STRATAGEM Chapter 2
STRATAGEM by Joshua Graham
HE NEARLY LOST HIS BALANCE when the explosion rocked the ground. A hot gust blew into his face from the direction of the blast. Derek’s jaw fell open but the expletive he tried to conjure refused to form.
Without hesitating he ran toward the crash site, barely noticing that Hulk was running alongside him. Two blocks never seemed so long. A low-pitched rumble filled the atmosphere. The acrid fumes from burning jet fuel, and God only knew what else wafted into his nostrils.
Finally, Central Park West.
Past green treetops the upended tail of a 747 jutted out, clearly split from the rest of the fuselage. Black and amber flames blazed across the horizon beyond, the heat of which burning Derek’s face. He was the only person around, what could he do? If he got anywhere close to the wreckage the fire would swallow him alive.
That was when it actually hit him. A passenger airliner had just crashed into Central Park. Until now, it had been too surreal to fully comprehend. Out of instinct, Derek took out his cell phone. Rather than a black display, it was actually working, though the screen flickered erratically.
He dialed 9-1-1
At first, no sound.
Then choppy static.
Another silent pause.
Come on, come on!
“Your call could not be completed at this time. Please check the number and try again.”
“Are you kidding me?” He dialed again.
Waiting for the connection, he looked up into the buildings’ windows. A crash of this magnitude and proximity, should draw any and everyone’s attention. But every one of those windows remained morbidly vacant.
The sky above looked perversely serene—a blue canvas upon which the sun stood arrayed a garland downy cotton. Not they expected backdrop for such a horrendous disaster.
Something warm pressed firmly against his leg. Derek glanced down and found Hulk leaning against him, his tail wagging tersely and ears standing at attention.
The recorded message tone chimed. “All circuits are currently busy. Would you please try your call again?”
He grunted, pocketed his phone, and squinted the ever-intensifying flames.
All those people. Could there even be any survivors?
Had to be something he could do.
Just then, Hulk barked twice, snapping Derek out of his thoughts.
“What is it, boy?”
Hulk growled, took a few steps forward and kept looking forward.
Derek hadn’t even bothered checking his surroundings. All the way down Central Park West, the streets and sidewalks were empty. Nothing stirred, not even the traffic lights. Two blocks down, however, a white BMW stood double-parked at an odd angle.
The driver’s and front passenger side doors were open.
Inside, someone—or something moved.
Hulk barked again.
Around or behind the car…definitely a person.
The first sign of human life today.
“Hey!” Derek ran down the street. Hulk was already ahead of him.
Derek couldn’t see anyone, had he just imagined it?
Hulk sped up. Like you never imagine or bark at something that isn’t there.
A few more meters…
Winded, Derek slapped his hand on the roof of the car to steady himself and catch his breath.
A tiny yelp came from the car’s interior.
Derek stuck his head inside.
No one in the front seats.
But in the back…a girl with golden hair—couldn’t have been more than five years old—lay across the leather upholstery, curled up and shuddering.
“It’s okay,” Derek said. “I’m here to help.”
She neither acknowledge his words nor his presence.
“Where are your parents?”
Still, not a word. Her muffled cries grew softer.
Hulk started barking again.
“What now?” Derek stepped around to the passenger side. There at the curb, between the two parked cars, a man and a woman—the parents, most likely—lay on the pavement convulsing. It looked like the man was trying to shield the woman from something.
Derek knelt and stretched his hand forward.
Their convulsions subsided.
He tapped the man’s shoulder, but he didn’t respond.
“Are you all right? I think your daughter…”
He sighed and slumped over his wife’s body.
She let out a long breath as well.
“I think she might be sick,” Derek said. “Hello?” He grabbed the man’s shoulder and turned him over. “Hey, Mister—”
The dead weight, the vacant eyes, and gaping mouth should have been enough, but Derek put his fingers on the man’s neck, over the carotid artery.
He was gone.
He checked the woman’s pulse.
“Damn.” Neither of them appeared to have suffered any kind of traumatic injury, they seemed otherwise healthy. So what had killed them both?
Hulk sniffed them and let out a plaintive whine.
The girl started crying inside the car. “Mommy! Daddy!”
Derek went back and found her writhing in pain, her eyes squeezed shut. “I can’t move! I can’t…move!”
“Hey, hey…it’s all right.” Derek touched her forehead. It was on fire. Unlike her parents, she did not calm down. Instead, her eyes rolled back and she started shaking. It didn’t look like it would stop any time soon—at least she was still alive. “Don’t worry, little girl. I got you.”
He jumped into the driver’s seat and shut the door. “Hulk, come!”
The little beast climbed into the open passenger side door.
Surprised, Derek reached over and pulled the door shut. He couldn’t do anything for the girl’s parents, but he could at least take her to the ER. Mount Sinai Morningside was closest.
He pressed the brakes and tried to shift gears from P to D. It was already in Drive. He pressed the ignition button, but nothing happened.
Once again, he pressed it.
The girl started thrashing violently, hitting the back of his seat and kicking the doors.
It wasn’t just in his apartment building, this power outage messed with everything. Perhaps it was a terrorist attack—and EMP or something.
“Come on!” His left finger still jamming the ignition, Derek slapped the dashboard with his right hand. Then, just as Hulk had surprised him, the insolent Beemer obeyed. Like an old LP starting up from a dead stop, the power slurped until the engine turned over. All the dashboard lights fluttered until they finally settled. The car lurched forward just before Derek caught it with the brakes. If this had been a movie, it would have been as though the scene had been freeze-framed, then slowly restored to full speed.
He glanced into the rear-view. “All right, hang on back there!”
Tires squealing, Derek tore off down Columbus and circled back to Broadway. Not a car or pedestrian in sight. Just floor it.
Eyes on the road, he called back to the girl. “You okay?”
The only answer was her rapid breathing though she’d stopped thrashing.
Derek made a wide turn onto Broadway, ran over a concrete divider and clipped a trash container. It made a loud bang and rolled off into the middle of the street behind him.
The back seat was completely silent now—she wasn’t breathing.
“No, no, no!” Derek stole a quick look behind him. The girl was completely still. “Come on, stay with me.” He blazed past 107th , his apartment at 108th…
With all that was going on, how could no one be around? If only he had time to ponder this, figure out some possible explanations.
The girl gasped suddenly, then started wheezing with each breath.
Good! Still alive.
Just a few more blocks before Mount Sinai…
Behind them outside, another explosion rocked the street, its impact far heavier than that of the plane crash. Derek barely kept control of the car as it swerved in reaction. What he saw through the rearview made his blood freeze.
No…It couldn’t be.
In the split second it took for him to recognize his apartment building and those around it, they all came tumbling down to the ground, a visual reminiscent of Tower Two reduced to dust in a matter of seconds on the September 11 terrorist attacks.
Whatever this was, it could only mean one thing.
The end of the world.
Joshua Graham is a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author, winner of the International Book Award and Forward National Literature Award. His thrillers include DARKROOM, LATENT IMAGE and BEYOND JUSTICE, and TERMINUS. Graham's works have been characterized as thought-provoking page-turners.
Legal Notice: All information on this website and blog are from Mr. Graham's personal experience and insight and should not be viewed in any way, directly or inferred, as qualified professional advice.
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