Jack stood under a dark sky on the near deserted street watching the visible horizon beyond the rooftops. Three other reporters stood near him, all eyes on that horizon. The sky overhead was heavy with cumulus-nimbus, the horizon aglow with what was not a setting sun.
But it is a setting sun, Jack thought. The setting sun of humanity, according to his best friend and expert in such things, Hal Stenson.
All the major news wires foretold imminent war, the discovery of the enemy’s nuclear and biological arsenal, threats unveiled in marbled halls on TV. They predicted first the volley of conventional gunshots, then conventional invasions into lands less able to fight the hordes of the self-righteous. A world shrunken by technology had left the idea of any war a World War a given thing. Finally, one or two warheads detonated and the media now veiled. They had been instructed on how to report, on how not to incite publicly any kind of panic. The first casualty in any war is the truth.
The distant glow swelled into a bright orange haze before receding to a dull red and finally the violet of soft night. A grey, swirling cloud floated above the horizon’s edge and appeared to come at the city at a sluggish velocity. At this distance it might take hours to reach shore, or so they thought.
“This is it then,” Hal, Jack’s best friend and co worker at the Orb monotoned. “There might be nothing of us to speak about come tomorrow.”
“What do you think it is?” asked Ned, The Times’ reporter from Chicago who had “inside” dope on political events but never could say exactly what anything actually was. He was an award winning reporter.
“Don’t think I want to know yet. Let’s head for shelter.”
“I’m going home,” Jack announced.
The three looked at him dully.
“Don’t you think you should come with us to shelter, Jack? We don’t know what this is. . .” Sheryl was scared. One could hear it in her voice.
“I’d just as soon be working when it makes landfall.”
They stared at him.
“I’ll be okay. If it’s something really bad, I’ll be gone with the rest. If not, I’ll be seeing you after tomorrow.”
Hal snorted. “Whatever Jack. Take care. I know better than to argue with you.”
With this Jack parted company with the band of reporters, three moving up the street toward higher ground, one heading downhill toward The Embarcadero.
The offensive buzz of his alarm clock went off at seven am. Jack had spent a fitful night tossing in his bed, haunted by the terrible dreams. He reached over and hit the snooze button, laying his head back into the pillow. After a few minutes memory brought him to wakefulness.
Kicking off the covers he staggered to the window raising the blinds. The street outside was quiet and desolate under the early morning clouds. Cars were parked neatly along sidewalks. Birds twittered wire to wire and storefronts were ready for the day’s events. Nothing appeared out of place, except the dead quiet.
Thank god, it was only another dream.
Jack went into the bathroom and splashed water over his face and head. He gazed into the mirror. A ghost stared back. He’d been having them more of late, these apocalyptic dreams. His therapist explained that they were the product of his impending divorce from Valerie and were as such, a ‘normal’ part of his coping. Their verisimilitude unnerved him.
He went into the kitchen and started the coffee maker before turning on the shower in the bathroom. He listened for the ritualistic “Here kitty kitty kitty!” from Mrs. Stark upstairs but heard nothing.
Kitty must have stayed in last night, Jack thought.
Showered and shaved he got his paper from his front door and sat down with a cup of coffee to proof his last night’s articulating. He unfolded the paper and flipped to page two of the Metro section.
This City; Still A Haven For The Terminally Hip
By Jack Snow. . .
He quickly flipped back to the front page. This was yesterday’s paper. The paper boy had thrown him yesterday’s paper, again. Irritated, Jack crumpled the paper and put it in the waste can. He already archived that article in his clip book and he thought it was okay. It wasn’t good, it wasn’t bad, it was okay. He had wanted to see today’s article on the fomenting trouble in Alameda. He still worked brilliantly as top metro writer for the city’s Orb, the second largest regional newspaper, and regardless of his personal upheavals he maintained his column with mechanical dependability.
Valerie had been columnist for the section first, giving the view a tough but too feminine approach until Jack had come along and modernized the paper by streamlining ideas and events stylistically into a fast-paced and entertaining venue. Jack was able to make even the most mundane event stellar in the reader’s eyes. Valerie had at once hated and admired him and could not resist his advances even unto marriage. After six months it was clear to Valerie that existing beneath Jack’s shadow where she’d been forced was impossible. She would either leave or eventually kill herself. She chose life over Jack. She now worked for a small weekly in Daly City.
Not that Jack was overbearing or impossible, quite the opposite, but success had not made him any better of a person, in fact, quite the opposite. It was just that Jack was, well, he was Jack, and he wasn’t going to change, not now, not ever.
His best friend, Hal Stenson, had tried to intervene, being a good friend of Valerie’s as well. Hal’s expertise was in responsible reporting on world events and he was adequate, maybe even good in Jack’s eyes but not stellar material. It was difficult for Hal to cut through Jack’s professional opinions to get to his personal opinions and once he did, Hal quickly found what Valerie had found insurmountable and left it alone. All Hal could do was express his regret and sympathy to Valerie and though his personal estimation of Jack had backslid some, Hal could not deny his friend was likely one of the best at what they both did for a living and he could further his own talents by watching him. Hal reported on world events for the Orb and no one in San Francisco took any impending war serious enough and maybe this was why Hal’s stories were not considered as interesting as Jack’s personal interest stories. The city had become jaded, worn, and far too narcissistic for the horrors of far off wars. San Francisco just couldn’t be bothered with anything not San Francisco.
Jack checked his laptop to see what he had next. His scheduled articles were neatly bulleted along with research and references. His next scheduled column was near finished, he just wanted to polish it up a bit. It was titled, " In A High Tech World of Human Errors, Is Our City Safe?" and dealt with the issue of human error behind the controls of such metropolitan necessities that were becoming more and more automated, at least in communications, as public transportation and police protection. He pulled up the article for a look and decided he didn’t want to spend the time on it this morning. He could better deal with it later.
Jack’s memory of yesterday’s events jogged a thought; it may already be something of the past. He shook his head to clear his mind of the thought.
Walking his usual route to work it wasn’t until he was halfway down 18th Street he realized he’d not yet seen a single living soul. He paused at the corner of 18th and Market Street and looked at the black windows of the supermarket and realized the doors were not open. He looked then at the windows of the SuperDot drug store and saw they also were dark and motionless. With a growing sense of dread he crossed the street and headed to the BART tunnel at Mission and 24th.
The tunnel was completely void of life and sound. No vibration of trains, not even the sound of Jack’s breath cut through the silence of the subway. He went as quickly as his legs would carry him the way he had come.
Back on the street he headed toward the offices of The Orb. Jack was now beyond unnerved; he hadn’t seen a single living soul since last night save the birds who sang irritatingly in the wires and trees. A flash of movement caught the corner of his eye.
He looked, but saw nothing except the dark store front of a Walgreen’s drug store. He stopped, he was sure he saw something, a person maybe. He crossed the parking lot and peered through the glass front doors.
It was dark inside but the dim half-light of the overcast morning lent enough gloom to light the aisles. Something moved beyond the halo of the light that shone through the windows. It was a person, a human form moving along a row in the drug store, head down, shuffling aimlessly.
Jack was relieved. He grinned and tried the door but it was locked. He then tried to get the person’s attention by banging on the doors and yelling.
“Hey!!” he called.
At once the person looked up. The vacant expression changed when it saw Jack to a snarling mask. The man leaped at the doors, hands clawing, mouth frothing bloody foam against the glass. Jack stared in utter horror and disbelief for a split second before backing away from the glass doors. Lucky for Jack, the doors were thick paned and reinforced. The man looked murderous, ravenous. Jack turned and ran.
He ran all the way to the Orb offices without stopping and he passed not a single living or moving thing on the way. The Orb offices were deserted as well. Nothing seemed out of place, everything was just as everyone who worked there always left things. Jack went to his desk and rifling through some papers found the thing he sought; yesterday’s memo from Hal about some impending confrontation with certain powers in the Middle and Far East.
Reading through it quickly, it was only a memo stating a possibility of some super bio-chemical weaponry, it wasn’t substantiated as fact. He rubbed his temples. What was the thing they were looking at last night before he went home, that cloud on the horizon over the sea? The memory was surreal. It had been a dream, hadn’t it? Jack prodded his memory for a less surreal memory, something along the lines of the mundane. What did he eat for lunch yesterday? Who had he eaten with? Where? His head began to ache dully as his mind raced. Moose, he had a Mooseburger, Stockton Street. He was with Jane and Michael, they worked in editing. Where were they today? Why wasn’t anyone here? Why wasn’t anyone anywhere?
He picked up the handset of the telephone. The lines were dead, nothing, nada, silence. Jack had to find out what was happening. He opened the bottom drawer of his desk and retrieved his Taurus .38 revolver and the box of Federal 129-gr Hydra Shok ammo he kept around for when he covered potentially dangerous newsbreaks—as if he ever did. This was the first time he’d felt any need to take it out of its box and unlock it. Until he could find another person who could tell him what in hell was going on he would keep it in his jacket pocket.
He went down the back stairs of the building to exit onto Folsom. The stairwell was dark, the lights were out and the gray glow of the overcast morning barely filtered in through the ventilation slits in the walls. Jack put out his hand for the rail, letting it guide his downward steps. On the second floor, the rail became sticky with some substance. Jack made it to the first floor and walked into the rear lobby of the building.
There was blood, literally everywhere. On the scattered pieces of furniture, the carpet, the walls, the windows, on Jack’s hands from the stair rails.
What the fuck. . .happened here?
A foot stuck out from behind the information desk sheathed in nylon. It was attached, barely by a stubborn tendon wrapping a piece of white bone, to what was left of Mary, the aging spinster who’d worked the rear information desk of the building for the last fifteen years or more. It was difficult for Jack to say what had happened to her. There was not enough of her laying there to say what might have killed her. It appeared that. . .
No, it can’t be.
Jack could not get his mind around what he saw or what he thought. She looked torn apart as if by some animal and devoured. The man’s face from inside the Walgreen’s loomed. He’d looked ravenous, murderous. Jack stopped his thoughts right there. He had to get to a working telephone, a police station. He had to do something other than stand here staring at her.
He wiped his hands on a part of the drapes that weren’t already bloodied and gripping the pistol inside his jacket pocket, stepped outside into the gloom of the San Francisco morning.
The phone on the corner of Harrison was out, as was every phone he checked everywhere he saw one. There was a police station on Bryant Street but for some reason Jack could not explain to himself he headed in the opposite direction. He was heading for the Church on Page Street.
He walked fast, looking straight ahead, now not really wanting to see anything or anyone. The scene inside the rear lobby had unraveled whatever nerve he still had after seeing the man in the Walgreen’s. All Jack knew was that he had to get inside the church where he and Valerie had been married. This, in his scattered thinking, appeared to be safety. The swift movement to his right made him nearly jump out of his skin.
The man was tall, in ragged clothes. Blood dripped from his hands and his face and he held something unspeakable in one hand still. The red eyes stared straight at Jack with a piercing intensity. The man dropped the thing in his hand and came lunging across the street toward Jack, the same murderous look in his eyes as the Walgreen’s man.
Jack pulled the pistol from his pocket and took aim with both shaking hands. The man was coming at him fast and he knew he’d best hit him square and with one shot. Jack suddenly remembered the films Valerie had so loved that Jack had so hated about people coming back to life after they died and feeding on human flesh. He remembered that to kill them you had to shoot them in the head. Jack raised his sight and pulled the trigger. The man fell not ten feet from where Jack stood. He breathed a quick prayer, thanking his soon-to-be-ex wife for making him sit through at least two of those films. His mind was still working in fits and starts, but Jack was beginning to piece something together, something that had begun last evening as he stood with the others watching the cloud on the horizon.
Hal had probably been right, about a lot of things. The pieces were coming together but there were pieces missing, for example, what had happened between lunchtime and yesterday evening before he went home? The memory wasn’t a blur, it just wasn’t there. And last night after he’d gotten home, his excuse to the others was that he wanted to be “at home working” if anything happened, which he was sure then wasn’t going to happen, but he could not remember anything of last night after getting home. Come to think it, he didn’t really remember getting home or being home, only of waking up this morning.
She came at him from his left, a pink blob that landed on him like a sack of cement tossed at him, knocking his breath from his body. They both went down and from beneath her all he could see was her mouth near his face, her gaping, red and wet maw the teeth sharp like dog teeth. He still had the gun in his hand and while one hand held her by the neck the other brought the gun to her temple and pulled the trigger. He tossed her aside, a young thing about thirteen or so. Now splattered in blood Jack began to run toward his destination, keeping a wary eye on his peripherals.
He took Market Street to Gough and headed west, slowing to a walk to catch his breath, the gun still gripped in his right hand. His thoughts were no longer a jumbled pile of debris. He had only a single thought and that was to make Gethsemane church without having to blow the head off another thing-- person. He saw them from time to time at a distance down some street, shambling that strange shamble, the shamble of the dead-not-dead. Once, at the corner of Howard and 9th, he saw three of them bent over another, pulling out its entrails and shoving them in their mouths. He only saw for a second before continuing his run northwest.
No matter which direction Jack went at it from, it was all so fantastic it rendered his conscious thought into chaos and then the reduction to keeping his mind on putting one foot in front of the other. This he took as an instinctive preservation provided by his subconscious to keep him alive and moving toward safety. Once inside his sanctuary he could try to sort things out and decide what he was going to do. Surely there were others who survived whatever bio-chemical miasma that had been blown into the city overnight, he could not be the only one. What about Hal and the others?
They were milling at the church steps, five of them dressed in torn finery. Jack carefully replaced the two spent casings with live rounds and snapped the barrel closed. The one closest to the street saw him first and ran at him with a snarl. Jack dispatched her with a bullet in the forehead above the eyes. The second one, a medium built man in his early thirties ran toward Jack, ducking and dodging like a prize fighter. So they could think, Jack marveled, at least in this direction of self-preservation. He let the man feint his way toward him while he took aim and felled the taller man a few feet behind him. He waited until the feinting man got within six feet of Jack before placing the bullet almost dead center between his eyes. Seems that gun training course he took two years ago at the Presidio was worth more than the three hundred dollars he paid for it, another thing he needed to thank Valerie for.
Valerie. Would he ever see her again? He couldn’t spare any thought in that direction right now. He had to get inside the church.
The last one, oh god, Jack knew this man. It was the pastor of Gethsemane, a slight, balding man of about fifty who had officiated at Jack and Valerie’s wedding, Pastor Jimmy Williams. He stood at the steps glaring at Jack with red, mutant eyes. Jack stopped, the gun dropping to his side.
He wasn’t sure it was his own voice, at least not that he recognized this grating, unevenly pitched sound coming from him. He didn’t have to speak again.
The man once called James Williams flew from the church steps in Jack’s direction, mouth agape, teeth bared. He snarled like a beast and lunged almost on all fours. Jack fired, the bullet entering the pastor’s left cheek. It stopped him, for a brief second he snorted and shook his head before continuing his lunge. The last bullet in Jack’s gun felled the good pastor only a few feet from where Jack stood in the street.
Jack nudged the body with his shoe, waiting a few seconds before stepping over it and up the steps and into the church.
He bolted the doors behind him and as an afterthought pushed one of the heavy wooden benches that sat on either side of the doors in front of them. He peered out but only saw the bodies lying near the front steps. Pastor Williams lay half in the street, his head turned toward the church, his eyes open. They appeared to stare directly at Jack.
Jack turned away and headed for the sanctuary.
The leaded glass windows shed a peaceful light into the church whose only other illumination were the votive candles in rows next to the raised dais where the preacher stood during ceremony. Jack felt immediately calmer. He walked to the dais and fell onto his knees beneath the effigy of the crucified savior and buried his head in his hands. He let the peaceful silence of the church wash over him like a wave of protection. He stayed this way for an indefinite period of time. It was a shuffling noise behind him that brought him from his reverie.
He turned, rising to his feet, the gun in his hand. It was a church worker, his head bent sideways, much of the flesh torn away from his shoulder ambling up the far right aisle beside the rows dragging one leg. Jack calmly reached into his jacket pocket and retrieved the box of bullets. He loaded the barrel. Walking slowly, almost as slow as the church workers bent and crippled amble, Jack went around the rows of pews to where he had an unobstructed line of sight. Aiming with both hands he placed the bullet into the man’s head as it rested on his still intact shoulder. The man fell and was still.
Quickly, Jack checked the side exterior doors of the church and all the offices. No one else was in the building. All the windows sat high in the walls and Jack knew that shrubbery adorned the outside of Gethsemane. He checked his ammunition. Aside from the four bullets still in the barrel of his .38, he only had seven bullets left. What if they banded together, figured out he was in here alone and attacked the church?
No sooner had he thought it when a tin can came crashing through one of the windows. Slinking low to the floor Jack sidled toward the front of the church and peered from one of the clear glass windows in the hall. There were two of them, police officers by the manner of their torn dress and they appeared to be sizing up the window. They did not acknowledge each other but shambled from one side of the window to the other, seeking an opening and occasionally bumping comically into each other.
Keeping out of sight, Jack slinked to the other side of the church and peered through the windows of the church offices. More and more of them, all sizes and manner of dress, bumping and shambling on the grass of the churchyard were out there.
Jack sunk to the floor sitting against one of the office desks. He could no longer think about how or why this was happening, why the cloud had affected what seemed to be everyone else and not him. Why he was alone and no one could help him. Why didn’t he go with the others last night to whatever shelter they knew about and why didn’t he know about it? But that had been a dream, hadn’t it? Maybe it was all a dream and he hasn’t woken up yet. He heard them scratching on the outside. Sooner or later they would figure a way in and then. . .he only had eleven bullets left.
The crash sent him flying back into the sanctuary. The ‘police’ officers had managed to break the window they had been studying with a broken piece of statuary. They were ambling inside. Jack knelt, took aim and felled them both directly. He was about to jump over the bodies and see if he could make a run for it out the broken window when five more of them ambled toward him. Jack quickly reloaded his barrel and fired, missing once and only hitting the fifth body as it grabbed for him.
Four bullets left and he had to find safety. Jack had to get out. He ran back through the sanctuary to the rear of the church. Behind the sanctuary were two storerooms, neither one of which had any other exit. He ran back toward the front of the church but he heard them inside. There was no where else to go. He chose the storeroom wherein was stored the sacrament. Here, Jack would either hole up until they got tired of looking for him, or take three of them before turning the gun on himself. He locked the storeroom door and backed into the far corner in the dark, taking with him a bottle of sacramental wine and waited on his heels.
Jack could hear them faintly, hear the breaking of wood and the shattering of glass. He had the vision in his head of them, these neither alive nor dead people, driven by the scent of living blood to amble and shamble their way toward it. Maybe they wouldn’t find him. Maybe the locked door would send them ambling and shambling away and when it was quiet again Jack could make his escape. On a sudden impulse, instead of drinking the wine as he’d intended Jack poured it on the floor in front of the door. Maybe the smell of alcohol would disguise the smell of living blood.
He thought about Valerie. Was she out there as one of them? And Hal, was he out there as well? As if on cue, as if the whole of Jack Snow’s life was some hideous play written by some hideous jokester, Hal’s voice came from outside the door.
“Jack? Are you in the storeroom Jack?”
It was Hal’s voice all right, but it was different, throatier, raspier.
“Jack, c’mon, let’s talk. It’s not so bad Jack, really it all looked so bad on paper and they thought they ended everything, thought they took care of us. But they didn’t, we survived, Jack. We survived. . .”
The last part of “survived” was long and a little sing-songy. This was more than Jack wanted to take. If it was going to end anyway, it was going to end without his best friend, the only guy who respected him and the only friend to try to intervene in he and Valerie’s failing relationship, trying to convince him being awake and dead was the way to be forever. Jack made sure the four bullets in the barrel were next to each other with the first ready to go. He braced himself.
Before ten seconds could go by, Jack Snow opened the storeroom door and in this length of time put bullets into the heads of his best friend, two SWAT Team members and himself.
Orb Metro Reporter Named as Gunman In ‘Black Tuesday’ Killings
by Valerie Harris, Special to the Examiner
The gunman in last weeks “Black Tuesday” shooting spree in the heart of the city has been identified as Orb columnist Jack Snow.
Twelve people died when Snow, apparently distraught over personal and financial problems went to his offices at the Orb and after rifling through a co-workers desk stole a .38 caliber revolver before heading into the streets where he first shot Clyde Jones in the head as he crossed the intersection at Howard and Ninth Streets in San Francisco.
Also killed in the attack were Natalie Bentow, 11, a sixth grader at the French American International School, Laverne Phillips, 51, a social worker from San Francisco, Michael Walker, 35, of Daly City, City Councilmember Deon McPherson, 46, of North Beach, George S. Bentley III, 28, of Tiburon, Shelby Curtis, 58, an employee of Gethsemane Church of God where the shootings ended, a resident of San Francisco, Gethsemane Church secretary Donna Irwin, 42, veteran San Francisco Police officer Nick Hart, 42, of South San Francisco, San Francisco SWAT members Douglas Carrington, 32, and Daniel Gonzales, 38, both of Walnut Creek and Orb reporter Hal Stenson, 40, of Daly City who volunteered to try and reason with the gunman. Snow turned the gun on himself after shooting Stenson once in the head.
Gethsemane Pastor James “Jimmy” Williams survived the attacks as did six others.
Officials at the Orb have so far refused to comment, stating they are themselves in mourning.