This is the rough draft of Grub Stage, book 3 in Renegade Agents of A.R.S.A. Click here to get the first two books in this series.

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Chapter 3
Crossing the Van Winkle Portal

She let me have the fuel voucher without any argument, which was a pleasant surprise. I went back out the way I’d come in, though the back hallway and past the offices. Once I stepped outside and let the door close, it clicked locked behind me.

I took a long, deep breath, letting the air slide over my tongue so I could ‘taste’ it. Yes, I could still faintly sense Avery. But it was far, far, away and I couldn’t tell yet in what direction. I just wanted to know if I could still sense her. Later, I’d worry about which way to go. Right now, the first stop was my apartment to gather some food and survival supplies.

Next stop, the Van Winkle Tunnel.

Cody, or Corey, or whatever his name was told me about the portal there. It irked me that I couldn’t remember his name. He was one of the good guys I’d met while on the first leg of this mission with DRSS. His nickname I had no trouble remembering. It was Asshole. And no one ever had a problem knowing who I meant when I referred to him that way. So the name suited him, according to everyone, apparently.

It had been a long while since I’d been to the state park where I would find the Van Winkle Tunnel, years, and we’d only briefly stopped by there. That was before I’d left for the last exploratory trip with my parents. Before the … world changed. Back when life seemed normal. The little parcel of land lay outside of Bentonville in a rural stretch between the city and the town of Huntsville, past Beaver Lake.

I debated the idea of heading out there today, or just waiting until tomorrow. My apartment was cold. It was past noon and darkness would arrive in a few hours. Since I wasn’t certain about the road ahead, or what kinds of obstacles might lie between the city and the park, I decided to wait. So, I turned on the heater and waited for it to warm the place up.
While the small heater unit warmed my bedroom, I undressed down to the gifted bodysuit, and climbed into bed and under the covers. The unit would turn off automatically after two hours, but the bed was still cold. I rubbed my legs on the sheets, making friction to warm myself. Finally it was comfortable enough.

I pulled the hood attached to my suit over my head and draped the sheer cover over my face. In spite of how much I hated the man who gave it to me, a smile tugged me into sleep because I knew if my door were to be burst down in the middle of the night, no one would see me in my bed. I’d remain safe. It was the gift of security, and a puzzling mix of feelings that led me into my dreams.

The sun hadn’t risen yet when I woke to the sound of howling wind around my corner apartment. It felt icy outside of my covers so I quickly pulled them back up. Autumn had apparently given way, finally, to winter. The temperature outside, according to my gauge on the wall, said it was 22*F. With the wind, I bet it would feel like zero. It felt like zero inside. A glance at the clock told me it was 0420. The heater’s timer would kick on in a few more minutes, so I pulled the covers up tighter and went back to sleep.

By the time the alarm went off at 0530, the room was toasty enough and I got out of bed, dressed and brushed my teeth. There was no food in this layover posing as a home base, because I hadn’t been here enough to need it. Now I wished I’d at least have grabbed some canned goods and a can opener. There were candy bars in the Jeep. I’d just eat on the way.

The thought crossed my mind to stop in and see if the old café where I’d worked before becoming an agent had reopened. Perhaps I would. I had certain perks with this job, one of them being fairly generous department credit I could use for things like meals. Fuel still had to be purchased by vouchers, because that was a controlled substance. But food I could do. At least when I wasn’t trying to hide my whereabouts, anyway.

I set out on foot. Since returning from my first mission, I’d been relocated to the agent quarters. It wasn’t any larger than my previous one, but it was better. Being next door to A.R.S.A. Headquarters made for convenience, too. And not living in a W-1 level slum felt good, too. I only had to agree to kill people for that tremendous rise in status. I figured there must be something wrong with me to even consider the position. But here I was.

And as I rounded the corner at 5th street, to enter what is nicknamed Dead End Alley, I saw that the old café was still boarded up. The streets had been empty on the way there, and I only passed one downtrodden W-1 on my way back. I’d just get a candy bar out of my backpack then, and head on to the Van Winkle tunnel. It was now a brisk 33* and walking had warmed me up. Nothing like winter in the Ozarks. One day it could be 60* and sunny, and snowing the next.

… To be continued …

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First Hunt by Ima Erthwitch

Second book in my ARSA series.

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