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Dust & Decay

Dust & Decay

Dust Decay 25


  “They’re still moving slow,” said Benny. “Not like the ones from the barn.”

  “Totally,” agreed J-Dog.

  Benny looked at him. “So how come the others were fast? I never heard of fast zoms before. Have you?”

  “Tall tales out of the east,” said Dr. Skillz. “No one I know’s put goggles on ’em, though.”

  “That’s crazy. How can zoms be fast?” demanded Nix.

  J-Dog grinned. “Dudette … how can they be zoms?”

  Dr. Skillz pulled down his sunglasses and peered over the dark lenses at the monk and the sisters. “That’s a bummer. Brother David’s trippy but totally boglius.”

  “I can’t understand anything you’re saying!” grumbled Nix irritably.

  “Yeah, okay,” Dr. Skillz chuckled, “busted. Let’s see if you grok this. The Dog and me are friends with Brother Dave. Between you and me, cutie, I think Dog’s sweet on Shanti.”

  “She’s bootylicious—,” began J-Dog.

  “English,” insisted Nix.

  “She’s fine.” Then J-Dog looked down the hill, and his goofy surfer grin drained away to reveal genuine sadness. “She was fine. Sweet, too.”

  “They were friends of ours,” said Dr. Skillz. Benny caught a look in his eyes that was miles from the sun and fun of a beach. In that unguarded moment, he could see the hurt in the hunter’s eyes.

  “I’m sorry,” said Benny. “I liked them too.”

  The four of them stood and watched the three zoms struggle up the hill. Even though he knew they were beyond feeling anything, it seemed to Benny that each step looked painful. It made his heart hurt.

  “Who would do something like that?” demanded Nix.

  “A real monster,” said Benny.

  Dr. Skillz nodded. “For sure. There’s killing and then there’s murder. Brother Dave and the girls never hurt no one.”

  “What … should we do?”

  “Quiet them,” said J-Dog. “Put ’em to rest.”

  “No,” said Nix and Dr. Skillz at the same time.

  “It’s not what they would want,” said Benny.

  J-Dog sighed, and under his breath muttered, “Son of a bitch must pay.”

  “Word. But dude, we’d better roll,” suggested J-Dog. “Or we won’t have a choice.”

  They turned and hurried away at a light jog, putting a mile of crooked road between them and the zoms. Soon Brother David, Sister Shanti, and Sister Sarah were out of sight. Benny knew that without prey to follow, the zoms would stop pursuing them. He wondered if they would stand in the road for years like so many zoms did.

  They slowed and walked under the shade of a line of young white oaks. “Story time,” said J-Dog. “The kahuna said—”

  “Who?” interrupted Benny.

  “Tom, man. Tom’s the big kahuna. He’s a crusher, he’s the legend.”

  “Okay … but can we just call him ‘Tom’?”

  Dr. Skillz grinned. “You guys are rough.”

  “We don’t speak surfer,” said Nix. “We’ve never even seen the ocean.”

  “Yeah.” Dr. Skillz sighed. “And we ain’t seen it since First Night. Sucks.”

  “Tom,” prompted Benny.

  “Right … Tom said you guys were heading east to find the jet. Said to meet you at the way station, but we just came from there and it’s mosty-toasty. Someone had a luau supremo and roasted a lot of zoms.”

  “That would be us,” said Benny uneasily. He and Nix explained what happened.

  Dr. Skillz grinned. “Way to think outside the box, duderman.”

  “We lost Lilah, though,” said Nix. “She ran away.”

  “Spook girl got spooked?” J-Dog shook his head. “Lot of forest to get lost in. Anyway … Tom said you’d be hitting Brother Dave’s first and then cruising to Wawona, so we caught a wave and here we are.”

  “Nice timing,” said Benny appreciatively. “Thanks.”

  “Hey, our pleasure,” Dr. Skillz said with a grin. “Fast Tommy’s saved our butts enough times.”

  “Totally,” said J-Dog. “Wawona’s not far from here. Good place to kick back.”

  “Is that where you were coming from?” asked Benny.

  Dr. Skillz removed his shades to clean them. “Nah. We ain’t been there in almost three months. Been doing a lot of guard work for the scavenge team way over at Lushmeadows Estates. Got hired to clear out all the zoms and then babysit the scavenger team.”

  J-Dog gave an enthusiastic nod. “Yeah … made some nice green, too. We ran into Tom last week and told him we’d be crashing at Wawona, though. Still some snow high up, so we were gonna rest up, then go high and snowboard. It’ll be a powwow for sure. Saaaa-weeeeet!”

  “Um. Okay,” said Benny uncertainly, not sure what a “snowboard” was.

  “We were heading to Wawona,” Nix interjected, “but we don’t have to. I mean … there’s four of us now. Shouldn’t we go try and find Tom and Chong?”

  Dr. Skillz put his shades back on. “No doubt. Kind of surprised Tom isn’t already back.”

  “Wait,” yelped Benny, “what are you saying? That Tom’s in trouble?”

  “I didn’t say he was in trouble,” said Dr. Skillz. “It’s just that a lot of weird stuff’s been happening in the last few weeks. We missed most of it ’cause we were over at Lushmeadows. Bunch of animals coming out of the east, and an upsurge in the zom head count.”

  “And now we got fast zoms,” said J-Dog. “Weird times.”

  “It’s weirder than you think,” said Benny, and he told them about the man who hadn’t reanimated.

  “Whoa,” said J-Dog. “You sure?”

  “Tom was sure,” said Nix.

  The bounty hunters looked at each other, then turned and looked back the way they had come, as if some kind of answer was painted on the forest.

  “For the record, dude, I do not dig this,” murmured Dr. Skillz.

  The four of them walked in silence for almost five minutes as they considered their next move. Nix asked, “Have you met anyone who saw the jet?”

  “Sure,” said J-Dog. “Lots of people. Us too. Kinda wild.”

  Dr. Skillz nodded. “Tom said that’s where he was taking you guys. A quest thingy to find whoever has that jet.”

  “Yes,” said Nix firmly. “Whoever fixed and fueled that jet is trying to bring civilization back.”

  “You sure?” asked Dr. Skillz. “Bad guys and freaks can fly jets too.”

  Nix either didn’t hear him or chose to ignore the remark.

  Dr. Skillz abruptly stopped. “Dog,” he said, “I think we’re making a mistake here.”

  “Why? Tom wanted us to lifeguard these guys and—”

  Dr. Skillz cut him off. “Wawona’s only six or seven miles. They can do that without us. But that dead guy bothers the crap out of me. The way he was killed? That’s got Charlie’s tag on it.”

  “Totally,” said J-Dog.

  “Charlie or White Bear. They used to run in the same pack; they got a whole lot in common.”

  “Yeah, and I don’t like the idea of the kahuna running those hills.” Dr. Skillz glanced at Benny and Nix. “You guys said that Tom took you out on a back road, right? A route he doesn’t use much?”

  “Yes, he wanted to—”

  “I see where you’re going, brah,” said J-Dog.

  “I don’t,” snapped Nix. “And who’s White Bear?”

  Dr. Skillz made a face. “White Bear is a very big and very bad hombre. Mucho bad mojo. Even over in Lushmeadows they’re talking about him rebuilding the Matthias Empire. Got people all over the place. We saw a dozen of them today, though we steered clear.”

  “We’re peace-lovin’ citizens,” said J-Dog.

  “The Matthias …? God …,” breathed Nix, putting her hand to her mouth.

  “White Bear’s no friend to Fast Tommy, and that’s for sure,” continued Dr. Skillz. “What I’m thinking is that Tom might not know that the Bear’s got his goons out. Not if he came out a bac
k way. He’d have missed the traffic. But if he’s dogging your boy Chong, then …”

  “We have to go find him!” declared Benny, taking a decisive step toward the west.

  “Whoa! Not a chance, duderino,” said J-Dog with a grin. “You two are going to Wawona just like your brother told you to. Skillz and I will find the kahuna.”

  “No way!” snapped Nix. “You don’t expect us to—”

  “—stay out of trouble? Yes, we do. If we drag you into a fight with White Bear, Fast Tommy’ll fry us for it.”

  “We can handle ourselves,” Nix insisted. “Tom’s been training us, and—”

  Dr. Skillz gave her a toothy grin. “I’ll bet you’re fierce as a tiger shark, Reds, but this is about speed, too. We’re gonna boogie like banshees. We got tricks for this, and believe me, you don’t know ’em.”

  J-Dog nodded. “We got to catch a monster wave, dig?”

  “But—,” Benny began, but left the rest unsaid because without a single additional word, J-Dog and Dr. Skillz turned and began running down the road. They ran with the easy grace of athletes. Benny knew that he and Nix could never match their speed.

  Nix took a few steps after them, but it was more out of frustration than any hope of catching them. Then she turned to Benny, fists on hips. “Now what do we do?”

  Benny sighed and adjusted the sling that held his bokken. “I guess we go to Wawona. At least it’ll be safe there.” Then he added, “Dudette.”

  Nix giggled, and that laugh was worth more to Benny than all the homespun comforts in the world. They turned and headed down the road to Wawona.

  FROM NIX’S JOURNAL

  Tom says that zoms move faster or slower depending on how soon it is after they’ve reanimated and where they are in the process of decay. He says there are different stages for decay. I checked this with some medical books (and bugged Dr. gurijala about it, too. I think he thinks I’m really weird).

  ALGOR MORTIS (Latin: algor—coolness; mortis—of death): the process a body goes through after death, during which the body cools to ambient temperature. Temperature drops at approximately 1 to 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit per hour.

  RIGOR MORTIS (literally “death stiffness”): the stiffening of the limbs following death as muscle cells decay.

  VITREOUS HUMOR CHANGES: There is a clear gel that fills the gap between the retina and the lens of the eye. Following death, the potassium level in this gel increases at a measurable and predictable rate, which allows forensics experts to use it to measure time elapsed since death.

  ENTOMOLOGY: Insects always appear on a corpse and are crucial to its decomposition.

  AUTOLYSIS (literally “self-splitting”): This is the process of postmortem cell disintegration.

  PUTREFACTION: the decomposition of proteins by anaerobic microorganisms called putrefying bacteria.

  I’m going to go throw up now.

  56

  IT HURT TO RIDE HER HORSE, BUT SALLY MANAGED IT. SHE SWALLOWED HER pain and discomfort and kept moving. There were four horses following her up the winding mountain path; other figures moved through the forest to either side of the road. Solomon Jones walked beside Sally’s horse.

  Sally turned gingerly and looked back at the crew they were assembling.

  The barrel-chested man riding a one-eyed Tennessee walking horse was Hector Mexico, and he wore a necklace of wedding bands. He specialized in closure jobs for families. Behind him, Sam “Basher” Bashman was discussing pre–First Night baseball with Fluffy McTeague, a gigantic man in a pink floor-length carpet coat. The three horses behind them bore a little dark-skinned woman—LaDonna Willis—and her twin sons, Gunner and Dieter. The twins were short, but they were nearly as wide as they were tall, and neither of them had ever lost a fight except to each other. There were others, too, bounty hunters and trade guards, and the scavenger-turned-closure-expert Magic Mike.

  The crew amused Sally. Except for LaDonna and her sons, they were mostly loners like Sally, people who preferred to live hard and alone in the wild of the Ruin. Often the only connection they had to the towns was through Tom. Maybe a case could be made that few of them were nice people, but all of them were good. They were people Tom trusted, and that counted for a whole lot. None of them were happy that he was leaving. No one had ever claimed that Tom was the leader of this band, or of any group; but it was always understood that what Tom said was the law. At least to the odd assortment of fighters and killers who followed Sally up the hill.

  And there was not one of them who liked the idea of White Bear coming in to take over the territory. It had been tough enough under Charlie’s reign, because Charlie held contracts from every town, and anyone who wanted work had to go through him. Charlie always took a slice. White Bear was supposed to be worse. Younger, bigger, meaner, and—from what folks who knew both men said—smarter. White Bear was an organizer. The kind of man who inspired others to follow but who ruled with a heavy hand. If he got a solid foothold, then everyone was going to be jumping whenever White Bear yelled “frog.”

  Plus, there were the rumors about Gameland. Everyone knew that it was back, but some of the rumors said that it had changed. That it was worse.

  The men and women who walked or rode up this hill were not fans of Gameland. Not in the least. It was the antithesis of the freedom they treasured. And most of them had kids now, or had lost kids during First Night. Gameland was an abomination, and they all wanted to see it burn.

  Sally rode, eating her pain and drawing her plans. All that mattered now was finding Tom in time.

  57

  TOM CRASHED BACKWARD INTO THE BRUSH WITH BOTH MEN CLAMPED around his body. There had been no chance at all for him to avoid the hit, but as they fell he wrenched his hips and shoulders around so that he wouldn’t land first. They hit hard, with Tom on top, Stosh landing on his left side, and Redhead taking the full brunt of his own weight and most of the mass of the others. Redhead’s back struck a stone the size of a football, and the bounty hunter screamed so loud that it chased the birds from the trees. The scream was almost loud enough to mask the sound of his spine shattering. His arms flopped limply away from Tom, and he lay gasping and dying under the weight of the man he had tried to kill.

  Tom ignored the man’s screams. Without a moment’s pause, he twisted sideways and hammered Stosh on the ear with the side of his balled fist. Stosh let go of Tom’s legs and tried to block, but Tom twisted around and kicked Stosh in the chest hard enough to spill him five yards down the slope. Tom back-rolled down after him and came out of the roll in a near handspring, driving both of his feet into Stosh’s face. The man’s head jinked sideways on his neck, and there was a sharp, wet snap! Stosh collapsed into a lifeless sprawl.

  Tom relaxed. People with broken necks don’t reanimate. Another one and done.

  Up the slope Redhead was still screaming. With a grunt of anger and disgust, Tom scrambled up the slope. The crippled man saw him coming, and his scream changed to a whimper. He tried to scramble away, but his legs were dead and his arms barely flapped.

  Tom squatted down and assessed the man’s condition. Then he put a finger to his lips. “Shhhh.” The other man fell silent, though he stared with eyes that were huge and filled with terror. “Your back’s broken.”

  Redhead began to cry.

  “Listen to me now. You’re done. You know that. I can leave you here like this and you can spend your last hours screaming. Lot of zoms in these woods. With your back broken, you might not even feel it when they start tearing chunks out of you. After that … well, you’ll reanimate, and then you’re going to lie here for the rest of time. Crippled and undead and useless.”

  Redhead was blubbering, mouthing unintelligible words. Tom leaned toward him. “Or … you can buy yourself some grace. You square things with me and I can ease you down. You’ll never feel it, and you won’t come back. It’s your call.”

  The reality of it all hit Redhead, and he stopped mewling. He stared at Tom with eyes that suddenly possessed
a dreadful wisdom about the nature of his world. Tom could see the understanding blossom in the man’s eyes.

  “Okay …,” Redhead whispered, then hissed in pain.

  Tom nodded. He didn’t gloat. That never occurred to him. He removed his canteen and gave the man a sip. “Who took the boy from Stosh’s buddies after they were ambushed?”

  “W-White Bear. They were Charlie’s guys. White Bear’s tearing up everyone from Charlie’s crew, ’cause of what happened to Charlie.”

  “Why? What does White Bear care about what happened to Charlie?”

  Redhead almost smiled. “Are you … kidding me?”

  “Do I look like I’m kidding you? What’s the thing between Charlie and White Bear?”

  “Jeez, man … you can see it when you look at him.”

  “I never met White Bear.”

  “Yeah, you did. He was there when you burned down Gameland.”

  “What? There was no one there like him.”

  “He … wasn’t calling himself White Bear then. That was something he came up with after he got hurt.”

  “You’re not making sense,” Tom said, “and you’re beginning to piss me off.”

  Redhead looked instantly afraid. “God … please don’t leave me like this!”

  “Shhh, shhh,” Tom soothed. “Just tell me about White Bear and Charlie.”

  “It’s all about Gameland,” said the man, and Tom noticed that his voice was beginning to fade. Shock was setting in, and the man didn’t have long. “When you burned down Gameland, Charlie lost a lot of people, a lot of friends. You know that. But what you don’t know is that someone close to him was burned in that fire. Used to go by the name of Big Jim.”

  Tom grunted. “Big Jim Matthias? Charlie’s brother? He was at Gameland that day?”

  “Yeah. He got messed up pretty bad, too. Face all burned, lost an eye. Almost died. Charlie sent him way over into Yosemite, to a place he has there. Big Jim got real sick. They say he died for a while, but he didn’t come back as a zom. They say that while he was dead he had a vision of some old Indian medicine man, and that when he came back he wasn’t Jim Matthias anymore. He was—”