WARNING: THIS CHAPTER HAS GRAPHIC DESCRIPTIONS OF VIOLENT ACTS AND SEXUAL ASSAULT. STOP NOW AND DO NOT READ IF YOU ARE OFFENDED BY SUCH TOPICS. READ AT YOUR OWN RISK.
Jesse Wolter dabbed at his wife's forehead with a damp facecloth. She'd had a severe fever for 2 days and was burning up. Her skin was dry and she couldn't hold anything down, even water. The bed sheets were stained with urine and fecal matter, and, even with the windows open, the smell was overpowering inside their cramped, hot apartment. Jesse didn't dare move her to change the bedding...she was much too sick to disturb. Wearing dish washing gloves, he just tried to clean up the mess in place with a bucket of bleachy water. He was exhausted from caring for her and had stolen snippets of sleep here and there.
This latest flu epidemic had broken out earlier in the week and Marla Wolter had contracted it. No surprise there. She worked at a pre-school and working parents, lacking day care money, routinely sent their sick children to school. Marla was often sick and fighting a cold or flu passed on to her by some sick pupil...it just came with the territory...and it had played hell with her resistance and immunity system. She lived in a near constant state of exhaustion or illness.
Jesse went to the kitchen and fetched a bottle of Pedialyte from the refrigerator, inserted a straw, and placed it to Marla's lips. When Marla had first fallen ill, he'd made a beeline to the market and snatched up a few bottles while he could and before it was gone. This flu seemed to be very aggressive and spreading fast, and the news outlets were reporting the same and advising everyone how to avoid catching it.
"Come on baby. Take a sip. You have to", he whispered as gently as he could.
Marla had been in and out of consciousness. Her eyes slightly opened and slowly moved as though searching for the source of the voice, but were unable to focus. Her lips moved ever so slightly, as though trying to form words, but nothing came out. Jesse sighed, then set the bottle down. This was pointless he thought.
"I need to take her to the hospital", he decided.
Going downstairs, he asked his neighbor Ray if he would drive them to the hospital, explaining how ill Marla was. Jesse and Marla didn't own a car, couldn't afford gas, registration, insurance and all the upkeep on Marla's salary, their sole source of income. Afraid to contract the virus, Ray declined but offered his keys after eliciting a promise from Jesse that he would disinfect the ride after using it.
Jesse scooped Marla from the bed and carried her as carefully as he could down to the car. He laid her across the back seat, then softly closed the door. Jesse drove Marla to Good Samaritan Hospital, parked in the emergency room lot and carried her inside. The waiting room was filled to capacity with anxious and sick people, adults, children, and elders, all hoping to be seen. Two hospital security guards were trying to quell some kind of dispute between two men in the waiting room. An elderly man lay on the floor and a Paramedic was attending him.
The room smelled horrible with the stench of feces, urine, and illness.
Jesse went to the admittance window and asked the clerk what kind of wait he was looking at. She had black circles around her eyes and looked tired and frazzled. She looked up at him.
"Sir, I have no idea. All of our beds are full and we're operating with reduced staff. Many of our staff are ill and have not been able to come in to work."
She also told Jesse that there was no point in going to another hospital, that all of the area hospitals were equally overwhelmed by this virus. The clerk told him that the supply of TAMIFLU was exhausted. She added Marla's name to a long waiting list.
"She needs rest and fluids" was her parting comment.
Jesse realized they would never be seen, turned around, and carried Marla back outside and drove her back to their little rental, determined to nurse her back to health.
Marla died quietly in her bed sometime the following morning.
Jesse had dozed off during the night, and when he awoke, found Marla not breathing and unresponsive. He called 9-1-1, but only received a busy signal and a message "ALL CIRCUITS ARE BUSY, PLEASE TRY AGAIN". Grief filled, Jesse held Marla in his arms, rocking back and forth, and crying over the loss of his beloved wife. They'd barely had a year together, and now all their plans and dreams were shattered.
Unable to summon any assistance, Jesse knocked on Ray's apartment door and asked to borrow his car. Ray answered the door, and Jesse could smell vomit. Ray looked like he had fallen ill, and handed over the keys. Although he couldn't know it then, 2 days later Ray would be as dead as well.
Jesse wrapped Marla in a blanket and loaded her into the car and returned to the hospital. A Security Guard told him that the hospital morgue was filled to capacity, but that a temporary morgue had been established at the Army National Guard Armory on Hedding Street and to go there.
Jesse drove to the Armory slowly. He knew it would be the last time he would be in close proximity to his sweet wife. He arrived and a Guardsman wearing latex gloves and a surgical face mask handed him a clipboard and form to fill out, then accepted Marla's corpse and placed it inside a green vinyl body bag. Jesse helped the soldier move Marla into the bag and as he did, he reached out and held her hand on elast time, taking a moment to memorize her hand, the simple wedding band, and her nails painted softly pink like her now silent lips. Her hand slid from his and the bag zipped closed over Marla's face, enveloping her in eternal darkness, and with her, his life.
The pandemic ran another 3 weeks and then burned itself out. Mankind was effectively destroyed, and it became obvious to Jesse that the long promised Apocalypse had come and with it a new reality. The stench of rotting flesh and pestilence filled the air and the survivors started to try to figure out how to exist in the new era.
Jesse had sheltered in place for the pandemic, and then another couple of weeks beyond that. Power had failed, government had collapsed, and now famine and disease were starting to take their toll. Decaying corpses were everywhere...on the streets, in cars, in homes and hospitals, and no one to remove and burn them. It was a horrendous nightmare scenario.
Santa Clara County had been home to almost 2 Million people, but was now reduced to somewhere around 500,000...a mixed bag of desperate, starving humans without any semblance of government to control them or reel them in if they went off the rails. There were criminals, mentally ill, and the soon-to-be criminal and mentally ill...and all vying for the few remaining resources. People had become little more than predatory animals, shooting one another for a few cans of protein, liquor, or whatever plunder could be gained by taking the holder's life. Gangs of hyper violent roving marauders preyed upon the weak and defenseless survivors, reducing the population further.
Equally true was the loss of medical services. No doctors, no hospitals, there would be no where to go for care should one become bludgeoned, stuck, or gunshot. Jesse realized quite quickly that stealth was going to be key to survival...staying off the radar, moving in shadows, and being unseen. A gunfight was to be avoided at all costs. Even if you survived the fight, a wound could lead to sepsis and ultimately, death.
Jesse had been raised to be self-reliant. His father had been a Marine Scout-Sniper and served in the California Highway Patrol. His Pop had taught him marksmanship, hunting, and basic woodsman skills. Jesse wasn't religious in the least, but was psychologically solid, and in spite of the situation, never once considered ending his life. Rather, this was just a new challenge to meet and overcome.
He reasoned that the best course of action was to bug out and get as far away from the city as possible, and so he chose a few items, loaded a pack, and loaded up his scoped .30-30 Marlin 336 rifle. He had two boxes of shells for it, and strongly doubted he'd find any in the future, so conserving the precious ammunition would be essential.
Jesse had recalled staying at Henry W. Coe State Park, an 87,000 acre state park outside of Morgan Hill, just south of San Jose. Isolated in the foothills and with abundant game and fresh water, it seemed to Jesse an excellent place to bug out to. He loaded his belongings into Ray's car and drove south and then east far up into the hills. Arriving at the park, Jesse found the unit abandoned and the Ranger quarters unoccupied. He positioned his vehicle to block the narrow access road, and then set up housekeeping.
Life had reverted to something reminiscent of that of 1700's Frontier America...primitive and work intensive. Everyday was active, whether it was trapping small game, hunting deer, or gathering fire wood. He spent his evenings studying nature guidebooks from the park's gift shop and then self-guiding the trails looking for medicinal and edible plants he could use.
Life was going well, or as well as could be expected under the circumstances. Jesse had wintered in the park and done well. He'd even established trade with some survivors down in Morgan Hill, a family named Read, which ran a small store. They foraged and scrounged for anything useful, and Jesse had traded dried meat, herbs, and other possibles for cartridges for his .30-30 and a .22 rimfire he'd acquired.
The Read family had been kind to Jesse, and he stayed with them on occasion. The Read family consisted of father James, wife Maria, 3 boys and 1 girl children, and an elderly cook housekeeper, Helen. Jesse was especially fond of the little girl, Gina. She was a chubby, happy little girl with blue eyes and short bobbed blonde hair, and filled Jesse with hope for the future. He often watched her play and day dreamt of him and Marla having had a little girl of their own.
Willie and Michael Harpe had been criminals all their life. Their father, a career criminal, had been in and out of prison all his adult life. The few times he was home on parole, he'd modeled skill sets for his sons, skills like battering their mother, drunkenly raping her repeatedly, sometimes with foreign objects while bound and sometimes in concert with other men and women. As adolescents, the boys committed their first Arson and in their teens, had been taught by their father how to commit forcible sexual assault, and had become accomplished rapists and burglars.
Known to local law enforcement as "The Harpe Brothers", they'd followed in Dad's footsteps and begun a lifelong series of stays in custody, first Juvenile Hall and later in adulthood, jails and prisons. They'd been diagnosed Sociopathic and Parole and Probation officers had deemed them "Career Criminals"...wholly unsuited for rehabilitation, and yet, the system kept releasing them onto the streets.
It was just an ironic fluke that they were free on bail when the collapse occurred. More ironic was the fact that both had won nature's lottery and had a natural resistance to the virus. Alive and without the Rule of Law, let alone any authority to enforce it, they found themselves "living the dream" and free to do anything they wished with no one to stop them. They wasted no time applying their skills robbing, raping, or murdering anyone who crossed their path. To label them hyper-violent was an understatement; They absolutely lusted for blood. Not content to just shoot people, they were especially fond of the knife and axe as their primary tools of the trade.
The Harpes were nomadic criminals, and wandered the Santa Clara-Santa Cruz region, plying their trade wherever they went and whenever opportunity presented itself. They were wise enough to realize that there was a limited supply of women for satiating their hunger for sexual assault, so they tended to let them live. Men were different. When a woman could not be had, a man would do, and then they'd enjoy torturing him after the act, finally killing him when bored with the game.
On one victim, they had bound him to a tree and built a fire before him. They'd then opened his abdomen, drawn his entrails out, and slow roasted them over the fire, drunkenly laughing hysterically at his screams until he finally died of shock. For macabre fun they poked fun at the dead man, offered the corpse drinks, and poured alcohol down his throat.
A few months earlier, they'd passed over from the coast, through the Santa Cruz mountains, and now were setting their sights on Morgan Hill. They'd heard tell of a family there operating a trading post and best of all, with womenfolk to victimize. They decided that they would be a good opportunity, both for fun and plunder.
A week later, they arrived in Morgan Hill and had identified Read's trading post, a ranch style home on a large lot. They'd conducted surveillance, watching through a battered pair of field glasses from an abandoned home they'd entered under cover of darkness. The Harpes had become very adept at planning attacks, making detailed notes of family members ages and descriptions, weapons, and pattern of life. They saw that Read was not well armed and sometimes foolishly left his weapon in the house while outside the home.
They made their plans....
Jesse arrived at Read's trading post about 10 or so in the morning. Without power, his phone had long since stopped working, so no digital time, and besides, calls were non existent. It was strangely quiet around the property, and he reckoned the children should've been up and around, playing outside. He walked up to the house and knocked on the door. No response came from within. He knocked again and when no response came, became alerted and shouldered the .30-30 carbine.
He tried the door and it was unlocked and swung open. He was instantly greeted by the odor of death...urine, feces, putrefaction. In an instant, he knew this would not end well. Peering inside but not entering, he listened but heard nothing. His sixth sense was really pinging hard now, and he cast a glance over his shoulder, nerved-out thinking that someone might slip up behind him.
Summoning up his courage, he pushed into the house and put his back against the wall. It was dim, the curtains being drawn, and he took his time clearing the house. He moved down the hallway and came to a bedroom. Inside, he observed the Read boys, dead, hung by sisal rope by the neck from the clothing rod in the closet. Their eyes were bulging and their heads dark purple. Their fingers were trapped beneath the rope, apparently having tried to create space of loosen the rope before succumbing to unconsciousness.
In the next bedroom, he found Gina, her throat cut and her bedclothes pulled up to expose her privates. It was obvious the little girl had been sexually assaulted and then murdered. Her eyes were fixed, staring at the ceiling, and her facial skin was ghostly white, the blood having drained from her head. Sickened by the carnage, Jesse's legs went rubbery, and he fought hard to avoid passing out and to keep from vomiting.
Passing the bathroom, he saw the housekeeper Helen. She was gagged and bound to the sink fixtures. Her clothing had been cut from her body, so quickly that corresponding slashes could be seen on her tissue. Her body slumped to the floor and hung from the sink cabinet. Blood had pooled in her legs and lower extremities. Clearly she had been sexually assaulted and then murdered. Here eyes were open and fixed, appearing as though staring at him.
Moving down the hall, he reached the master bedroom. James Read lay on the floor. His head was a bloody mass of large, deep lacerations, and a large piece of steel pipe protruded from his anus. It was obvious he'd been attacked with a heavy chopping instrument, possibly an axe or hatchet.
Maria Read lay on the bed, nude, her hands bound behind her back with duct tape. A length of rope was tightly knotted around her throat. Her bedclothes appeared to have been ripped from her body, which was covered in cuts, bite marks and huge bruises. Every indication was, like ravenous wolves, the killers had gone into a frenzy and sliced, bitten, beaten and raped her for hours before finally killing her. Written in blood on the wall above the bed were the words, "We are the Harpes!" with a smiley face flanking each side.
Jesse's mouth dropped open. He had heard of the Harpes. They were renown for their perverse, psychotic, violent acts since the collapse, and word of their foul deeds had spread throughout the community of survivors...people went about looking over their shoulder for fear of finding the Harpe's coming up behind them. Not a place you wanted to be. Descriptions varied, but rumor held one of the duo was larger and older, the other smaller and having a badly deformed nose.
That the Read's had started to decompose certainly meant the event was at least a few days old. Their blood was caked, dry. He couldn't be sure, but felt the event had occurred in maybe 3 or 4 day's time, maybe 5 as the temps had been cool lately. They had pooling of blood in their lower regions, but the skin had not yet started to bloat or split.
Investigating further, it was quite apparent the trading post, which was situated in the garage, had been ransacked. Looking at empty spots. it appeared maybe food, liquor, tobacco were taken...no surprise there. Strangely, the ammunition was untouched, but then he'd seen enough to surmise the Harpe's much preferred bloodying their hands...it appeared they enjoyed the personal touch and eschewed firearms.
He walked back out of the house, daring not to gaze upon the family as he retreated. It was more than he could bear.
Jesse studied the scene and recognized shoe prints on the floor; tracks made in blood from the victims. He went outside and cast around the property, picking up their incoming route and their route of egress; two heavily loaded persons making good track impressions and moving roughly north-northwest. Probably heading back up to the San Jose area.
Pulling a notepad from his coat pocket, he sketched out diagrams of the shoe impressions and rough measurements, including any worn spots on the soles, stride, and how they walked. One of the men appeared to frequently drag his right foot, possibly an injured leg. The other walked with his feet spread outwards at a great angle, suggesting carrying a heavy load or possibly an obese man. For now, it was enough detail to track them.
It would get harder as they hugged urban areas and highways and then he'd need to rely on local knowledge...tips, sighting reports, fresh attacks. Man tracking was little different than tracking game. Hunches, knowledge of the quarry's behavior, location of resources; all played into it. Plus criminals as savvy as the Harpe's knew enough to watch their back trail, anti-track, and maybe even counter track, that is, set up an active ambush on a pursuer.
Jesse returned to the house and gathered a few supplies, foodstuffs, some medical items, and a partial box of .22 ammo. He then opened windows, kindled a fire in the living room and walked outside. A safe distance from the house, he stopped and watched the home burn, completely involved.
It would serve as the Read's funeral pyre; an altar and sacrifice to whatever Gods might or might not exist, his own beliefs being the latter. He'd seen no evidence of a loving God, let alone one of intervention in human affairs. To his mind, mankind was merely a fluke, a roll of the dice, an absurd little accident of odds in an infinite Universe.
Until now, life had been about survival, but now, Jesse had a new mission. The Harpes had killed his friends, and they needed to be avenged. His father would understand and agree. Then and there he swore he would kill the Harpes and have revenge. But first, he had to find them. He stood at the door looking out at the foothills. Where had they gone? How much of a lead did they have? Didn't matter.
Jesse turned and began to walk north-northwest, the first of many steps on a journey for justice.
TO BE CONTINUED......
Copyright © Manny Silva, 2018. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher.