By Matthew J. Costello
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2007 Constance O'Day-Flannery
All rights reserved.
76th Precinct, Union Street, Brooklyn
"They gotta be fuckin' kidding," Rodriguez said.
Jack Murphy looked at his partner. Rodriguez was holding the latest in protection offered to the cops who did the precinct's dirty work: a rigid Kevlar body shield that also covered the back and sides of the neck.
"As if I'd ever let one of those animals get anywhere near my neck." Rodriguez grinned. "How about something a bit stiffer and lower to protect the crown jewels?"
The night desk sergeant, Miller, walked into the locker room.
"Rodriguez, you will wear it. You too, Murphy."
Jack turned to the sergeant. "Did I say I wouldn't? I'm for all the protection I can get."
"Even if it makes you look like a fuckin' turtle?" Rodriguez asked. "Once a stupid mick, always a stupid mick."
Jack waited until Miller left the room. "Wear it, don't wear it. But Rodriguez — do you have to advertise to the world, to the damn desk sergeant, what you're going to do?"
Jack liked David Rodriguez as a partner. Plenty of experience, but with enough of a rebellious streak that he hadn't been able to get transferred from this precinct to someplace better.
Though these days, where exactly was better? Did "better" even exist?
"So fire me. I'm an honest cop." Rodriguez slammed his locker shut and twirled the combination lock.
Billy Thompson walked in. A rookie, barely weeks on the job, and looking as if he didn't know what the hell to do with his eyeballs.
"Hey," Jack said.
Thompson nodded, then as if remembering to respond: "Oh, hey."
Rodriguez took a few steps closer as if smelling fresh meat. "Bad night last night, Billy boy?"
The rookie started working his locker. "Yeah. Pretty bad."
"Where's your fucking partner?"
Rodriguez looked over at Jack, probably loving that he had an audience for this.
Which is why I should walk the hell out of here, Jack thought. As if things weren't bad enough.
"He'll be here," Thompson said. "Just running late."
"Could be, amigo. Could be. But sometimes, you know, one bad night out there on the streets, rolling and strolling with the Can Heads, is enough." Rodriguez slapped the shaken rookie on his shoulder. "Not to worry, hm? There's always some other young fool who wants to be part of what's left of New York's Finest."
Jack gave Rodriguez a head tilt in the direction of the door out of the locker room. Hopefully giving his partner the message: give the fucking kid a break.
Rodriguez hesitated, then followed Jack out. Just past the door, he laughed.
"I mean, c'mon Jack. What do you think these kids should hear? That the old days of the boys in blue are still here? 'To serve and protect.' Only what's there to protect with the Can Heads raging — each one looking to take a nice big —"
Jack shook his head. "I got it, Rodriguez. Okay? I've been doing this as long as you have."
"Fair enough, compadre. Fair enough. Let's hope for a nice quiet night and some leftover spaghetti, hm?"
* * *
Some nights it could be quiet.
Some nights, Jack could sit at a desk, shuffle overdue reports, act busy, and there would be no calls. Of course, his partner remembered the days when two cops like them would take the patrol car out just to see what was happening. Catch a few petty dirtbags, get your arrest numbers up.
It wasn't all that long ago, but by the time Jack joined, those days had ended.
Nobody went out if they didn't have to.
Video had some of the precinct covered — at least the part deemed the Safe Zone, the area protected by twelve-foot-high fences and electrified razor ribbon. Thing was, those safe parts were growing smaller and smaller.
In parts of the five boroughs they had disappeared completely, all the zones turned red. The number of fully-staffed precincts had been whittled down to a handful.
Manhattan still maintained most of its precincts, though even there, Red Zones dotted lower Manhattan, and giant areas north of Central Park had been totally written off.
And the Bronx? The Yankees and everyone else human were long gone.
It was work keeping the Can Heads out.
And Jack told himself — tried to convince himself — that this was important work.
As every politician never lost a chance to say, this is war.
Us versus them.
Those who tried to live normal human lives.
And then the others, the Can Heads.
When the Great Drought hit, when water became like gold ... when the food riots touched every continent ... when sheer hunger made whole governments collapse, something else happened.
Some switch got thrown. There were so many explanations, so many theories, and no agreement.
No one knew what had happened.
Had it been a secret experiment gone wrong, a secret superfood created, consumed, designed to end the plague of shortages? And if so, did that food actually carry a new virus that played with the genetic code and undo millions of years of evolution?
And what did he think?
Above my pay grade, Jack thought. They just need people like me, and Rodriguez, and Thompson, to make sure the Can Heads stay away.
And every day, every night, that got harder and harder.
* * *
His eyes had shut sometime in the middle of the night.
Cops weren't supposed to sleep; this wasn't like the Fire Department. They still maintained that code of "on duty — to serve and protect."
That meant awake.
Still, it was quiet and he had slept.
The phone on his desk rang, shrill in the middle of the night. Cell service had largely disappeared save for the few satellites services and those that could afford them. Landlines had also grown increasingly undependable — cables cut, telephone poles down. When lines in the supposedly safe areas got damaged, no team would go out to work on them, at least when it was dark.
The desk phone gave out a sharp trilling noise. He saw the time.
2:12 A.M. Christie.
"Hey," she said.
"Up late again?" he said.
"Just checking on you."
Jack laughed. "You know if I had a nice warm bed to sleep in, that's what I'd be doing instead of —"
"It's so quiet here. Hate it when you do nights."
"Only a few more days. You should sleep." A pause. "I would."
Jack's tone did little to take the edge off Christie's voice. She worried. But more than that, she kept at him about their need to get away from this, to leave the city.
The chats often turned into arguments. Their relationship another casualty of this new world.
Get away? Another job? Go where? Do what?
Supposedly there were opportunities if you traveled deep enough into the country. Factories where things still got made, plants where they struggled to process and stretch the thin food resources.
Jack had resigned himself to this life.
The money wasn't bad. Sooner or later, he might get posted to Manhattan, a desk job. Just had to hang the hell in there.
But Christie didn't buy any of it.
"Quiet tonight?" she asked.
"So far. Fingers crossed."
A longer pause this time. "Okay. Be safe."
"Always do the best I can. Now you —"
A little laugh from his wife. "I'm going, I'm going." She took a breath. "Good night."
"Good night," Jack said, feeling terribly alone when the line went dead.
He hit the keyboard of the ancient computer on his desk, a true dinosaur, and began scrolling through the still-empty fields of information that had to be filled out.
* * *
An hour later.
The screen in front of Jack had long turned into a sleepy blur as he lost the fight to keep his eyes open.
A few minutes ... he had told himself.
Everyone did it. As they waited — or hoped that the morning would come without anything happening. But then the alarm began ringing. A door slammed. Jack's eyes opened. Instantly awake.
He looked up at the precinct map on the station-house wall. One spot glowed bright red.
Rodriguez was already suited up. "Breakthrough, Jackie. Red Hook. Same fuckin' building as last week."
Jack stood up, and started for the locker room with Rodriguez at his shoulder.
"Same building? Jeezus." Jack said.
"Yeah. Sorry man."
Jack knew the building well. Most of the old Red Hook section of Brooklyn had been fenced off. A few government warehouses sat there, not much else. But there were still a few apartment buildings with people in them, fortified with some security and really the only option for the poor slobs who lived in them.
Nowhere else to put them. And they didn't have much of a voice in any decision about their fate.
And last week ...
It had been a mess. A blocked tunnel, part of the water and sewage system that had been shut down for security's sake, had been opened. No one saw, no one noticed, until the Can Heads began clawing their way in, rising up from the ground inside the building's fence.
The Can Heads had been minutes away from getting inside the building. And all those residents sat, waiting — some with guns, some not — all knowing that if the building came under a full-blown Can Head attack, it would take a shitload of cops to save them.
An army of cops.
That night, they got there in time. Killed the few Can Heads who had gotten out. Blew the tunnel opening, sealing it.
Jack clipped on the protective vest and leggings, and then the new Kevlar shield designed to keep the lower head and neck safe.
In case one got too close, jumped on you, and dug its teeth in.
"We got any support from the neighbors? Maybe the Six-three? Been quiet over there. Maybe they'd like some fun."
"Not tonight. They had two incidents already." Miller just shook his head. "Captain says you two are all on your own."
And Jack guessed that the Six-three's captain didn't want to leave his precinct low on firepower. Could be the start of a busy night.
You never knew.
Either way, it would be just him and Rodriguez facing whatever the hell was going on in the Van Hove Apartments.
"All set?" Rodriguez asked.
Rodriguez clapped a hand on Jack's back. "Good. I'll drive. Now let's go kill some Can Heads."
As they navigated the passable streets of Brooklyn, following a maze of detours made by the security fence, Jack thought of the call from Christie.
When she had called, everything had been quiet.
Now, just past three A.M., they were driving through empty streets. Dead streets, heading to a godforsaken place where — incredibly enough — people lived.
Rodriguez dug out a cigarette. The smoke soon filled the interior even with his window cracked. Sometimes Rodriguez would ask Jack if he minded. Tonight he didn't.
Certain open spots were lit by massive tungsten lamps; other streets were islands of darkness, the high-intensity lamps never installed at all or smashed by the Can Heads.
They liked the dark.
From the outside, their squad car didn't look all that different than one from a decade ago. Still almost like a normal patrol car, white with blue markings.
But if you looked closer, you could spot the differences.
All the windows were fitted with shatterproof triple-plate glass. And the exposed undercarriage was covered with a solid steel plate designed to protect the car from any explosions or attempts to sabotage it. A second layer of bullet-resistant metal covered the car's exterior — though it wasn't too often that bullets were the problem.
Its Achilles' heel? Had to be the wheels. As puncture proof as they could be, the army-grade, hybrid steel-belted tires could still be rendered useless.
Trick was to keep the thing moving.
Being stopped, giving Can Heads time to figure a way in ... that could be real bad.
"Damn quiet," Rodriguez said.
Of course, nobody would be out, everyone trusting the locks on their doors more than the lamps or the police or the grid of fences to stand between them and the Can Heads.
If there was one thing everyone knew, the Can Heads — whatever made them like that, whatever goddamn switch had been thrown — never gave up.
Not when so nearby, so close, there was fresh meat.
"Always quiet, isn't it?" Jack said.
"Yeah. Just don't like it to be so damn quiet when we've been called."
Jack didn't say anything.
Instead, he looked at the backseat. A powerful arsenal accompanied them. Two M-16 machine guns, army-issue that had become the go-to automatic weapon for police. Beside it, a shotgun and an open case with a foam "egg carton" filled with a variety of explosives, flares and smoke bombs.
They both carried a Glock 22 — a cop favorite — and a Smith & Wesson .40, small but accurate.
The rule on a call like this was, scope out the situation and then do what you could on your own. Backup might be available, but only if absolutely necessary.
Once they left the vehicle, they had to bring all the firepower they thought they'd need. Because if you travelled light, getting back to the car, to its portable armory, might be a moot point.
Rodriguez cut the car to the left, heading down a narrow street. No lights. Perfect for a trap, but it was the most direct way to the main entrance of the building.
Rodriguez turned on the squad car's twin light bars on the roof. The narrow street became bathed in brilliant white light.
Jack saw a lone rat scramble away.
Even they were a rarity.
What a fucking world, Jack thought.
Then they left the narrow street, a turn to the right and the building entrance lay ahead.
"Okay. Looks quiet."
"Yeah," Jack answered. In addition to a Safe Zone's own protective fence, this building — like most apartment buildings — had its own security fence, complete with a guard and video monitoring.
Except most of the guards weren't worth much.
Terrified rummies, cowering in the shatterproof glass booths, peeing into a bottle, waiting until dawn when some other hapless guard relieved them.
Rodriguez pulled the car up to the gate. He flashed his ID. The guard rubbed his grizzled cheek at the same time as his handheld scanner recognized the ID as genuine.
The man inside the booth communicated with them via a speaker.
In some apartment complexes, there had been cases of finding these guys dead inside their booths. Somehow a Can Head would get in and enjoy feasting on something from the bottom end of the evolutionary spectrum.
And every security guard knew those stories.
"Where's the problem?" Rodriguez asked.
The guard coughed, a crackle over the speaker.
"A tenant — fourth floor. Said he saw a new hole outside. Another breakthrough. H-he thought they might have gotten into the building. Sounded scared."
I bet, Jack thought.
Rodriguez: "Christ. In the fucking building? Motherfucker."
Jack knew that it could simply be a case of someone who had too much home-brewed alcohol. The real stuff was hard to come by, and home brew could have weird side effects. A bottle or two and suddenly you start seeing Can Heads all over the fucking place.
"Where the hell is it?" Rodriguez asked.
"The opening? Ah ... way in the back. And the ... the ... tenant's name is Tomkins. Guy lives alone. Fourth floor. Four-G."
Jack leaned forward.
"Can we get back there with the car?" Rodriguez said.
The guard looked as if he didn't know the layout.
"Close. Over there. See those spaces over there? That's about as close as you can get."
Rodriguez turned to look at Jack, his expression saying, We're fucked. We got to get out and fucking walk to the opening? And if there was indeed an opening, they'd have to go hunt for whatever made it.
Rodriguez's eyes said it all.
Back to the guard. "Okay. Thanks. You hear anything more while we're in there, you let us know. You got that, chief?" The guard nodded.
Rodriguez pulled the car forward as the guard threw a switch. The gate opened, the wall of wire rolling away as they entered the apartment grounds.
Jack looked at his watch.
Only about three hours away from finishing his shift.
Shit, he thought.
For all the good that would do.
"What do you want?" he asked Rodriguez.
"The usual. Maybe a few incendiaries, in case there is a hole. We start by sealing that."
Jack noticed that his partner had already discarded their new lower head/neck covering, an item that had given him the look of a medieval Asian warrior.
"You forgetting something?" Jack said.
"No. I prefer mobility, amigo."
* * *
Out of the car.
Jack knelt down and scanned the opening in the fence while Rodriguez kept up a steady 360-degree scan of the surrounding area.
Jack pulled back on the opening.
"I dunno," he said. "Barely enough room for someone to wiggle through. Motion sensors should have turned on the big floods. If they even work."
He looked up at his partner, who kept looking all around, the M-16 held in ready position.
"What you thinking, Jacko? Anything come through here?"
"Someone cut a goddamn hole. I dunno, and —"
"Right. Shit. I hear you. All right, we go talk to the tenant. The eagle eyes who saw something."
Jack stood back up, shifting his own gun into a ready position.
"Yeah. Maybe we got lucky. False alarm. Some dog."
Rodriguez looked right at Jack and laughed.
"Yeah. You think there are still dogs in this neighborhood?"
"Well, that hole —"
"Dream on, brother," Rodriguez said. "Dogs. Shit. Just walking around." Another big laugh. "Like the good old days? Dream the fuck on."
They headed to the front door of the building. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Vacation by Matthew J. Costello. Copyright © 2007 Constance O'Day-Flannery. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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