~~~

Briana took them all back to Candyman’s courtyard and lined them up in front of the old fountain. She placed a row of Lunatics in front of them, twenty feet back, and just outside their leader’s trailer. They were all armed, rifles lowered but at the ready.

To Tony if felt like they were all being lined up in front of a firing squad. He couldn’t tell if Briana was just being funny, or if this was the intended purpose.

The Lunatic leader paced in between her men and Tony’s people, arms behind her back, and looking bored.

“What’s this all about, Briana?” Hash broke the silence. “We have an arrangement with your boss. Gold token V.I.P.’s remember? Hell, that pretty much means we can do whatever we want around here short of causing an uprising. Why bother Candyman with a petty bar fight?”

She glared his way, then smiled. “Oh… you all were up shit creek long before that stupid fight. The brawl just made it worse.”

“Made what worse?” Tony dared. He looked around for the umpteenth time trying to locate Alysa. “And where’s my friend? I’m sure your goons would’ve located her by now.”

Briana stopped, studied the big man’s concerned face, and laughed. “You genuinely care about her, don’t you? Did any of you know who she really was, or were you just her damn pawns?”

None of them knew how to safely answer that question.

“Doesn’t matter,” she said, lighting up a cigarette. “Candyman’s pretty pissed. Your damn girlfriend made a mess of things when she showed up here with her demands.”

“‘Demands’?” Tony was beside himself. What did she do?

Briana shook her head at him. “You really are clueless. Well… you’ll find out soon enough. And when the boss takes it out on the rest of you, I’ll get a front row seat.”

Before anyone else could say anything, Candyman exited the front door of his trailer dressed in fresh khakis and a dark blue sweater. He was no longer smiling as the man ran his hands through his long gray hair.

He looks stressed the fuck out, Tony thought. That’s not good. Damn it, Alysa, what did you do here?

Candyman stopped near the Lunatic squad, placed his hands on his sides, and then scanned his guests’ faces. He waved Briana over.

Tony could just make out their conversation.

“Is it taken care of?” he asked.

“Yes,” Briana said. “The bitch is out. We gave her everything she asked for. I had my men keep an eye on her from a distance until she drove north. She didn’t double back but kept going.”

Candyman was nodding his head. “Very good. Very good. One less headache to deal with this evening.” As an afterthought, he added. “After we take care of things here, I want you to tell all your patrols to keep an extra eye on any suspicious newcomers in town… and let me know immediately.”

Briana hesitated then said, “Do you think there’s more of her kind here?”

Tony’s eyebrows shot up in surprise.

Candyman smiled. “I’m not taking chances. Just… just let me know if your people spot anyone acting…”

“Sneaky?” Briana finished.

Candyman nodded. He then walked over to Tony and put on a well-practiced smile. “Well, it seems you all wasted no time settling in. I understand that there was a bit of an incident over at the Oasis this evening.”

Hash quickly chimed in. “Nothing serious. We just had a few too many drinks, is all. One thing led to another-”

“Silence him,” Candyman ordered.

One of the Lunatics rushed over to Hash and slammed the butt of his rifle into the good sergeant’s belly, causing him to fall to one knee and cough.

“That’s not necessary.” Tony took a threatening step forward.

Briana stepped in, handgun drawn, causing Tony to stop. She smiled and waved the pointer finger of her free hand in the big man’s face. “Uh… uh… uh… just stand down before I get trigger happy on all your friends.”

Tony stepped back.

Candyman appeared oblivious to the situation. He stared around his courtyard, letting out a heavy sigh. “Do you know why things work in New Cleveland, Tony?”

Tony shook his head.

“Everything works in my town because everyone knows their place. Rules are adhered to and order is maintained.” He looked at the big man. “But when something comes along, threatening to disrupt that system, it’s my job to restore balance… and do so swiftly—by force if necessary.”

“I take responsibility for the bar fight,” Tony said. “Just don’t take it out on anyone else. You want to punish somebody, punish me. We’re not here to disrupt the way you run your operation.”

Candyman gave him a bemused expression. He looked to Briana and said, “Is this guy for real?”

Briana holstered her gun and shrugged with a smile. “It takes all kinds,” she said. “I suspect this one’s got a hero complex.”

This made Candyman laugh. He turned back to Tony and shook his head. “I appreciate you taking ownership for the trouble you’ve caused me… unfortunately… there was one story you should have told me long before I let you loose on my town.”

“And what story is that?” Tony asked.

“The one about your female traveling companion. I assume it was her idea to let you pose as the leader while she hid within your ranks?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Candyman’s smile faded. “Don’t make things worse by lying. She’s already told me who she is.”

“Where’s Alysa?” Tony asked.

“She… apparently having no further use for any of you… has decided to leave us. I assume she’s heading straight back to her Ama-Eskua friends.”

Shit, Tony thought.

“And by the expression on your face, I don’t suspect you had any idea she was planning on leaving you all in my custody. Is that correct?”

Tony had no reason to lie. “Yeah, you’re correct.”

“Well, Tony, you and your ‘special’ friend, have put me in a very anxious mood. I don’t like surprises, especially with people I’ve conducted business with.”

“Whatever Alysa did, she acted alone,” Tony said. “Yes, I knew who she was, but up until now, I didn’t believe it had any relevance on our arrangement.”

Candyman smiled. “I believe you, Tony. I really do. But that doesn’t change the fact that your friend has made me extremely uncomfortable. Fortunately, despite her powerful position, I was able to keep the rest of you right here in New Cleveland.”

“She tried to get us out, too?” Tony asked.

Candyman ignored the question. “Due to your lack of transparency during our ‘deal’, you’ve left me no choice but to alter our original arrangement. There is no damn story you could tell me now that would intrigue, entertain, or put me at ease enough to counter the predicament… Alysa… has put me in.”

Tony turned and met the nervous gazes of his friends. She’s fucking screwed us! he thought. And worse, Alysa’s probably secured our death sentences!

“Relax… relax…” Candyman said, sensing their discomfort. “She did manage to get me to promise not to kill any of you. And as much as I’d like to dispose of all of you immediately—no offence—I just can’t risk your blood on my hands. Your friend’s friends are not people I want to make my enemies at this particular time.”

He’s terrified of the Shadow Dead, Tony thought. Well, there’s that at least.

“However,” Candyman continued. “I can’t be held responsible for what happens to any of you after I let you go. Once you leave the protection of these walls… well… anything could happen.”

“What does that mean? Are you letting us leave?” Tony said.

Hash shook his head and laughed. “It means, this shady sonofabitch has an ambush waiting for us outside the gates… probably paid some people just like me and my unit to take care of us once we’re out of New Cleveland jurisdiction.”

Another Lunatic went to strike Hash but Candyman waved him off.

“It’s alright,” he said. “The sergeant is simply stating his obvious concerns. It is a dangerous world out there, nothing like the safety found within my gates. No one has survived this long without developing a healthy sense of paranoia.”

“But you told Alysa you’d keep us safe here?” Nine chimed in.

Candyman shook his head at the young man. “No, son, I most certainly did not. I said I wouldn’t kill you, and that I’d keep you here long enough for the Ama-Eskua to be finished with you, allowing me to finish our business… but… then you all went and caused an uproar in my town. And even the Ama-Eskua would understand that I couldn’t keep you here, causing turmoil right under my nose.”

“It was a just a bar fight!” Mark chimed in. “And we didn’t even start the fucking thing!”

Candyman pretended to be shocked. He turned to Briana. “Explain it to them, please.”

Briana took an impatient drag off her cigarette and then put it out beneath her foot. “Shortly after being graciously given leave to explore our peaceful town, my men reported an incident in the streets involving the big dumb fuck over there,” she pointed at Tony. “He was seen knocking a man out, in front of several witnesses.”

Tony could already see where this was going.

“Do you deny this… Tony?” Candyman said.

“No… but we were provoked.”

“And the man who you assaulted… wasn’t he the very same man, along with his friends, that you attacked in the bar?” Candyman feigned surprise.

“It wasn’t like that,” Tony said. “They came at us and we defended ourselves.”

Briana laughed and continued. “He’s lying again. At the bar, no one came to this man’s defense when he openly admitted that he started the fight. The others were involved, sure. But it was these jerk-offs that started it long before they entered that bar. Doesn’t take a genius to add up the rest.”

Tony was glaring at her.

It was Diane who came forward. “This bitch murdered a man after naming the assholes who started the whole damn thing!” she said. “After that, it was pretty clear that she was setting us up for the fall!”

Briana was prepared for the accusation. She rolled her eyes at the silly one-armed girl. “I could go down there right now and ask anyone at the bar. None of them would corroborate this bullshit.”

Candyman’s eyebrows shot up. He looked to Tony. “More stories?”

“She’s telling the truth,” Tony said. “But I believe you know that already. So, what’s the point of all this?”

“Oh, I’m a fair man, Tony. Believe it or not.” Candyman walked up to Briana and gave her a cautious glance, all part of the show, of course. “If I suspected one of my Lunatics, especially one of my top-ranking Lunatics charged with keeping the peace, did something as heinous as shooting innocents in my town, you better believe I’d take care of it.”

Briana gave her best performance at looking humble. “Do you want me to bring in the witness now?” she asked.

“Absolutely,” he said. “We need to get to the bottom of this.”

Briana nodded to two of her men at the back of the courtyard, behind the fountain.

The men disappeared for a moment, then returned with a very nervous looking fat man.

“Sonofabitch,” Hash mumbled under his breath.

Briana caught Tony’s gaze and winked at him.

The Lunatics brought Howard Bledsoe, a.k.a. Herbie, a.k.a. Ollie, before the leader of New Cleveland.

Herbie refused to make eye contact with Tony and the others, or with Candyman. He just stood there in his own disgusting sweat, looking like his favorite whore just died.

Candyman got to the point quickly. He addressed the slimy bartender. “Speak up now. Were you at your bar during the incident this evening?”

Herbie nodded. “Yes… yes I was.”

“And you witnessed the fight?”

Again, Herbie nodded.

“Look at this man.” Candyman pointed to Tony.

Herbie sheepishly met Tony’s hard eyes and quickly looked back toward the ground.

“Was this the man who admitted starting the brawl?”

“Yes… yes, he is.”

“Now, look at me,” Candyman demanded.

Herbie looked up.

“It’s very important that you answer this next question honestly. Did one of my Lunatics murder one of your patrons to get this man to confess to starting the fight?”

Herbie was sweating so badly Tony believed he would pass out. He almost felt sorry for him… almost.

The fat bartender finally said, “No… no, Sir. No Lunatics murdered anyone. They came and broke up the fight, asked who started it… and then… then this man confessed.” He finished with a shaking finger pointing at Tony.

“Thank you, good citizen,” Candyman said. “You may leave now.”

Two Lunatics escorted Herbie out of the courtyard, trying not to touch the sweaty man.

Candyman sighed, then turned back to Tony. “Well, there you have it. Seems like your story and the truth don’t share much in common.”

Tony looked at him and clapped his hands three times. He smiled smugly. “Bravo,” he spat. “You and that piece of shit that just left have one thing in common: You both have a fondness for theatrics. Between yourself and that cold-hearted bitch standing next to you, I don’t know which deserves the fucking Oscar more.”

Candyman waved Briana off. “It’s okay. Now we know the truth.” He scanned all their faces with a dramatic pause, then said, “Normally, I would just have you executed… but I can’t do that. But I can’t allow any of you to remain in my town, either. You are all a threat to the peace… and no matter what promises I made to your… friend… I won’t put the good citizens of New Cleveland at risk any longer. I’ll have my people escort you out within the hour.” Candyman turned to leave.

Hash moved over to Tony. “I’m serious,” he said. “They’ll kill us outside. After that, he can make up any lie he wants, or simply deny knowledge of our deaths since it happened out there.”

Tony nodded. “We’ll just have to take our chances. At least we’ll be on the other side of these walls.”

“No guns… no weapons of any kind. They’ll mow us down easily,” Hash said. “I promise you, they’ll have a plan, and these Lunatics will carry it out precisely. This is no chance at all, and that pompous fuck knows it.”

“There’s another way,” Wendy said, surprising everyone.

“What are you talking about?” Mark said.

Wendy took a breath, staring at Candyman as he approached his trailer door.

She looked pleadingly at Tony. “Will they really kill us the moment we’re outside… I mean… do you believe that, Tony?”

Tony looked to Hash, frowned, and answered, “Yes. I do. This was all a performance put on so that man could cover his own ass should Alysa’s ‘friends’ come back and find us gone.”

Wendy looked toward Candyman again. He was reaching for his trailer door. She frantically said to Tony, “Do you trust me?”

“Of course. You know I do,” Tony said. “What is it?”

“No time,” she said. “I’m sorry for this. But it might be all we have left.” Wendy took a few steps toward Candyman’s trailer, and yelled, “Wait! Please… stop!”

Candyman turned, surprised by the young woman’s outburst.

“I’ll take care of it,” Briana said, rolling her eyes at the whole affair. She signaled her men to head over and quiet the stupid girl.

“Candyman!” Wendy called out, as he was about to head into his trailer. “I… we… we owe you a debt for the trouble we’ve caused in your town!”

Candyman turned, his curiosity peaked. “Let her speak,” he said.

The Lunatics backed off.

Tony and the others stared at Wendy.

She had to finish before she lost her nerve… or her common sense kicked back in. “Please… Sir… we owe you a debt, and by the rules of your community, set forth by the mercy of your leadership and all of New Cleveland… we… we offer ourselves as payment.”

Candyman looked genuinely surprised. “I’m already allowing you all to live… to leave this place. What are you suggesting, child?”

Wendy swallowed hard and put on a performance of her own. “We’ve lived out there… Sir… and we know that it’s not really living… especially after struggling so hard to get here. You send us back out there… it’s a guaranteed death sentence.” Her words were the hammer that nailed the truth in that moment, the nails that were about to be pounded into their coffin lids. “By your mercy, we ask that you allow us to remain, and in exchange we offer ourselves… freely… voluntarily… to be placed up for auction!”

Briana looked stunned by the unexpected move. She placed her hands on her holsters, wanting to put several holes in the meddling young woman.

The Lunatics exchanged bewildered glances, then stared at their leader.

“Wendy!” Diane hissed. “Have you lost your fucking mind?”

Hash was laughing. “Damn,” he said. “That was gutsy move, young lady.”

Tony was reeling. He grabbed Wendy by the shoulders. “What are you doing? You heard what happens at those things?”

“She’s trying to improve our odds,” Nine said, smiling at the girl. “Outside, we were already dead. Although, I think I still want to shit my pants right now.”

Wendy nodded at the big man. She looked terrified. “I’m just trying… trying to give us a chance, Tony.”

He finally smiled at her and said, “She’s right.” He looked at Hash.

Hash shrugged his shoulders. “It’s the fire or the frying pan either way. But this might help us… some of us, anyway… to survive.”

Tony took in all their concerned faces. Wendy’s right. This is all we have. Damn you, Alysa, for forcing us into this. Why the hell did you do it? WHY?

Candyman stared at the group, his mind spinning at the possibilities presented after the young woman opened Pandora’s Box. Could any of this get back to the Ama-Eskua? Absolutely. He had to make his next move very carefully. “Does this young lady speak for all of you?”

Tony gave his friends one last look, fearing he might not ever see those faces again and wanting to memorize them and cherish the light provided by each one of them before being plummeted into the darkness. He turned and addressed Candyman. “Yes. She does. We all offer ourselves up… for auction.”

Candyman closed his eyes and shook his head. I could refuse this. It’s a desperate move and they know it. But if I deny them this, word will spread through the community that mercy was refused and they’ll call me a dictator, or worse, this could discredit the appearance of the auctions, altogether… and I cannot allow that to happen! He nervously wiped a bead of sweat from his forehead and tried to keep his composure. Then, a smile lit up his face as the opportunist in Candyman saw how advantageous this ‘new deal’ could become. They go to auction, their lives are no longer in my hands! And… they’ll still be in the city! I’ll get to keep my deal with the fucking Ama-Eskua bitch… in a manner of speaking… and they might die anyway! Candyman tried his best to appear conflicted and torn on the idea. Finally, he let his shoulders sag and said, “Your request has been granted. All of you will be put up for auction… your fate, no longer mine to decide… and no longer your own. After which, all debts will be paid in full.”

Tony closed his eyes and prayed silently for his friends as the Lunatics took them into custody to await the next auction. Hash tried to give them some small hope as he told them that anyone in New Cleveland could purchase them… and that they could end up on the up end of a shitty situation. Of course, Tony needed no reminder of the downsides. He thought about the murder shops, trying to force the images of his mangled friend’s faces out of his mind as they cursed his name before their cruel deaths… and while they cursed his name… he cursed Alysa’s.

~~~

Alysa Monroe stopped her beat-up Toyota Corolla five miles north of New Cleveland. The last of the sunlight was fading to twilight and she needed to seek shelter for the evening and work out her next move. The two-lane highway, currently concealed beneath a canopy of tall oak trees, started to give way to more congested areas as the backdrop of meadows and farmlands were becoming more industrial.

She stepped away from the car, carrying a long black bow, a full quiver of black arrows, and a small pack full of supplies. She hopped an old fence and found a spacious field where she could observe the dead, or any other threats, approach from all directions, and then made a small camp fire.

The roadway was getting more cramped with abandoned vehicles the closer she approached the Interstate. Soon she’d have to leave the car and take her chances on foot, using stealth and cunning to avoid being noticed.

Alysa had many miles to go before she arrived at her destination, but now that she was travelling solo again, she could move much more efficiently without the constant distractions her former travelling companions afforded.

As she sat before the small fire, Alysa tried not to think of them, but once infected by friendship, it was hard to deal with the long silences the empty night provided. She was alone again, but could still hear them all in her thoughts, chattering on about some meaningless moment, or laughing at each other’s jokes that she never understood. And then, there was Tony’s constant inquiries into her old life, the woman she’d almost forgotten, and while she once believed relief was all she sought from his insistent ‘touchy-feely’ conversations—now, she craved it.

She’d tried her best to protect them before leaving (abandoning) them, but she felt conflicted—she was the woman who used to be Alysa, and the warrior who demanded that all else be put to death before moving forward.

You betrayed them, her mind accused. As a warrior, you’ve dishonored yourself. As a woman, you’ve dishonored your own heart.

Alysa forced such futile thoughts into the fire and watched them burn to embers.

She was in mission mode now. There was much she needed to consider before arriving at the dangerous destination that awaited her.

And yet, she continued to stare distractedly into the embers… remembering her brave, foolish, and only friends.

~~~

Next Episode 44-1

Previous Episode 43-8

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 43-9: 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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