The whining pleas of "But the quarantine!" coming from Dr Ducas as the ensemble stamped downstairs to the waiting vehicles fell on very deaf ears.
Joe and Tuki climbed into the front seat of his battered green tonneau, and the three kids scrambled over them into the ample free space at the back.
"Right, shortstuff," Joe said, starting the car. "Where to?"
A large part of New Flagstaff had been almost totally destroyed in The Fall,
and the rubble of what was left had long since lost its stark image of devastation under the soft green blanket of a century or so of vegetation.
What remained now were rows of little hills with maybe the odd ivy-covered wall or rusted steel frame to remind anyone of what had once been there.
It was also an area not frequented by the locals.
Besides the flora reclaiming what had once been its untouched wilderness, the local fauna had moved back in too,
to take advantage of the high weeds and ferns that were always the first things to grow after man's buildings came tumbling down.
Take a look at any bulldozed site in your own neighbourhood that has been left for a year or two, and you will know what I mean.
Now the area was home to an enormous population of birds, insects, rodents, and the predators that fed on them... and then the bigger, nastier predators that fed on them.
It was through this terrain that three vehicles bounced and weaved as they followed Onetooth's less than certain directions.
Eventually, though, the new bruises they would all have come morning were rewarded.
" Onetooth shouted, and the cars came to a thankful stop in a place indistinguishable from all the other humps and clumps of tangled undergrowth they had driven over,
around and on one occasion through to get wherever 'here' was.
All the adults got out of the cars and stood looking around. Although technically still within the city limits this whole area had just been left for decades.
It was too damaged and too unstable to even think about rebuilding on. The place had become a wasteland within the wasteland. Joe bent down, hands on knees, to whisper to Onetooth.
"There's nothing here."
Onetooth looked at Joe like he was an imbecile.
"Yes, there is. Foller me."
The little eight-year-old bounced off through the long grass, followed almost immediately by Finny and Casper; who were more than eager to find out where Worms disappeared to at times.
Joe watched them, still bent over with a dubious expression on his face as he watched the three kids skipping through the grass like they were in some kind of cheesy advert.
If that little bugger was winding us up, Joe thought, uncharitably... Then the three heads disappeared.
Joe straightened up.
"Where the fuck?"
He took off after them, automatically freeing his sawn-off shotgun from its hiding place under the brown duster. Behind him, raised voices began calling after him.
But Joe wasn't about to look anywhere other than where he had last seen Finny's braids bouncing up and down like Medusa's snakes looking for a victim.
Which was a good job, otherwise he would have missed where the ground suddenly dropped off into a deep depression.
Joe stopped and found himself standing on the unnaturally straight edge of a long cut in the landscape.
The gully was about five metres wide and, on the other side, the three members of his reading group were either bent over or kneeling down and looking at something in the far wall, or bank,
or whatever it was under all the grass. The rest of the adults joined him along the edge.
Onetooth turned around, saw the grown-ups and pointed down the gully.
"There's some steps over there." He called helpfully.
Faced with a two-metre drop, the two doctors, the tech, Joe and the goons all turned at the same moment and walked the dozen metres to where overgrown steps led down to the bottom of the gully.
When they, at last, joined the youngsters, they could see what was claiming their attention.
It was a hole. A square hole, like a window or an air conditioner, would leave.
"What's inside?" Dr Ducas asked Onetooth.
The eight-year-old shrugged.
"Dunno. I' never been in."
"But I thought you said that you and, what was his name again? I thought you said that you played there?"
"Nuhuh. I never said that." He pointed at Tukiko. "She did."
Doctor Troy looked embarrassed.
"I... just assumed. Two boys would play together."
Dr Ducas was not happy. He frowned at Onetooth.
"So, if you've never been inside, what on earth makes you think this is the place where your friend got sick?"
Onetooth looked from one unsmiling adult face to the others. None of them seemed happy. What was wrong with grown-ups?
"Because he wouldn't let me in."
The explanation didn't seem to change the mood of the grown-ups.
Finny chimed in, 'getting it' at once.
"Onetooth an' Worms do everything together. If'n Worms wun't let him go in then it was because he didn't want him to see stuff inside.
An' Worms knows that we think him playing with dead things is weird so that hasta be why."
The grown-ups tried to get their heads around the logic of a world they had left behind years ago. Then the pathology technician pointed out the obvious.
"Anyway. The hole is too small for us to climb through. The kids could go, though, and then..."
Tukiko and Joe voiced their aversion to this straight away.
"No bloody way."
Dr Ducas was more reluctant to let go of the path tech's idea.
"It makes sense. If we send the children in, they can report back whatever is inside..."
The children listened to the to and fro of the conversation. None of them was averse to sliding through the hole into whatever was inside. It sounded like an adventure.
But Joe and Mrs Doctor seemed to be winning the argument. Onetooth held up his hand like he was back in class.
"Please Joe? There's a door."
All heads turned to look at him. Dr Ducas voiced his exasperation.
"Then why didn't you..."
Finny butted in.
"Because you didn't ask!" She wasn't having one of her gang shouted at when it wasn't his fault.
Onetooth pushed his way through the crowd.
"C'mon. Foller me. I'll show you."
He led them back the way they had come, past the steps, and to what had probably been a corner of the building but was now just a grove of tangled Elder bushes.
By flattening himself against the wall, Onetooth wormed his way past the bush and seemed to disappear like before. Everyone turned to look at Joe.
Rolling his eyes and muttering, Joe followed Onetooth's example, pulling his duster tight to his body to prevent it from snagging against the branches of the bush. He too disappeared.
A few seconds later, his head poked back through the foliage.
"It's tight, but there's a doorway here alright. Get your goons to start clearing this bush." He grinned at the Path tech.
"You come with me son; we'll see if we can't find some muscles somewhere under that lab coat."
It took about half an hour. When the bush was cleared back sufficiently to reveal the door, everyone gathered around.
"Right," said Joe, wiping the sweat and grime off his face with the sleeve of his duster.
"Gawd alone knows how, but it looks like the little bugger Worms managed to push this open enough for him to squeeze through.
There's a long passage inside, disappears off to a little patch of light where I guess that hole is."
Everyone looked towards where the door, which stood open by about a foot, maybe less.
Dr Ducas raised an eyebrow.
"Well, it looks like even your combined strength, considerable though I'm sure it is, was not up to the task of improving on the efforts of one small boy."
Tuki had to turn away and bite down on her bottom lip to stop the laughter from Joe's discomfort at the Union doctor's criticism.
Joe's face twitched and Dr, Ducas was blissfully unaware of how close he came to being his own patient.
"Yes, well. Obviously, he couldn't get it open any further either." As soon as he said it, Joe realised how bad that sounded. His temper rose.
"Just get your bloody goons around it and get the effing thing open!"
By the time Tukiko, the pathology tech, and the three children had returned from the cars with torches,
the four Union patrolmen had managed to drag and bend the rusty steel door far enough open to allow them to get inside.
Three powerful beams of light shone into the darkness, illuminating the nearest walls, floor and the ceiling of the long passageway.
"It might be a bunker." Dr Ducas offered. "They built a lot of them before The Fall, not that it did them much good."
Staring into the depths, Joe offered his own possibility.
"More like the cellar of some old building. Come on; it looks clear enough."
Dr Ducas turned to one of the patrolmen.
"You stay here. Let nobody in."
The patrolman, disappointed at not being able to join the 'adventure' frowned and nodded.
The rest entered the unknown.
Only a couple of metres in, Joe held up his arm.
"'Ere. Smell that?"