Tampa Florida, 15 September 2010, 1630 Hours Local: Countdown: 1 Year, 3 months, 16 days

Mateo Cortez watched as his five-year-old daughter was lifted into the backseat of the silver SUV. Mateo buried all of his heartbreak as he waved back at the smiling Mercedes. The two of them enjoyed a very busy day at Busch Gardens, the biggest theme park this side of Orlando. The little girl was still clutching the stuffed animal Mateo bought for her. This was the last time he would see his daughter for some time. Christina, his ex-wife’s sister, almost slammed the car door while scowling at Mateo. He did his best to ignore the woman. She looked too much like Maria when she scowled.

"When will we get the money?" asked the impatient man Mateo had been ignoring for the last few minutes. Tim, Christina’s husband, was an annoying, pathetic jerk of a man. With a pinched, weasel-like face, balding head, and over-priced mall clothes, Tim looked more like a middle manager than an attorney.

"The funds will be transferred to the account set up by the trust company," answered Robyn Adams as she approached the two men. She pulled a manila envelope from her purse and shoved it into Tim’s hands. "The trustee will call you and set up a meeting. She will explain how to submit child care expenses for reimbursement."

"That’s not what the judge ordered," Tim protested.

"The judge required Mr. Cortez to provide for his daughter and place the full extent of his ex-wife’s estate to that end," Robyn shot back, "If you bother to check the paperwork I’ve just handed to you, you will see the judge has already signed off on the arrangement." Tim tried to stare Robyn down. Against the tall beauty, he had no chance. Without another word, Tim stormed back to the waiting car.

"What are you doing here?" Mateo asked Robyn.

"You disappeared after the hearing yesterday," Robyn answered. There was something odd in her voice. Over the past couple of months, Robyn worked closely with Mateo, both in her role as MacKenzie & Winston’s liaison with the Zombie Strike team, and in helping Mateo with the custody battle over his daughter. Mateo finally managed to get over his normal nervousness around attractive women and be able to talk normally with Robyn. He owed her that much.

"I was worried when you didn’t show back up at the hotel," Robyn said. Mateo’s nervousness surged back as her blue eyes seemed to twinkle in the afternoon sun. "Yesterday didn’t go as well as I hoped."

"Sorry, I should have called," Mateo said, "I visited Maria’s grave and then just kind of drove all night." Robyn smiled, and Mateo looked down at his watch. Damn it, he could face off hundreds of zombies. What about this woman made him so uneasy? Even Maria didn’t do that to him.

"We should head back to the hotel and get packed," Mateo said, "We’ve got a late flight to catch." He started to walk towards Robyn’s rental. She stopped him with a gentle hand on his arm.

"No need to hurry, I’ve rescheduled the flight until tomorrow," Robyn said, with a devious smile on her face. "I believe you owe me a tour of this little city of yours." Mateo’s nervousness vanished as he led her back to the car.

Skull Island, South Pacific, 15 September 2010, 1630 Hours Local: Countdown: 1 Year, 3 months, 16 days

Chief Warrant Officer Stahl, recently retired from the US Army, was getting used to his new home. He’d been surprised by the job offer from Mateo. He talked it over with Col. Allen, the commander of the U.S. anti-zombie task force. Stahl had literally grown up in the Army. His father and grandfather had both risen to master sergeant in this man’s Army. Stahl expected Allen to chew him out for even thinking of leaving. Instead, the colonel encouraged the move. The old soldier expected the battle between Zombie Strike and the Truth cult to heat up after the Battle of Rosca. The ZS team needed experienced soldiers, and the colonel needed someone he trusted on the team.

Stahl had taken to regularly walking the perimeter of the Zombie Strike compound. The old hotel and surrounding buildings had been nearly destroyed during the battle between the Great Horde and the Army. A new complex was rising up from its ashes. This one was built more like a modernized castle, complete with moat, drawbridge, and high surrounding wall. At the center was a fifteen-hundred-foot metal spire. Until the constellation of communications satellites was replaced, radio was once again based on atmospherics and radio towers. That tower could communicate with almost anything in the Pacific, including M&W’s office in Sydney.

As Stahl came onto the new firing range, he could see the girl firing a bench-rested SCAR. Stahl had put away his concerns about women in combat after his LRRP team was sent in to rescue a convoy caught by insurgents outside of Baghdad on the Tampa road. The women soldiers on the convoy proved themselves that day. This girl, Jess, proved herself numerous times, according to the rest of the team. The huge wolf that followed her around was curled up at her feet, ignoring the noise. There was something odd about that animal.

"Nice groups," Stahl observed as he stood behind Jess. She fired two more rounds before standing up and facing him. Even coated in sweat and cordite, Jess looked better than she had in weeks. She still wasn’t smiling much. The neurotoxin the Truth’s monster hit her with did some pretty severe damage to her mind. She’d only returned from some intensive psychiatric care two days ago.

"Thanks Chief," she said her voice almost normal.

"Listen, I know you just got back, but the team is going to be doing some field exercises. I think it might be good for you to come along." Jess turned back and picked up the rifle.

"I don’t know," she answered. "I think it may be time for me to quit this."

"Why?" Stahl asked.

"Because, it seems like every time I go out there, someone dies," Jess said.

"And you think you’re the reason," Chief Stahl replied.

"You think I’m foolish, don’t you?" Jess asked her blue eyes boring into the Chief.

"Nope. I think you’re in the middle of a nasty war," Stahl answered, "I think you just got hit with an evil weapon that terrified you. And it isn’t going to get any easier."

"So you think I should quit?" Jess demanded.

"Nope. I think you should want to murder them that did all of this to you," Chief Stahl said, "I can show you how." Jess looked warily at the former soldier and nodded.

Keflavik, Iceland, 15 September 2010, 1630 Hours Local: Countdown: 1 Year, 3 months, 16 days

Castle strode into the safehouse’s kitchen. He stared at the man busily stirring a pot of that American travesty, chili. The man didn’t seem to notice or care that the leader of the Truth and the Flayed One’s own chosen was impatiently tapping his leather shoe on the linoleum.

"I see you’ve finally recovered," Castle finally said, breaking the silence.

"Pretty much," Alan said, ladling up a bowl of the horrid stuff. "I see you finally had time to come and see me." Castle hated the American’s flippant attitude. If he didn’t need Alan’s incredible skill with the mystic power, Castle would have rid himself of the sorcerer months ago.

"Some of us have better things to do than nearly get themselves killed in a project that they had no business in," Castle answered. "You were supposed to be working on the Key."

"I needed to go to the nursery," Alan said flatly.

"Why?" Castle asked.

"One of the nasty side effects of spending so much time working with magical forces is that sometimes it lets you peek into the future. Sometimes just enough to drive you insane, or sometimes just enough to act."

"What does that have to do with you being in Rosca instead of Barcelona working on the Key?" Castle demanded. Alan set down the bowl of chili and motioned for Castle to follow him. Alan walked down the stairs into the safehouse’s cellar. It was cold, barely above the freezing outside temperature. In the center of the dark cellar was a crystal cage. Castle saw the man inside huddled under the blanket and gave Alan a quizzical look.

"I didn’t go to Rosca to stop Zombie Strike from destroying the nursery," Alan said. "I was fulfilling the prophecies surrounding the Flayed One’s return." The man in the cage turned towards the two. Castle’s eyes widened as he recognized the man.

"I found the Betrayer," Alan said, motioning to Collin DuBois, "I’m just keeping him safe until it’s time for him to kill Mateo Cortez."

Zombie Strike Part 7 Chapter 65