Murder in Fallout Shelter 17C (Part I)
By Douglas James Troxell
Lizzie’s body lay rotting under the mustard sun of a ruined world. The helmet of her radiation suit had been removed, revealing the scaly red marks of the radiation burns along the right side of her face. A thick, white pus oozed from her ears, eyes, and nostrils. Her eyes were wide open, staring blankly at the yellow-tinted spaghetti clouds overhead.
Clyde and Wayne stood quietly over the corpse listening to their own breathing in the helmets. They both knew what the body meant, but as soon as one of them said anything there would be a lot of work to do and neither was eager to begin.
Wayne started to make the sign of the cross over his radiation suit but Clyde swatted his hands away.
“Knock that off.”
Wayne returned his hands to his side. “Sorry. Forgot.”
Clyde closed his eyes and exhaled until all the air left his lungs. Then he waited. One...two...three...four...five.
He opened his eyes and inhaled the recirculated air from the self-contained breathing apparatus. He knelt down next to what was left of Lizzy. He had just seen her at dinner the previous evening. She had been present for the previous night’s headcount. Now she was just another corpse to add to the pile of billions. He searched for clues not knowing exactly what it was he was looking for. At least there was little question about the motive. Her radiation suit had been shredded around her inner thighs and her underwear was missing. Like the others.
Truth be known Clyde was just as upset about losing the suit as he was the girl. That left Fallout Shelter 17C with only three intact radiation suits and there would be no replacements until the shelter’s breeding program was up and running.
“So what happened?” Wayne asked. “Did she die of the radiation or something else?”
Clyde had to stop himself from saying “How the hell should I know?” and remind himself he was supposed to be a doctor. At least that’s what he had told everyone upon entering the shelter. It had immediately won him respect and prestige and he was convinced it was the only reason he had been made shelter overseer. Three years ago he had been an insurance agent at a mid-tier agency. All it took for him to earn his medical license was the end of the world.
Clyde pretended to examine the corpse but it didn’t take a doctor to tell how she had died.
“Strangulation,” he said decisively. He pointed to the bruises around her neck. “The discoloration here is different from the radiation burns. Whoever did this killed her elsewhere, and her body was relocated here after the fact.”
“And she was raped,” Wayne said.
“Looks like it. Whoever did this must have convinced her to take an unauthorized scavenging trip, but the attack happened inside the shelter. That person probably attacked her in the breach chamber, strangled her, and then had his way with her. Then the body was dumped out here behind the convenient store where no one thought we would find her. Probably means the others are out here somewhere, too.”
Unauthorized trips to the surface were officially banned, but Clyde had turned a blind eye when it was clear several shelter residents were becoming claustrophobic and the trips, as dangerous as they were, helped to maintain people’s sanity--at least for a little while. Now it was clear his policy would have to change.
“Raped,” Wayne muttered through their two-way communicator. “She was raped in the shelter where we live.”
“Like I said, looks that way.”
The sound started as a slight whistle. Then it transitioned into a groan. Clyde finally figured out it was coming from Wayne. Wayne stepped forward and shot his fist into the brick wall of the convenient store, uttering a deep howl as he pulled back to strike again. Clyde latched onto Wayne’s arm before he could land another blow.
“The suit! We can’t afford to lose another suit!”
Wayne calmed instantly. It was one of the reasons Clyde had made him head of security despite being a UPS driver before Zero Day. He was built like a brick shit house but followed orders like a Golden Retriever. Blind obedience. Perfect.
A soft beep alerted both men that their oxygen was down to 10%.
“So who’s doing this?” Wayne asked. He lowered his voice. “Are you sure it’s someone from the shelter? Could it be ‘the Others’?”
“Don’t be stupid. ‘The Others’ aren’t real. The person doing this is no boogeyman. Someone in our fallout shelter is murdering these women.”
He hated that he hadn’t been able to dispel the ridiculous rumor that there were other people still living on the surface. Wayne had been the origin of the rumor, claiming he had seen someone following him during one of his scavenging runs. From there the rumor had spread like a virus.
“They’re real,” Wayne insisted.
“I’ll tell you what, if you ever hear the breach chamber alarm go off, no matter what you’re doing, come running. You can be our ambassador to the surface mutants. Until then, shut the hell up about it.”
They moved the body across the street and dumped it into the dumpster behind the crumbling facade of the bank. There were no words spoken before they slammed the lid shut.
“What do we do now? Wayne asked.
“Now we find out who’s doing this. Not counting Marge, we’re down to two breedable females. We lose them, we’re all dead. I’m putting you on their personal protection 24/7 until I figure out who’s doing this.”
Wayne nodded. He didn’t ask when he would sleep or eat. He accepted the assignment without even a whiff of contention.
Clyde pointed back to the convenient store across the street. “Check the store before you return to the shelter. See if there’s anything you can scavenge. We may be needing it.”
Without a word, Wayne turned and stomped across the street. Clyde knew he wouldn’t find anything. The store had been scavenged several times but Clyde wanted to be alone. He had a lot to think about.
Clyde gathered everyone in Section IV of Fallout Shelter 17C for a group meeting after breakfast. They gathered in Section IV’s canteen, which was a small room with concrete walls and a few tables and chairs. It wasn’t much different from the other rooms in the shelter. Besides the male and female dorms, every room was small and encased in concrete. The dorms were just slightly bigger but the concrete was the same. Clyde scanned the gathered crowd which consisted of eight others, including Wayne and the two remaining females in the shelter. Everyone else was a suspect. His main suspect was the only inhabitant of Section IV not present.
Clyde started each meeting by blowing a whistle, the same thing his basketball coach had done in high school to start each basketball practice. No one was talking in the room but Clyde blew the whistle anyway.
“Glad everyone could make it,” he began.
“Is this about the mating list? Is it finally ready?” Thunder asked.
“It’s about time,” Lightning, his brother, added. “Glad you pulled your thumb out of your cunt long enough to do something productive.”
The Stormin’ Norman brothers (dubbed Thunder and Lightning) weren’t twins but they didn’t appear to be separated by more than a few months. They were the shelter handymen and constant desenters of Clyde’s meetings.
“This isn’t about the breeding list,” Clyde said. “There’s been another murder.”
It was the first time he had ever used the word “murder” when discussing the disappearances of the previous women. Even when Zandra had been murdered in front of everyone, Clyde had only referred to it afterwards as “The Incident”. There had been no body in the other cases so they were only disappearances. Now he wanted them to feel the full weight of the word. He was glad he had saved it until now.
The word had the intended effect. Hope, the youngest of the two remaining females, burst into tears. Zeb, the scrawny messenger boy, turned more pale than he already was. Everyone else sat in shocked silence in the common area absorbing the news. Wayne was the only person who didn’t look shocked. He stood in the corner watching the crowd carefully as Clyde had instructed, looking for signs of guilt. Nothing so far.
“Who?” Cookie asked. He was the Section IV chef who hated being called Cookie. His real name was Samaad Malik but Clyde refused to call him anything but Cookie since it was easier to call all the section chefs Cookie rather than learn their names.
“Lizzie,” Clyde answered.
There were murmurs and expressions of shock.
“Was it ‘the Others’?” Zeb asked.
“No. Like I’ve said previously, there are no ‘Others’. There’s no one for miles who isn’t living inside this fallout shelter. This is someone real. This is one of us.”
“I knew it!” Aileen shouted, thrusting an accusatory finger at Clyde. She was one of two remaining females in the section. “Someone is killing the women of this shelter! Soon there won’t be any of us left.”
“Now, we don’t know if that’s true,” Clyde said evenly. “The fact that the victims have all been female may only be a coincidence.”
Cries of outrage erupted from the crowd. Clyde refused to continue until they quieted. Of course they were right. The fact that the victims had all been women was no coincidence. That was obvious. What he didn’t tell them was that if the two remaining females were killed, they were all dead. The National Shelter Organization (what was left of the United States government) was running low on supplies and had decreed that only shelters with functioning breeding programs would continue to receive monthly supply shipments. Shelter 17C was now down to two females of breeding age and had yet to even begin their program. If they lost Aileen and Hope, everyone would follow them into the abyss.
Eventually the cries of outrage died so Clyde continued. “We don’t know the motive yet but we do know the murder took place sometime yesterday after last night’s roll call. Everyone present right now was in this section at that time.”
Everyone glanced around nervously, realizing that someone in that room was a killer.
“You know,’ Thunder bellowed, “we do have a known murderer in this section already.”
Clyde smiled. “Indeed we do. Only problem is our known murderer was locked up at the time the most recent murder took place which means he’s the only one I’m sure didn’t do it. And since I’m not sure who is guilty yet, I’ve sealed off Section IV from the rest of the shelter.”
The eruptions were volcanic this time.
“So you’re trapping us in here with a killer?!” Lightning yelled.
“You can’t do that!” Aileen shrieked. “You can’t lock me and Hope up with a murderer! Let us out! Keep everyone else quarantined!”
“But how do I know you’re not the killer?” Clyde answered.
Hope continued to cry.
Zeb cradled his head in his hands.
Thunder and Lightning huddled together for a few seconds before Thunder shouted “Go!” and then the brothers rushed Clyde.
“SIT DOWN!” Wayne erupted from the back of the room. His voice was a thunderclap from above.
Everyone froze. Wayne marched to the front of the room and repeated the order. Everyone quietly sat...except for Thunder and Lightning. They made eye contact, communicated telepathically, and then slowly retreated back to their seats.
“Now,” Clyde continued, “we will discover who is committing these heinous acts and that person will be punished. Until then it will be business as usual in this section. I will be investigating this matter personally.”
He thrust a finger at Zeb. “And Zeb will be assisting me.”
Zeb slunk down in his seat. “Why me?”
“Because as a messenger boy who is quarantined in a single section, you are relatively useless so we might as well give some meaning to your existence. Plus you’re so scrawny I’m not sure you’re capable of murdering anyone. I’m sure even Hope could fight you off.”
If Zeb could have slunk down further into the chair, he would have.
Clyde cleared his throat for the big finale. “I know this is a trying situation. We’ve all been through so much in the past three years. The war. Day Zero. Everything that came after. We’ve drowned in death. But this shelter has been our sanctuary...until now. Now someone is bringing Death back into our lives. I will find this person. And I will stop them.”
The finale was meant to bring the shelter dwellers comfort. In that regard, it failed.
The desolate female bunk room only highlighted the fact that women were an endangered species in Bunker 17C. All the beds lay unclaimed except for two. One was Aileen’s and the other had belonged to Lizzie. Hope had been the only female housed in Section III’s female bunkroom. There were 60 total beds in the four female bunkrooms in the shelter. Now there was only need for two.
The shelter, like all the shelters scattered across the country, were designed to house 120 people (60 men and 60 women). Of course, that plan went to shit the day the world ended. The carefully chosen individuals who were supposed to be in the shelter were mixed in with the hundreds who wanted to be in the shelter. There was a malfunction with the door’s timing mechanism and in the chaos that followed, the rule of survival of the fittest kicked in. Those who were strong enough or quick enough or clever enough to make it through the crowd and inside the shelter before the doors closed survived. Everyone else died in a single flash of mustard yellow and blazing orange...along with most of the shelter’s long-term supplies.
In total, only 47 people made it into the bunker. Nine were women. Zero children. In a way, Clyde realized, everyone inside the bunker was a murderer. They had sacrificed the lives of others so that they could live. But so it goes...
Hope sat on her new bed while Aileen paced the room. Wayne watched them both from the far side of the room. Clyde had asked to speak to them in private before he began his investigation, to assure them of their safety. He knew it was what a good leader would do.
“This is bullshit!” Aileen said mid-pace. “You’ve trapped us in here with a killer. We’re as good as dead.”
“I shouldn’t be here,” Hope said in a voice just above a whisper. “This isn’t even my section. I shouldn’t be here.”
Clyde forced his most reassuring smile. “I assure you, ladies, your safety is my primary concern.”
“So you do think we’re the intended victims then?” Aileen asked.
“Yes. I do.”
“Then why would you keep us here?!”
“Because then the killer would have no one to kill and there’d be no opportunity to catch him.”
“So essentially you’re using us as bait,” Hope said.
“More or less. But you have nothing to worry about. I’ve assigned Wayne to your personal protection.”
Wayne nodded at the two ladies.
“And how the hell do we know he isn’t the killer?!” Aileen asked.
Clyde considered this. “The only person I know for sure isn’t the killer is me. But if I had to choose someone else who I was fairly certain isn’t the killer, it would be Wayne. You’re safe as long as you’re with him.”
Aileen and Hope did not look reassured.
Clyde felt compelled not to leave until he had eased their concerns. He assumed they’d be a bit more hardened after surviving the Apocalypse. He now realized he knew very little about women. He had been married before Day Zero--and divorced. He remembered very little about his wife, almost as if he had been married in another life.
“Just stay with Wayne,” Clyde finally said. “You’ll be fine.”
Clyde retreated to the hallway where Zeb was waiting for him with a pen and notepad.
“This is a nightmare,” Clyde said. “If I don’t find this killer, we’re all dead.”
“Whaddaya mean?” Zeb asked.
“I mean if we lose our last two females of breeding age, we’ll stop being supplied. This shelter will become a tomb.”
“Well...why don’t you tell everyone that? No one would kill the girls if it means sacrificing their own life.”
“Because then we’d be stuck in this sardine can with a psycho. No thank you. People like that can’t control themselves. He’d strike again eventually...probably at someone important...like me! No, we’ll take care of this now. Besides, I already know who did it. I just need to find out how.”
Clyde marched down the corridor. Zeb was about to follow when he noticed the door to the girls’ bunk was cracked. Hope’s face peeked out. Zeb offered her a friendly smile but she answered by closing the door.
The shelter jail was never meant to be a long-term solution, but Clyde didn’t have many options in the aftermath of the shelter’s first major tragedy. The miniscule size of the single cell led Clyde to believe it was originally designed to be nothing more than a holding cell for drunks or shelter dwellers who had gone stir crazy, but now it was the permanent home of the shelter’s resident murderer.
Ironically enough, Dallas’s cell was the brightest and most colorful place in the entire shelter. Cray paper covered the three walls with a mural on each one. A replica of Starry Night on one, a blue sky with clouds on another, and a mural of Zandra, his wife, on the third.
It was the mural of Zandra that Dallas was working on when Clyde and Zeb entered. Dallas didn’t seem to notice them at first but eventually he turned and smiled at them.
“Oh...it’s our fearless leader and some pissant kid. This is a good day.”
He was touching up the area around Zandra’s eyes with his brush. Her eyes were piercing blue and even though he had painted her smiling, the eyes still looked sad.
“Where’s your handler?” Clyde asked.
“Bird? Haven’t seen him for a while. He pops in and out as he sees fit. Hey, it’s movie night tonight. You should stay for movie night.”
Zeb’s pen was going like mad but Clyde had no idea what the hell he was even writing.
“‘Fraid we’re going to have to pass,” Clyde said. “We’re here on a serious matter.”
Dallas’s face crumbled. “Is there a problem with the power cells?”
“No. Nothing like that. The cells are fine.”
“Then what is it?”
Clyde cleared his throat. “Lizzie was killed yesterday. We found her body in a radiation suit on the surface. And she’s not the only one. There’s been two others.”
Dallas’s reaction was not what Clyde expected. He laughed. It started as a chuckle but soon blossomed into a full blown belly laugh. “And what? You think I did it? Seriously?!” He motioned to the cell around him. “Seems like I have a pretty good alibi, don’t you think?”
“True,” Clyde agreed. “But you’re also the only member of this shelter community that I know for a fact is capable of murder.”
Dallas stopped laughing. “Well...that’s true, too.”
Before the end of the world, Dallas and Zandra had been married 12 years with two children. Neither child made it into the bunker on Day Zero. Everyone knew that weighed heavy on Dallas’s conscience. When it came time to find recruits for the shelter’s breeding program, Zandra was approached as one of the few women of child-rearing age in Shelter 17C. Dallas was ineligible for the program since he had had a vasectomy. He assumed Zandra would reject the nomination.
But she didn’t.
In her defense, there were many perks to being a breeder. Extra rations, improved accommodations, and priority rescue in case of shelter breach. Zandra claimed she didn’t care about any of that, though. She claimed it was her duty to humanity.
There was little mystery in Zandra’s death. Dallas took a hammer to her skull during breakfast in the crowded cafeteria. He didn’t stop swinging until her skull caved in like a rotten pumpkin. When he finished, he calmly looked up and addressed the stunned onlookers.
“Do with me what you will,” he said.
The conviction was easy. It was the punishment that was the tricky part. Dallas was in charge of maintaining the shelter’s solar system and power cells. The system that provided the fallout shelter with light, electricity, and breathable air. His banishment was a death sentence to everyone in Fallout Shelter 17C. The situation forced Clyde to get creative with the punishment. Instead of banishment or even death, he settled on keeping Dallas locked up indefinitely, which Dallas was happy to do in exchange for regular field trips from his cell. The arrangement wasn’t perfect, but it had worked for over a year.
“I’m still trying to figure out exactly how you killed those women when you’re locked up,” Clyde told Dallas.
Dallas sighed and rested his head against the bars of his home. “You’re wasting your time, Clyde. In fact, I’m the only suspect you can cross off your list with any certainty. These bars make for a damn good alibi and a killer has to have a motive, now doesn’t he?”
“I’d be a fool to cross you off the list of suspects so quickly. You did bash a woman’s head in with a hammer in a crowded room.”
“Yes. My wife. My wife who chose to betray her husband of 12 years and whore herself out to a scientific prostitution program. Yes. Her I killed. And I have openly accepted my punishment. But I have no reason to murder anyone else. Hell, if I wanted to kill anyone I’d simply stop working on the solar system and suffocate you all in your sleep.”
Bird stumbled in reeking of smoke despite the fact smoking was prohibited everywhere in the shelter. He ran a hand through his salt and pepper pompadour and coughed loudly into his flannel shirt sleeve. He stopped short when he saw Clyde and Zeb standing in front of Dallas’s cell.
“Fuck me,” he said.
Bird had one of the more interesting backstories of any of the shelter dwellers. He had worked on an illegal cannabis farm in a former life before the operation was discovered by police and shut down. After that he had spent three years on the streets of Pittsburgh. He had somehow found his way into the fallout shelter for three weeks before Day Zero. Clyde and some of the others discovered him sleeping in a storage unit. He hadn’t even known the world had come to an end.
“Where the hell were you?” Clyde asked.
Bird spoke but when he did it was only to himself and the only sound he made was a high-pitched whistling noise. Then he seemed to remember how to speak to other human beings and laughed in his trademark surfer dude cackle. “What is this? My performance review?”
“Where were you?”
“In the greenhouse. Where I work. That worthless little Hope wisp ain’t nowhere to be found. It’s her you should be looking for! The vegetables don’t grow themselves, ya know!”
“Are you aware the prisoner was left unattended for an extended period of time?”
“Prisoner? You mean Dallas? Yeah, I know he was alone but that’s only because robocop Wayne never showed up for his shift!”
Clyde couldn’t help himself. His conversations with Bird always turned into arguments.
“What is it with you? It’s always someone else’s fault, isn’t it?”
“Well it is!” Bird protested. “I’m right where I’m supposta be. Do you see Wayne? Do you see Hope? The real question is, where the hell is everybody?!”
“There was a meeting--” Zeb began but Clyde cut him off with a raised hand.
“There was a shelter meeting for everyone in Section IV,” Clyde said. “I didn’t see you there.”
“Meetings, meetings, meetings! A guy’s gotta get board approval just ta take a shit around ‘ere! Look, I’m more than doing my part, ain’t I? I’m runnin’ the greenhouse, watchin’ the shelter’s most wanted over there, and any other nonsense you can think up for me. I’m a busy man!”
“Busy murdering women?”
Bird froze. “Huh?”
“Well shit,” Bird said when Clyde had explained the situation.
“How often has Dallas been left unattended?” Clyde asked, glancing over his shoulder at Dallas who only seemed to have a passing interest in the conversation.
“From time ta time,” Bird said. “If Wayne ain’t around and I have shit to do in the greenhouse. That’s ‘bout it.”
“When was the last time he was out of his cell?”
“I don’t know. Yesterday, I guess.”
“I take him out for strolls from time ta time. And then there’s movie nights and sometimes he gives me a hand in the greenhouse--oh, and his weekly inspection of the solar unit. So yeah...I guess that’s ‘bout it.”
“That’s it?! That sounds like he spends more time out of his cell than in it.”
“Well look at the size of that cage, man. Who wants to stay cooped up in there all damn day?”
“He’s in jail! For murder!”
A long whooping siren from the intercom put an abrupt end to the conversation.
“Is that the breach alarm?!” Zeb asked. “Are the Others trying to get into the shelter?”
Clyde sighed. “No. This is something else...”
[To Be Continued Next Month...]