~~~

After Sergeant Hash secured Thompson and his accomplices in the very room his second-in-command was holding Tony’s group, he had his men escort the prisoners to the second-floor cafeteria of the four-story medical center where they were told to wait, sitting at a large round table near the windows facing the south side of town. This gave Tony and his group their first glimpse at West Farmington Village.

The cafeteria was clean and spacious filled with round tables and adjustable chairs giving it a modern look. An ancient Starbucks kiosk stood desolate next to a traditional buffet style island where once-upon-a-time patients and visitors to the hospital would line up for their choice of overpriced breakfast, lunch and dinner items.

Diane pointed up toward the decorative dome-shaped lighting fixtures. They were on. “They have power here,” she said.

“Hospital generators,” Tony assumed. “They must be using them sparingly, lighting up certain areas. I suspect they all live here.”

Nine stared out one of the tall windows as evening twilight descended over the unremarkable town of West Farmington Village. From what he could see, this was just another old town merged with modern development, like this hospital. The empty brick buildings across the street stood dark and lifeless, overlooking the downtown area. From what he could see, it looked like most of the downtown area was cut off from the rest of town. There were several barricades erected at intersecting streets that flowed away like veins into dark residential areas where the restless dead assuredly owned the abandoned corners of town. It was clear the hospital was of strategic importance, standing as one of the tallest structures in town.

“This place is bigger than a lot of towns we’ve passed though,” Nine said. “It’s too bad it suffers from another zero-population problem. Not counting these handful of soldiers, of course. I wonder how many men this Sergeant Hash actually commands. I don’t see a whole lot of activity down there.”

Tony stepped up beside him, and stared down at the empty streets. “That might be a good thing if Thompson is any indication of the quality of ‘men’ in Hash’s unit.”

“Do you think we’ll ever find a place that isn’t on the verge of being another ghost town, Tony? They can’t all be like… this… can they?”

Tony frowned. “God, I hope not.”

Ten minutes later, Hash appeared at the guarded entrance into the cafeteria, whispering something to their lunch room jailer before approaching Tony and the others with his hands in his uniform pant pockets, trying to appear less threatening. He wasn’t wearing his gun belt or any other noticeable weapons, but was carrying a folder. The tall man sat down in a vacant seat between Tony and Diane, placing the folder down in front of him, and folded his hands together, setting his arms on top of the folder. Hash took a deep breath and scanned their faces. Staring clockwise to his left sat Tony, Wendy, Mark, Alysa, Nine and Diane to his right.

The others just glanced at one another anxiously, wondering if they should speak, or wait to be addressed. In light of their previous treatment, they all chose the latter.

“You can relax now,” Hash finally said with a broken smile. “You all have the look of death row inmates wondering who’s going to the chamber first.” He meant this as a joke, but no one was laughing. “I’ll have some food sent in shortly. I just wanted to talk to you all first. Once more, I apologize for Corporal Thompson’s harsh treatment. I will deal with him after I’ve dealt with all of you.”

“Why are we being dealt with at all?” Tony dared to ask. “We’ve done nothing to you or your men.”

Hash nodded, refusing to make eye contact, and opened his folder to reveal a blank notepad. “Yes, you did nothing but disregard our warning sign at the bridge, attempting to enter my town armed. You were fortunate we didn’t just shoot you on sight.” He stopped and scanned their tired faces. “I’ve seen your kind before. All of you have been out in this screwed-up world long enough to know how reckless such actions are… but you crossed our boundary anyway. That means you’re either too desperate to care, or just dangerous.”

“Coming from a man whose men were about to rape me, and kill one of us just to make an example, I think it’s clear where the danger exists,” Alysa shot back, folding her arms defiantly.

Hash stared at her and sighed. “Yes… we’ve covered that unfortunate incident.” He retrieved a ball point pen from his breast pocket and looked down at the notepad. “Let’s get down to it. Names?”

“What… are you starting a census?” Mark said sarcastically. “A little late for that, don’t you think?”

Hash smiled at the young man. “That is exactly what I’m doing. I don’t know where you all came from, and frankly, I don’t care. But around here, survivors entering New Cleveland Territories are accounted for. If anyone is discovered west of the woods we found you in, they better have a good reason to be here and on somebody’s list. If not, they are considered criminals. Gone are the days of trespassing with minor consequences. Or haven’t you heard that it’s a whole new world out there now?”

Mark shook his head, confused. He looked at Tony. “This is bullshit.”

“What exactly is New Cleveland Territories, and why are we considered ‘criminals’? We haven’t done anything,” Tony said.

Hash nodded. “Okay. Considering our unfortunate misunderstanding downstairs, I’ll allow you a few questions if that will put you all at ease. But after, I expect your complete cooperation. New Cleveland Territories extend from the woods we found you in, this side of the Grand River, all the way west to New Cleveland itself, about twenty-five miles from here, on what used to be the old abandoned amusement park, Geauga Lake. And everything in between here and there, including several towns to the north and south, fall within the Territories. No one living is allowed into this area without proper authorization. The people who live within the Territories are under the protection of the Lunatics. The dead are manageable, but the living… well… there are many desperate people out there prepared to do all manner of lawless acts to stay alive. That is not tolerated here. The Lunatics enforce The Law and The Law keeps everyone… civil.”

“‘Pay the Lunatics or feed the dead’,” Wendy said.

Hash raised his eyebrows. “Yes. Precisely.”

“So… are all of you… Lunatics?” Nine asked, laughing at how that sounded.

Hash laughed. “Hell no. We work with those face-painted freaks. Our job is to watch the eastern border, here in West Farmington. There are other groups assigned to various towns to the north, south, and west. West Farmington Village is under my jurisdiction.”

“Are you all military?” Diane asked, looking at his faded by clean uniform.

“They were part of the National Guard,” Tony answered. He turned and frowned at Hash. “This man, at least, was stationed at the Percy Power Plant to protect the public at the beginning of the outbreak. Gina was there when the plant fell to the dead. She told me this one here was a good man. Apparently, some things have changed.”

He ignored the shot. “There is no more ‘National Guard’,” he said. “No old government of any kind to lead them, either. Good, bad, doesn’t matter. No one’s coming to save the day or fix the world. You’re either alive or dead. The rest is all gone.”

“Mercenaries,” Alysa spat with disgust. “That’s all you and your kind are now. You traded in your honor for a paycheck, but still wear the uniforms to look the part of authority.”

Hash glared at her, fighting off the urge to reach across the table and punch her in the face. He calmed down, and turned back to the notepad. “Alright. My turn. Tell me your names or you can all go back downstairs in the dark. My patience is not without limits.”

Tony went around the table and introduced them while Hash scribbled down their names. “Very good,” he said. “Now, state your business?”

“Excuse me?’ Tony asked.

“Why are you all here? We don’t see very many people moving in groups anymore, not since before the winter. Most have gone into hiding, too terrified to wander about.”

“We’re looking for our friends,” Tony said. “They had a community near Lake Pymatuning… but most of them are dead now.” He looked at Alysa who glared back cautiously. He turned back to Hash. “We’ve good reason to believe that some survivors from that community came this way. Perhaps they’ve made it on to one of your lists?”

“Not ours,” Hash said, studying them suspiciously. “They could have come in from the north, I suppose.”

“Yes, that’s a possibility-”

“Where did this woman hear those words… The Law?” Hash interrupted, pointing at Wendy. “Tell me the truth, now. Are you all from one of the Wild Towns to the east?”

“Wild towns?” Diane asked.

“Yes. Only the Lunatics venture outside our borders, and usually in large groups,” Hash explained. “They run routine patrols through the border towns, like this one, to gather supplies and information. Then they venture out to recruit new people from hostile towns that fall outside the Territories… a.k.a., the Wild Towns. They are considered very dangerous and unruly places.” He then stared at Tony. “Did you all receive a visit from the Lunatics in one of these towns? Is that how you heard The Law?”

Tony saw no point in hiding the truth. “We first read ‘The Law’ scribbled on the back wall of an archery range in Wayne, after these Lunatics killed a bunch of people. They even put a few up on archery targets and filled them with arrows.”

“That doesn’t sound right,” Hash said, shifting uncomfortably. “They’re not out there murdering people. They only kill when they have to. That’s not their-”

“Familiar with Bristolville?” Alysa asked. “It’s just on the other side of these woods. If you don’t believe us, go see for yourself what your precious Lunatics did there. They trapped a bunch of people hiding out in a fire station and burned them alive. They even hung a charred corpse right out front of the station. He was holding a sign with The Law written on it.”

Sergeant Hash looked confused.

Tony saw doubt in the man’s eyes. “Truth is, Sergeant, our people were attacked by these same Lunatics. They killed just about everyone, burned their corpses in a bonfire while they had a party to celebrate it. Some of our friends were captured by them. And we’ve been following their trail ever since. That’s what led us here.”

“Bullshit,” Hash said. “You could just as easily be making all this up.”

“Are you familiar with a woman with a painted face who carries two handguns?” Tony asked.

Hash looked surprised. “Go on.”

“We believe she’s the one in charge of these butchers. They have our friends and we intend to get them back.”

Hash stood up and moved toward the windows. He stared out, letting his shoulders sag. “I am familiar with this woman you speak of. Her name’s Briana, a real crazy bitch. She oversees eastern operations, both here in town… and in the Wild Towns beyond. They often come back from ‘out there’ with… prisoners.”

“We’ve seen their handiwork,” Alysa said. “It’s clear that they raid towns for supplies, terrorize people into submission, and murder everyone who resists. These are the people you work for.”

“Bullshit.”

“Maybe they don’t do it here, in the Territories, but out there… where no one is watching… they’re savages,” Tony said. “Why would we make this up?”

“We take a risk in even telling you about it,” Alysa added, giving Tony a scrutinizing gaze. She stared at the tall man. “We’ve no guarantee that you won’t turn us over to them immediately, isn’t that right?”

Hash said nothing.

“We have something of value,” Wendy said, causing all of them to turn to her. “I don’t believe it’s of value to these… Lunatics… but I believe it’s valuable to you, Sergeant Hash.”

“And what would that be?” Hash said.

“First, give us your word that you’ll release us and let us go back the way we came. No harm. No foul.”

Hash smiled. “I will consider your request. That’s the best I can do… assuming what you have to say is valuable.”
Wendy took a deep breath and tried not to look over at the surprised glances of her friends. “You said your people were placed her to watch the eastern border. I think you’ve been lied to. I can tell you why your employer really stationed you out here. Is that valuable enough?”

“I’m all ears, young lady,” Hash said, folding his arms with amusement. “Please… tell me why I’m out here rotting away in this God-forsaken shit-hole town.”

Wendy removed her glasses, wiped them on her shirt, and then put them back on with a smile. “Mosquito Creek Lake.”

Hash’s face turned to stone. “What about it?”

Tony smiled. That a girl!

Even Alysa looked pleased.

Wendy continued. “Do you know what’s going on out there? Do you know about the thousands of dormant yellow-eyed monsters that are moments from waking up?”

Hash didn’t know what to say.

“It’s true,” Tony jumped in. “We almost walked right into the hellish den. Their numbers are staggering. You speak of the dead being manageable… well… what’s lurking in that place is unstoppable. Should those things wake up and head this way…”

“…They’ll slaughter everyone in your little border towns,” Alysa continued. “And they won’t stop there. They’ll devour everything living, from the east to the west, north to south… everything.”

“I don’t mean to be harsh,” Wendy said. “But it seems to me that the only reason you and your men are here, as well as those in the other border towns, is to act as a… well… to act as an early warning system, letting your employers know when to run, while the rest of you on the border get… slaughtered.”

“Especially since Mosquito Creek Lake is less than ten miles east of here,” Hash said, sitting back down. He looked over at the guard posted near the door, then leaned in and whispered. “I have heard rumors about that place… but nothing as substantial as this.” He looked over at Wendy. “Thank you, young lady. Your information is… helpful.”

She smiled from ear to ear.

“So, does that mean we’ve been pardoned?” Nine asked.

Hash sighed. “My orders are to hold and question all trespassers until the Lunatics make their next visit. From there, you become their responsibility.”

“You know what they’ll do to us,” Tony said. “I can see it in your face. You’ve always suspected they were doing bad things, but you turned a blind eye, didn’t you?”

“That’s irrelevant,” Hash said. “My orders are clear. I risk my entire unit if I defy them.”

“Bullshit,” Tony pushed. “Gina told me you were a good man. I can tell that you aren’t like the others. I also know that you didn’t have to stop Thompson, and that because you did, you’re going to take some heat for it. Am I right?”

Hash laughed. “I can deal with Thompson.”

“But you did stop him. Why?”

“Because we aren’t savages!” Hash barked. He immediately lowered his voice and calmed down. “We’re not monsters… not yet. And I won’t allow what Thompson tried to do to all of you, not on my watch.”

“But you’ll turn us over to the monsters you work for,” Alysa said. “We’ve seen what they do. You might as well let Thompson and his goons have a go at me and finish cutting Tony’s throat. I suspect these Lunatics will do far worse.”

“Look,” Hash said raising his hands. His frustration was evident. “You all seem like good folks. And I’d like to believe that I can still tell the difference between the good ones and the bad ones. I wish you all hadn’t crossed that damn bridge, but you did. I don’t have options here. I let you go and my men will turn on me to save their own skins. Nothing would make Thompson happier, by the way. But I can put in a good word for you when the Lunatics arrive. I can tell them how cooperative you’ve been and tell them what you told me about Mosquito Creek Lake. That’s a significant threat to New Cleveland. Maybe they’ll go easier on you, make you citizens, or maybe it won’t matter. But I can try.” He stood up and stepped back. “In the meantime, I’ll get you fed and have my men take you upstairs to the third floor where you can get a good night’s sleep.”

Tony shook his head. “You turn us over to the Lunatics, you’re just as guilty as Thompson.”
“You’ve no idea what you’ve gotten into here,” Hash said. “You say you’re trying to find your friends… well… if they’re alive there’s only one place they could be. And if you’re dead set on chasing after those face-painted freaks to rescue them… you’re going to die anyway. I’ll have dinner brought to you.” He started to turn.

Tony stood up. “I don’t believe you.”

Hash turned. “You don’t believe what?”

“I don’t believe you’ll hand us over to the Lunatics.”

Hash smiled, took a step toward the big man, and sized him up. “I know you, Tony. I admire your passion and can tell that these folks mean as much to you as the look on your archer friend’s face tells me she’d like to murder me in my sleep.” He shook his head at him and continued. “Hell, you’d probably die for them if you had to. But here’s something I also know about you: You’re an endangered species. There’s no place left in this world for ‘good guys’. The sooner you get a hold of that the better.”

“That’s bullshit, Sergeant,” Tony said. “And somewhere beneath all that hardship between the power plant leading up to now, you know it.”

Hash laughed. “You don’t give up, do you?”

“Not in me, Sergeant. Why don’t you help us?”

Hash ran his hand through his short-cropped hair. “War changes people, Tony. And this is the war to end all wars, wouldn’t you agree?”

“Yes.”

“Sometimes you just can’t take it back,” Hash continued. “Sometimes you just go too far and can’t take any of it back. And then it stains you, from the inside out.”

“I get that,” Tony said sadly. “Believe me, I do.”

“Then you know I can’t help you, Tony. I’m truly sorry. Now, I’ll make your stay as comfortable as I can, but in the end, I’m turning you over. Best to make your peace with that.”

~~~

Next Episode 42-7

Previous Episode 42-5

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 42-6: 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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