~~~

After their conversation, Sergeant Hash had made good on his promise of a meal and better accommodations for the evening. Shortly before dusk, Tony and the others were escorted under guard to the third floor where they were assigned to three hospital rooms that had recently been cleaned. Extra beds had been rolled into the rooms from other rooms and fresh linen was provided. Their three rooms were part of a secure intensive care wing of the hospital, making it easy for two armed men to block off access from just outside two glass doors at either end of a long hallway, blocking the only exits out of the wing. Although their present situation afforded them some privacy and comfort, Hash wanted to make it clear that their upgraded ‘guest’ status was limited, and that they were still prisoners.

After confirming this fact by discreetly exploring the intensive care wing, Tony gathered his group up in one of the hospital rooms.

“They know this hospital,” Alysa said. She was the last to return. “I could find no other ways around the guards. We might be able to crudely arm ourselves with blunt weapons, but they’ll still have the advantage and see us coming long before we charge.”

Tony nodded. “I figured as much. Hash may trust us to some extent, but he’s no fool. I’m sure he knows that if the situation were reversed, he’d be trying to escape, too.”

“So, what does that mean, now?” Wendy asked. “We just wait here until the Lunatics come and then thank the good Sergeant for his hospitality before our execution?”

“Well… the coffee at dinner was a nice surprise,” Tony said with a smile.

“You’re rather chipper considering our present circumstances,” Diane said. “Are you really buying into this man’s ‘good cop, bad cop’ bullshit? For all we know Hash ordered Thompson to do everything he did to us in the basement. He might be letting that man out right now, getting ready for the next ruse.”

“Agreed,” Alysa said, staring out the large hospital room window at the darkening street below. She had already calculated that the jump from up here wouldn’t kill them, but they were high enough to break some bones in the attempt. “Thompson was no amateur. He and his men have interrogated others before. The man enjoys it, too.” She turned to Tony. “Do you really think this Sergeant Hash was unaware of what his men were doing to us?”

Tony shook his head. “I hear you. Believe me, I do. But there’s just something different about the man. He’s not like the others… or doesn’t want to be. I think we can use that to our advantage. He looked genuinely disturbed by what almost happened to us. And then when Wendy told him about Mosquito Creek, it was like all his worst fears had been confirmed. With a little more time, we might be able to get him on our side.”

“You’re just hoping for another cup of that coffee,” Nine said with a wink.

“No… I’m being serious. Gina vouched for this man. She told me that Meredith freaked out at their refugee camp back at Percy. She described it to me when she first told me what that woman could do, and how much of a toll it took on Meredith to control it. Sometimes, her ‘gift’ overwhelmed her, causing her to go into seizures, as was the case then. She was ranting and raving about the dead coming. By the time the National Guard arrived to break up the situation, Hash was there. Half the camp was already on the verge of killing Meredith, believing she’d turned. Gina pleaded her case to the good Sergeant, and he helped defuse that tense situation when I’m sure the soldier in him was clearly telling him to take Meredith down. Hell, if I’d been there, not knowing what I know of Meredith, I might have sided with the crowd at the time. But Hash didn’t overreact, and he did the right thing.”

“Yeah, but that was back at the beginning,” Mark said. “Back when all of this shit was still new to us. You heard the man. He said, ‘War changes people’. No one says things like that unless their conscience is stained.”

“He could’ve been talking about that asshole, Thompson,” Tony defended. “Hell, we’ve all done things since those early days that we never thought ourselves capable of doing.” He looked away.

“That man is clearly haunted by the past,” Alysa said, in a surprisingly soft tone.

Tony looked at her, believing at first that she was talking about him.

“There is blood on his hands. That much is clear. I have seen it many times behind the eyes of soldiers like Hash. He wrestles with it every day.” She looked back out the window. “It is easy to kill, especially in combat when the choice is out of your hands, when your life depends on it. There is no time to consider the weight of it… you just do it… or die. But it’s another thing to live with it. It is the war within the war that he speaks of.” She turned back and stared at Tony, disarming him with a rare, vulnerable gaze. “Sergeant Hash knows that he is no longer a ‘good’ man. And once someone accepts that fact, especially if he or she must kill again, and again, you raise up fortifications against yourself… you must… or else you drown in the darkness of it all.”

Tony frowned at the woman, reliving his own horror of the two rapists he’d savagely bludgeoned to death with a crowbar at a rest stop a thousand years ago, when the anger within overwhelmed him and he did not recognize himself. Yes, he could relate. Tony did not consider himself a ‘good’ man either.

Alysa smiled at him. It wasn’t a taunting smile, but an understanding one, as he, too, left himself wide open. He broke away from the uncomfortable moment. “So, you think Hash is as bad as Thompson, then?”

“No,” she said. “Thompson is a monster.” She quickly looked away, reminded of what her old instructors knew about her. “Monsters are people who allow the darkness to consume them entirely. Others, like Hash, still fight against it, as we all must.”

“So… if he’s not a good man, but not a monster like Thompson,” Diane started, “then what is he?”

Alysa looked to her and raised an eyebrow. “Sergeant Hash is a dangerous man, capable of anything.”

“Which means he can still choose,” Tony offered. “He can still choose to do the right thing, despite the many wrong things he’s done. Hell, this might be an opportunity he hasn’t had until now; a chance to jump on the right side for a change.”

Alysa nodded with a defiant little smile that she wished her old instructors could see now. “Yes. This is still possible.”

Nine laughed. “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. I guess we all fit that bill now. The question remains, are we gambling on our conflicted host, or should we steal a page from the Alamo and get ready to make one hell of a ridiculously short stand in this intensive care unit when the clowns arrive?”

Tony walked over to the window and stared down at the lifeless streets. Darkness was descending quickly, sending the remains West Farmington Village into that familiar dark void of shadows and stillness that had swallowed up their old world. He took a deep breath and turned. “I say we gamble a bit longer on Hash. But let’s get those blunt weapons ready… just in case. Either way, we’re done being prisoners after tonight.”

~~~

Sergeant Richard Hash ascended the hospital stairs toward the roof top post. He was physically exhausted, they all were. Since their unit seized the town of West Farmington Village shortly after the winter thaw, the work had been considerable managing and maintaining control of the small town. On the surface, his orders seemed simple: Set up an outpost on the eastern perimeter of New Cleveland Territories by slowly clearing the town of the dead while keeping the living out. As an immediate reward for doing so, they were promised forty percent of the spoils from the town, the remaining sixty going to New Cleveland in exchange for a continued position and favor as well as the firepower the Lunatics provided to take the town. Hash had thought the deal was perfect. They could finally stop moving, set up residence within the town, and just be left alone… as long as they understood who was in charge. After the long winter, Hash’s men jumped at the opportunity. West Farmington Village proved to be a great resource since the town had not been looted yet due to the dead that originally occupied it. There was plenty of food, water, additional weapons and ammunition, but most importantly, a huge surplus of prescription drugs discovered within the hospital and local pharmacy, which was highly sought after in the Territories.

Hash stepped out onto the hospital roof, paused, and inhaled deeply.

Yes, it had all seemed so perfect on paper. When they’d first arrived, they swept the downtown area, easily destroying the lethargic and scattered dead that had offered little resistance due to their deteriorated state, but that had all changed by the time they’d reached the hospital and found the only survivors of West Farmington Village.

Hash closed his eyes, refusing to relive that horrible day.

A single armed man on the roof top turned, noticing Hash, and came over.

“What’s the good word, Sarge?” Private Gibbs who had been with him since the beginning, turned out to be a blessing. He was the only one of his men that Hash could trust with anything. Loyalty in the apocalypse had proven a much rarer commodity.

“The prisoners are secure for the night,” he said. “I’ve talked with them and they seem cooperative. I think the meal and a good night’s rest will make them more agreeable in the morning.”

“Killing them with kindness,” Gibbs said with a laugh. “Yeah, that’s always better, when it goes down that way. Much better than the last time-”

“Have you had any trouble with the others?” Hash interrupted.

Gibbs frowned. “There’s been some grumbling. The men don’t like that you locked Thompson and the others up, but they get it. That was some fucked-up shit Thompson pulled. I think they’re more pissed that they have to pick up the extra patrols.”

Hash nodded. “It can’t be helped. Thompson forced my hand.”

Gibbs started nervously scratching his head. “So, what are you going to do? About Thompson? I mean, everyone knows he’s unstable, but he’s also a good fighter… and we need him.”

Hash frowned. “He’s a piece of shit.”

“Yeah, but, since you’ve got Thompson’s four locked up, and two more watching the prisoners, that leaves too few of us out here, Sarge. The barricades will keep the dead out, for now, but with our numbers reduced, there’s too many cracks in this town left unprotected.”

Hash ran a hand through his hair. “I know.” He sighed heavily. “In the morning, I’ll consider letting those other three idiots out and put them to work on the north side of town… far from that asshole.”

“And Thompson?”

“He can stay put for now.”

Gibbs looked reluctant.

“What is it?”

“Well… Sarge… the longer you keep Thompson locked up, the more the men aren’t going to like it. Some have been saying that your coddling these particular prisoners too much.”

“After what they went through, they deserve to be shown a little humanity. Don’t you think?”

“Yeah… but…”

“I’ll deal with Thompson,” Hash said. “I want him where I can keep an eye on him for now. At least until these prisoners have been transferred.”

Gibbs nodded. “It’s your show.”

“We’ve got bigger problems anyway,” Hash added. “According to new intel, our employers might not have given us such a sweet deal here after all.”

Gibbs waited.

“Remember what we heard about Mosquito Creek Lake? About the soldiers who disappeared near there?”

“Yeah. Something about a massive army unit held up in… what the hell town was it… Orwell? Rumor had it they were fleeing south before that first massive winter storm, heading for Columbus or something. And they never made it beyond that lake. The whole damn unit just disappeared without a trace.”

“Well, according to our new friends, they’ve been to Mosquito Creek and said there’s a massive horde hiding out there.”

Gibbs’s face changed. “You’re not talking about those yellow-eyed fuckers are you, Sarge? Because if you are, there’s no fucking way we could stop them if they head west.”

“Apparently, they nearly stumbled right into their nest… and they said there’s thousands of them there, all sleeping like babies. They only do that after a massive feeding, or if they have regular supply of food coming in to keep them there.”

Gibbs shook at the thought. “Do you believe them?”

Hash hesitated. “I’ve no reason to believe they’d make that shit up. Besides, it explains why we’ve seen so few survivors moving our way from the east… including that missing Army unit. It also might explain why those painted-face freaks are the only ones allowed to go beyond the eastern borders, and why they move in much larger groups when they head that way.”

“You think they know what’s really happening at Mosquito Creek?”

“Yes,” Hash said. “I do. And if there are thousands of those devils hiding out there, like some massive dead army just waiting for some signal to move west for a fresh blood supply… then we’ve been set up to fail.”

Gibbs looked alarmed. “You’re saying that they’re keeping that information to themselves so we don’t bail?”

“Precisely,” Hash said. “It could just be that the only reason any of us have been sent out to the perimeter towns in the first place is to slow those bloody-thirsty maniacs down when the time comes for them to leave Mosquito Creek.”

“That’s fucked-up, Sarge. What do we do?”

“Right now, we do nothing. Business as usual. Those Lunatics are due to stop here in a few days. When they do, I’ll hand over the prisoners and then start asking the right questions.”

“They won’t like that. You know they can’t stand us, especially that crazy bitch.”

“Doesn’t matter. If the deal we made is a bad one, we need to know.”

“And if it is, Sarge, then what do we do?”

Hash frowned. “Then we get the hell out of here, Private. We wait for those fuckers to leave, pack up as much shit as we can carry, and get as far away from here as we can.”

Gibbs started pacing. “I don’t like this. Things just keep getting worse around here. It’s like we’re being punished for… you know… that massacre on the first floor-”

“Stop thinking about that, Private!” Hash barked. “We weren’t even here when it happened! There was nothing we could do. Thompson-”

“We could’ve stopped him a long time ago, Sarge.” Gibbs looked at his feet. “That’s what we should’ve done.”

Hash nodded. “Yes. That’s what we should’ve done.” His tone softened. “You and I know that whatever punishment we’re due… started long before we arrived here.”

Gibbs gave him a sad faraway look.

Hash broke away and finished. “Go get some rest. I’ll take the rest of this watch.”

Gibbs nodded, handing over his assault rifle.

As the young former National Guardsman started to depart, Hash turned and said, “Don’t worry, Private. A reckoning is coming. Sooner or later, we’ll all have to give an account for our actions, whether in this life or the next. Just try your best to keep your head up, learn from the past, and for Christ’s sake… don’t turn into that animal in the basement.”

Gibbs laughed. “Will do, Sarge. See you in the morning.” The young man started downstairs.

Hash stepped over to the edge of the rooftop and started scanning the dark streets below. All was quiet. Too quiet. The hospital roof was a great daytime position, offering a panoramic view of the entire town. But nights were hell up here. There was always too much time alone with all that quiet on the nightshift, inviting ghosts for company that always mocked from the darker corners of memory.

Hash thought about his guests. Tony had known Gina, the strong red-headed woman he and his men had recovered from that beach so long ago. The big man downstairs had blindsided him when he’d brought up the Percy Power Plant.

My God, I haven’t thought about that place in a very long time. But the lie wouldn’t hold. Truth was, everything he’d done since then could be connected back to that horrible final day when the dead stormed the refugee camp… and he did nothing to stop that slaughter, too.

Hash shook the dire thoughts from his tired mind. He wondered what became of that woman. Obviously, she and her strange friends survived that horrible night. For that, he was grateful.

And here you are, getting ready to hand the rest of her friends over to the Lunatics. What does that say about you now?

Back then, he would’ve stormed out of the power block, guns blazing, ensuring his death to protect those poor people left trapped outside, before the despicable order was given to gun down the dead and the living.

And now… he was about to do it all over again… willingly… killing off, by association, perhaps the last of the survivors who had escaped the power plant.

Hash closed his eyes. What does that say about you now, asshole?

But he knew there was nothing he could do. Just like before, the choices had all been removed.

The apocalypse accelerated older man, who once believed himself an honorable man, was convinced that the only sin worse than all the others… was the sin of doing nothing while evil prevailed unchecked.

He tried to turn his thoughts elsewhere and on to more pressing matters. But sometimes the ghosts were persistent.

~~~

Next Episode 42-8

Previous Episode 42-6

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 42-7: 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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