The sun sat low on the horizon when Maddie shook herself awake and tried to touch the back of her aching head. Her hands, manacled to a roll bar on the side of the car, slid up and down. She looked at the road as it moved by, not saying anything, but trying cautiously to loosen the handcuffs. Giving up on stealth, she put her foot on the metal dash and strained against the cuffs with all her might.
"That won't work, Maddie. Even I can't break those cuffs. Or people like me." Sam glanced at her, keeping his eyes on the pitted road and pushing the small buggy to its sixty mile per hour limit.
"Then I should be able to break them." Maddie strained against the cuffs again, the heels of her boots leaving indentations in the dash.
"Well, no." Sam grinned. "I told you before I am a man of many talents."
Maddie glared at him, relaxing in her seat. "My head hurts, Sam."
Sam's face reflected contrition. "Yeah, I didn't mean to hit you so hard. I needed you out for a little while, not for hours. Sorry."
"Maybe you could stop and help me put a cold cloth on the back of my head or something?" Maddie's voice was quiet and soothing. "It would mean a lot to me…"
Sam laughed, a long hard laugh, grinning even wider. "Wow. You're priceless. There's not a chance in hell I'd fall for that one."
Maddie jerked the handcuffs, then sat watching the road. She said nothing for a long time.
"We're going west. There isn't anything west for miles." Maddie's voice was neutral now and she seemed relaxed in the leather seat. "There used to be a group in Albuquerque, but they quit communicating a few years ago."
"Well, I happen to know that the group in Albuquerque is gone now. My boss needs a lot of test subjects, and over the years some cities got...used up, I guess you'd say," said Sam.
Maddie smiled at Sam encouragingly. He chuckled at her. "Yeah, I know you're trying to get information, and that's okay. I'll tell you everything. You don't need to get all Mata Hari on me." Sam maneuvered around a wide gap in the concrete, smoothly gaining traction on the road on the other side. "We're going to Vegas, my hometown."
Maddie was quiet. "That's sweet, Sam," she said acidly, "but even if I weren't already married, I don't have any interest in a Vegas wedding. Certainly not to you, despite your charms," she said.
Sam chuckled. "No end to the witty banter, huh?" He shook his head, still grinning. "No, I need to go to Vegas and report to my boss. You're part of my brilliant plan."
"I don't understand, Sam. What do I have to do with anything?" Maddie asked.
"Nothing, Maddie. You're a bonus for me. My boss will be thrilled to have you as a guest. His name is Dr. Doctor."
"You're repeating yourself, Sam. That's a bad sign," Maddie said.
Sam laughed, long and hard, wiping his watering eyes with the back of his sleeve. "Sometimes I forget that outside of Vegas he is hardly known." He still chuckled as he added. "His name is Dr. Michael Davenfeld, and he runs what's left of Las Vegas. Most of us refer to him as Dr. Doctor." Sam grinned with a wicked smile. "Get it? Dr. M.D.? Dr. Doctor?"
Maddie didn't smile. "Yeah, I get it. I'm just not in a humorous mood."
Sam chuckled. "Yeah, I suppose not, but fortunately he thinks it's funny. So here's the deal. For the last few years I've been Dr. Doctor's special envoy to the surviving world." He glanced at Maddie from the corner of his eye. "I mentioned that I was a great scavenger, didn't I? So I travel for the Doc and look for someone - a special person the Doc wants to see badly. Now my job is to capture this guy and bring him in, if I can. If not, I go back, get a team together and then handle it.
"About a year ago I was back in Vegas and got accidentally exposed to his latest virus." Sam grunted. "The old guy is quite the workaholic, but you'll see that when you visit with him." For the next few minutes Sam concentrated on the road, avoiding some of the debris and fractured concrete. He bit his bottom lip then continued. "Anyway, I was exposed to his new virus, but I reacted differently than most of the other subjects. The Doc tested me and was delighted. His virus mutated when I was infected, who knows how. Nature did for him accidentally something he tried to do for years.
"As far as I know, I'm unique and Dr. Doctor wanted me to travel and spread the disease for him. I'm a Typhoid Mary for the W virus. I transmit it when I help prepare food, you see, which is why I was so helpful in the kitchen the other night.
"It's hard to get a real world test in Vegas. The place is wall to wall infected. In one section you have a couple different zombie styles, closely monitored. His enforcers are dozens of vampires and immunes, all kept in line with the blood wine." Sam winked at Maddie. "You're getting a feel for how that works, aren't you?"
Sam swerved around some sections of road that were shattered, then accelerated onto a long, straight stretch of road. "Now, thanks to me, we have the new virus. It makes us faster and stronger than vampires. Some of us may be smarter. We prefer packs, but some of us, like me, are loners. We have heightened senses. Here's the thing that Dr. Doctor was so excited about: once you recover from the W virus, you're totally immune to the Z virus. Most people catch the W virus and recover. Bingo. No harm, no foul." He glanced at Maddie's face and shrugged, then looked back at the road. "Okay, around half recover. That's pretty good, you know."
Sam stretched his spine and rolled his shoulders. "Most of the rest turn into a nasty little hybrid – bloodthirsty pack dwellers. About ten percent are like me. We get some of the benefits of enhancement, but we don't get the rejuvenation that vampires do. We don't know what our lifespan is, but man, our senses are crazy good. I mean, I can smell you from a mile away. I can hear your heart beating from a dozen feet. I can feel the heat of your body as you sit over there.
"Of course, there's only one thing we can call ourselves: werewolves."
"So you go around spreading a different plague that kills half the population and turns some of the others into crazed monsters? Did I sum that up correctly?"
Sam sighed. "It's a crude summary, and you're looking at the negative side of it. The ones that survive never have to worry about the Z virus again. They can lead normal lives."
"Why didn't I get sick, Sam?" Maddie asked.
"Oh, vamps are immune to the W virus. I think they are too healthy to get it. Jed looked really pale, though." Sam shrugged and grinned at her. "Well, it doesn't matter. You and I have places to be and things to do!"
Maddie said nothing, but watched the road roll by for a long time. Eventually, she looked at Sam and rattled her chains. "I need a pit stop."
Sam said nothing, but slowed the buggy, bringing it to a stop near the side of the empty road. He shut the buggy off and moved the keys around the ring, selecting a small, thick silver key. Walking to the passenger side of the buggy, he addressed Maddie. "Please don't make me fight you, Maddie. I'll un-cuff your hands, then cuff them again. If you behave, I'll give you my roll of toilet paper." He pointed to a small group of trees a few dozen feet from the road. "There's nothing over there except a rabbit, and he's trembling, so I don't think he'll bother you." He looked at Maddie. "Do we have a deal? I could let you wet your pants."
Maddie looked at Sam, her eyes bright with anger. "Yes, we have a deal. I'll behave."
Sam loosened Maddie's hands and fit the cuffs around her wrists again. He handed her a roll of toilet paper and stepped back, out of arm's reach. Maddie moved to the trees while Sam relieved himself at the side of the road. As he zipped his trousers, his ears twitched. "Dammit," he muttered.
Maddie ran fast, but Sam gained on her. Though she didn't look back, she heard him moving closer. She spun on her heel to face him as he caught up to her. Bracing her legs, she thrust her manacled hands toward Sam's chest, her arms straightening with a sharp movement. She expected that the fast contact between the heels of each hand and Sam's breastbone would result in cracked ribs and the end of the fight.
She never connected. As fast as Maddie moved, Sam moved faster, dodging to his left and bringing his right elbow up to strike Maddie in her left temple. She stumbled, stunned. Sam's fist caught her behind her jaw and she dropped unconscious to the ground.
Maddie woke up, her head aching and her throat dry. The sun was down now.
Sam growled, a low deep rumble in his throat, and his eyes narrowed. "I don't need you, you know. I just need the people at Selah Ranch to think I have you. I left enough clues about where I was going that even that dim-witted husband of yours should be able to figure it out."
"Oh, Jed will come. There's no mistake about that. The man you set the trap for will be on you when you least expect it."
Sam laughed. "Jed? No, I wasn't going to get you riled up, but Jed isn't sick. I poisoned him. He might not survive, though most of you vampires are tough, I'll grant you."
Maddie's eyebrows knit together. "Jed's poisoned?" She jerked at the manacles holding her to the car and the metal bar seemed to bend. "I'll tear your damned heart out, Sam."
Sam glanced at the fury in Maddie's face. "Right. Well, I know of an antidote, so you should rethink that plan." Sam looked at Maddie with a feral grin. "No, I want August. When nobody else can come, August will follow. Dr. Doctor will have the man he's looking for and I get my reward."
Maddie sat very still, the minutes dragging on as the road moved swiftly beneath them, the headlights stretching into the darkness. "What in the world does your doctor want with August?"
Sam looked at her, his eyebrows raised. "I guess I gave you more credit for brains. Dr. Doctor wants August because he's the source of the Z virus."
The tires made a whirring sound on the road as Sam laughed again. "I guess you'd call him Patient Zero."
Sam slowed the buggy as he neared the decrepit remains of a small cinder block house along the side of the road. "Though I'd love to make the drive in one long stretch, I'm too tired. I have my limits, you know." He turned off the engine. The silence of the deserted roadway closed about them like a blanket. "There's a side effect of the werewolf thing. Once I go to sleep I'll be out solid for about six hours." He grinned. "Guess you'll have to protect us from any dangers."
"Hard to do if I'm handcuffed to the buggy, Sam."
"Yeah, I know. I have faith in you, Maddie. You'll figure it out."
Maddie didn't smile. "Great. I'm tired of sitting here, anyway. Your shocks leave something to be desired."
Sam walked around to the other side of the buggy. "I'm not taking the cuffs off."
Maddie shrugged, the move making her head ache. "So you mentioned. You can at least let me walk a little."
Sam sighed dramatically. "I'll catch you if you run."
"I know that. I'm not stupid," Maddie grimaced. "You already proved it once."
Sam set the camp up. Maddie walked in small semicircles around the chosen site, stretching her legs, her hands handcuffed. Sam dug a small hole, putting stones around it to create a fire pit.
Maddie moved toward Sam. He stood to face her, eyes wary. "Would it go faster if I helped?" Maddie asked.
Sam smirked at her. "Sure. Want the car keys so you can go to town?"
She shook her head. "No, but even with the cuffs on I can gather firewood." She indicated the cans of beans by the side of the fire. "We'll need a fire to heat dinner."
Sam looked at her. "You're right. But please don't try anything. I proved I can outrun you, and outfight you…"
"Yes, you did. Let it go. I want a fire, some food in my stomach and some sleep, so I'm willing to help."
"I always did think you were the practical one. Sure. Get some wood. That would be great." Sam ran his hands over his eyes. "Out here you can find shrubbery, but get the dry stuff if you can." He drew a deep breath through his nose. "I don't smell any Z's, but this is a bad territory for the persistent ones. They're stupid, but they travel and fight in small groups. So keep your eyes and ears open."
"Great. I'm in the desert with a maniac and I have to dodge Z's, too." Maddie wandered toward some visible brush. "The perfect vacation…"
Sam shredded the materials for a starter fire and used his flint and steel striker to send sparks into the fluff, blowing on it, trying to get a small flame. He listened to Maddie rummage through the shrubs.
He heard her footsteps returning, slow and measured. A bright flame flickered among the shredded twigs and he smiled. "Hey, I got a flame here, so…"
The club hit him squarely in the side of the head and blackness engulfed him.
"So let's have it, Sam." Maddie threw a cup full of tepid water into Sam's face.
Sam shook the water from his face and tried to wipe his eyes. The handcuffs prevented him from doing so. "What do you want, Maddie?" His sore jaw throbbed when he tried to talk.
"I want the antidote to the poison you gave Jed." Maddie stood above him, her eyes flashing, her mouth set in a straight, hard line. "I searched you and everything I could find." She pointed at a few items on a shirt in front of Sam. "Are any of these the antidote I need?"
Sam glanced at the items. "No."
"What is this, then?" Maddie lifted a large flask and unscrewed the top, smelling it.
Sam's face split with a wicked smile. "Blood wine. Go ahead. Smell it again." He chuckled. "Sound good? A sip? I won't tell anyone."
Maddie stared at the open flask, its light fragrance like a perfume. She couldn't seem to stop her hand from lifting it to her nose again. She inhaled deeply. A feeling stirred inside her and she shuddered. She smelled it again, the fragrance tickling her nose, teasing her brain.
"Nice, isn't it?" Sam asked.
Maddie screwed the cap back on the flask, licking her lips. "I thought you said Tomás was making it up."
Sam shrugged. "Well, I did say that, but I wasn't entirely accurate. It is terribly addicting. It's the source of Dr. Doctor's control over Vegas. He is the only one who knows how to make it, but that will change soon."
Maddie put it back down on the shirt. "Focus, Sam," she snarled. "What about these different pills? Any of them the antidote?"
"I don't have it with me," Sam answered.
Maddie looked at him, saying nothing for a minute. Sam glared back. "I'll get out of this, Maddie. And when I do, I will kill you."
Maddie said nothing. Faster than a striking snake, her fist flashed forward and hit Sam in the jaw.
"Where." She hit him again. "Is." The fingers of her right hand twisted in Sam's hair and she jerked his head back, pulling hard. "It." She slammed Sam's head against the side of the vehicle.
Sam shook his head and growled, his eyes turning black. He strained at the handcuffs.
Maddie bent down and picked up the thick branch she hit him with earlier. Without saying anything she brought it down on his left thigh. Sam screamed in pain, writhing to get away from her, but unable to move.
"I'm being nice here, Sam. I could have broken your knee. I could have aimed for softer parts. Give me the antidote for Jed and I'll leave you alone."
"Dammit, Maddie, I don't have it with me."
She hit him on the same muscle, closer to the knee. Her voice rose. "What? Do you think I'm stupid? You carry a poison with you and don't carry an antidote?" She lifted the branch. "I'm not playing here, Sam."
Sam gritted his teeth. "Yeah, I kinda get that. I don't have any with me because I already used it up in Fort Collins."
"You expect me to believe that, Sam? Fort Collins?"
Sam shrugged, looking at Maddie.
Maddie stepped back, glaring at Sam. "Then what am I supposed to do, Sam? How do I help Jed?" she yelled. "You're useless to me..." She drew the pistol now strapped to her hip and aimed it at Sam's head, eyes blazing with fury.
"Wait!" Sam shouted. "Wait!" He closed his eyes and ducked his head. The shot didn't come. Sam heard Maddie's breath rasping, heard her heart beating rapidly in her chest. He could smell the anger on her like a Viking perfume.
"I can get more antidote. In Vegas," said Sam.
"Another day to Vegas and two days back to Jed," Maddie muttered. She turned away, staring down the long, straight road, an ebony ribbon stretching into the distant darkness. Sam could hear her teeth grinding. "That's a long time, Sam." She holstered the pistol, but fingered the grip.
"It's a slow poison, Maddie - four or five days usually. Keeps them out of pocket and ties up one or two others to look out for them. For normal people it's pretty deadly, but most vampires shake it off after a few days." Sam grimaced as he tried to straighten his left leg. "I'm telling you the truth, Maddie..."
"I have to believe you, Sam. I don't have much choice."
Sam noticed the camp gear was already stowed on the buggy.
"So let's go, Maddie. Get me into the passenger seat and I'll get the antidote for you when we get to Vegas."
Maddie wasted no time. Maddie handcuffed Sam in the passenger seat. Within minutes the two of them were on the road, the bright lights of the dune buggy leading them to Las Vegas, Maddie behind the wheel.