all over Uncle Tommy, who yelled and then laughed.

Sister Marie helped Uncle Tommy coax the large Lab to settle down and Cricket joined in, running her hand along the dog’s well-muscled shoulder and back. Diesel barked at the familiar plane and its pilot. He was always excited to see Paul Hastings, but a sharper bark followed by a low whine said he was still jealous of the strange contraption that seemed to like his master almost as much as he did.

Cricket watched her dad circle the pasture just above the trees, waving from the open-door cockpit, finishing with a thumbs-up as he flew over the two dead men below. She beamed skyward and knew her handsome father was smiling back.

The world was crumbling fast, yet Paul Hastings had maintained his authority as chief of police of Woodburn, Ohio, checking in on neighbors who still kept to their homes and fighting the criminals, the desperate and the hungry, who believed law and order had vanished. Recently, he had called for a survival summit at a well-known state park called the Ledges with winter only months away and news of yet another attack on a large food distribution center.

“That man in the field is moving,” Sister Marie cried out, binoculars still raised. “He’s alive!”

Cricket peered through the scope. “You’re right, Sister.” The man’s arm was extended, as if expecting someone above to lend a hand.

“Good Lord, you’re not going to shoot him again?” Sister Marie said.

“Not at the moment.” She passed the rifle to her uncle.

“We need to help him.”

“And get ambushed?”

Cricket pointed and Uncle Tommy handed her the 12-gauge pistol-grip shotgun to accompany the Glock 9-millimeter strapped to her hip. Sister Marie shook her head at the flat black sawed-off shotgun.

“Added protection,” Cricket stated. “And if he’s still alive when we get there, I expect answers.”

“And help the man.”

“Sure, very carefully.” She turned to her great uncle. “Fire a round if you see something we can’t and I’ll sprint back. Diesel, you got the front. Give Uncle Tommy some room.” She tapped the front seat and the Lab took his place.

Uncle Tommy patted the .38 revolver on his hip and gave a short salute.

The sun-yellow Cub circled overhead and took its place in the finch family, gracefully turning and climbing in the blue sky with peaceful fat clouds well above its flight path. When father and daughter again made eye contact, Cricket held the shotgun over her head to signal a brief delay before continuing.

To Sister Marie, she said, “Let’s keep to the edge of the woods until we’re opposite the shooter. Less time in the open, the better. Dad will keep scouting for us.”

Sister grabbed a canteen from the floor and cloth napkins from the glove compartment that hid another holstered automatic.

Cricket walked ahead of Sister Marie, who glassed the surroundings with her bird-watching binoculars every few steps. Both watched for trouble from either man, or worse, from deeper inside the forest. Cricket would have liked her father at her side and knew the field offered a good landing spot for the slow-moving J-3 Cub. But she needed him airborne. If she had to, she was to wave both hands over her head and he’d land.

Several feet from the dead tree, Cricket came upon a young black man, near her age. Although the man’s rifle lay out of reach, she expected him to be hiding another weapon. Closer, she saw that both hands were bloody and empty. Cricket had shot plenty of deer and had shot the man the same way, aiming for the heart. Sister knelt next to him and spoke, and the man didn’t respond. He had one leg bent awkwardly out to the right and was breathing roughly. She had nailed at least one lung and missed the heart. He was drowning in his own blood.

The man didn’t take a sip from Sister’s canteen, so she used the water to gently wash his face and hands.

Cricket saw his “boss” a few feet inside the first row of trees behind a ragged group of bushes and slowly approached him. Her own success in bringing down the attackers no longer brightened her. Acid burned her throat.

Fitful sprays of blood across leaves and a small bush said that he had flailed along the ground before ending in a large ball, his back arched, forehead against the ground, frozen eternally, searching in the shadows for something he never had in this life. Beneath him the ground was wet with more blood.

Walking back into the sun, she stared straight ahead as Sister Marie held the dying man’s hand and prayed. Sister cried through a Hail Mary and was answered by a sharp rise in the chorus of insects. The man’s struggle was finally over.

The J-3 Cub came winging in a few feet above the grass, aiming for the two women before starting a climbing right turn to the north. It was time to go. They again skirted the woods, arms around each other.

“I didn’t expect them to suffer,” Cricket said.

A full head shorter than Cricket, Sister Marie supported the beautiful twenty-two-year-old, who trembled like she was freezing. Before reaching the road, Cricket stumbled away from Sister, caught the low branch of a tree to steady herself, and threw up. Looking down at her own mess, she said, “I was defending us, Sister, you know that.”

“I know. But we suffer when we kill. Even if it’s justified.”

“Didn’t do it out of hate. But I’d do it again. They’re not going to slaughter us.”

“Emily Cricket Hastings,” Sister announced lawyer-like, bringing her case to a higher power. She placed a hand on Cricket’s damp neck and handed her the last few napkins. She looked up through the trees: “Tough, stubborn, short-tempered, and so darn real” began her opening statement. Sister leaned close: “I love you, Cricket. I’m always praying for you.”

“You prayed for Mom and that didn’t work out so well. Or maybe just lousy timing on God’s part—taking her away when I was only a kid.”

Sister Marie had been her mom’s college nursing instructor and, later, a close friend, enjoying years of friendship that continued now with Cricket and her dad. Sister Marie had been visiting the weekend of the geomagnetic storm and had never made it back to the motherhouse in Cleveland.

“Prayer doesn’t make everyone healthy again or ensure we’ll live to be ancient, wise, and beautiful,” Sister said. “We pray for strength, for understanding when life is at its bleakest. I pray for you to have strength. And your father. I prayed with your mom so she would have the courage to face what was coming.”

No more was said. The two women walked slowly. A cardinal flew past and a hawk cried above the meadow.

Rounding the farmhouse, Cricket was startled by two people leaning over the side of the Barracuda, talking and laughing with Uncle Tommy. Diesel was out of the car recording every possible smell for future use. She tightened her grip on the shotgun and made sure the safety was off.

Twentysomethings: a woman in a white sundress, blonde, bob cut, and skin so white that direct sunlight would have damaged her instantly, and a young man of medium height, slender, with long black hair that fell across his forehead, reaching his eyes.

He doesn’t need to see anyway. He has her.

“What a sweet old man you’ve kidnapped,” the young girl squealed. “All for me!”

Cricket said, “The Germans thought he was real sweet too when he and a bunch of GIs stormed Omaha Beach and started grinding the bastards back to their beer gardens on the Rhine.”

Sister Marie looked heavenward for guidance and Uncle Tommy kept smiling, saying, “You would have made a damn good reporter back in the day, Cricket—writing all about what those boys accomplished.”

“You were one of those boys, Uncle Tommy.”

The woman clapped at the history lesson or maybe all the fun everyone seemed to be having. Her friend grinned at the ground, not looking anyone in the eye.

“And your names?” Sister Marie politely asked.

“Dick and Jane!” The young woman exploded in sheets of laughter. “And you’re Cricket,” she said in utter amazement, dropping the funny-bone moment like she had been introduced to a celebrity. “Wow, you’re cute. No makeup. Mavi jeans, boots. Any Native American blood?”

“Nope, just American mutt,” Cricket said, and the woman put her bare arm against Cricket’s, still giggling.

“Love the color, olive, and so smooth.” Jane passed two fingers down Cricket’s forearm. “Gotta love your hands, too—blue nail polish. Most tall chicks don’t have beautiful hands—out of proportion, too masculine.”

Cricket noticed a tattoo of a small red sun, its rays pointing downward, on the inside of Jane’s forearm. She searched the woman’s eyes, dark brown, like hers, a startling contrast to her snow-white blonde hair and delicate skin. The pupils were dilated. Out to devour. Feeding frenzy came to mind.

“So, Dick and Jane, where are you headed?”

“With you, of course,” Jane said. “Uncle Tommy invited us to the big party.”

“Before the invitation?”

“See the world!”

“That’s why I joined the Army,” Uncle Tommy added. “You see, Cricket, the good things in life never change. These two young people have adventure written all over them.”

“You do know our world is a bit messed up right now.” Cricket eyed the strangers and pulled the car keys from her jeans pocket, relieved she hadn’t left them in the ignition. The sound of keys made Dick raise his head. Jane simply stared. A chill pinged off Cricket’s warm skin.

The Cub buzzed them.

“We need to get moving,” Sister Marie said. “Tom Hastings reads the Declaration of Independence every Fourth of July at the Ledges State Park.”

“He could have read it in his armchair,” Dick finally spoke up, looking again at the ground.

“I’m forgetting my manners. I’m Sister Marie, with the Sisters of Saint Augustine.” She opened the car door. “Many of us look forward to Tom’s reading of that wonderful document.” She extended her hand and both newcomers pumped it lightly. Cricket didn’t offer hers.

“Maybe Uncle Tommy could find some new reading material,” Jane chirped.

The old veteran removed his cap like he was taking a solemn oath. “I’ve thought about that … but the Declaration is a beaut. Now, young lady, I have considered referencing a few lines from other great men—Lincoln, Madison, Washington. And, of course, more from Jefferson.”

Jane frowned.


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