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Dust & Decay
Dust Decay 17
“A through-and-through,” he concluded. “Bullet hit you in the back of the arm and punched out through the biceps. What they’d shoot you with?”
“Don’t know,” she said through gritted teeth. “Something small. Twenty-two or twenty-five caliber, though it felt pretty darn big going in and coming out.”
“Missed the arteries. Didn’t break the bone,” Tom said. “You always were a lucky one, Sally.”
“Lucky my ass. I got shot and stabbed. If that’s your idea of good luck, then give me the other kind.”
“Don’t even joke,” he chided as he cleaned the entry and exit wounds, placed sterile pads over them, and began wrapping a white bandage around her arm. “I’ve seen my share of bad luck already today.”
Tom tied the ends of the bandage with neat precision, but inside he was beginning to feel a slight edge of panic. It was now too dark to track Chong. Tom helped Sally sit up and let her drink from his canteen.
“Don’t suppose you saw my horse anywhere, did you?” she asked. “I left her tied to a tree, but she must have spooked.”
“No,” said Tom. “Look, Sal, what happened and who did this?”
“It’s complicated,” she said. “I ran into a couple of the White Bear crew. You know White Bear?”
He nodded. White Bear had once run with Charlie Pinkeye’s gang but had dropped out of sight years ago. “Heard of him but never met him. Big guy from Nevada. Used to be a bouncer at one of the Vegas casinos before First Night, right? Tells everyone that he’s the reincarnation of some great Indian medicine men, though from what I heard he doesn’t have a drop of Native American blood in him. What’s he doing here?”
She hissed in pain as Tom began stitching her stomach wound. He wished Lilah was here.
“OW—damn, son! You using a tree spike to sew that up?” she snarled.
“Don’t be a sissy.”
She cursed him and his entire lineage going back to the Stone Age. Tom endured it as he worked. Curses were better than screams.
“What about White Bear?” he prompted.
She took a breath. “Since Charlie’s gang got chomped by those zoms last year, there’s been a lot of talk about who was going to take over his territory. Charlie always had prime real estate. Mountainside, Fairview, couple of other towns, and the trade route all through these mountains. White Bear wants it all. Brought a bunch of his guys with him. Most of them are jokers who don’t know which end of a rifle goes bang! But he has a lot of them.”
“The two I saw tonight, and maybe twenty more. Maybe twice that number if the rumors are true … and he’ll probably try to scoop up any of Charlie’s guys who are still sucking air.”
Tom tied off the last stitch and began applying a fresh dressing. “Why’d they attack you?”
“They didn’t. I, um, kind of attacked them.” She touched Tom’s arm. “Tom … I think they have your brother, Benny.”
“I saw them slapping the crap out of a Japanese-looking kid. Your brother’s, what, fifteen, sixteen?”
“Fifteen. What was this kid wearing?”
She thought about it. “Jeans. Dark shirt with red stripes and a vest with a lot of pockets.”
Tom exhaled a burning breath. “That’s not Benny. That’s his friend, Louis Chong. He’s Chinese, not Japanese. Besides, Benny’s half Irish American.”
“What do I know? It’s dark, he’s a kid, I’m shot for Pete’s sake.” She squinted at him. “That who you’re looking for? The Chinese kid?”
Tom filled her in on what he was doing.
“So … you’re really going to leave?” she asked.
“That’s the plan, but we seem to be off to a bad start.”
“So—asking me to meet you at Brother David’s … that was what? A good-bye?”
“Damn,” said Sally. “Things won’t be the same around here without our knight in shining armor.”
Tom snorted. “I’m a lot of things, Sally, but I’m no one’s idea of a shining knight.”
Sally didn’t laugh. “If that’s what you think, Tom, then you’re a bigger damn fool than I thought. There’s no one in this whole chain of mountains who doesn’t know who you are and what you do. And I mean before you served Charlie and the Hammer to the zoms on a silver plate.” She paused. “A lot of people look up to you. No … they look to you. For how to act. For how to be.”
“Come on, Sal, let’s not—”
“Listen to me, Tom. You matter to people. During First Night, and in the years after, a lot of us did some pretty wild things to survive. You don’t know. Or … maybe you do. Maybe you did some wild things too, but the thing is that since then you’ve been the kind of guy people can look at and say, ‘Oh yeah, that’s how people are supposed to act.’ There aren’t a lot of examples around since the zoms, man, but you …” She smiled and shook her head.
Tom cleared his throat. “Listen, Sally, I’m thinking that this is pain and shock talking here, so let’s get to the point. Where did they take Chong and how’d you get hurt?”
Sally laughed. “Modest, too. Real shame you’re leaving town. Jessie Riley was the luckiest woman in California, and strike me down if that’s a lie.”
“Chong …,” Tom prompted.
“Okay, okay. It was about two hours ago. I was heading to Brother David’s when I heard someone yelling. I snuck up and saw this kid trying to fight off a couple of goons. Kid was doing okay at first. Had a wooden version of that sword you carry. The goons were trying to take the sword away from him barehanded, making a game of it. Pretending they were zoms and that sort of stuff. You’ve seen it before.”
“Yes,” he said coldly, “I’ve seen it. What happened?”
“Kid managed to land a good one on one of the guys. Hit him on the shoulder, and I could hear the thwack all the way up the hill. Then the guys stopped playing and laid into the kid with a will. Whipped the sword out of his hands and beat the living crap out of him.”
“Damn.” Tom thought about the ascetic and intellectual Chong fighting for his life. How brave he must have been, and how terrified.
“By that time I’d had enough, and I’d pretty much figured that the kid must have been your brother. So I came down the hill with a war whoop and sliced myself a piece of those two butt-wipes. Wasn’t all girly about it either. Would have just messed them up some and let the pair of them limp out of here, but they tried to get all fancy on me. It didn’t end well for ’em, and no loss to the world.”
“Wait … you said you took them out?”
“Two freaks like them against me? I coulda done that back in my Roller Derby days, and that was before I learned how to ugly-fight.”
“No, I mean, if you nailed them, then who—?”
“Must have been a third guy. Never saw him coming. I was about to quiet the two freaks when suddenly something hit my arm from behind and knocked me into a tree. Tried to shake it off, but someone came at me from my blind side, spun me and stabbed me. All I saw was a big man with white hair, and then I blacked out.”
“White hair? Sally—could it have been Preacher Jack?”
“The loony-tune from Wawona?” She thought about it. “No, this guy was way bigger. Anyway … I passed out, and when I woke up, the kid was gone and so was the big guy.”
“What about the other two?”
“Still there. Whoever shot me must have quieted ’em and left ’em for the crows.”
Tom sat back and thought about it. “Could the big man have been White Bear?”
She shrugged. “Maybe. This guy was as big as Charlie Pink-eye and his face was all messed up. Burned and all nasty-lookin’.”
“Could it have been Charlie?”
Sally narrowed her eyes. “Charlie’s dead. You killed him.”
“Not exactly,” Tom said. He told her about what had happened after Benny hit Charlie with the Motor City Hammer’s pipe.
l … that’s not the kind of news a gal wants to hear when she’s already feeling poorly. You think Charlie’s alive?”
“I don’t know. Did the guy who attacked you do it to avenge the men you killed, or was he after the boy?”
“I … don’t know. But wouldn’t Charlie know this kid’s not your brother?”
Tom nodded. “He knows Benny and Chong both.”
Sally took another swig from the canteen and chewed her lip for a moment. “Before I attacked them, I heard some of what the two punks said to the kid. I heard where they said they were taking him.”
Tom knew what she was going to say and he closed his eyes as if he, rather than she, was in physical pain. “Say it.”
“Gameland,” said Sally Two-Knives. “They were going to try and sell him to the people running that place. Put him in the zombie pits.”
“But you don’t know if the man who shot you is taking him there?”
“Terrific,” Tom said sourly. “They’ve moved Gameland twice since we took down Charlie’s crew. I’ve been trying to find it … and I don’t have a damn clue where it is. It could be all the way over in Utah for all I know.”
“I don’t think so, Tom,” she said with a cold smile. “When those boys were taunting the kid, one of them told him that he’d be fighting in the pits by dawn’s early light. His words.”
Tom looked out at the darkness. “Damn,” he said softly.
BENNY RAN RIGHT INTO A ZOM. THE CREATURE TURNED WITH A SNARL, and white fingers scrabbled for his face. He could feel the edges of broken fingernails scratch him, the dry pads of dead fingers slide over his nose and mouth; and then Benny shoved the zom aside with a cry of disgust. It fell against a second zom and they went down. Others tumbled over them in what could have been comedy if the world was not broken and insane. Zoms snarled and bit at him as he ran.
Slow down, warned his inner voice. He tried to slow himself; he ordered his feet to walk instead of run, but they disobeyed. Nix was sixty paces ahead. Fifty.
Lilah was nowhere in sight. Had she run out on them? Had the zoms gotten her? No … there would have been screams if they’d attacked her. First her war cries, and then … other screams. These thoughts tumbled through his head as he ran. He ducked under white hands, jinked and dodged around zombies who tried to wrap their arms around him. The whole crowd of them was becoming agitated, their awareness drawn to the running meat.
Nix heard him coming and turned to see Benny collide with another zom and have to bash his way out of its embrace. Other zoms turned at the motion, their moans rising in pitch as their worm-white fingers clawed the air for him.
“Benny!” cried Nix in a fierce whisper. “What are you doing?”
He jerked to a stop by the gas pump. The zoms that had been turning toward him suddenly turned to Nix as she began heading toward Benny. You’re going to get Nix killed. He didn’t need his inner voice to tell him that. The zoms nearest to her were already starting to close in. Nix tensed to run.
“Nix—stop!” Benny hissed. “Just stop. Stand still.”
Nix looked absolutely terrified as all around her hungry mouths worked as if already devouring her. “Benny …”
“Shhh,” he soothed, the sound as soft as a whisper, and then mouthed the words, “Keep perfectly still.” If she stopped moving, would the cadaverine do its job? Would the zoms closing in on her lose interest?
It’s not going to work. Milling zoms closed around her, the ragged shreds of their clothes brushing her like insect wings in the dark. Nix shivered. The wooden sword in her hands trembled. As the zombies came closer still, she began to raise the sword.
No! Benny almost screamed it aloud, but he clamped his control into place. It’s your fault she’s in trouble. Be smart … find a way.
Benny nodded, but in truth he was at the threshold of panic. One wild idea after another flashed through his mind, and he slapped each one away. Brash heroics, a suicidal charge … plans that were filled with romantic heroism or tragic sacrifice, but empty of practicality. Consider everything. The place. The time. The light. The breeze.
Benny edged toward Nix, moving with the breeze, swaying, becoming part of the movement of the crowd of dead. You have everything you need. You have tools. You have resources.
He wanted to tell the inner voice to shut the hell up and let him think. Charlie Pink-eye was back there somewhere. Maybe aiming a pistol at him right now. Or at Nix. Don’t make assumptions. See only what is there.
He took one hand off the bokken and slowly, lightly patted his pockets. His fingers touched the remaining bottles of cadaverine. Should he use those? Would more smell help?
He touched a small oblong shape that rattled softly. Use what you have. Benny suddenly had an idea. It was a crazy, insanely dangerous idea. Around him a sea of zoms moaned as they shuffled toward the gas station, toward him, toward Nix.
He shot a look at Nix. She was trembling so badly that her bokken was visibly shaking. A couple of zoms pawed at it. One of them suddenly grabbed it and pulled. Nix began to resist, but Benny shook his head and mouthed, “Let it go.” Her eyes flared in horror at the suggestion, but her small hands opened and the zom tore the wooden sword away from her. It took the bokken in both hands, holding it like an ear of corn, and bit down on it. There was a crunch and a crack and the zombie snarled and cast the sword away, one of its teeth still buried in the hardwood.
Moving in ultra slow-motion, Benny slid his free hand into the front pocket of his jeans. The cadaverine bottles clinked, and then he found the oblong box he was looking for. It was made of stiff paper, and it rattled dryly as he removed it.
The zom closest to him turned sharply and peered at him with dust-covered eyes. Benny wondered how it could see with dead eyes. Another mystery that he thought would never be solved. Don’t waste time sightseeing.
The zom moaned.
Benny moaned back and shuffled a few feet to the left. The zom stood there and watched him go. The dead could not show confusion on their slack faces, but Benny could almost feel the creature’s conflict. The impulse to hunt only the living was at war with the stench of decay. It swayed there in indecision as Benny took another shuffling sideways step. The gray eyes never left Benny’s face.
Hurry. Moving with infinite slowness, Benny thumbed open the little cardboard box. Twenty-five pale stick matches lay in tight rows. He used his thumbnail to separate one of them. He was about to close the box when his inner voice hissed at him to make a smarter choice.
The zom was still watching him. So were two others. Watching? Or just standing?
The carpet coat was hot, but ice-cold sweat ran in rivulets down the back of Benny’s shirt. His heart was pounding so hard he could not understand why it didn’t sound like a bass drum. He turned his head slightly and saw that Nix was still there, and he wondered how much time had just passed. Was it three seconds? Ten? An hour? Or no time at all? He couldn’t tell. Nothing felt real.
He paused, then placed the first match between his teeth and removed another. He thumbed the box closed and turned it between his fingers, exposing a dark strip on one side. The matches were of the “storm” kind, coated with wax to keep them waterproof, with a chemical mix that would keep them burning in rain or wind.
“God … let this work!” He said it aloud, and he said it too loud. The watching zom suddenly lurched forward, its rubbery lips twitching. The abruptness of its movements made the creatures around it twitch and turn and move in Benny’s direction. Had they focused on him, or were the others following the first one?
There was no time to sort it out. Benny put the white tip of the match against the strike board and flicked his wrist. The fire was small, but in the darkness of the field it flared like a tiny sun. The snap of ignition and the hiss as the flames consumed the chemicals were shockingly loud.
?No!” Nix cried, and some of the zoms turned toward her.
But many, many more of them were entirely focused on Benny. Holding the match out in front of him, he stared for a moment in nearly brainless shock as the light revealed the full horror of the moment. Hundreds of white faces had turned toward the sound and the flare of light. Their awful moan split the air. The closest zom grabbed his arm, and before Benny could pull away it bit down with savage force on his wrist. Two others closed on him and grabbed at his other arm. Teeth closed around his forearm. The pain was instant and terrible.
Benny bit down on a scream, praying that the carpet coat was protecting him from the disease carried by the bites of the living dead. He kicked out with all his force, catching the closest zom with a flat-footed thrust to the thigh that sent it lurching away. It lost its hold on his wrist, but immediately another zom lumbered past it, reaching for the prize.
Benny tore himself free of the other zoms and darted forward as the zom closed on him. He prayed with all his might that the match wouldn’t go out. It puffed and flickered in the breeze. He had the stick of the other clamped between his teeth just in case. The zom reached for him, and Benny ducked under the pale hands, thrusting the match into the tattered folds of its clothes. In a flash the dry shreds of tie and suit jacket caught and flames shot up into the night. With a grunt of effort powered by rage and fear, Benny shoved the burning zom into the other creatures who had been closing in. They were all dry as kindling, and fire leaped from one to the other with frightening speed, sparks carried by the night wind.
Within seconds a half-dozen zombies were burning like giant candles. They did not beat at the flames, they did not scream … and that was deeply disturbing to Benny. Somehow it was worse that they were so ignorant of pain than if they shrieked and howled, though he could not grasp why. It was unnatural and wrong in more ways that he could count.