~~~

Candyman stretched and then repositioned himself in his chair. He crossed his arms in front of his chest and studied Hash. “It sounds like you’ve had quite a time… out there in the wild, Sergeant.”

Hash snickered at the use of the word ‘wild’. He raised the empty bottle of wine to his mouth, hoping for a few more drops that did not come. “Yeah,” he said. “I guess you could say that.”

“Let’s get back on track. After you and your men seized the hospital in West Farmington-”

“You mean after we executed all those people?”

Candyman smiled. “I was attempting to spare you any more unpleasantness. But okay, sure. After all that… tell me, why did you stay? Why not leave those men behind, the ones you couldn’t control? You had to know that once they tasted the power of taking lives without consequence, that they’d do it again. So why remain with them if you couldn’t live under those… how shall I put it… ‘Dog Eats Dog’ rules?”

Hash nodded, shamefully lowering his head. “Because I was afraid.” He was surprised by his own admission, blaming it on the wine.

Candyman’s eyes lit up. “Ah…yes. Of course. You despised what Thompson led the others to do, what you failed to stop, thus, despising yourself… but you still needed them.”

“Yes,” Hash spat. “I hated what we did that day. It felt like the plant all over again when everyone got ugly and turned on the leadership. After the massacre at the hospital, I knew we were no different than those animals.”

“And just as desperate?” Candyman teased.

Hash glared at him. “That was part of it. But it’s no excuse. What we did to those people was wrong and we deserve to hang for it.”

Candyman rolled his eyes and laughed. “Yes, yes. Your unit killed all those people hiding in the hospital… and you got away with it. Welcome to the jungle, Sergeant. I suppose you’d spent many sleepless nights afterwards, waiting for ‘law and order’ to come knocking on your door, demanding justice for your crimes… hmm?”

“I expected… something,” Hash said. “Anything. I don’t know. Maybe some horde we couldn’t manage would breach our barriers and take us all down. Justice fucking served.”

Candyman shook his head. “My, oh, my, it’s no wonder how you’re exactly where you are today. You feared being alone… but you don’t fear death. In fact, you long for it.”

“Yes.”

“As payment for your crimes?”

“Yes.”

“Pathetic.”

Hash stared at him. “And I suppose you sleep like a fucking baby every night after the things that you’ve done?”

“Truth is, Sergeant, I never slept very much. Back in my previous life, serving a life sentence in a max prison, I learned to sleep with one eye open because you never knew who was gunning for you over some unperceived offense. Hell, maybe you just looked at someone the wrong way at the wrong time, or maybe some psycho just had in for you, wanting to make a name for himself by going for an easy target. Regardless, I sleep better these days than I ever did before the world changed.”

“Yeah, I imagine you were a model prisoner,” Hash added with a smile.

Candyman laughed. “I was… paying attention,” he said. “That’s what kept me alive before… and long after. You see, unlike yourself, Sergeant, Desperation came calling for me long before The Change. I did exactly what I needed to do in that fucking cage… no more, no less. And if it meant spilling blood, I never gave it a second thought.”

“But you did end up in that cage,” Hash said. “You may not have to worry about Justice coming for you in this sick fucking world, but it did find you for your previous crimes… and you were exactly where people like you were supposed to be.”

Candyman raised an eyebrow. “And what are ‘people like me’?”

“You’re the fucking criminal, asshole! People like you were made for this world. Take away the consequences… it’s all fun and games for your kind, no matter how you dress it up.”

Candyman shook his head and smiled. “Oh, Sergeant. I will miss our discussions. I suppose, from your once noble perspective, that I am, indeed, the criminal, while you were the hero who fought for the people.” He leaned in and continued. “But now… look at how much the tables have turned. I have become a respected leader in the new world, while you… well… by your own obsolete standards… you’re just a murderer.”

Hash wanted to reach through the bars and murder one more person.

“Let me fill you in on a little secret,” Candyman said. “Maybe this will help you sleep better for the few nights you have remaining.”

“Oh, this should be good.”

Candyman’s face grew dark. “Desperation, my friend, is not some condition that changes good men to monsters. Desperation is an opportunity. An opportunity to rise above the bullshit we once called ‘living’. Desperation is the great equalizer that demolishes the old stations of men. There are no more criminals, no more heroes. There are no more good guys and bad guys. No more successful people, and no more people living in poverty. No more conscience or fucking consequences. Desperation has wiped the proverbial chalkboard clean of everything and given everyone… and I mean everyone… a chance to reach the top.”

“The top of what?” Hash laughed. “The top of this bullshit pile that’s left of the world?”

Candyman sighed, leaning back in his chair. “This is disappointing. I thought you might finally see the big picture, Sergeant. Especially after all you’ve seen men do to each other, and after what you’ve done, yourself. Desperation doesn’t reveal to self-perceived ‘good’ people that they’re bad on the inside, and it doesn’t make them monsters. It just removes all the bullshit morality and self-righteousness that keeps people oppressed.”

Hash scowled at him in disbelief. “You really believe that shit your selling, don’t you?”

“We are no different than any other creature put on this planet, Sergeant. No one judges the lion for slaughtering the gazelle in the fields, or the owl that hunts the family of field mice in the moonlight. We understand that they follow nature’s rules… we call it the food chain. What makes us any different… hmm?”

“So, you’re saying we’re nothing but animals?”

“I’m saying that we were enslaved by unnatural rules, made up by Man, to enslave… Man. Desperation abolished those rules… rules that were never meant for us to begin with.”

“You keep telling yourself that, oh great leader of the new world. Call us animals if that gives you justification for your actions. But it changes nothing. The animals don’t have a conscience, so they have no understanding of right and wrong and do what they do without fault… without blame. But we’re different.”

“How so?”

“Well, for starters, we know… deep down… what God’s rules are. We know what sin is… and there are consequences.”

Candyman shook his head. “Ah, yes… the ‘God card’. The irrational argument of using what can’t been seen, but only believed, standing against what nature has clearly established all around us. That, Sergeant, was one of the first myths debunked the moment the dead came back. Try again.”

Hash closed his eyes. “I’m not going argue with you. Your heart and mind are broken anyway. Evil men will always denounce God. It’s the only way they can live with the things they do.”

“Explain?”

Hash stared at the foolish man. “Justice isn’t coming for any of us. I can see that now. Justice was lynched out in the streets on Day One of this fucking apocalypse. The good and the bad are treated indiscriminately in this crazy world. But Desperation isn’t a get-out-of-jail-free card either. We’re all going to get what we got coming. You, me, good old Desperation… we’re all going to get our due.”

Candyman sighed heavily. “These theology arguments always annoy me. This is the part where you hold the ‘afterlife’ over my head—another bit of fiction—and tell me all about the Great Judgment… or some ridiculous notion like that. Right?”

“Look around,” Hash said. “You need something to see, then just look at the dead. If that’s not tangible proof that there is something beyond… then you’re not paying attention. Those things came from somewhere… and I’d bet real money, if it still mattered, that you and I will eventually get front row seats on a ride to that destination. We’re both going somewhere, whether you like it or not. Or maybe, we’ll just turn into those things outside. Now wouldn’t that be appropriate? Perhaps that’s the ultimate justice for what you and I have done.”

For once Candyman had no comment. He unconsciously stared at his gloved hand.

“What is it?” Hash pushed.

Candyman looked up. “Excuse me?”

“You don’t fear much. You certainly don’t fear God. But you do fear something.”

The leader of New Cleveland laughed. He was about to dismiss the comment then nodded. “Only a fool fears nothing,” he said.

“Oh, come on! That’s all I get? I’m a dead man, remember? There’s nothing you can tell me that will matter in another day or so, right?”

Candyman smiled at his prisoner, giving him a scrutinizing look. “I still can’t tell if you’re looking for something to use against me, some vital piece of information to throw me off balance. But, since I’m aware of the possibility, and as you so astutely pointed out, you’re just a dead man, then what the hell.”

“Now we’re talking.” Hash was definitely drunk. “It’s about time the spotlight came off me and my pathetic mess. Spill it. What does the great leader of New Cleveland fear?”

Hash removed the glove from his right hand and showed hash the branded symbol of Mother.

“Nice tat,” Hash joked. “Not the best place to put one. Bet that hurt like a sonofabitch.”

“Do you… recognize this symbol?” Candyman said.

Hash stared at it, then shook his head. “Doesn’t ring a bell. Should I know it?”

Candyman lowered his hand and rubbed the branding with his free hand. “Since you came into town with an Ama Eskua, I thought it might be familiar… to one of you, anyway.”

Hash shrugged his shoulders.

Candyman rolled his eyes at the man. “You wouldn’t tell me anything even if you did recognize it, would you?”

“If I thought it didn’t matter one way or the other… I might tell you. But honestly, I don’t have a clue what you’re talking about.”

“Fair enough.” Candyman put the glove back on. “I’m not the storyteller you are, my friend, so you’ll just have to forgive my boring rendition of past events.”

Hash waved him off. “I have the advantage in that department. Drunks tell the best tales.”

Candyman laughed. “Indeed. Perhaps I should get us another bottle?”

“No objections here.”

“Maybe another time,” Candyman said. “Anyway, six months before The Change, when I was still incarcerated, I received a very unusual visit from a man claiming to be my lawyer. Curious, I met with the man. I remember he had a very confident way about him, and he was definitely no lawyer. I think his name was Donaldson, or Donovan… doesn’t matter. Point is, he came to see me, all dressed up in a suit and tie, playing the part. He even had a briefcase, although he never opened it. I remember the man didn’t waste words. He was direct with me. Told me things that made me think he was crazy, or that someone was playing a cruel joke on me.”

“What did he want?”

Candyman shook his head and laughed. “He said he was sent to offer me an opportunity… one that he and the people he worked for believed was perfectly suited for someone with my particular skill set. You see, at the time, I had made quite a name for myself in prison. I’d not only figured out the system, I eventually rewrote the rules on the inside and made everything work to my advantage. I guess you could say that I was already in training to lead, long before I acquired this position.”

“So, you were quite the con man,” Hash said.

“I guess that’s one way to put it,” Candyman admitted. “Regardless, I made things work on the inside in ways that profited everyone. This… Donovan… character, he knew all about me and what I’d achieved. It was quite unnerving. Anyway, he told me an incredible story about what was about to happen to the world. He either didn’t know the details or just wasn’t going to tell me about them. He just spoke generally about how everything was about to go to shit. He told me when it was going to happen, and that when it did… his people could use someone like me to bring balance back… whatever that meant. At the time, I thought I was dealing with a lunatic. Imagine my surprise when the world turned.”

“What was the opportunity?”

Candyman nodded. “That man told me about this place. He said his people originally intended to convert this location into some kind of ‘safe house’ or something. But they changed their mind. So… they offered it to me.”

“Let me guess,” Hash said. “When shit hit the fan, you assembled your gang of inmates on the inside, found a way out, and ended up here.”

“More or less,” Candyman said. “At the time, it took all we had just to get out of the prison alive. There was so much death all around us. People turning—from the inmates, to the guards—even the warden turned… and that was something to see. After we got away from the city, all those inmates looked to me for answers as they’d done on the inside. I was scared out of my fucking mind and… desperate. I didn’t know what to do. The whole end-of-the-world thing was entirely new to me.”

“Yeah, I get that,” Hash added with a laugh.

“But then I remembered that strange man pretending to be a lawyer. I remember what he told me. So, I took a gamble and led everyone here.”

“And we already know how that played out,” Hash spat.

“Not quite,” Candyman said. His face went pale as he got lost in a memory. “When we first started building this place up, I was… visited… by five scary men. They came for me while I slept. They were dressed all in black and as silent as the fucking night. I never heard them coming when they snatched me up out of my bed and dragged me out into a remote area of the park. None of them said a fucking word to me as they just stood there, surrounding me like vultures. I thought I was dead. Then one of them pointed at me and said in a deep menacing voice, ‘Mother has given you a tremendous opportunity. Never forget who’s responsible for all that you are about to achieve.’”

“Fuck that! What did you do?”

Candyman smiled. “I nodded and stammered like a little bitch. Told them anything they wanted to hear, even begged them to spare my life. I’m not ashamed to admit that these men terrified me.”

Hash nodded. “Shadow Dead.”

“So, you have heard of them?”

“I know a little. More ghost stories than anything else.”

“But you knew that the woman you traveled with was a Shadow Dead, right?”

Hash stared at the man. “What the fuck did you say?”

Candyman laughed. “You really didn’t know, did you?’

Hash shook his head. “Like I told you before, I didn’t know the people I came in with for very long. I certainly didn’t know that one of them was some fucking Shadow Dead spook.”

“Well, she was. And she’s gone now… at least, I hope she is.”

“And the branding?” Hash said, nodding toward Candyman’s hand. “When did you get that?”

Candyman stared back down at his hand. “They did it to me that night. Told me that if I screamed, that they would cut me into little pieces. So, I didn’t scream… but I fucking wanted to.”

“I bet you did. What’s it mean?”

“The last thing that Shadow Dead warrior said to me, after branding me with Mother’s mark, was that Mother owned me now. The mark was a reminder to never forget it. He said that they’d be watching… always watching… and that one day they would come back to check on the progress I’d made on Mother’s behalf.”

Hash’s eyes went wide. “You thought Alysa came to spy on you?”

“I did,” Candyman admitted. “But now… I’m not so sure. I think she may have recognized the mark on my hand, then used it to prey upon my fear so I’d let her go. But it’s hard to know what the motives of the Shadow Dead truly are. So… I let that scary bitch leave. You must understand, I hadn’t heard a word from them since the branding. Hell… I started to believe they’d all forgotten about me out here. Or so I hoped. But now, I’m left to wonder if there’s any more of them in town, hiding and waiting for the right moment to approach me.” Candyman sighed. “You asked me what I feared. I fear losing control. I fear not being able to see these Shadow fuckers coming at me until it’s too late. I fear not knowing what it is they want from me, since I haven’t heard from them since the beginning. And I fear that Mother will simply take this place from me once that organization no longer has a use for me.”

Hash laughed. “Man, I thought I was fucked. But you, your back in prison again, staring down every corner because you don’t know when the enemy might strike out at you.” He then flashed a wicked smile at New Cleveland’s leader, and finished, “Maybe I wrong about Justice, after all. Maybe these ghosts are coming to judge you for the misuse of the opportunity Mother gave you.”

For once, Candyman was not laughing. He stared at hash and frowned.

“Maybe, one night, you’ll be all snug-as-a-fucking-bug in your bed, gloating about your powerful position on top of this shit pile you call a town, and then you’ll open your eyes and see them… the fucking owner of the owner… coming to finally give you yours.”

“That’s enough,” Candyman hissed, rising from his chair.

Hash knew immediately that he’d crossed the line.

“An open and honest conversation is one thing… but your disrespect… well… that’s another thing all together.”

Hash slunk back in his chair and didn’t say another word.

Candyman gave the drunk man one last glance, then said, “After my Lunatics come and beat the shit out of you for your insolence, I’ll have a bottle of whisky sent to your cage, to help you manage the pain… assuming you don’t die from the beating.”

Hash closed his eyes and shook his head at his own stupidity. Hell, maybe it was worth it, he decided. I rather enjoyed watching him squirm for once.

Candyman abruptly turned away and stormed up the hall.

~~~

Nadia had learned how to turn off her thoughts and emotions during sex; her flesh was simply a tool that she used with efficiency to satisfy the repulsive sweaty older man whose hot labored breaths reeked of stale wine. She used her slender body like a snake, wrapping her long legs around the man’s hips as he thrusted his pelvis into her lower region—his aggressiveness, a clear indication of Candyman’s frustration.

When she’d returned from her afternoon with Diane, the leader of New Cleveland had been waiting for her, sitting in his leather chair with a perplexed look upon his face.

She had not asked what vexed the man. Nadia knew better. She’d simply read the man’s eyes, understood what he needed, and then removed her clothing, revealing her perky pale breasts.

Candyman had handled her roughly at first, throwing her down on the couch and grabbing at her tits as though they could come off with enough force. She’d ignored the pain and feigned arousal instead.

Though his moods were inconsistent and volatile, she could always count on his consistency in duration—the old fuck never lasted long, usually spewing forth his poison between her legs within five minutes.

When he was finished, Candyman rolled off the slender girl, breathing heavily.

Nadia remained still, allowing the cool air to slowly dry the sweat off her body. She always waited for him to speak first after sex. It was her subtle way of turning back control to the lunatic who thrived on it.

“That was wonderful… thank you,” he said.

Nadia’s face wore the smile perfectly. “It’s been some time since we had an afternoon snack,” she teased, twirling the back of the man’s silver her with her long fingers.

Candyman laughed. “Sorry for my… abruptness. It’s been an exhausting morning. I really needed that.”

She turned on her side toward the disgusting hairy man, caressing his right arm with her breasts while sliding her left leg seductively over the top of his old legs. She playfully massaged his decrepit limp dick and said, “We can try that again in a few minutes, if you’d like?” She already knew that wasn’t going to happen.

Candyman smiled at her. “That would be nice… but not today,” he said.

You mean not ever, you gross fuck, she thought, never losing her smile. It’s a wonder you can still get it up at all. “Want to talk about it?”

“Oh, just the usual. Too many demands on my time with too many individual personalities to deal with.”

“Anyone in particular driving you crazy today?” she said.

He laughed. “Yes. That damn drunk sergeant. I think I’m letting the fact that I like the man allow him to get too close. He riled me up a little. I’ll have to watch that next time.”

“Isn’t that the mercenary that Diane came in with?” Nadia carefully pressed.

“Yes. The very same. I don’t talk much about that one since I locked him up. He’s harmless.”

“Want me to go with you next time you talk to him?” Nadia offered. “One look at me and he’ll never be able to keep his thoughts straight,” she teased.

“That would be entertaining to watch, especially since I keep him locked up naked most of the time.”

Nadia laughed. “Ah… I see… you want him standing at attention, not… standing at attention.”

Candyman laughed. “No… I certainly don’t need to see any more of Sergeant Hash then I do now.”

“You said he’s locked up,” she added with just the right amount of mild curiosity. “Where are you keeping that one? Near the lab?”

“Yes,” he said absently. “But enough of that. How was your day?”

“Unusual,” she teased.

Candyman’s eyebrows shot up. He smiled and said, “So, I assume you and Diane are bonding, as expected?”

“Yeah, I think that girl trusts me now. Especially after that scare you gave her last night. You almost had me convinced that you were going to have her raped if I’d come down any later.”

“I considered it,” he said. “But I wanted to give you a chance to reach her first.”

Nadia smiled. “Well, as usual, you have the best plans. You pushed her buttons just right… and pushed her right toward me.”

“So, it worked then?”

“Yes. I’d say we’re becoming instant friends after the day we’ve had. She was very grateful that I intervened last night.”

“As was intended,” Candyman said. “I couldn’t think of anyone better than you to pull this off.”

“Well… thank you.”

“Since she won’t open up to me, no matter what I try… you’re my Plan B. Has she confided in you about the others yet? Has she mentioned anything at all about Alysa, the woman we sent away?”

“She’s talking to me about the boyfriend. That’s a good start.”

Candyman sensed a slight hesitation in Nadia’s voice. “There’s something else, isn’t there?”

Nadia silently scolded herself for tipping her hand. She hadn’t expected to be so… reluctant. “Sorry,” she said. “I was still processing what she’d just told me before coming back.”

“And?”

“Let’s get up and get dressed first,” she said, stalling. “I don’t want to miss telling you something important because we just had sex and I’m ready for a nap.”

“Understandable,” he said, sitting up. “I’ll go get us a drink.”

“Thank you,” she said, putting on her dress.

Nadia watched Candyman put on his robe and then head for the bar.

She allowed her façade to drop momentarily while his back was turned. She frowned, closing her eyes and letting out a silent sigh.

Candyman returned with two glasses of scotch and then sat down beside her on the couch.

By then, Nadia’s mask was firmly back in place.

“So,” he said. “What else did you learn from your new best friend today?”

Nadia took a long sip from her scotch glass.

~~~

“… and no matter what happens, should everyone and everything in this fucked-up and desperate world betray us, and we find ourselves lined up before a firing squad, ready to make a final friend of Death, we will still have each other. We will always be… family.”

~~~

Next Episode 52-1

Previous Episode 51-5

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 51-6: The Desperation Factor” Copyright © 2019 Scott Scherr, from the novel, Don’t Feed The Dark, Book Six: Mother. 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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