~~~

“Holy fuck!” Mark’s words were highlighted on the astonished faces of Tony’s group as they exited the castle-like lobby, passing through the portal on the left, and into the town of New Cleveland.

After their meeting with Candyman, Briana and her Lunatics had escorted them out of their leader’s courtyard, releasing them on the town with a final deadly look that promised their murders as soon as Candyman let her off his leash. From there on, they were on their own.

The sea of survivors, if you could call them that, engulfed them immediately as they stepped on to the crowded and narrow streets of New Cleveland, surrounded by the steady buzz of activity and the indifferent stares of strangers.

Erected on either side of any street stood a conglomerate of industrial-sized trailers, sheds, mobile homes, large shipping containers, abandoned tractor trailers and box trucks. There were numerous buildings made of wood or sheet metal of all shapes and sizes, which resembled tore-down tree houses or hunter’s blinds, some placed together to form bigger structures, and others with second floors. There were also various sized pavilion tents mixed in with the solid structures, adding erratic colors and patterns to the madness of mobile constructs converted into businesses that lined every street. Lastly, whatever remained of the previous amusement park rides and attractions were fused in with this jungle of pieces and parts brought in from all over to form the skeleton of New Cleveland—its people, giving this visual monstrosity life. And at its center, looming high above the town, were the remains of the previous monster, the old wooden roller coaster, like the bones of some ancient dragon long deceased.

For Tony and the others, it was all too much to absorb at once. The sights, sounds and scents of so much life surrounding them, was overwhelming. None of them had seen this many of the living gathered in one place since before the outbreak and it all felt a bit unreal—and they—like aliens arriving on a strange, new world, or a world so old that none of them understood the language or the culture any longer.

Sergeant Hash was amused by his shocked new friends. “It’s a lot to take in,” he said, having to raise his voice a bit above the crowd. “I felt the same way when we first arrived here. Didn’t even know this many people still existed.”

“It’s like a horde… of the living!” Nine said, as several pushed by him rudely. “Not very friendly, though. Feels just like home.”

Hash led them out of the center of the street and up against the wall of some plywood palace. “They may not be dead, but they can still be just as deadly if you attract the wrong attention,” he advised. “This place is a vulture’s paradise. It may seem promising on the surface, seeing so many people alive and thriving, but underneath, it’s all a big pile of shit, and you can smell it if you pay attention. We’re just a few more flies buzzing around it… that’s all.”

“We must seem like easy targets,” Wendy offered. “Like tourists standing around with our mouths hanging open.”

“Exactly,” Hash said. “It’s only because we’re in a group that these dogs haven’t tried to lure us into trouble yet.”

“Trouble is right.” Tony frowned, staring up one street, straining to read the generic signs hanging above shops. He was immediately appalled. They no longer had catchy names, clever slogans, or brightly painted colors to attract the eye. No, the peddlers in the new world had little use or patience for advertisements. They had things people needed… plain and simple… and in a world where ‘need’ was like the frantic cry of a starving baby bird screaming from an abandoned nest where predators above waited to swoop down and devour it, the suppliers of that need had all the power.

“‘Get High Cheap’ right next to ‘Sex, Any Preference’,” Tony read the signs. “‘Will Help You Find/Bury Your Loved Ones’. He stopped with a chill after reading the next one. “‘Death Assistance- Why Wait?’.” He turned to Hash. “Is this place for real? Have we really devolved that much in such a short time?”

“Yes,” Alysa answered. “Places like this do not surprise me at all. Your world crumbled in a heartbeat when the illusions died. And now, what’s left of that pathetic world is like gold for anyone who can’t live without it.”

Tony gave her a hard look. “When you say things like that, you sound like one of them.”

Alysa caught his veiled meaning. “Just because I don’t belong to the Order any longer doesn’t mean that they had it all wrong.” She nodded toward the sheep. “Look at them. Do you think they’ve all come here to ‘survive’ in this horrible place?”

Tony stared into the crowd. The men and women of New Cleveland shuffled along, huddled together wearing faded-color and soiled clothing, the knees of their pants were ripped, stitched over or patched, and then several times again. Their shoes looked worn down past the point of usefulness. They’d all seen hard times, just as Tony and his group had, but they appeared more like phantoms of their former selves. And their eyes—downcast, bloodshot red, or filled with fear or indifference—spoke volumes. To Tony, many of them had the look of people who had arrived at their final destination, just filling the time they had left until they could be free from this wretched existence.

“You see it,” Alysa said, staring into Tony’s face. “They’re already dead. You can smell it in their neglected hygiene, see it in their broken posture—taste it in the air like a thick fog of hopelessness.

“That’s a bit harsh,” Diane said. “Not everyone here has given up, as you say. Perhaps you could find a shop around here to alter your personality if you looked hard enough. Just look for the sign that probably reads, ‘Attitude Adjustments by Rusty Blade’.”

Alysa raised her eyebrow at the hunter, responding with a crooked smile.

Diane smiled back.

Nine tried real hard not to crack up at their verbal stand-off.

“Perhaps,” Alysa admitted. “But not among this crowd. I’ll ask you this, hunter. If there’s anyone here who hasn’t already decided to die… then why are they still here?”

Diane had no response.

“Well,” Hash interjected, “it’s like I told you before. The worst of the worst thrive in this town… and they know how to prey on the weak for profit. What we’re seeing is the result of folks spending too much time here, believing they’ve found safety in numbers… or ample distractions to keep their minds numb. Compared to living outside where the dead could you eat you in your sleep, they think this is better.” He looked sadly into the crowd. “Candyman knew what he was doing when he set this place up. Every kind of dark indulgence can be found somewhere in this shithole town, which explains his name. Candyman understands our dark nature and how to appeal to it. He offers sugar-coated poison—pleasure—in exchange for whatever they’ve brought… and so much more. The little bit of time that I spend here was enough to see that. I entered a state of depression while I was here last, watching humanity in self-destruct mode. But I didn’t even know it until after I got away from this place. The darkness here crawls all over your skin and then get absorbed into your soul. I swear, you actually feel yourself slowly rotting away to dust in this place.”

“How the hell did Candyman pull this off?” Tony asked.

“From what I’d learned from the locals, Candyman and his Lunatics were former inmates out of some prison south of here. When chaos erupted, the prison was abandoned. The prison’s probably what saved their lives when the outbreak first started. Eventually they got out somehow, headed away from populated areas, and ended up here. Some company had already been leasing parts of the amusement park to store a lot of those large trailers you’ve seen… and the chain-link fence was already here, keeping the dead out. Candyman apparently had some sway with the other inmates prior to escaping and got them all on his page. From there, he saw an opportunity and seized it. When the mass panic was killing off folks, that man was already adding whatever resources he could find to what already existed. It’s my understanding that he moved all those trailers inside first, then started on the larger wall, and all that before the winter. I have to hand it to the man, if he’d been one of the good guys, this place could’ve been something. But now… well… you’ll see for yourself.”

“They also have power,” Wendy said, remembering Candyman’s lit up trailer.

“Yeah,” Hash continued. “Like I said, they wasted no time sucking up whatever resources they could get their hands on, including a massive supply of generators, weapons and fuel.”

Nine noticed an old woman with a cane talking to herself as she barely managed to not get knocked over by the oblivious crowd. The old woman briefly made eye contact with him. Her eyes were wide open, dilated—insane looking. “Granny’s taken one too many hits off the crack pipe.”

“What was that?” Wendy asked.

Another middle-aged woman, in a hurry to get nowhere, pushed the old woman out of her way and off the road. “Die, you old bitch!” the harsh woman said. She never looked back.

The old woman fell on her side. Nine was about to rush over to help but stopped.

The old woman got up, turned toward the fleeing middle-aged woman, and shouted, “Fuck you, ya cunt! I’ll kill ya… come back here… I’ll kill ya!” The old woman then started heading back the other way, presumably in pursuit of the pusher. She was quickly swallowed up by the crowd.

“Never mind,” Nine said, immediately feeling bad for joking at that lost old woman’s expense.

“We should get going,” Hash urged. “If we have any chance at finding your friends, then I know where we need to start.”

“This is your show. Lead the way,” Tony said.

Hash was about to navigate through the crowd. He stopped, turned back, and said, “Thanks, by the way.”

“For what?”

“I was a dead man back there. But you took a serious risk and bought me some time.”

“Well, Sergeant, that’s how my people roll,” Tony said with a smile. “We look after each other.”

“I’m starting to get that. I’m just glad you considered me ‘your people’.”

Tony sighed. “Yeah, now I just have to figure out how to keep you alive past three days.”

“Let’s just see if we survive day number one first,” Hash added with a wink. He turned toward the others. “Watch yourselves… and everyone else. If you have anything you value in your back pockets, put them in your front pockets. Try not to make eye contact with the vendors or they’ll hound your ass. Try to look like they’re all beneath you and that you’re someone important. That will make folks nervous enough to keep their distance… hopefully.”

“Where are we going?” Mark asked.

“To the local watering hole, of course,” Hash said. “That’s are best chance at finding any information on your friends. Besides, drunks are the best talkers, if you keep them happy.”

They started walking back up the street, patiently pushing their way through the crowd.

Various shop owners gave them the stink eye or smiled greedily at the new arrivals, sensing fresh meat, but no one approached them yet.

Several times Nine felt his backside patted as people brushed against him in passing. He smiled and leaned in toward Diane. “Either I have an ass to die for… or I’ve just counted seven pick-pocket attempts.”

“First one touches anything on me, I’m hurting someone,” she promised, staring meanly back at every glance she received from the crowd.

“Not to worry,” Nine laughed. “You’re looking pretty scary right now.”

“Good.”

“Excuse me,” a tall, string-bean of a man said to Mark.

Mark immediately recoiled at the man’s stale beer breath. “Yeah?”

The man smiled at him and looked over at Wendy. “She yours?”

Mark looked over at Wendy, saw her worried face, then turned back, puffed his chest out, and tried to look as intimidating as possible. “Go away. We’re not interested.”

The smelly man appeared startled by the response, and then started reaching into his pocket, causing Mark to tense up. “Relax,” the man said. “I’m no trouble. I’ve got one of these here tokens.” The man pulled out a silver token that looked similar to the gold one Candyman gave Hash before they left. He held it up proudly. “I’m V.I.P., just like you… right?”

“Sure,” Mark said. “Anything you say. Just… move along.”

The man looked confused. “But… I have silver. That means I can get women… and I want that one.” The man pointed at Wendy.

Wendy crossed her arms across her chest and stepped away from the creepy man.

“Not this one, pal,” Mark said. “Put that finger away before I shove it up your ass!”

The man’s face was getting red. He pushed Mark back. “Naw… this means I get the women, any woman I want!”

By now the commotion attracted the attention of the others, as well as several people who quickly averted their eyes and gave them a wide berth.

Mark squared up with the man, then stopped as he looked over his shoulder and noticed two armed Lunatics standing next to a shop. They were looking right at him. He stared back at the creepy man. “Look… let’s not cause a scene here. The authorities are watching-”

“Fuck you!” the man shouted in his face. “I’ve got silver! I’m special today! Give me the girl… I’m entitled!”

Mark looked over the man’s shoulder again. The Lunatics were still watching. They seemed amused, whispering, laughing and pointing toward them.

To hell with it, Mark thought. He attempted to punch the creep, but the tall man slapped his fist away and then pulled his long wiry arm back to punch Mark in the face.

Tony stepped between them, the tall man’s punch striking the stone of Tony’s chest. The big man didn’t even flinch.

Tony grabbed the smelly man by the neck and pulled him close. “Look. My friends are trying not to cause trouble, you foul-fucking creature. But if you lift your hand again to strike my friend, I’ll break your fucking neck!”

The tall man raised his arms submissively. “Okay! Okay! But… I only wanted ten minutes with the girl! She looks like she could suck the-”

The man had no time to finish his sentence. Tony struck him hard in the gut, then followed it with an uppercut to the chin. The man wobbled back, then fell limp to the ground.

The crowd simply walked around or over the unconscious man.

Tony briefly looked up at the Lunatics. They were no longer laughing as they stared threateningly back, their fresh entertainment no longer available.

Tony nodded to them with a wave, then turned toward Mark.

“Sorry, Tony. The creep just-”

“Not your fault,” He quickly said. “Just keep walking. Both of you. Too many eyes on us right now.”

Mark and Wendy both nodded.

Tony walked on ahead.

Wendy reached over and grabbed Mark’s arm.

He turned.

“Thank you,” she said.

He nodded. “Yeah. No problem. Even the fucking V.I.P.’s, whatever that means, don’t get to go at my friends.”

She smiled at him, patting him on the forearm. “I suppose I should’ve felt flattered… I mean… he did have silver and all.”

He shook his head at her. “Nah. You’re worth every bit of that gold token Hash is carrying around, and then some.” He added a wink that made her laugh. They both pulled in closer behind the others, not wanting anymore V.I.P. propositions.

Alysa was doing all she could not to lash out at the people pressing in on her, invading her private space. She wasn’t used to anyone getting this close without it being a combat situation. She tried to take in her surroundings, examining every shoddy structure for an advantage, but the abundance of activity and overlapping conversations were assaulting all her senses. She studied every face she saw, trying to get a read on their intentions, but there were just too many faces to process. “How much farther?” she asked the good sergeant, who was walking just ahead with Tony.

He turned and called back. “Just a few more minutes. The place is at the other end of the park.”

She turned as a red hooded figure bumped her from the left. “Sorry,” a soft voice said in passing. Alysa watched the hooded individual disappear into the crowd behind her. She rolled her eyes and took a deep breath to calm down.

“Take it easy,” Nine said, catching up to her. “He probably just tried to pick your pocket. It’s happened to me ten times now.”

Alysa gave him a crooked smile and nodded as Nine, Diane, Wendy and Mark passed her, all looking equally overwhelmed by New Cleveland.

She suddenly had an urge to check her pockets.

Tony observed one long line in front of a makeshift storefront off to the left. The store was larger than a lot of the others with no sign above the door.

“That’s one of the murder shops,” Hash said with a frown, beating the big man to the question.

“What the fuck is that?”

“When their time runs out and they have to turn in their tokens and finally leave, lots of folks can’t bear the thought of going back outside,” Hash said. “So, they offer themselves as payment to stay.”

“Slaves?” Tony asked.

“Yeah… something like that. Candyman has an auction once a week for those who can’t afford to stay. Thinks he’s being charitable by giving them another way to live here, as long as there’s profit in it. So, people put themselves up for auction and take their chances on who buys them out.”

Tony shook his head. “This place is fucking crazy.” He looked back at the long line in front of the unmarked shop. “And how does that tie in with… murder shops?”

Hash sighed. “Once you’re bought at auction, you’re the property of the buyer. Sometimes it’s just for manual labor, other times for prostitution. Some are bought out for the fight pits on the opposite side of the park. And then, of course, Candyman himself might buy you out for any number of base purposes, like those experiments he mentioned. Regardless of what it is and who does the buying, whatever someone chooses to do with you after purchase is legal in New Cleveland, as long as it results in profits.” He nodded toward the murder shops. “I’ve never been in one of those places, never want to, but I’ve heard stories about them. If you’re bought by an owner of a murder shop, they can legally offer your flesh to any sadistic sonofabitch looking to torture or even kill someone. I’ve heard the slogans associated with those places and it makes my skin crawl thinking about it. ‘Pay to slay’.

“That’s horrendous,” Tony said. “And Candyman allows this?”

“That’s the beauty of the auctions, Tony. It’s all voluntary. If you don’t want to be a slave, then stay the hell away from the auctions and leave. Either way, Candyman isn’t responsible for you after you’ve been purchased. That’s entirely on you. Works out great for him because New Cleveland gets a major cut of everything and everyone coming in to town, and in return, the local businesses get a minor cut of everything that’s left… as long as they provide services in exchange for their cut.”

“You mean as long as they keep providing the ‘candy’?”

“Exactly.”

Tony couldn’t help staring back at the long line in front of the murder shop. “So, all those people over there are lining up to… kill people?”

“The only thing more popular here than the sex, drugs and alcohol suppliers are the murder shops.”

“That’s fucking insane.”

“Yeah, but it also helps keep the crime rate in New Cleveland at a minimum. The murder shops and the fight pits offer death as entertainment. The Lunatics take care of the rest.”

Tony had noticed plenty of Lunatics patrolling the streets and watching from the Big Dipper above. There were enough of them to remind everyone who was in charge, but they stood back, letting people do as they pleased.

Until they fucking screw up the profits, Tony thought bitterly.

“We’re here,” Hash said, nodding toward a long, two-story wooden structure.

Tony immediately looked for a sign above the door, expecting it to say, ‘Get Drunk Here’. He was surprised to discover that the bar had a name: Ollie’s Oasis.”

Hash nodded with a smile. “Now, here’s the one place in New Cleveland that is exactly what you expect it to be.”

“Sounds like you’ve been drunk a time or two in there,” Tony teased.

Hash laughed. “I’d be a damn liar if I said I didn’t.”

“Tony?” Alysa stepped up.

“What is it?”

“I’m going to check out the town and see what I can find out,” she said, staring disapprovingly at the bar. “I’d probably get into trouble in there.”

“Okay, then I’ll go with you,” Tony said. “None of us should be out here by ourselves.”

She smiled at him. “Don’t forget who I am. I can take care of myself.”

“But-”

“I’m not asking,” she said with a look of stone. “Besides, the rest of you would just slow me down.”

Tony frowned. “Be careful. We’ll wait for you here.”

The warrior nodded and quickly vanished into the crowd.

“What’s her hurry?” Hash said.

Tony shook his head, staring off in the direction Alysa went. “I’ve learned not to question that woman. She has her ways, and that’s that.”

“Well, if you’re done gawking after your sweetheart, I’d like to go get a drink,” Hash said with a wink.

“She’s not my… forget it.”

They all entered Ollie’s Oasis.

“Wow,” Nine said. “Looks like your typical hole-in-the-wall bar.”

Ollie’s Oasis was about the size of any small tavern. It had one long bar off to the right, a few mismatched tables to the left, and in the back, what looked like a small dancefloor.

“What’s the point of having a dancefloor?” Wendy asked. “There’s no jukebox. No music at all.”

The bar itself was crowded, but a few tables were still available. They all took one against the wall where they could keep a clear view of the Oasis’s patrons and sat down.

Tony tried to catch a glimpse of the bartender working busily behind the bar, but the customers obscured his view.

“Now what?” Diane said. “Do we talk to people, get wasted, or ask when karaoke starts?”

Nine laughed. “I could see you singing anything by Alanis Morissette, Pat Benatar, or Joan Jett.

“Shut up, Nine,” Diane cautioned.

“I understand… you need a few drinks to get warmed up first. But after, you and I are doing a duo to Paradise by the Dashboard Lights!

“You’re such an idiot sometimes,” she said, smacking him lightly on the cheek. “But you’re my idiot.”

“Keep it up and I won’t sing any Garth Brooks for you.”

“Let’s wait for the crowd to thin out around the bar,” Hash advised. “I’ve talked to the owner before. Ollie can be difficult to deal with, but I shared some funny stories one night and made him laugh his damn head off. A few shots and a few more off-colored jokes, and I can get him talking. If he doesn’t know what we need to know, he can point us to someone else who might.”

“Well, since Candyman gave you the gold token, which I understand makes us like super V.I.P.’s, then all our drinks are on your dime,” Mark said.

“My man!” Nine said, raising his hand up to Mark for the high-five.

Mark enthusiastically reciprocated.

Tony heard obnoxious laughter coming from the bar. He turned as the Red Sea of patrons parted, allowing him a glimpse of the bartender. An overweight bald man with several chins was wiping sweat off his forehead with a rag. “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.”

“Is there a problem?” Hash said.

Tony closed his eyes and balled his fists.

“Tony, you okay?” Nine said.

Tony opened his eyes and stared out at the small vacant dance floor. “That’s for his strippers, isn’t it?”

Hash raised his eyebrows. “Yeah, but… how did you know that?” He quickly turned to Diane and Wendy and said, “Don’t worry, we’ll be out of here long before his girls start… dancing… if that’s the word for it.”

“Excuse me,” Tony said, getting up from his seat.

“Where are you going?” Hash said.

“Going to get a drink. Be right back.”

“But you’ll need the coin!” Hash started to rise then sat back down. “Shit. Is he always this impulsive?”

“No,” Diane said, staring after Tony with concern. “Only when he’s… upset.”

Tony stepped into the gap at the bar and addressed the short fat man who looked out of breath and far too old to be bartending. “I never expected to see you again… Ollie.”

Ollie briefly glanced up at the patron while stacking shot glasses on the bar. “What the hell do you want?” he said. “Beer’s already gone flat so deal with it.”

Tony just stared at the man.

Ollie was losing patience. He stopped, put his arms out wide, and said, “What are you fucking stupid? Do you want a beer or not?”

“You don’t recognize me, do you?”

“Look, pal, it’s been a long damn day. Why don’t you stop with the chit-chat bullshit and tell me what you want to drink, already.”

“I’ll take a shot of whiskey. Hopefully that numbs the pain in my fist right before I put you through that fucking wall… Herbie.”

~~~

Next Episode 43-5

Previous Episode 43-3

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 43-4: 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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