After Today by Jacqueline Hayley
Mackenzie Lyons fell back against the sofa cushions, letting papers from her current case fall haphazardly onto her crossed legs.
What did it matter if some pages dipped into her wonton soup? What did anything matter now?
If what she’d just read was true…
Goddamn Peter for throwing this case into her lap. Shaking herself, she reached for her cell—knocking more papers into her Chinese takeaway—and dialed his number. Her knee jittered when his familiar voice mail picked up. The man couldn’t keep his phone battery charged if his life depended on it.
And it just might.
“Peter, you need to call me back. This Northern Memorial Hospital case you handed me, it’s—” She paused. “Just call me back. Unless you’re still coming over tonight…” She trailed off. He could be such a dick boyfriend sometimes. Case in point, canceling their dinner reservation at the last minute and leaving her to drown her feelings in wonton soup. Alone. “Look, I’m not mad about tonight. But this is urgent. Call me as soon as you get this message.”
Was this actually happening?
Anxiety bloomed in Mackenzie’s chest, hot and heavy.
Standing, she turned on the television, flicking channels to find a live newsfeed.
Just more right-wing male politicians, claiming they had a right to determine what a woman did with her uterus.
Nothing on Sy-V.
For several days now, reports had been popping up all over social media on Sy-V—a virus that had originated in the Syrian refugee camps. A virus that was having unprecedented mortality rates. A virus that apparently didn’t rate any sort of mention on tonight’s news.
Most media outlets were taking their cue from the president of the United States, who was casually dismissing the suspected pandemic as a fake-news media conspiracy.
Never mind the multiple accounts that hospitals in the UK, Germany, and France were overflowing with people suffering severe headaches, coughing, and nosebleeds.
Only today the president had blatantly disregarded recommendations from the World Health Organization—his trumped-up media briefing sitting uneasily with Mackenzie. And now…
Now, Northern Memorial needed Baker & Baker’s legal service to confirm there were no environmental factors that had led to the sudden death of thirty-six patients. Patients who’d all recently returned from overseas and had all suffered severe flu-like symptoms.
With nose bleeds.
Nope, Mackenzie wasn’t nearly experienced enough to deal with this situation, and she sure as hell wasn’t prepared for the knowledge that Sy-V was, in fact, in North America.
Because if Sy-V was in the US—in Chicago—surely she, Mackenzie Lyons, slightly incompetent and definitely inexperienced, shouldn’t be the person to figure it out?
She wasn’t a heroine in some Hollywood blockbuster. She was a twenty-six-year-old environmental lawyer, living in Lincoln Park and trying to forget Sanford, the hometown she knew had forgotten her the moment she’d skipped out.
Feeling somewhat suspended from reality, she muted the television and stared blankly at the wall. If it was Sy-V that had caused the deaths at Northern Memorial, shouldn’t she call someone? The mayor? The governor? The Chicago Review?
Instead, she called Chloe.
“Mac, what are you doing calling so late?” her best friend asked, sounding wide awake from Sanford. Chloe’s husband, Ash, must be traveling for work. She never slept well when he was away.
“I need you to tell me I’m not crazy.”
“Okay. What are you being not crazy about? Is Peter being a jerk?”
“You’ve heard about Sy-V, right?”
“What if I told you it could be in Chicago?”
“What? I was just on Twitter, the only thing trending was Lady Gaga’s new release.”
“I’m serious, Chlo.”
“Hang on, let me turn on the television.”
“I don’t think anyone else knows about it yet,” Mackenzie said.
There was a pause, and she could hear Chloe switching through news channels.
“Honey, how many coffees have you had today?” Chloe gently asked.
“Three. Okay, five. But this isn’t a caffeine-induced paranoia. Peter gave me this new case, and Northern Memorial has these unexplained deaths…” She stopped.
She was breaking all sorts of confidentiality clauses, and she did not want to get fired. She wouldn’t be able to afford this overpriced apartment, and she’d have to move back to—oh god. Sanford. Mac shuddered.
Did she seriously think that she’d know something of this magnitude before anyone else? Maybe that fifth coffee hadn’t been a great idea.
“Mac, I want you to drink a big glass of water and go to bed. Straight to bed. Do not get on the internet and start doomsday scrolling. Do you hear me? Straight to sleep.”
“Okay,” she said meekly. “Sorry for calling so late.”
“Call whenever. You know that.”
Was it just her imagination,or was the L significantly less crowded this morning? Mackenzie easily found a seat as the automatic doors slid shut, breathing a relieved sigh as she dumped her work files onto the free seat beside her.
Although unrepentant about wearing heels on public transport, she was grateful for the rare opportunity to sit on the commute to her office downtown.
“This is a complete shit show,” muttered the passenger to her right.
Mackenzie glanced over, realizing the man had been talking to himself, his bespectacled eyes glued to the screen of his smartphone. It appeared the White House was holding yet another press conference and, in what was becoming an increasingly common scenario, it had quickly deteriorated into chaos.
“And it will go away,” said the president as he gestured wildly, distinctly lacking any calm himself. “Just stay calm. It will go away.”
The same anxiety that sat heavily in her chest last night threatened to creep up her throat. Forcing herself to look away from the media briefing, Mackenzie brought the heel of her hand to her chest and rubbed. She swallowed as her eyes came to rest on the work files.
“Is it unpatriotic to admit our president is a dickhead?” Bespectacled said, putting his phone away.
“What’d you say?”
Mackenzie jumped in her seat. Another passenger turned to confront Bespectacled, spittle flying from his fleshy mouth. “You’re damn right it’s unpatriotic. This whole Syrian Virus is a hoax—it’s a conspiracy to control us.”
Relieved the L was pulling in at her stop, Mackenzie stood and made eye contact with the bespectacled man. Shaking her head slightly, she tried to warn him against any further engagement with the enraged passenger.
She and Bespectacled made a hasty exit, both of them wincing at the booming voice that followed them.
“It’s a plan-demic! Big pharma is behind it!”
Shifting the heavy files in her grasp, Mackenzie gritted her teeth against the irony. Environmental law wasn’t the least bit environmentally friendly when it came to paper consumption.
It was only a short walk to her office building, and usually she’d heed her body’s craving for caffeine and stop for a tall, nonfat latte. With caramel drizzle.
This morning, however, she bypassed Starbucks, ducking instead into the drugstore next door. She tried to shrug off her self-consciousness at buying hand sanitizer and a few disposable face masks, momentarily wondering if she was completely offtrack with this case.
But her gut told her she wasn’t wrong.
Mackenzie had awoken this morning convinced she’d been correct about Sy-V causing the deaths at Northern Memorial. With international travel a way of life, it was insane to think the US would be immune. Stashing her purchases at the bottom of her purse, she resolved to message Chloe as soon as she got to her desk. They all needed to be careful.
But first, she had to talk to Peter.
The lobby of her office building was unusually subdued, and Mackenzie noted a stressed receptionist reporting sick calls to HR. After taking the elevator up, she headed straight for Peter’s corner office and found it empty save for a ringing telephone.
It rang out and then started again. She sighed, regretting the decision to skip coffee. “Hello, Peter Johns’ office.”
“I need to speak to Peter right now!”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Johns isn’t available right now. Can I take a message?” Mackenzie raised her eyes to the ceiling, wondering where Peter’s secretary had got to.
“Yes, Hilary needs to be picked up from school. She’s got a nosebleed.”
“I’m sorry, who is Hilary?”
“His daughter. Who is this? Where’s Mary Beth?”
Mackenzie’s first thought was that all this time she’d been calling Peter’s secretary Mary Ann, which may explain why the woman was distinctly unfriendly.
“His daughter? Are you sure you’ve got the right extension?”
“If this is the office of Peter Johns, then yes, I have the right extension. I’m Julie, his wife, and I’m currently out of state. I need him to collect Hilary. The school nurse has already called twice. Apparently, there’s some kind of virus going around. Now, can you get him for me or not? He’s not picking up his cell phone.”
Her boyfriend’s wife sounded harried, and Mackenzie could hear the background noises of an airport with repeated canceled flight announcements.
“Hello? Are you still there?” Julie asked.
Ringing ears and rising nausea had Mackenzie sliding off the desk and onto the floor, her head hanging between her knees. She didn’t know if she could answer.
“Hello? I’m trying to board a flight before they’re all canceled. I need to know that Peter is going to get Hilary.” It was Julie’s mounting hysteria that snapped Mackenzie from her shock.
This woman needed to know her child was being taken care of.
“Yes, I’m here,” she replied, raising her head. “Does Peter know what school she’s at?”
“Are you on crack? Of course he knows her school. Is he there? I don’t care how busy he is. He needs to pick her up. Right now.”
Mackenzie smiled at the crack comment. It was something her friend Kat would say. Not that she was going to be making friends with Julie any time soon.
“Yes, sorry. Of course he does.”
“Okay, well, I’m putting my faith in you. What’s your name?”
“Mackenzie, make sure Pete gets this message and picks up our daughter. Do you understand?”
Her boyfriend of seven months was a father. A husband. To a wife who called him Pete. Well, fuck.
The clammy dizziness dissipated in a flash of acknowledgment. Yes, he was a lying piece of shit. But wasn’t she the stupid one who’d fallen for him?
“Mackenzie? Are you there?”
Mackenzie realized she wasn’t inspiring confidence in her ability to pass this message along. Suddenly, she couldn’t wait to tell her boyfriend that his wife wanted him to pick up their daughter.
“Yes, I’m here. I’ll personally make sure he gets the message.”
“Thank you.” Julie’s relief was palpable. “Ask him to call me when he’s got her, okay?”
“Uh-huh. Sure, no problem.”
With a cultivated air of mystery, Peter was an enigma. Mackenzie had been beside herself when he’d shown interest. No one noticed her. Anonymity was one perk of having left Sanford.
They’d developed a comfortable and steady relationship that, Mackenzie now realized, had made her stupid. All those weekends he had to “visit his mother in the country,” his unwillingness for her to meet the brother she knew also lived in Chicago, the phone calls he had to take in private—she bet they covered those topics in Having an Affair 101.
“Holy shit. I’m the other woman,” she muttered, rubbing sweaty hands against the front of her pencil skirt. Lost in thought, Mackenzie startled when Mary Ann—sorry, Mary Beth—appeared in the doorway.
“What are you still doing here? Everyone’s leaving, they’re evacuating the building,” she said, her words rushed as she gathered up her belongings.
“Why?” Mackenzie scrambled to her feet.
“It’s that super-flu. They’ve closed Disneyland. And there’s rioting at O’Hare International,” Mary Beth said, picking up her purse.
“The airport? Wait! Where did you hear this?”
But Mary Beth had left, and Mackenzie could see a stream of her colleagues heading for the elevator.
“They’re trying to contain it—”
No one appeared overly panicked, but there was a definite buzz of confusion.
Undecided, Mackenzie glanced out the impressively large windows onto Roosevelt Road five floors below. The sidewalk was uncommonly crowded for this time of day and traffic was choked to a standstill. The wail of an approaching ambulance had vehicles attempting to pull to the side, which only added to the turmoil.
She needed to tell Peter about his daughter, and then—what? Get some groceries and hole up in her apartment until they got everything under control?
Her cell chimed with a text message.
Chloe: Shit is getting crazy, get out of the city. Come home.
Mackenzie grinned wryly. It was no surprise that at the first hint of trouble, Chloe would urge her to come home. Her phone would blow up with messages from Kat and Rachel soon.
The four girls had grown up together in the small rural town of Sanford, two hours from Chicago. While Chloe, Kat and Rachel constantly begged her to come back, Mackenzie had no intention of subjecting herself to that judgmental community ever again. Having escaped for college, she could count on one hand the number of times she’d been back.
Sure enough, before she could respond to Chloe, another message came through.
Rachel: Chloe thinks we should send Jake to come and get you.
Mackenzie: I don’t need anyone to come and get me.
Rachel: You don’t have a car, how are you going to get home?
Mackenzie: I am home.
That would definitely piss Rach off.
Her face fell when she spied Peter from the window, exiting beneath the building’s awning and bolting into the foot traffic. Her stomach sank at the confirmation that she meant so little to him he could leave without finding her first.
Recalling her conversation with Julie, Mackenzie tried to call his cell. Regardless of how hurt she was, there was a little girl waiting to be collected.
When he didn’t answer, she swore under her breath, sending him a text and hoping like hell he was on his way to the school now.
Slowly, she walked back to her own desk, collected her belongings in a daze. She’d been right. Sy-V was in Chicago, only she wasn’t sure what the hell that meant.
Rioting at the airport? That was batshit crazy.
It wasn’t until Mac was heading to the elevator that she clocked the eeriness of the silent, deserted office. She was the only one left on the floor, and as the hairs on the back of her neck prickled, she quickened her pace.
When the elevator door slid open, it was crammed to capacity. Her movement forward was halted by a brusque, “No room, catch the next one.”
Stepping back, she answered her ringing phone. “Hey, Jake, let me guess. Chloe wants you to come and get me?”
Today was crazy enough without adding pointless drama involving her best friends. Jake was Chloe’s younger brother, and at twenty-three he was three years her junior. It was a running joke between them that although she referred to him as Chloe’s ‘little’ brother, he’d been towering over all of them since he turned seventeen.
Mackenzie jabbed at the down button of the elevator again.
“I’ve already left. I’ll meet you at your apartment.”
“What! You’re not serious?”
He was silent.
“You aren’t really coming here, are you?”
“I don’t know what’s going on, but it’s not good.”
“So, I can just wait it out. There’s no need to come and rescue me,” she protested. “And if it gets serious, then you shouldn’t be out driving in it. Stay home, Jake.”
“Two hours, Mac. Be ready.”
The elevator door slid open again, and Mackenzie disconnected the call.
She wasn’t a damsel in distress who needed rescuing.
This time, the only occupant of the elevator was Richard Drammel, a paunch-bellied senior partner at the firm who Mackenzie had never actually spoken to.
He grunted an acknowledgment as the doors slid closed.
“Do you know what’s going on?” she asked, forcing herself not to bite her bottom lip.
“Haven’t you heard? That virus from overseas is here and is worse than anyone could’ve imagined. There was rioting at the airport and they just fucking bombed it.”
“What?” A buzzing started in her head. “Like, bombed it with an actual bomb?”
Richard looked at her as though she were stupid. Which, she had to admit, she’d accused herself of only twenty minutes ago.
“Yes, like an actual bomb,” he said. “They were trying to quarantine it when riots broke out and the military came in and bombed the hell out of it.”
“When?” she breathed.
The elevator dinged as it reached the foyer.
“It’s happening right now. It’s streaming live across pretty much every feed. Apparently, most of Europe declared martial law early this morning, but communication is getting sketchy from overseas.” He placed his arm over the closing doors. “Are you getting out? I’m going down to the garage.”
Looking out at the shiny tile foyer, Mackenzie felt the first grab of genuine fear in her gut. She didn’t think she could face what was out there.
“Do you have a car? Maybe you could—”
“Nope, not taking you anywhere. I’ve got to get to my wife on the other side of the city.” He softened marginally. “Look, if I were you, I’d stock up on supplies and get yourself home real quick. Good luck.” Then he pushed her gently from the elevator.
“Supplies? What kind of supplies?!”
But the door slid smoothly shut, her frantic question unanswered.
* * *
Jake slammedhis fist down on the steering wheel. Frustration rode him hard, and his jaw ached from the constant clench of his teeth.
For the last hour of his trip to Chicago, he’d been barely inching forward, choked by frantic traffic. The I-88 had been relatively free flowing until he took the exit onto I-290, where the exodus from the city was attempting to take over all eight lanes of the highway.
Every radio station was staticky white noise or on a prerecorded loop advising listeners they were in a state of emergency and to remain indoors. But Jake didn’t need a news anchor to tell him things were bad. Really bad.
As he got closer to the city, nothing looked amiss. Until you noticed the enormous plumes of black smoke clouding the sky to the north. And once you saw that, you couldn’t unsee it.
Whatever the fuck it was, it wasn’t good.
Jake had been in his mechanic shop that morning, fitting a throttle valve into a carburetor when his sister Chloe arrived, the rear tires on her car kicking up gravel.
“The way you drive, I’m going to need to change the brake pads on that vehicle soon,” he said, wiping grease-stained hands on his jeans.
“Are you not listening to the radio?” she screeched.
“Whoa. What’s going on? Calm down.”
“Calm down? Don’t tell me to calm down. The world is freakin’ ending. I’m not going to calm down!”
“Did you have a fight with Ash? I thought he was out of town?”
“Yes, he’s out of town, and the jerk wouldn’t listen to me this morning when I begged him to come back.” Chloe was literally wringing her hands in distress.
“How exactly is the world ending, Chlo?”
“The WHO has declared a pandemic—Sy-V is in the States.”
“World Health Organization,” Chloe almost yelled. “They’re saying the rate of community transmission is so fast that containment is basically impossible. Schools are closing and Twitter is exploding with reports of the military mobilizing.” She was breathless with agitation. “You need to get Mac.”
Jake was already moving toward his SUV before Chloe finished speaking. His mind set on one thing—to rescue Mackenzie. Hell, she was one of the few things he’d thought about since he was fourteen.
“I’ll call Mac and tell her I’m on my way. You call that damn husband of yours and tell him to get home.”
“I can’t get through to Ash, I just keep getting a busy signal.”
“Keep trying. I’ll message you when I get to Mac.”
Since then, he’d tried several times to send messages to both Chloe and Mackenzie, letting them know he was delayed. Each time, the messages bounced back unsent, and his calls wouldn’t connect. He was now almost two hours late to meet with Mackenzie.
Worry gnawed at his stomach, causing bile to rise in his throat.
Jake’s unrequited love for his sister’s best friend meant he knew Mackenzie probably even better than Chloe did. He absorbed every gesture and nuance when he was with her. Hell, he remembered details she’d probably forgotten about herself.
He knew she secretly loved One Direction and that she couldn’t stand cooked tomatoes. That she bit her bottom lip when she was nervous, and it was her deadbeat father—and the fact he owed money to half the town—that had driven her from Sanford.
He also knew, with dreadful clarity, she would not be prepared for whatever was coming. Grams had always said Mackenzie was book smart, not street smart. It didn’t matter how many hundreds of hours that girl had spent studying to be a lawyer; she needed protecting.
The urge to get to her now had his foot pressing on the accelerator. The front corner of his vehicle nudged the car blocking him; heading in the opposite direction, he could see the despair in the heavy frown lines of the man driving it.
“Move over!” Jake gestured to him.
They locked eyes, and Jake saw when the man decided to help. With no acknowledgment, his beefy arm went over the headrest of the passenger seat as he turned to look backward, looking for a gap in the next lane to move into.
In this manner, appealing to each oncoming driver’s humanity, Jake moved forward until suddenly he was behind a garbage truck that was forging ahead, heedless of the oncoming vehicles. Sitting on the truck’s tail, Jake was light-headed with relief that he was finally making progress.
In the end, he had to park several streets from Mackenzie’s Lincoln Park apartment because the roads were clogged with stalled or abandoned cards. There were fewer people on the sidewalk than he would’ve expected, and those he saw were covering their mouths and noses with articles of clothing.
Shrugging out of his shirt, he held it over his face and started a steady jog to Mackenzie. After hours of sitting tensely in his vehicle, it was liberating to stretch and morph his worry into physical action.
The entrance to the apartment building was open and Jake bounded the steps to the second floor, stopping short of crashing into Mackenzie’s door. Knocking sharply, he breathed deeply to calm his racing heart.
“Mac?” he called, knocking harder.
“Damn it, Mackenzie! Are you there?”
Dread threatened to swallow him. Without stopping to think, he rammed the door with his shoulder, attempting to force his way through.
Standing back, he rubbed at his now throbbing shoulder. Too bad he’d never learned how to pick a lock.
“Damn it, Mac! Are you there?” Bracing his bent elbows against the wall, he rested his bowed head. The unfamiliar creep of defeat was bitter.
Jake hadn’t allowed himself to think beyond getting to Mackenzie, and now he was here, and she wasn’t. He had no idea what route she’d take to get home from her office, whether she’d take a bus or the L. If he went out looking for her, he may miss her.
The small voice came from behind, and before he could turn, Mackenzie had thrown herself at his back, wrapping her arms tight around his waist.
Grinning stupidly, he turned and pulled her into his arms, relief exploding in his chest. His smile widened as she burrowed against his bare chest, her voice muffled. “Gross, Jake, you smell.”
“Where have you been? I thought you’d be here waiting for me.”
She pulled back, and he looked at her properly. Her blouse was untucked, her hair a mess, and her bare feet were grubby and bloody with blisters.
“Jesus, Mac! What happened? What happened out there?” he asked, worry lacing his tone.
“I ended up having to walk and ditched the heels about halfway. It’s crazy, Jake. I saw a bunch of police officers trying to reason with a group of people and then out of nowhere the army was there and started shooting.” She paused, stifling a sob. “They just pulled out guns and opened fire into the crowd.”
“Fuck,” he said. “Come on, open up and let’s get you packed. We need to get out of here.”
“No judgment from you, okay? I didn’t know I was going to have visitors, and the place is a mess.” She jiggled her key in the lock.
“I’m not going to be checking your kitchen sink for dirty dishes, Mac.”
Turns out that wasn’t exactly what Mackenzie was referring to. Living in an apartment with no clothesline or dryer, she’d rigged up several strings along which lacy lingerie was drying.
Jake would’ve paid money, a lot of money, to peruse each delicate piece. Instead, he cleared his throat and forced his gaze away.
Now was not the time.
“Pack enough for a couple of weeks. We don’t know how long this is going to go on for. Do you have spare asthma inhalers?”
“Damn! I should’ve picked up extras at the drugstore this morning. I’ll have to do that before we get going—I emptied mine on the way home.”
Striding to the kitchen, Jake opened the refrigerator and grabbed two bottles of water.
“Pack cold weather gear,” he called out.
“You’re not my dad,” she said, coming into the room as she slung a backpack over her shoulder. She’d changed into sneakers, leggings and a sweater.
“That’s all you’re taking?” He raised a skeptical eyebrow, ignoring her comment.
“I don’t know what’s going on out there, but when it all blows over, I’m coming back here. It’s not like I’ll be in Sanford when winter comes—there’ll be a vaccine before we know it.”
“I wouldn’t bet on it. Are you sure you’ve got everything you need?” he asked, passing her the water to put in her backpack.
That rankled, knowing Mackenzie’s feelings toward her father. Having pulled his shirt back on, he grabbed two dish towels from the drawer, telling her they were to use as face masks.
“How did you know which drawer they were in?”
“Dish towels go in the third drawer down. Everyone knows that.”
“You’re such a know-it-all,” she said.
“A know-it-all who’s here to save your ass. Let’s go.”
“I don’t need saving.”
“Save the towels. I’ve got proper face masks.” She handed him one. “And I’m glad you’re here,” she admitted quietly, pulling the front door closed behind them.
He hid a smile, but it slipped as they started down the stairs.
If the military was massacring in the streets, he didn’t think the situation was going to be blowing over soon.