River of night, p.2

River of Night, page 2

 part  #7 of  Black Tide Rising Series


River of Night

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His plan, the plan, Plan Zeus, had not included schoolteachers, or their students. His team was already supposed to be at one of Bank of the Americas’ carefully sited and prepared long-term recovery centers. In his plan, they were supposed to be coordinating with surviving national authorities and reestablishing the economic framework that would keep their country alive. In his plan, there were supplies, communications, doctors, security, everything that a well-funded investment bank could lay hands on.

  That plan…wasn’t.

  Instead, the former Managing Director for Security and Emergency Response for BotA was here, stranded with a motley collection of survivors, most of whom had never worked together, lacked formal training and, as they’d just experienced, were still dealing with the emotional shock and isolation of being trapped while all about them the United States, indeed the world, writhed in the final death throes of the deadly global plague.

  “Let’s see if I’m right,” Tom said, visually inspecting Bua’s hands and face. They’d learned the hard way about the dangers of a member of their party succumbing to the deadly symptoms of the zombie virus. He kept watching Bua, who’d closed her eyes and started breathing in a more controlled manner. “If she starts itching like crazy, or foaming at the mouth we’ll try a test kit. Otherwise, we conserve what we have. We may need them soon enough and there’s no way to get more.”

  He turned to survey the rest of his little band.

  “You’re going to have a black eye,” Kaplan was saying as he looked at the other schoolteacher. He activated a pen light and shone it across his patient’s face. “She tagged you pretty good. Let’s see.”

  Emily Bloome might have been an educator too, but that was nearly all that she had in common with her shell-shocked fellow. Bua, Bloome and some of their students had been nearly run over by Tom’s convoy as it had barreled to safety through rogue NYC cops, turncoat mobsters and thickening crowds of infected. Tom had watched her master her fear, keeping her focus on her three young charges. Even during the bad nights in their hideaway, she’d been an emotional stalwart, comforting the kids and organizing quiet activities.

  She lowered her hand from her reddened eye, brushed a wing of dark hair back over one ear and glared at the bug-eyed woman next to her on the carpet.

  “What the hell, Dina!” Bloome exclaimed, exhaling sharply. Then she looked at the her kids, cowering in the opposite corner of the room. She tried to reassure them, saying, “It’s okay guys, Miss Dina is just scared.”

  The kids didn’t relax. They’d seen people turn before and had a perfectly rational fear of being close to a possibly incipient cannibal.

  “She’s a fucking nutter,” flatly stated Astroga. Cathe Astroga was one of the three National Guardmen who’d joined Smith’s rag-tag band at the last concert in New York City on the night that the lights went out for the last time. The Army specialist casually slipped a taser back into her cargo pocket. “Damn, I wanted to see if these things still worked. Battery operated, you know.”

  “Astro, lay off, and go inventory,” said Sergeant Copley wearily, too tired to muster the usual NCO discipline needed to corral his irrepressible subordinate. “I’ll help.”

  A seasoned veteran of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Copley had led the patrol that fought alongside the bank team. He’d been glad of the help of Smith’s specialists as well as the extended Smith clan.

  “C’mon,” he added, standing to go into the other room. “Let’s go.”

  The stocky sergeant chivvied the Specialist out the door in front of him. She paused at the doorway to give Bua a long meaningful look while patting her pocket.

  Tom ignored the byplay, which he’d learned was the safest course when dealing with Astroga, who was the junior surviving representative of the U.S. Army and self-proclaimed “Global Leader of the E-4 Mafia.” After they filed out, Tom remained squatting on his haunches. He looked at Bua.

  “Dina,” he said, getting her attention. “Hey!”

  She opened her eyes and looked at him.

  “Will you behave if I pull that tape off?” he asked, striving for nonthreatening sincerity. “I’ll listen to everything you say, promise. I’ll even untie enough rope to make you comfortable while we wait to see if this is just nerves. But you have to talk normally, no yelling. What do you say?”

  “Mmmmmpf! Mwwwwwwwp-hmmmhmmmmmn! Rumpfh Huuu! Rumpfh Huuu!”

  “Yeah, that doesn’t sound like a simple yes,” Tom replied, glancing around. “Kap, give me a hand and we can drag her to the dining room where she can relax and we can still keep an eye on her. Check on her in a half an hour or so.”

  “Sure thing, Boss,” Kaplan replied, but caught his eye and shot a glance at the back door. “After, let’s talk.”

  * * *

  “Now we’re talking!” exclaimed the bearded scavenger as he pulled open a family room cupboard.

  “Whatcha got, Ricky?” his companion said, sticking his head into the formerly well-appointed kitchen. Both ignored the drying corpse that sprawled in the breakfast nook, partially eaten. From the look of things, it was mostly smaller animals that had been at it. Experience had taught them it was usually the family dog.

  “Top shelf! Some sealed bottles of whiskey, rum and some other stuff,” Ricky said, and laid his pump shotgun on the brown swirls of the granite countertop, scratching the smooth finish. “Here, hold this open, wouldja, Freddo?”

  “Dunno man,” the second man replied, itching his own patchy facial hair. “Boss was pretty clear. First sweep is still going on for live ones and any zombies.”

  “Just one for a nip later then,” Ricky said, selecting an engraved bottle. “I’ll just grab a—”

  “Wouldn’t do that. He’ll know,” Freddo said confidently. “You saw what he did to the other guy.”

  “He didn’t do anything. He didn’t have to. That fucking ogre did it,” Ricky said darkly.

  “Same thing,” came the reply. “You break the rules, I ain’t gonna cover for you.”

  “Okay, okay,” said the taller man, conceding the point. He shoved a few bottles back in the cabinet, leaving the others on the counter. “I’ll come back for these when we do a proper gleaning. Let’s clear the upstairs.”

  As they moved to the landing they heard a quiet rustle. Ricky put a hand up, and paused. Then he dashed upstairs to find a small dog bristling at him.

  “Shit, just a dog,” he said, casually raising his weapon and shooting the animal. Ricky didn’t have formal training. Unlike the Hollywood fiction that perpetuated shotguns’ reputations as “street sweepers,” the weapons still required careful aim. His was bad enough that the shot didn’t kill the pet outright. Instead, he nearly missed and only a single pellet struck home, severing the animal’s spine. The resulting squealing from the mortally injured pet was piercing. Before he could shoot again a small form blurred out of a doorway and bounced off his knee.

  “Don’t you hurt Muffie!”

  Ricky screamed, and short-stroked the shotgun, so that when he tried to shoot, he was treated to the loudest sound in any gunfight.

  A resounding click.

  Freddo made a long arm and plucked the child off his friend’s leg. Despite being outmassed by a factor of five, the little red-headed boy made a creditable attempt to defend his pet. The kicking and gouging persisted even as the older man pinned him to the wall with one gloved hand.

  “Settle down!” ordered Freddo, giving the little boy a quick shake. “Shut that dog up, will you?!”

  Ricky quickly stepped on the small dog’s head with one heavy boot, cutting off the noise.

  “Damn, he scared the shit out of me,” Ricky panted, bent over, one hand on the wall.

  “I could tell, from the manly war cry you let out,” Freddo said chuckling. “Nah, this kid’s just scared. Maybe not as scared as you.”

  “Fuck you, Freddo,” the scavenger replied, still panting. “Thought he was a zombie!”

  “And if he was, you’d be dead now,” Freddo said
crossly, even as his arm shook with the continuing struggle of the child. He turned his attention to the captive. “Come on now, quiet!”

  “Take him outside to the truck. He’s a keeper,” Ricky said. “I’ll wait here for you to come back and we can finish the house.”

  Before Freddo could get all the way downstairs with his screaming, fighting captive, the front door swung open with a squeal. A very tall, very broad man entered, ducking his head under the frame. Freddo wasn’t an Army guy, so he didn’t know the names of all the guns that the newcomer wore, but he could count, and there were at least four.

  The black submachine gun the man carried was dwarfed in his grip. His bulk was augmented by a very modern black plate-carrier from which hung an assortment of professionally appropriate equipment. Two large pistols were chest mounted in Kydex holsters. A handle for a long, wide-bladed knife, nearly the length of a machete, was balanced by the stock of a pistol grip shotgun that rose above the opposite shoulder. A matte black cranial helmet framed a pair of eyes so dark that they matched the black utilities that were the uniform of the uppermost tier of guards in their outfit.

  He briefly locked eyes with Freddo. The big man’s racial heritage wasn’t obvious, apart from clearly being descended from mountain trolls. He considered the two irregulars and their squirming captive before scanning the rest of the room.

  Noting an absence of any immediate threat, he stood to one side to make room for the next man.

  Behind him strode a figure who looked small only in comparison to the monster that preceded him. He wore mud colored body armor over khaki trousers and a blue windbreaker. He bore a shoulder slung submachine gun and holstered pistol, but his hands were filled with a notebook and pen. Freddo knew the man only as Mr. Green. Green had captured him, recruited him, and given him a job.

  Mr. Green also made the rules.

  Freddo could tell that Mr. Green was an educated man. The fancy words, the organization, the regulations, all of it, were things that Freddo could never duplicate, but he also knew that every pack needed a leader. He couldn’t easily articulate his reasoning but he was bright enough to know that his best chance in the current world of shit was to join the best pack under the smartest alpha-dog that he could find.

  Green was smart enough for all of them. But he wasn’t merely intelligent. The dispassionate look on Green’s face as he glanced at Freddo, Ricky and their captive reminded the looter of a term his granddaddy had used to describe the local sheriff, renowned for his skill at catching—or dispatching—criminals.

  A killing man.

  “What was the shot?” demanded Green.

  “Just a dog, sir,” replied Freddo. “This kid’s pet.”

  “Ah, very good,” said Green, spying the new captive. “Give him to Loki here and continue the sweep.”

  “Uh, sir?” Ricky asked from the top of the staircase while Freddo gladly passed his struggling captive to the much taller bodyguard. “Why do we want kids? I mean, he’s too young for the recreation hall, even for thems as like boys. And he’s too small for useful work.”

  “Did I ask for questions?” replied Green. “Negative. When I want your questions, you’ll hear me ask for them. Got that?”

  “Uh, yessir,” Ricky said carefully. “I didn’t mean nuthin’ by it.”

  “I guess you didn’t,” Green replied. “But I’m in a good mood, so I’ll let you have your explanation. Your job’s to clear houses. My job is to do the thinking. Do a good enough job and you get vaccine. Eventually. Continue to deliver and you get additional rewards. Don’t…well, Mr. Loki or one of the Guard will do for you. Do I need to make an example to help you remember?”

  The giant’s eyes glinted when he heard his own name and he looked directly at Freddo.

  Freddo gulped and backed up the stairs, something preventing him from willingly turning his back to Loki.

  “No sir, definitely not!”

  Green glanced about the room again. The damned alcohol bottles that Ricky had lined up on the counter stood out like a sore thumb.

  Green favored both of his looters with a final knowing look and stepped back outside, followed by his hulking shadow.

  The boy was fighting more feebly now, suspended at arm’s length from one of Loki’s ham-sized fists.

  * * *

  Risky watched Smith and Kaplan ease outside before she looked in on her wrestling partner. Bua was lying quietly on her side, still secured at the wrists, elbows, knees and ankles with sturdy rope. The teens were pointedly ignoring the tied-up teacher in the next room, and instead were clustered around Bloome, playing some card game on the beige carpet.

  Risky stretched, easing the residual strain of wrestling with a potential infected. Her experience in the bank’s Biological Emergency Response Teams had taught her that she could expect soreness once the adrenaline wore off. Until the pandemic struck, she’d been limited to a mostly decorative role as the “girlfriend” of the head of the Jersey-based Cosa Nova. However, thanks to her old boss’s keen eye, she’d been seconded to the bank as part of a complicated four-way deal that saw BotA, city government, cops and the mob cooperate in an attempt to keep the lights on in New York City. Matricardi had spotted an opportunity to get closer to the head of the bank’s head of security and sent her to do it.

  Risky had immediately known that Tom Smith was no fool. The man hadn’t required instructions and simple diagrams to understand why the Cosa Nova boss had sent Risky as his liaison. The obvious chemistry between them that neither dared to acknowledge was just, how-you-say, icing on the cakes.

  Risky knew that Smith’s world was now upside down. She also knew that she was a piece that didn’t fit perfectly into his post-apocalyptic scenario. He’d made ruthless decisions in an instant when he had to, in order to save as much as he could for his own employer.

  She snorted.

  Bank of the Americas was—had been—as dangerous as any gang. They’d been the ones who’d started the unsanctioned harvesting of spinal tissue from infected humans. The resulting vaccine was just another part of Smith’s plan.

  She’d also seen Smith behave with grace, when he could afford to. The kids next door were one example. The fact that Bua was still breathing was another. Speaking of which, her shoulder was getting tight now. She stretched again, moving both shoulders deliberately, loosening her muscles while straining her T-shirt.

  Across the room, she noticed Vinnie “Mouse Sacks” Dingatelli, one of the two surviving goons from Cosa Nova, glance away from her tightened clothing, guilty as hell.

  Even though they’d worked for the same man before, she wasn’t going to fully trust him anytime soon. To be fair he hadn’t had a hand in the murder of the last boss of the Cosa Nova. As long as he followed Smith’s lead, same as everyone else, she’d let him live.

  However, Risky had kept the RPK that had done for Matricardi’s traitorous second-in-command, and made sure that everyone knew it.

  Bua moaned slightly, arresting the moll’s attention.

  She was pretty sure by now that the teacher wasn’t infected. What she was, was scared. Lost. Without any foundation. Lonely.

  Human things.

  As good as Smith was at plans, he could lose sight of the human problems that were at the heart of everything. Not everyone was a soldier, corporate or otherwise.

  She grabbed a windbreaker from the peg next to the door and headed outside to join the first two.

  * * *

  After a companionable silence, Tom got to the point.

  “Okay,” he said, facing his companion squarely. “What’s on your mind, Kap?”

  “Weather’s turning, getting cooler,” Kaplan replied. After a glance around the property, Kaplan returned his boss’s look. “People are getting cooler too.”

  “We’ve had this conversation, Kap,” Tom said, suppressing his obvious irritation.

  “Tom, it’s me, okay?” Kaplan replied earnestly. “You pay me for my opinions and I’m telling you that we
can’t stay here. It’s not a smart play.”

  “What am I paying you with, again?” replied the taller man, flashing a wry grin. “I’ll double it!”

  No one had gotten paid since the Fall.

  “The finest scavenged, room temperature Red Bull in all the land,” Kaplan said, sharing the joke. Then he stepped closer, directly in front of his boss, and kept his voice low. “You know what I mean. Stop evading.”

  “There isn’t exactly a playbook for this situation, Kap,” the taller man said, folding his arms. “We were supposed to be at one of the refuge sites before everything went. We were supposed to have more and better situated refuges, for that matter. We weren’t supposed to be marooned three hundred miles from the nearest long-term hide out, saddled with civilians and kids! Kids for chroissake!”

  Like his subordinate, Tom kept his voice low. His sharp gestures and a hint of the Australian accent communicated his keen frustration as clearly as though he had yelled aloud.

  “How soon can we move?” he continued. “Depends on the infected count and the road conditions. How far can we recce? Fuel’s limited. This is a pile of piss, Kaplan! Zeus was never supposed to devolve this far!”

  It wasn’t their first time through this discussion. Each knew his lines.

  “How far can we trust Fat Ralph and Sacks?” Kaplan said, naming the two former gangsters Tom had elected to keep alive despite the treachery of their former boss. A boss who had succeeded Matricardi as the surviving head of the Cosa Nova.


  “How many supplies can we afford to use on scouting before we don’t have enough to make it to Blue? The questions are a nested set of unknowns, Boss. I get it. I do. So does Gravy,” he said, referring to Dave “Gravy” Durante, the second Bank security specialist and the only other member of the team that Tom trusted implicitly.

  Kaplan turned so that they both faced the estuary, lowering his voice further.

  “But I don’t think that we can keep this entire group in this little house until first snowfall. That’s what you’re thinking, right?”

  “It’s still a solid idea, Kap,” Tom replied, raising one hand in a frustrated wave. “Zombies might be scary cannibals that swarm in big numbers, but they’re still just humans, most of them without clothes. Without tools and cooperative behaviors humans are remarkably fragile, slow, blind and easy to kill. Wait until winter and let the cold kill some and drive the rest into shelter. We’ll have the road to ourselves and we can be at Site Blue in two, maybe three days. Week at the outside.”

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