The X Plagues
By Mary Nealy
Barbour Publishing, Inc. Copyright © 2011 Mary Nealy
All rights reserved.
With the staff that is in my hand I will strike the water of the Nile, and it will be changed into blood.
A cold chill of evil sleeted through Keren Collins's veins.
Wind howled like a tormented soul between the Chicago tenements. Goose bumps rose on her arms. Her hair blew across her eyes and blinded her. Being sightless made the evil more powerful, as if it cast her into the presence of a blackened soul.
She felt an impending doom so powerful her hands shook as she twisted her mass of unruly curls into a messy bun and anchored it with an ugly but functional leather contraption.
She had parked her Impala a half block away from the decrepit brownstone she was watching. The front stoop and the young punks gathered there were visible. She looked around, listening. Did the evil have a source? Could this feeling be coming from inside that run-down building?
No way was Keren going in alone to find out. Chicago cops were about as popular in this part of the South Side as the Cubbies. She sat in her car, and waited and itched.
O'Shea, why'd you pick today of all days to be late?
To keep from fretting over this strange premonition, Keren pulled her notes out to reread what she had on Juanita Lopez, reported missing two days ago. Keren and O'Shea had done some preliminary checking yesterday that had led Keren to this old hangout of Juanita's. No one had seen the young woman for a week. Keren had read about two sentences when she snapped the little book shut and jammed it back in her blazer's inside breast pocket. She couldn't sit still when things felt this wrong. Pushed to action and against all common sense, she reached for her door handle.
Pounding footsteps drew her eyes to the left and behind her car. A man raced down the sidewalk on the far side of the street. The beat of his sprinting feet made Keren's heart speed up. He raced past her, straight toward that cluster of thugs Keren figured for Juanita's old gang. They saw the man running and straightened like wolves scenting blood.
The runner went up the brick steps right between some of the meanest scum in the city. He collapsed against the wall, gasping for air. Keren narrowed her eyes as he lifted a small piece of ... something ... and pressed it to the side of the door, sliding it sideways and jamming it into a crack he must have found. A sign maybe, brown wood, a foot or so long and half as high. If it had a picture or words on it she couldn't make them out. Just as he pressed it against the wall one of the gang members slapped a hard hand on the man's shoulder, ripped the sign out of his hand, jerked the door open, and shoved him inside.
That sense of evil grew, but Keren didn't have to be a genius to know that the guy who'd just been shoved inside could be in big trouble.
A half-dozen Hispanic boys erupted from the brownstone and took up positions in front of the building as if they'd been assigned guard duty.
Keren slumped low in her seat, sitting on her backside while someone was being killed. But she couldn't take on a gang alone. Minutes ticked by.
"O'Shea, where are you? C'mon."
She couldn't stand it anymore. She reached for the door handle and her phone at the same time.
An explosion blasted bricks loose from the building's foundation. The kids standing guard were mowed down by shrapnel.
Keren's car rocked on its axles. Its car alarm went off and the airbag deployed and punched her in the face.
A blast of heat hit next and gritty dust enveloped the car. She leaped from her car and charged toward the crawling, bleeding boys.
Running and stumbling, she was blinded by the billowing smoke.
Another explosion knocked her down. She could hear glass shattering to her right. Flames shot out of the windows on an upper floor, cutting through the gritty air.
Bits of pulverized brick whizzed overhead. Choking dust coated the inside of her nose and throat. She covered her face and waited until the buzzing debris from the new explosion passed. Forcing herself to her feet, she tripped and went down and realized she'd stepped on a boy.
She caught the shoulders of his jacket. "Get up!"
He looked up at her, dazed.
"Get up and run!" She dragged the boy. She knew she shouldn't move him, but another brick slashed inches from her face and she knew this was kill-or-cure time.
"You've got to get away." She thrust her face close to his, hoping to penetrate his daze.
Blood trickled down his forehead. Cinders rained down.
Keren staggered as she tried to haul the kid upright. "Run. Now. Move! Move! Move!"
He shook his head. His eyes cleared and he gained his feet and stumbled away. Keren moved forward and fell over shattered brick. This time she stayed down and crawled. The rubble on the ground cut her hands and knees. She reached another victim. This one was already trying to stand. Over the crackling flames and crashing stones, she shouted, "Run, get out of here!"
A falling brick struck Keren in the shoulder and she fell flat on her face just as someone ran out of the building.
"How many are in there?" she yelled.
The kid didn't answer as he ran past.
Keren saw a dark lump off to the side, crumpled on the ground, and she got to him and yanked at another fallen, dazed teenager. The kid's face was shredded from brick fragments, his eyes glazed. Keren dragged him to his feet. She suspected only pure survival instinct made him move in the direction she shoved him. She saw two other boys crawling in the right direction and let them go it alone.
She was close enough to the building to see a young child hovered against the side of it. He was frozen, his eyes wide with terror. She crawled toward him.
A stream of staggering, screaming people came out of the building. The man who'd gone running up to the building right before it exploded—tall, dark-haired, commanding, covered with blood and gray soot—brought up the rear, shoving at two kids, yelling and urging them forward like a general on the battlefield. "Get out, go, go, go!"
As the man ran down the steps, the door he'd just charged out of blew off the building and whizzed inches from Keren's head. Flames raged out of the opening. The man threw his arms around both boys and dove under the shooting flames. They skidded across the cruel pavement.
The air turned white hot from the new blaze. It was alive with glowing embers and toxic smoke. Choking, Keren struggled on toward the little boy. A blaze flared out of a broken basement window and enveloped her. She dropped to her belly and wrapped her arms over her head, afraid her hair would catch fire. The instant the burst of fire ebbed, she crawled forward on broken bricks and glass.
When she reached the child, she caught him to her. Bricks rained down. She forced the child away from his hideout. He got the idea, wrenched away from her, and ran.
She looked at the inferno that engulfed the front entrance and every window in the building. There was no way to get inside to search for survivors. Turning away, she saw the man was on his knees, beating on the flames devouring one of the boys.
The man's face was coated. His clothes and hair were gray with ash.
Keren charged in, snagged one of the boys by the back of his sweatshirt, and jerked him to his feet. Something solid slammed the man to his knees beside her. A stream of blood cut through the grit on his face.
He staggered to his feet when Keren would have expected him to be down for good. "The whole building's coming down."
He tore at the boy's burning jacket. The panicked boy fought him, but the man ripped the coat off.
Keren shoved the other boy forward then turned to help the bleeding man. Turning to her, his eyes blazed with life in the midst of death. His spirit hit her almost as hard as the bricks. His square shoulders, and the honor and compassion in his eyes, didn't match with this soul-destroying neighborhood. What was he doing here? Besides bleeding. She reached to help him get away.
The old building howled like an angry monster. Flames reached for the heavens. The buildings on both sides were engulfed in flames and near collapse, too. The man glanced back. Keren's gaze followed his. Through the choking grit, she saw someone lying unconscious at the corner of the building, near the alleyway.
"Chico," the man said. "Please, God, not him."
She heard the true prayer in his voice.
The whole building, now engulfed in flames, shifted forward.
She turned to order the man to get away before she went back for the boy. But he was gone, running toward the boy, right into the teeth of the fire, toward certain death.
Another boy burst through the solid wall of raging flames that blocked the front door of the condemned brownstone. He screamed and beat at fire that had turned him into a human torch. He ran down the stoop of the tenement and plowed into Keren, shrieking and writhing in pain, and she staggered back as he fell at her feet. He rolled and flailed at the merciless flames.
Ignoring the white-hot raining ash, Keren tore off her blazer and smothered the fire. She slid her arm under the boy's shoulders. The stench of burned flesh was overwhelming.
The boy screamed, but he was conscious enough to get to his feet with her support. As she moved away from the raging fire, she looked back at the building. Her heart clutched. The man scooped up the fallen boy and turned to run, but he was out of time. Bricks rained down on his shoulders and he vanished as he was buried alive.
Then, through the smothering clouds of smoke, she saw the man rise up, with what seemed like superhuman strength, and shed the bricks on his back. He had the child's limp body cradled in his arms.
The boy beside Keren fell. She couldn't abandon this teenager to go help the man. Her heart wrenched as she turned away from the man and virtually carried the wickedly burned boy toward safety.
She glanced back and saw the man run sideways down the street, trying to get past the collapsing building. Falling bricks and tortured metal clawed at him. Rocks and cinders pelted him with every step.
"God, help me. Help us save these boys. Help that man." She looked back. Something slammed into the man. He staggered then fell against the side of a stripped car. Keren knew that last blow was one too many. The man had no strength left.
As Keren hauled the semiconscious boy around a corner to shelter him, she risked one more look back into the blizzard of shrapnel. Hundreds of bricks hurtled straight at the man. Then he was swallowed up by the choking dust of the explosion. Buried under tons of stone. Keren cried out at the heroic man's failure. When he vanished, the evil she'd sensed earlier swept back, and Keren could swear she heard Satan laugh in the face of the horror that surrounded her.
Trying desperately to keep functioning, she fumbled for her phone and called 911.
A doorless wreck of a car materialized in front of Paul Morris.
He slammed into it, realized what it was, shoved Chico in, and jumped in after him just as bricks battered the roof with brutal fury, caving it in.
Paul threw himself over the child.
The noise was deafening. Smothering dirt blinded Paul. He felt the roof press against his back. He fumbled in his pocket for his phone. When he flipped it open, the display light pushed back the terror enough that he could dial 911 in the choking dust. "There's been an explosion." He gave the operator the address. "There's a fire. We need ambulances. Dozens of people hurt and killed!"
"Please stay on the line, sir." The woman's calm voice gave the whole thing a nightmarish quality, but Paul knew he was wide awake.
The car's roof vibrated with the thudding bricks, rapping out an ugly song on Paul's spine. He dropped the phone on the floor, leaving it open so he could see, and slid onto his knees beside the little boy, ready to drag Chico onto the floor, too, though there was next to no space. Blood coursed through the silt coating Chico's face. The car held what was left of its shape as the bricks buried them alive. Paul felt for a heartbeat and found one, weak but steady. With only inches to move, he struggled out of his zippered jacket and covered the boy's mouth and nose to protect him from breathing grit.
The first siren was audible through the bricks. He picked up his phone and said to the 911 operator, "I hear them coming. Thank you."
"Sir, wait until—"
Paul hung up but left the phone open for the light as he turned back to Chico. He could make out a black streak on Chico's face that had to be blood. He pressed on the fast-bleeding cut with the jacket.
Paul's phone rang. He remembered the 911 operator had told him to wait. "Hello, I'm sorry, operator, I didn't mean—"
"I'll try to get the evil out of her before she dies, but there is so much. She's so filthy."
The voice that had started all this.
Paul fought back the brutal, ugly, satanic words he wanted to say.
"I gave you the car."
Paul shook his head. A voice came from everywhere and nowhere. It surrounded him and comforted him. It sheltered him, just like the car he'd fallen into.
He bowed his head and saw blood dripping down the front of his torn, dirt-coated T-shirt. "You gave me the car?"
A crooning voice spoke in his ear, "I saw you trying to save those evil men."
"Boys, not men. They're just boys." Paul gripped the phone, coating the keypad with bloody fingerprints.
"They're old enough to be evil. When you saved them, you missed your chance. Now Juanita will suffer the first plague. The plague of blood."
The connection broke off.
He had to get to Juanita. Now.
Paul shoved at the space where the car's door should be and found bricks. Chico stirred beside him, but Paul thought of Juanita and kept digging, shoving. He knocked a hole in the stack of bricks, and they clattered to the pavement as he squirmed outside into blinding grit and ear-piercing squalling sirens. He stumbled over debris covering the street and fell to his knees. His hands landed on shards of glass and jagged brick. He was only distantly aware of the pain.
He stared, curious about the spreading stain of red on the ground around him. An echo deep in his head told him it was blood, and the blood was his. A plague of blood.
Juanita. Those pictures.
A man emerged like a phantom from the cloud of smoke and grit and crouched beside Paul. "Sir, let me help you."
The letters EMT on the man's chest blurred. "I'm not the one who needs help. In ... in the car. A boy." The letters faded completely. "And Juanita. I have to save her."
Paul saw the ground rushing up to meet him.
He had the presence of mind to thank God for the car.
* * *
Keren dropped to her knees beside the boy. He didn't move. Whatever strength he'd had to get this far was gone. She slapped at sparks that still ate at the remnants of his clothes. A piece of the boy's crisp, blackened skin slid away. Tears cut like acid through the grit in her eyes as she pulled her hand back.
"God, please, don't let me hurt him any more." She reached for his neck to feel for a pulse then stopped. He was so badly burned on his upper body she didn't dare touch his throat. She caught his wrist. She couldn't find a pulse. He wasn't breathing. His chest was burned black. She gritted her teeth, tilted his head back to open his airway, and began chest compressions. An ambulance, siren wailing, whizzed past Keren and skidded to a stop. Two men climbed out.
She looked up, pressing rhythmically on the boy's breastbone. "He doesn't have a heartbeat."
They gently moved her aside and took over as another ambulance screamed up. She stared at the boy's blackened flesh where it had peeled away from him and stuck to the palms of her hands. Blood seeped through her fingers.
"Let me help you, miss. You're bleeding." A woman pulled Keren toward the ambulance.
She shook off the hands. "I'm Detective Collins, Chicago PD. There are a lot of people here who need help more than I do." Teenage boys, bleeding and moaning, were collapsed all along the street.
More ambulances arrived with glaring lights and screaming noise. Keren yelled over the cacophony, "A man, over there, and a little boy." She started to lead the woman there.
O'Shea came lumbering up to her. The medics headed toward the right spot, and she saw that a couple of paramedics were already lifting someone into their ambulance. She couldn't bear to see that heroic man and that little boy, crushed to death.
"Keren, what happened? Are you all right?" O'Shea pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket and pressed it to her forehead.
Mick O'Shea had taught her nearly everything she knew about being a cop. He'd saved her when she came close to being busted off the force by an arrogant, grandstanding superior officer, and Mick was lead investigator on the Juanita Lopez case.
She brushed his hand away and saw the handkerchief was soaked with blood. "Where've you been?"
"I got hung up in traffic," O'Shea said. "There was an accident on the Dan Ryan Expressway, and I was the first cop on the scene." The EMT drew a sheet over the burned boy's face. She pressed the handkerchief back against her head wound and let her bloody hands cover her eyes. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The X Plagues by Mary Nealy. Copyright © 2011 Mary Nealy. Excerpted by permission of Barbour Publishing, Inc..
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