~~~

They all woke at first light to a chilly morning as they huddled around their small fire for warmth. Diane and Nine sat close together staring into the fire, looking like hangover victims. Mark was gathering wood. Wendy was pacing and staring up toward the top of the small valley.

Tony and Alysa had been the last to rise. After being relieved from watch late last night, they’d continued talking until passing out right next to each other, providing Nine with some amusement after they’d quickly put several feet between them after waking.

“Long night?” Nine asked them both with a shit-eating grin.

Alysa scowled at him. “Something funny?”

“Nothing,” he said. “My face always looks like this.”

Tony ignored him, placing his hands over the fire for warmth. “I’m never going to become a fan of camping,” he grumbled, rubbing his stiff neck.

“The perimeter’s still clear,” Wendy anxiously chimed in.

“Sit down, girl. You’re making me dizzy.” Diane yawned. “Who do I need to kill for coffee?”

Nine looked at her and then back toward the others. “She’s such a grumpy-ass bear in the mornings.”

This earned him the middle finger of her only hand.

He blew her a kiss.

Wendy laughed, finally relaxing a little as she sat down next to Tony.

“We should talk about… yesterday.” Mark came over and dropped a pile of branches near the fire before sitting down next to Nine. “You know… Bristolville?”

After departing Mosquito Creek Lake three days ago, they had continued south wanting as much distance between themselves and the over five-thousand dormant yellow-eyed dead as possible. Two days later, they had found another clue to the whereabouts of the Lunatics in the township of Bristolville, another intersection-sized town along the highway, located near the southwestern edge of Mosquito Creek.

That’s where they had discovered the badly burned body of a man, hung just outside an old brick fire station that had been set on fire from the inside. Attached to the corpse was a crudely made sign with month old words stained in blood:

PAY THE LUNATICS OR FEED THE DEAD

Even Nine couldn’t find humor in the irony of the burnt man in front of the fire station after a more detailed inspection revealed at least twelve more bodies inside the brick structure, all badly burned. All the exits had been blocked from the outside by vehicles and the windows were either completely broken out, left spidered by automatic gunfire, or blackened from the smoke within. Between Diane and Alysa, they quickly deduced that whoever took shelter in the fire station apparently displeased the Lunatics, perhaps even tried to keep them out, and as a result, they were locked inside as the place was set on fire. The Lunatics surrounded the station to watch it burn and listen to the screams within, shooting anyone trying to escape out a window.

With minds still reeling from the horrific discovery at Mosquito Creek, they quickly found another beer-can trail heading west along Route 88, into the forest where they now camped. The Lunatics, never caring to conceal their whereabouts, were consistently marking the trail with bodies and booze.

“What’s left to discuss?” Alysa asked. “Did you discover something we overlooked?”

Mark gave her a what-the-fuck look. “Am I the only one seeing the big picture here?”

“What are you getting at, Mark?” Tony was in no mood for this. He, too, just wanted a damn cup of coffee and a moment of peace.

“Oh… I don’t know,” he said sarcastically, “maybe my math isn’t so great these days, but it seems like the longer we pursue these fuckers, the higher the body count gets.”

Tony sighed. “And?”

“And… maybe we’re in just a little bit over our heads here. We really don’t have a clue what we’re up against.”

“So, you want to give up?” Wendy said.

“I’m not saying that,” Mark said. “I’m just suggesting that we stop being the damn hard chargers, racing to catch up to this murderous group, before we know the facts… or else we’ll just run right into them and probably end up as dead as the rest.”

Tony nodded. “Point taken. We definitely can’t afford to underestimate these people. But other than following their trail, I don’t know what else we can do. Information is scarce these days. And as you pointed out, anyone we could ask, is already dead by the time we catch up to them.”

“What do you suppose it means?” Nine interrupted. “That whole ‘pay the Lunatics or feed the dead’ thing? And will they accept all major credit cards as payment? Because I still think I’ve got an American Express card that isn’t maxed out yet.”

Mark shook his head at him.

“Nine,” Diane said.

“Yes, my angel?”

She was about to finish, paused, and then said, “Never mind. I’m too damn tired for this.”

“Look,” Mark said. “I’m with you guys. I know it doesn’t sound like it at times with all my ‘Doubting Thomas’ bullshit, but I’m still down with the rescue mission… even if there’s no one left to rescue. I just think we’re running on empty, chasing echoes, and blindly going about this without a plan… and we really need one before we find these clown-faced fuckers.”

This made Nine snicker. “Can I use that for the name of my first alternative/rock album?”

“He’s right,” Alysa said. “We’re clearly outnumbered and without an advantage of any kind, or a plan, we’re going to stumble across these Lunatics one day soon… and wish we hadn’t.”

Tony nodded. “Okay, then. We’ll work out a plan… but not this morning.”

“We do know a couple of things about them,” Wendy said, wiping her glasses on her shirt. She looked up into their expectant faces, not realizing she had their attention. “Well… what I mean is… we know that as far as murderers or psychopaths go, they’re at least… reasonable.”

“Explain that,” Diane said.

“I’m just going off the only evidence we have,” Wendy continued. “Twice now, we’ve come across that message. The message itself clearly expresses that these Lunatics presented their victims with a choice: pay or die. We’ve seen the death part. Now we just have to figure out what they want or acquire something worth wanting, I suppose. Perhaps that’s the advantage we’re looking for.”

Alysa’s eyebrows shot up. She smiled at the girl and then looked to Tony.

“Not bad for a rookie,” Nine said. “I knew there was a reason we brought you along.” He winked at her, causing Wendy to laugh.

“Not bad at all,” Tony agreed. “Well done, Wendy.”

The young woman blushed, putting on her glasses.

“We already know what they want!” Nine said, standing up. “All we need to do is track down the closest liquor store, locate the Lunatics’ favorite roadside-discarded beer of choice, stock up on the shit, and pay them bitches!”

“Nine.”

“Yes, my angel?”

“SHUT UP!” they all said together.

~~~

The Grand River Wilderness Area covered ten square miles, separated right down the center by the Grand River, itself, which entered from the north end and continued to snake south, exiting the woods, where it continued south for many more miles. Route 88 ran west, right through the center of the forest, exiting at West Farmington Village on the other end of the woods. Aside from two other highways that ran parallel at the north and south ends of the wilderness area, Route 88 was the only other road with a bridge that crossed the wide and turbulent river, which served as a natural barrier, keeping the dead limited to the eastern side of the forest. The only way anyone could cross at this point, living or dead, was by the bridge.

When Tony and the others arrived at the old bridge, they weren’t surprised to find a barricade of long abandoned vehicles, facing sideways, five rows deep, successfully blocking access. At the edge of the bridge, where the West Farmington town limit sign used to be, someone had replaced the metallic sign with a generic plywood sign with large bold but faded words spray painted on it:

WEST FARMINGTON VILLAGE.
STRANGERS ARE NOT WELCOME.
TURN AROUND.
THIS IS YOUR ONLY WARNING.
TRESSPASSERS WILL BE SHOT ON SIGHT.

“Sounds inviting,” Nine said, staring through a pair of binoculars at the sign. He handed them to Tony.

They all hunkered down near the bridge but off the roadway and at the edge of the woods to check for hostiles on the bridge.

“Everything looks ancient,” he said, handing the binos to the hunter. “Whoever defended the bridge is probably long gone, maybe before the winter.”

“At least someone had the sense to block off the bridge at the beginning. Might have kept them alive for a little while,” Diane said, scanning the bridge for signs of recent activity. She shook her head. “No. I’m with Tony. There’s nothing up there but a bunch of rusted out vehicles… and all that unnerving silence.”

Diane handed Alysa the binoculars and the archer started scanning beneath the bridge. When she was satisfied she handed the binos back to Tony. “Bottom is just as quiet. No way to cross down there, not without taking a swim. But no ambush either.”

Tony nodded. A sharp crack caused him to look back.

All morning, they heard the occasional snapping branch or shuffling brush from some wandering dead-head, hidden somewhere in the forest behind them. Some were also scattered along Route 88, but too few to be a real threat.

“What’s the call?” Alysa asked.

Tony stared at the bridge barricade and then nodded behind them. “I know there’s just a few of them wandering around out here, but it’s unnerving. Only takes one to catch us by surprise and bite one of us.” He nodded toward the bridge. “Those cars would still keep the dead out and the river does the rest. Would be nice to sleep somewhere without the dead nearby for once. Let’s get across this bridge… carefully.”

They stepped out on the road, feeling immediately exposed. As one, they rushed up to the abandoned barricade, with a couple of rifles and their few remaining handguns, scanning for hostiles hiding within the vehicles, or just beyond them.

They easily climbed over the car barricade, landing uneventfully on the other side.

“Now, let’s get to this West Farmington and find-”

Tony was cut off as Mark tapped him on the shoulder and pointed up ahead along the roadway.

There were at least six dead-heads, still a safe distance away, shambling toward them, drawn by the sounds created by their climbing over the popping aluminum tops of the vehicles.

“Shit,” Tony said with a frown. “They’re like fucking cockroaches. They always find a way in.”

“Could have come from the west,” Mark said. “Town might only be protected on this side. Who knows where those things came from.”

“They could have already infested the town,” Diane added. “This could all be for nothing.”

Tony nodded, staring at the dead in disgust.

They dead were moving faster now, obviously picking up the fresh blood scent.

“Let’s get off the bridge before those things get all riled up, and get back off the road and into the western end of these fucking woods. I’d rather not waste the effort or the bullets on these guys.”

They moved toward the western end of the bridge, staring briefly off to the right and down upon the Grand River.

“Where did they go?” Wendy was the first to gaze back toward the roadway.

They all stopped, alarmed. All six zombies were gone.

Alysa’s eyes immediately darted toward both sides of the street, up toward the wood line. She was reaching for an arrow, before realizing she’d spent them all in Orwell. “Shit. Take cover!”

Before anyone could respond, silenced bullets started bouncing off the cars behind them.

“We’re fucking exposed! Get off the bridge!” Tony shouted.

Before they could move any further, several shots struck the asphalt in front of them.

The dead stormed out of the woods… armed to the teeth.

“What the fuck?” Tony cried out.

“We’ve been tricked,” Alysa said, shaking her head in disgust for not spotting the ruse. “They just wanted us to lower our guard until they got close.” Alysa said.

Six people dressed in filthy blood-stained rags, wearing pale-colored ski masks painted to look like the dead, cut them off at the edge of the bridge with automatic weapons raised at their faces.

“Drop the weapons!” one of them yelled. “Drop them… or we open fire!”

Alysa considered charging with her hunting knife. She could kill one or two at this range before the others mowed her down.

“No,” Tony whispered to her, catching her intent. “Stand down.” He turned to the rest. “All of you… just… stand down.”

Diane slowly lowered her handgun.

Matt also had one out. He lowered his as well.

Nine never had a chance to charge the rifle he was carrying.

Tony laid his own rifle on the ground and raised his hands. “Don’t shoot,” he said. “We surrender.”

“On your knees! Now!” the same one commanded.

Tony nodded toward the others and got down on his knees. The others reluctantly did the same, being mindful to keep their hands up.

Alysa just stood there, staring defiantly at the armed men.

“You, too,” a masked attacker ordered. He looked at the hunting knife in her hand and added, “I’m sure you think you’re fast enough with that blade… but a bullet’s faster. Let’s not find out. Get the fuck on your knees with the others… NOW!”

“Alysa!” Tony hissed. “Now is not the fucking time for your lone warrior bullshit!”

She saw the pleading look in his eyes, sighed with a frown, and then absently dropped the hunting knife, staring at her enemies with murderous intent. Finally, she got down on her knees and placed her hands behind her head, never flinching from the armed masked men.

The armed six moved in as one, quickly kicking their prisoners’ weapons away, and surrounding them, safely adding another foot or two of distance from the violent looking woman with the bow strapped to her back.

Another man who appeared to be in charge, walked up to Tony and tossed a pack of dark sacks at his feet. “Get them to put these on,” the man said. “Especially that crazy bitch with the bow. I’m tired of looking at my death in her eyes.”

“Hold up,” Tony said. “None of this is necessary. We’re just… we had no idea anyone still occupied this area. Just… let us go back the way we came and-”

“Shut up… and do what I said,” the masked speaker commanded. “Another word… and we’ll just kill one of you right here and leave the body for the dead to gnaw on. Understand?”

Tony responded with a nod.

“Good answer,” the man said.

Tony looked down at the sacks, grabbed one, and then passed the others on.

They all reluctantly put the sacks over their heads.

“Good. Very good,” the man said. “Now… I will talk… you will listen. Should any of you, especially that pissed off archer woman, decide to confront us, talk, plead for your lives… whatever… we will one of you. It’s in your best interest to be cooperative, and that means keeping your mouths shut.”

The man started walking around them. “I would say… welcome to West Farmington Village… except that no one is welcome here… and apparently, none of you can read.”

Tony wanted to protest, but wisely remained still.

“Trespassing is normally a crime punishable by death in our little township, but since West Farmington Village currently falls under the jurisdiction of the Lunatics… I’m not authorized to terminate you… yet.”

Fuck! Tony thought. Just like that… the Lunatics have us. I’m a damn fool for leading them all here.

The man finished. “That’s enough talk. I’ll have questions for each of you, but only after I’ve given you permission to speak.” He walked over and stripped the bow and quiver off the archer’s back and then spotted her blade. He picked up Alysa’s hunting knife and started twirling it between his fingers. “Let me make this as clear as possible before we take you… elsewhere: Someone lies, someone dies. I want you all to consider that very carefully while we walk. Now get the hell on your feet!”

No one said a word as they slowly stood with the sacks over their heads. They could all feel the weight of the predicament they were in.

The armed men lined them up and started marching them toward town.

~~~

Next Episode 42-3

Previous Episode 42-1

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 42-2: The Kill Room” Copyright © 2018 Scott Scherr, from the novel, Don’t Feed The Dark, Book Five: Remains. All Rights Reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission by the author.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

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