River Of Night – Snippet 21
The fitful breeze stirred a fading American flag and rattled the halyard against the aluminum flagpole.
Another small Southern town, of the kind Tom and the rest had seen several times before
The sameness was simultaneously comforting and unsettling. There were the usual two churches, elementary school and a medium sized chain supermarket. There might be a hardware store. A pharmacist. An auto shop. Perhaps two hundred homes, ranging from double wides to stick-built construction.
The usual number of long dead bodies in view, usually recognizable because of the remnants of clothes, especially shoes, that marked each person’s final resting place.
Total silence, save for the occasional bird call.
“What do you think, Boss?” Kaplan inquired. “Nothing has moved in the last half hour. Around or through?”
“Not sure, Kap,” Tom said, lowering the binoculars and squinted at the early afternoon sun. “I don’t really want to backtrack. The last good lay up spot was two hours back. I hate to give up that much ground. I think that the main road looks clear enough to get through without detouring or pushing. Map says we can find a camp spot about another hour up the line.”
Most of the party was staying in the SUVs, including their newest acquisition, the Dodge, below the line of sight to the town, hidden by the gentle rise of the road that they had followed. Drivers remained behind each wheel, and the passenger side doors were open on the first two vehicles, just in case Tom and Kaplan had to scamper back in a hurry.
“Wouldn’t mind a look see,” the security specialist said, thoughtfully. “If we see a lot of infected, we just drive on. No infected â€“ we can take a look for salvage. I wouldn’t mind a hose pump for transferring fuel.”
Many abandoned vehicles still had partially full tanks, but Smith insisted on topping off their tanks whenever they could and siphoning gasoline was a hated chore. The rubber hose method had been their standby. However, Tom suspected that the gas stations they passed had plenty of fuel. Without electricity to power the main pumps, there was no way to get at it unless they found a manually operated pump.
Tom took another look through the glasses and considered.
“Right,” he said decisively. “We go through.”
For the sake of security and the comfort of human contact, the drivers had instinctively parked together in front of the hardware store. Tom ordered most of the staff to stay with the vehicles, armed and watchful. Meanwhile, two pairs would scout Ace Hardware and the grocery, respectively.
Tom took Worf into the grocery. They ghosted through the aisles, stepping gingerly in part to avoid making noise but principally because the volume of remains was impressive.
“Why so many bones?” Worf said wonderingly. “Why choose to die here?”
Tom bent and picked up a polymer framed pistol, the slide locked back on an empty magazine. He held it for the other man to see. A few empty pistol magazines peeked out from the litter.
“They were fighting over the supplies,” he said. “This must have been the first place everyone decided to go when they ran out. Maybe this guy…”
Tom nudged a clothed skeleton, mostly complete except for the upper skull and one arm. The chest and legs were somewhat protected by an equipment vest and heavy trousers. Despite the decomposition, it had clearly been a really big man. Incongruously, a velcro patch of a small white rabbit armed with a switch blade gleamed on the vest, below the remains of dry yellow beard.
“…decided to protect what he was buying, or looting.”
“I see a fair bit of brass.” Worf said, pointing at scores of spent cartridges scattered on the dirty floor. “Must have been a real rodeo here, at the end. Not gonna lie– not sorry I missed it.”
Tom followed the gesture and then did a double-take.
“Now that…” Tom said, leaning over and shaking garbage from a small axe “… is worth the salvage.”
“R-M-J,” spelled out Worf, reading the logo. “Shit. That’s a six hundred dollar tomahawk! How did that end up here?”
“Finders keepers,” Smith said. “This thing can chop through nearly anything.”
The tomahawk was anodized steel. Despite the lack of maintenance, the sharpened edge still gleamed. Opposite the blade was a wicked spike, sharpened on both sides and curving gently back towards his hand. Green paracord served as a grip. Tom bounced the handle a few times contemplatively and then unstrapped the sheath that still adorned the corpse’s vest.
“Thanks, mate,” he said, saluting the single battered corpse.
One aisle over, Tom heard Worf inhale sharply.
“If you liked that, you’re gonna love this.”
Tom turned a corner and found the floor carpeted with skeletal remains. The vinyl flooring was nearly completely obscured by the bodies, or rather, parts of bodies. Few clothes were visible in the light that filtered through the front of the store.
“Whoa,” Worf breathed quietly. “That’s a lot of bones.
“No clothes,” Tom said dispassionately. “The bodies are disarticulated. Brought here and eaten post-mortem. It was a larder while the water lasted.”
He looked down the adjoining line of shelves. They were bare but the floor was ankle deep with chewed plastic bottles. He picked one up and read the brand name.
“Looks like the zombies like expensive designer bottled water, too,” he said. “Liked it enough to chew their way into the bottles to get a drink.”
“You can’t bite through a plastic bottle!” Worf said, objecting quietly. “No way!”
“Apparently you can if you are thirsty enough.” answered Tom. He glanced back at the bone pile. “Looks like this was the buffet area.”
“Where did they all go?” Worf asked.
“They’re animals,” Tom replied. “They go where there’s water, food and shelter. But not here, not anymore.”
Having swept the aisles from one end, they paused near the back of the store. There was a set of swinging doors to the rear stockroom, but they clearly had been closed for some time, blocked by refuse that was piled against them.
“Okay. Let’s fill a bag with any canned stuff that looks useful and get out,” Tom said. “I’m about rea–“
Outside, shots rang out.
“Eva, don’t forget!” Biggs blustered. “My town, my gleanings! You’re just here to help and advise.”
“Sure thing, Biggs,” the slender brunette answered nonchalantly. “It has nothing to do with Mr. Green wondering if you are an asset or a liability, right? Whatever you gotta tell yourself. Just remember that Green sent me along to keep an eye on you.”
She tugged at the heavy fireman’s coat. What she really needed was something for a female firefighter, but so far she was making do with a men’s extra small. Clearing towns as much about making sure that you didn’t get swarmed and bit by infected as it was finding and “rescuing uninfected survivors.” She wore her armor on the inside of the coat. Only the lieutenants had both proper body armor and vaccine, so the working hard enough to earn the heavy clothing was literally a matter of life and death for their recruits. Even for the vaccinated, avoiding bites was helpful. The vaccine didn’t protect against the plethora of really disgusting bacteria found in the average human’s mouth, let alone a carrion-eating shambler.
However, the huge crowds of zombies that had been common at the start of the Fall seemed to have left this town on their own.
The Gleaners had found that absent a water source, most infected would decamp from their old homes and spend their time closer to the many lakes, rivers and creeks that were common in the area. Still, you could run into a pack unexpectedly. All it took was a windmill filled water tank or a cattle pond.
Somewhere, there was going to be a really big swarm, but it wasn’t here. That was good enough for the Gleaners.
“On your last visit, how far did you get before you fucked up?” she asked Biggs, completely unintimidated by his size. Of course, her right hand stayed on her rifle’s pistol grip.