Home > Burnt Road (The Scorch Series #4)

Burnt Road (The Scorch Series #4)
Author: Toby Neal

Chapter One




The sound of rioting was still far off, but Dante Luciano’s sensitive ears brought it close: the crash of breaking glass, the yelling of the lawless, the rending of metal, and even the crackling of flame. He wished for the noise-canceling headphones he usually wore, but there was no shutting out the apocalypse that the Scorch Flu epidemic had unleashed.

Dante couldn’t stay here.

His compound could not keep the looters and rioters at bay with the power down. Purchased with money made from his gaming and programming fortune, Dante’s house in the Hollywood Hills was a fortress where he could withdraw and screen out the barrage of sensory input that drained him.

In his living room, fine leather office chairs were positioned in front of three workstations, each with multiple monitors. A beanbag faced a huge flat screen TV that Dante used for gaming. Racks of weights and exercise equipment in the center of the large room helped him keep his body fit for the life of the mind, where he felt truly alive.

He had to leave it all behind.

Dante’s older brother, JT, had called to warn him of the flu’s devastation, and to ask a favor—that he bring a woman with him on his way to the Haven, JT’s secure ex-military shelter complex in Idaho.

Dante couldn’t say no. He owed JT too much. But he didn’t have to like it. Women were messy, unpredictable, emotional and loud. They made him think of sex. And he didn’t like thinking of sex, an activity both fascinating and fraught with triggers.

Dante and JT had expected something like Scorch Flu: something devastating, paradigm-shifting, world-ending. Dante was prepared to leave, but it still hurt to abandon his sound-deadened, low-lit, and air-conditioned perfect environment. Sun, wind, nature, and other people shredded his senses, overwhelming sensitive eyes, fine-tuned hearing, and tactile-tender skin.

But Dante was going to pick the woman up and take her to the Haven. He’d told his brother he would.

All of his most important programs and apps were on a small satellite-hookup laptop with a nearly indestructible case and a solar-powered charger. Dante carried a data backup as well, on a military-grade hard drive the size of a credit card. He went through the house saying a mental goodbye to the machines that had surrounded, equipped, and expressed for him, before going downstairs to the garage.

The tricked-out Escalade he’d bought two years ago glimmered in the dim garage. Equipped with four-wheel drive, a winch, and tinted bulletproof siding and windows, Dante appreciated how it made him look like a menacing, anonymous drug lord driving around. It was a layer of protection of another kind.

He checked the contents of the SUV against the list on his phone: enough dehydrated food for a couple of weeks. Tent. Sleeping bag. Water in stacked, square gallon jugs. Several containers of gas. First aid kit. Fire-making tools. Light and power sources. Batteries.

Weapons were already stowed: a pair of Walther PPK pistols with extra clips, ammo, a distance rifle for hunting and sniper action, plus a shotgun.

Dressed in black cargo pants and a slim-fitting, ribbed black T-shirt, Dante put on the belt holster that held his knife and pistol. He bent down and buckled on an ankle glove for the little Colt .22 backup, then shrugged into a shoulder rig for the Walther. He was a good shot, all the Luciano kids were, even his little sister, Lucy. Dante had continued to put in time at a firing range but never made a habit of carrying. The sensations were distracting, the rubbing of the shoulder strap under his armpit irritating, the unaccustomed weight annoying.

And he’d never get used to the sound of the weapons firing.

But he would have to adapt to that, and so much else.

Bundling his shoulder-length curls into a ponytail, Dante pulled on a dark billed hat. He felt like he was dressing to play a part as he slipped on a pair of mirrored aviator glasses. It reminded him of the time he went as a guest of honor to the Mad Max Wasteland “apocalyptic” gathering outside of LA, where everyone stayed in costume all weekend. But this was real.

Dante got into the Escalade and left the compound without a backward glance. He programmed the woman’s address into the GPS. He had paper maps stowed under the seats for when communications went down.

The freeway was a snarled mess, and Dante took the shoulder wherever he could, weaving in and out of the congestion. Scorch Flu was wreaking havoc and bringing panic to everyone on the roads; but, inside the Escalade, with tinted windows, the AC on, and Beethoven playing in the Bose speakers, Dante could screen out the chaos.

He navigated off the freeway toward the woman’s Malibu neighborhood.

JT had said she had black hair. Her name was something to do with music. Dante was bad with names, though he always remembered a face. He slowed the big vehicle, approaching the woman’s apartment building. A crowd was in front of him, moving down the street.

They were carrying bats, and a truck drove alongside of them to hold the loot as they bashed into the houses.

The mob was between him and the woman’s address.

As Dante slowed, heads turned to watch his progress. The Escalade was a lot of things, but not a vehicle that blended in. He was grateful for the illegally dark window tinting.

Scanning the street for a black-haired woman, he didn’t see any females. The mob was made up of men.

Well, Dante could tell JT he had tried. He hadn’t promised to go fetch her from her doorstep while a mob surrounded him. The woman was going to have to make it on her own.



Chapter Two




Melody Parker stared out at the Pacific Ocean, shining like mercury under cloud cover. Peeling waves, arches of beauty, rose up into a wall of silver, curling over and exploding into white spray. It was unusual for the skies to be so gray in Malibu—seemed almost as if the weather knew what was happening below.

Melody felt a tightness in her chest as her heart tugged toward the sea. She glanced over at her surfboard where it leaned against the wall next to her bike.

There wouldn’t be any surfing in Idaho.

What was she doing? Just because her best friend, Elizabeth, had said that Melody would be safe with these people didn’t make it true. This guy, Dante, Elizabeth’s friend’s brother, was supposed to pick her up and take her to some “safe” place called the Haven. The whole thing was sketchy.

But what choice did she have? Getting out was her best chance of surviving the chaos brought on by Scorch Flu.

One of the puppies she was fostering, Abigail, a tiny gray fluff ball, pushed her head up against Melody’s calf and whined. Picking up the little dog, Melody cradled her like a baby, scratching the puppy’s soft pink belly.

Melody fostered animals because of their intrinsic goodness. Unlike people, animals didn’t have ulterior motives. They didn’t try to take things from Melody that she wasn’t willing to give.

Melody checked her watch’s glowing face. She was supposed to meet this guy, Dante, at noon sharp, outside her building. Elizabeth had told her he would be driving a black, tricked-out Escalade.

What a mess.

And Elizabeth wasn’t even going to be at the Haven! Her best friend was staying in DC with her family. Who were these people that Melody was going to live with? Hopefully they would be nice. Elizabeth really seemed to trust JT, Dante’s brother. That meant something. Elizabeth was as cautious around men as Melody, and they both had reason to be.

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