River of night, p.7

River of Night, page 7

 part  #7 of  Black Tide Rising Series

 

River of Night
 



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  Scouting the darkened interior of a building and waiting to see if you surprised a nest was…contrary to survival.

  So far, the best way to check empty buildings seemed to be to watch them at daybreak. Generally, infected stirred at first light, some instinct tying their hunt to an older rhythm. Usually no movement meant no active zombies.

  Mostly.

  These foragers were unusually lively. One would charge a few steps, often earning a swipe from the prey, and then retreat. The second would ape the first. Lather, rinse and repeat. If one infected stopped to dispatch the weakening cripple, it would be vulnerable to the third.

  The cycle had persisted longer than Jason expected.

  “Way too much energy for anyone to have before coffee,” he thought to himself. “I dub you hyper-gits Thing One and Thing Two.” It was a rare bit of post-Fall humor for the lone man.

  A few times Jason had wondered why he kept pushing in this godforsaken land. He’d turned his back on duty, everyone had; why keep fighting? It would be easy to let go. He still had some ammunition. He even had some rat poison that he used to salt the occasional fresh corpse, reducing the zombie population by a little more. He didn’t have to eke out this life for…what? He couldn’t say.

  Yet he couldn’t help pushing, every step taking him farther away from D.C. and the crawling suburbs that spread all around it. Every day farther away from the horror. At first, he had tried to help, here and there. Early on he had joined a missionary caravan as a guard. He narrowly escaped when it disintegrated in the middle of the night. He’d watched families turn, brother killing brother, like Cain murdering Abel. After that, he avoided other survivors. Mostly, he walked or cycled. In suburbs, there were plenty of bikes.

  His calf throbbed. He ignored that too. Salvage from big hospitals was a no-go. He sampled smaller hospitals and clinics, eventually giving up. He told himself it was because the infected density was too high. Still, he tried not to think of the gruesome scenes where zombies had made kills in rooms with bed-ridden patients.

  On the playground, the two hale zombies had decided to share the rations, but skipped the nicety of waiting for their prey to fully expire. He shut his ears to the sounds of the feast. Usually zombies were quiet, but when provoked they grunted, howled or roared inarticulately. They were still human animals. They could still scream. Especially when they were in pain.

  Focus.

  He considered his options. Use two of his remaining rounds and risk drawing zombies from farther away? Wait these two out and hope that they didn’t lie up nearby? His stomach growled.

  One of the big changes of the Fall was how quiet everything was. No motors, no air conditioning hum, no car stereo, no aircraft overhead, no muted freeway rushing in the distance, no TV droning through an open window.

  Just the silence of a dead civilization. And the screams of the zombies’ prey.

  As the screaming tapered, Jason was startled by the sound of a car engine. Though it sounded surprisingly close, habit prevented him from jerking his head around. Sudden motion drew attention. Carefully, he used his eyes to scan for movement, but the foliage obstructed his view. The vehicle drew close enough that he could hear tires licking pavement. A car door opened.

  “Just these two?” A man’s voice, clear as a bell.

  Below, Thing One lifted a blood-stained muzzle, growling over its meal.

  “Gimme a sec. I’m looking.” Another man. “Yeah, all I see are these two.”

  “Dump them, and we can scan for survivors from those trees up the hill.”

  Two muted bangs, and Thing Two looked up angrily as its erstwhile partner slumped across the eating area. Moments later, its head flew apart messily.

  “Who’s a good zombie?” cooed a new voice. A woman.

  Jason held very still as cars doors slammed and the vehicle moved a short distance away before shutting down.

  He considered his options.

  These three seemed…competent.

  CHAPTER 4

  “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 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 roundabout 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 performed a three-sixty scan. Over his shoulder, he took in the state of the rest of the party, leaning against 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 mafioso in order to judge how much the knock-off Italian gangster had matured.

  “All right, 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.

  * * *

  The first zombie lurched out of the black shadows, and splashed directly towards the closest target. Fat Ralph threw himself backwards and Tom ducked to one side as the former gangster swept his new boss with his loaded rifle. Time abruptly slowed as Tom paused, assessing the situation.

  The second hand on Tom’s watch advanced one tick.

  Ralph was scrabbling backwards, and Tom noted the man’s fingers began to form into claws, seeking purchase on the water-slick concrete.

  The infected was wading towards them in slow motion, perhaps thirty feet away.

  As he watched, another infected loomed out from behind the last car hoist. A third silhouette joined the first two, then another pair. Tom knew, without looking, that he might still escape back through the door, leaving Ralph to get swarmed. But, despite being a pain in his ass, the former mobster was his man now. Ralph had taken his salt, and it was a two-way street.

  So leaving him to die wasn’t going to happen.

  Tick. The second hand advanced again.

  Twenty-five feet. The zombies’ collective growling and keening filled the space, drowning out the sounds of their splashing progress.

  Tom had heard the sound before, at Washington Square Park, and again, beneath his own building during their breakout from Manhattan. It was pure hunger, raw and red. It was the warning of the predator, signaling to the pack that there was fresh prey. It was the sound of the darkness come alive, penetrating some deeply buried species-subconscious where ancient humans built fires against the unknown.

  Center mass wasn’t enough. He needed stops and drops. That meant head and spine shots. The second hand on Tom’s watch ticked for the third time, and Tom processed the angles, the distance and knew it would be a near thing.

  Twenty feet.

  On a battlefield every bit as dark as the Indonesian triple-canopy jungle in Timor where he was first blooded, Tom called on the same focus to surmount the ancestral fear. He noted his own emotions, shunting them aside, compartmentalizing everything but the need to service the targets in front of him. In that moment, as the zombies accelerated, closing the distance to their prey, Tom became nothing so much as the guidance system for the weapon he bore.

  Before the watch ticked once more, he raised his custom AR and engaged.

  Despite the poor lighting, the view through the Aimpoint had sufficed to center the bright red dot on the first zombie’s chest. The first two rounds he fired into the infected’s center of mass were attempts at a spine shot, but they only staggered his target. Tom adjusted and drilled his third round through the zombie’s head. Instantly, it became a good zombie, bonelessly slumping in mid stride as its fellows narrowed the gap by another yard.

  Fifteen feet. As the infected closed, the water became shallower, allowing increasingly faster movement.

  The next infected was making good time, but the jerking gait forced on the zombie as it fought through the now shin deep water cost Tom the first shot. His disciplined second sight picture allowed him to find its head with the next round. His shots were coming closer together now.

  Switch targets, the muzzle traversing with aching slowness.

  Nine feet.

  Shoot—shoot—shoot. Infected down. Tom’s cadence was even faster, the Geissele trigger barely resetting before he released each subsequent bullet.

  Six feet, a lunge away.

  Shootshootshootshoot and one more round through an eye, instantly rag-dolling his target. It splashed face first into the water-covered floor.

  The last infected closed all the way only to trip over the dead fellow at Tom’s feet before sprawling gracelessly. Tom carefully moved back half a step so that his next round would bounce away, not towards Ralph or himself. Then he loosed the final bullet, which zipped through the crown of zombie’s skull and against the cement underneath.

  Tom heard the ricochet whine spitefully, but then there was only the splashing behind him as Ralph continued to flail backwards, heedless of muzzle discipline.

  “Jesus goddamit whatthefuckwasthat!”

  Tom didn’t so much as glance behind him. He double-checked the room instead, sweeping carefully, finger off the trigger, head up.

  He did have time for a comment, however.

  “Mate, if I turn around and that fooking gun is sweeping across me again,” Tom said, in a perfectly calm voice. “You’re going to eat it, flash suppressor first. Believe.”

  Shouts from outside finally penetrated his combat focus. Mechanically he replaced the partially spent magazine in his rifle as Ralph pick
ed himself all the way up, very deliberately, even exaggeratedly keeping his rifle muzzle down the entire time.

  Tom wasn’t worried about a sweep now; no man is as careful as someone who has broken the first rule and been called on it.

  “Two friendlies, coming in!” Durante’s voice rang out from the front of the store, warning the pair of the approach of friendlies. “Tom, you okay?”

  “In here, Gravy!” Tom replied sharply. He slid the old magazine inside the open neck of his blouse and then studied his empty left hand. It was steady for now, but he could feel the adrenaline still coursing through his body.

  He knew from experience that in a minute or three, he was going to have a few residual shakes.

  Just like the old days.

  * * *

  The view from the silver and navy blue Crown Vic with Virginia State Trooper markings was just like the old days. Except for the novel sensation of sitting in the back.

  Jason patted the cracked upholstery as the car ghosted along the two-lane state road. Back seat or not, this still beat walking. Looking around, he noted that his seat mate was scooted as far from Jason as the cabin permitted.

  “Hey, could you lower the window a bit on my side?” he asked the wheel man. A rosary was knotted around the rear view mirror, and the shortened swing of the crucifix caught Jason’s eyes for a moment before he met the driver’s squint in the mirror. The driver, sporting a shaven head, dismissed Young before looking at the other figure in the back and raising his eyebrows in an obvious question.

  “It’s cool, Dragon,” the woman to Jason’s right answered. “He’s not going to jump from a moving car. And he smells like actual shit.”

  “You’re in charge, Eva,” the driver answered, lowering the window. Then he replaced his blue latex-gloved hand back on the wheel, and refocused on the road ahead.

  Jason immediately enjoyed the rush of cool fall air. He noted, for the umpteenth time, that the road they were using was remarkably clear of wrecks, garbage and bodies.

 
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