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Dust & Decay
Dust Decay 12
Chong sniffed and wiped his nose and said nothing.
Lilah sat down in front of Chong, laying her spear in the dusty weeds. “Benny,” she said.
Benny started to say something, but he did not. Instead he nodded and got to his feet. He had no idea what Lilah was going to say, or what she could say. Compassion, tenderness, and most other human emotions seemed to be beyond her. Or was he wrong about that?
Benny nodded to himself and walked back to where Nix and Tom stood.
“Tom … do you know what happened? Who did this?”
“No,” Tom said, but there was something in his tone that made Nix give him a sharp look.
“What?” she asked.
“Come on, Tom,” Benny insisted. “If we’re going to be traveling out here, then you can’t treat us like this. You can’t protect us from stuff.”
“It’s not that,” Tom said slowly. “But … tell me something first.”
“Okay,” said Benny.
“That night last year, when we rescued the kids from the bounty hunters … how sure are you that you killed Charlie Pink-eye?”
If Tom had punched Benny straight in the face he could not have stunned him more.
“W-what?” he gasped.
“What are you saying?” demanded Nix.
“I’m not saying anything yet. Answer the question, Benny.”
Benny closed his eyes and the memory of that terrible fight was right there. Believing that Tom was dead, Nix, Benny, and Lilah had taken it upon themselves to rescue a group of children who had been kidnapped by Charlie Matthias and his bounty hunter cronies. It had been a foolishly risky plan, with more ways it could have gone wrong than right. The skies had opened and lashed Charlie’s mountaintop camp with heavy rains and shocking lightning. At Benny’s suggestion, Lilah had freed hundreds of the zoms that Charlie had tied to trees in the Hungry Forest. Using her own living flesh as bait, the ghost-voiced Lost Girl had enticed the legions of dead to follow her up the mountain and into the bounty hunters’ camp. Tom had showed up around the same time, having escaped a terrible death by a stroke of luck. During the ensuing battle, all the bounty hunters had died. Lilah had killed the Motor City Hammer—a cold revenge she had ached for since that horrible day years ago when her sister, little Annie, had died trying to escape from Gameland.
Charlie Matthias had slipped away from the slaughter in his camp and had come upon the fleeing children. He’d beaten Lilah and Nix to the ground and was seconds away from killing them all. Benny had managed to recover the length of black pipe that the Hammer had used to bash in Morgie’s head—and that Charlie and the Hammer had used to beat Nix’s mother to the point of death.
As Charlie went for him, Benny had faked him out and hit him with the pipe. The image, even the feel of the blow, were scorched into his memory. Benny wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.
“He fell all the way down the mountain, Tom.”
“But you never saw him land? Or heard him land?”
“No …,” Benny said dubiously.
Nix grabbed Tom’s sleeve. “Why, Tom?”
Tom sighed. “I’ve seen two other men killed like this. Years ago, over by Hogan Mountain. Both of them were bounty hunters who tried to cut a slice of this territory.” He walked over to the dead man and looked at his bloodless face. “I never knew for sure who did it, but rumor had it that both men had been killed by Charlie Pink-eye.”
“THAT’S IMPOSSIBLE!” BENNY AND NIX SAID IT AT THE SAME TIME.
“I hope you’re right,” said Tom.
“Charlie’s dead,” insisted Benny. “Unless he broke his neck when he fell, he’s a zom. He can’t be alive.”
Tom said nothing. He drew his knife and began cutting the corpse down.
“Tom,” said Nix, “Charlie’s dead. I know he is.”
“Okay,” said Tom. He slashed the ropes that held the man’s arms in place and let the body slide to the ground.
“Tom!” snapped Nix. “He’s dead.”
Tom pulled the man’s torso away from the truck and laid him out straight. “I’m not arguing with you, Nix.”
“But you believe us, don’t you? We saw him fall.”
“I believe you.”
“But you didn’t see him land.” He folded the man’s hands together over his stomach, then straightened and went to peer inside the truck. He rummaged for a moment and came back with a large piece of stained plastic sheeting. Without comment he wrapped the body in it and used rocks to weight down the corners.
“Tom!” barked Benny.
Tom turned angrily. “What do you want me to say, Benny? We didn’t stop to examine that side of the mountain. There could have been a slope or a ledge. There might have been enough thick brush to have slowed his fall. Or he could have fallen a hundred feet and been smashed to junk. I don’t know. We don’t know, and that’s the point. I’ve lived this long without giving in to assumptions.”
“But—,” Nix began, but Tom cut her off.
“No.” He sighed. “Now listen to me, both of you. You want to keep going, right? You don’t want to go back to town.”
“No!” snapped Nix. Benny, less sure about that, shook his head slowly.
“Okay,” said Tom, “then you have to learn to keep an open mind. Assumptions will get you killed. If Charlie is dead, then he’s dead. If he’s alive, then he’s alive. We don’t know for sure, but if we don’t allow the possibility of it, then we could get blindsided. Would either of you like it if Charlie was alive and got the drop on us? If he was willing to torture people and feed them to zoms just for cutting into his trade routes, try to imagine what he’d be willing to do to us. We killed his best friend, we led a zombie army against his crew, we made him an outlaw all through this part of the Ruin, he can’t ever come back to town … and you, Benny, beat him in a fight. You really want to wake up and find him grinning at you in the dark? Do you, Nix?”
They said nothing. Neither was able to.
“I’ve managed to stay alive out here in the Ruin because I’m a realist. I allow the truth to be the truth, no matter how much I might want it to be something else.” He waved his hand at the forest. “This might as well be hell itself out here. That line about everything out here wanting to kill you? It’s true.”
They kept silent. Nix grabbed Benny’s hand and was squeezing it harder than she had during Zak’s funeral.
“I want you both to learn to think and act—and react—the way I do. I want you to survive. You have to be ready for this to be your world too. You’re teenagers now, but out here you’re going to grow up fast. That’s only going to happen, though, if you’re smart and careful and honest with yourself.”
Nix said, “Tom … do you think there might be other people out here like Charlie?”
“Yes,” he said without hesitation. “Or worse.”
“Worse?” She shuddered. “God.”
Benny nodded. “Then I guess we have to be realistic about that, too.”
“I wish I could say otherwise.” He looked up at the sun. “We need to move. I don’t want to sleep outside tonight. Not after a day like this. Brother David will let us bunk down with him, but we have miles to go and …” His words slowed and stopped and for a moment he seemed to stare into the empty air. Then he wheeled around toward the dead man. “Damn! You idiot!”
“What is it?” Nix asked.
Tom didn’t answer. Instead he jerked the sheeting back from the dead man and bent close and examined the corpse’s neck. He rolled him onto his side and peered close at the skull from all angles. Then he sat back on the ground. “Huh …,” he said, looking perplexed.
“What is it?” Nix asked again.
He’s been dead for days, whispered Benny’s inner voice. “Days,” he said aloud.
Tom gave him a sharp look, a
nd then nodded.
Nix still didn’t get it.
“His neck isn’t broken, is it?” Benny asked.
Tom shook his head.
“No bullet in the head?”
Nix caught up with what they were saying, and her eyes were wide. “No one quieted him,” she said softly.
“No,” murmured Tom.
“So why didn’t he … come back?”
Tom shook his head slowly. He considered for a moment and then called Lilah to come and examine the body. She stalked over with a pale and silent Chong in her wake.
“Look at this man, Lilah,” Tom said. “Tell me how he died.”
He didn’t explain. Lilah studied Tom’s eyes for a moment, then shrugged and knelt by the corpse. Benny noticed that her examination was almost identical, step by step, with Tom’s. Her reaction, however, was different. She hissed and whipped out her knife and without a moment’s pause drove it into the base of the dead man’s skull.
“Yeow!” cried Benny, lurching backward from the flashing blade.
“Whoa now!” said an unfamiliar voice. They all whirled as a stranger stepped out of the woods right behind Lilah.
“LITTLE GAL’S FAST WITH A PIGSTICKER.”
The stranger seemed to have stepped out of nowhere and was in the gap between the rear bumper of the truck and a game trail that vanished into the shadowy woods. He was a tall, broad-shouldered but very thin man in a dusty black coat and wide-brimmed black hat. Long white hair hung like strands of spiderweb from under the brim of his hat, and he wore a smile that twitched and writhed on his thin lips like worms on a hot griddle.
Lilah was so startled that out of pure reflex she snatched up her spear and swung the blunt end toward him. The man was at least sixty, and he looked dried up from the hot sun and bitter winters of the Sierras, but he moved like greased lightning. He tilted out of the swing of the spear, snaked out his left hand in a movement that was so fast Benny could not follow, snatched the spear from her hand, and flung it into the woods. Without pausing, the man shoved Lilah on the shoulder with the flat of his palm and sent her crashing into Nix and Chong. Before Benny could even grab the handle of his bokken, Tom was up from where he had been kneeling, and his glittering katana was in his hand. But then the man did something Benny would have thought to be completely impossible. Before Tom could complete his cut, the man in the black hat had stepped into the arc of his swing, blocked the elbow of Tom’s sword arm, and put the wicked edge of his own knife against the bulge of Tom’s Adam’s apple.
“My, my, my,” said the man softly, his smile never wavering, “ain’t we all in a pickle?”
Instantly Tom pivoted, slapped the knife away from his throat, spun like a dancer, and swung the blade in a lightning-fast circle that stopped a hairbreadth from the man’s nose.
The man looked cross-eyed at the tip of the blade and gave a comical chuckle. He slowly raised his knife and gave the sword a small tap. The ping! of metal against metal lingered in the still air.
“Let’s call it one-all and say the rest of the game was rained out,” suggested the stranger. Without waiting to see if Tom agreed, the man rolled the handle of his knife through his fingers like a magician and slid the ten-inch blade into a sheath that hung from his belt.
Tom did not lower his sword. He cut his eyes left and right to check the woods, then said to Lilah, “You okay?”
She snarled something low and unintelligible and got to her feet, placing her fist threateningly on the butt of her holstered pistol. Nix helped Chong up, and they looked scared and uncertain. Benny had his sword out now, and he shifted to Tom’s right to prepare for a flanking attack.
“Okay,” said Tom, still holding his sword out, “who are you?”
“Would you mind lowering your katana, brother?” The white-haired man held his hands up and kept smiling. The smile did not quite reach the man’s ice-blue eyes. “We’re all friends here.”
Benny noticed that not only had the man avoided Tom’s question, but he knew what a katana was. Interesting.
Tom said, “‘Friend’ is a funny word for someone who attacks a teenage girl.”
The man looked—or pretended to look—shocked. “As I recall it, brother, she tried to rearrange my dentures with the butt end of yonder spear. I gave her a little shove by way of increasing our distance and decreasing the likelihood of my having to eat my dinner without teeth henceforth. Then you and t’other youngster here set to drawing swords on me. I drew my knife only to calm things down.” His look of shock gradually drained away, and his mouth again wore that twitchy smile. He patted his sheathed knife. “And see … I stood down.”
Tom did not lower his sword. Not one inch.
“I asked you your name,” he said quietly.
“These days people seem to have a bunch of names, don’t they?”
Tom said nothing.
“Okay, okay.” The man chuckled. “You’re being serious here ’cause you’re the grown-up and there are kids watching. I respect that. Like a shepherd with his little flock.”
“Name,” prompted Tom.
“When I came yowling into the world I was called John. Biblical name. Means ‘God’s grace,’ which is a kindly thing to name a babe who ain’t yet done a thing worth being remembered for.” He removed his black hat and looked at Nix and Lilah. “I’m happy to make your acquaintance, ladies, and at the same time I beg forgiveness for my rudeness and gruff ways. Please accept my apology, which is earnestly and humbly given.” He bowed low, almost sweeping the ground with his hat. As he rose, he caught Tom with a grin and a wink. “You look like a traveling man, and that sword of yours marks you as a trade guard or a bounty hunter. So you’ve probably heard the name I go by.”
The man straightened and opened the flap of his coat to reveal the worn black cover of a Bible tucked halfway into an inner pocket. “Preacher Jack.”
Tom’s eyes narrowed slightly. “You’re Preacher Jack?”
“Yes sir, I am, in both flesh and spirit. You have heard of me, then?”
“We know some of the same people,” murmured Tom. “J-Dog, Solomon Jones, Dr. Skillz. Lot of people in my trade pass through Wawona.”
A light suddenly seemed to ignite in Preacher Jack’s blue eyes, and it seemed to Benny as if the man went pale. The preacher looked at Tom, giving him a thorough up-and-down appraisal, and then turned to look at Benny, Lilah, and Nix. Each time his eyes shifted to another person, Benny thought he could see that strange light flicker in the old man’s eyes. All of this happened in the space of a few seconds, but the whole temperature of the day seemed to change. The only thing that stayed the same was the preacher’s wriggling smile.
“Well, well, well. What a blessed day, sir, and if you ever put that meat skewer down I’d like to shake your hand, because I do believe I know who you are. Yes, sir. Tough-looking man, early thirties with black hair and black eyes. Japanese sword and Japanese face to go with it. I would bet my last ration dollar that you are none other than Tom Imura. Tom the Swordsman. Tom of the Woods. Fast Tommy. Tom the Killer.”
Tom slowly lowered his sword. “I don’t use nicknames,” he said softly.
“No, not like most folks,” said Preacher Jack, pushing a strand of white hair from his face. “After First Night, most of the folks who live out here were more than happy to shed their family names the way a serpent will shed its skin. Gave them a chance to stop being who they were. Gave them a chance to be reborn as different people. Sometimes much better people. Sometimes not, but you’d know all about that, Brother Tom.”
Tom merely grunted as he resheathed his sword. Everyone else seemed to let out a breath at the same time, and Benny lowered his bokken. Not that he could have done much. It still amazed and baffled him how this grizzled old man could be as lightning fast as Tom. And besides that, why was a preacher able to handle a knife like a professional
“Most of those nicknames,” Tom said, “were hung on me by people who don’t really know me.”
Benny caught the careful way his brother was speaking. Tom may have put his sword away, but he was still on guard.
“I’ll call you whatever name pleases you, brother,” said Preacher Jack, holding out his hand. “I’ve heard so many interesting and fabulous things about you that I would like to shake you by the hand, yes sir I would.”
Tom ignored the hand and used his chin to point to the dead man. “You know anything about this?”
Preacher Jack looked at his own hand as if surprised to find it hanging out there in the air. He gave a rueful shrug and used that hand to adjust his broad-brimmed hat. The preacher walked slowly past Benny and looked down at the corpse. Nix and Lilah stood on the other side of him, giving him guarded glares. Chong had his hands dug into his pockets and was staring at the dirt between his shoes.
“The Children have been at him?” said Preacher Jack.
“Children?” Nix blurted. “We didn’t—”
“No,” Benny said, “he means the Children of Lazarus. Zoms.”
Preacher Jack winced as if Benny had squirted him with lemon juice.
“Ooooh … you’re right and you’re wrong, young sir. Right, in that it was the Children of Lazarus who did for this poor man; but wrong in that ‘zom’ is an ugly word that decent folk won’t use.”
“It’s just short for zombie,” said Benny.
“I know what it’s short for, little brother,” said Preacher Jack, “but no part of that word should be bandied about. The word comes from Nzambi, the name of a West African snake god. Do you say that you speak that word to worship a pagan animal spirit? Or do you use it as a twist on sombra, the Louisiana Creole word for ghost? Because that would be like acknowledging the power of the devil himself here on earth.”
Benny was confused. Preacher Jack’s voice was as charming as an ice cream seller, but his eyes were as cold as winter frost.