Thanks for everything-from proofreading to trucks to demolitions training:.
C. Adkins, Chris, Ed Herro, and of course Dad.
CHAPTER 1: KILLBOX.
The two men worked quietly.
In the cold morning light, diffused through a thin veil of clouds, their breath came out of them in bone-white plumes. Thick beards covered both their faces. The shorter, balding man crouched over a single-burner camp stove and attached the small green propane tank. As the shorter man worked, the taller man held his tan-coated M4 rifle at a low ready and scanned the derelict streets around them.
The concrete surrounding them sparkled with a thin sheen of frost. Squat buildings stared down over them like empty and plundered tombs. Their windows were either boarded up with graying plywood, or smashed through, leaving only jagged gla.s.s teeth protruding from the window frames. Directly behind where the two men worked stood a two-story brick building, and as the tall man scanned, he could see dark figures atop the roof, silhouetted against the sky. The figures peered over the side and watched intensely.
The two men worked in the center of a four lane street. Along the edges, trash had gathered at the base of the buildings and the gutters, where wind and rain had swept them. All of it was old and sun-bleached and melded into anonymous heaps. From these mounds of trash, hastily disguised, small green rectangles poked up. Wires ran off of them and trailed up the side of the building to where they dangled from the rooftop.
A lighter clicked.
Lee looked down to see Harper setting the lighter's tiny butane flame to the gas grill and slowly turning the propane on. There was a shallow hiss, and then blue flames jumped up from the burner, sending up a wave of heat that felt pleasant on Lee's face. Harper adjusted the flames so they quivered low and then set a grungy looking aluminum pan atop the grill.
"Your turn," Harper stood, his knees popping.
Lee took one last look at his surroundings and bent to the ground where he had laid a small canvas satchel. He opened the top and retrieved the only item it contained: a gallon bag full of deer guts, the pale coils of intestines steeping in a marinade of blackening blood. His nose wrinkled as he bent over the grill and dumped the bag into the heating pan. The air smelled immediately of a stagnant slaughter house.
Harper growled low in his throat and shook his head. "Disgusting."
Lee nodded in agreement and gingerly zipped the plastic bag closed, stuffing it back into the canvas satchel. Letting his rifle rest on its sling, Lee pointed for the building where all the thin black wires trailed up to the roof. "Let's go."
Harper s.n.a.t.c.hed his own M4 off the ground and they headed for the open door at the base of the building. Lee matched his pace, just barely showing the limp in his left leg. The ankle had never healed properly from his fall down the elevator shaft three months ago. His back hadn't been the same either, and it had become quite a process to get mobile in the morning.
They picked their way through the ransacked interior of the building-an old mom-and-pop pharmacy. The shelves had been tipped over, everything emptied and looted. Refugees and scavengers had taken what they needed, leaving behind the pill bottles and packages. At the back of the pharmacy, where a sign that read "Cold Remedies" hung over empty white shelves, a door opened into a stairwell that led up to the second level, and from there to the roof. The door was in splinters from when Lee kicked it in earlier that night. The place still smelled of death. They had not moved the bodies of the pharmacist and his wife. They remained huddled in the dark corner of this s.h.i.+t-stained storage area.
The only light in this upstairs area came from an open skylight with a pull-down ladder to provide roof access, and from the three glow sticks lying on the dark floor like a strewn out constellation leading to the ladder and creating an eerie green glow across the floor.
Harper went up first and Lee followed.
On the roof, he found the other eight members of his team with their backs against the brick abutment of the roof and their rifles lying across their laps. Seven men and Julia, Marie's sister from Smithfield. She had insisted on being a part of the team and working as their medic. After she had explained her background as an EMT, Lee welcomed her to the team.
He crossed the tar-paper roof and sidled down between Julia and LaRouche. The sergeant's old tactical vest was worn and grimed to a grayish tan, and some of the edges were frayed from the constant hard use. His light brown hair was about as overgrown as Lee's, but he kept his reddish beard hacked shorter with his knife. As Lee sat down next to him, LaRouche dug a packet of Red Man out of his cargo pocket and stuffed his cheek with a giant chaw. He'd found a box of the stuff squirreled away in a house earlier that week and had been so overjoyed that Lee thought he might shed a tear.
LaRouche offered Lee the pouch, but he declined.
Lee turned his attention to his right, where Julia sat. Her skin was pale to the point of looking green and her lips were seized down to a short, flat line across her face. She avoided eye contact with Lee.
"You gonna be alright?" he asked.
She nodded, but didn't speak.
He leaned back and stared up at the granite skies. "It has to be done."
She closed her eyes and shook her head. "I just can't find a way to make it right, Lee. I'm sorry, but I don't think I'm ever going to be comfortable with it like you are."
Lee didn't respond for a moment, just watched his breath drift up into the air. It's going to be a cold winter, he thought. Not usually this cold by November. He moistened his lips. "Just because I do it, doesn't mean I'm comfortable with it."
"I don't know."
"They're people," she repeated.
Lee looked at her again, and this time she met his gaze.
He nodded. "Okay."
The smell of burning innards began to drift up to them from where the b.l.o.o.d.y ma.s.s boiled and smoked on the pan below them. He turned to his left where LaRouche, Harper, Father Jim, and the rest of the group were lined up, their hands resting on the grips of their rifles.
"Everybody locked and loaded?"
Thumbs up from everybody.
Silence and grim faces.
Lee rose to his knees and peered over the abutment to the street below.
The downtown area of Lillington was spread out over a few small blocks. The building they were perched on stood at the southwest corner of Main Street and Front Street, where they had set up the small burner, letting the smells of dreadful cooking waft across the small town. Opposite them were a collection of small businesses: a barber shop, a diner, the Lillington Chamber of Commerce, and a few boutiques. Everything stood gray and dead and falling apart.
Still, there could be some salvage there.
Lee rested his bearded chin on his hand as he knelt. He watched and waited and remained silent along with his group as the minutes dragged themselves by like wounded animals, slow and painful. One of the group checked the chamber of their rifle, and then snicked the bolt back into place. LaRouche spit out a stream of tobacco juice that hit the tar paper with a sharp splat. Somewhere the lilting voice of a winter bird called out from a barren tree.
"Cap," someone whispered.
Lee looked over and saw Jeriah Wilson, the stocky black kid fresh out of the Air Force academy. He'd been a running back throughout high school, and his build showed it. His face bore only patchy wisps of hair across his chin, but his once-regulation crew cut had now become s.h.a.ggy.
He tapped his ear and pointed out to the east towards Main Street.
Lee strained to hear, and for a brief moment as the steady cold breeze lulled, he could hear the patter of numerous feet coming from the streets below them. He looked at Jeriah again and nodded, then leaned up slightly over the abutment so he could see Main Street. Everything looked empty and devoid of life, and yet Lee could hear their soft footfalls just around the corner.
They were coming.
He s.h.i.+fted slightly and his hand came down slowly to touch the comforting grip of his rifle. His eyes stayed locked on the intersection.
The footfalls were louder now, and interspersed with short, breathy snorts that could have been mistaken for some other noise from nature, if Lee was not so familiar with it. It was the noise they made when they were tracking something. Especially when they were tracking by smell.
The first one came around the corner quickly and then slowed.
Seeing it made every muscle in Lee's body stiffen.
Staring at it from his concealed vantage point, Lee thought it was a young boy, dark haired and short of stature. He wore a stained pair of jeans and what had once been a white t-s.h.i.+rt, now tattered and darkened with gore. Steam rolled off the boy's shoulders, his body still hot from whatever wretched hovel he and his hundreds of den mates had packed themselves into for warmth. They liked low places, like bas.e.m.e.nts and cellars, and they all huddled together during the night in one giant, twitching ma.s.s.
The thought of it made Lee's skin crawl.
"Eyes on," Lee whispered.
"Eyes on," LaRouche repeated down the line.
In the street below, the boy trotted cautiously out, now hunching down, now standing erect. His squinted eyes surveyed the scene, but always came back to what had drawn him to this intersection: the scent of the deer guts, steaming atop that single-burner grill.
Marie had been right. The smell of cooking drew them in quickly. It tickled some tiny memories in their violently rearranged brains that promised food. It worked better than anything else.
The boy sniffed the air and eyed the grill again, then began to move closer. Behind him, his den mates appeared, a bedraggled horde of them. They began to chitter back and forth to each other excitedly. As they drew closer, their calling got louder, and they began to bark and screech and growl. They worked their hands reflexively and snapped at the air with their jaws. Lee counted as they moved onto Front Street, measuring them in segments of 25, up until he reached approximately 150. The old and the weak and the nearly-dead straggled in, taking up the rear of the column.
Lee crouched there on the abutment and breathed very slowly so that the fog of his breath would not give him away. His pulse was strong and quick, and he could feel the tightness in his stomach and in his throat.
He lowered himself very slowly and touched LaRouche on the shoulder. The sergeant looked up and Lee whispered, "You ready?"
LaRouche moved his chaw around in his mouth and nodded, his lips stained brown. He reached down to his side and held up a little green box with a wire running off of it.
Looking out onto the street again, Lee watched as the horde gathered around the boy. Now others were on the scent, and they were less cautious, and quicker to move in on a possible source of food. This was a herd, not a pack. There was no leader, only the instinct to stay together, to move together. The stink of the burning entrails began to mix with the pungent living odor of the infected and it lifted up on the breeze and made bile rise in the back of Lee's throat.
"Little closer," he whispered to no one in particular, his lips barely moving.
Now the tip of the crowd had reached the bubbling pan of guts. They stood back perhaps three feet away or so and circled around, wary of the heat, but certain that there was food there. They were all on the verge of starvation, their skin stretched taut over their bones and their ribs standing out like the rungs on a ladder. The rest of the horde bunched up behind them, fanning out and filling the street.
Almost there, he thought.
The sweat on his palms chilled in the air.
The first of the infected leaned forward and took a swipe at the pan, knocking it off the grill and spilling the hot, b.l.o.o.d.y contents into the street. They screeched and jumped forward, their claw-like fingers rasping across the concrete as they grabbed chunks of organs and long strings of intestines. The horde pressed in, compacted, became one blob of flailing, grasping limbs, and the screeches became desperate as the feeding frenzy began.
"Now," Lee said.
LaRouche counted out the three clicks from the detonator: "One, two, away."
Lee watched as the four, daisy-chained Claymore mines exploded from where they were hidden in the piles of trash, scattering tatters of white paper that billowed out into the crowd like some violent confetti cannon.
The outside of the horde appeared to wilt as they were cut down by the hundreds of steel b.a.l.l.s shooting out of the four simultaneous detonations. With the dust and smoke still hanging in the air, and the horde of infected still unsteady on their feet, as their eardrums bled and their animal minds attempted to comprehend this thunder that had struck down their den mates, the rest of Lee's team crested the abutment with their rifles at the ready and barrages of withering fire erupted along the rooftop.
The creatures below howled in rage and pain. They turned in mad circles, striking out at each other in the smoke, biting and slas.h.i.+ng at anything before them. They began to scatter, but then they bunched up again as their instinct took over, and they would run this way and that, as the rifle fire echoed off the storefronts and confused them.
Their screeching began to lessen as more and more of them fell. The horde became a few stragglers trying to cling to life, and then only a dozen or so wounded that crawled and moaned and growled. The rifle fire became sporadic until there was only one infected left.
It was the same small boy that had come around the corner. His left arm was sheared off at the shoulder and he clutched his belly with the hand he had left and made a hideous noise.
Calmly, LaRouche raised his rifle while all the others ported theirs, smoke rising from the barrels. The boy writhed and moaned as LaRouche squinted through his sights and fired. Then there was silence.
LaRouche spat. "That's the last one."
The group looked down at their handiwork.
In the street lay the sprawled remains of what was left of Lillington's populace. Some of them stared up into the sky with gla.s.sy eyes, while others lay face down in their own muck. The s.p.a.ces between their bodies glistened darkly as thin streams of red meandered away from the road and towards the trash-clogged drains.
LaRouche slapped Harper's shoulder and pointed. "s.h.i.+t, Harper. I think your grill is still going."
Harper nodded slowly and looked slightly nauseous. "Yeah."
LaRouche was clearly impressed. "d.a.m.n thing's indestructible."
Lee grabbed his pack up from the floor and slung his arms into it. "Everyone refresh your mags."
Those that had not done so already put fresh magazines in their rifles and stowed the half-full ones in the pockets of their field jackets. They stooped and gathered their empty magazines and put them in a different pocket.
Julia remained still during this.
She hadn't fired a shot.
"Wilson," Lee pointed to the Air Force cadet. "Get your guys and pull the Humvees around. Let's start setting up shop."
Wilson nodded and headed for the ladder down, his three companions falling in behind him.
The two Humvees that Lee had repossessed from Milo were parked around the corner. The block of buildings which they stood in created a perfect square around an empty parking lot. With some measures to fortify the doors and windows of these buildings, the interior parking lot could be used as a base and the buildings as a wall. A little concertina wire and some barricades, and Outpost Lillington would be secure.
Wilson and his team slid quickly down the ladder and disappeared into the empty pharmacy below. Lee thought about telling them to be cautious-there would be others lurking in the city. But it was unnecessary. Everyone was already cautious. They all jumped at shadows and slept lightly, always antic.i.p.ating the next round of misfortune.
"Let's go down there and check it out." Lee put a hand on LaRouche's shoulder. "You mind keeping overwatch again?"
The sergeant shook his head. "Nope. I got it."
They went down and emerged from the pharmacy onto Front Street. It was Lee, Harper, Julia, and Father Jim. They were a good team, Lee had to admit. Though Julia refused to take part in the traps they set to clear the small towns of infected, she still did the training and pulled her weight along with everyone else. Plus, her medical knowledge made her invaluable. Lee had spent a lot of time training his team, and they were practiced and tested almost every day. They were still a far cry from professional soldiers, but they were fluid, most of them were decent shots, and they got the job done.
Standing on the sidewalk in front of the shop, they stared at the carnage in the streets.
"Jim, Harper..." Lee pointed to the front of the shop. "Post up here. We'll strip the pharmacy."
The two men nodded their heads. Julia followed Lee back into the building. The interior already looked ransacked, but most things did these days. There wasn't much left, but they managed to pull a few large bottles of medications that Lee was unfamiliar with, along with some prescription pain relievers, and some over-the-counter items such as anti-diarrheal medicines, ibuprofen, acetaminophen, and antibacterial ointments. Julia piled these items into her pack just as the Humvees rumbled into the back parking lot.
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