The dull ache of Ana’s hunger gnawed at her.
She cursed herself in silence for not having eaten anything before she broke into the hospital. Oddly, she rarely thought of anything but food these days yet often neglected to eat until it was absolutely necessary. Today, though, she should have known better. The last thing she needed was to lose focus in a place where any tiny lapse in concentration might ruin everything.
She took a breath. She would not be responsible for the starvation of what remained of her people because she’d forgotten to feed.
Ana squeezed back against the wall beside the open double doors of the ER’s medical supply room. Sneaking peeks around the corner into the room every few seconds, she watched a Feral examine items from a cabinet at random.
The humanoid monster with leathery, ash-gray skin picked up a roll of gauze, its razor-sharp talons leaving incidental gashes. It sniffed at the roll but, finding it uninteresting and inedible, dropped it and turned its attention back to the supply cabinet.
Holding her breath, Ana waited for it to turn away from the doorway. She was lucky as it was apparently one of the dumber ones. A more clever or observant plaguer might have sensed her in the hallway. Of course, the overwhelming stench of death lingering in the hospital and the lack of air movement favored her too. Under these conditions, smelling anything or anyone other than the decaying corpses littering the hallways on rolling beds would be a challenge.
That cut both ways, though. Her own usually sharp senses were just as dull.
At last, the somewhat human-like beast turned its back to the doorway to investigate the chrome handle of a restroom door.
Ana flung herself from one side of the doorway to the other, pressing against the wall on the far side.
Still holding her breath—she didn’t need to breathe anyway—she listened for signs that she’d attracted its attention. But the thing continued to huff and sniff in a steady rhythm, keeping its distance from the door.
Turning away, she crept along the hallway, avoiding the rotting bodies, and exhaled only when she reached the stairwell at the end. With a glance back the way she’d come, she climbed up the stairs, mindful to make no sounds.
The first time she’d done this had been much easier. She strolled right in, snatched the patient, and walked right out. The second had been a little more difficult but not much. One of Alexander’s sadistic thugs would march a few Feral through the building twice a day like bomb-sniffing dogs, as regular as clockwork. Avoiding them had been as simple as making the grab between rounds.
But Alexander had learned his lesson. At least two plaguers were in the building at all times now, and one or two members of his Family would also make daily visits to check on things. He was taking his last three patients very seriously. And who could blame him—they were, after all, human.
Whether or not she got away with another one tonight, this was almost certainly her last attempt. Alexander would likely station an entire group of his most reliable Family in here afterward.
Not making a sound, Ana reached the intensive-care unit and exhaled in relief. Then she frowned, realizing she hadn’t crossed paths with the second Feral she knew was somewhere in the hospital. Not knowing where it was would make her exit much more difficult.
She pushed one of the unit’s gray double doors open a few inches, not enough to make it creak, and slipped inside. She left one foot over the threshold, and the door came to rest against it, preventing a loud clank as it swung back into place.
Squatting, she squeezed her eyes shut and listened. Nothing was moving but soft ripples of air in three rooms around the corner and up the hall—the patients’ rooms.
Still half crouching, she lurched down the corridor and around the bend, peering into each room on the ward before crossing in front of its door. The rooms weren’t empty, of course. Each contained several beds holding the long dead. But those weren’t of any interest to her.
She checked all three to be sure no one was waiting inside, still as death, for her to blunder into them. Only when she was absolutely certain she was alone did she stand up and lean against the counter of the nurses’ station opposite the rooms.
Three rooms, three patients, and this might be her last chance without Colin sending more help. She needed some luck.
The first two attempts had both been women. She’d hoped that since studies had shown that infant girls tended to fight for life harder than their male counterparts, the same might prove true of adult coma patients. Ultimately, that hadn’t proved to be the case. Both women died before regaining consciousness.
She looked at the three names on the doors in front of her: Thomas Woodford, Melanie Schmidt, and Earl Benson. Poor Melanie was out of luck—this time, the subject would be male.
Ana peeked into the first and third rooms, with Thomas in the first and Earl in the last. The latter patient appeared to have ten or fifteen years on the former, and based on the graying hair and sallow, lined skin, they looked to have been hard ones.
Moving close to Thomas, she studied his face as he slept. His slightly sunken cheeks were a hallmark of such a long coma under these conditions. A mane of dark-brown wavy hair surrounded his head, and a full, dark beard peppered with the first touches of gray reached his chest.
As with all the other patients, circular scabs and scars dotted his arms, legs, and neck. She had little doubt she’d find more once she got him out of the hospital.
She lifted both eyelids but got no response from his dull chocolate-brown eyes. Still comatose.
He wasn’t the picture of health, to be sure, but by being male and only just middle-aged, he was the best overall candidate as far as she was concerned.
A metallic clang echoed from the hallway, and she stiffened. Her heart would have been beating out of her chest if it still beat at all. As it was, she stood frozen beside the bed, straining to catch any hint of the other Feral, or anything worse, moving down the corridor toward her.
Sensing nothing, though, she counted silently to fifty. The noise must have been the ICU door sliding back into place.
Satisfied, she whispered, “Time to go, Thomas.”
With practiced experience, she disconnected his IV lines but left the injection sites untouched so she could reuse them. Then she leaned forward, grabbed him by the chest, and slung him over one shoulder.
As easily as picking up a doll, she lifted the six-foot-tall man who, according to his chart, weighed just under two hundred pounds. Three years after her… change… some of the things she could do still amazed her.
Setting out from his room at a jogging pace, Ana paused only to tiptoe through the ICU doors and make sure she and Thomas were alone in the outer hallway. She resumed the brisk trot through the building when she was satisfied nothing was waiting for them.
Moving with stealth and caution had been the obvious choice when she entered the hospital, but Ana would have sprinted out if she thought she could manage it without dropping her patient, especially considering he was breathing and human. The pair of Feral inside with them would be much quicker to notice those factors than they would her alone, and the smell of him—and his blood—outside the ICU they’d been guarding would likely incense them. Getting out as quickly as possible was by far the best course.
She took a different path from the one she’d taken into the hospital, making a direct line to the parking garage—down a hall then two flights of stairs, followed by another length of corridor and a few more steps, constantly dodging hospital beds littering her path. She paused for only a second or two before each new leg, to be certain to avoid running blindly into trouble. So far, so good.
She stopped at the exit to the subterranean garage. Through a grimy pane of glass in the door, Ana studied the expanse of concrete beyond. Between rows of abandoned cars left by long-dead owners, the ambulance she’d backed up to the door sat waiting. The rolling gurney she’d set up was still exactly where she left it.
Satisfied, she pushed through the door, moving with care to keep the man from knocking against the frame. After clearing it, she laid him on the gurney and belted him in.
Ready to roll the bed into the ambulance, she yanked the latch on its back gate and sprang back at the sound of a startled, angry hiss. The second Feral, the one she hadn’t found, glared back at her, its dead, coal-black eyes blinking through a few limp strands of ash-colored hair hanging from a mottled scalp.
It opened its mouth, flashing a full set of wicked, pointed teeth complemented by a pair of curved fangs.
The thing lunged, growling. She stepped to the right and turned sideways, her back to the gurney, and its sharp claws passed through the space where her head had just been.
The Feral lunged again, this time diving completely out of the truck. Ana stepped back and pivoted, smacking it as it flew by. The Feral fell away and rolled to the ground but managed to swipe her across the stomach in the process.
Blood gushed from a set of jagged slashes beneath her shirt.
As the Feral lumbered to its feet, she grabbed it by the neck and spun it back toward the ambulance. Shoving with all her strength, Ana drove the monster’s head into the corner of the truck’s frame and was rewarded with a deep crackling sound. The body in her hands went limp.
Holding it in place, she reached for the truck gate and swung it closed, hard against its skull, which popped like an engorged tick, spreading brains and blood throughout the ambulance interior.
Ana stepped back and touched her belly. The wound wasn’t deep. It would heal quickly enough.
Opening the ambulance gate again, she pulled the lifeless Feral away. It fell to the ground with a dull thud. She then dragged it clear, leaving a messy path.
After pushing the patient into the vehicle, she locked the wheels in place, closed the gate, and jumped into the driver’s seat. Company—the unwelcome variety—would arrive at any moment.
Tires squealing, they rocketed away from the door. The bloody corpse with the rotten-pumpkin head grew smaller in Ana’s side-view mirror. Nothing else followed.
Hitting the street in the dark hours just before dawn, she breathed a sigh of relief. Then she glanced back at her patient in another mirror hanging beside her.
“You had better live, Thomas Woodford. You had better be worth all this trouble.”