Five miles west of Salem, Wyoming, approximately 50 miles west of Laramie, 18 February 2010, 1600 hours local; Countdown: 1 year, 11 months, 12 days

Jim Collins couldn’t move. He failed so completely, more than he ever thought possible. His enemy had his daughter, had the power of the altar, and was about to unleash some form of hell on the world. Jim watched as Mateo told The Steve to stand guard over him. Jim knew he should get up and help the team as they prepared to stop Alan. His mind told his body to get up off the ground, but it wouldn’t move. He barely noticed as there was some loud talking. Two men in dirty brown police uniforms walked up to Jim and The Steve. Jim knew he should be running. He had been running from these men for over two decades now. Right now, there didn’t seem to be any point. He might as well complete his failure. With a great deal of effort, Jim lifted his head to look at the two officers that were now looming over him.

“Hello Sheriff,” Jim said. His voice was drained and flat. Sheriff Jones hadn’t aged well over the past twenty-five years. The tanned face was creased and weathered. The black hair the Sheriff was so proud of had melted into a few wisps of white that peeked out from under the Stetson. Had he shrunk a few inches as well? Jim looked over at the deputy standing next to the sheriff. The deputy was the spitting image of Sheriff Jones some thirty years ago. So, this was Hal Jones, the heir to the throne. From the malicious gleam in the younger Jones’s eyes, the apple hadn’t fallen far from the tree.

“Well Nathan West, as I live and breathe,” Sheriff Jones said with an evil amusement. A crooked face danced across the sheriff’s face. “I never thought I’d see you in these parts again. You must be one of the dumbest criminals I’ve ever had the pleasure of arresting.” Hal let out a snicker. Jim looked at the sheriff. A part of him screamed to get up. He had to fight. He couldn’t let this happen this way. Then came the crashing guilt, shame, and hopelessness. He was done. Letting the sheriff cart him away on those trumped up charges would put the perfect end on his failure.

“I’ve waited twenty-five years to do this,” Sheriff Jones hissed, “Hal, take him.”

“Sure thing,” Hal said, reaching behind him for his handcuffs. Hal took a step with the silver manacles in his outstretched hand. Then, he stopped with a look of unbelief and fear on his face. It took Jim a moment to realize that The Steve was pointing his Kimber .45 at the younger Jones’s head.

“The Steve thinks you might want to back off,” The Steve said in his normal happy tone. The cheery voice added to the tension. The sheriff fumbled for his pistol. Mateo and Billy appeared with their sidearms drawn and pointed at the two officers. Billy’s dark features were a blank mask, but Mateo regarded the sheriff like a man would a cockroach. Sheriff Jones went red with righteous indignation. Faced with three zombie hunters, the sheriff should have just backed down. Instead he acted the same way he always did.

“You boys might want to think about what you’re doing,” the sheriff said in his best intimidating voice. Jim remembered how that voice terrified him so long ago. Now, it just seemed weak. The pistols didn’t waver, so the sheriff threw down the law. “You are threatening officers of the peace and harboring a man wanted for murder. Keep this up, and you’ll be spending the rest of your lives behind bars.” Something clicked in Jim’s mind, and his paralysis vanished. It was one thing for Jim to pay for his failure, but he couldn’t let his friends do this. Jones was a vindictive and petty man. He could make life rough for the team. He could keep it from completing their mission. Jones wouldn’t care about an apocalypse. All he would care about was taking revenge on those who humiliated him. Jim stood up off the ground.

“Matt, stop,” Jim pleaded, “There’s no need for this.” Jim took a step toward his team leader, but Mateo kept his eyes on the sheriff and his son. Jim tried again. “Listen to me, I’ll go with them. You need to go find my daughter. Time is running out. I’m not worth this.”

“Yeah, that sounds good,” the sheriff blurted out, trying to seize the chance to end the confrontation. “You let me take Nate in, and I’ll forget about all of this. Friends have to protect their own after all.” Jim knew Sheriff Jones wouldn’t just let any of the team go. Not after this. Still, Jim needed to give the team time. Time enough to find Alan and his daughter. Time to stop whatever Alan was going to do.

“I don’t think so,” Mateo answered with a tone colder than winter. Mateo holstered his pistol. He took a few steps towards the sheriff, his boots crunching the snow and ice under his feet. “You see, here’s the thing. We work for an insurance firm. One of the oldest and largest. The kind of firm that can afford to hire the best investigators.” Mateo’s dark eyes bored into the older man’s.

“Funny thing about insurance firms, they like to know who they’re hiring,” Mateo continued, “It took a bit of time, but we found out everything about what happened. We know that you framed my man and stole his life from him.” The sheriff stood stunned. Mateo’s words hit the man like a baseball bat.

“Oh yeah, we know who killed Sonny Smith. We have the evidence you thought you’d destroyed,” Mateo said, his cold tone melting into a malicious warmth, “Now, you have a choice. You can let Jim Collins do his job and save your little town from someone who is truly evil. Or, you can try and take Nate West in and have everything we know come out into the light of day. Better decide fast though. Time is running out.” Jim watched in amazed fascination as the man that terrorized him for years broke down under Mateo’s words. Eternal seconds ticked by as Sheriff Jones searched Mateo for any sign of mercy or weakness. There was none. Finding no way out, the sheriff slumped down and waved the team on. He couldn’t even form words.

“No!” bellowed Hal, vibrating with anger. His hand shot down to his holster. Before the young man could draw his pistol, Billy had him on the ground. Billy contemptuously pinned the larger man on the ground and zip tied him.

“As my friend Collin would say, bloody bad move, mate,” Billy said into Hal’s ear. Hal struggled a bit, but Billy simply tightened the zip ties and slapped the back of Hal’s head. “You keep fighting, and things are going to get worse.” There was a promise of violence in Billy’s voice. Hal went limp. The Steve and Billy escorted the sheriff and his son back to their cruiser.

“Um, Matt,” Jim started, and then stopped. Jim was elated, grateful, ashamed, and scared. The emotions threatened to tear him apart. Mateo gave Jim a look and held up his hand.

“I told you before Jim, a man needs his secrets,” Mateo said, “I was waiting for you to come to me about it. Maybe ask for our help. I probably should’ve forced the issue before we got here, especially in light of what’s happened, but that’s not important right now. We’ve got to stop Alan.”

“How?” Jim demanded, “We don’t even know where he is.” Mateo started to say something, but stopped as the steady thrum of helicopter blades filled the area. A large helicopter roared over the team’s heads to land some fifty yards away. Soldiers in full battle gear stormed off as a ramp was lowered from the rear of the helicopter. The last man wore simple BDU’s. Jim recognized him as Col. Bull Allen, the commander of the Army’s anti-zombie forces.

“Seems Alan screwed up and let his little rant be picked up by the Army,” Mateo explained as the colonel strode over to where Zombie Strike had congregated. “Soldiers have this thing about young women being taken to be murdered in evil rituals.” Jim swallowed back a wave of emotion. Col. Allen saluted as he neared the group. The colonel’s hard face softened as he looked at Jim.

“Mr. Collins, we’ve found them,” the officer reported, “Your daughter and the target is maybe fifteen miles from here. We’ve got a Predator tracking them right now. My boys are shadowing them, waiting to engage.” The officer turned to Mateo. “Load your team in the chopper, Mr. Cortez. Don’t want to keep him waiting.”

“Everyone load up,” Mateo ordered. As they climbed into the helicopter, they were met by the rest of their team. All of them were grim faced and ready for combat.

“Come on Jim,” Mateo said, “Let’s go get your little girl.”

[Zombie Strike Part 4 Chapter 31]