This just means there needs to be with glass and
a can. 'Murica.
And now with marginal further ado...let's wrap this sucker up. I'm supposed to graduate in six hours and I'd kind of like something notable to happen today, so I guess this'll work.
Shifty was less familiar with the vet clinic. The Baptist church in Drummond he knew some better, seeing as it fell on his route to and from Everett on weekends. Meatball being more or less in the same boat they discussed the matter and opted to visit the former first - swing way out wide and make the best use of daylight, then come back around and hit the church on the return leg, hoping all the way that Mike would use a similar course on his way to the lake.
The plan had but one flaw.
Chiefly, there was no shelter at the vet clinic. There had been - and by the signs, it had stood until fairly recently. But when the Volkswagen crested the hill there was no mistaking all the earmarks of disaster. The headlights cut across the front of the clinic as they turned into the parking lot in the waxing dusk. The front door hung open. To either side the reinforced windows reflected finger-painted strokes of dull red. A headless body lay facedown on the steps, one leg gone.
Meatball shoved his head outside the van and puked.
Shifty got out slow, surveying the damage, and went around to the sliding cargo door, mindful to avoid the remnants of his passenger's lunch.
"Shit, man," Meatball stepped down with the exaggerated movements of a drunk, pulling a rifle-sighted 12-gauge after to standing with the shotgun held at his waist, nervously shifting foot to foot.
In the back where the seats used to be, two fat cases. He laid the first open like a filleted trout to reveal the angular form of a black rifle. An AR-10 derivative, built himself under his uncle's watchful machinist's eye to encompass everything he wanted in a fighting gun and nothing he didn't. The barrel ended at fourteen inches to pick up in a fat cannon brake. Atop the receiver sat a squat reflex sight. Affixed under the muzzle, a weapon light. He selected an oversized magazine, slapped it against his thigh, and drove it home with the palm of his hand.
"You ain't bullshitting, dude," Meatball said. Shifty only grinned.
"You bring earplugs?"
"You might want to keep back. This thing can be a little loud."
"Whoa whoa whoa. Hold the fuck up - you actually going in there? In that?"
"Don't look like there's much out here." Shifty thumbed a button on the back of the optical sight. A red crosshair flickered to life within. Satisfied, he took a couple of extra magazines and seated them in the pockets of his vest. He toggled the light and a chalk-white circle appeared on the side of the clinic. Didn't figure he'd need that, seeing as there was at least an hour before full dark. He gave the .45 a once-over, pressed back the slide and set the safety. That one wore a weapon light too, a combination of small flashlight and laser.
Mall ninja shit, but his money and his call.
Meatball appeared somewhat less enthused, trying visibly to keep from looking at the body on the front steps. The way he kept stroking the trigger on his shotgun he'd be lucky to get back home with both feet.
"Stay with the van," Shifty told him, and without waiting for a reply or a protest he was stepping over the dead man and through the door.
Not much better inside; he swept the light over the dirty walls. Plenty of signs people had lived here, though. The smell of unwashed bodies kept in close quarters hung constant and oppressive. The tiled floor was piled ankle deep with blankets, luggage, empty water bottles...the detritus of a civilization in full retreat.
Two corridors led off from the lobby. To his right, the exam rooms. To his left he could only guess. He went right, probing into the darkened spaces with the stainless tables and silent machinery, finding nothing. At the end of the hall a wooden door hung ajar on one hinge. Judging by the damage something had wanted in pretty bad...or wanted out.
From beyond, noises.
Shifty froze, bringing the rifle to shoulder. The racket stopped, came again, and grew more frenzied. A placard beside the doorframe read EMPLOYEES ONLY. Through the opening he could make out shelves, glass fronts hanging open and something like a refrigerator.
Taking he a deep breath he thumbed down the safety selector. Steeled his nerves. Swept inside, back to the wall on his right and triggered the light.
A man squatted in the floor. Empty plastic bottles scattered as he jumped bolt upright, empty hands held out and eyes wide. In his haste he stepped wrong and lost his footing. Both feet went out from under him and he dragged himself backwards like a crab.
"Don't shoot! Don't shoot! Jesus, don't kill me! I just came here to look man, I swear! I just gotta have my shit...gotta have my shit...anything, man..."
Shifty relaxed, if not by much. Expecting an infected, he'd run into something about as dangerous and just as unpredictable. From the bagged, hollow eyes and the track marks he discerned everything he needed to known. Every exposed inch of the man's skin seemed to quiver and dance of its own accord. One of the trembling hands moved into shadow.
"Eh. - " Shifty jerked the muzzle of the rifle. "Let's keep those in plain sight."
The eyes held him. Measuring just the same as he'd sized up the opposition. Making plans. Weighing the odds. He wasn't altogether sure how fast an addict could move. Just now he didn't want to find out. He put the light square on the face and the hands flew up. Like spotlighting a vampire, almost, less the hiss.
"Where'd they go?"
"I didn't take nothing, I swear. I - "
"The shelter," Shifty said. "Where."
"Jesus! I dunno man...I...there was a place...they went..." The life behind the eyes flickered at this sudden and unexpected need to concentrate.
"Counting down," Shifty said. "Ten..nine..."
"The church! There was a paper in the window...something...church? I don't know man...don't kill me. I swear I didn't do nothing...nothing. The church, man."
"Out." Shifty gestured with the rifle. He kept the dangerous end on target until the figure oozed from the storage room and out into the hall, then took off a dead run. A metal door clapped and latched shut somewhere on the far side of the building.
The other corridor was worse. There the doors to the south opened to the pens for larger animals. Picking one at random Shifty stepped out into a covered space maybe thirty feet by thirty and open to the countryside. The carcass of a horse lay on its side, stripped down to the bone. He made it as far as the galvanized water trough where the head floated and beat a retreat, slamming the door behind him. Feeling his own lunch working its way up.
Shifty bit down on the urge, reached for the next door handle in line.
No more. Once was enough.
The other side of the hall was no better. Once kennels, chainlink dividers formed a corridor down the center. No animals remained here. Not until his second pass did he resolve the shapes on the floor, glossy green-black over their misshapen contents. Only then did he discern the purpose of this room. Maybe a dozen total. Two, smaller than the others, set apart. So make that ten.
He spun away to bid farewell to last night's dinner and the better part of a twelve-pack and came up spitting, dragging an arm across his mouth.
Oddly, the overriding color that came to mind was not sickness or sadness.
He hadn't signed on for this shit. For any of it. At once the idea made him angry - who the fuck said this goatfuck detail was his problem? Why him? Not a nametag in the bunch, either. Fuckers. Stupid slacking inconsiderate fuckers couldn't even mark their dead like goddamn human beings. The halo cast by the light began to shake. Only after a minute did he realize it was him. Both hands curled involuntarily into fists around the rifle.
Ten bags, he reasoned. Ten bags.
He emerged perhaps fifteen minutes later to find Meatball waiting as he'd left him. Still nervous, still doing his dance with a loaded shotgun in the light of a day fast dying but already shot to hell and gone.
"Was he in there?" Meatball asked.
"Can you drive?" Shifty growled.
"Yeah, sure. Did you - "
Shifty climbed into the passenger seat, the rifle held upright between his knees. On seeing Meatball looking on he slapped the side of the van.
"So get in," he said. "Fuckin' drive."
By contrast, Drummond First Baptist looked to be doing a booming business. Cars lined the road a solid quarter mile from the entrance to the parking lot - probably more traffic in the past couple of days than the church had seen in the entirety of its ministry. On the adjoining lot every stitch of available tent canvas turned open space into spillover housing, these additions glowing dimly from lanterns within. A valiant effort at serving as many refugees as could be managed.
And, Shifty wondered, a sure indicator that those in charge had no idea what was coming. A miniature Hooverville might beat sleeping in the open or triple-racking indoors, but it was no stretch to imagine the carnage if even a handful of infected wandered into their little tent city.
He had Meatball drop him as near the church as he could and hoofed it the rest of the way, painfully conspicuous. Couldn't be helped; so far as he was concerned, the time for subtlety was long gone. Questions came fast from the refugees - those who didn't shrink at his approach. Was he from the government? How long until more supplies arrived? Did he have news? A few tried to block him and he eyed them until they moved aside, wondering if they saw in him what his uncle called the thousand-yard stare and how far he could bluff.
He found out soon enough. Two hissing gas lanterns hung either side of the front doors. Half a dozen refugees loafing on the steps and the wheelchair ramp, at least a couple with improvised weaponry - sports equipment and lengths of pipe and construction scrap . No guns that he saw. Not a whole lot of trust in the faces, either. The largest of these looked him up and down, unimpressed.
"Who are you supposed to be?"
"Who's in charge here?" Shifty countered.
"Let's say I am." A nod, and two of the ersatz guards moved out to each side. Not hurried, not concerned. Shifty was weighing which would move first when the speaker shoved off from his concrete perch.
"Who are you," he said slowly, as if speaking to a small child. "And why are you here?"
"Looking for somebody," Shifty said, taking a half-step back, hooking a thumb through the strap of his shoulder holster. Scarcely had he touched leather when the world rolled. Hard. He got an eyeful of hazy stars that whirled like the view from an spinning carnival ride and only when he saw the toes of his boots float up into view did he realize he was no longer in contact with solid ground.
Rather than going facedown on the pavement a pressure like an iron bar fixed itself across his throat. Maybe it was an iron bar. Unseen, another set of hands scrabbled for the rifle; he cocked an elbow and threw hard, connecting with something which answered with a grunt and a brief lessening of the constriction. A third refugee leapt in now, swinging hard. What he was going for Shifty couldn't say - only that after the first couple of tries he got one right on the solar plexus, and that on top of feeling like a drunk in a zero-gravity house of mirrors he could no longer breathe.
The world - what little he could resolve - stretched and distorted. Then everything came to an abrupt and violent halt and whatever had picked him up tired of the game.
Shifty was sharply, painfully aware of hitting the ground. Lying on his back, wondering whether or not he'd really felt something break loose on contact, he saw dimly the faces floating above, washed in the green-white lantern light. One held his rifle with the muzzle wandering in lazy circles a few inches from his face. Looking for the safety, he guessed.
Then a strange thing happened. Something long and cylindrical and vaguely ominous grew from the side of the refugee's face. Through the haze Shifty registered a new presence orbiting overhead. If he didn't see the features, he damn sure knew the voice.
"Alright, assholes," Meatball drawled. "Let's not get stupid. It's been a pretty rough day all around. No need to wrap it up with a double-ought brain salad."
The pack leader tensed, moved to step forward.
"Eh - " Meatball prodded the side of his friend's head with the shotgun. That stayed him, for the time being. "Johnny, you okay down there?"
"Fuckin' ducky," Shifty groaned. With no small exertion he gained his knees, then his feet. Reclaiming the rifle, he tucked the butt under one arm and touched the back of his head. Damp? He couldn't tell. His thumb settled on the safety. The click hung in the damp air, the business end more or less center mass on the chief ape.
Still outnumbered, maybe. If he squinted just right he could make out two or three man-shaped images rolling and dancing. Worst came to worst he'd go for the one in the middle and hope twenty rounds bought him a piece of something worthwhile.
The front doors clapped. Another voice. "What's going on out here?"
The new man. Probably six foot or better, somewhere north of two hundred pounds and, even with the picture quality dancing like a busted gyroscope Shifty could safely venture that most of it wasn't fat. Wearing a black vest over a gray t-shirt, some kind of design on the front. Wallet on a chain. Mustache like Hulk Hogan.
Shifty found this last detail more amusing than he probably ought.
"Phil, you care to explain why there's a dogfight on my front porch?"
"This guy, with the M-16...he comes up and starts demanding to know who's in charge. I ask who he is and what he wants, and he goes to throw down on us. Ash there got a ahold of him before he could shoot. Until this other showed up we had a handle on it."
"Is that a fact."
"Well, if these two boys could get the drop on six of you it looks like I don't need security that bad. You can go now."
"Marv - "
"Now. Go." The voice was even and measured, underpinned with the sort of authority that brooked no challenges without need for volume or harsh words. Phil raised his hands defensively and melted away. One by one the others followed suit until it was only Shifty and Meatball and the big man, standing now with his arms crossed. A blurred tattoo ran up one forearm.
"You two. Your business here."
"We're looking for somebody," Shifty said, glad for the chance to lower the rifle. His arms felt like they'd been cast in lead. Awkwardly, he worked the gun around until it was slung more or less where he wanted, then gestured for Meatball to point his scattergun elsewhere.
"Friend of ours. He's overdue. Name of Mike Duncan. Kind of a big guy."
The explanation came in fits, starting with the nightmare of the vet clinic, working back to Mike's failure to arrive on schedule and frequently diverting down rabbit hole or another. At several points the big man interrupted to clarify. Mostly he nodded along or listened in silence. When Shifty wrapped up the telling Marv uncrossed his arms and picked up one of the lanterns. At close range he studied the two interlopers in his camp.
He stuck out a hand. Shifty took it warily.
"Marvin Strand," he said, not without a degree of hospitality. "Preacher Marv, they call me."
"This your church?" Meatball asked.
"No, not mine. I taught a youth Sunday school class on and off, whenever the regular man wasn't available." Then at Shifty's raised eyebrow, one side of his mustache hitched up in what might have been a grin, accompanied with a shrug. "More of a warning than an example, I think. But yeah, I know who you're after."
Preacher Marv regarded them for a moment, then turned and gestured that they should follow. Up the steps and into a warren of dim halls and finally down past a kitchen and some kind of store room - near empty, Shifty noted. A pair of doors stood open to the outside, leading to a small playground. At first he wondered if there might be a misunderstanding or that this might be a trap.
"Over behind the tree." Preacher Marv indicated an oak near the swingset. "Hasn't said a word since he got back."
Three more had come in with him, the explanation went. A Hispanic man and his daughter and a teenage boy of perhaps twelve, unrelated. Any effort to hammer out a story proved fruitless. Man and daughter were elsewhere at the church, sleeping off their last misadventure. The boy did not speak at all. Shifty told Meatball to stay put and headed off, sand and gravel crunching underfoot. As he moved closer he picked up the sharp bite of tobacco.
Mike Duncan sat against the base of the oak, near blending in with the shadow. Save the glowing cherry of the cigarette he might well have been invisible. Shifty crouched, unslinging the rifle to use as a third leg.
Something cold and round pressed hard into his neck before he could speak. The form against the tree remained motionless. When it spoke the voice was that of an old man. Tired.
"It's okay, Barry. He's one of ours."
A shadow moved out where Shifty could just barely see. Skinny - not much more than a kid - and armed with a shotgun. From whence he'd come Shifty couldn't begin to guess.
"That's Barry," Mike said. "Picked him up earlier. He don't say too much but he's real protective. Greased lightning with a pistol, too. Barry, Shifty."
What might have been a nod from the shadow.
"So what brings you out this way."
"Oh, I hadn't done any stupid shit for a couple hours. Figured I ought to get out and see the country, and while I was ought I might as well come looking for your dumb ass."
A muted chuckle, wholly without mirth. The kid was gone, Shifty noticed, and in searching he found no sign.
"You won't see him," Mike said. "He's a sharp kid. Like a chameleon."
In the uncertain lull to follow Shifty fished out a snuff can and smacked it twice. The scene at the vet clinic had done nothing to steady up an already shaky day, and just now the exchange was giving off way too much a vibe of shit being fucked up more than expected. A bad joke with a punchline he didn't want to hear.
"You got a vehicle?" he asked. "I didn't see your usual."
"Nah." The cigarette wagged side to side. "Lost that before I even cleared the apartment. Walked most of the way out of town and picked up a ride on the way. Lost that one on a little jaunt to Gantry an hour or two back."
"Two Mexicans and the kid?"
"You heard about that, did you?" The end of the cigarette flared briefly, then spun away into the sandpit by the monkey bars. There was a shuffling, then: "You got a light?"
Shifty produced a plastic lighter and flicked the wheel. The tiny flame threw into stark resolution a face not entirely familiar. He made out half a dozen cuts, the residue of a world-class nosebleed, and the patch on the neck. Another, encircled the left arm, marked at the center by an oblong shape the size of a silver dollar, and a third alongside the left side of the ribcage.
"Jesus H. Christ," he said.
"Not as bad as it looks." Mike reached to absentmindedly scratch at the neck. "Gunfighting ain't as fun as I thought it'd be. Bled like a son of a bitch...but it could have been worse. And word of advice...somebody ever offers to shoot you, you kill that fucker."
Digging out his last dip, Shifty pitched it aside and smacked a snuff can twice to reload. He sat in a new pinch and turned away, shaking his head.
"Can I ask you a personal question?"
An exhalation of tobacco smoke jetted into the night. "Shoot."
"The fuck are you trying to prove? What kind of dickhead stays out here? Who volunteers for shit that'll get him killed? Somebody hit you upside the head with a bagful of stupid?"
"That's four questions, asshole." That chuckle again. Just as humorless.
"Variations on a theme."
"Yeah...yeah, okay. I'll let you have that one." A long pause.
"He's dead. White"
"You were there." At last - anger, maybe, but it was something. "You saw what was left of him once the MPs pulled the refugees off. He's dead - "
"Probably, yeah. Don't get me wrong, man - sucks, but that ain't your doing - "
"Shut up and let me finish, dipshit. There's only a couple of ways that could have gone. Best-case scenario they got him to the hospital. You wanna take a stab at how the hospital's looking right now? Fucking gone. You can argue all you want, but he was one of mine. Harper put him with me. I was senior and that is on me. Maybe we all screwed the pooch. Maybe we shouldn't have been there at all. Doesn't matter - he was one of mine....shit."
Mike paused long enough to flick his cigarette ash.
"There were twelve refugees in Gantry. Holed up in a nursing home. I went over with four volunteers from the church and two vehicles. I came back here - walking - with three. Fucking three out of sixteen. You can't stack those kind of numbers into anything but a fuckup. I don't know, man. I guess maybe...maybe I thought if I could get those dozen back it'd offset White. But fuck. I don't know anymore."
Mike put his head in his hands and left it at that.
Shifty rolled back on his heels, thinking. Meatball waited by the rear doors of the church, talking to the preacher. In what light reached from the camp lantern he could make out Barry lurking in the pockets of shadow between trees.
"Your legs ain't broke, right?"
"No," Mike said.
"Good." Shifty slung the rifled and crouched, snaking an arm around Mike and dragging upward. The effort prompted a groan, from which of them Shifty couldn't tell. Loud enough to draw the attention of the others.
"Get his other side," he told Meatball. "Watch the bandage."
"Where we going?" Mike wanted to know.
"Home, fuckhead." Shifty took a grip on the good arm and Mike's belt. "Walk."
Preacher Marv replaced him over in the hallway, carrying the lantern in his free hand when Meatball went ahead to get the van. Unheard - and damn near unseen - Barry fell in at a distance. Kid gave Shifty the creeps; no way a teenager ought to be that kind of invisible.
The Volkswagen sat idling beside the first tent when they cleared the front steps of the church. Despite the late hour the excitement had drawn a crowd. They stood in a ragged circle now, faces glowing unnaturally in the off-green hissing of the lanterns as if party to some strange and esoteric ritual. As the two of them deposited Mike in the back a pair broke from the spectators, moving into the circle. Shifty put a hand to the holstered .45, recall too well how the last such encounter had kicked off and how it had very nearly ended.
The man raised his hands, palm out in a gesture of peace. Early forties, maybe. Hispanic. A couple of days of uncertain facial hair. A girl stayed close behind him.
"Ramon Lorenzo," he introduced himself and Shifty shook. "This is Isabella. He brought us from Gantry. You're taking him?"
"Home," Shifty said. "He's overdue. Family. They expected him a couple of days ago."
"He won't hear it now," Ramon said, nodding. "He doesn't believe us when we try to say so. But later, when he's of a better mind, tell him that I don't have words for how he helped us. He thinks that only getting three was failure. The truth...the truth is that any of us being here is a miracle."
"And give him this," the girl said suddenly, pushing past her father. She trust forward a fistful of flowers and, once Shifty accepted, retreated into Ramon's shadow.
"Alright." Shifty considered the flowers, then the girl. Cute in the wide-eyed and open way that suggested life hadn't started throwing her too many hard curveballs yet. Reminded him how he liked Mexican girls. Probably jailbait, though.
"Go safely," her father said, and he nodded once and went to the waiting van. Barry, he noticed, had infiltrated and stowed away in the back. He weighed telling the kid to get out, find someplace else to play but - hell with it. Shifty climbed into the passenger seat and slapped the door and they were moving off at a crawl with the crowd parting like a bow wave.
The reception at Casa Harris was about as subdued as expected. They parked in the circle drive and waited, and presently a light moved behind the leaded oval glass. Shifty got out and rolled the cargo door, prodding at the form within. Mike snorted and sat up fast, grimacing at the three wounds. Waving off any offers of help he worked his way out.
"Mike?" Cindy appeared around the front of the van.
Probably she hadn't expected a return so soon. Maybe she hadn't expected a return at all. She wore a t-shirt and khaki short-shorts, and for all the animosity and antipathy between the Harris and Schipper clans, Shifty didn't have to think far to figure out how a man could be convinced to put up with her shit. She rushed in as Mike set foot on asphalt, oblivious to the rest of the world and wrapped him up in a cinching embrace before she felt the swell of the bandages. They stuck together for a long moment. When they broke Mike turned to Shifty and raised a hand. They shook.
"I owe you," he said in a voice laced with exhaustion.
"Ain't shit." Shifty met the gesture, then clapped him on the shoulder. He watched as the pair made their way to the porch and into the alcove, and then light within moved away and the house sat dark once again.
"Okay, kid - " he found himself addressing an empty van. Barry had gone. Briefly he considering tracking him down. Then he only shrugged and slammed the cargo door and reclaimed the front seat. Meatball drummed his fingers on the steering wheel.
"Fuckin' A right," Shifty said. "Home."