~~~

Nine, Diane, Wendy and Mark wandered around the bar, trying to gleam what they could from drunken conversations, or from anyone willing to talk with them. Hash and Tony remained at the bar with Herbie.

“Let’s talk about those disappearing folks,” Hash said, pushing his empty shot glass at Herbie.

Herbie reluctantly refilled his glass. “You drink like a damn fish. Slow down. The good stuff won’t last forever.”

“I’m a golden child, remember,” Hash added with a smile, flicking his token into the air and catching it. “Anything I want… including whiskey… and information.”

“Yeah… yeah… I got it.” Herbie turned toward Tony. “Where did you find this guy, anyway? Did he wake up hungover in the back of your car?”

Tony laughed, staring at the good sergeant. “That, too, is a long story. But we’re not here to swap tales. I’m looking for my people.”

“How do you know they came here?”

“Because that bitch with the make-up and guns attacked them, killed a lot of good people, then took the rest in their vehicles. We’ve been on the Lunatic’s trail ever since, finally leading us here.” Tony shook his head. “It’s been hell getting this far. You better have something worth telling us or I might just burn this fucking place to the ground.”

“Alright, alright!” Herbie said. “Take it easy. I can tell you what I’ve heard. Whether it’s true or not, you’re going to have to decide.”

“Let’s hear it,” Hash said, shoving his empty shot glass back at the shrewd bartender. “The longer you take to talk, the more expensive it gets.”

“Where the hell does the liquor go?” Herbie said. “The shit just goes through you like nothing.”

Hash smiled. “I was a pretty good drinker before the apocalypse. But now, I’m a damn professional.”

Tony stared into the bloodshot eyes of his friend but said nothing. He drinks all his demons away, he thought.

Hash caught him staring, shifted in his seat, and then looked back at Herbie. “Well? Tell all, barkeep?”

Herbie looked around nervously, then leaned in. “You all ever heard of a place called Mosquito Creek?”

Tony and Hash gave each other a look.

“We’ve familiar with the place,” Tony said. “What about it?”

“There’s been a lot of talk about it lately. Disturbing talk. Some folks say there’s monsters lurking in those woods; others say they’ve seen ghosts haunting the towns near there. And still others claim they’ve seen those yellow-eyed demons, hunting in smaller packs, acting all stealth-like, as if they were still alive. Shit… can you imagine? If those fucking zombies ever started getting smarter, we’d all be fucked.”

Tony didn’t say a word.

“Anyway, Candyman started hearing about that place a few months ago and started sending Lunatics into those woods to find out what the deal was. None of them ever came back.”

“Maybe they just went AWOL,” Hash said. “I’m sure some of these Lunatics would jump at a better opportunity and take off.”

“True,” Herbie said with a nod. “But all of them? I think not. Anyway, Candyman stopped sending patrols in there, thought he might be poking at the hornet’s nest or something, so he just started sending patrols near there… you know… to watch it from a distance.”

“Meanwhile,” Tony said, “they felt free to wander farther east to terrorize and murder anyone they found along the way… like my friends.”

Herbie sighed. “Everyone around here knows those Lunatics behave in the Territories, but anywhere else… they do what they please.”

“So why take prisoners back to New Cleveland?” Hash asked. “They can’t all be auctioned off… not if their prisoners.”

“That’s the loophole,” Herbie said. “You see, Candyman claims to be protecting his citizens and in return he keeps everyone happy. But survivors outside the Territories aren’t on anyone’s list. As far as New Cleveland’s concerned, if you’re not a citizen, legally registered to live within the Territories, you don’t even exist.”

“What happens to these people?” Tony asked.

“Well, some are granted citizenship if they behave and play ball. Candyman’s smart. He’ll keep the profitable ones around. But most… well… that’s the real mystery. People have seen the Lunatics bringing in prisoners, usually late at night, but no one questions it. As long as they’re kept fat, dumb and happy, who the hell cares?”

Hash gave Tony a tired look and then turned back to Herbie. “What about the murder shops? Seems like the easiest way to make folks… vanish.”

“Yeah, no. You’d think so, but if people were abducted outside the Territories and then brought in and turned over to those butchers, that might reflect badly on the auctions since they’re supposed to be voluntary. No, if you’re friends are here… and they’re still alive… then it’s for something else. Something clearly off the books and under the table. And that ‘something else’ makes me think about the other stuff I’ve been hearing lately.”

“What’s that?” Hash said.

“You heard anything about the Alpha?” Herbie nearly whispered the last word.

“Candyman asked us that,” Tony said. “What or who is this Alpha?”

“The last thing I heard coming through my bar was that the dead are flourishing at Mosquito Creek… and that they have a leader.”

“No fucking way!” Hash waved a hand in the bartender’s face. “They’re mindless savages. Last thing they’re going to do is start taking orders from one of their own.”

Tony immediately thought of Helen, the bad man’s wife. “They are getting smarter,” he said. “We’ve seen it. It was a much smaller group than what we saw at Mosquito Creek, but they were being led by a woman… who was just like them.”

Hash gave him a surprised look.

“What? You’ve been to Mosquito Creek?” Herbie was beside himself.

“So, this Alpha,” Tony continued, ignoring his question. “this Alpha is running things out at Mosquito Creek?”

“That’s the rumor. But it could all just be another scary bedtime story.”

“Candyman seems to believe it,” Tony said.

“That man takes no chances,” Herbie said. “If he hears enough about something, he wants to know all there is to know… even if it turns up bullshit. That’s how he’s been so successful with this place. Candyman takes pride in his ability to accumulate information. I think he’s intrigued at the idea of some zombie leader gathering an army of the dead… but that doesn’t mean he buys it.”

“Alpha Zombie,” Tony said. “That’s the last fucking thing anyone needs.”

“And if it were true,” Herbie continued. “And I do mean a big fucking ‘if’, then it’s reasonable to assume Candyman knows about it already.”

“So, what’s all this fiction have to do with missing people? Tony’s friends?” Hash said.

Herbie frowned. “I’m only speculating based upon the stories I’ve heard… but if there is an Alpha Zombie… that name’s gonna stick, by the way… then maybe Candyman already has an alliance with it.”

“That’s fucking nuts!” Hash said. “If that were true, and the good folks of New Cleveland caught wind of it, they’d tear this place to the ground. Candyman would be finished.”

“Indeed,” Herbie agreed. “All the more reason to keep such a horrific alliance top-secret.”

“Alright, enough,” Tony said. “I don’t care what that asshole does with his shithole town. I want to know where my friends are, get them out somehow, and never look back at this place. So, get on with it. Where do you think they are?”

“I was getting to that,” he said, scowling at the big man. “If there’s an alliance between Mosquito Creek and New Cleveland, there would have to be something in it for those dead things. Something that’s keeping them there and not storming across the countryside to devour the Territories.”

Tony looked confused. “But what could the dead possibly want from us?”

Hash beat Herbie to the chilling truth. “All those prisoners taken from outside the Territories, to the people in town who just go missing… they all end up in the same place.”

“Where?” Tony said.

“Remember those damn lobster tanks in the seafood restaurants?” Hash said. “I always thought it was cruel to keep them alive right up to the point they got boiled to death. But now I understand. They had to be fresh.”

Tony’s eyes went wide with understanding.

“I don’t know where his lobster tanks are, Tony,” Herbie said, nodding at Hash for his perfect analogy. “But if there is an alliance keeping the dead away from this place, then it has to mean that Candyman’s been feeding those bastards. Probably been doing it for a good long while, too.”

~~~

It was cramped inside the old slide tube, but Alysa managed to fit by sitting on her knees. Once inside, she stayed close to the edge so she could quickly evacuate the tube. Alysa could smell the man. Taven gave off a foul stench that came across as something long dead left out in the hot sun, mixed with the smell of damp clothing never washed. She had a hard time deciding which was worse as her senses were assaulted.

“Please, don’t come any closer,” Taven advised. There was about ten feet between them in the tube. “I can manage it fairly well under these conditions, but the scent of your blood would cause me some… discomfort.”

Alysa had no idea what to make of that. She was still trying to figure out how this old thing knew who she was… and about Ama-Eskua. “How do you know about me?” she asked. “Are you contracted by my Order?”

Taven smiled, causing Alysa to tense up. Most of his front row teeth were stained and had been filed down to look like fangs. “I know you because I’m supposed to. I can’t explain it any better than that. As far as your Order… they’ve known about me for a while now, long before I knew what I was.”

“And what are you? The message I received called you a ‘seer’.”

“I suppose some consider me such. I consider it highly-tuned intuition, or the ability to see more of what’s already happening than most. Doesn’t really matter. It’s what I see… now… when I look at you, that counts.”

Alysa studied the strange man. He carried no visible weapons. On the surface, he looked like any homeless man who’d been living anywhere he could for far too long, with a deteriorated physical appearance associated with such living conditions. But she knew a ruse when she saw one. This man, whoever he was, was very dangerous. “You’re not an assassin. I can tell my kind, and you’re definitely not of the Order. Which leaves me puzzled. If it’s not my death they seek, then why would Ama-Eskua send me to you?”

“You’ve been hiding from them. Yes?”

She didn’t know how to answer. “Not hiding. Not running. Just… not with them. I lost faith a while ago. I’ve been on my own path ever since.”

Taven laughed. “Yes. We’ve all been given a new chance at a new path. The world is not what it was… and it’s yet to reveal what it will be. But opportunity abounds for those who seek it.”

“Why don’t you stop with the fortune cookie talk and tell me why I’m here?”

“I’m going to remove these glasses. But I’ll need to turn off the flashlight to do so. Does the darkness frighten you?”

The day wasn’t over yet, but due to the overcast sky and the thick tube which blocked out most of the fading light on his end, it would be difficult to see if this man grabbed a weapon from behind his back. She decided to trust her superior night vision… and her advanced survival instincts. “No… I am the Darkness. If you know anything about my kind, then you must have already known the answer to that question.”

“Yes, I do know. But I’m not referring to the darkness you speak of. May I?”

Alysa nodded.

Taven turned off the flashlight, immediately making the tube darker at his end.

She could see that he was removing his dark sunglasses.

“That’s better. So much better,” he said. “Now I can really see you.”

Alysa noticed right away that the man’s eyes were not normal. She could not make out details or color due to the darkness, and that was expected. It was the lack of shimmer that most eyes gave off, even in the darkness when exposed to a fraction of ambient or artificial light, that revealed the truth. “Your eyes,” she said. “They’re different.”

“From your perspective, I imagine they are. But my eyes are a lot more common in the new world… as are my kind.”

Alysa’s internal alarms were immediately sounding off. She’d never really seen one of these creatures before… but had heard of them.

“Do you know me, Alysa?” Taven could hear her heartrate increase, feel the blood pumping through her veins—imagined tasting it. “Dou you really know me?”

“You’re one of the creatures stuck between two worlds,” Alysa said. “Neither living, nor dead.”

Taven laughed again. “Well… that’s one of the kinder descriptions I’ve heard. Usually it’s just some variation of… ‘Monster’.”

“I’m told that your kind, with the mercury eyes, should be considered the most dangerous of the beasts roaming the world today,” she continued.

“And what would make my kind be so dangerous?”

She shifted uncomfortably. “You are consumed by the blood lust, as all the dead are, but possess the ability to reason… like a human.”

“But I am human. You said it yourself.”

“That’s not what I said. You may appear alive… but you’re dead within.”

Taven sighed. “I possess the blessing of ‘seeing’ this world from two perspectives, Alysa.”

“Some would say it’s a curse.”

“I see what Death brings as I’m slowly rotting away at the edge of the living. Because of this, I will either cave to the insanity of the all-consuming compulsion to FEED, or, I can choose to embrace the other side, learn from its vision, and impart wisdom rather than destruction. I strive to feed the living as opposed to feeding off them.”

“And that’s what you do… here… in your dark tunnel?” Alysa asked. “I smell death here, and not just your own flesh rotting away. Others have died here.”

Taven remained silent.

“How many people have you preyed upon in this town? How many have you brought down here to satisfy your need to feed?”

“Only as many as required to keep the insanity away,” Taven confessed. “But I’m not proud of it.”

“Is that why Ama-Eskua sent me to you? Am I to be the fly in the spider’s web while you confuse me with clever words or anything else I need to hear while you inch your way closer and closer to your next meal?”

“Yes.”

Alysa was surprised by the response.

“I suppose they thought I might find a way to lull you in and kill you. But remember, it was I who revealed myself to you.”

“Yes,” she said. “You did. Why?”

“Because, like you, I have my own agenda. To your people, I’m simply a cleverly disguised monster. But while I’m their monster, I am still something else evolving into something more… on a completely different path, my own path, just like you.”

Taven tore into the truth about her as easily as tearing away flesh. He was talking about her being Ama-Eskua’s trained beast, while she desperately fought against it to forge her own destiny. “We are not the same,” she said.

“No… but we share much in common. This I’ve already seen about you from the other side.”

“Explain that?”

“I can’t. Not in any way that you would understand. But the one Mother is after… Meredith… she is like us. She can feel the other side… comprehend its language and speak to both the living and the dead. That is why such extreme measures have been put in play to protect her all these years.”

Alysa was stunned. What this half-man knew about Mother’s designs was frightening. For this alone, she felt compelled to end this creature’s existence.

“Do you understand who I’m talking about?” Taven asked. “The woman from beneath the ground, along with the people who shun her for being different—your kind attacked and slaughtered… like monsters… just to get her free. Does any of this make sense to you?”

“Yes. I am aware of what happened.”

“Then you know that this woman… Meredith… is the key to a door that has yet to be revealed. Yes?”

“That’s above my paygrade,” Alysa said. “But… yes, I’m aware of the woman’s importance… just not the ‘why’.”

“That is what you were sent to receive from me,” Taven said. “Your masters are very clever. They expected me to persuade you to return to them by showing you the importance of their purpose… or die at my hands. Either way, you are a concern to be dealt with.”

“They are not my masters,” she hissed. “Say that again and I’ll finish your journey into the darkness.”

Taven leaned forward and flashed his sharp-toothed smile again. “Not yet… not yet… not until I’ve revealed what you have come to hear. That’s not what they expect… and that’s what I’m here to tell you, because neither you, nor I, are mastered by anything… and we make our own path.” Taven winked at her.

She frowned at him. “I don’t know whether to drown you in that muck outside, or close my ears from hearing your poison, and run from this dying place.”

Taven laughed. “You already know why you’re here. I already know why you’re here. You just don’t understand what you know yet.”

“More fucking double-talk! I should rip your tongue out and give it to Candyman. He’d probably love to know what you’ve been doing in his town.”

Taven gazed at her, into her, and said, “Ahh… you seek the Wild Woman, Fire and Ice, Goddess to One… Dark Angel. She is like you, dangling over the darkness.”

Alysa’s eyes went wide. “You’re talking about Gina… Tony’s Gina.”

Taven let loose a devious laugh. “No… no… I’m talking about the man with as many names as his victim count… I’m talking about his Gina. You know this man. Yes?”

She closed her eyes. “Yes.”

“They are together… lost in madness. She has fixed her gaze upon the masters—yours no longer. She comes for them. He comes for her… You must go for him. That is your path. But you’ve known this all along. Yes?”

Alysa took a very long time to answer. She suddenly knew that her time was up pretending to be someone she was not. She saw their faces, allowed a moment more to consider them her friends: Tony, Diane, Nine, Wendy, Mark. Then, she forced them out into the tactical cold place within her mind, where emotions and memories were left to die. Her thoughts of Tony fought the hardest to stay, but they, too, were cast away. It was time to go.

Taven was intrigued by her hesitation. He saw something else but kept it to himself. “This is your path. Yes?” he repeated.

She stared coldly at the half-dead creature. “Yes. Now, tell me… where do I find the Wild Woman?”

Taven closed his eyes, inhaled deep, and caught the former Shadow Dead’s blood scent. He opened his eyes as a fresh wave of hunger made him shake. He finally answered, quoting from the note Alysa received earlier. “‘…I miss you, wayward daughter… It’s time to come home…’”

~~~

Next Episode 43-7

Previous Episode 43-5

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 43-6: 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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