River Of Night – Snippet 11
“Butchers?” wailed Bua, unfamiliar with Australian slang.
Risky unbuckled and turned around so she could look straight at complainer.
“Look at me,” Risky said very calmly. “I’m not driving for the next four hundred miles with you behaving like this. Your student is fine. I’m fine. Private, sorry, Specialist Astroga is fine.”
“All of us are women,” Risky continued “You’ll wait. And if you make Smith pull over, I’ll ensure that you regret it.”
“Yeah!” Astroga said, waggling the taser.
Tom hung his head just a minuscule amount.
Four hundred miles.
Eric stretched his arm out and turned the volume back up and the music filled the car again.
“What’s in your head, in your head, zombie-zombie-zombiee-ee-eee!”
The town was quiet and the forty or so survivors were clustered on the steps of a local Civil War monument. They stood under the guns of the Green’s crew, quietly looking around the security ring. The infected presence had been almost entirely shot out, and scores of naked, bloody corpses were in view. As ever, the stench of decomposition lay heavily on the square, adding to the oppressiveness of the southern humidity.
Eva O’Shanessy stood on the steps leading up from the bust of a long dead Confederate general. Her black outfit was dirty and there were some drying, red splashes on a heavy, long coat that she was experimenting with as improvised protection against bites. She’d learned that a coat was no protection if you weren’t wearing it, so it stayed on despite the warmth of the day.
“Listen up, you primitive screwheads!” Eva said, holding the megaphone in one hand. “For those who haven’t figured it out yet, there’s new management here in the town of…”
She looked nonplussed for a moment, then leaned down towards Loki.
“Where are we, again?” she said, whispering.
“Gatlinburg.” Loki answered impassively.
“The town of Gatlinburg,” Eva said, addressing the audience again. “We’re gonna be organizing things from now on. More people are on the way to live and work here, at least for a while. You’re going to work here too. Mr. Green…”
She gestured to the slightly built, armored man already stalking the edge of the group of townsfolk. Green was inspecting the nervous crowd like a farmwife simultaneously eyeing her chickens while testing the edge on a carving knife. There was the usual distribution of survivors. They ranged from a superannuated grandmother type down to a few small children who sheltered in the arms of an attractive middle-aged woman whose blue die job was growing out, revealing golden blonde hair.
“…has decided to place this town under his protection, and you’ll benefit in the following ways.” She started ticking off points on her fingers. “One. We’ll kill all the zombies. Two. We’ll protect you against anyone that tries to take your stuff or harm you. Three. We’ll improve the food and medicine situation. Four. Shit, three is enough, don’t you think?”
One man, braver or perhaps stupider than the rest, called out.
“What’s it going to cost us?”
“I’m glad that you asked,” Eva replied, smiling at the questioner. “Nothing’s free in this world. We’ll take what we need from whoever we must to in order to carry out Mr. Green’s promises to you. So, some of your personal belongings might be gleanings, see? Helps everyone stay alive. Share and share alike, right?”
“That’s it, you just want some stuff?” the objector said, sounding pretty relieved. “There’s all kinds of stuff. More stuff than people, in fact.”
He wasn’t wrong.
Everywhere that Harlan Green’s growing raider parties went, they found a surfeit of durable supplies. Many, indeed most people were reaped by the zombie virus before could eat all of their supplies or burn all of their fuel. Those that had lived long enough to exhaust their supplies usually died when looking for more. In long term cases, food seemed to go first, then ammunition and fuel. Consumables weren’t rare, but they were increasingly scare.
But so-called valuables such as gold, jewelry or luxury cars? No one could eat diamond engagement rings or McLaren sport coupes. Help yourself. Take as many as you like. Cash? Mostly litter.
The circle of security included six of Green’s lieutenants and another two dozen low ranking gunmen. These were early converts who were still on their best behavior. They had come from towns where the Gleaners had already passed. Their low numbers were offset by their armament, mostly consisting of break-open or pump shotguns. They lacked the full protection and armor of Green’s inner circle, but their armament sufficed to clear low densities of zombie areas and intimidate other survivors.
Most pertinently, their shotguns weren’t a real threat to the full plates that Green had already scavenged for his immediate staff, who also carried military grade weapons.
“Stuff? Well, about that,” the sole female Gleaner said, drawling out her words. “What Mr. Green really needs is your work. So, he’s gonna need you, personally.”
She stabbed a gloved finger at the survivor and then people standing close to him. “And you, and you and…”
She searched the group of thirty survivors more closely, and picked out a rosy cheeked pre-teen boy.
“… and especially you.” Eva smiled evilly.
“No, we are not listening to an extended didgeridoo solo!” Durante yelled, pounding his fist on the steering wheel.
“It’s my turn to pick,” answered Astroga, smirking. “And I pick this.”
“A fifteen minute set of didgeridoo noise does not count as one song,” Durante said angrily.
“Well, we could go back to ‘Hey Jude'”, the Specialist replied.
“Do you think that Risky holds a grudge?” Ralph said, whispering to Sacks. “She might think that we were backing Joey T. over the Boss.”
The convoy had pulled over, inside a little copse of trees. The survivors had learned to take advantage of every stop to use the bathroom. Or in this case, the slit trench.
“Does the pope wear a funny hat?” the second former Cosa Nova shooter replied. “You dumbass, of course she holds a grudge. Hey, pass me that bag.”
Sacks gestured to a kit bag from which a roll of TP printed with pink bears was peeking out.
“Sure, but I was just laying there, bleeding,” said Fat Ralph, protesting. Fat Ralph was actually about thirty pounds lighter than he had been at the start of the boat ride. “It’s not like I was Two-Tone, what lit up the dock with the machine gun, or Lugnut, what drove the boat.”
“Yeah, you was practically a victim, right?” sneered Sacks. “The New Thing is dead. What we got here is a chance to go straight.”
He glanced over the screen of bushes that screened the latrine area that Durante had designated for the stop. No one seemed to be interested that the two of them were taking their time.
“We’re on probation, see?” Sacks said, chopping the air with his good hand. “The next screw up and we aren’t gonna get probation, if you know what I mean. Me? I’m gonna put out, get me a new name. This Smith guy is way smarter than Joey T.”
He glanced over the bushes again.
“Yeah, but what if she gets, you know, mad? I don’t want to get the chop like those other assholes what she blew away with that fucking RPK. I didn’t even know she could shoot!”
Sacks glared at him and then looked over the hedge to see if anyone had overheard.
Risky was talking to Tom and the scary guy special forces dude named Durante. The three were standing in a building courtyard looking at bullet holes in the side of the second truck.
Sacks looked back at Ralph.
“Shut your fucking pie hole,” he said. “How fucking stupid are you? She spent weeks with that Smith guy, rolling around in the BERTs. She made it through the fight with the cops. At least now you’re smart enough to know not to piss her off.”
He glanced again, and then shook the toilet paper at his companion.
“So don’t fuck this up, capisce?”
Risky was making a point of listening into the impromptu war councils, and no one was objecting.
“We got lucky, Tom,” Durante said as he ran his finger across the small hole in the front fender. “Small caliber. Poked a hole in the exhaust manifold, which won’t stop the engine. That one…”
He pointed to a starred hole in the passenger’s window.
“Even luckier. Six inches left or right and it’s a head shot.”
“No way to avoid it, Gravy,” Smith said, rubbing his chin. “No road block, no warning shot, no signs, just the first impact and a few second later, the window.”
“We need a plan for losing a vehicle,” Risky said. “We need to know what we do if we get hit again. We need extra parts. The average distance per day is less than we expected.”
She wrinkled her nose as the slow breeze brought the odor of decomposition from inside the adjacent structure. Their vehicles had remained outside, engines running, while the clearance team had swept the farmhouse, barn and sheds. There had been a medium sized family forted up inside, at least until one had turned and the rest had suicided. The compound made a nearly ideal lay up point, screened from direct observation and yet equipped with adequate sight lines and internal space. There was even a hand pump fed well.
Kaplan was supervising Sacks and Fat Ralph as they used garbage cans to move the human remains into one room.
“I know, Risky,” Tom said. It was the first time he’d her nickname and she carefully concealed her reaction. Tom went on. “I really wanted another Suburban, but it isn’t like we can go car shopping at the Chevy dealer.”
The former residents of this farm had left behind several vehicles, including a Winnebago, a Volvo wagon and a really rusty Chrysler sedan. So far, no one had found the keys, not that the older cars’ ignitions presented a real obstacle to hot-wiring.
“We want to get to our next SAFE as fast as we can.” He held up one hand and began folding down fingers as he listed option. “So, do we drive the shortest route, probably with more risk? Do we look for more equipment or even people so mitigate that risk? Do we go in whatever direction we have to in order to push risk as close to zero as we can, and accept a longer route and more time on the road?”
He paused at the approach of Kristen, Eric and Cheryl, each walking awkwardly under the weight of a full five gallon water can. Astroga walked at the end of the line, her rifle slung but with one hand on the pistol grip. She smiled as they drew near but didn’t interrupt.
“We’re not a war party,” Gravy said as he patted the fender. “Lots of civilians with us. Slow and steady wins the race.”
Risky didn’t contradict him, but she didn’t agree either.