St. Louis, Missouri; 3 January 2017, 0900 hours local

Jess Montgomery handed the Secret Service agent her ID. She waited patiently as the serious man examined the picture and compared it to Jess. Another agent checked her purse and wanded her. Jess tried to keep the grimace off her face. She felt naked in just the simple dress and pocket book. She didn’t even have a pocket knife on her. Her dismay must have shown on her face because the smaller hand in hers squeezed reassuringly. Jess looked down at her ten-year-old sister and gave the girl a smile. The Secret Service agent repeated the procedure with Mercedes before ushering the two women to a waiting Special Agent Tredegar.

“Sorry about that, but, well, you know,” the tall thin man said, shrugging his shoulders.

“No weapons. I was told. Repeatedly,” Jess replied, smiling to soften the tone of her words.

“Everyone else is here,” Tredegar said, leading Jess and Mercedes into hotel. They bypassed hordes of aides, press, and security. Two FBI special agents fell into position to block them as Tredegar steamrolled his way through the standing people. Some looked like they wanted to protest, but they shrank back from Tredegar’s stern countenance. He’d certainly developed a harder edge since he’d taken over the FBI counter-intelligence group. A final door opened and the group hustled into the small ballroom.

“Matty!” squealed Mercedes as she saw her half-brother. The boy looked up and uttered a matching squeal. The two children sprinted over and hugged each other like they hadn’t seen each other in months instead of the few days. Jess sighed as Robyn walked over.

“We should have expected that,” Robyn said, as she embraced Jess.

“Where’s Tom?” Jess asked, looking for Robyn’s husband.

“Watching the twins,” she answered. Thomas Halford was MacKenzie and Winston’s vice president for American operations. He and Robyn met during a deposition which led to a promised date after the case concluded. Six months later they were married. Less than a year later, they were welcoming home a set of twins. Robyn looked back at Matthew and Mercedes Cortez. “Today’s about their father. He felt more comfortable staying at the hotel.” Jess just nodded.

“About time you showed up,” Sissy said, “We were beginning to worry about you.” Sissy wore a gray dress suit that somehow managed to be conservative and daring at the same time. Maybe it had more to do with the aura of danger that surrounded the woman.

“I’m glad you made it home alive,” Jess said, clasping Sissy hard, “We heard it went sideways in Paris.”

“It was a bit exciting, but we finished it,” Sissy said, “And that’s all I can tell you. My current employers would have enough of a conniption knowing how much you already know.” Technically, Sissy O’Connell was a security consultant. In actuality, she worked with a small multi-national task force working to eliminate the last vestiges of the Truth from their positions of power.

“Where’s Steve and Evan?” Jess asked, suddenly noticing the pair’s absence.

“The military has their own ceremony, they’ll meet up with us later,” Sissy explained. “C’mon, let me introduce you to Quentin’s family before the President gets here.”

Gateway Park, St. Louis, Missouri; 3 January 2017, 1100 hours local

Jess shivered in her heavy coat as a cold wind whipped off the Mississippi. She wished she were standing in the packed crowd of people instead of sitting up in the grandstand. At least then she could use their bodies for warmth and protection against the wind. The Secret Service could have at least let her have a cup of coffee up here. Those people rose paranoia to an art form. Finally, after what seemed an eternity, the President walked to the podium. The crowd roared as the President waved. A hush fell over the people as the President began speaking.

“My fellow Americans, we are here for an event our nation has waited five years to happen. We have watched our young men and women toil, bleed, and even give their lives for it. It is now my greatest honor to declare that the city of St. Louis is free of the zombies. As of this morning, the exclusion zone is lifted.” The President waited as the crowd cheered.

“These past several years have been hard for our nation. We have been besieged by threats from within as the zombies rose. We have been besieged by threats from outside as we saw so many of those we called friends turn against us.” The crowd went quiet at they reflected. The President continued, “Even with all of these threats, America persisted. Our true friends stood by us and we have formed the new Alliance of Free Nations. We and our AFN partners stood against the darkness of tyranny. We are finally seeing some of those that succumbed to the terror throw off their shackles. The new French Revolution is frightening, but we welcome any people willing to take back their freedom from those governments that stole it from their hands.”

Jess quit listening and gripped the small silver medal pinned to her dress. Mercedes had one just like it pinned to her dress. Small tokens of the thanks of a grateful nation. That’s what the President said when he’d given them to Mercedes and Jess. A nation that would never truly know what happened on this spot five years ago. What their father and friends sacrificed to protect them. Jess wanted to scream at the man when he’d uttered those words, but she just meekly accepted the silver medals for heroism, just as she meekly accepted the stern warnings that she could never tell anyone what she had done. She snapped out of her reverie as the President finished up.

“So now, we dedicate this new Gateway Arch to signify the rebirth of a great American city and the resolution of the American people to stand against those that would try to pull us down into the darkness.”

Gateway Park, St. Louis, Missouri; 5 January 2017, 2200 hours local

“Here, this will warm you up a bit,” Sergeant First Class Steven “The Steve” Mountain said. Jess gratefully accepted the flask from The Steve. The harsh liquor burned as it went down her throat. The Steve laughed as she handed back the flask. “She handled it better than you did Evan.”

“You probably gave her better liquor than that rotgut you gave me, Top,” Capt. Evan Torelli said. The two Special Forces soldiers shared a private laugh. Jess had been surprised when The Steve returned to active duty after the Golden Rite. She was even more surprised when little Evan disappeared and came back as not only a Green Beret, but an officer to boot. The two soldiers had been more or less permanently assigned to the forces clearing out St. Louis. What started as a diversion for Zombie Strike to stop the Truth and the Great Death turned into a full blown liberation campaign.

“Just for you Evan, I brought the good stuff,” Tredegar said, holding up a bottle of expensive Scotch. The FBI special agent poured everyone a glass.

“To absent companions,” Kenn Blanchard said, raising his glass.

“Absent companions,” the others chorused. So many of their team were gone. Jack Winchester, Billy, Slim, Jim, Quentin, Chief Stahl, Collin, Billy, Mateo. Even Sport managed to get killed back in fourteen during a battle with some Truth holdouts. There was a quiet moment as the remaining Zombie Strike members reflected on their fallen.

“So what has M&W have you doing now?” Kenn asked Jess.

“Well now that I’m a full-fledged college graduate, they’ve thrown me in their Unique Risk Management Division,” Jess said.

“Wasn’t that the same group that ran Zombie Strike?” Kenn asked.

“Yep. Apparently my previous experience fighting zombies was something of a plus,” Jess answered. “For right now though, I’m just a junior researcher. They still pay me great, which helps now that I have Mercedes.” The others grunted happily. Getting Mercedes away from her aunt and uncle had been hard and cost most of the money Jess managed to save while fighting zombies. Jess didn’t dwell on the memory. “Plus, they have me working in DC, so Mercedes can play with Matt and the twins.”

“That is good Little Sister,” a voice said out of the darkness. Weapons appeared in hands as two men walked into the light. Jess recognized one as Wolf. He looked like an older Native American in faded jeans and a button down shirt. The second man was unearthly handsome and an impressive light gray suit.

“What are you doing here?” Jess demanded, storming up to Wolf, “I haven’t seen you in over five years, and you show up now? And who is this?” Jess jabbed a finger at the other man. Wolf didn’t answer. He just engulfed Jess in a hug.

“I’m sorry Little Sister. I was grieving for my son. In my sadness, I neglected you. Forgive me, my Little Sister,” Wolf said.

“Doesn’t answer who he is,” The Steve said, keeping his Kimber trained on the newcomer.

“I am Michael. The arch-angel,” the man said. Everyone flinched as the angel’s voice seemed to flow through down to their bones. “My father asked Wolf to bring me to you.”

“Why?” Kenn asked.

“We received a message through the amulet embedded in Eric Stahl’s hand,” Michael said casually.

“How?” Sissy asked.

“We don’t know,” Michael said, “We did know that you should hear it.” The group was silent, unsure of what to do. Jess stepped away from Wolf.

“What’s the message?” Jess asked, her voice trembling.

“We are still alive, we love you, and we’re winning.”

END OF ZOMBIE STRIKE