by Brent Acuff
Book 1 -- Outbreak
Alex sat at his desk listening to the local news on the TV behind him and staring at the coffee cup in front of him. He needed to start on his work, but could not motivate himself to begin the tedious task ahead. Alex was a quick-return stock investor, buying stocks at low prices and selling them soon after for a quick profit. He had been fairly successful over the last few years, but quick success always turns bad after a time. Lately his stock picks had tanked instead of rising, causing Alex to lose some much needed cash in the process. His daily routine of checking the "Wall Street Journal" and an array of online investment sights was about to begin. Considering his luck lately, things couldn't get much worse.
Ten minutes into his scan of the newspaper a report on the television caught his attention. The news anchor began telling of a contamination spill in the downtown Austin area.
"Two blocks surrounding the area of 200 West 12th Street have been blocked off to prevent anyone from entering the area," the reporter read. "Traffic in and around the Capitol building area is at a standstill..."
The address made Alex turn around to stare at the TV. The reporter was talking about a street next to the Texas Capitol, only four blocks from his daughter's school. Alex quickly put down his newspaper and turned to face the television. He punched the volume button and listened closely.
"We go now to a live report at the scene. Jim."
"Robert. The authorities here are not giving many details about the spill. What we have learned is that it is a chemical spill that is extremely toxic. Medical personnel are in the contaminated area treating those affected. Police, firefighters, and soldiers from the Texas National Guard are patrolling the barricade preventing anyone from entering the area."
"Jim, is there any word as to the number of people affected by the spill and what the time frame for cleanup is?"
"No word yet, Robert. Everyone here is keeping things quiet, making sure that only authorized personnel enter the area. I will say that there is a sense of dread that we have gotten from the men and women working the containment area. Many of the reporters here have expressed concern over the lack of information coming from those in charge. Rumors of a terrorist attack have been spreading throughout the news crews, and, from what we are seeing here, that could be a very real possibility."
A loud knock at the door startled Alex from his chair. His heart was racing and he took a few deep breaths to regain control. Taking quick glances over his shoulder back at the TV, Alex hurriedly made his way to the front door. He peeked through the peep hole before opening the door. Janet Forrester stood at his door looking panicked and anxious. Alex unlocked the deadbolt and chain and opened the door.
"Hi, Janet. What can I do for you?" Alex asked this with a weariness in his voice. Janet and Alex had never gotten along. Once their two daughters became friends at school, Janet began blaming her daughter's troubles on Alex's little girl, Gemma. The blame soon turned to Alex, and Janet would accuse Alex and his wife of inferior parenting. Instead of ignoring the accusations of someone who was obviously wrong, Alex felt the need to antagonize her and push Janet's buttons. And it had worked, if not a little too well. Alex never knew when to give up.
Janet stood in front of Alex's door, wringing her hands and unable to looked directly at Alex. "Hi, Alex. Um, have you been watching the news this morning?" There was a tremor in Janet's voice. A tremor that Alex had never heard before, and one that was now starting to worry him.
"Yeah, Janet, I have. Would you like to come in? You don't look too good." Alex swung the door wide for Janet to enter and made to usher her in. Janet, now looking even more nervous if that was possible, looked around the door frame as if trying to find an excuse not to enter. With a great sigh she looked at Alex. "Thanks," she said and slowly walked through the doorway. She looked around the room, taking in the surroundings and searching for something to latch onto. Her eyes fell on the TV in the study.
"We are being asked by the police to turn off our cameras and move another block over. There seems to be some urgency taking place in the barricaded area, but we are still unable to see much of anything..."
Janet suddenly turned on Alex. He was caught off guard and nearly ran into her. He stumbled back a few feet before regaining his balance. "Alex, would you mind going and getting my little girl from the school? I mean, could you go and get both our girls? I don't like what I've been seeing on the news, and I really don't want Becky to be there. I would go but, I...I'm..." Janet's voice trailed off and her eyes searched the ceiling. Tears were welling in her eyes and she bit her lower lip in a desperate attempt to keep what was left of her composure.
"Janet, what's going on? What are you not telling me?" Alex probed her face, trying to find what she was hiding.
Janet sniffed and wiped the tears from her eyes. Her lip quivered and she refused to look at Alex. "I'm scared. I'm too scared to go and get my own little girl. I need you to get her for me because I can't." And with those words Janet broke down. Great body racking sobs overcame her and she collapsed to the floor in front of Alex. Not knowing what else to do, Alex moved to her side and place his arms around her shoulders.
"Everything is okay, Janet. Don't worry. I'll go and get the girls and bring them back here. I really don't think that there is anything to worry about, but if you need me too, I'll go and get them, okay? Janet?" The sobs slowed and Janet regained control of her crying. She looked at Alex and hugged him.
"Thank you. Thank you so much." Alex was at a loss for words or actions. He had seen Janet emotional at times, usually yelling at him and blaming him for unknown reason, but never like this. Never this vulnerable.
Alex detached himself from Janet's arms and helped her from the floor. "I'll be back in forty-five minutes with the girls. Go home and try to relax." Alex escorted Janet to the front door, then turned to go back into his apartment. A hand on his arm stopped him.
"Thank you, Alex. You really are a good guy." A quick smile graced her lips and she was off, headed down the stairs to her own apartment in the complex. Alex stood in the doorway looking after her until she was out of sight. He turned to the apartment to get his keys, and thought it a good idea to leave to note for his wife. She would be home soon and wondering where he had gone. Alex fully expected to be back before her, but felt it would be better safe than not. Who knows how many other parents would be rushing to the school to pick up their own child?
It was worse than Alex could have imagined. Traffic was not just backed up, everything was at a complete standstill. Two blocks from the school, a few hundred cars filled with worried, and increasingly angry parents lined every lane of traffic. Horns blared and tempers rose quickly as fear began to set in. Alex checked the dash clock. He had already been sitting there for a half an hour and did not expect to reach the school anytime soon. Alex grabbed his cellphone and started to call the school, but stopped himself. If the traffic trying to get to the school was this back, then the phone lines would be worse.
News reports on the radio continued to rehash the same details that Alex had seen earlier. Still no word as to the cause of the contaminant spill, nor of what had actually been spilled. Local news reporters had been moved back further away from the contaminated area and the officials on scene had increased the size of the perimeter. Glancing out the passenger window, Alex could now see the barricades erected to keep the people out. Alex could also see the armed military men patrolling those barricades. A sense of dread was starting to creep into Alex's mind.
The sound of breaking glass and numerous horns blaring jarred Alex's attention back to the sight in front of him. A car a half a block ahead of him, apparently trying to make a U-turn, had smashed into two cars. The angry occupants were now yelling obscenities at one another, trying for all their might to be heard over the others car horn. Car doors were flung open and the drivers began exiting. The shouting intensified, but at least the car horns had stopped.
Alex sat back in his seat and tossed his cellphone into the passenger seat. Reaching up he put the car in park and settled in for what was going to be a long wait. Over the shouts from the drivers in front of him Alex heard another bang, followed quickly by a second. These came from his right and Alex glanced out the passengers window to see who else had been in a car wreck. The sight that greeted Alex made his heart stop.
The National Guardsmen who had been manning the barricade were now facing into the quarantined area. Their guns were raised, taking aim on some danger that Alex could not see. The bangs had not been cars hitting one another; the soldiers had begun to fire their weapons. An urgency was taking over the soldiers who were now frantically waving and pointing at something inside the blockaded area. Almost at the same time, every soldier at the barricade opened fire.
An explosion from two blocks away shook the ground. Alex started and cries of surprise erupted from the cars around him. Gunfire filled the air. Alex's car rocked suddenly and a blur of movement passed his window. The people in the cars behind him were now pushing past one another, fighting their way through the now increasing mob to try and reach the school. Alex's car rocked again as someone else was shoved into his car. Panic gripped Alex as he thought what he should do. He threw open his car door and entered the mob fighting its way to the school.
The crowd of parents became thick, making it difficult to stay on one's feet. Alex tripped, nearly toppling over to be trampled on by the onrushing crowd. He grasped the person to his right and fought to regain his balance. The man he clutched shoved Alex's hand from his arm, shouting intelligibly at him. Alex continued to push his way through the crowd, becoming increasingly more desperate to find his daughter.
Another explosion thundered in the distance. Alex pushed harder, physically moving the crowd from his path. He was fifty yards from the school now and slowly getting closer. A woman screamed ahead of him and a knot formed in the crowd as if something had suddenly appeared in their path. The momentum of the mob behind them pushed them forward once again and the screams of the woman stopped abruptly. As Alex reached the spot of the disturbance he tripped again. He quickly regained his balance and looked at the cause of his stumble. The bloody and broken body of a woman lay under his feet. Alex tried to stop for an instant, but was forced on by the surge of bodies behind him. The woman lay still, unmoving. The gashes covering her body still flowed with the life blood that had until moments ago sustained her life.
A greater sense of urgency gripped Alex. He realized that if he did not find a way out of this crowd, he stood a good chance of meeting the same fate as the woman who body had been trampled and broken. The crowd was thickening the closer they were to the school and Alex could see that at the door there was a gridlock. Very quickly no one would be going anywhere. Frantically he looked for any other options. He spotted a fire escape on the side of the building and began pushing his way out of the stifling mob.
A six foot hurricane fence separated the fire escape from the front courtyard. At a full out run, Alex leapt at the fence, slamming into the top rail and knocking the wind from his lungs. Alex hung from the fence for a moment, fighting to breath. Nausea welled up in him and stars began to filled his field of vision. He squeezed his eyes shut and took a few deep breaths to calm the sick rising in his throat. Seconds later, Alex's vision cleared and bile eased in his throat. Alex heaved himself to the top of the fence and over, landing heavily on the playground on the other side.
The fire escape hung above him. It was designed to allow people to exit the building, but not enter, providing Alex with a challenge to reach the stairs. A picnic table sat twelve feet away, its bottom supports covered in gravel and sand. It might provide enough height to allow Alex to jump to the bottom step of the stairs and lower it. He prayed that is wasn't chained into the ground.
Alex covered the distance to the table in an instant and heaved at the table. It shuddered, but remained in place. Again and again Alex yanked at the table trying desperately to free it from its barrier of gravel and sand. A searing pain flashed through Alex's back, causing him to cry out. With his last amount of strength the table moved, freeing itself from the earth that held it in place. The picnic table shifted without warning and Alex lost his balance. He cried out again as he tumbled to the ground, grabbing at his back and sides where the strongest of the pain was concentrated. The worst of the pain eased quickly and Alex struggled to clear the stars from his eyes.