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STRATAGEM Chapter 3

STRATAGEM by Joshua Graham

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THREE

THE MOMENT HE TURNED his eyes back to face the road ahead, Derek found himself driving straight into the back of an ambulance stopped dead in the middle of Broadway. He let out a gasp and spun the steering wheel sharply to the left.

The impact shook his jaw and rattled his teeth. The muscles in the back of his neck spasmed in reaction. Flecks of light filled his vision. The car was still moving, however. He’d more than scraped some paint off the bumpers but was still alive, thank God.

Another set of sharp turns and he found Mt. Sinai’s Emergency entrance. He pulled up behind a double-parked ambulance, the front doors of which were slightly ajar.

With the engine still running, Derek put the car in Park and hurried out to the rear passenger door. The little girl lay motionless, her head and arm dangling over the back seat. He climbed in, slipped his hands under her back, and lifted her out of the car. She felt as light and limp as a rag doll. So much so, Derek had to reposition her to prevent her from slipping out of his arms.

Hulk barked.

“Stay.” Derek shut the door with his foot, then turned around hoping to find an EMT by the ambulance. “Need some help here!”

Once again, eerie silence.

He took another step toward the ambulance and nearly tripped over an overturned gurney, its occupant still strapped in with an oxygen mask over his mouth and nose. The eyes were wide open but unblinking.

Oh my God! Next to the patient, two paramedics lay on their sides but only of them one stirred. His eyes were also open, but the only discernible motion came from his mouth, opening and shut-opening and shut, each iteration diminishing. In less than a second it stopped.

No time to process.

Get the girl inside.

He stepped over the bodies and made his way to the glass doors.

The girl moaned.

He looked down at her.

A sharp bump in his shoulder reminded him that the “automatic” doors required electricity to function.

He went over to the manual door and shouldered it open.

“Hello? Somebody, help us!”

There were people further inside by the reception area, but none reacted to his shouting. Dreading what he’d find, he carried the girl over. “Is anybody even—?”

A prickly chill climbed up his spine and into his scalp.

The few in the waiting area appeared to be suspended in various states of distress.

One woman sat slumped in her chair, mouth agape and unmoving eyes open. As far as Derek could tell, she was not breathing. A gurney with another patient stood at a tilted angle, not quite making it to the dark hallway. One of the EMTs lay on the floor and the other was slumped over the patient’s body. At the reception desk, the attendant had her face down on the desk as though taking a nap—except for the fact that both of her arms hung lifeless at her sides. White fluorescent lights flickered overhead all but extinguished, but every couple of seconds like a fly in its final death throes, they would try to kick back on.

Derek swallowed the necrotized lump in this throat. I’ve died and gone to Hell.

The girl drew a sharp breath and struggled for breath again.

He had to get her some kind of help, but how? There wasn’t a living soul around anywhere.

Didn’t matter. If he were the only person able to, he had to try—a ventilator, oxygen, whatever it took to help her breathe.

Ignoring the fatigue in his arms, he carried her past the lurched gurney and through the shadowy hallway. He walked past several drawn curtains and came to a vacant room with a bed and an oxygen mask.

“Perfect.” He stepped inside and set the girl down on the exam table. But before he could bring the safety rails up, she started thrashing again. With the bed’s narrow width, she would throw herself off and get injured. “Oh no, don’t—!”

She rolled off the edge.

Derek caught her with one arm, but not soon enough to stop her from falling. In his attempt to catch her, he knocked over a few items on the nearby tray.

She landed on her side, his hand breaking the fall.

He felt a tiny crunch under his hand, now pinned to the linoleum under the flailing girl. With his hand and the girl’s hand squeezed together beneath her, she twisted about. A sharp pain made him wince and pull his hand out from underneath her. He turned her over on her back and steadied her.

That’s when he noticed the streak of blood on her palm.

Beside her on the floor, the shards of a small insulin vial lay in a puddle. An acute pain pierced the heel of his hand—the one she’d fallen on. A quick look revealed a tiny piece of glass embedded in his flesh, blood oozing from the wound.

It didn’t hurt until he saw it.

Thankfully, the girl’s labored breathing relaxed and the convulsions decreased in intensity. He took her hand and checked for broken glass. The cut was clean, superficial.

Relieved, he picked her up and placed her in a chair where she seemed to be able to sit up on her own strength. He took a Kleenex and dabbed the wound. Not much blood, most of what he cleaned from her hand was his own. A simple bandage would suffice. He found one in a jar, opened it from its package and applied it to her hand.

He had to use a slightly larger one on his own hand, but it would do the trick. If I die today, at least it won’t be from bleeding out. The stain in the bandage’s gauze section grew neither in size nor saturation.

“Mommy? Daddy?” Her voice was dry, raspy and full of apprehension.

Surprised, Derek looked over to her. “Hey, are you—?”

“Who are you? Where’s my mommy and daddy? She sobbed, her face crumpling. “I want my mommy!”

He went over and knelt to meet her eyes with a reassuring smile. “Hey, hey, hey. It’s all right…you’re going to be okay…” Great. He had no idea what was going on, how could he possibly explain that her parents were dead.

With courage, she controlled her crying and regarded him.

“Okay, first…My name is Derek…Derek Storm. What’s yours?”

“Paige.”

“Awesome. How are you feeling, Paige?”

“I dunno…Okay, I guess.”

“That’s…amazing.” Aside from the fact that her eyes exuded anxiety and confusion, they were alert. Her breathing seemed normal for someone in her current emotional state. What in the world had happened to her?

Suddenly realizing she was in the presence of a stranger, she shrank back. “Where’s my mommy and daddy?”

“Right. Well, your parents…” He hadn’t even had a moment to speculate on what was happening around them much less why or how her parents had died. If he told her the truth she might have a panic attack. “Listen, Paige. We need to get some help.”

“Why?” She looked around, growing more agitated. “Where am I?”

“Could you please just trust—?” An abrupt buzz and fizzle drew his attention up to the ceiling. The fluorescent bulbs surged disturbingly brighter than normal. Then with a loud pop, they burned out. “I have a bad feeling about this.”

“What was that?” Paige jumped forward and grabbed onto his arm.

Through the cracked-open window a subtle, yet familiar rumble rang out in the distance.

“Now, Paige. Listen carefully. We have to get out of here.”

She whimpered. “Okay…”

“I’m going to carry you, all right?”

She nodded and streched out her arms.

With ample experience carrying his nephew and niece since they were born, Derek was a natural. Without having to negotiate it, he lifted her with one arm as she wrapped hers around his neck.

“There’re some pretty scary things outside,” he warned. “Close your eyes until I tell you it’s okay to look.”

“Okay.”

“Ready?”

She nodded and buried her face into his shoulder.

“Here we go.” Derek opened the door, looked outside, and then made his way back to the exit stepping around the minefield of bodies and overturned equipment. “Keep ‘em closed, Paige.”

“Okay,” she mumbled, the heat of her breath seeping into his shirt.

In his effort to keep her from freaking out, he hadn’t considered mentally bracing himself for all this bloodless carnage and the looming danger approaching. He had to focus on getting away.

Still carrying Paige, he pushed the door open and walked onto the sidewalk. Everything remained as he’d left it, the dead paramedics, the dead patient, the dead ambulances.

Paige lifted her head.

“Not yet.” Derek patted the back of her head and she quickly put hid face again. He went over to the white Beemer and opened the door.

Hulk wagged his tail, but growled at Derek.

Derek shot him a look. “Don’t start.”

As he put Paige down in the back seat, Hulk turned his attention to her and dog-smiled. His tail double-timed its wagging.

“Puppy!” She said and rubbed the little monster’s ears.

“Paige, meet Hulk.” Derek shut her door and went around to the driver’s seat. Just before he got inside, something like static electricity washed over him. He felt it in the hair follicles on this arms, neck, and head, dancing all over his body.

Hurry!

As he pulled the gear shifter, he realized the engine was not idling. The ignition light was no longer on.

“What?”

He’d left it running for this very reason, why had it shut down?

Jamming the ignition switch repeatedly, he nearly cussed aloud but remembered that Paige was in the back seat.

No use. The car was dead.

“Why are you driving our car, Derek? Aren’t you our Uber driver?”

“Uh, no…I’m not. But it’s okay, don’t worry.” Don’t frighten her, just turn back and give her a reassuring smile. But one look through the rear window pressure-washed it right off of his face.

A few blocks over on the east side of Morningside Park, one of the taller apartment buildings burst into flames. It looked like something hit it, but he couldn’t tell. Whatever was destroying everything in the city, it was coming closer. “We’re going to have to walk again, Paige.”

“Again?”

“Yeah, sorry.”

“Can we bring the doggie?”

“Of course,” he said, almost certain Hulk was gloating. “Can you run? I don’t think I can carry you.”

“Yeah.”

“Right. Follow me.” He grabbed Hulk, got out of the car and set him down. “Let’s go!”

“All right, see if you can keep up!” Misleading a child wasn’t something that sat well with him, but it was in her best interest if he kept her from getting paralyzed with fear.

Where they were going was TDB. All that mattered was that it was away from the destruction that seemed to be following them.

Keeping her in his periphery, he was about to run. To his surprise, she and Hulk dashed ahead of him up the sidewalk to Amsterdam Avenue. Thankfully, she hadn’t looked across 113th to the ER entrance where the dead bodies lay.

“Wait!” Derek overtook them and stopped. He reached down and Paige gave him her hand. “Stay close, okay?” At the corner, he looked to the left toward the Cathedral of St. John the Divine stood, and then to the right past 114th. All clear except…

Three blocks ahead by Columbia Law School, the spinning red and blues of an approaching NYPD squad car flashed through the shaded overpass.

For the first time today, hope sprung up in his mind. Finally, another live person. Surely a police officer would have a clue about all this insanity. He waved both hands in the air and jumped up and down.

“Hey! Over here!”

They must have seen him because the squad car accelerated.

“It’s going to be okay,” he said to Paige. “It’s the police. They’re going to help—”

But the car wasn’t slowing down.

It ran the red lights on 116th,  then 115th

Pulse racing and eyes glued to the vehicle, Derek reached down and scooped her up, prepared to run for cover. Before he could do anything else, the squad car’s brakes squealed and it twisted to stop in the middle of the street, half a block ahead.

Pale wisps rose from the tires.

The spinning lights slowed, flickered, and then went dark.

Inside the cabin, a commotion—the two policemen moved unnaturally, clawing at the doors.

Derek put Paige back down. “Wait here.” Then to the Corgi: “Hulk, stay.”

He fast-walked to the police car. Before he reached it, the doors on both sides of the vehicle swung opened. The officer on the passenger side barely made it out and fell to the ground. The one that emerged from the driver’s side staggered out, clutched the door with his left hand and leaned against it, his left side facing Derek.

“You all right?” Derek called out.

The officer turned to him, eyes wide with terror.

He pulled out his gun and pointed it at Derek.

Derek lifted both hands into the air. “No, wait! I’m unarmed.”

The officer’s eyes rolled back.

He fell behind the car door.

All Derek could see were his feet sticking out into the middle of the road.

The gun fell onto the pavement next to his trembling fingers.

“Aw, come on!” Couldn’t anyone stay alive for just a few minutes? He ran over and found just what he’d expected: the officer on the ground, not moving. He knelt over him. For less than a second, Derek sensed the fear in the African American policeman’s gaze—his eyes darting back and forth. They were the last part of him to move.

Derek checked for a pulse knowing full well.

Dead.

Just like everyone else.

Keep moving.

If he were to hesitate for even a moment, he’d probably have a breakdown and fall victim too. And he was the only person able to look after Paige and Hulk.

A quick look inside the police car.

The dashboard was on its last leg, its lights struggling. The engine gave a couple of slight RPM surges as though on life support, but it still ran.

Before looking over the open door, he called out, “Hey you two, come over he—!”

Paige and Hulk stood right there in front of the car.

Peeking around the open door, she said, “Did they fall asleep?”

“Sort of.” Derek opened the back seat door. Hulk jumped inside. “Climb in, Paige. We’re going to borrow their car.”

“Did you say please and thank you?” she said, getting inside.

“They’re the magic words.” Derek got into the driver’s seat and put the car in gear. “Hold on!”

He floored the gas, but rather than speeding off, the car sputtered.

“Dammit!” He slapped the steering wheel. As he did, something caught his eye up ahead.

All the traffic lights from way down the street were shutting off in succession.

The intersection of 111th

112th

113th, the corner where the ER was.

He slapped the steering wheel again. “I know you can do it!”

“Magic words,” Paige chimed, giggling at him losing it.

“Derek punctuated each subsequent word with a slap to the wheel. “Please…move…Mister…CAR!” The tires screamed to life. He made a tight U-turn to head north on Amsterdam.

A small whump in the back seat told him the sudden acceleration had thrown Paige back.

“Put on your seat belt!”

“Haha! No car seat!” She laughed with delight.

He sped away from the—what was it, a phenomenon, a terrorist attack, a nightmare? Cathing his breath, Derek realized this was the fist time today he had the chance to gather himself. But he couldn’t stop moving—physically or mentally, or he’d drown in the simmering brew of confusion and fear.

This day could not truly be happening. It should have killed him by now as it had everyone else.

He glanced back in the rearview mirror.

Driving off, he knew…This was goodbye, not only to his home but all of life as he’d known it.

And, as if for good measure…

The stained-glass windows of St. John the Devine blasted open with flames shooting out.

Numbed by shock, Derek could only smirk and shake his head.

He had to get out of New York, as far away as possible, before he could even consider stopping.

#

As the commandeered squad car sped down the street, unbeknownst to its driver, a small, unmarked surveillance drone hovered. It had already captured still and video footage of the vehicle…and its occupants.

 

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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.

All creative writing on this website or Mr. Graham's books: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental. (novels, short stories)

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