The man in the tan camouflage removes a Beretta M9A1 from the holster at his hip and lays it on the desk. The muzzle points at me. Four black stars line each of his lapels and the space above the brim of his cap. He gestures to the seat opposite him. I fall into it.
“How did you get out of Arrendale?” he asks.
I drop my gaze to the gun. “Broken cell door.”
“Coronal mass ejections can cause malfunctions in electric components.”
“It was broke before the sun storm. They never bothered to fix it.”
“What about the guards?”
“They got scared when the rumbles started. They abandoned their posts and left us to die.”
He leans forward. “Except you didn’t die, Coolidge.” His eyes are deep pools with curiosity swirlin’ behind ’em. “You’re the only known survivor. Why is that?”
My mouth is dry. I lick my lips. They feel like tanned leather. “Maybe some of the prisoners escaped and ran outside.” I shrug. “Radiation’s a ugly thing.”
“All three male inmates were castrated. Bled to death. Place looked like an abattoir.”
I try to reflect the menace in his eyes. “I don’t know nothin’ about that.”
He leans back and strokes the seat’s padded arm. He waves a hand toward the machine guns on the shelf beside him. “I know a few things about what makes people tick. Regardless of background, one thing universally holds true. Human beings have a driving need to survive.”
“I ain’t never heard of a suicide bomber who wanted to live.” I cross my arms over my chest.
He lifts a finger. “But, they’re perfect examples to illustrate my point. Suicides want what they believe in to live. Because they believe so fully, so absolutely, they’ll sacrifice their own bodies to ensure their cause’s success. That’s survival.”
Dyin’ to live. Livin’ to die. He may have a point.
He presses his lips together. Shadows dance along the contours of his face. Possession flares in his eyes. “How badly do you want to survive, Coolidge?”
My heart wants to.
My head don’t.
I lift my chin. Fast as a cottonmouth, he snaps up the Beretta and drills my good leg with 9 millimeters of lead to match my other hole. I tumble out of the chair, clutching the bloody shreds. Red stains my hands and the floor as I flail, but I reel in the pain.
He holsters the weapon and towers over me. “If you’re as desperate to live as I suspect, you’d be wise to listen. I need a ghost. Someone who can disappear through walls. Someone who feels nothing. Someone who gives her middle finger to fear. I need the ultimate survivor.” He leans down. “I need you.”
I struggle to my feet. Standing nose to nose with him, I say, “I’m a damn good ghost.”
“I know.” He walks out, leaving me alone with his gun collection.
The general never gave his name. Maybe he’s a ghost too.