~~~

A dull, dreary overcast sky greeted them the next day. A mixture of stratus and cumulus clouds hovered like a horde, devouring the distant sun and making the morning feel ominous and more like late evening.

They continued driving west with their trailer in tow, stopping occasionally to rest, but it felt more like stalling before facing the inevitable. Conversations were brief and strained as trepidation mixed with exhaustion weighted heavily on their hearts, getting increasingly worse as they traveled closer to New Cleveland.

The highway remained surprisingly clear of road debris as they lost count of the lifeless structures they passed—abandoned vehicles pushed off into the shoulder lanes, houses, farmsteads, the occasional shop or restaurant with neglected signs making them almost unreadable. Small towns blurred into oblivion, easily forgotten… forever. The dead they encountered were scattered, spread out along their route like disfigured mile markers.

“We’re getting close,” Hash advised from behind the steering wheel, interrupting Tony’s deep thoughts from the passenger seat. “They’ll know we’re here long before we get to the main gate… if they don’t know already.”

“I didn’t see any Lunatics along the way,” Tony said. “I didn’t see anyone. Your Territories seem as desolate as anywhere we’ve been.”

Hash leaned over the wheel, looking out the top of the windshield and toward the left. “There.” He pointed toward a tall structure above the tree line.

Tony squinted, trying to make out a tall shape against the dull grey background of the sky. As they drove closer, the shape took form, resembling the top curve of a rainbow. “Is that what I think it is?”

“It’s the Big Dipper, the last roller coaster left rotting away after Geauga Lake closed down in 2007. Since then, that old amusement park’s been getting an early start on the apocalypse. After the place was closed and gutted, nature wasted no time reclaiming most of it. Looked like the world we’ve been blessed with today, just a few years sooner. They use it now to watch the town Candyman built up surrounding it, and out around its borders.”

“They put… observation posts up there?” Tony asked.

“Yeah. Though I imagine no one enjoys climbing up that old fucking thing. The Big Dipper’s one of them wooden beasts, the kind you heard creaking every time you rode it. In any case, they’ll see us coming within a mile from the place. Best case scenario, they’ll just keep an eye on us until we get to the gate, especially when they spot the big-ass trailer we’re hauling.”

A chill seized the big man as they drove closer. Tony could now make out more details as three large hills rose above the trees on ancient-looking support beams. The large coaster resembled the back of a colossal serpent. Tony half-expected it to slither beneath the trees, or a large head to appear, setting its hungry gaze upon fresh prey. He laughed at himself. I’ve got to get some real fucking sleep soon. My imagination’s making monsters out of old roller coasters. Like we needed more damn monsters.

“Something funny?” Hash asked.

Tony rubbed his eyes and smiled. “Just tired, Sergeant. My mind starts seeing things—threats in everything—if I don’t laugh at myself regularly.”

“That sounds like something a crazy man might say… if the world was still sane.” Hash shook his head and laughed. “But now, that just sounds reasonable.”

Tony shook his head. “So, after we get there, assuming we get inside… what then?”

“I don’t know,” Hash said. “It’s a big fucking place. I haven’t thought that far ahead yet. As long as you and your friends stick to the cover stories we talked about last night, we should be alright. It’s the ‘getting inside’ part that’s tricky.”

“But they will let us in… right?”

“If they see what we brought, and believe we’re profitable, then yes… we will gain admission.” Hash tried to sound confident, but his face said otherwise.

Tony laughed again. “It’s just like a damn amusement park except the admission price is fucking ridiculous.”

“Weren’t they always?” Hash said with a wink.

Tony’s face went pale as he stared up the highway. Just ahead of them, the road was blocked with several vehicles. “Hash?”

“Yeah, I see them.” He started to slow down. “Fuck! I was hoping we’d avoid this part.”

“What part?” Tony grabbed his rifle from down by the floorboard.

Alysa tapped on the back window and pointed past them.

Hash opened a small sliding port in the back window. “Just keep calm everyone. This was expected… sort of.”

The warrior looked at Tony.

“We’re working it out,” he told her. “Just don’t do anything… threatening. Stay low and make sure everyone’s ready… just in case.”

She nodded, needing no explanation what ‘just in case’ meant.

“That’s a Lunatic patrol,” Hash said, and then added with a heavy sigh, “And if I’m not mistaken, that big green Caddy in the middle… that’s Briana’s vehicle.”

Tony’s eyes went wide. “That’s not good, is it?”

“No,” Hash said. “It isn’t. If she’s out here, then it’s to find out what the fuck I’m doing away from West Farmington Village. I was hoping she wasn’t here since they were already due to visit when you and your people showed up.”

“So, what’s the plan?” Tony asked, nervously tightening his grip around his rifle. “Do we run for it?”

“No,” Hash said. “That won’t work, not with this fucking load on the back. Besides, I’d be surprised if she hadn’t already blocked the road behind us. We’ll have to go to ‘Plan B’.”

“There’s a ‘Plan B’?”

“Yeah,” Hash said with a nervous smile. “I’m going to lie my ass off and hope that I’m better at it than she is at smelling bullshit.”

Tony leaned back in his seat at they approached the vehicles. Hash stopped the Ford fifty feet from the patrol and put the truck in park. There were several dark shapes he could make out in the Caddy as well as the three other vehicles—a box truck, an old black van, and an SUV. He looked to Hash. “What are they waiting for?”

“They’re waiting to see what we do first,” he said. “I suspect that if we don’t get out of the truck in the next thirty seconds, they’ll probably start firing at us.”

“Shit,” Tony said.

“Just stick to the cover story,” Hash said. “Leave the lying to me.”

“I hope you’re a damn good liar,” Tony said.

Hash frowned. “She’s going to fuck with us. That’s what she does. Don’t overreact. Don’t do a fucking thing.”

Tony got Alysa’s attention.

She came to the window and said, “We’re ready back here. Say the word and we’ll start shooting.”

“Leave the guns in the truck,” Tony said. “We’re all getting out.”

“The fuck you say?” She did not look pleased.

Tony smiled. “Just… trust me. Hash knows what to do.”

She shook her head. “This is tactically unsound.”

“Don’t I know it,” he agreed. “But, that’s how this is going down. We’re going to play nice… so put away those laser-beam eyes and try to look… submissive?”

“I want to punch you… hard,” she said. “But I will… play nice… for now.”

“Okay, get them ready,” Tony said. “We’re putting our cover stories into effect right now. After we get out, and if they don’t start shooting at us, then follow suit.”

Hash gave him a look. “When you put it that way… this really does sound fucking stupid.”

Tony raised his eyebrows at him.

“Just kidding,” he said. “Don’t worry. I’ve dealt with this bitch before.”

“So, you two get along, then?”

Hash laughed. “She absolutely hates me… but that’s beside the point.”

Tony sighed.

“Let’s do this,” Hash said, opening his door. “And just try to look… relaxed… like we’re supposed to be here or something.”

Tony swore silently at the man and then followed Hash as both men stepped out of the truck.

“Briana… it’s me, Hash,” the good sergeant called out, stepping just in front of the truck. “Though I suppose you already knew that and were wondering what the hell I’m doing out here.”

Tony stepped up beside him, placing his hands in his pockets, trying to look… relaxed.

After a long minute of uncomfortable silence buried by the steady hum of the Lunatic’s vehicles, Tony started to wonder if the gunfire from the open windows came next. He nervously signaled the others to get out.

Alysa, Nine, Diane, Mark and Wendy stepped down from the flatbed on Tony’s side, feeling exposed.

Suddenly, the passenger side of the large Caddy opened and a very tall woman, dressed in a black leather trench coat and black suede cowboy boots stepped out. The woman, with long straight black hair, her face painted white with black paint surrounding her eyes and mouth, gave them a brief glance, then closed her door. She then reached into her coat pocket wearing leather cut-off gloves and retrieved a pack of cigarettes and a lighter. The woman lit a cigarette, replacing her pack and lighter, and then crossed her arms across her chest, taking several long drags from her cigarette. She studied Hash and the others in silence, looking neither angry nor concerned. To Tony, the Lunatic leader appeared disinterested in the whole situation, almost bored.

The big man gave Hash a questionable look.

Hash sighed and then whispered, “Just wait. She’ll deal with us when she’s good and ready.”

“She looks like she’s posing for a damn poster on how to look ‘cool’ in the apocalypse,” Nine offered from behind them.

After smoking half her cigarette, the Lunatic leader flicked her butt out into the street and then waved a finger in the air, never looking away from the good sergeant.

All the doors to the remaining vehicles came open as ten heavily armed Lunatics exited the four vehicles, forming a line on either side of the woman. So far, none of their automatic weapons were raised. All their faces were painted white with the same black around their eyes and mouths. Some wore leather vests and jeans, others were dressed in business suits. One was wearing what looked like a hideous green Christmas sweater and khaki pants. Some wore ball caps on their heads. Other than their painted faces, this strange group of people looked as different from one another as Tony and his crew did.

“Give them bats and roller blades and it’s The Warriors all over again,” Nine said, earning him several strange looks. “You know… that movie with the pinstripe Yankee gang?”

Diane hit him in the back of the head.

“Forget it. Obviously not important,” he said.

The woman, who Hash called Briana, broke the silence in a deep gravelly voice. “What’s in the trailer, Sergeant? And if the answer is, ‘the rest of my unit’, I’m going to fill it with lead.”

“No,” he said. “No surprises back there. Just payment in advance, plus a whole lot more. Thought I’d come deliver it personally and save you the time.”

Briana continued to stare at him, leaning against the Caddy. “Why did you abandon your post?”

Time for lies, Hash thought. “We were overrun by the dead a day ago. I would’ve handled it, but my men decided to take advantage of the chaos—one in particular—and they tried to take me out. They didn’t succeed.”

“Pity,” Briana called back. “Was it Thompson?”

“Yes.”

“So, I assume he’s no longer with you?”

“He’s dead,” Hash said. “So, are most of the others.”

“I see,” she said. Briana pushed herself off the Caddy and strolled toward them. The rest of the Lunatics followed behind her, keeping their line intact.

Tony noticed Alysa and the others stepping back, considering reaching into the flatbed for their guns. “Stay calm,” he told them.

Hash said, “I’ll handle this. Stick to the cover story.”

Tony nodded. He turned to watch the tall woman approach. She’d pushed her long trench coat back behind two holsters hung low around her waist, her gloved hands resting on the holsters, looking like some ridiculous circus version of a gunslinger.

When Briana was five feet from them, she stopped, the other Lunatics stopping just behind her.

Up close, Tony noticed something odd about the woman’s eyes. They were red, reminding him of the hybrid man-beasts they’d encountered in the woods near the bad man’s home. What fresh hell is this? Is she… infected?

Briana stared back and forth between Hash and Tony, a small smile formed on her black-painted lips when she saw Tony’s astonishment. “Contacts,” she said. “We’ve got a vender in town who sells them. Do you like?”

It took Tony a moment to realize the strange woman was addressing him. “Ah… yeah… sure. They’re scary as fuck… if that’s the look you’re going for.”

Hash rolled his eyes at him.

Tony’s nervous candor made her laugh. She turned to Hash. “I don’t remember this one. Where did you pick him up?”

“I needed a new crew,” Hash said. “I found all these folks near the eastern border. They helped me with my… situation… and I gave them a job. They’re not registered yet, but I was going to take care of that in New Cleveland. Until then, they’re mine.”

Briana peered around Tony at the others who tried to become invisible, refusing to make eye contact. “I see.” She walked right up to Tony and sized him up. “I like this one. Want to sell him to me?”

Tony’s eyes went wide with surprise, causing Briana’s smile to widen.

“Sorry,” Hash said. “Tony’s loyal. So are the others. That’s like gold to me these days.”

“Name a price,” she said, her gaze lingering intensely on the big man, making him squirm. “and I’ll triple it. I can think of all sorts of nasty things to do with this one.” She reached in and grabbed Tony’s crotch, hard.

Tony’s eyes went wide.

“The man said he’s not for sale,” Alysa said, stepping forward.

Briana’s face turned to stone. She met the fiery gaze of the former Shadow Dead. “Now this one… I don’t like her at all,” she told Hash, stepping up and equaling Alysa’s intense gaze. “Loyalty is one thing. Disrespect is another. A lack of one and too much of the other will get you killed just as fast.”

“She’s… new,” Hash quickly chimed in. “They all are. They’re not familiar with how things work in the Territories yet.”

“Well,” Briana said, still staring challengingly at the warrior, “you better educate them real quick before I take this one’s eyes and wear them around my neck.”

Tony sighed heavily. This is going to suck. He turned stepping in between Alysa and Briana, causing the other Lunatics to raise their weapons. Tony was glaring at Alysa. “I’m sick of your foul-mouth!” he barked, causing Alysa to raise an eyebrow.

Briana raised her hand, stopping the Lunatics from stepping in.

“We’re guests here,” he continued scolding her. “And if you can’t keep your shit together, I’ll do it for you!”

Briana looked amused.

Tony gave Alysa a pleading look, raising the back of his hand toward her face. Yes, this is really going to suck.

Alysa caught on quickly, giving Tony a look that clearly said, After I kill this woman, you and I are going to have a serious discussion later about what happens next.

Tony backhanded Alysa across the cheek.

Alysa took the blow, as expected, and fell to the ground. She tried her best to hide her rage by turning her face toward the truck and covering half of it with her hand.

The others looked confused and terrified, convinced everything was about to go bad.

But Alysa remained still.

Briana seemed satisfied as she walked away with a laugh. “My, oh, my… I really like this one, Sergeant. You must reconsider selling him to me.”

“I’ll… I’ll think about it after we get to New Cleveland,” he said, stalling.

“Yes,” she said, walking back to Hash. “Let’s talk about that. Why did you leave my town undefended and violate our arrangement?”

“I already told you. The dead-”

“I could have you executed right now for breaking the gracious deal Candyman made with you. I told him you were the wrong man for the job to begin with… and here you are… proving me right.”

“That’s why I brought the profits with me,” Hash said. “There’s more than enough in that trailer to make up for losing West Farmington Village.”

“I’ll be the judge of that,” she corrected, squaring off with the good sergeant.

Hash wisely averted his eyes, staring down at the ground.

Briana smiled at him. “You’re just a dull, fucking idiot, aren’t you?” she asked, speaking in a tone befitting a child. “Do you really think we put you there just to supply us with the agreed percentage? You were told to guard the border and you fucking failed! There’s no excuse for doing that, I don’t care what happened or who betrayed you! You FAILED! Plain and simple.”

“That’s why I’m here,” Hash said submissively. “I came back to pay-in-full, plus interest, for my… failure… to keep the town, and if Candyman wants me to go back and reclaim West Farmington… I will.”

She laughed in his face. “What? With this pathetic group you have now? Please… don’t insult my intelligence. Candyman would be a fool to send you back there, and he’s no fool. He’s invested valuable time and resources into your unit, believing you could do one… simple… job. And as it turns out, you couldn’t even control your own people, let alone the border town. You’re pathetic, Sergeant Hash, and I want to hear you admit it… right now! If not, I’ll kill all your crew, take the bitch’s eyes anyway, and this big fuck-toy for myself. Then, I’ll just take this trailer back and hand it over, being rid of you in the process.”

Hash looked up defiantly. “Okay, this shit ends now.”

“Excuse me?” she said, her fingers twitching anxiously on the butts of her guns.

“You can stop harassing us. I’ve told you the truth, and my fate will be decided after I’ve talked to Candyman, himself. You will not harm us,” he said. “Not without risking your boss’s reputation. What will the good people of New Cleveland think if the man in charge can send his goons out to attack his business partners out on the open road, in plain view of the city.” He nodded up at the ancient roller coaster. “They’re watching us right now. Do you think this little incident will go unnoticed?”

“Watch your fucking tone, Hash!” Briana advised.

“Bad business breeds bad business,” he continued with a smile. “So, let’s stop dancing around out here. You were sent to find out what happened, and I told you. We offer no resistance. The fucking trailer isn’t a Trojan Horse… go see for yourself.”

“I will… when I’m good and ready, so don’t-”

“No,” he interrupted, surprising Tony. “You will do it now! And let us go about our business. I’m not your man, West Farmington Village isn’t your town, and my arrangement isn’t with you! If Candyman has issues to take up with me, he can do it himself. But what you’re doing is overstepping your authority… and you fucking know it.”

Briana looked like she was about to draw her guns and shoot the good sergeant in the face. After a tense moment, she smiled and hissed, “I never need a reminder why I hate you so fucking much, sergeant. Fortunately for you, you’ve still got a card left to play. He wants to see you… but I suppose you knew that before risking coming back here. But one day, when you try to bluff yourself out of a situation, and that card no longer applies, I’m going to enjoy watching you slowly die… and that’s a promise.”

Hash leaned in and smiled like the devil. “I look forward to it.”

Briana laughed in his face and signaled her men to check the trailer. “I suppose this mean you won’t sell me the big guy?”

“I’ll give you Thompson’s corpse… for free,” he said. “I’m sure, even now, he’ll find a way to kiss your ass from the grave.”

This made the Lunatic leader laugh harder. She shook her head and finished, “Well… you make me laugh. I guess you’re not completely useless.”

~~~

Next Episode 43-2

Previous Episode 42-12

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 43-1: Feed The Dead” 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.

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