Once you enter…there’s no hope, no communication, no way out.
Welcome to Infernum.
The Dead Zone. For the past five years, a mysterious city has appeared at every sunset in the middle of the desert. Once someone enters, there is no way to communicate with them, and there is no way for them to get back out.No one knows what happens within the city except for one thing: as soon as the city disappears again at dawn, the bodies of those who have died within its walls are left behind in a sick and mutilated form. This hasn’t stopped the government from allowing the public from entering and transforming the government’s worst kept secret into the world’s biggest tourist attraction. Why they allowed it, is still unknown.
Mercenary, Jonathon Raker, is devastated after being informed his sister, Jazz, has entered The Dead Zone. Suspicious as to why she would do this, he soon discovers that she may not have gone in of her own accord, and she wasn’t the only one. Raker’s only choice, therefore, is to go in after her, knowing when he does he’ll never return, nor can he save her in the way he wishes. This mission has only one outcome — their deaths.
9 hours later…
“Hey, Raker! Get a load of this.”
Jonathan Raker was buckling up his black military-grade boots when he glanced to his right.
Instantly, his face screwed up when he saw what he was being asked to look at. “Uggh! Geezus, Cross. Why the fuck am I staring at your naked black ass?”
“Why wouldn’t you want to check out a fine piece of black ass like mine, pretty boy? I thought you liked a nice tight one?”
Raker snorted. “Yeah, that’s why I see your moms on Tuesday nights when you’re not home.”
The locker room turned noisy with the numerous responses to his comment.
“Yeah? She said it was cuz she was the only one who knew what to do with a one-inch dick,” Cross replied.
The room erupted again.
“That’s still one more inch than you,” Farez — call name: Fox — commented as she pulled on her pants.
Her remark got a similar response.
With his ass still hanging out, Cross put his leg down and turned to face one of the two females who were part of their crew. “I think we all know that’s a gross underestimation,” he said pointing to the bulge in his pants. “But I can give you a private viewing if you wanna know for sure?”
“I’ll pass, thanks. We don’t have hours to spend looking for it.”
Cross became annoyed. “Yeah, well, it’s still probably more dick than you’ve been offered in a while.”
“And yet, being a dick still won’t make yours bigger,” she said, raising an eyebrow and glancing down at his crotch.
He started forward. “You bit—”
Raker quickly moved his body in front of Cross, blocking his path. He did it for his friend’s sake before the idiot went and did something stupid like getting himself hurt before the mission even started. “Okay, let’s just move on.”
Fox sent Cross a kiss, which irritated him even further.
“Why do you have to be such a bitch?” he said to her over Raker’s shoulder.
“Don’t complain. It’s why you love me.”
Cross stared at her with a hardened look.
Everyone held their breath, waiting to see what he would do next.
They all soon relaxed when his stony expression slowly changed into a lopsided grin. He shook his head. “Yeah, sometimes I question that logic.”
“Don’t question it, honey. You’ll just hurt yourself.”
His brow furrowed and his lips pursed. “Seriously, why do you have to—”
“Enough,” Raker interrupted. “Finish gearing up. We leave in ten.”
Cross looked between him and Farez for a moment. “Fine,” he said submissively. He then grumbled something to himself as he turned away and moved back over to his locker next to Raker’s.
Raker moved beside him and started working on his other boot. It was then he noticed Cross still hadn’t pulled up his pants.
“Is there a reason I’m still staring at your hairy ass?”
“Oh yeah! Check this out.”
Deacon Cross — call name: Tank — twisted the top half of his six foot three, three hundred pound body around and shone a torch on his dark bare skin. His normally tanned hide started glowing as a tattoo of what looked like a paddle or a spoon of some description became visible.
“It’s a dedication to my moms,” he explained.
Raker stared at it in confusion. “You put a tattoo of a spoon in dedication to your moms on your ass?”
“A wooden spoon, actually. It’s where she broke exactly fifty-eight of them when I was little, and always when I was up to my craziest shit. Good times.”
Raker, for the life of him, had no words to respond to this information. “Who would have thought you were so sentimental. Your moms must be proud.”
“She doesn’t know about it yet. Will show her on her birthday next week after I take her out for high tea. She loves that shit.”
Raker shook his head in amusement. “If only your enemies knew how soft and cuddly you are on the inside.”
“Yeah, they don’t know what they’re missing.” He finally pulled his pants back up.
“And if worse comes to worst, and we run out of torches while on a mission, your ass can light the way.”
Cross chuckled. “Fuckin’ ay!”
Grinning, Raker turned his attention away from his giant friend and continued dressing in silence. After finishing the buckles on his boots, he pulled on his black modified skin-tight shirt.
Their country’s military sector had progressed dramatically in the past few years in regards to body armor, and being a bit of a gearhead when it came to this stuff, Raker got excited by every new advancement they got to play with.
The shirt and matching pants he was currently wearing had pouches covering his entire body which were filled with a special type of non-Newtonian fluid called Shear-Thickening Fluid (STF). Or in other words, a souped-up, chemically perfected version of oobleck.
Raker knew from personal experience just how awesome this STF was after being shot in the chest with a high-velocity rifle. Something like that would generally leave him with a broken sternum and a few cracked ribs; instead, he had barely felt a thing. So not only was it a better alternative to Kevlar or any other rigid counterpart for protection, the bonus was the stuff was lighter and enabled more mobility.
All in all, he fucking loved it.
After putting on his shirt, Raker pressed a button on his locker. There was a hissing sound as a door opened. He then pressed another button to release the second piece of gear, which if it were a woman, he would be all hard for.
Battery-powered exoskeletons, or exoframes, had finally become a reality in the past few years. Their sponsors had made sure they had been hooked up with the most up-to-date versions.
In particular, theirs had been designed to be a combination of the soft and rigid exoskeletons with all of the advantages and none of the disadvantages. They were, therefore, energy efficient and easy to wear, which was something especially needed in mercenary work.
There was a loud smash, which gained Raker’s attention as he was grabbing hold of the lower body section of his frame.
“Fuckin’ love this shit,” said Cross as he opened and closed his hand. At his feet were the crumbled remains of numerous thick slabs of concrete which he had pulverized with one punch.
A serious advantage of the tech was that the exoskeletons increased its user’s strength nearly fourfold, evident by what remained of the concrete now on the floor.
The sound of something being pounded at a substantial speed had him glancing over at Fox. She stood in front of a specially modified punching bag which could withstand the force and power of the exoskeletons. The look on her face said just how much she was enjoying having that much power.
A loud thud on the other side of the room saw another one of their squad checking on the mobility of his frame as he jumped twenty feet in the air, came down hard, then twisted and turned every part of his body.
Raker diverted his attention back to gearing up and began clipping the frame into his boots. There was a whizzing sound as the rest of it engaged with connections all over his pants. Once they were interlocked, he snapped in the straps around his legs.
When he was finished, he pressed another button on his locker, releasing the top half of the exoskeleton, where he saw his call name engraved on a section of the spine.
Prince wasn’t a name he had chosen. It came about when everyone used to give him shit about looking like one of those Disney princes. If it wasn’t Prince, it would be Pretty Boy, or Calvin Klein, among a few other names which used to annoy the shit out of him. Now, it didn’t bother him as much because he had sure as hell heard worse names given to others.
As he settled the top half of the frame over his head, Raker heard their leader, Thomas Daniels — call sign: Mamba — come into the room. Daniels came to a standstill and his eyes wandered across the room, taking in the scene.
Raker had been recruited by Daniels three years ago after he was honorably discharged from his Army Special Forces unit. He had been struggling to find normality again. It seemed once you were part of that life, it was hard to stay away or find something that could decrease the need for living dangerously. Daniels knew that and recruited those he felt had a particular skill set which benefited the squad, while also giving them purpose again.
He was a hard man — the result of doing what he did for the past thirty-odd years. How he came by the call name Mamba, Raker wasn’t quite sure. He had heard stories, ones which emphasized that when Daniels truly despised someone, he would lace his knives with black mamba venom and stab his victims with one of them. He wouldn’t go for the kill shot, sometimes only just slicing them a little. Either way, it had the same effect — his enemies dying an excruciating death.
The story alone told Raker never to get on his bad side. He didn’t want to take the chance that it was just a rumor. Plus, he had huge respect for the man who had made him into something more than just another discharged soldier. He didn’t even want to contemplate what his life would have been like if he hadn’t been recruited.
“Hey, we’ll be ready to head out in five,” Barker, their second-in-command, informed Daniels as he slid a sizable blade into a sheath.
This was the first time Henry Barker — call sign: Bones — had spoken since they had started gearing up. Daniels glanced at his second. “Good.” He then watched Bones as he put something up on the top shelf in his locker.
“Yep. The good ol’ hundredth mission. I’ll be lighting that baby up as soon as we get back.”
“Sounds a bit on the tame side for you,” Daniels commented.
“That’s just for the first hour. Wait till you see what I have planned for the rest of the night.”
Daniels snorted. “I fear to ask.”
“I would too,” Barker said with a smirk. “But you’ll all be there to find out.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of,” Daniels murmured.
Raker had been listening in on the conversation and couldn’t even fathom what Bones had planned. He may have seemed normal in that moment, but in general, he was a fuckin’ crazy bastard. The name Bones stuck after he had been captured by a small group of local insurgents and killed every one of them with nothing more than the bones of a boar carcass they had been feasting on that same night.
Bones partied hard but fought and killed even harder. It wasn’t an uncommon theme among their troop. It was the kind of personality which fit in well with what they did, and Raker was no exception.
A female form sidled up next to Daniels, turning their leader’s attention away from his second.
“Boss,” said Yablonski, “supplies have been organized to be ready for us on the other side.”
“Everything on the list?”
“They tried to double the price on a few things, but I reminded our dear friend how I feel about men who try to take advantage of me. There were no issues after that,” she said with a smirk.
“That’s my girl,” Daniels replied like a proud father.
Savonne Yablonski — call sign: Nut Cracker. It was a name which was truly fitting. She had a penchant for delivering a whole world of hurt to any male that pissed her off.
If they were lucky, it was only their head she would crack. The not so lucky ones would experience pain on an unimaginable level in the nether region. She knew the best way too, being the team’s medic and having expertise in what area would cause the most pain.
It didn’t even have to be a target for her to have a similar disposition toward them. Bars, in particular, were her specialty.
But when it came to Daniels, she had a soft spot. She loved impressing their leader any chance she got. Right now was no different, and was why Yablonski was beaming as Daniels praised her ability to threaten to get what they needed.
Raker frowned, however, when Daniels’s expression suddenly turned hard and his eyes flickered in Raker’s direction.
“Everyone, I need the room,” he ordered.
Oh crap! It was the same response going through all their heads. That was because it generally meant one thing…someone was in deep shit.
Rarely was it otherwise, especially since they had all gotten up to some fucked up shit lately. And all of it was the type of fucked up shit which would get them benched for an op or two.
The worst thing was, no op, no pay day. That’s what really hurt.
“Raker! I need you to stay.”
“And you can stop gearing up, too.”
They waited until everyone left the room.
“If this has to do with that little prick, Sicaro,” Raker began, “all I’m gonna say is that he had it coming. He—”
“This isn’t about Sicaro,” Daniels interrupted before he could go on. He turned around and gazed at Raker with a strange look in his eyes.
Raker frowned. “Then why am I being benched?”
“You’re not being benched. You actually need to head home, son.”
His frown deepened. He didn’t like the tone his boss was using. It was one that conveyed something was seriously wrong. “Why? What’s wrong? Is it my mother? Is she sick?”
“No. Your mother is fine.”
“Then what is it?”
Daniels’s sighed. “It’s your sister.”
Alarm bells started to ring. “What about her?”
“There’s no easy way to say this…”
“What? What is it?” he asked, though he wasn’t sure if he wanted the answer now.
“I’m sorry to tell you this, but…Jazz is dead.”
6 hours later…
The entire flight and drive to the church, Raker had remained silent. If anyone had spoken to him, he hadn’t heard them. Not the stewardess, or any other person who sent noise in his direction. Even the relentless whir of the jet engines hadn’t registered with him.
He felt like he was in a dream-like state which he couldn’t wake up from.
God, how the hell did this happen?
He had no details yet on how Jazz had died, and he wanted to know everything. But at this stage, just coming to grips with the idea that he would never see his little sister ever again was really messing with his head.
Even driving to the church in his rental car went by in a blur. It was like he was on automatic pilot; he had no clue how he got from the airport to his hometown. But somehow he did without crashing or taking someone out on the road.
When Raker pulled up outside the church, he sat there for a moment and let out a deep breath.
He got out of the car and headed to the entrance. As soon as he was standing at the front door, he hesitated. If he pulled that handle, it would be all too real that Jazz was dead. If he stayed outside, he wouldn’t have to deal with what awaited him on the other side of those doors.
Even deciding what course of action to take was overwhelming. It was why he was startled when the door opened from the inside and a male’s head poked out.
“Can I help you?” asked the priest.
Raker blinked hard. “Ummm…sorry…I’m here for my sister. Jazz…Jazz Raker.”
Understanding crossed the man’s face. “Of course. Your mother is inside. Please come in.” He opened the door wider and indicated for Raker to enter. “The service isn’t for another two hours,” he said as Raker walked past.
“Thank you,” Raker replied, but then stopped short as he stared down the aisle toward the front of the church. His mother stood near the altar, her back to him. The shaking of her shoulders told him she was crying.
I’ll leave you to it, said the priest.
Raker’s mother must have heard him because she turned around. “Jon?”
“Mom.” Whatever had stopped him from rushing to her before disappeared and he was quickly bringing her into his arms. “Oh god.” He squeezed her tightly.
He didn’t know what else to say to her.
“Jon, I’m so glad you’re here,” she said.
“So am I.”
“I didn’t know if I could get word to you before you left.”
“But you did,” he reassured her.
“I know, but I just didn’t know if I could do this all alone if I had to,” she said against his shoulder, her words muffled.
He hugged her even tighter. “I would never leave you to do this alone. I would have come back from wherever I was, regardless of how hard it was to get here.”
She held onto him a little tighter.
“Oh, my boy,” she wailed suddenly. “How could this have happened? Our Jazz is dead.” She started sobbing again.
“I don’t know, Mom. I don’t know,” he replied, consoling her as he ran his hand over her hair and back. Raker then glanced at the coffin sitting at the altar. He had intentionally avoided looking at it until this point. Now he had no excuse not to.
Instantly, something bothered him about the scene, but he couldn’t put his finger on it. He glanced at the giant smiling photo of his sister next to the coffin and what was written under it:
‘IN LOVING MEMORY OF JAZZ RAKER’
His eyes then shifted to a pamphlet sitting on the pew next to him. It read, ‘Jazz Raker’s Memorial Service.’
He swung his gaze up to the coffin, a frown prominent on his face. That was when he realized something else which seemed odd. “Mom, why’s the lid closed?”
His mother lifted her head away from his shoulder. “Huh?”
“Why is Jazz’s coffin closed?”
She looked down. “Because that’s the way it has to be.”
He let her go and started toward the coffin. “But why? What happened to her?” he asked, looking back at his mother. It was a question he still hadn’t had an answer to, and now was the time he needed it.
“Jon! Leave it,” his mother said, but he couldn’t help himself. He halted beside the coffin, staring down at the dark stained mahogany lid, wondering what lay beneath.
So he opened it.
Raker’s eyes widened as he stared down into the casket.
“It’s empty.” He swung around. “Why’s the coffin empty? Where’s Jazz’s body?”
He started back toward her. “Why does it say memorial service on the flyers?”
His mother lowered her gaze.
That one motion of her head stopped him mid-stride and sent his mind into overdrive as he thought of all the possible reasons his sister’s body didn’t lay in her coffin.
Was it because there was no body? Was there nothing left of it? Fire? Sea? Bomb? His mind couldn’t stop.
“Mom, what’s going on? What happened? What happened to Jazz?” His voice got louder with every question he sent at her.
“I didn’t know,” she cried out suddenly. “It’s all my fault. I should have known.”
“What should you have known?”
“That your sister was so unhappy,” she cried. “I mean…I knew she was seeing someone about her issues, but I didn’t realize it was this bad.”
“Wait. Are you saying she killed herself?”
The slight nod of her head was all the answer he needed.
No. It couldn’t be true. Not Jazz. Not his little sister. “There must be a mistake,” he said, voicing his thoughts. “She would never…” He swallowed hard.
His mother closed the distance between them and put her hand on his arm. “Oh, Jon. Even I can’t believe it. But it’s true.”
Raker’s eyes went vacant as the reality of the situation sunk in. “Geezus fucking Christ!”
He raked his hand down his face and covered his mouth as he turned sideways and stared at the empty coffin.
“How?” he asked. “How did she do it?”
“Just tell me! There’s a reason there’s no body and I want to know why.”
“That’s because there is no body…yet.”
Her answer just made him even more confused. “What do you mean?”
She looked up at him again with her tear-filled eyes. “You know exactly what that means.”
Raker’s brow furrowed. A few seconds later, it clicked and his eyes widened.
“No. She wouldn’t.” He shook his head.
“But she did. Two nights ago.”
“No. I don’t believe you. You said she was dead. This is her funeral,” he said as he waved his hands around them.
“Jon, you know as well as I do that she was as good as dead as soon as she walked through those gates. We may not have her body yet, but it doesn’t mean we can’t mourn the loss before there is one.”
He looked at her as though she had sprouted ten heads. “Are you fucking kidding me?”
“I don’t give a fuck,” he yelled. He took a few steps away from her, clenching and unclenching his fists.
“Jon, I know it’s hard to believe she would go there, but—”
“No,” he snapped, cutting her off. “You need to stop saying it. Jazz isn’t stupid. She would never go there, no matter how bad things got.”
“She left a note that says otherwise.”
“No,” he yelled again, turning around and pointing at her. “I don’t care if there’s a note. She still wouldn’t go there.”
“Jon. Stop shouting!”
“How can you not be shouting? This is bullshit!”
“I know this is hard to accept—”
“That’s because I won’t accept it.”
“Then if you won’t accept that, then accept this.” She raised her wrist which had a metal cuff around it and tapped her fingers on her skin just below the band. Suddenly, a projected image appeared just above the cuff, and his mother moved her arm so he could get a better view of the image.
“She’s there,” she insisted. “There’s no question about it.”
Raker went quiet as he gazed at the profile picture staring back at him, a picture of his sister. It wasn’t the picture that bothered him, it was the site it was on. It meant his mother was telling the truth — his baby sister had gone to the one place in the world she could never come back from.
Geezus! How could this be?
Raker had always believed that the only people who went there had a serious misalignment going on in the head department. And there was a good reason why…
Location: The Dead Zone
On the 9th of May, 2021, the FBI was informed of ‘something strange’ appearing thirty miles north of Eagle Heights, Tahoa.
Local law enforcement stated that while doing a routine drive through a closed down highway, they witnessed the appearance of an entire city out of thin air just after sunset.
At the time, it was believed to be some kind of prank, which is why it was nearly dawn before someone drove out to investigate the claims. When they arrived on the scene, they were shocked to find the information was not an exaggeration. Sitting in the middle of one of the state’s largest desert plains stood a metropolis not located on any map, nor had anyone ever seen it before. Lights throughout the city indicated life within its borders, though there was no evidence of any persons outside or visible within.
At the time of their arrival, the FBI was informed that two local PD officers had entered the unknown city while another two had remained behind. They were then told contact between both parties was cut off as soon as they entered the city.
After notifying headquarters, the FBI officers on site decided they would enter the city to try and locate the missing PD officers. However, before they were even ready to leave, this unknown alien city disappeared. Further, it left no traces that it had existed in the first place, except for one thing…the fifty or so bodies that lay strewn across the desert floor where it had stood.
Preliminary results identified that the people had died from various forms of torture or animal attacks (species unknown). All bodies were in various stages of decay. Some were weeks old, while a few, in particular, were from the last twenty-four hours. Two of those bodies were identified as the two local PD officers who had entered the day before.
The area was immediately put under quarantine.
It was soon realized that the bodies belonged to a number of missing persons who had disappeared in the weeks prior. What had happened to them remains unanswered still to this day.
But that was only one of the many questions that needed answering. Another was why this alien city had appeared in the first place. Further, answers were needed as to why for the next five years it would appear again that same day at sunset and disappear again by dawn, leaving behind more bodies in a similar state.
What they did know was something they came to realize very quickly: once someone entered the city, they never came back. It was believed there was some sort of barrier preventing the exit of any persons that entered.
Well…that’s what the public had been told. But when it came down to it, the government knew nothing of why they couldn’t come back out. They just assumed it to be so but hadn’t had confirmation from the groups they had sent in because once they entered, communication — like with the local PD officers — was cut off.
For years, they tried to study this place but ended up with more questions than answers. That was mostly because it was hard to study something that didn’t allow any data to be transmitted out from its borders.
They eventually stopped sending in troops when bodies just kept piling up, as evidenced by the dead soldiers found at dawn every day. In the end, no military personnel stood within the city’s walls.
But what happened next was something Raker never understood. Three months after they stopped sending troops in, they made a public announcement to the world, admitting the city’s existence. There were already rumors out there as hiding an entire city was near impossible. But the military tried their best to keep the area restricted by enforcing a perimeter with a twenty-mile radius.
They also announced that Raker’s country was forfeiting the rights to this area, and declared it international land that would be run by the Global Security Council and an international military force. What was even stranger was after the government explained the situation, they and the GSC invited the world to come to the city, or the Dead Zone as they called it, to see it for themselves. And if anyone wished to, they could enter.
You could imagine what happened next. The Dead Zone, quickly dubbed ‘Suicide City’ by the public, became the number one tourist attraction in the world. And still was to this day. It seemed the possibility of dying horribly from some unknown force or seeing who would die each night were great incentives for the masses to travel to their little part of the world.
During this time, Raker’s team had been approached by some particularly rich individuals who wished to send them into the city to try and beat whatever was in there and to find a way out.
Daniels declined every offer. They weren’t in the suicide business. Too many unknowns made the mission doomed to fail.
They just had to watch all the mercenary groups — including people they knew — who had already gone in to know it wasn’t worth the risk. Yes, they had come back out, but in the only way one could — mutilated almost past the point of recognition in most cases.
They were happy enough to leave it to the bat shit crazies to try and beat whatever was in there. And they had…until now.
Raker sure as hell never thought his sister would be one to walk through those gates, knowing what the outcome would be if she did. It just didn’t make sense.
He knew his sister. She could get a little moody at times…even downright bitchy. But she always got over whatever was pissing her off or getting her down in a day or two, a week at most.
So what had changed? What could have made her so desperate to end things that she would walk into hell itself?
“Where’s the note?” he asked his mother suddenly.
She frowned. “It’s where I found it…on her dresser. Why?”
He pushed past her and headed for the door.
“Where are you going?” she called after him.
“To find out what happened to my sister,” he snapped.
“You can’t! The service starts soon.”
Those words stopped him in his tracks, but he didn’t turn around.
“I’ll come to the service…the moment there is a body to be buried,” he growled, then walked out.
Raker could hear his mother crying as he left. The reasonable thing to do would have been to go back and console her, but he was too angry.
How could anyone have a service for someone who wasn’t even dead yet, anyway?
He had heard it was to help the families of those people who had entered the city to cope with the situation so that when a body did turn up, it was easier to accept as they had already said their good-byes.
But there was no fucking way he was saying good-bye. Not yet. Not until he proved she did this of her own volition. Only then would he accept her decision.
However, Raker had a huge hunch that wasn’t going to be the case.
Raker drove aggressively through the streets as he headed to the house he and his sister had grown up in. Jazz had moved back in after she had separated from her fiancé a year ago and helped Mom around the house.
Raker also believed she did it to give Mom some company. With their father leaving when they were just children, and both of them living or working far away, he knew she was lonely living by herself. It was why he was glad to know that Jazz would be there for a while. It took away the guilt he felt every time he heard the sadness in his mother’s voice when he spoke to her on the phone.
But with Jazz now gone …
Even thinking about it made him want to shout at the top of his lungs and punch the shit out of something, or someone.
As he twisted the wheel dangerously from left to right, he heard a faraway voice calling his name.
“Yeah, Mom?” Jon walked into the kitchen.
“Go bring in your sister. Lunch is ready.”
Jon headed out the back and around the corner of the house where he could hear his sister singing her lungs out. Hiding behind one of the bushes, he watched her as she skipped around the backyard while twirling a ribbon in the air.
“Tell me a storrreeee…” she sang, “…tell me a storrreeee. Tell me a story, before I go to bed. Tell me ‘bout the birds and bees, and how you make a chicken sneeze…tell me a story, before I—’’ Jazz squealed with delight as Jon jumped out of the bushes and grabbed her.
“I’ll tell you a story,” he growled as he started tickling her.
She squealed even louder. “Noooo! Stop it, Jon!”
“It’s about a little girl who gets tickled to death.”
Somehow, her voice went up a few more octaves as she laughed even harder.
“Jon! Jazz! Where are you two?” their mother called.
Raker swerved as a horn sounded from the car he cut off.
Usually, he would make some gesture of an apology, but today he didn’t give a shit. Fuck everyone.
He abruptly swung to the side of the road a couple of minutes later and parked the car out the front of his old home. Jumping out, he strode up the lawn and headed for the door. He ignored the pair of blue eyes peering out at him from the window of the house next door.
He used the key under the planter to get in. As soon as he was inside, he rushed up the stairs and headed for Jazz’s bedroom. When he stepped inside, he stopped and took in his surroundings.
Jazz had refurnished her room since she had moved back, removing any reminder of her teenage angst and crushes from her walls and shelves. He wouldn’t have even thought of it as her room as it looked so…adult.
It was hard for him to think of her as an adult because he always saw her as his little sister. That meant she never grew up in his eyes.
He clenched his jaw as his eyes swept the room, landing on the dresser. He strode over to it and instantly found the typed letter his mother had spoken about. As soon as he picked it up, he began reading…
P.S. Mom, don’t blame yourself. I hid this from you to stop you from worrying. You had enough to worry about with Jon and the job he does. There was nothing you could have done even if you did know, believe me. This is all on me.
Raker couldn’t even imagine his mother’s reaction when she read this. It was the kind of letter that made one feel like they had failed somehow by not seeing what was happening right in front of them. At least that’s how he would take it.
He sat down on Jazz’s bed, her letter hanging loosely in his hand. With his other hand, he rubbed his face. He felt tired all of a sudden, the emotional turmoil of the situation hitting him hard.
Raker pulled his sleeve back, revealing his metal cuff.
“The Dead Zone,” he said aloud to the cuff. “Jazz Raker.”
Instantly, Jazz’s profile was projected in the air above the cuff. The first thing he focused on was a particular line in the profile.
As bad as the situation was, seeing that one word made him feel slightly relieved. It meant her body hadn’t been found that morning at dawn and she may still be alive within the city. They wouldn’t know until the city disappeared again at dawn the next day.
After a minute of staring at her picture, he closed it down and sat there for a moment, letting the quiet descend upon him. It wasn’t long before he started to frown, and he glanced at Jazz’s note again.
He sprung up from the bed and headed to her bathroom. Switching on the light, he opened the cabinet over the sink and scanned the contents on the shelves. He didn’t know what he was looking for exactly, but started rummaging through the bottles on the middle shelf. One, in particular, caught his eye. He picked it up and read the label.
Raising his wrist again, Raker said to the cuff, “Dr. Adrian Hughes.”
Instantly, an address was projected above the cuff. He took note of where it was and then rolled down his sleeve, pocketed the bottle of pills in his jacket, and walked out of the bathroom. As he was leaving the bedroom, he snatched Jazz’s letter off the bed, stuffing it into his jacket as well.
Less than a minute later, he was heading out the front door of the house to his car.
The sound of his neighbor’s croaky voice turned his head in her direction, but he kept walking. He glimpsed the form of the eccentric old woman standing by the hedge that separated the two properties. As per usual, she wore layers of clothing which covered everything except her head even though it was the middle of summer. Raker never understood why she did this but didn’t care to know or even ask. She had her reasons, and it wasn’t his place to judge.
The rest of the neighborhood, however, had a different opinion.
It was mostly her hostile demeanor and icy blue eyes, ones that currently stared at Raker with a haunting intensity, which scared the rest of the street. Raker wasn’t as easily intimidated, especially with the work he did. In other words, he had seen and dealt with the evil which exists within their world, and an eccentric old lady with creepy eyes didn’t even rate when it came to scary.
“Hello, Mrs. Katura,” he said as he walked. “I’m sorry, but I can’t stop as I’m in a hurry to get somewhere.”
“I just want to say I’m sorry about your sister,” she said after him.
Raker stopped in his tracks but continued to stare straight ahead. “There’s nothing to be sorry about. She’s not dead.”
“That’s not what I’m sorry about.”
Raker turned around. “Oh?”
“What I’m sorry about is what she will go through before she dies. Death will be a blessing in the end.”
His expression became puzzled. “What do you mean by that?”
Instead of answering him, she turned around and staggered back toward her front door.
Raker took a few steps after her. “Mrs. Katura! What do you mean?” he yelled after her.
Her front door clanged shut as she disappeared within the house.
What the fuck was that about? Raker wondered.
Not having the time or patience to find out, he strode over to his car and hopped in.
20 minutes later…
The door smashed open, startling the two occupants in the room. Raker walked in with a ‘do not fuck with me’ expression on his face in the hope that someone would just so he could let loose.
“Excuse me, what are you doing?” asked a somewhat mortified forty-something male with glasses standing behind a desk.
“I’m sorry, Dr. Hughes,” said a computerized female voice through the surround speakers in the room. “I told him you were in a session.”
Raker’s eyes focused on the doctor.
“That’s okay, Sally,” said Hughes. “Obviously, we need to work on our security measures.”
“Should I call the local authorities?” asked the virtual assistant.
The doctor took one more look at Raker. “No, that won’t be necessary,” he answered, obviously deciding that doing so wasn’t in his best interest right at that moment. “What can I do for you, Mr…?”
“I’ve come for a session, Doc. Something tells me you can help me with a problem I have.”
“Well, you’ll need to make an appointment like everyone else. I’m already with a client, as you can see,” he said as he indicated toward the male on the couch.
Raker turned his attention to the other man, giving him the same ‘don’t fuck with me’ look. “Leave.”
The man instantly went to get up, no doubt fearing the consequences if he didn’t.
“Peter, don’t move!” Hughes ordered.
Peter froze, unsure whether to do as the doctor asked, or listen to Raker. Then he glanced at Raker again. “You know what?” he said as he stood up cautiously. “Take my session.”
“It’s okay. I insist.”
“Peter!” Hughes called after him as Peter quickly ran out the door.
The doctor’s attention refocused back on Raker as soon as they heard the door to the practice close. “You need to leave.”
“Not until I get what I’ve come for.”
“I’ll call the police,” he threatened. “I may have said not to before, but I can just as easily change my mind.”
Raker took a step toward him.
“Sally!” Hughes called out.
“Yes, Doctor,” said the computerized voice.
“Call the police.”
“What should I tell them it’s regarding?”
Hughes stopped short when he saw the large serrated knife Raker pulled out from a sheath on his belt, where he proceeded to pick at a nail on his finger. At the same time, Raker raised an eyebrow at him questioningly.
“Dr. Hughes…What should I—”
Hughes gulped. “Cancel that, Sally.”
Everything went silent.
“I hope you don’t change your mind quite so often when you treat your patients, Doc. I would hate to think they come out crazier than when they came in.”
Hughes’s lips thinned. “Who are you? What do you want?”
“My name is Raker,” he answered. “Jonathan Raker.”
The doctor’s eyes widened. “You’re Jazz’s brother.”
“And you’re the person who is going to tell me why this happened.” He threw Jazz’s letter on the desk.
Hughes picked it up and started reading. He sighed when he finished. “Geezus! To go to such a place willingly… I don’t know what she could have been thinking. I’m truly sorry you have to go through this,” he said, seeming quite genuine in his sympathy. “But to tell you the truth, I’m also not surprised.”
“And yet, I am surprised. Explain to me how my sister could get to the point where she would forfeit her life by walking into The Dead Zone — the one place she never wanted to set foot in, especially after I told her, in detail, what would happen if she did.”
“I can’t do that,” he said defensively. “Doctor-patient confidentiality.”
Raker stepped right up to his desk. “Do you really want to play that card with me right now?”
Hughes’s eyes shifted to the knife, which Raker started digging into the desk. The blade glinted as the light hit it, accentuating its dangerousness.
He gulped loudly. “What do you want to know?”
“I want to know why she was coming to see you.”
Hughes sighed and sat down in his chair. “Your sister was having issues coming to terms with the break-up with her fiancé.”
Raker frowned. “That doesn’t make sense. She was the one who broke up with him.”
“But that doesn’t mean it didn’t affect her. I tried to help her move on and gave her some tools to help. I also tried to motivate her to look to the future and what she should do with herself, but for some reason, she was resistant to the process.”
“She just couldn’t see beyond the relationship. Jazz felt like she had failed and therefore couldn’t try anything else because she would fail at that also. She became severely depressed and lost an alarming amount of weight.
“In the end, I prescribed her something to help stabilize her more, hoping it would stop her from getting worse. It worked for a while, but one day she just crashed again. Only this time, she began to display frequent violent outbursts while in our sessions. I offered to find her a new doctor as what I was doing obviously wasn’t working. She refused. I didn’t know what to do after that.
“How she hid all this from your mother, I will never know. But to say her going to The Dead Zone is surprising would also be a lie. She had expressed that desire on a number of occasions after she started to go backward again.”
When the doctor finished, Raker stared at him for a moment.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t help her,” Hughes reiterated.
“Yes…so am I.” In an instant, Raker came around to the other side of the desk and pushed Hughes’s chair up against the wall. There was a loud thud as the knife he had been handling went into the chair beside Hughes’s head. With his other hand, Raker pulled out a gun and pointed it at the doctor’s face.
“Oh, sweet geezus! Oh god!” Hughes’s eyes shifted between the knife and then the gun pointed at him.
“Now let’s try this again,” Raker began. “This time you’re going to tell me the truth about what happened because I know for a fact she didn’t give two shits about what happened to her fiancé, let alone decide to walk into a living hell because of him.”
“I-I don’t know what to tell you. That’s what she spoke about the most while here. Even if it wasn’t about the break-up, something was making her truly unhappy. I’m not making this up.” Hughes’s eyes were wide with fear. “Please. Don’t hurt me.”
“Don’t hurt you?” Raker repeated. “Doctor, doctor, I won’t have to hurt you when you start telling me the truth.”
“But I-I am telling you the truth.”
“Yes! Yes, I am. You saw the letter she wrote. She wanted to do this. And I’m willing to bet you saw her profile on the website as well. I can’t lie about something like that.”
“No…no you can’t,” Raker admitted.
Hughes sighed in relief. “Then you—”
The doctor was cut short as Raker smashed the gun across his face.
“Ugghhh!” Hughes let out a pain-filled groan. Blood dripped from a gash on the side of his face.
“Here’s the problem…my sister is in The Dead Zone. I know that. But it’s the suicide note that’s been bothering me. You see, this letter is typed.” He picked up the letter from the desk and showed it to the doctor. “Do you see that?”
Hughes nodded erratically.
“Good, cuz if you knew anything about my sister…and you should seeing as she has been coming to these appointments for…?”
“Seven months. Since she’s been seeing you for seven months, and she’s been telling you everything about her, including her deepest darkest secrets, you would know that Jazz had a thing for writing everything by hand. Her diary, letters to me, letters to the rest of the family…all handwritten. That was because she believed a typed letter was too impersonal. And knowing that about my sister, I would say typing out a suicide note for one of the most personal letters someone could ever write is not only out of character, it’s a fucking clue that all is not what it seems. Wouldn’t you agree?”
Hughes nodded again.
“So here’s what you’re going to do. You’re going to tell me everything she spoke about with you and if I’m not satisfied…” He pressed the muzzle of the gun into the doctor’s thigh. “…I will shoot you in the leg.”
The doctor’s eyes widened in fear.
“And if after that you still don’t tell me what I want to know, I’ll shoot you in the other leg, and I’ll keep shooting limbs until—”
“It’s a fake!” the doctor cried out.
Raker’s eyebrows rose. “Excuse me?”
“The note she left. It’s a fake.”
Raker pressed the muzzle even harder into his thigh. “And how would you know something like that?”
“Because she wasn’t the only one,” he wailed.
“Wasn’t the only one of what? Explain yourself,” Raker growled.
The doctor’s sobbing prevented him from answering.
Raker’s tone snapped Hughes out of his blubbering. “There’s a group…government, I think. They choose people they believe are severely depressed, have had previous suicide attempts, or are known for body mutilation…people that nobody would ask questions about if they decided to kill themselves.”
“Choose them for what?”
“To send into the city.”
He looked at him in confusion. “Against their will?”
Raker’s mind went wild as he tried to analyze what it all meant. “Why? Why would they send people in against their will when they already have volunteers going in daily?”
“I don’t know.”
He jabbed the gun harder into his flesh.
“I don’t know!” Hughes cried. “All I know is that they want us to provide as many patients as possible.”
“Other psychiatrists. But it extends to regular physicians as well. They want anyone who is terminal. People without family. The ones no one will miss. Haven’t you noticed our homeless population has steadily decreased over the past couple of years?”
Raker hadn’t really paid attention to his country’s homeless stats, so he really couldn’t agree or disagree with what the doctor was saying. “But Jazz didn’t fit any of those criteria.”
“No, but if we don’t have the bodies, they told us to create them.”
“By prescribing medication that would change their behavior.”
Raker pulled the bottle of pills out of his pocket. “Like these?”
Hughes looked down at the bottle with the ‘Sodium Valproate’ label across the front.
“Yes. It’s an anti-epileptic medication, but we used to use them as a mood stabilizer for patients with depression due to its sedative effect. However, we found it had the opposite effect. Instead of stabilizing the patients, the pills tended to increase depression and suicidal thoughts. It was why many doctors chose to stop using them for that purpose, and why I picked them in particular for what I was doing. Add that to a few suggestive comments, and soon the patient is heading in the direction I want them to.”
“And what direction is that exactly?”
“Becoming a severely depressed individual with erratic behavior. A person no one would be surprised with if they decided to enter the city. A note is left to make it more believable. But in your case, it was what tipped you off that something wasn’t right.”
“So you’re saying you manipulated and drugged my sister to the point that she felt depressed and suicidal, then someone came and kidnapped her and sent her into the city against her will, and then left a suicide note in her name to make everyone think it was her decision all along?” He felt his anger flaring the more he spoke.
Hughes immediately sensed the danger he was in as he tried to shrink back into his chair.
“Am I right?” he yelled when Hughes didn’t answer.
Raker pushed away from the doctor and stood up straight. He turned away and scrubbed his hand down his face.
Geezus fucking Christ! This was a fucking nightmare.
Just the idea that it was happening in the first place…
Raker closed his eyes, and his breathing deepened as his rage ignited at the thought of what these people had done. It was hard to not let it out — to torture and kill anyone involved. It would be hard for any man. But he had to keep his cool for just a little bit longer.
But as much as he needed to, he still couldn’t stop thinking about what this all meant for his sister.
Jazz was in there…in The Dead Zone, all alone, probably scared out of her mind. All because these shitheads had put her there. She may not even be alive anymore.
The air went out of him at the thought.
It wasn’t that he didn’t have any hope that she was still alive, it was just that she was in the most dangerous place in the world right now. And if the soldiers that had been sent in there before her, who were trained for this sort of thing, couldn’t survive, what chance did she have?
It made his mind spin.
“How many?” he asked the doctor suddenly.
Raker opened his eyes and turned his attention back to the doctor. He didn’t fail to notice the doctor’s interest in the knife Raker had left in the chair by his head.
“How many people have you done this to?” His voice was deadly calm as he raised his gun and pointed it straight at Hughes’s head.
Hughes focused on the weapon. “S-seventeen,” he answered shakily.
Raker stared at him in shock. “Seventeen? You’ve fucked with seventeen people’s heads and had them unwillingly sent into that hellhole?”
“I-I had no choice.”
“Ah, right. There never is, is there?” Raker shot back sarcastically.
“They were going to send me and my family in if I didn’t,” Hughes cried.
“And who are they?”
“I told you, I don’t know.”
Raker stormed over to him and put the gun right in his face. “What did I say I would do if I wasn’t happy with your answers?”
“I’m not lying!” He held his hands up, shielding his face. “All I know is that they’re dangerous…like you. They had pictures — photos of my family at home. How could I take the risk that they were bluffing? Please, don’t hurt me.”
He snorted. “That’s rich coming from the guy who sent seventeen people to their deaths.”
“I know what I did was wrong, but—”
“But you had no choice,” Raker answered vehemently.
“I didn’t,” he insisted.
Raker stared at him for a second, but couldn’t hold back his disgust. “You’re supposed to be helping people.”
“They trusted you!”
“And you willingly did this to them.”
“Yes, you really looked like a man whose conscience was weighed down by the decisions he has made when I first walked in here.”
“I-I have to appear like nothing is out of the ordinary. My family’s lives depend upon it.”
“And my sister depended upon you helping her,” he yelled. “Because of you, she will die if she hasn’t already.”
The doctor went silent. “What are you going to do to me?” There was a sense of defeat in his voice.
His question had an endless list of answers. Raker wanted to do so many things to him that choosing just one of those answers was quite difficult. But it was in that moment, he took notice of the photo next to the doctor’s chair. It was a photo of Hughes, his wife, and two young children. They all looked so happy.
Seeing the display of familial happiness made him clench his jaw.
As a soldier, one of the things he was trained to do was not to think of the target as a person with a family, who laughed and played with their children or made love to their wives. No, he was taught to see them as either something they needed to save or eliminate — nothing else.
But this situation was different. Raker had never been on a mission that was so personal, where his emotions were hard to keep in check. Seeing the photo reminded him that even though the doctor was the one who had destroyed his family by what he did to Jazz, if Raker did what he was trained to do to the doctor, the doctor’s family would be destroyed as well. Those smiling faces would disappear, and all that would be left would be a shadow of what was. And Raker would be the one that caused it all.
“Fuck,” he muttered as he leaned away from the doctor.
Hughes looked at him questioningly.
“What I want to do, and what I should do, is put a bullet straight through that manipulating brain of yours. That’s the least you deserve.”
“But you’re not going to?”
“No.” He leaned in again, making the doctor flinch. Raker reached out and grabbed the knife. He pulled it out, sliding it back into its sheath.
“What I’m going to do is make a decision which you have no say in. Today you saw your last patient. You will never set foot in this place again, nor will you take psychiatry up anywhere else. If you ignore what I’ve just told you, there will be repercussions.”
“I can’t do that. They’ll make me continue,” Hughes argued.
“This is not up for debate,” he said as he put his gun away. “Believe me…they’ll have other things to worry about.” Raker then headed for the door.
“What does that mean?”
“Don’t you worry about it.” He didn’t even look behind him as he spoke.
“I’m sorry, but I do worry. I can’t take the chance that they won’t come after us.”
Raker stopped mid-stride, closed his eyes and let out a short breath.
“And I won’t take the chance that you don’t heed my order,” he said softly. He swung around, pulled out his gun again and aimed it at the doctor.
Hughes screamed as the gun went off and a bullet tore through his thigh.
RAKER: Next time, it will hit something vital.
“Sally?” Raker said out loud.
“What can I do for you?” asked the virtual assistant.
“Call an ambulance,” he said as he walked out the door.
A minute later, he hopped back into his car. Before starting it, he pulled up his sleeve and swiped downward with his fingers just below the metal cuff. A phone display appeared and he pressed his flesh a number of times, dialing a number.
His call was answered after the second ring. He pressed another button to activate his earpiece.
“I’d like to make an order…Prince…full package deal…pick up today.” He then hung up and dialed another number. “Hey, I need to talk to you. Can you meet me at home?”
Raker huffed. “Mom, I really…goddamn it! Listen to me. Come home. I found out something about Jazz…the service can wait, this is more important…okay, see you soon.”
20 minutes later…
Raker pulled into the driveway, parking behind his mother’s car. He got out quickly and headed to the house.
“Mom!” he called out as soon as he walked through the front door. He headed over to a console with a number of photos on it. He picked up one of him, Jazz and their mother. Jazz looked so happy; it was hard to imagine her ever needing to go to a therapist. It made him wonder how bad it got for her once that asshole had started messing with her head.
Dammit. He should have killed the fucker.
Other things, however, were more important at this point.
He turned the photo frame over and undid the back, pulling the photo out and stuffing it into the pocket of his pants.
“Mom!” he called out again.
He walked through the house and found her standing in the den with her back to him.
“Why didn’t you answer me?” he asked as he walked up to her.
“Please tell me why you had me leave my own daughter’s memorial? Better yet, tell me why you weren’t there.” There was an edge to her voice that said she was on the verge of losing it altogether.
“I wasn’t there because Jazz isn’t dead.”
His mother swung around. “She was dead the moment she walked through those gates,” she snapped. “You know that.”
“That’s the thing…she didn’t walk through those gates.”
His mother frowned. “Her profile is on the site, and she left a letter telling us she did. What other evidence do you need?”
“I’m not saying she isn’t in there. I’m saying she didn’t go in there of her own free will.”
Her eyes widened. “What do you mean?”
“I found out she was targeted. She was taken against her will and it was made to look like she went in there because she was depressed.”
“Wh-what?” His mother took a few haphazard steps back, her expression dazed.
“Mom?” He rushed forward, grabbing hold of her as she looked like she was about to fall over.
“Oh god.” She covered her mouth with her hand. “Oh god!” Her eyes then focused on him. “What do we do?”
“You don’t do anything. I’m going in there after her.”
“What? No, you can’t.”
“I have to. I can’t leave her to fend for herself.”
She gripped his arms tightly. “No, Jon! You can’t go in there. I can’t lose another child.”
“I’ve already made my decision.”
“No, I won’t let you.” Her fingers dug into his arms, increasing her hold on him. But her grip was no match for someone like him.
Raker slipped out of her grasp and grabbed onto her wrists. “Mom, I have to do this. She needs me.”
“No, Jon! You can’t do this. I need you,” she cried.
He let go of her wrists and hugged her. “I love you, Mom.” He kissed the top of her head.
She wrapped her arms around him once again, trying to hold him in place. When he let her go, she used all her strength to stop him, but he turned away from her and headed toward the door.
“I need you!” she screamed after him. Raker heard her fall to the floor. She started sobbing as he walked away, but he didn’t look back. He didn’t even say good-bye.
Good-byes were too hard.
It broke his heart having to leave like that, but what other choice did he have?
Jazz needed him more than his mother did. His sister didn’t deserve what had happened to her, and he would be damned if he didn’t try to prevent an ending like those who had gone in there before her.
Raker walked out the door of his childhood home, not looking back. His mother’s crying followed him all the way to the car.
“You’re going in after her, aren’t you?” The croaky voice of his neighbor came out of nowhere.
Raker didn’t even look in the old woman’s direction. “I’m doing what I have to do,” he said as he opened the car door.
“I wonder if I could ask something of you…something of a favor.”
“This isn’t exactly the right time to ask for one.”
“It’s actually the perfect time.”
He put one foot into the car.
“Please, Jon. It has to do with The Dead Zone.”
Raker stopped, let out an exasperated breath and then strode over to her. “What is it?”
She held out a closed fist to him. “Take it.”
He held out his hand and she dropped something into the middle of his palm. He frowned as he looked down at the medallion with an oddly colored gemstone situated in the middle.
“What is this?”
“When you get in there, I know you’ll be looking for your sister, but…if you happen to come across another woman, one named Sierra, can you please give that to her. She’ll know who it’s from, and what it means.”
Raker stared at her in shock. “You know someone in there?”
She smiled sadly. “More than my fair share.”
Her answer left him wanting to question what that exactly meant. There seemed to be more behind her words than what she was actually saying. He glanced back down at the medallion she had given him. The gemstone glittered as the light hit its surface.
However, the more he looked at it, the more curious he became as there was something strange about the gem. It wasn’t just the color. It was like something was moving within its core. He brought it closer to his face. The closer and more focused he became, Raker could have sworn he began to hear something coming from the gem. It started as a roar of some sort, but the more he listened, he realized it wasn’t roaring but a multitude of high-pitched sounds going off all at once. Like someone, or to be more specific, numerous someones, screaming.
It made the hair on his body stand on end and a shiver run down his spine.
It was the strangest and creepiest thing he had ever held. It made him wonder where she had gotten such a thing. Better yet, he wondered why she would want him to give someone something like this.
“Is there anything you want me to say to her if I find her?” he suddenly asked.
“Mrs. Katura?” He looked up and was surprised to see that she had disappeared.
He frowned as he pocketed the medallion.
As much as he wanted to question his strange neighbor about the trinket, time was against him. He made his way back around to the driver’s side of the car and got in.
Turning on the engine, Raker took one last look at the house he grew up in. He then put the car in reverse and drove out of the driveway, never looking back…never to return again.