River Of Night – Snippet 13


“This looks like every zombie show, ever,” said Fat Ralph, remarking loudly on the condition of the convenience store. “Like that one about the sheriff that wakes up in the hospital, amirite?”

“Quiet, and stay alert,” answered Tom. “Just because we haven’t turned up any infected in the last few stops doesn’t mean that there aren’t any here.”

The group had dipped southwards, detouring around Petersburg. As expected, Interstate Sixty-Four had been a parking lot of stopped cars, extending onto shoulders and overflowing onto the greenways. Even the state highways and routes were iffy, the key intersections blocked by tangles of burned and wrecked cars and trucks. The roadway was eerily quiet, populated only by the dead that remained in many vehicles, or laying outside them, where their picked-over corpses lay drying in the sun.

Missing were the howling mobs of infected that had chased their group out of New York City.

Tom had made an effort to use the highway, looking for a path that could accommodate their big SUVs. However, trying to squeeze past only served to disturb scavengers, and the flocks of crows that rose squawking into the air served to advertise the survivors’ presence, something that the banker he was trying to avoid. He moved off the interstate and made better, though very slow headway. The deliberate pace imposed by the poor road conditions, as well as Tom’s innate caution, afforded the survivors the chance to study their navigation options, usually from a distance. They’d doubled-back often, avoiding any risk of confronting other survivors.

Once, they’d been warned away from a cross-roads. It had been guarded by a bunker made of white FEMA sandbags. An unseen guard, whose presence had to be inferred by the black snout of a rifle that had slowly emerged into view upon their cautious approach, didn’t respond to their shouted queries. At least their equally careful retreat hadn’t prompted any shooting, but it had cost them half a day of backing and filling as they tried to navigate around the road junction.

As a result, they’d stayed on side roads, and then side roads to the side roads. Tom looked at his handheld GPS and zoomed in on their location. Details were sparse, limited to what was included in the small-scale pre-loaded maps. The Garmin only offered the barest information, in this case a marked intersection and a symbol for fuel. Which was already obvious, given the fifty foot tall, red and blue Chevron sign looming overhead.

The good news about moving slowly was that they were burning a lot less fuel. The bad news was that the round-about path forced them to cover a lot more ground, and that was eroding their fuel savings. So far, he’d been keeping the fuel tanks topped off with what they’d brought along. Scavenged fuel would require a gas additive to deal with any water contamination, which was something else he hoped to find in a fuel station.

He squinted down at the screen, fighting the glare of the hazy sunlight that washed out the details in the small display. What he really missed about paper maps, what galled him about using their digital replacement, was that he couldn’t spread them out and really “see”. In addition to keeping their supplies topped off and gleaning any new intelligence about the conditions ahead of them, what he really needed was some paper maps.

“Well, let’s go then,” Fat Ralph answered, exasperatedly. Tom shot the recruit a sharp glance. At least Ralph had kept his voice down this time. Tom held up one fist, the universal symbol for halting in place and being quiet. He’d taught everyone as much field craft as time and space permitted and this signal was easy for the gangster to remember, reinforced by a decade’s worth of post 9/11 war movies and video games. 

Tom banker performed a three-sixty scan. Over his shoulder, he took in the state of the rest of the party, leaning again the blue Suburbans. This particular kind of stop had become common enough that some of his ragged band had relaxed, perhaps dangerously so. Tom had pulled the lead SUV around the side of the structure, facing back towards the access road and at least the gang was sticking close the trucks, watched over by Durante and Kaplan. The last thing Tom needed was for his group to scatter through the cluster of structures that marked this crossroads. Tom had decided to bring along the former mafiosi in order to judge how much the knock-off Italian gangster had matured.

“Alright, stay close,” Tom said, preparing to enter. He kept his right hand on the pistol grip of his AR and pulled on the unbroken glass door with his left. Wonder of wonders, it was unlocked. He cautiously stepped inside and waved Fat Ralph along before holding up his hand again. Ralph quirked both eyebrows at him, puzzled at the stop-and-go.

“We wait a moment to let our eyes adjust to the light level.” Tom said, keeping his voice low.

Ralph nodded, looking around. The unlit store had been hastily looted. Enough light filtered through the dirty glass storefront to reveal the racks of snacks and candy were bare. The dirty floor had enough wrappers to illustrate that previous visitors had begun eating on the spot. The formerly refrigerated cases were open, mostly empty and gave off a musty odor.

After a minute, Tom touched his partner on the shoulder, and led off. The cashier’s station was open, and the empty cash register lay sideways on the floor.

Ralph leaned over the counter, and spotted the tobacco shelf and started dropping cans of smokeless tobacco into the empty laptop bag that he wore over his left shoulder.

Tom scanned the magazine rack. There weren’t any maps. None of the papers or magazines post-dated their departure from New York, but on a whim Tom collected a three month old copy of the Virginian Pilot. The small electronics aisle remained pretty full, but without electricity, most of the items were useless.

Tom pointed to the lubricant selection and Ralph obediently grabbed some quart containers of oil before holding up a small red plastic bottle with a long neck, and shook it for Tom to see. Fuel stabilizer, check. Also, empty. Check.

“Let’s see about the garage,” Tom said, pointing to the door at the rear of the store.

He let Ralph lead off, this time.

Both men entered the larger and much darker space before pausing to adjust to the light level. Once they gingerly navigated the two cement steps that led to the lower level, Sacks reached over and groped on the wall for the light switch, then stopped and gave Tom an embarrassed nod. At the very end of the space, one of the roll-up garage doors was cockeyed and partially raised. The furthest bottom edge of the door just kissed the ground, rising upwards to leave perhaps eighteen inches of daylight to illuminate the front section of that bay. As their eyes acclimated, four car hoists became visible, looming out of the deep shadows. The work bays were filled with equipment, the nearest hoist holding a still gleaming red Durango. The SUV was missing a wheel but otherwise seemed intact.

Tom took a step forward and his foot made a splashing sound. Rainwater had made it inside, and the floor sloped away towards the rear of the shop. He turned to Ralph to coordinate completing their sweep, but the man had spotted a rack of plastic bottles. Before Tom could grab his arm, the gangster splashed forward to check for stabilizer, and kicked a metal toolbox. The banging sound was very loud in the space.

Coming to rest, the tool box just barely touched a fifty gallon drum, which rolled and knocked over another box. The succession of crashes was guaranteed to wake the dead.

Both men froze, listening. Nothing. Ralph turned a sickly smile towards his boss.

Just as Tom’s pulse began to return to normal, both men heard a querulous growl.