Mar clutched the door handle until her knuckles turned white. Undead lurched at them from every direction as they raced over the cluttered pavement. Half of the SUV Jon drove was already covered with black blood. She yelled when a head smacked the windshield in front of her.
“I don’t like this,” she said. “We shouldn’t be heading back into the city.”
“Mitch knows what he’s doing. You’re safe, honey.”
Honey huh, she thought to herself. This seriously sucks, even when I was a slave to the Rippers, at least they kept me from having to deal with this shit.
“Where’re we supposed to be going anyway?”
“Mitch and some of the others knew about some safe farms northeast of the city. Places that were built up, but then abandoned. They’re far enough out that any zombies that show up, we should be able to deal with.”
Jonathan’s handsome dark face moved left and right as he tried to avoid hitting the walking corpses. He was so nice to her. She would like to think it was because he thought highly of her and not because she was just young and cute and one of the only girls left alive in Tucson. “We might not move in, but it’s good enough for now.”
“How long has it been since someone else has been there? How do we know that it isn’t crawling with zombies or some other group hasn’t moved in?”
“You certainly seem to be on the paranoid side, my dear.”
“Don’t give me any of your psychiatrist crap,” she said. “Being paranoid is the only thing that has kept me alive.”
“You don’t have to worry now, I’ll protect you.”
“Yeah, I’m sure a hundred Rippers living behind razor wire thought they could protect me too.”
“This is different, they were evil. Besides we’re smarter than them.”
They were smart enough to capture you. “So how far is it?” she asked, just trying to distract herself from the gruesome collisions.
“About thirty miles, but we’re taking these northern roads so these Walkers shouldn’t get too bad.”
“What about the others? How will they find us?”
“Marry! This driving isn’t easy. Please try to support me and don’t ask me a million questions right now.”
She hunched forward. He gaze turned toward the window and the jagged angled forms emerging from the gathering gloom. They had no regard for their own safety and would fling themselves at the vehicles, the flesh. I hate them almost as much as I hate myself.
They followed the glowing taillights before them. A car skidded off the road when it ran over a concealed tire rim. It crashed headfirst into a parked car. The zombies were all over them before the group could do anything. She thought they would try to help anyway. They didn’t. The convoy moved on. It made her wonder what she really hated most.
* * *
The pain lingered like a sledge hammer. Haeds had been talking to himself for a while. “How could that asshole have done that to me? He cut off two of my fingers—that shitkicking prick! Well, there’s plenty of things he has two of.” He laughed at his own joke.
“Wait till my family comes, you idiots. You should have left with the cowards when you had the chance. Idiots. Fools. Fuckers! Gods of darkness, how I hate cowboys.” A string of curses escaped his lips while he fought against the ropes that bound him. More ropes held his legs to the chair.
“I could probably escape if I wanted to, you pricks. But why bother? I want to be here when my family is swallowing chunks of your flesh.”
After more mumbling and cursing to himself, Haeds heard the sounds of things banging around outside of the sweltering shack. Could they already be here? No, that’s something else. Besides there’s no way my family could have gotten here this fast.
He tried to listen harder. The wait grew vexing, especially when he had no clue as to what happened on the other side of the dry planks. About half an hour later, he heard maybe two vehicles start up and some shouting, but he couldn’t make out the words. He might have heard someone counting to three.
“What the hell is going on out there? All this not knowing is driving me nuts. They should know better than to do this to me. I’m the new God of this age, the king of the desert, the lord-”
“Of the, oh so, shitty pants,” the teen, Spike, said. “Damn, it smells like crap in here. You must have really shit yourself. I’d let you use the bathroom um…” the annoying boy leaned his face in closer. He hadn’t removed his shades and they were a little big making him look like a hyper fly. “If I didn’t HATE YOUR GUTS!”
“You can’t talk to me like that!”
“I’ll talk to you any damn way I like. Because of you, I haven’t seen my sister for a day. And Devon and I are best friends. If something happens to either one of them, I’ll beat you every day for a year and then I’ll slowly eat your arm off so you’ll know what it feels like, you freak.”
“You talk like that and call me a freak?”
“How old are you, twelve.”
“I’m fifteen now, you piece of—oh hell, you aren’t even worth it.” He turned to go, but called over his shoulder. “I just came in here to let you know we figured out a way to waste your,” he used that asinine finger-quotes gesture, “family.” He reached the door and opened it. Night had claimed the land.
“Soon all your precious zombie pals will be nothing but rotten hamburger. And when we’re done, we’ll check your home town for beer, a-hole.”
The door slammed shut.
“He must be lying. There’s nothing these handful of idiots could do against my main army.” He paused. “Still they’re going to try something. I’ll need to try to stop it any way I can. They’ll be sorry they didn’t try to kill me when they got the chance. Not that they could. I’m a bloody God now. Even zombie bites don’t kill me. Soon I will rule the whole desert. They could have bowed to me and asked for mercy. I would have given it to them. I would have.”
An evil grin spread across his blood splattered face.
“But it’s too late now.”
Haeds’ face jerked up, leaving his well of self pity. What the hell’s happening out there? Are they taking off? It sounds like they’re all taking off? “They aren’t just going to leave me here? They can’t be that stupid?”
“Damn it, Spike. Why did you have to act like that?”
“Whatever, Mitch turned out to be a real self-righteous prick. He should’ve listened to reason.”
“I’m not sure flipping Mitch the bird helped in that department.”
Crap, he’s still here.
The door flew open revealing the two fuckers who had kidnapped him. I hate that bastard Brown. That half reatarded hick claimed two of my fingers! He will be made to pay. Perhaps I could hang him upside down and feed him to my family an inch at a time.
Strangely it was the young teen that came at him and struck him in the cheek. “Listen you crazy freak! You need to call those Walkers off. Seriously, call them off now. Send them into the desert or something. March em’ off a cliff.”
It became even odder when Brown came to his aid. “Relax kid. He can’t control zombies any better than us. He’s just immune to their attentions. This guy’s about as supernatural as my last turd.”
“Well then, shit, what’re we going to do?”
“Why, you wished we’d headed off with the others?”
“Noooooooo, I just, hell, I’m not even sure what to do anymore.”
Haeds grinned his way, exposing his bloody teeth. “Maybe you can be slowly eaten by my family.”
“You sick freak,” the teen said, and once again was restrained by the older man. “All of this is your fault. What did we ever do to you anyway?”
“To many things to mention,” Haeds hissed. “For one you came too close. I’m the king of the dead, the lord of the wastes.”
“Damn Haeds,” Brown said, “We just can’t beat the crazy out of you.”
“You can say that about a zillion times,” Spike said, while adjusting the shades he always wore.
“Spike, please do a head count and make sure Ann is okay for me. I got plans for this guy.”
The teen looked at Brown, then Haeds, then back at Brown. “Okay, but don’t be long. This loser’s army is going to be here pretty soon.”
Brown moved his face close to Haeds. “Don’t worry this piece of trash ain’t worth me wasting too much time.”
* * *
Spencer walked into to courtyard just as a huge gust of wind sent the dust flying across the baked earth. A few people looked up as he moved away from the shack. There was hope in their eyes, like he might have somehow came up with an answer and it was like a knife in his guts that he had nothing.
All his life, others had made the choices for him. First his father, then his sister. Almost at once, he had fallen into Devon’s camp. Despite his contrary nature, he had great respect for the man. This time he was alone. Sure there were a few of them left, but no one knew what they should be doing.
He steeled himself. He had to fix this. Devon and Emily were counting on him.
Looked around, Spencer took in his remaining allies. Rollie sat with Devon’s shotgun propped up on his wheelchair arms. Wart still leaned against the shack smoking the stub of one of his recycled cigarettes. Kimberly was tending Ann who seemed way too shell-shocked for Spencer to even try to talk to yet.
It had been a battle to convince Doctor Alexander not to take her with them when the others fled, but Brown can be very convincing, especially when he is carrying his AK.
Mel and Flinch had also stayed true to the cause, along with the two new guys. Spencer couldn’t even remember their names. All he could think about was Devon and his sister. Are they okay? Is Devon figuring out a way to save us?
Before anyone had spoken a word, Brown exited the shed. “Well there’s no reason for us to linger around out here,” he said, mostly addressing the women. “The Walkers won’t be here for another day.”
Spencer was about to say something, but Ann spoke for the first time and even he wanted to stop to listen. “And why aren’t we leaving again? I say we feed that madman to the coyotes and be on our way. I hate to give him the satisfaction of knowing he took even one of us down.”
“What did he do to you?” Spencer asked, and as soon as he did, wished he hadn’t. The woman tensed and Brown shot him a very angry look.
“Spike, will you-” the cowboy started, but Ann interrupted.
“No, it’s okay. It’s not his fault he got in the way of that evil psychopath. If I had anything to tell you that I thought could help, I would, but… besides what you already know, I really don’t. Haeds has no mystic powers. He’s just a sick fuck that’s somehow ignored by those undead.” She paused and eyed him. “As for anything else, I’d have to trust you first.”
Everyone stayed silent, but he felt the pressure to break it. “Fair enough. I almost wished he had some real power over them, maybe then he could tell them to walk off a cliff or something.”
Ann leaned down. She whispered something to Kimberly and then walked toward the main ranch house.
“Kim could you keep an eye on her, please.” Kim nodded and walked after the departing woman.
“Okay, now that they’re gone,” Spencer said quickly. “I think going into the house is the last thing we need to do. What we need to do it to figure out how we’re going to be stopping that damn army numb-nuts sent at us.”
“You have any brilliant ideas?” Wart asked from behind his goggles.
“No! Oh damn it.”
“Well, you guys figure out what we’re going to do,” Mel began. “We’re going to try to make sure we live the old fashion way.”
“What’s that?” James asked.
“Is there a way we could help?” James asked.
Mel took of his cap for a moment and gazed through the dust at the building clouds. “Even with these clouds, it’ll be hot as hell in there, but yeah, we could keep you busy.”
“That would be great. Having some bullets might be the only edge we got.” Brown told them. Once they were gone, Brown looked over at him. “So what the Hell are we going do?”
“We need to be tricky. Try to think like Devon. What would he do?”
“Find some weird way to kill the zombies,” Rollie said slowly.
“Exactly, and that’s what we need to do. Bullets will be good, but we should figure out a way to axe those stiffs without wasting many of them.” Spencer looked up and smiled, “and let’s make that sick puke Haeds watch.”
Mar had never been more uncertain of anything in her whole life, which was saying something, since she had lived nearly half of it through a zombie apocalypse.
She looked over as the doctor while he hurried to pack his meager belongings. Keith was a handsome man, even though he was probably three times too old for her. Sometimes she wondered almost as much about why a psychiatrist would be willing to bed a girl that was still officially a minor, as she did about why she would want to be with him.
Since he was older, it did she make her feel safer. He was more than happy to tell her what to do and make the decisions for them, she just wondered if this time he was wrong.
Part of her really thought it could have something to do with her mother telling Mar she would never be good enough to marry a doctor. Mar wished she could show her mom how wrong she had been, too bad she was dead. Mar wondered if her mother stumbled around as a Walker. Never stopping, never resting. Hell, who am I kidding, my mom would just give me shit because the doctor I’m dating is black.
Keith’s voice jarred her back to the present. “Hurry Marry, I spent too much time helping Ann. I don’t want them to leave without us.”
“Why would a psychiatrist think that helping that poor traumatized girl was a waste of time?”
He stopped and took her into his arms for a big hug. “Oh honey it’s not like that. I don’t want you to think of me in that way. I’ll be happy to do everything I can to help her. We just need to get somewhere safe first.”
“Are you sure we’re even doing the right thing leaving? Rollie told me that some of the others are thinking about staying.”
“Then they’re fools. Even if we had enough bullets to stop them, why would we waste all our ammo for such a thing? Our bullets should be used to keep us alive not kill a bunch of Walkers than can be avoided.”
“Maybe you’re right.”
“Of course I am, dear. Now finish packing. I know Mitch wouldn’t want to leave his only doctor behind, but it’s best to avoid pushing our luck.”
She fell back into packing without a word. Still, her uncertainty plagued her.
* * *
Devon and Emily had entered the small room that hung from the ceiling of the gym. Most of the equipment the school might have stored there had been removed. In its place three gagged and bound adults lay on a filthy floor. The corner of the room held a hole, which from the looks of things had been the closest thing to a toilet these captives had been allowed.
Drawing closer, Devon took in Haeds’ prisoners. The oldest of them was a man whose hair had lost the battle against grey. He was a taller gentleman and the calmest of the lot. He sat propped up against the wall with relief painting his features.
Beside him lay a man who was probably on the happy side of thirty and still wore his sheriff’s uniform. His brown eyes burned at Devon’s and both he and the woman were trying to shout through their gags so loudly that they drowned out any chance of him catching a word.
The woman might have just turned twenty. Her once attractive waves of brunette hair, hung in tangled dreads. He guessed that she couldn’t be freed fast enough if her screaming and thrashing against her bonds were any indication.
He freed her gag first.
A stream of words came out so fast that he could barely comprehend them.
“Listen, slow down,” he said. “You can relax, but if you want me to free you and these guys here, you’ll need to start making sense and let me know what has happened to you.”
She took a deep breath, eyed Emily for a moment, and then continued. “We were captured by my evil ass brother. Believe me it’s a long story.” She paused. “How many are you? How did you get by the dead? Did you kill them all?”
He rubbed his forehead and then sheathed his pistol. “Listen you’re going to let me ask the questions around here if you want to have any chance of making it through this mess.”
“Sorry, we’ve just been held captive for so long. Can you even guess how horrible it was to be locked up here day after day, month after month? The smell, worst then anything ever and knowing it would never go away. And the moaning.” She began to cry. “How could my brother have become so evil?”
“Oh shit,” Emily said. “Come on, can we just let her go, Devon.”
“Will you and your friends promise not to go screw-job on me or go for my guns or anything? If you do, I can add you to my long list of breathers that I have wasted.”
She looked up at him through red-limed eyes. “I’m sorry. We’ve just been here so long that seeing you feels like a dream. We’ve been hopeless for so long.” The sheriff moved and garbled speech sounded behind his gag. “But yes, we’re safe. We are, or at least were, nice people. I barely even feel human anymore.”
“Crap,” Devon said slowly, while looking at their wrists. “I don’t suppose you folks know where any keys to these handcuffs are? It will be hard as hell to get you down this ladder without them.”
He pulled down the sheriff’s mask as he spoke and the man started talking at once. “No her brother is completely insane and very dangerous. He has the keys. You need to get us out of here before he comes back!”
“Yeah, yeah, he’s the least of your worries. The guy goes by Haeds right.”
“Yes and he-”
“Likes to play with zombies. Yeah, I know the guy. My friend Brown has got him. Most likely the guy’s spilled his guts to him by now.”
“Is he okay?” The young woman asked. “He’s bat shit crazy, but he is still my brother. Actually screw that. I just really hate the son of a bitch and was hoping that I’d be the one to put down his sorry ass.”
Emily had removed the gag from the second man and he joined the conversation. “Hello, I’m Doctor Fosters. You have met Becca and Sheriff Dells. I know we don’t owe you anything less than our lives, but we have been enduring this living hell for so long that we would love to know who you are and what you’re planning to do next.”
“A doctor huh,” Emily said.
“Don’t get too excited,” Dells said, as he awkwardly rose to his feet. “He had his doctorate in Chemistry. He isn’t an MD.”
“That could turn out to me more useful for some of the things I have in mind.” The two men flashed him perplexed looks, but he continued. “My name is Devon and this here is Emily, the best sharp shooter this side of the apocalypse.” She gave them a pretty grin. “We—well we are doing a lot of things. Chief amount them is freeing the city of Tucson from its walking dead problem.”
“Part of our long term plan might involve your brother. So if I release you, you have to promise to do two things. First you must swear to follow my lead until the mess Haeds got us into is complete. And I mean this. If we release you it is in exchange for your aid for at least this one mission. You freedom in return for being mercenaries—you might say.”
The three shared glances, but it was the sheriff that answered for them. “I think we can agree to that, but we’ll have some questions that will need answering.”
“And you have them answered as we see fit. Right now, we just need to get out of this prison of yours.”
“What’s the second thing?” Becca asked.
“For now, at least, I want to keep your brother alive.”
She scowled but nodded. “Okay, I might have a hard time killing him anyway, despite all he has done.”
Dells grumbled under his breath. “I wouldn’t.”
Devon paused looking from face to face. “The real question is, can any of you tell me where this nut-job kept his weapons?”
Pain roared through him. He had seen suffering, usually at the hands of his new family. He had even dealt out more than his share. But he had always felt distant, removed. Now that he had become the man being hurt, everything changed.
Normal things like watching the ants move along the floor of the stifling shack, seemed light years away from him. The pain owned him, made him remember his parents and how they had always seen such promise in him. It reminded him of school and that nice older woman at the convenience store. All that was dead now. Everyone was dead. He knew that, but they still loved him. They would never hurt him. They were his new family.
A slap across the face caused Haeds to look up at his capture.
“Earth to crazy-ass loon. Are you going to answer me or should we go to finger number three.”
Haeds looked from the grizzled face of the evil shitkicker, down at the stumps of two of his bleeding fingers.
Brown spoke again. “Listen dumbass, I don’t have time to screw around and it’s all your fault. If you think you can still enjoy being king of the zombies without fingers I guess that’s your choice.” The clippers moved over the middle finger of his left hand.
“No! Wait, stop!” He panted. He didn’t want to tell these losers a thing. He was the king of these wastes. But one thing Brown said did make sense. He didn’t want to be a king without fingers. He would tell them. What would it matter? They would all be dead soon anyway.
He spit out some blood that had been lingering in his mouth. “I got bit, okay. But instead of the bite killing me, like it did everyone else, I survived.”
Brown became dead serious, but at least didn’t look like he was about to hurt him anymore. “So what happened?”
“I got sick—you know the fever, like everyone else. But I got better. It didn’t kill me.” He rolled up his sleeve. The twisted bite scar had been a mark of pride for him. I badge of honor that always reminded him that he was better than everybody else. He began to enjoy his role, despite the pain. He would teach this low-life who he was really dealing with.
“But why did it happen? What makes you different from everyone else?”
“I’m just better than-”
After grabbing him by the collar, Brown yelled in his face. “Knock it off or we are back to the clippers. Why… are…you…different? Something must have happened to you when you were younger.”
“Looking up into his eyes, Haeds said, “When I was a kid I got real sick.”
* * *
Spencer was just about to try to force his way into the shack, when Brown beat him to the punch and opened the door. Sweat and grim covered his upper body and large sweat stains had pooled under his armpits.
“So how’s shit stain in there?”
“He’s going to have to give up the piano,” Brown said, while reached for a water bottle that Wart handed him.
Spencer wrinkled his nose. “Huh, did you learn anything? Come on man, the shit’s hitting the fan with Godzilla force around here.”
“I think I figured out why the zombies don’t attack him, but that isn’t going to do much to help us fight off four hundred Walkers.”
“You don’t know the half of it. Like everyone’s leaving.”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
Spencer pointed toward the rides a Brown took in the sight of the frantic packing. Brown opened his mouth to say something, but was interrupted by the appearance of Mel, Flinch, and Rollie. Flinch pushed Rollie’s wheelchair through the clinging desert sands and was just able to make it to them. It looked like Mel had scavenged some gear along the way. An extra rifle hung over his shoulder and he had a few bags filled with other supplies.
“Nice to see you have Devon’s shotgun,” Spencer said, addressing Rollie.
“I pretty much gathered everything I thought I’d need. Not being able to walk puts a whole new perspective on an army of undead heading your way.”
As if coming out of a daze, Brown looked over at Kimberly. “Weren’t you with Ann? How is she? Is she safe?”
“Alexander was with her. She’s more hurt up here,” she said, while pointing at her blonde head. “He’s a psychiatrist and right now that’s what she needs.”
“But everyone is leaving. How do we know if she’s being loaded into a car right now.” Shooting a glare at Spencer, he said, “Has anybody tried talking this people out of this. Devon wouldn’t want this. I’m sure he has some plan or something brewing.”
Two people jogged toward the growing group. Spencer knew them just enough to remember their names. James and Ditch. James had a lanky body. He kept his curly hair short, and tended to play with his thin mustache when he spoke. His buddy Ditch was from Germany and favored a sledge hammer for a weapon. He had the body for it and only wore a tattered blue vest over his giant muscles.
“Gentlemen.” Brown said once they have drawn near.
“Are you guys bugging out like the rest?” James asked.
“We haven’t really decided what we’re doing.”
Ditch spoke up. “Yah, if is all the same to you, ve vould like to, ah…” He looked over at James, “Ve would like to do vhatever you’re doing.”
“Well… as soon as we figure it out we’ll let you know,” Spencer grumbled.
* * *
Devon stared at the ladder reaching up to the score-box twenty feet over their heads. The zombies had been cleared from the room, but this left them with only a handful of bullets left. The gymnasium doors were locked behind them, but Devon knew that wouldn’t help if they still had to fight their way out of town.
“So are you ready for this?” he asked Emily.
“What, I can fight my way through a ghost town filled with the walking dead, but I can’t climb up there?” She looked at him and then back up at the elevated room. “Honestly, I’m a bit worried about what we could find.”
“I know the feeling. I’ll start up first. If we run into trouble, my pistol will work better than your rifle in close quarters.”
It was the longest twenty seconds of his life, but Devon made it to the smashed out window that the top of the steel ladder rested against. Before his head had reached the opening, he was already hearing muffled noises. Grunting.
“Slow down, it sounds like that freak might be hiding zombies up here too.”
As he drew near the lips the sounds changed. They were more urgent. He could almost make out words. “Oh the hell with it,” he mumbled, but then louder said, “I’m coming up. Please don’t blow my head off.”
At first, he could see nothing in the stygian room. For a moment, he balanced awkwardly on the ladder while he fumbled for his flashlight, all the time trying to keep his gun pointed into the room.
The sounds, he could call them voices now, grew more frantic. They still sounded like they came at him from under five layers of blankets. What’s going on in there?
Finally his light pierced the darkness and he almost tumbled off the ladder when he saw what the room held.
“Emily, there’re people in here! From the looks of it, two men and a girl.”