Archive for the ‘thriller’ Category

~~~

Earlier…

“What… what the hell is this?” Wendy said with alarm.

Two wall-mounted torches provided the only light within the murder room, illuminating dried blood stains streaked and splattered across the walls. In the center of the room was a large rectangular machine lying low to the floor, resembling a bed. Mr. Silver was strapped naked into the machine lying on his back. He was wrapped in barbed wire that dug into his flesh in multiple places above his waist, leaving many bloody wounds. His wrists and feet were attached to small chains that were wrapped around metallic spools involved in some intricate pulley system. He turned his head toward Wendy and tried to shout, but a leather strap, securing some sort of red ball within his mouth, muted the weasel-of-a-man’s cry to some unintelligible sounds.

Sheila was standing just behind the machine. Her black mask was pulled up and resting on top of her head. Wendy noticed an excited expression on the young stripper’s face. Her eyes resembled someone who was about to do something naughty, but still wondered if she’d get away with it. Sheila looked over at Herbie and nodded.

Herbie removed his mask and tossed it to the floor. He looked frantic, out of breath, but his eyes carried a look of determination as he nodded back at the girl, then stared down at Mr. Silver.

Wendy couldn’t believe anything she was seeing. “Again,” she managed, “will someone please tell me what we’re doing here? Tell me this is not what it looks like.”

“What’s it look like, killer?” Sheila said with a devious smile.

“Stop calling me that!”

“Enough,” Herbie said. He walked over to the machine and examined the chains securing Silver’s wrists and feet to the machine.

Mr. Silver stared at him with a mixture of horror and outrage. He was breathing heavily, struggling against his restraints, which only made the barbed wire dig further into his flesh, as he moaned in pain and stopped moving.

Herbie backed up against the closest wall, rubbing his hands. He continued to stare at Silver as if struggling with how to proceed. He looked increasingly uncomfortable. Herbie turned to Wendy and frowned. “After your outburst in the bar, this asshole demanded that I turn you over to him as payment for not reporting me to the authorities. I knew right away what he was up to. He wanted to provoke you and cause a scene… and it worked. I tried and tried to talk him out of it, but he refused. Even after I offered him Sheila, he still refused. This little creature flat-out told me that he wanted only you… and that he was going to take his time enjoying what he had planned for you.”

Wendy stared at Silver who was shaking his head and trying to speak.

“And what was his… plans?” she asked.

“We don’t need to get into all that,” Herbie said. “It doesn’t matter now.”

“It matters to me,” she said. “Tell me what he said to you.”

Sheila sighed impatiently. “Oh, just let me tell her already,” she said to Herbie. She looked to Wendy. “Herbie told me that this monster was going to lock you in a room, probably a lot like this one. He was going to rape and torture you every day for as long as you held out. He even started going into the disgusting details about how he was going to do it. He said that shit right in front of Herbie and everyone in earshot at the bar. The little fuck said that once Herbie sold you to him… it would all be legal, and no one could stop him.”

Wendy turned to Herbie in shock. “He said all that to you?”

The tired bartender nodded with a heavy sigh. “All that… and then some.” He glared at Sheila and continued, “I was trying to spare you that part. But, yes, he was going to do unspeakable things to you if I handed you over to him.” He looked back at Wendy. “There was no way in hell I could live with that. So, I had to… improvise.”

Wendy’s eyes went wide. “Is that what you call all this?”

Herbie wiped sweat off his brow. “I had to call in a favor. The owner of this murder shop owed me… so we worked out the details of a plan that would take care of our… Mr. Silver problem. I told Sheila what I intended to do, and she was on board.”

“What did you two do?”

Herbie smiled weakly. “I sold you to this little freak.”

“You did what?” Wendy took a step back.

He held up his hands. “Relax. It’s all taken care of. I had to tell this asshole something before he went to the Lunatics. So… I told him he could have you in a few days, when I was finished with you. And in the meantime, he could have Sheila to satisfy him while he waited. He seemed okay with that.”

“Yeah,” Sheila said. “He would’ve tortured me, too, the little fucking devil!” She spat in Silver’s face, causing him to flinch.

Wendy pieced the rest of it together. “So, you called in your favor, set up this ‘illegal’ arrangement, then used Sheila to lure him here.”

“Close. I told Silver that I’d set Sheila up for him in the murder shop… and that he could take out his frustration on her… on my dime. That’s what finally calmed him down.”

Sheila shook her head at the pathetic man. She leaned in toward his face and hissed, “I can’t wait until we get started on you! I’m going to enjoy myself.”

“What is she talking about?” Wendy said.

“Obviously, the arrangement wasn’t what Silver thought. And so… here we are.”

Wendy backed up toward the door. “I don’t want anything to do with this!”

“You’re in it!” Sheila said. “Don’t you get it, stupid girl? If we hadn’t put this monster in the chair for you… he’d put you here! And no one would’ve been able to stop him… not legally.”

Wendy turned to Herbie.

“She’s right,” he said. “If I’d refused to deal with him. He would’ve gone to the Lunatics, demanded their intervention, and requested that I turn you over to him as compensation. In their eyes, that would be reasonable.”

“So… he had me either way?”

“Yes,” Sheila said. “You were fucked the moment he walked into the bar and pushed you.”

Wendy stared at Silver. He refused to return her glance. “I can’t… I won’t… do this. It’s not in me.”

Herbie stepped toward her and pulled Wendy aside. He lowered his voice. “You don’t understand. My arrangement with the shop is very clear on this matter. Silver must die before we leave this room. No one can know about our arrangement.”

“Then… then you take care of it!” she said. “I didn’t agree to any of this!”

“Tell her the rest,” Sheila said. “She’s forgetting the obvious.”

Herbie nodded to the stripper impatiently.

“What’s she talking about?” Wendy said.

“That’s the other reason we’re here,” Herbie said. “You want to know what happened to Mark… this is how we find out.”

Wendy stared at Silver again. “No!” she whispered. “No… No… NO! I’m not doing it!”

“Of course, you are!” Sheila said. “You’re going to do whatever you need to do to this sick motherfucker
to find out what he did to the man you love!”

Wendy continued to resist.

Herbie put his hands on her shoulders. “Wendy, he has to die anyway. I don’t like it any more than you do… but he put us in this predicament when he entered my bar. Now… we have an opportunity to kill another bird with the same stone. This only needs to get as nasty as that prick makes it. Hopefully, he’s had ample time in that contraption to consider what it will mean if he doesn’t come clean.”

Wendy closed her eyes. “I can’t believe I’m hearing this.”

Herbie moved in closer and whispered, “The sooner he tells us about Mark… the sooner this ends… for everyone. Sheila will finish it… and then we’ll know… okay?”

She stared reluctantly into the bartender’s eyes.

He nodded. “Look, I get it. I know you’re not a bad person. Neither are we. This is… this is horrible, but necessary. I wouldn’t have brought you… but you need to know… you need to see it with your own eyes and know that this man is telling the truth. That’s the only way you can let your friend go.”

Wendy closed her eyes tight and nodded. “Alright,” she said. “Let’s just… let’s just get this over with and find out about Mark.”

“Agreed,” Herbie said.

They turned to Sheila.

The stripper started to laugh. “It’s about fucking time.” She stepped over to a handle attached to a ratchet mechanism near Silver’s head.

“We’re not here to enjoy this,” Herbie reminded her. “We just want this asshole to tell Wendy the truth about her friend. Got it?”

“Oh, I got it,” Sheila said. “You better fucking believe I got this!” She leaned down near Silver’s ear. “You hear that, asshole? Everyone’s on board to see you suffer… so please… PLEASE… take your time and make this difficult… I beg you. This is called a Rack. Once I start cranking this little bad boy, this thing will eventually stretch you out like a fucking rubber band until… SNAP!”

Silver shook his head in protest and tried to move again.

“Sheila!” Herbie warned.

“Just prepping the subject,” she said with a wink.

Herbie frowned, then turned to Wendy. “You ready?”

“This is wrong,” she said.

“Yeah… it is. No one’s disputing that. What matters now is how far you’re willing to go to find out what happened to Mark? You can leave right now, and we’ll take care of this dog… but you’ll always wonder what the truth is if you’re not here to see it in this monster’s eyes.”

Wendy nodded. “I want to be the one who talks to him. No one else. If I believe him… then this ends immediately.”

“You got it,” Herbie said. “That’s why we’re here.”

~~~

Later…

Nine felt like he was carrying several hundred pounds in his small backpack as he tried to keep up with the strange man wearing the filthy bathrobe and large sunglasses. Every time he shifted too fast, he felt the dynamite move within his pack, making him slow down immediately. Taven slithered down one alley into another, never making a sound, as he blended in and out of the shadows with ease.

“You okay?” Joe said from Nine’s left. “Keep sweating like that you’ll probably set off the explosives.”

“Huh… what?” Nine looked down at the girl. She was smiling. “Okay… jokes aren’t funny.”

“Depends on your perspective. You look damn funny right now,” she said.

Nine stared ahead. He momentarily lost visual of Taven at the end of another alley. “I’m starting to feel like he’s trying to lose us,” he said. “Dude gives me the creeps.”

“He seems to know where’s he’s going,” Joe said. “I’ve been all over this town and I’ve never taken this route before.”

“Taven said he knew how to get us there unseen. So far, he’s been right. I haven’t seen a single soul, have you?”

“No,” she said. “But I do recognize this part of town. It’s remote, bordering several haunted places just north of here.”

“Wonderful,” Nine said. “Think Smelly Yoda lives out this way?”

“Smelly who?”

“Oh, come on!” Nine said. “Tell me you’ve seen at least one Star Wars movie?”

“No,” she said. “Was never into that sci-fi crap.”

Nine shook his head in disbelief. “If I have to waste one more pop-culture reference on you… I’m going to scream.”

“Like a little girl, I bet.”

“Where the hell is that-”

“Right here,” Taven said, stepping out away from the side of a shadowed structure.

Both Nine and Joe jumped and spun around.

“Shit! Don’t do that!” Nine said.

Taven’s wide grin could be seen through the mass of mangled hair on his face. He stared down at Joe long enough to make her squirm, then pointed down another alley they’d just passed. “This way. We’re almost there,” he said in his ultra-creepy pleasant voice. He stepped ahead of them and started down the alley.

Nine and Joe deliberately waited long enough to create some distance.

Joe leaned in and said, “Does the Yoda reference have something to do with his freakish hearing, because I think he heard you?”

“No,” Nine said. “But I’m adding it on due to the fact that Yoda has some big-ass ears.”

Joe stared at the strange man’s back. “He keeps looking at me like I’m some snack he’s looking forward to.”

Nine laughed. “Well… it is New Cleveland. I’m sure there’s places here where they serve up extra-crispy fried children on a regular basis.”

“Not funny,” she said.

“I’m not the one who’s hungry, Menu Item.”

“Still not funny.”

Taven stopped at the end of the new alley and turned around. He crossed his arms over his chest beneath the robe. “This is as far as I go,” he said.

Nine and Joe stepped up and stared across the back of a grassy field leading up a hill to an old tall rusted structure.

“This wasn’t built when New Cleveland went up. This looks old as shit,” Nine said.

“It’s the old Harbor Theater,” Joe said, dropping her voice to a whisper. “They used to put on animal shows or something in there. No one comes here… ever.”

“This is the part where you tell me it’s haunted, right?” Nine said.

“Worse than that,” she said. “Story goes, when Candyman’s crews were first inspecting the park, they came to the theater and found a whole lot of the dead roaming around in there. Something bad happened to them. A lot of them freaks looked like they’d been mauled on a while.” Joe just stared at the structure, her face going pale.

“And?” Nine pushed. “That’s it?”

“Sorry,” she said. “Well, one story goes… a group of early survivors chose this place to hide out. Some were already infected. They’d barricaded the theater doors so well, that no once considered what would happen if they needed to get back outside. In the beginning, no one understood how the infection worked so…”

“So… the infected turned and attacked everyone else?” Nine said.

“Something like that,” Joe said. “Another version of the story is much stranger than that. Candyman’s men didn’t find a bunch of zombies roaming around in there, trapped because they couldn’t get out. They were all dead—mauled to pieces like a bunch of wild animals had gotten inside and tore everyone up.”

“That’s a nice story,” Nine said with a frown.

“Yeah. It was never explained to anyone’s satisfaction. They never found any animals or anything. Just all the bodies. I’ve heard that if you get too close to the theater at night, you can hear the growls of the animals that somehow got away—infected animals.”

“No one’s seen any animals in a long damn time,” Nine said. “That’s just a bullshit story, like all stories that are based loosely on truth. They get exaggerated over time.”

“Not all stories,” Taven chimed in. “Some stories stand the test of time, serving as warnings to the living. The wiseman will listen to such stories, treat them like signposts alerting to dangers, then choose to go another way.”

“That’s not helping,” Nine said.

Joe stared at Taven. She couldn’t stop fidgeting.

Taven glanced at the girl and smiled. “It’s alright, little girl. I, too, have heard this story. Fortunately, we are not entering the mouth of the theater. We only need to touch this monster’s outer skin, while it sleeps, place our explosives, and then depart… very quietly.” He added a wink.

Joe turned, giving Nine a wide-eyed look, then stepped away from the creepy man.

Nine glared at him. “Wow, I bet you’re a real hit on Halloween. Stop scaring the girl, alright?”

Taven laughed and nodded. “My apologies,” he said. “Shall we proceed?”

Nine nodded.

Taven pointed toward the base of the hill. “Just beyond the grass is an old runoff ditch. There’s a large tube you can use to cross it undetected. Then, just climb up the hill until you reach the back of the theater. Place your explosives, then return the same way. There won’t be any Lunatics patrolling the perimeter… not tonight… so, you should be fine.”

Nine nodded, staring toward the hill. “Looks like we’ll have just enough cord for the detonater. This should run from the theater to the other end of this alley.”

“That was the intent,” Taven said.

Nine turned toward Joe. “You ready?”

She nodded and took a deep breath. “Yeah. Can we hurry this up? Just being this close to this place is making my skin crawl.”

Nine put a hand on her shoulder. “We’ve got this. Cross the ditch, climb the hill… and we’re done. Okay?”

She nodded.

Nine turned to Taven. “So, this is some warehouse now?”

Taven nodded. “Yes. The Lunatics store merchandise here, anything they’ve acquired on patrols outside the town. It may not look like a storage facility, but appearances are deceiving.”

“I’m sure it helps that they’ve got folks sufficiently freaked out about this place. Makes it much easier to protect. How the hell did you find out about it?”

Taven smiled. “I know a great many things about this town… and the towns beyond it.” He would volunteer nothing else. “We should finish this. Your friends will be waiting for our signal.”

Nine nodded and started to turn.

“One more thing,” Taven said, stepping closer to Nine.

Nine was immediately unnerved as the robed man moved within three feet of him. To Nine, he smelled… wrong.

Taven made sure Joe was out of earshot. “Should either of you hear anything near the surface of that place… and I mean anything… take heed what I said about some stories and get away from the theater as fast you can.”

Nine wanted to inquire further but Taven turned away, drifting into the shadows of the alley.

Joe came over. “What’s the matter?”

Nine stared after the strange man, then shook his head. “Nothing. Let’s just get this done. I’m starting to get the creeps about this place, too.”

Nine and Joe moved quickly through field, used the tube to cross the ravine, then scaled the grassy hill until reaching the old structure’s south wall.

Nine knelt behind the rusted aluminum siding running all the way up the wall. In many spots, it looked like the aluminum was partially ripped away from the structure as it shifted and creaked in the wind, making the theater seem alive and aware of their trespass. Nine removed the dynamite bundle from his pack, then wiped sweat off his brow.

Joe paced nervously, her head spinning on a swivel as she watched both corners of the building for movement. She would never admit it, but she was searching for signs of wild animals, including tracks on the ground. No one had seen any animals since The Change, another great mystery, but that didn’t stop Joe from expecting some hideous infected beasts to attack them at any moment.

“Stop pacing,” Nine whispered. He was focused on attaching the detonator wire to the bundle. “You’re making me nervous.”

“I’m going to peek around a corner,” she said. “Just in case that creepy guy was wrong about the Lunatic patrols.”

“Hurry back,” Nine said. “This place is freaking me out.”

“Me, too,” she said. “Just a peek. I’ll be right back.” Joe started for the corner connecting with the western side of the theater. She stayed low, cleaving to the south side wall. She heard a new sound from directly ahead, partially muffled by the wind. It sounded like it was coming from the ground. As she got closer, the sound stopped. Joe located a small breach at the base of the south wall. She crouched down to inspect it. The hole in the wall was just big enough for her to crawl through on her stomach. She could see nothing within the hole, but it appeared to go all the way through, penetrating the dark theater.

Don’t even think about going in there! she cautioned herself. Instead, her curiosity led her to lean in close to the breach, turning her right ear toward the gap to listen.

Nothing.

A hand grabbed her left shoulder.

Joe spun around and gasped. It was Nine.

“Sorry,” he said, crouching beside the girl. “What is that?”

She shrugged her shoulders. “A way inside… maybe. It’s too dark to see anything. Thought I heard some-”

Joe was cut off by the sound of overlapping low moans escaping the hole as the wind settled down.

Both the girl and Nine scurried back from the gap, sharing a terrified glance.

Nine grabbed the girl’s arm and pulled her away from the breach. “Time to go,” he said. “Explosives are set.”

“But… what…what was… you heard that, right?” Joe stammered.

“I don’t even want to think about it… not up here,” Nine said. “Let’s start unravelling the wire and get back down before whatever we woke up comes out of that damn hole.”

Joe started to cry.

“Sorry,” Nine said. “I didn’t mean that. I’m sure it’s nothing.”

They reached the spot along the wall where Nine placed the explosives, then started back down the hill before Nothing had a chance to hunt them.

~~~

Chapter 52 continues on Friday…

Previous Episode 51-6

~~~

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“Chapter 52-1: Sodom” 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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~~~

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.

~~~

The conclusion of Chapter 51 will be out on Friday.

If you’ve been reading Don’t Feed The Dark online and want to help support the cause, the best thing you could do to show your appreciation and let me know you’ve been enjoying this series is to help spread the word so that more readers find out about this long, dark apocalyptic series.

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Thanks again for all your support and for reading.

-Scott

~~~

~~~

“…And even an enemy can become a friend in this place, when the darkness has pushed too far…”

~~~

In the southeast corner of New Cleveland, directly behind the central business hub of town, a long stretch of land covering several blocks was where the murder shops were set up. Once the location of one of Geauga Lake’s youngest rollercoasters, The Villain, it had long since been torn down leaving only erratic rows of concrete slabs with iron stanchions protruding from them like ancient teeth. This once made up the foundation of the large coaster. Over time the area had grown into a huge landfill/scrapyard where most of the larger pieces of debris from the early demolition days of the park had been deposited, leaving several deep pits surrounded by rusted metallic jungles. New Cleveland had since converted the concrete foundation into an odd spiked roadway that ran through the middle of a massive junkyard. This jungle went as deep into the ground as the heaps were tall, creating manmade cave-like structures of twisted metal, broken concrete, dirt, stone and whatever else had been relocated and abandoned by large bulldozers and cranes. Within the pockets of this jungle, structures had been built to accommodate the ‘death dealers’, as they were called, who dealt heavily in the human trafficking markets of New Cleveland, providing a variety of despicable means to torture and murder human beings for profit.

What was most surprising, after the first murder shop had been established, was how popular it had become in such a short period, causing the need for several more shops to be erected to accommodate the demand for… death.

What made this location perfect for the shops was that they were discreet for those who wanted to keep their murderous fetishes to themselves; they were hard to reach and easy to protect, discouraging the curious from wandering where they did not belong; but most of all, the metallic caverns provided a unique sound barrier which kept the screams coming from within the shops contained to this area.

Candyman’s had sent Lunatics to patrol and monitor the entrances into this district but he never let his people enter. Upon request, He let the owners of the shops police their own businesses within, and they did so with grim efficiency. All anyone had to do was read one of several red spray-painted signs posted around the outside of this jungle to understand what was at stake for wandering into the area:

ENTRANCE BY APPOINTMENT ONLY.
TRESSPASERS WILL NOT BE TOLERATED.
WE ARE PROTECTED UNDER NEW CLEVELAND LAW
TO DO AS WE DEEM APPROPRIATE TO ANYONE
FOUND ON THESE GROUNDS WITHOUT PERMISSION.
ANYONE VIOLATING OUR RULES WITHIN, THE SAME APPLIES.

The unspoken penalty for violations was easily implied. No one entered the murder shops without an appointment. And if anyone did, they were never heard from again.

It was an hour after sunset. The former nightclub owner led Wendy toward the eastern entrance into the metal jungle.

Wendy had never felt more alone and terrified since arriving in New Cleveland then when she got her first glimpse at the mammoth-sized metallic archway leading into what looked like a junkyard dome.

Torches were lit each evening surrounding the entire perimeter, serving as a final deterrent to stay clear of the murder shops. The torches lit up sharp jagged spires and rusted pipes against the backdrop of the night, casting elongated shadows everywhere along the ground, transforming metal into dark irregular shapes and formations that almost resembled strange trees. The torches themselves finished the illusion of a deserted tropical island, with some sacred voodoo ritual being performed by the island’s inhabitants, deep within the jungle.

Two massive torches were lit on both sides of the open archway entrance. Two large men wearing black suits and black masks stood at both sides of the entrance, hands resting in front of them, and holding long swords pointed toward the ground.

Wendy looked up at Herbie with concern as they approached.

“Don’t worry, girl,” the sweaty bartender said. “They won’t harm us. We’ve got an appointment.”

“Why are they wearing masks?” she said.

“Everyone wears masks. Once we get inside, they’ll issue us masks, too.”

“But… why?”

Herbie frowned at her. “To protect everyone’s identity,” he said. “Last thing someone wants to do in a place like this is run into someone they know. It’s kind of hard to look anyone in the eye after participating in the things that are done in here.”

Wendy nodded. “And… the torches?”

“There’s no power on the outskirts of the shops. But within the structures, there’s generators to run whatever tools anyone needs. But no artificial lights… at all. Most people who come here prefer it this way.”

“You mean, they prefer to stay in the shadows, behind their masks to make what they’re about to do… easier,” she said with contempt.

Herbie nodded. “You’re catching on.” He looked toward the entrance. “Here we go,” he whispered. “Just be quiet and follow my lead,” he said.

Wendy gave the bartender a last look, catching his terrified face in the torchlight.

What the hell are we getting into? she thought.

One of the two masked swordsman turned to stand in front of Herbie.

The sweaty bartender raised his shaky hand and started to fumble through his pockets. “Just a second,” he said. “I have it… right… here.” He finally raised a gold token and handed it to the man.

The masked man examined the coin, then handed it back to Herbie. “Appointment?” he said, in an emotionless voice.

Herbie nodded. “Ah… yeah… I have an appointment.”

The swordsman waited.

“Shit, that’s right,” Herbie said, struggling to remember something. “Um… ‘Pasadena went to hell, long before it started to smell’.”

Wendy gave Herbie a strange glance.

He ignored her, smiling back and forth between the two swordsmen. He was sweating more than usual.

Finally, the masked man moved back into position, allowing them to pass. Neither swordsmen said another word.

Herbie grabbed Wendy’s arm. “Okay,” he said. “Let’s go.”

Once through the archway, Wendy whispered, “What was that shit about California?”

“That was our appointment passphrase,” he said.

Another man in a suit, though not as intimidating or carrying a sword, approached them with his hands behind his back. He, too, was wearing a black mask. “Good evening,” the man said in a practiced voice. “I am called Arthur. I will be your host this evening. Anything you need, you come to me, and only me. I will always be standing outside your private room door, or within earshot until my services are required. Call out to me by name and I will hear you. Understood?”

Herbie nodded. “Understood.”

Arthur gave them both a long look then brought his hands to the front. He was carrying two black masks. “From this point on, you are to wear these at all times outside of your private room. Understood?”

“Got it,” Herbie said. He took both masks and handed one to Wendy.

While they were putting the masks on, Arthur continued. “You may remove the masks in your private room, if you so desire, or keep them on… but never remove them outside your room, or any other room marked ‘public’. Understood.”

“Understood,” Herbie said. He looked over at Wendy wearing his mask.

Wendy hesitated before putting hers on, staring up at Herbie in his dark disguise. I already hate this, she thought. I can’t even see the fear in his face anymore… just that hideous mask.

“A-hem,” Arthur said, making a clearing-of-the-throat sound.

“Oh, shit,” Wendy said, quickly putting on her disguise. “Sorry.”

Once her mask was on, Arthur pointed his arm off toward the left. “Follow me, please. I will escort you to your appointed murder shop.”

They followed Albert through the dark metallic jungle. There were more torches lit about every five to ten feet. All around them, other guests wearing masks were accompanied by their suited escorts. Wendy exchanged veiled glances at the other guests in passing while Herbie tried to ignore them. Wendy nodded once at a woman in a black mask who abruptly looked away as if acting like she’d been recognized.

“Please don’t acknowledge the other guests,” Arthur advised, never turning around.

“Sorry,” she said.

Herbie looked at her and shook his head. Visible or not, she could feel his impatient glare.

They could hear their appointed murder shop long before approaching what looked like two tornado doors covering a shelter in the ground.

Wendy nearly turned around and bolted when she heard a man’s scream pierce the night. It was coming from those doors.

Herbie put a reassuring hand on her shoulder, causing her to jump. “It’s okay,” he whispered. “Expect a lot of that,” he told her. “You okay?”

Wendy felt sick to her stomach. She nodded, grateful that the mask was hiding her pale face. “Let’s… let’s get on with it.”

Arthur stopped them at the storm doors, then turned around placing his hands behind his back. “Again,” he advised, “do not remove your masks until we’ve reached your private room. If for any reason you need to leave the murder shop, I must accompany you back outside. At no time is any guest authorized anywhere without their escort. Understood?”

They both nodded.

“Any questions for me?” Arthur said.

“What’s the difference between a private room and a public one?” Wendy said, earning her another look from Herbie.

“No one is authorized to enter or observe anything that happens within a private setting. All other rooms are open for viewing, or, participating, should the need arise. Understood?”

Wendy had no idea what to make of that. She simply nodded.

“Any further questions?”

“No,” Herbie said. “We’re good.”

Arthur nodded. He turned to open the storm doors, then stopped. He looked over at Wendy.

She was visibly shaking.

Arthur turned back toward the doors and opened them, revealing a wooden ramp that went below the ground. Once the doors were completely open, they could hear moans and groans, screams and shouts, people begging and pleading for their lives… all mercifully interrupted by the louder sounds of various machines and power tools.”

Wendy felt faint.

Herbie was there to keep her from passing out. “Take a breath,” he whispered. “I told you this would be bad.”

Arthur approached them. He put his hands out in front, palms up, revealing ear plugs. “Here,” he said. “This will help with the… noise.”

Wendy snatched the earplugs up and said, “Thank… thank you.” She quickly put the yellow foam plugs in her ears.

Herbie inserted his plugs in loosely, just enough to muffle the sounds from below. “Not too much,” he advised her. “We still need to hear each other.”

Wendy nodded, readjusting her plugs to hear Herbie.

“Very good,” Arthur said. “Follow me down into the shop. Be mindful of your head going down the ramp.”

Arthur disappeared down the ramp.

Herbie and Wendy reluctantly followed.

The ramp took them down one floor, just below ground level, and into a dimly lit long hallway.

Wendy could barely move as she stared straight down the hellish hall lit by wall-mounted torches. Once below ground, every horrific sound of unimaginable torture was amplified. She readjusted her earplugs to dampen out would she could. She could even hear what sounded like a chainsaw from farther down the hall. On both sides of the wide hallway were doorways. A chair sat in front of each door, turned to face what looked like peepholes in the doors. Many of the chairs were occupied by faceless observers, wearing their dark masks, and staring into the rooms.

Arthur came back. He spoke louder to be heard over the noise. “These are the public rooms. I believe they are self-explanatory. As I’ve said before, please don’t disturb the other guests. Your room is at the far end of the hall, in the private wing of the facility. Follow me.”

Arthur led them down the hall, between the public rooms where many suited escorts stood near the doorways, but out of the way until needed.

Wendy refused to make eye-contact with the few depraved men and women who sat in chairs, lifting their heads from the peepholes long enough to look in her direction. Most ignored them, gazing into the rooms where people were being brutalized as if they were unable to look away once the torture began.

These aren’t human beings anymore, Wendy thought with disgust. I’m glad I can’t see their faces… their horribly sickened faces… fucking monsters!

As Herbie and Wendy continued after Arthur toward the private wing, Wendy was bothered by Herbie’s silence. “You haven’t said a word since we got down here,” she said. “And why are we getting a private room? How does that help us find out what happened to Mark?”

Herbie hesitated, then said, “Trust me. It’ll all make sense when we get there. You wanted to know what happened to Mark… this is how we find out.”

She didn’t understand his strange response but left it alone. Wendy just wanted to keep moving and get out of this despicable place as soon as possible.

Arthur turned a corner, leading them into another hall, this one much narrower. There were more doors along the walls, but no chairs with peepholes.

“We’re just about there,” Herbie said. “I need you to brace yourself for what you’re about to see.”

Wendy looked up at the masked bartender. “What am I about to see?”

Herbie said nothing. He stared after Arthur.

Their host finally stopped them in front of a door on the left. He turned around and said, “Here is your room. I will be out here when you need me.” He looked right at Herbie and finished, “Your second guest arrived an hour ago. The mechanism you requested is in the room. Will there be anything else you require?”

Wendy stared up at Herbie. “Second guest? What the hell is he talking about?”

Herbie ignored her. “No, we’re good,” he told their host. “We have everything we need.”

“Very well,” Arthur said. He moved back from the door and nodded, before turning away and walking a short distance down the dim hall.

Herbie took a deep breath, then reached for the doorknob.

“Wait!” Wendy said. “Explain yourself, Herbie! What’s going on?”

“You’ll see for yourself,” he said.

“No! You tell me now!”

Herbie was about to remove the annoying mask, then stopped himself. “Just… get inside the damn room! You want answers… well… you’re about to get them… and then some.”

Wendy wanted to protest further, but Herbie turned his back to her and opened the door. “Come on,” he said.

There was nothing left to do but follow him into the private murder room.

She closed her eyes and prayed, Dear God, I don’t want to be here… I don’t want to see what’s in this room! Please… give me strength!

Wendy entered the room and Herbie quickly closed the door.

She opened her eyes and gasped. Wendy ripped off her mask and tossed it to the floor. Her eyes went wide as the shock and confusion immediately set in.

“What… what the hell is this?” she said with alarm.

~~~

“…But in the end, it’s those friends who have been there with us, through hell and back, that have become our new family, thicker than the blood of old. It’s they who keep us from falling over the edge deep within ourselves and into the darkness. It’s these friends, tried and true, who continue to give us a reason to keep fighting for as long as we can still draw breath…”

~~~

A gusting wind brushed against the night parting the tall grass to the west of Splash Landing, revealing two shadowed figures hunched down in the weeds. To the wayward traveler wandering too close to this haunted nook of New Cleveland, a couple of late-night ghosts lingering in the corner of one’s eye is all anyone might admit to observing two hours before dawn, but only mentioned once back in the temporal safety of daylight.

One phantom, sitting directly across from the other, reached over and continued to apply white face paint to the much larger fade.

“How much longer?” Tony said impatiently. “This shit is itchy.”

Diane frowned in the ambient light. “Almost there. Just need to throw a little black up around your eyes and mouth.”

Tony stared into the hunter’s painted face, posing as a Lunatic, and smiled. “Do I look as ridiculous as you do?”

“No. I look awesome. You, however, just look like Bozo the Deranged Fucking Clown.”

Tony snickered. “This was a good idea. Hopefully it helps us get close enough before-”

“Yeah,” she quickly interrupted, trying to keep her hand steady. “That was the idea.”

Tony continued to stare into his friend’s exhausted and worried face. “He’ll be alright. Taven assured me no one would spot them.”

Nine, the young girl who he’d introduced as Joe, and Tony’s strange contact with the dark sunglasses, had departed an hour ago with enough dynamite to light up the night. They were on their way to rig the explosives on one of Candyman’s large storehouses—the prearranged distraction. Afterwards, if all went according to plan and the ambush was successful, Nine and Joe would meet them back here, grab Wendy, and possibly Sergeant Hash and Diane’s friend, Nadia. Together they’d meet up with Tony and Diane at the trucks full of Orosco’s people and whoever else, and then drive the hell out of New Cleveland.

“That all sounds great… if you trust that creepy-crawly guy. Where did you find this Taven again?”

“He found me,” Tony said, shifting uncomfortably. “Don’t worry about him. He’ll do his part. That much I trust.”

“And he’s just going to disappear into the night after everything goes ‘boom’?” Diane said.

Tony frowned. “I don’t care what he does or where he goes. As long as we’re done with this fucking place after tonight, Taven can go find someone else to help him with his shady plans.”

“Shady is right,” Diane said. She stopped applying the face paint for a moment, then said, “You know who he reminds me of… don’t you?”

“What’s that?”

“Remember that freak, Walter?”

Tony quickly changed the subject. “We should just stay focused on our part. Let me worry about Taven, okay?”

Diane gave him a questionable look, then nodded.

“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you at the meeting… about Nine and the explosives. I didn’t want you distracted.”

“I get it,” she said. “I just hope that idiot doesn’t blow everybody up on the way.”

Tony laughed.

“I’m more concerned about the others. Wendy’s late as hell. Shouldn’t she be here by now?”

“Yeah,” Tony said. “I’m worried, too. But we still got another hour before shit starts. We’re just going to have to trust that she’ll make it by then. There’s no going back now.”

“And if she doesn’t make it… what then?”

Tony shook his head. “She’ll be here. She has to be.” That was all he would say on the matter. “What about your friend on the inside? Nadia?”

Diane looked away and nodded. “Yeah… she’s a friend. You don’t have to worry about that.”

“How much did you tell her… you know… about the plan?”

Diane gave him a cross look. “She’s knows enough. I couldn’t keep it from her. She’s risking a lot trying to locate Hash and get him here.”

Tony nodded. “Fair enough.”

“She told me that if she can’t get to him, or if something goes wrong, not to wait for them. Said if she didn’t make it that she was already fucked and that we should get the hell out of here before Candyman makes her talk… and she eventually will.” Diane looked around the old children’s water park and sighed. “It bothers me that she isn’t here already.”

“Do you believe she’s in trouble?” Tony said.

“I don’t know. All I know is that she’s saved my ass already and I owe her big time. If she has been caught, it’s probably better this way. I’d rather not know.”

Tony put a big hand on her shoulder. “We’re taking big risks now… at big costs. Anything could go wrong. That’s why we must do our part, Diane. We can’t afford to fail on our end.”

She looked at the big man. To her, Tony had changed a lot, they all had. He was much more calculating now. Before New Cleveland, Tony would’ve never considered leaving anyone behind. But he’d seen his share of death in the fight pits and had to perform unspeakable acts to stay alive, and by doing so, getting them all to this moment where they had a chance to escape.

“What is it?” he said, noticing her long stare.

“Nothing,” she lied.

“Come on, out with it.”

“I’m just wondering how much more we might lose tonight… you know… the kind of loss that keeps us up at night.”

Tony sighed. “When we get out of here, I know we’ll all have some healing to do. This place—everything that it represents and what it’s made us all do to survive—will take time to recover from… but we will.”

“And what is New Cleveland going to make us do at the trucks, Tony?”

Tony picked up a crowbar from Taven’s weapon stash. He gave Diane a hard look and finished, “We’re going to kill whoever stands in our way, Diane… for our friends… our family. Can you do that?”

The hunter picked up a crossbow she’d pre-loaded. She’d get one shot with it before having to resort to blunt weapons. She locked eyes with Tony, and answered, “Yes. I’m going to kill every one of those fuckers at the trucks. Not because I want to… but because I have to.”

Tony nodded. He turned and started going through their inventory of weapons again. “It’s okay, you know,” he told her.

“What is?”

“It’s okay… to ‘want’ to kill them. I know I do.”

Diane stared at the big man’s back for a long time.

~~~

Next Episode 51-6

Previous Episode 51-4

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 51-5: 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.

~~~

“…But sometimes, we discover friendship in the strangest situations…”

~~~

“You look a little flush,” Nadia said, as Diane entered her trailer, a little winded, and sat down. The tall blond sat beside her. “You weren’t gone very long. Tell me the jacket wasn’t a prelude to Nine breaking up with you.” She shook her head. “Men like to do stupid shit like that. They think a kind gesture, or a gift softens the blow and makes them look better for being the bad guys.”

“No,” Diane said. “Nothing like that.” She gave Nadia a probing glance.

“What?” she said. “Why are staring at me like that?”

“No more bullshit,” she started. “You know more than you pretend to know. Like Nine, for example. You knew before I told you, that we were together. You must have known. Just like you probably know a lot about me and my friends. And yet, you just sat there when I showed you the jacket, acting like it was big surprise who it come from.”

Nadia looked stunned. She gave Diane an equaling probing glance. “What brought this on? I thought we were friends before you left this trailer a short while ago. Now… now you’re acting like I did something wrong?”

Diane shook her head. “I’m just… well… I’m just short on time. In a few hours from now, everything’s going to change, and I need to know that I can really trust you.”

Nadia rose and crossed her arms in front of her chest. “I see,” she said. “You think I’m working for ‘the man’ and pumping you for information, that it?”

“I don’t know,” Diane answered honestly. “I don’t want to believe that, but you are sleeping with the leader of this place.”

“Fuck you, Diane.” Nadia turned and started to pace. “If I haven’t earned your trust by now, especially after last night, then I probably never will.”

“You do know more. I know you do.”

“Yeah, maybe I do,” Nadia spat. “You don’t sleep with the leader of New Cleveland and not hear things. But that doesn’t mean I don’t care about you, or what happens to your friends. In fact, I went out of my way to avoid talking to you about them just so you wouldn’t stare at me like you’re doing now! So, I played stupid about the details. So what? That doesn’t make me any less your friend. Maybe I just wanted you to tell me what you felt comfortable telling me. That way, you never had to question my loyalty.”

“I want to believe that,” Diane said with a heavy sigh.

“But you don’t want to risk your friend’s lives on it,” Nadia finished.

Diane nodded.

Nadia started to calm down. “That’s fair. You’re still a bitch for confronting me like this, but I do understand.” She sat back down. “You’re not the only one taking risks here, you know. I’ve made myself vulnerable opening up to you, too.”

“I know you have,” Diane said. “That’s why I’m doing this now.”

“You mean interrogating me?”

“Call it what you want,” Diane said. “But I have to know what this is between us.”

Nadia leaned back and laughed. “What you lack in social graces you certainly make up for in your no-bullshit attitude. But it still hurts to have a friend question your motives.”

“I know.” Diane looked away.

“Go ahead, then. Ask me what you must. I can’t guarantee I’ll satisfy your suspicions.”

“How much do you know about me and my friends?” Diane pushed.

Nadia sighed. “I know you’ve all been meeting out in the open, as often as you can… just like today. Candyman knows that, too. He’s not stupid… and he certainly doesn’t need me to tell him with the number of eyes he has on you and your friends. I also know that you deliberately kept that from me, when you shared some of that note you found in your jacket.”

Diane stared.

“Come on,” Nadia said, disbelievingly. “It was written all over your face. As soon as you started reading it, you couldn’t wait to put that letter away, acting like I might dare ask you more about it. So, I didn’t. But I knew what it was then, and I still helped you.”

“Yes, you did,” Diane admitted. “But I know how clever you are, too.”

“That’s right, you do,” Nadia added sarcastically. “That’s why as soon as you left, I sent my escorts to follow you to your little lunch meeting, so they could listen in like flies on the wall.”

Diane raised her eyebrows. “Now who’s being the bitch?”

“Well, you got that one right,” Nadia said. “Guilty as charged.”

Diane smiled. “What else do you know?”

“Does it matter?”

“Maybe.”

Nadia shook her head. “Okay. I know about your map beneath the mattress and how every time you go out, you scout the area, looking for every possible avenue to escape New Cleveland.”

Diane said nothing.

“It’s sitting right next to that home-made knife of yours. You know, the one you’ve considered smuggling into Candyman’s trailer some night, hoping to get a chance at slitting his throat.”

Diane tensed up.

Nadia laughed. “Oh, come on! Seriously? As soon as you left me here, first thing I did was snoop around your place to find out what I could about you. The mattress is the first place anyone would look to find something hidden.”

“Why would you do that?”

She stared at her like she was the biggest idiot. “Because, like you, I also have trust issues!” She averted her eyes. “And… I may have revealed too much about how I feel concerning you… at least… to myself.”

Diane felt blindsided. “You mean…”

“Yeah, you harsh bitch! Are you happy now? Do I need to spell it out for you?”

The hunter didn’t know what to say. “I… I didn’t suspect that. I mean… you and I being women…”

“Oh, just shut up!” Nadia hissed. “You’re just making an awkward situation much worse. I knew you didn’t feel the same about me. I knew you had a ‘man’. But that didn’t change the way I felt.”

“Tell me what to say?”

Nadia laughed. “Damn… you sound just like a man.”

Diane laughed.

“Don’t flatter yourself,” Nadia chimed in. “That wouldn’t necessarily make you the ‘alpha male’ in our hypothetical relationship.”

This made Diane shift uncomfortably.

“That was joke.”

“Okay.”

Nadia sighed. “So… there you go. My big embarrassing secret’s out. Although, honestly, the signs were all there, girlfriend.”

“I guess… I guess I’m out of practice?” Diane gave her a puzzled face.

This made Nadia crack up. She covered her mouth to keep from being too loud.

Diane smiled, feeling a little more at ease.

Nadia calmed down. “You wanted to know my motives… my agenda? That’s it.”

“But you know we can’t… I mean… I can’t-”

“No shit,” Nadia interrupted. “We’ve covered that already. All I’m saying is that my feelings for you are… genuine. Everything else I’ve done, revealed or kept to myself, has just been my failed attempts to get you to… care about me, too.”

“I believe you,” Diane said. After an uncomfortably uneasy and equaling confusing few moments, she added, “I do care about you… just not in that way.

Nadia smiled. “So, I guess a little light petting is out of the question?”

Diane rolled her eyes. “Stop.”

“Although I wouldn’t object to some hard-core girl-on-girl tongue action below the waist.”

Diane gave her a disbelieving look, her face turning three-shades of red. “Please… quit it!”

Nadia had to cover her mouth again as she fell back and rolled on her side of the bed and laughed.

Diane immediately moved over as far as she could without falling off the edge. “This was not the conversation I expected… at all.”

This just made Nadia laugh harder.

Diane stood up and glared at her.

“Sorry,” Nadia said, sitting up and finally calming down. “I couldn’t help it.”

“Okay.” Diane took a deep breath. “Now that we’ve… I don’t know what you want to call it… established our feelings for one another, I’ve made a decision.”

Nadia looked excited. “About the light petting or the carpet munching?”

Diane closed her eyes. God, please kill me now.

“My bad,” Nadia said, barely keeping herself from losing it again. She raised her hand. “I mean it this time. I’ll behave… unless you want me to be… bad.”

The hunter glared at her.

Nadia said no more. But her coy eyes spoke volumes.

Diane attempted to move on. “I’m going to trust you.”

Nadia’s face turned from playful to mildly disappointed. “Okay. What does that mean now?”

Diane gave her a long, hard look before continuing. “It means that me and my friends are about to do something very dangerous tonight… and I’m going to need your help.”

The tall blond got serious. She sat straight up and said, “What do you mean by ‘dangerous’?”

“We’re getting out of here, Nadia. And if you care about me like you say you do, then you’ll help me.”

“When you say ‘we’… you mean-”

“All of us,” Diane corrected. “You and me… and my friends.”

“Out there?” she said. “I can’t do that!”

“Why not?”

Nadia shook her head at her. “Look at me! Do I look like someone who’d last five minutes on the outside?”

Diane smiled and said with complete confidence, “Yes. You do.”

Nadia was beaming.

“In fact,” the hunter continued, “I believe you’d do better than most outside these walls. There’s a strength in you to do whatever you had to do in here to survive… and I’m telling you… you can survive out there, too.”

“With you, and your friends?”

“Yes.”

Nadia stared at her and sighed. She smiled and said, “My God, you just make it hard for me to say ‘no’.”

“Will you help us, then?”

Nadia looked down into her lap, then back up at the hunter. “What do you need me to do?”

“Like I said, it’s going to be dangerous.”

“I don’t care about that,” Nadia dismissed. “It’s always dangerous in here. Just tell me… how can I help?”

“I’ll need two things.”

“Name it,” the tall blond said, rising to her feet.

“First, I need you to find someone for me. One of my friends.”

Nadia nodded. “You’re mean the sergeant?”

“Yes.”

“I know where he is.”

Diane’s eyes lit up. “Can we get to him?”

“No,” Nadia said. “We can’t. But I can.” She stepped forward. “Let me get him out for you. Then you’ll know I meant everything I said.”

Diane hesitated. Finally, she said, “Okay. But you need to be careful. I… I don’t want you to get hurt.”

Nadia smiled. “You’re getting better at this.”

“At what?”

“Being the man?”

“Stop it.”

“Sorry. What else do you need?”

Diane smiled. “A make-up case, preferably with a lot of white face paint.”

Nadia gave her a puzzled look. “O-kay. That one’s easy. I can have that to you in an hour. How about you ‘paint’ the rest of this strange picture for me and tell me what the hell’s about to happen?”

“Sit down,” Diane said. “This will take a few minutes.”

“I’m getting excited again,” Nadia teased.

“I didn’t mean that!” Diane said.

~~~

“…Other times, we meet friends who bring out something in ourselves we never knew was there…”

~~~

“Where the hell have you been?”

Joe ran a hand through a lock of blue hair, throwing it back away from her defiant eyes. “Sorry, Dad, I didn’t know I had to have your approval for my every action.”

Nine briefly considered grabbing the punk girl by the back of her hair and dragging her back to the pavilion. “I told you to come right back here. If Asshole Mike had seen you-”

“I know, I know. I was careful. I took the long way back around,” she said. The girl kept playing with the collar of her new mercenary jacket. “It’s a little big for me,” she said, regarding the green coat, “but I like it. What do you think?”

“What?” Nine said, distracted and confused by the change in conversation. He scanned the area around the Black Jack tables.

“The jacket,” Joe said. “Your girlfriend gave it to me in the trade. I think I made out alright.”

Nine glared at her. “That’s all you have to say? Tell me what happened?”

“I did what you said and delivered the jacket,” she said. “Had a hard time finding her. You didn’t tell me your girlfriend was a dude.”

Again, Nine was confused. “A ‘dude’? What the hell does that mean?”

“First, I thought you forgot to tell me Diane was blond. I found the woman in the fancy dress, just like you said, but then I realized it wasn’t her.”

“Blond-haired woman? Diane’s not blond.”

“I figured that out, genius,” Joe said. “Then Diane, dressed like some dude, followed me through the crowd. I was about to run off… but then I saw her hair and realized ‘she’ was the ‘dude’.”

Nine shook his head. “Okay. So, you’re telling me Diane was dressed in some kind of disguise, and that there was a blond woman with her?”

“Man, you ask a lot of questions. Yeah. A tall woman. She was attractive-as-hell, too.”

“Okay, did Diane say anything about the tall woman after you gave her the jacket?”

“No. She just wanted me to tell you that she loved you… mushy shit like that.”

Nine nodded. “Well… I think she told us about the tall woman. It’s her friend on the inside.”

Joe sighed. “If you knew that already, then why are you asking all these pointless questions?”

“I had to make sure she wasn’t being watched,” Nine said, and then added with a glare, “And that my runner was being followed or detained afterwards. You had me worried.”

“Sorry,” she said, averting her eyes. “I had… things to do… before coming back.”

“Did you steal anything?”

“No,” she lied. “Okay… maybe a little.”

Nine shook his head at her. “Doesn’t matter now. Lots of things are happening… and I’m just glad I found you first.”

“This is about your little lunch meeting?” Joe said.

“Yeah,” Nine said.

“What’s wrong? You look… weird.”

Nine stared at the girl long enough to make her feel uncomfortable, then said, “I’ve been trying to find a way to keep you out of what’s going down tonight. But I don’t trust you to stay out of trouble… so… you’re coming with me.”

“Where are we going?”

“You and I are meeting up with my friends later tonight. I’m going to need your special skill set for what happens after.”

Joe looked intrigued. “Late night? You mean, past curfew?”

“Yep. Do you know where Splash Landing is?”

Joe’s face went pale. “Why the hell would you want to go there? That place is haunted. Everyone knows that.”

“That’s why we’re going there,” Nine said. “It’s the perfect place to have a secret meeting where no one will be watching.”

Joe shifted her feet. “Fuck that. I’m out.”

“Language,” Nine scolded.

Joe rolled her eyes.

“Anyway. We won’t be there long. We’re picking up… a package… then headed off with my friend’s contact to another place… to deliver ‘said’ package.”

Joe laughed. “You suck at this whole ‘cryptic’ speaking thing. Why don’t you just tell me what you’re talking about?”

“Not here. Too many eyes and ears.”

“Are we about to do something… dangerous?” Joe’s face lit up.

Nine laughed. “You’d like that?”

“Hell yeah! This place is boring as shit.”

Nine stared up toward the sky. “The kids today,” he told no one. “Anything for a quick thrill.”

Joe stared up. “Who you talking to?”

“Doesn’t matter,” Nine said. He smiled at her. “If it’s something dangerous and exciting you’re after, then I have just the place for you.”

“I’m down with that,” she said. “Just not that creepy haunted place.”

“How would you feel about going ‘out there’?” He nodded toward the closest wall surrounding New Cleveland.

“You serious?”

“Yeah. Me and my friends are leaving this boring-ass town. That’s what’s going down after tonight.”

A mixture of excitement and fear crossed the young girl’s face. To Nine, she had the look of someone
reliving her own haunted experience.

“What’s the matter?” he said.

“My parents… they died just outside those walls.”

“I’m sorry,” Nine said. “I didn’t know.”

She nodded. “They fought like hell to get us here. Thought this place was going to save the damn day. They were wrong.”

Nine felt for the girl. He put a hand on her shoulder. “Yeah… I’m sure lots of people came here and thought the same thing. When you’re desperate, anywhere there’s people, especially in a place like this with walls surrounding it… seems safe.”

She nodded, then lowered her head, letting her hair fall back over her face to hide fresh tears… but old ones. “I watched them die,” she said. “I was afraid. I didn’t know what to do when the monsters came. The Lunatics gunned them all down… eventually. But they came out of nowhere. My parents, they shoved me under our piece-of-shit car. I heard them scream… saw their bodies fall to the ground right next to me. My mother… my mother turned to me, even while they tore her apart, and put her finger to her mouth, telling me to stay quiet… so the monsters wouldn’t see me there.”

Nine swallowed hard. He pulled the girl close to him and knelt in front of her. He brushed Joe’s blue hair out of her face and wiped the tears of her cheek with his thumb. “You don’t have to tell me the rest. I know it hurts.”

She wouldn’t look at him. “I just remember my mother’s eyes. They were so… full of terror… she was looking right at me when she died. I saw the light go out… and then she was gone.”

“Look at me,” Nine said.

Joe raised her head and saw tears streaming down his face.

Nine opened his arms.

Joe started to sob and reach out for him.

Nine embraced her. “It’s okay now. I understand,” he whispered. “I’ve seen my friends… my family… I’ve seen them die, too. It’s not easy out there—It’s not easy anywhere anymore.”

“I want to go home,” she said through tears. “Can you take me home?”

Nine’s heart went out to her. “Damn,” he said, wiping the tears out of his own eyes. “You’re killing me, kid.”

“I hate this place,” she said. “There’s nothing here… nothing to remind me of… them.”

“I hear you,” he said. “It’s… it’s not right… this place is just not right.”

“Are the… are the monsters still out there?”

Nine didn’t know how to respond. So, he told her the truth. “Yeah. Those monsters are still out there… but they’re not everywhere. Me and my friends… we’ve learned to fight against them… together.” He paused, then added, “I want you to come with me. You can be part of my new family. I promise, they’re really great. We look out for each other.”

She nodded in his arms. “Sounds nice. You think they’ll like me?”

Nine laughed. “Oh, you’ll fit right in. Trust me.”

Joe said nothing for a while, then added, “Can you… will I be able to go home?”

“Maybe,” Nine said. “Anything’s possible once we get the hell out of here.”

“I know… I know it isn’t really ‘home’ anymore,” Joe said. “I’m not the stupid, terrified girl I used to be… like on that day. I know there won’t be anyone… I just need to see it. Maybe get a few things so I can remember my parents’ faces again.”

Nine frowned. “Yeah… maybe we can do that.” He felt the girl’s arms tighten around his shoulders.

He thought about his dead brother and his own parents. Nine struggled to remember their faces.

~~~

Next Episode 51-5

Previous Episode 51-3

~~~

If you’re enjoying Don’t Feed The Dark so far, please consider voting for it on Top Web Fiction and Top Site List by clicking the links below. This will help increase its visibility and draw in more potential readers. No registration is required. Thanks for your support and for reading :)

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 51-4: 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.

~~~

A new episode of DFTD will be out on Friday.

If you’ve been reading Don’t Feed The Dark online and want to help support the cause, the best thing you could do to show your appreciation and let me know you’ve been enjoying this series is to help spread the word so that more readers find out about this long, dark apocalyptic series.

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Anything you can do to help me get Don’t Feed The Dark to the readers is appreciated. Be sure to spread the word on all your social media sites as well.

Thanks again for all your support and for reading.

-Scott

~~~

~~~

An hour before noon, Nine was feeling anxious. The pavilion casino had been busy this morning, keeping him tied down to the tables while trying to make arrangements for Tony who had surprised him by showing up in the middle of one of his Black Jack games. To make matters worse, his new runner girl hadn’t checked back in and he still needed to work things out with Asshole Mike who seldom met with anyone during his own games.

Fortunately, he caught up with the jerk between matches as he approached the card shark sitting at one of his favorite poker tables.

“I told you not to come over here anymore,” Mike said, not bothering to turn around. “I thought I made that clear.”

Nine smiled. “Just came over to settle matters, like we talked about last night.”

Mike feigned ignorance. “What are you talking about?”

“Oh, you know, all those winnings I promised you. But hey, if you can’t be bothered about that right now, we’ll just consider our deal null and void.” Nine shrugged his shoulders and started to turn.

“Wait,” Mike said with annoyance. He finally turned around and glared at him. “I didn’t forget. I guess I should thank you that I didn’t have to track you down… and I would’ve… eventually.”

“You’re very welcome,” Nine said with a mock bow.

“I didn’t thank you yet, did I?” Mike added, with a condescending smile.

Nine shook his head and laughed. “I love our little conversations. They’re what give my worthless existence meaning… and I mean that.”

Mike laughed. “Okay, wise guy. Let’s get this over with. I’ve got a game pending.”

“I’ve talked with your… I don’t know what you want to call him… your broker?” Nine said. “And I’ve already signed over my winnings. You can verify that at your leisure.”

“Of course,” Mike said. “And since I knew that already, you didn’t have to bother me at all.”

“We’ve still have the other matter to settle.”

“What matter is that?”

Nine sighed. He’s going to make everything painfully difficult… on purpose. “The girl?” he reminded him. “You know, the one you agreed to sell me?”

“Oh… that matter,” Mike said, losing interest. He turned back to his table. “We’ll get back to that later.”

“I’d rather we work it out now,” Nine said. “Especially since she’s staying with me now.”

Mike laughed. “That’s an interesting way to talk about my property. I don’t think I like it.”

Nine was losing patience. “Just name your price, asshole. The girl’s worthless to you. All that bad-luck-as-a-runner shit and all. What do you want for her?”

Mike deliberately waited, then finally answered, “I don’t know. Maybe I like the fact that you want something I have… and can’t have it. It’s kind of amusing.”

“But there’s no profit in ‘amusing’,” Nine reminded him. “At least, not in casino terms. Come on, man, I know you’ve already thought about this. Stop proving to me how annoying you are. You win. What do you want for the girl?”

“Wow, she must really be something in the sack. I’m not into the kiddie crap myself, but to each their own.”

Nine’s face darkened. “Say that again, and we’ll go back to having a less civil conversation.”

Mike turned and saw that he’d pushed too far. He smiled and raised his hands. “Okay, tough guy. Don’t want to get you all riled up again over the runner girl. You’re right. She’s not worth it. I’ll let you have her for, say, seventy percent of your cut. And I’m not talking about your winnings to date… that’s shit’s already mine.”

Nine shook his head. “That’s ridiculous. That would essentially mean that I work for you.”

“I like the sound of that,” Mike said. “Maybe you’re not so stupid, after all.”

Nine rolled his eyes. Fuck it. Just make the damn deal. “Alright,” he said. “Seventy percent.”

“Wow, you folded faster than I thought. Maybe I don’t want someone like you working for me. How the hell did you ever win games with that give-up attitude anyway?”

“You’ve already won this stupid game,” Nine said. “So, why don’t you just stop wasting both of our time. I said I’d take the deal.”

“Eighty percent, and the girl’s yours,” Mike countered with a wicked smile.

“Go fuck yourself,” Nine said, starting to turn.

“Alright, alright, I was just messing with you,” Mike said. “Even I wouldn’t rake someone over the coals like that. I just wanted to see how much she was really worth to you.”

“Not that much,” Nine lied, already ahead of the asshole’s game. “Sixty percent.”

“I said seventy. Take it or leave it.”

“Sixty… and I never set foot near your poker tables again,” Nine said. “That’s a deal you can’t refuse.”

Mike laughed. “You know what. You’re absolutely right! I’ll take that deal.”

“Then it’s settled,” Nine said. “Sixty percent of my cut from here on out, and I’ll never have to see your smug face again.”

“We’ll finalize it tomorrow,” Mike said.

“Why tomorrow?”

“Relax. She can stay with you until then. I don’t give a shit. I’m not in the practice of making such quick deals. Sometimes it’s good to sleep on it. Hell, in your case-”

“Watch it.”

Mike laughed. “What I mean is, hasty deals are bad business. If you still feel the same about the girl in the morning, after you’ve had time to consider what you’re giving up, then I’ll gladly seal the deal. I just don’t want to hear you whining later about how I ripped you off. Think it over first. That way, we both can feel good about it. And I’ll be able to say that I allowed you plenty of time to reconsider.”

Nine shook his head. “Fine. But if you fuck me over tomorrow, I’ll make your life a living hell and come over to pester you every… damn… day. I promise you that.”

“Oh, I believe it. The deal’s sound. I won’t be changing my mind. It’s you I’m worried about. Come back tomorrow morning, for the last fucking time, and we’ll settle it.”

Nine nodded. “Okay, then. Tomorrow morning.”

Asshole Mike had already turned his back toward him as a new poker game was about to begin.

What a fucking dick, he thought, walking off. May your chair legs break, and as you fall over and crack your fat skull, I hope that poker table collapses on top of you!

~~~

Tony forced a smile for the benefit of his anxious friends sitting at the picnic table. To his right, Wendy tried to remain calm and collected, folding her hands to keep them from shaking while her legs twitched beneath the table. To the exhausted gladiator, the young woman’s eyes made her seem much older than her years, haunted by everything they all had been through since the attack on the underground compound, which felt like a hundred years ago. Nine and Diane seemed more interested in each other as they sat close across the table, stealing glances at one another like two lovers once locked in a long-distance relationship until finally making contact. Nine kept playing with Diane’s hair with his free hand while holding her left hand in his beneath the table as if it were permanent. Tony was amused by their new openness with each other, remembering the distance Diane insisted they maintain when they were out on the road. But now, they acted as if they might not see the other again in this life. Tony averted his eyes and frowned at the thought. They’ve been through so much shit, more than anyone should, he concluded. As good as it felt to be with friends, Tony couldn’t help feeling the absence of the rest of their former group: Matthew, Olivia, Mark, Hash… and even Alysa. He quickly forced the last from his thoughts.

Tony laughed lightly, making them all stare. “Sorry,” he said. “It’s just been… well… it’s good to be with friends, especially in this place.”

Wendy smiled up at him and placed a hand on the big man’s shoulder. “It’s good to see you, too, Tony.”

“How have you been?” Diane asked.

Tony smiled at her concerned face, which translated her question into ‘You look like you’ve been through hell. How are the accommodations down there?’

“I’ve been better,” he answered honestly. “But… like the rest of you… I’ve been taking it one day at a time. We’re all still here, together, that’s what counts.”

“Well, not all of us,” Wendy said, averting her eyes. She removed her hand and placed it back on the table.

“Yeah,” Tony said with a nod. “I know. I think of them, too.”

“Well, I’m still here,” Nine chimed in, attempting to lighten the mood. “We all know that’s what really matters since I’m the brains of this outfit.”

They all laughed.

Diane shot him a look and shook her head.

Nine nodded. “I know… I know… I just wanted to hear it for old time’s sake.”

“Nine?” she smiled.

“Yes, my love?”

The others all said it together. “Shut up!”

“There it is!” Nine said, smiling like an idiot. “I needed that. More than you know.”

The others laughed.

“I hate to be the kill-joy,” Tony injected, “but we haven’t got a lot of time. So, I’m just going to get to it.”

The others waited.

“We’re getting out of here tomorrow. Before dawn.” He let the gravity of his words sink in.

The others stared in shock at the big man, and then at each other.

Tony smiled. “Of course, we won’t just be walking out the front door… as much as I wish that were the case. But we are leaving.”

They waited.

“My contact has located Orosco and his people. They’re getting shipped out on a truck convoy at dawn, headed for Mosquito Creek.”

“So, the rumors are true, then?” Wendy said. “Candyman’s been trafficking people to those monsters?” They’d all heard the whispers before. Herbie had first suggested the possibility, and in the two weeks since, they’d all heard similar stories circulating around town, whispered about in secret, but never spoken out loud in the wrong circles… not unless you wanted to suddenly disappear like so many other citizens of New Cleveland.

“Yes,” Tony said. “It’s all true. One devil has made some kind of deal with another… and our friends are right in the middle of it.”

“Well, I guess it’s good news that Orosco’s people are even alive,” Diane said. “I was starting to believe they were long gone.”

Tony nodded. “I was feeling the same way. So, yeah, that’s something.”

“I assume that when you say, ‘We’re leaving’, that it’s not going to be easy,” Nine said.

“No, it’s not. But there’s a plan,” Tony said. “I have the location of those trucks, and some weapons. We’re going to intercept them… and drive the hell out of this fucked-up town.”

“What about Mark and Hash? Did you find them, too?” Diane said.

Tony frowned, letting his shoulders sag. “Sadly, I did not. I haven’t heard anything about either of them.”

“Well, we just can’t leave without them,” Nine said.

“I’ve… I think I’ve found Mark,” Wendy chimed in. She had their complete attention. She looked like she was on the verge of tears. “Without getting into the details… I believe he was auctioned off to one of the murder shops in town.”

“Fuck me,” Nine whispered.

“Go on,” Tony urged.

Wendy nodded. “Herbie made arrangements for the two of us to visit one of those sadistic dens. We we’re going there tonight to confirm… well… I think he’s dead.” She ran her arm across her eyes to wipe the tears away. Saying the words out loud made Mark’s death… real.

Diane put her hand over her mouth, a look of shock on her face.

“Are you certain of this?” Tony pressed.

Wendy nodded. “I’ve been trying to deny it, but it all adds up. In my bones I know he’s there. Whether or not he’s… well… that’s what me and Herbie are going to find out. Call it closure, but I can’t leave this place until I know what happened. But I believe Mark is gone.” She wept openly now.

Tony put a big arm around the girl’s shoulders and drew her in close. “Okay,” he gently said. “Just… let it out. I can tell you’ve needed to.”

Wendy nodded and buried her face in Tony’s shoulder.

Tony closed his eyes and shook his head. He turned to Diane. “I don’t know about Hash,” he said. “But we all know what Candyman wanted to do with him. His debt wasn’t paid, even if ours was covered by the auction.”

“So, we just give up on him, then?” Diane said, her frustration evident.

Tony looked at her sadly. “Diane, I’m sorry. I just don’t know how to find him. And if the good sergeant is alive, Candyman’s got him in some secure place… one we can’t reach. I’ve wrestled with this, night after night, telling myself that when the time came to get the rest of you the hell out of here, whether we found Orosco, Mark, Hash… that I’d take it. And that time has come.”

“So, we sacrifice some to save the rest,” Nine said sadly. “Seems a shitty end to things.”

“It is,” Tony admitted. “But we don’t have time for anything more. Finding Orosco’s people still alive was something I was prepared to give up on. But now we know they’re still here… and they are out of time.”

Diane nodded. “So, we save who we can… now… and we’ll just have to live with the rest?”

“Yes,” Tony said. “That’s all we have left.” He took them all in and continued, “Seeing you all here, now, I’m reminded of our present state. You know what I’ve had to do to stay alive in this hell-hole, and that’s something I’ll live with for the rest of my days. But I can’t do it anymore. The killing for sport… the blood on my hands… it’s too much. I’m spent. And it looks to me like the rest of you are getting close. We need to get out of here before this town destroys us from the inside out.”

Wendy pulled back and tried to compose herself.

“I’m sorry for Mark,” he told her. “I think you should definitely find out what happened, as long as it’s safe to do so.”

“Believe it or not,” Wendy said. “Herbie’s been… helpful. He’s on our side, in his own way. He’s done more than you know to keep me safe.”

Tony nodded. “Okay, then. I may not trust the man, but I trust you, Wendy. You do what you have to… but we’re still leaving before dawn.”

She nodded.

“So, what’s the plan?” Nine said.

The big man nodded. “We’re going to meet at Splash Landing to the west of the fight pits. It’s an old kid’s water playground now nothing more than a swamp. We’ll go over the details once we meet up there and get armed up. To the north of that creepy place is an old parking garage where the trucks holding our friends will be. That’s where they plan to depart New Cleveland… and we’re going to be there to take those trucks by force. We will have the element of surprise… and believe me… they will be surprised.” Tony’s eyes lit up. “It’s going to be the last time I kill in this fucking town… and whoever’s there to stop us, they’re going to regret it.”

Nine nodded. He’d seen that look in Tony’s eyes before. No one needed a pending storm to convince them of the destruction it promised.

Tony turned to Diane. “I’ll need you there, hunter,” he said. “I can’t do it without you. Will it be difficult to sneak away?”

She shook her head. “No, I’ll be there,” she said. “I’ve been mapping out this town for some time now and I know where Splash Landing is. Just point me to the weapons when I arrive and then get out of my damn way.”

Tony laughed. “That’s the woman I know.”

She flashed her best defiant smile, hoping she hid the doubts warring in her thoughts. She had no idea what would happen once she visited Candyman’s trailer this evening, or if she’d even survive that next encounter. And then she remembered Nadia and felt a little better about her odds. An idea struck her then. Her face lit up.

“Something else?” Tony said, noticing her look.

“It’s about Hash,” she said. “I’ve… well… I’ve made a friend on the inside. Someone who might be able to locate him… if he’s alive.”

“Can you trust this friend?” Tony said.

“Yes,” she said with a smile. It was the first time she’d answered with confidence, resolving her own unspoken doubts about the tall, blond woman. “If anyone can find out where he is, my friend can. She’s already saved my life, just last night. I believe she’ll help us.”

Nine gave her a concerned look that she tried to ignore.

“Okay,” Tony said. “You do what you can for Hash. But with or without him, I need you there. Is that understood?”

Diane frowned feeling the weight of Tony’s words. “I understand,” she said. She started to rise. “I should head back. I’ve got a lot to figure out before tonight.”

Tony nodded. “We’ll go over the details of the ambush when I see you next.”

“‘Ambush’,” Nine said, rising with Diane. “Sounds like an optimistic word tagged to something really dangerous.”

Tony laughed and said with confidence, “They won’t know what hit them when we’re finished. I promise you that. Don’t worry.”

Nine nodded with a smile. He turned to Diane, looking like he wanted to explode with concern, then closed his eyes and nodded. “Be safe,” he told her, pulling her close. “I sense we have a lot to catch up on once we’re on the other side of these wall.”

She smiled and kissed him on the lips. “Look at that, you’re actually right for once,” she teased.

He laughed.

Diane stared into his tired face. He’s trying so hard to let me go… because he respects me… the real me… and not that barely-dressed weak bitch that Candyman’s trying to turn me into. She appreciated the vote of confidence from her man, who still remembered the hunter he’d fallen in love with.

He looked down at the jean jacket and smiled. “Still fits,” he said.

“Thanks for that, by the way,” she said. “And for… seeing me.”

He gave her a curious look.

“Long story,” she said. “We’ll talk about it after.”

“After,” he agreed. “Don’t lose that jacket again, okay? I don’t even want to get into what I had to do to get that back to you.”

“Sounds like another long story,” she teased. “Nice kid, by the way. She yours?”

“Yeah,” he laughed. “In a manner of speaking. We’ll get to that one later, too.”

They embraced once more.

Diane pulled away abruptly as her eyes started to water. She quickly turned and headed out of the pavilion.

Nine watched her go.

“She’ll be alright, Nine,” Tony said. “She’s stronger than all of us.”

“You got that right,” he said, turning back, and sitting down.

Tony waited until Diane was out of the pavilion. He then leaned in and said, “Wendy, you do what you have to do this evening and then have Herbie get your ass to that rendezvous point. I’m sure he knows the place. Just tell him it’s the last thing he’ll need to do for any of us and that should be sufficient motivation for him.”

Wendy laughed. “Don’t worry. He’ll do it… or I’ll keep making his life a living hell.”

Tony smiled at the girl, then turned to Nine. “After we meet tonight, you won’t be joining us for the ambush.”

“Fuck I won’t!” Nine said. “I may not be the fighter you and Diane are, but I can hold my own.”

“I’m not talking about that,” Tony said. “I need you to do something else. Something I didn’t want to bring up until after Diane left.”

“I don’t like the sound of that.”

“The other part of this ambush plan involves a distraction to reduce the numbers of Lunatics we’ll encounter at the trucks.”

Nine’s eyes went wide. “It’s going to have to be one hell of a distraction.”

“Exactly.”

“So, what dangerously stupid thing am I about to do?” Nine said with a smile. “Obviously, it’s a good one if you believe Diane would object.”

Tony nodded. “I’ll need her head in the game and not worried about you.”

“Should she be worried?” Wendy said.

Tony sighed heavily. “I think we’re all well past the point where breathing anywhere in this town isn’t dangerous for us.”

“All joking aside, Tony,” Nine said. “Just tell me what you need me to do, and I’ll do it.”

Tony smiled at the young man. “I know. But you’re not going to like it much.”

“I’ve learned to tolerate a lot of things here, my man,” Nine added with a laugh. “In case you haven’t noticed, New Cleveland’s recruited some of the world’s finest assholes to inhabit this wonderful town.”

Tony laughed. “No argument there.” His face grew grave. “How do you feel about explosives?”

Nine’s eyebrows shot up. “Now I understand why you waited. Diane’s gonna love this.”

Tony nodded. “I don’t want to get into details right now, but I’ll need you to set up that distraction and then haul your ass back to Splash Landing, grab Wendy and whoever else makes it, then get the hell to the trucks. Taven’s going to take you to some old theater converted into a store house. That’s the place we’re going to blow up.”

“About this contact of yours,” Wendy chimed in. “How much do you know about Taven?”

Tony gave her a hard look, then said, “I know that he’s got his own agenda, but that’s it’s aligned with our own. If you’re asking if I trust him… well… I trust that he wants us to succeed. It’s in his best interest.”

Wendy nodded. “I guess we’ve all had to take chances with people in this town. I know I wouldn’t still be here without Herbie’s help. Diane’s obviously got someone watching her back, too.”

“I’ve got help, as well,” Nine said. “And someone who’s going to be leaving with us on those trucks.”

They both gave him a curious look.

Nine sighed. “Let’s just say that due to certain circumstances… I’ve recently become the owner of a ten-year-old girl who has a particular skill set suited for sneaking around town. I can’t leave her here. So, she’ll be joining us… if I can find the little runt.”

Tony laughed. “I’m not even going to ask. Bring your new friend but be careful. Once things are set in motion, we’ll have to move… and there won’t be a second chance at getting this right.”

“They’re might be a ‘Plan B’ if we should need it,” Nine said. “Just on the other side of this pavilion is Harper’s Hell Run… you guys know it?”

“Yeah,” Wendy said. “I’ve heard enough bar talk about it. It’s some kind of horrible race involving people fighting their way through an old water ride full of zombies.”

“That’s the one.”

“I’m also familiar with this,” Tony said. “What about it?”

“At the top, there’s a door leading beneath the ride. There’s a staircase there. I believe that’s where they’ve been getting the dead from. It makes sense that there’s gotta be an exit to the outside down there, since no one’s ever seen the dead anywhere else around town.”

“Noted,” Tony said. “Hopefully we won’t need it, but it’s good to have other options.”

“Speaking of options,” Wendy said, “Herbie’s been working on a way to smuggle us out with the vendors that come in and out of town. He’s still ironing out the details, but if we wanted to wait-”

“No,” Tony interrupted. “Orosco and the others will be dead long before then. I know this plan seems crazy and dangerous, but it’s all we have.”

Wendy gave Nine a concerned look.

“And this Taven character… you know for sure that he’s telling you the truth? About Orosco and the others?” Nine pushed. “As far as shady contacts are concerned, from what you’ve told us about him in prior meetings, he seems to know a lot about us and why we’re here. Doesn’t that seem strange to you?”

Tony hesitated; his frustration evident. “I’ll admit, he is… strange. I don’t know how he knows what he knows about us, but he does. He was the one who approached me, and yes, he hasn’t been very forthcoming about much, but I’ve no reason to believe that he’s lying now.”

“I’m not doubting you, Tony,” Nine said. “It’s just that we’ve all been desperately reaching out for anything to give us a little hope. I just want to be sure that we’re not betting all we have on a losing hand. Believe me, I’ve seen some sharks in this place that know how to exploit the ‘hope’ card.”

Tony nodded and let out a heavy sigh. He gave them both a long look. “Aside from Diane and you two, I don’t trust anyone, or anything is this fucked-up town. You’re right, of course. Taven’s shady as hell. I’m sure he’s playing another game like everyone else in this place. Am I betting on him playing it straight with me? No. Like I said, he’s got an agenda. I don’t know who’s playing at this particular table, or the name of the bigger game—it’s all beyond me. But I am betting on what I believe is the winning hand. The fact that Taven knows so much about us, and about Orosco and his people, makes be believe they are still alive. How would he know about them, otherwise? Am I desperate enough to buy into his crazy plan? Hell, yes. But it’s not right for me to place that bet for the rest of you. The stakes are too high. You know I’ve always played it straight with you, and I’m telling you now, I don’t have a sure-fire guarantee that this game won’t go south in a hurry. I’m prepared to take responsibility for that risk, because, shit… we’re slowly dying here anyway. But if you tell me now that you want out, and that you’d rather wait for another option, I won’t hold against you. Either way, we risk everything by going forward with Taven’s plan or staying here until another chance presents itself.”

Nine nodded. “So, we’re not betting on the integrity of the player, or the game, but on the timing of the hand working out in our favor?”

“Precisely,” Tony said.

“My parents always told me that gambling was bad news,” Wendy said with a laugh. “I’ve always hated it—trying to figure out who was bluffing and establishing your own poker face—I was never good at it.” She looked up at Tony. “But I know you, Tony. You hate the game as much as I do. I wouldn’t be alive today if I didn’t take a risk on you. I’m in.”

Tony nodded with a smile. He looked to Nine.

He laughed. “I love that thing you do when we’ve reached another crossroads where you make it seem like the choice is ours after pumping us up with some motivational speech.”

The big man laughed. “Sorry. No speeches this time. I’m way too tired.”

Nine nodded. “Well, I know what Diane would do. She’s always been the risk taker despite the odds. I’ve always had to wait on the numbers behind those odds, and those numbers work in their own time with their own damn agenda.”

Tony shook his head. “I’ll pretend I understand that. You’ve always had a peculiar relationship with digits.”

Nine laughed. “What I do know is that those numbers, when they show up, they’re consistent… like you. I’ve put my trust in them like I’ve put my trust in you, despite any odds… and there’s always risk involved. I know what the ‘odds’ would tell me to do here. They always look for the safest and surest route, the one with the least amount of risk. The trouble with relying upon the odds in an apocalypse is that there’s always risk. And we’ve learned the hard way that ‘safe’ or ‘sure’ doesn’t exist anymore.”

Tony nodded with a big smile. “Who’s giving the motivational speech now?”

“No,” Nine laughed. “No speeches. I’ll just end that by saying that I’m with you. Diane is, too. If she were here, she just would’ve told me to shut up and commit already.”

This made Wendy giggle.

“Thank you both for trusting in me again,” Tony said. “I’ll try not to let you down.”

Wendy put her hand on the big man’s shoulder.

Nine shook his head and started to pout.

Tony rolled his eyes at him. “Something to add?”

“No,” he lied. “Well… I just feel a little ripped off about this whole ‘risking our lives’ thing again.”

“How so?”

“I really wanted my damn motivational speech first,” he said with a wink.

“You really are insufferable sometimes,” Wendy added with a laugh.

Tony shook his head and laughed. He gave them both a tired glance. “We’ve all been through so much shit in this town. So much more pain, and fear, and tears. Every person we’ve met—just another stranger, wearing a clever mask to hide even stranger intentions…”

~~~

Next Episode 51-4

Previous Episode 51-2

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 51-3: 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.

~~~

Diane woke to the sound of banging outside her trailer door. “Fuck me,” she hissed, realizing that she’d overslept. Her two-man escort had arrived with the latest shopping list. She rolled her eyes in frustration at another morning of pointless tasks assigned to keep up appearances, as well as at her own sluggishness for not being up and ready before now.

There was more banging outside the door.

“Give me a damn minute!” she barked. “I’m getting dressed!” Diane rushed out of bed and grabbed a light grey hoodie. She moved as fast as a one-armed woman could, trying to throw on the hoodie. Then she stopped. What if it’s not my escort this time? Her heart started to race as she tried not to picture Candyman’s men storming in at any moment to finish last night’s business.

She reached for her blade.

“Diane,” a woman’s voice called out. “I’m coming inside.”

Nadia? Diane immediately hid the knife beneath her mattress. What the hell is she doing here?

Before she could prepare herself, the trailer door opened. The tall slender woman with short-cropped blond hair stepped up into the trailer and smiled at her.

Diane sat back down on the bed, responding with a confused smile.

Nadia quickly closed the door and laughed, “You look like shit.”

Diane stared at the attractive woman’s long, one-piece strapless red dress, and said, “Yeah… and you don’t. What are you doing out here?”

“Relax,” she said, plopping down next to Diane on the bed. “We’ve got your escorts and mine out there waiting on us hand and foot. After last night, I thought you might need a friend today.” She stared at Diane’s morning hair, then down at her jeans and hoodie, and finished, “And by the looks of it, I’ve arrived just in time. Were you planning on going out dressed like that?”

Diane rubbed sleep from her eyes, yawned, and then looked down at what she was wearing. She shook her head and laughed. “I… just woke up. It was a rough night.”

Nadia grabbed her arm and giggled like they’d been friends since childhood. “Well, your wonderful new look just screams, ‘Lazy day on the couch with chips’.”

“Don’t forget the dip,” Diane added with a smile. She ran her hand through her disheveled morning hair. “Maybe this new look will catch on. I know it isn’t the ‘Nadia, who wakes up fresh out of the Barbie box’ look, but it’s way more comfortable. You should give it a try.”

Nadia snorted into her hand. “You’re a mess… but a delightful one. Tell you what, let me fix you up for your public appearance. We’ll make the rounds together and satisfy the rumor mill, then head back here. Then you can pull me out a comfy sweater from your college-dorm-looking pile of clothes and we’ll snack on chips and dips all damn day ‘till we’re wearing the crumbs.”

Diane laughed. “Don’t tease. That’s sound like heaven.”

Nadia picked up a brush near Diane’s bed and started brushing her hair.

The hunter tensed up.

“Settle down,” Nadia playfully said. “It’s just a brush. I know it’s been a while, but I think you can handle it.”

“Screw you,” Diane said with a laugh, allowing herself to relax.

“You okay?” Nadia asked. “After last night, I was really worried about you.”

“I’m better now, thanks to you. That could’ve ended a lot worse.”

Nadia frowned while stroking the hunter’s hair with the brush. “That was uncalled for,” she said. “Sometimes he forgets himself… and takes situations too far.”

“Yeah. I’d call humiliation followed by the threat of rape definitely ‘too far’.”

“I spoke with him last night,” Nadia said. “He won’t do that again. He listens to me… sometimes. I made him realize that what he did to you was beneath a man as great as he was.”

Diane laughed. “So… you stroked his ego a bit?”

“I definitely stroked something.”

“I didn’t need that visual.” Diane shook her head and swallowed the remainder of her pride. “Thanks again. I really mean that. If you hadn’t intervened…”

“Let’s not think any more about that unpleasantness.”

Diane nodded. “Okay.” She shifted gears. “How did you get away? Won’t that man miss you terribly?”

Nadia leaned back on the bed and laughed. “Don’t they all?” she teased, with a wink. “Candyman’s got a busy agenda today. No time for me, I’m afraid. So… it looks like your stuck with me.”

Diane gave her a crooked smile. “You’re seriously going to be bored as hell with me. In case you haven’t noticed, I suck at appearances, or pretending to give a shit about who’s watching me do what. I feel so ridiculous all dressed up and-”

“Looking like a woman?” Nadia teased. “I know you’re a fighter. I’ve seen it for myself. But it’s okay to let your hair hang down and be the woman, too.”

Diane turned away. “I’ll never be half the woman you are. And I’d still say that if I had both arms.”

Nadia rolled her eyes. “You mean you’ll never be half the tramp that I’ve become, right?”

“Oh, no!” Diane was quick to correct. “I didn’t mean… I wasn’t talking about that!”

Nadia laughed. “Relax, girl. I’ve got tougher skin then that.”

“What I meant was… well… someone like you lights a room up and commands everyone’s attention the moment you enter. I know I’m just a farmer’s daughter turned fighter, but I’ve seen enough to know that there’s a strength in you… in how you handle yourself… as a woman. I don’t possess that strength at all.”

Nadia sat up. She appeared genuinely touched. “I think that was the best compliment I’ve ever received.”

Diane scoffed. “Please… I’m sure you’ve heard it your whole life.”

“I wasn’t always like this, Diane. I had to work hard at it. I was much more like you. Awkward, timid, clumsy.”

“Ouch.”

Nadia laughed. “I’m talking about being a woman, and the grace and power that comes from knowing who you are in that regard. We all have it, girl. We just don’t all know what we have.”

“Well… you certainly do,” Diane said. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I’d rather you not join me out there today.”

“Why?”

Diane sighed. “It’s hard enough to dress like a woman… but I can fake that. But with you around, I’d be making a damn fool out of us both.”

“You’re worried that you’ll make me look bad?”

“I’m clumsy as a woman, remember? Besides, you intimidate the hell out of me in this arena. Hanging out with you in public would be like walking around for five minutes with a fashion model, pretending to be somebody, then realizing you look and act like the model’s aide.”

Nadia smiled. “Your precious, you know that? There’s a level of honesty about you that makes me feel comfortable letting my guard down. I can be… me… around you. That’s a strength, too.”

“If you say so.”

“Not to mention, you’re already a bad-ass,” Nadia said raising her fists.

Diane laughed. “You’re a bad-ass, too. You’ve mastered weapons I’ll never manage to wield. Just ask any guy who’s seen you move those hips.”

Nadia laughed at the jab. Then her eyes lit up. “Speaking of bad-asses, I have a hell of an idea!”

Diane looked terrified.

“No, you’ll like this. I promise.”

~~~

Opening at Ollie’s Oasis was the calm before the evening storms. It was too early for last night’s hangover victims to return for more abuse, and only a few dedicated drinkers frequented the bar this early, allowing Wendy time to process last night’s events. Most mornings, she was eager to grab a mop and clean up the putrid mixture of stale beer and vomit, just glad to have a distraction, but not today.

Herbie had joined her, keeping himself busy by restocking the bar and making it clear by his loud silence, that he was still pissed at her.

She’d done her best to avoid his notice, hoping he’d calm down enough to ask the million questions that vexed her.

Finally, it was Herbie who broke the silence. He leaned over the bar, took a deep breath, and wiped sweat from his brow. He glared at her and said, “That was the last time you do anything like that in my bar, do you understand me, girl?”

Wendy usually had something smart to say to counter Herbie’s grumpy moods, but wisely remained quiet instead, holding her mop and averting her eyes.

“Do you have any idea how much trouble you caused me last night, girl? And I don’t give a rat’s ass who that was… you don’t attack the customers! Not ever!” Herbie started mumbling under his breath while running a dirty rag across the bar counter. “That little shit could have cost me big time!”

Wendy could wait no longer. “What happens now?”

He stared at her and shook his head. “What do you mean? We get this shit-hole ready! I’ve still got a business to run.”

“But… what did you promise him?”

“Promise who?”

“Mr. Silver… you know… the man I attacked?”

He gave her an incredulous look. “What makes you think I promised that little weasel a damn thing? I remember who he is, the trouble he caused. I didn’t promise him squat!”

“So, he didn’t threaten to report you?” Wendy dared.

Herbie laughed. “Of course, he did! Once I cleaned up the bloody mess you made of his face, he couldn’t stop talking about all the problems he was bringing my way. Threatening to bring the Lunatics back in here and shut me down, how he was going to have you arrested for assault… etcetera… etcetera… blah… blah… blah!” Herbie went back to scrubbing down the bar.

Wendy was about to lose her shit. “And?”

“And what?”

“How did you keep him happy?”

“‘Happy’?”

She shook her head. “I don’t know! Isn’t that how things work in this fucked-up town? Someone has a grievance, they make threats, and then… and then deals are made?”

Herbie stopped and laughed. “Is that what you think I did? You think I made a deal with that little asshole to shut him up?”

“Well… didn’t you?”

“Not that it’s any of your damn business, but no, I didn’t!”

Wendy was confused. “Then, what happened?”

Herbie let out a heavy impatient sigh. “After… what did you call him? Mr. Silver?”

She nodded.

“Well, after he calmed the hell down, I pulled him aside and had a reasonable discussion with the man. Believe it or not, after we talked, he seemed eager to end the matter. He even wanted me to let you know that he held no hard feelings for what you did to him. Said he shouldn’t have pushed you like he did… and that he was sorry.”

“He said he was sorry?” Wendy laughed. “I’m calling bullshit on that one! You offered him something, didn’t you? Something that made him eager to end the matter?”

“What are you getting at?”

“What was it? Did you give him Sheila? And if you did, you better undo it real fucking quick! She’s deserves better than that.”

“Don’t tell me how to manage my affairs, little lady! You’re already in enough trouble.” Herbie’s face had turned beat red.

“You did, didn’t you?” Wendy pushed. “You couldn’t give him me, and I know that’s what he wanted, so you did the next best thing.”

Herbie’s temper deflated in a hurry, betraying his actions. He turned back toward the bar. “The matter is settled. Get back to work.”

Wendy was furious. She tossed the mop aside. “You know what he’ll do to her! How could you let that monster have her?”

“I said, the matter is finished! You’re right, okay! He wanted you… but I wouldn’t… I couldn’t do that!”

Wendy’s eyes watered up. “You’re a fucking asshole!” she shouted. “It wasn’t Sheila’s fault, it was mine! I’m the one who attacked him!”

“Yes, you did!” Herbie turned and pointed at her. “You caused this mess, and I had to clean it up! Sheila was the only option I had! And don’t you dare think it was an easy decision! I’ve been watching out for the girl for a long time!”

“Then… why?”

Herbie’s face softened. “Because, unlike you, Sheila can handle herself. She’s been out there and knows the game better than anyone. Trust me, Mr. Silver won’t harm a hair on that girl’s head. If he does, he’ll be answering to me. Chances are that asshole and his boys will get bored with her, then sell her to someone else. Hell, I’ll probably be able to buy her back in a little while.”

Wendy shook her head. “They’re going to kill her.”

“That’s crazy.”

“No… it’s not.” Wendy took a step forward. “They’ll kill her to get back at me. And then that asshole will come in here again to tell me about it.”

“What are you talking about?”

Wendy wiped fresh tears from her eyes. “Mr. Silver came in here to tell me what he did to my friend, Mark. He said… without saying it… that he went to one of those murder shops, found Mark, and payed to… to kill him.”

Herbie frowned. “He told you that?”

“He hinted at it. But it was clear.”

Herbie looked down. “And you think he’ll hurt Sheila just to get back at you?”

“Yes.”

“What set you off, girl? What was it that pushed you over the edge? I’ve never seen you like that.”

She frowned. “Right before I… attacked him. That evil man said he kept Mark’s teeth. He was reaching into his pocket to show them to me.” She turned away and started to sob.

Herbie was silent for a while, staring at the broken girl. Finally, he turned back to the bar. “I’m really sorry for your friend,” he said. “I had no idea he ended up in a place like that. If I’d known, I would’ve pulled whatever resources I could to get him out of there… and I mean that.”

Wendy turned and nodded. “Thank you.”

He started wiping down the bar again. “Now, why don’t you take a few minutes. Then get back to work, okay?”

“What about Sheila?”

“What about her?”

“Haven’t you heard a word I said? They’re going to kill her, asshole!”

Herbie smiled. “Not likely.”

“What?”

“Just get back to work. Let me worry about Sheila.”

Wendy had nothing left. She started to turn.

“Oh, and one more thing,” Herbie said.

She stopped.

“That idea you had… you know… the one about sneaking into the murder shop your friend was at?”

Wendy said nothing.

Herbie gave her a suspicious glance. “Yeah, that’s what I thought. Well, just forget it.”

“You knew about Mark all along. Did Sheila tell you?”

“Yeah, that girl was looking out for you in more ways than one. She told me all about your conversation last night.”

Wendy was stunned. “Then you know I have to go there… for Mark. I have to know for sure.”

“Oh, I know,” he said with a laugh. “That’s why we’re going together.”

“Excuse me?”

“But not right now. Later this evening,” he said.

Wendy was floored. “I don’t understand?”

Herbie put his hands to his hips. “Do I have to spell it out for you, girl? No one gets into the murder shops without an appointment. So… I made one.”

“You… made an appointment?”

“Yes. Tonight, you and I are going there to find out about Mark. But we’re doing it together. That means, you stay right fucking here until then, and keep my bar running. Understood?”

For once, Wendy felt something other than contempt for the fat barkeep. She smiled. “You’re the contact she mentioned, aren’t you?”

“Whatever,” he said. “I helped her before, when she needed some closure. Let’s leave it at that.”

“Thank you,” Wendy said.

“Don’t thank me, thank Sheila,” Herbie said, shaking his head. “Besides, you aren’t going to be thanking anyone for taking you to a despicable place like that… unless your one demented sicko.”

Someone entered the Oasis. A big man, wearing a cloak with the hood pulled up approached the bar.

“Shit,” Herbie hissed.

Wendy’s eyes lit up with recognition.

The big man sat down on a barstool and pulled down his hood revealing a tired face with faraway eyes.

“Tony!” Wendy said. “It’s good to see you!”

Herbie gave him a nod and said to Wendy in passing, “You two say what you have to say, then get him out of here! The Lunatics are watching him like hawks.”

“It’s good to see you again, too, Herbie,” Tony said with a frown. “You’ve been taking care of my friend?”

Herbie flashed him a fake smile and said, “You know that I’m doing all that I can for her. It’s insulting that you have to ask.”

Tony gave him a nod. “Okay, then.” He turned to Wendy with a warm smile. “It’s good to see you. How have you been?”

Wendy laughed. “It’s been… well… I’m okay. I won’t bother you with details right now. I know you can’t stay long.”

He nodded. “Yeah. Just wanted to stop by and tell you that we’re meeting today for lunch. I’ve got big news and I need everyone there.”

Wendy’s face got serious. She whispered, “You’ve found something?”

“More than that,” Tony said. “I don’t want to say anything else, not in here. Can you get away today?” He looked toward Herbie, directing the last at him as less of a question.

Herbie laughed, trying to stay out of their conversation. “I’ll arrange it,” he said. “Just, please… get the hell out of here.”

“I’m going,” he said with a scowl. He looked at Wendy and finished, “Noon. At the usual place.”

Wendy nodded. “Okay. I’ll be there.”

“I’ve already talked to Nine. He’s going to contact Diane and let her know.”

“It’s getting harder and harder for her to get away,” Wendy said. “I hope she can make it this time.”

Tony smiled. He leaned in and whispered, “If all goes well, this will be our last meeting on this side of these fucking walls. That’s a promise.”

A mixture of excitement and trepidation crossed Wendy’s face.

“I’ll explain at lunch,” Tony said, getting up. “Just be there and act normal.”

She smiled. “Got it. Just some old friends getting together for lunch out in the open for everyone to see.”

“Yep. See you at noon.” Tony exited the bar.

Herbie came back over. “What trouble is he about to start?”

Wendy shrugged her shoulders. “As long as it’s not in your damn bar, what do you care?”

Herbie shook his head, annoyed, and then stormed off mumbling to himself.

Wendy was on the verge of laughing and crying at the same time. She covered her mouth with her hands and took a deep breath. My God, she thought. Please let it be good news this time. I think we’re all about out of hope. The admission caught her off guard.

She turned, picked up the mop, and started cleaning.

~~~

The shopping district of New Cleveland covered a five-block area through the central hub of town. Vendors of all sorts lined up on both sides of the narrow streets, displaying their wares transported in shopping carts, wagons, or anything else they could find with wheels. There were a few wooden kiosks that were constructed and rented out to merchants, as well as a few trailers for vendors with larger shipments. They sold food (the non-perishable kinds), clothing, tools, spare parts, camping supplies, and an assortment of other useful items and non-useful trinkets. Vendors arrived and departed New Cleveland regularly, always bringing a variety of different items to sell in the outdoor marketplace. During the daylight hours, the shopping district was booming with activity.

Diane glanced about nervously, studying every face in the crowded marketplace.

“So intense,” the attractive woman teased, leaning in next to her. “You play your part perfectly.”

Diane smiled and relaxed a little. She looked over at Nadia. The tall woman made every outfit she wore stand out as she casually, but confidently, walked among the crowd, her head hung high as if she were royalty. Her strapless red dress flowed effortlessly around her slender body.

In contrast, Diane was amused at her own ensemble.

Nadia had tied her hair back into a tight braid, like how the ex-Shadow Dead, Alysa had worn her hair. The clever woman then borrowed a green camouflage jacket from one of her own mercenary escorts, to accompany Diane’s jeans. By the time Nadia had finished, the hunter had almost looked the part of one of her escorts, minus the weapons—the baggy jacket giving Diane a bit more bulk around the shoulders while hiding her feminine features.

“Feeling better?” Nadia said with a wink.

In truth, Diane felt comfortable in the mercenary clothes. Out on the open road, she often wore dark, baggy clothes to conceal weapons, and for other practical reasons, like warmth or concealment. It felt good to be dressed again and not paraded around town for the skin and gender she was born into.

“I’m having a great time,” Diane admitted. “I feel like your bodyguard. The dogs stare at you, of course, until they see me catch them. Then, they don’t dare look twice in our direction.” She then looked around for their own escorts. “Speaking of bodyguards, they know how to disappear, don’t they?”

Nadia laughed. “They’re paid very well to be discreet. But not to worry, they’re keeping an eye on us.”

“I wasn’t worried,” Diane said. “Do I look like I need protection?” she teased.

Nadia smiled. “No, you certainly do not. I thought you might appreciate a return to your previous look. Hell, your dark brooding eyes match your outfit perfectly.”

“I don’t ‘brood’?” Diane added, glaring at the tall woman.

This just made Nadia laugh harder as she nearly stumbled in her high-heeled red shoes.

Diane caught her arm. “Careful. You can die in shoes like that… if you can call them shoes.”

“I think you’re confusing me with your disastrous attempts with heels. My God, woman, when I first saw you in a pair, I thought you were going to sprain an ankle.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Diane said. “There’s nothing practical about walking in those things. What if you had to run from the dead? Aside from taking them off and using the heels as weapons, they’re useless.”

“Oh… but you’re so wrong,” Nadia said, stepping around to Diane’s left and hooking her arm in hers. “The height they add alone is enough to make them worth the trouble. One doesn’t master the art of wearing high heels to be chased through the streets. The clickity-clack along the pavement serves to announce your arrival, as you stop every man in their tracks. Then, they gawk up at you on your mobile platforms, like beholding an elevated goddess rising among the crowd. And all the while, you get to enjoy the stupid looks on their struck faces as their eyes pop out and their jaws hang down.”

Diane laughed and shook her head. “If you say so. I still prefer my heels firmly on the ground. It’s much safer that way.”

Nadia smiled. “You’re a gem, Diane. I’m glad we had a chance to hang out together.” She nodded toward the surrounding crowd oblivious in their shopping endeavors. “You have to admit, as dangerous as New Cleveland can be, times like this feel almost… normal. Don’t you think?”

“I can see how complacency could lull them all to sleep, if that’s what you mean. Just look at them. They act like nothing’s changed in the world.”

“Yes, but maybe that’s a good thing, Diane,” Nadia pushed. “Life is hard beyond these walls, as you know. Life can be just as hard in here. Without a few creature comforts from the old days, and some honest distractions, we’d be nothing more than just survivors.”

Diane raised an eyebrow at her. “I don’t call this surviving. It’s all illusion, just like that fucking illusion we all were living in before The Change. No one was ready for it. Many couldn’t accept it and died in the panic that followed. Others eventually took their own lives because they couldn’t handle that illusion being destroyed.”

“And still others have survived,” Nadia added, “finding places like this where the old ways are still preserved… because the illusion, as you say, might be all that’s left living for.”

Diane stopped them. “You don’t believe that, do you?”

Nadia’s face changed. She looked around at the busy crowd and started to frown. “I don’t know what I believe,” she finally said. “But I do know that, illusion or not, we need this. People engaged with people.”

“Not my kind of people,” Diane said in disgust.

“You know what I mean,” Nadia said. “Sure, New Cleveland is dark… you and I know this. But we still need each other. We weren’t designed to live our lives apart in some remote wilderness where the dead can’t find us… not if it means a life of isolation. That will kill us off faster than the dead or this shitty town.”

Diane stared at the woman. She didn’t expect something so insightful from someone so vain. And yet, hadn’t she already seen some depth in this woman she had judged prematurely? She backed down. “Maybe your right about some of it. Maybe we really do need each other. The Human Race, whatever’s left of it, certainly can’t survive if we live in fear of each other.”

Nadia smiled and placed a hand on Diane’s cheek. “At some point, we all need to take a chance and believe in one another again, despite everything we’ve suffered. I’m not saying that New Cleveland is it… but it could certainly be much worse.”

Diane left that alone.

“We took a chance on each other,” Nadia said, folding her arms and mocking Diane with a brooding look. “And I have to say that I’ve been pleasantly surprised, considering our differences. Wouldn’t you agree?”

Diane looked away and sighed. “Yeah… you’re alright… I guess.” She looked up and winked.

Nadia laughed and then let her guard down. “We took a chance on each other and I feel like I’ve made a new best friend.”

Diane shifted uncomfortably, caught off guard by the woman’s admission.

Nadia smiled. “Sorry. Too much?”

“Maybe for one day,” the hunter admitted. “You can’t expect me to wear those revealing dresses and my heart on a sleeve at the same time. I’ve been clumsy at both for a very long time.” She added a smile.

“Fair enough,” Nadia said, locking arms with her again and moving them forward. “I’m just… well… I’m glad we’re friends. It’s been a long time since I had a good one.”

Diane took a moment to connect with her own feelings on the matter. It had taken her a long time to let Nine gain access to that part of herself. And old habits died hard. “I consider… I consider you a friend, too,” she added, refusing to make eye contact with the woman as she brooded toward the crowd.

Nadia gently squeezed her arm and said nothing more on the matter.

Just then, a young girl with blue hair sprinted across their path, slipping in and out the crowd, and almost running right into them.

Both women stopped.

“Excuse me,” the girl blurted, turning her back toward the women before starting to move away.

Diane gasped. She immediately recognized the girl’s jacket.

“What a curious girl,” Nadia said, bemused. “Maybe you should consider blue hair-”

“Nadia,” Diane said, pulling the slender woman forward, “come with me!”

Nadia raised her eyebrows in surprise. “Okay, then. Where are we going?”

“After that girl,” Diane said, weaving in between the crowd to keep the girl in sight.

Nadia laughed. “I was kidding about the hair. Do you know the girl?”

“It’s the jean jacket she’s wearing. I… I want it. Can you cover me?”

“Talk about an impulsive purchase… but… okay. I’ll spot you.” Nadia was getting caught up in the minor adventure. “But you owe me a story because that old thing isn’t worth a broken heel.”

~~~

Nadia leaned up against the trailer door with her arms crossed, watching her new friend sitting on the bed wearing, and apparently, sniffing on the sleeves of the old jean jacket. The tall woman cupped a smile with her hand.

After they’d caught up with the blue-haired girl, Diane and the girl had exchanged a strange look that Nadia was trying to understand. It was as if they knew each other, and didn’t, at the same time. Diane had asked the girl what she wanted for the jacket. The girl had nodded at Diane’s borrowed mercenary coat and said, “I’ll take that one.” By then, Nadia’s curiosity about the whole affair had captured her attention. Diane had given her a glance.

Nadia, catching on, had waved dismissively. “Of course, give her the jacket. I’ll find my man another.”

The exchange had been brief. Diane and the girl had swapped coats, each trying the other on. The girl seemed pleased. She had nodded at Diane with a big smile, and then took off into the crowd.

Afterwards, Diane’s thoughts had been elsewhere, leaving Nadia with most of the talking on their way back to Diane’s trailer.

“Okay,” Nadia said, trying to keep from laughing. “I’ve got to know. What’s with the jacket? Did you know that girl?”

Diane looked up. “What was that?”

“Girl, you’ve been distant since you put that old thing on. It’s clear that it means a lot to you, but something tells me that it’s a little bit more than that.”

Diane was glowing. She smiled like a schoolgirl with a crush.

Nadia pointed at her excitedly. “It’s a man, isn’t it? Someone gave you that jacket? Come on, tell me? Boyfriend? Lover? One Night Stand?”

Diane laughed and stared back at the jacket. “Something like that,” she admitted.

“That’s all I’m going to get?”

“It’s my… my boyfriend’s jacket. Or it was. He gave it to me. It was his brother’s jacket originally, and it meant a lot to him.”

“Was it one of the young men you came to town with?” Nadia fished.

“Yes,” Diane said. “He’s the one working over at the casino.”

Nadia plopped down next to Diane and put her arm around her shoulder. “That’s fucking adorable,” she said, causing Diane to roll her eyes. “It’s like high school all over again, minus the letterman jacket.”

“Shut up,” Diane said with a laugh. “I’m just glad to have it back. I miss him. I miss him very much. Since we all got auctioned, it’s been difficult…” She wiped a tear from her eye. “Sorry. I’m turning into an emotional little bitch.”

Nadia’s eyes softened. “It’s okay. I’m glad you got the jacket back. It’s nice to see this side of you.”

“Which side is that?”

“The vulnerable side.”

“Well, don’t get used to it,” Diane said with a glare. “I’m just having a weak moment.”

Nadia nodded. “So, are you going to read it?”

“Excuse me?”

“The note?”

“What are you talking about?”

Nadia rolled her eyes. “Come on. You mean to tell me that your boyfriend went to all that trouble to get that jacket to you, and he didn’t bother slipping you a letter?”

Diane gave the woman a hard look. Finally, she sighed and said, “I’m going to trust you a little bit.” She reached into the front right pocket and removed a folded piece of paper.

Nadia clapped her hands delightedly. “Yeah! What’s it say?”

“Hold on.” Diane unfolded the note and read it. Her face was a stone.

“Well?” Nadia pushed. “Is he sneaking over tonight for a little late-night romance?”

Diane shook her head. “You’re relentless, you know that?”

“I try.”

“He mentioned how he found the jacket, and how he knew my shopping routine. So, he sent the girl—her name is Joe—to deliver it to me… and to let me know he’s thinking about me.”

“Aww,” Nadia teased. “He’s a sweetheart.”

“He has his moments,” Diane agreed. “And then he opens his mouth and ruins them.”

“Don’t they all?” Nadia said. “Come on, spill the rest. What else?”

“That’s about it,” Diane said with a guarded look. “Just some mushy stuff that I’m not repeating.”

Nadia frowned. “There’s more, isn’t there? You just don’t want to tell me.”

Diane gave her a pleading look.

Nadia raised her hand. “It’s cool. I get it. You’re worried about Candyman… and I am sleeping with the enemy.”

“It’s not like that.” Diane looked conflicted. “I trust you, Nadia. But-”

“You’re not going to trust me with you boyfriend’s life. Say no more. I get it.”

“Sorry.”

Nadia smiled. “What can I do?”

“What?”

“Does he want to meet you somewhere? Can I help arrange that? Just tell me… I want to help.”

Diane nodded. “He wants to meet me at midday. But, after last night, I don’t think I can-”

“You’re going,” Nadia said. “Don’t worry about Candyman. I’ll cover for you if it comes to that. How much time do you need?”

“An hour, maybe two,” Diane said.

“You’ve got it, girl.”

Diane was on the verge of tears again. She fought them back. “Why are you doing this?”

“Because my best friend misses her man. And… and I hate to see you hurting like this.”

“It’s that obvious.”

“Girl, you couldn’t be any farther away right now. You need this. And I’m going to make it happen.”

Diane glanced down. “Thank you.”

“No problem. You want me to get you something nice to wear? You know, something to make him stay up all night thinking about you?”

Diane laughed. “No… the jacket’s fine.”

“I thought you’d say that.”

“Can you… wait here for me?”

Nadia was surprised by the request. “Sure. I can do that. But you better bring back chips and dip, and maybe a romantic comedy on VHS.”

“Deal,” Diane said.

“Well, let’s at least fix your hair.” Nadia got up to grab the brush. “Maybe we can flip your bangs up, then soak ’em down with a can of Aqua Net to give you that 80’s retro look to go with the jacket. Oh, and maybe a dab of blush…”

While Nadia babbled on excitedly, Diane thought about the rest of Nine’s note:

…Tony stopped by. He wants to get together for lunch. Can you meet us in the usual place at noon? I love you and miss you.

Diane folded up the note and placed it back in her pocket. Her next moment alone, she would destroy it immediately.

~~~

Next Episode 51-3

Previous Episode 51-1

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 51-2: 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.

~~~

I’m working on the last chapter of the second arc this week. New episode on Friday.

If you’ve been reading Don’t Feed The Dark online and want to help support the cause, the best thing you could do to show your appreciation and let me know you’ve been enjoying this series is to help spread the word so that more readers find out about this long, dark apocalyptic series.

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Thanks again for all your support and for reading.

-Scott

~~~

~~~

…A barrage of bullets rained down upon the horde which pursued Sergeant Hash’s squad once they were in range of the Percy Power Plant’s security force. The sound of assault rifles ripped apart the day as shots rang out from every tower and rooftop position until the dead were brought down. More killers continued to surface from the eastern gully, as Hash and company rounded the northern end of the inner protected area and continued toward the civilian gate.

“I can’t reach anyone, Sarge,” Thompson said. “The big-wigs in the power block aren’t answering up either. I don’t like it.”

“Ditto,” Hash said as he focused on reaching the camp. “Let’s haul ass!” he shouted. “Triple time, move it!”

The north gate was within sight. Percy’s security force continued to lay down suppressive fire toward the east and north, stopping the much smaller groups that managed to get around the north side to pursue fresh meat.

“Where the fuck’s everyone?” Thomson asked. “This isn’t good.”

They entered the civilian gate and abruptly halted in their tracks.

“Oh, dear God… we’re too late,” Hash said as he and his men stood horrified, witnessing the ongoing massacre of the survivor’s central camp.

Five sharp tones chirped across their radios as Thompson turned to Hash and said, “That’s Command. They’re sending instructions.”

From their radios, Hash heard the following broken message: “All units, initiating Delta Foxtrot Five. Repeat, Delta Foxtrot Five. All units return to base camp. Repeat, return to base camp.”

“No fucking way!” Hash yelled. “They can’t be serious.”

“That’s a DF5 direct command,” Thompson said.

“I know what it is, you fucking idiot! I just can’t believe they’re issuing it.”

“Sarge, we have to go… now! You know what’s coming next. We can’t be out here when the purge protocol goes active.

“But what about the survivors? We can’t just abandon them!”

“That’s exactly what we’re doing. DF5, Sarge! Worst case scenario, class fucking five! There’s no room for dispute here.”

“Fuck that. Get the men together, we’re going to help these people.”

Thompson aimed his handgun directly at Hash’s face causing the squad to share confused looks.

“What are you fucking doing, Thompson?”

“Don’t make me relieve you, Sarge. I don’t want to do this, but I’ll shoot you down right now. You know as well as I do that the camp’s lost. Nothing we can do now will change the order. No sense in getting us killed, too.”

Sergeant Hash looked directly at Thompson and said, “You are the worst kind of coward there is, Thompson. Orders or not, this is as wrong as it gets. Do you understand that?”

Thompson simply nodded. “Changes nothing. You know it. I know it. These people are dead already.”

Hash knew he was right.

“Order the withdrawal, Sarge, or I will.”

Hash turned back to view the slaughter, allowing it ample time to burn within his memory forever. Then he turned to the men and said, “Fall back to the power block. Our work’s done here.”

The guardsmen looked apprehensive.

“It’s a fucking Desperation Factor Five event! That’s all you need to know. Move it!” He then said to Thompson without looking into his disgusting face, “Send the order over the radio. Tell them all to fall back.”

“Copy,” Thompson said, lowering his sidearm. He relayed the order for all units to fall back to the inner protected area muster point for emergency ingress into the plant. They were not to bring any survivors with them…

~~~

… The sound of a single round fired from a handgun reverberated down the hallway, entered the small, dark and damp cell with blood-stained concrete walls, rousing the hungover man from disturbing dreams.

The good sergeant struggled to raise his head. He opened his heavy eyelids to focus on the spinning room illuminated by faint light from down the corridor. The cell bars turned sideways and fell out of focus.

“Fuck me,” he blurted, quickly shutting his eyes.

Hash managed not to vomit on himself this time.

He opened his eyes to examine the new mess he’d made. The disgusting pool had formed a nice little moat around the aluminum shit bucket, the only accommodation provided for him in the empty space. He laughed at the absurdity of what he’d been reduced to. Once a respected soldier, an expert marksman at multiple weapons, now, unable to aim accurately at a shit-can three feet in front of him.

He leaned up against the cold concrete wall in the corner of the room to steady himself, his knees pressed up against his naked body for warmth. He’d long since become immune to his own filthy stench but could not stop from scratching at his unkempt blond beard and former flat-top hair that felt like a thousand insects were constantly squirming around his face and the top of his head. He’d sell his soul for a haircut and shave. If provided the razor to do it himself, he’d take care of the rest of his pitiful existence when finished.

He heard footsteps approaching from down the hall.

He sighed heavily in the dark space. Time to play the game again, he thought. Same fucking game, different day.

Hash knew the drill by now. They’d give him just enough food and water to stay alive… and then that grinning piece-of-shit would bring the poison to take care of the rest. He shook his head in disgust at his own weakness, silently craving whatever bottle was provided this time.

God, let him come inside this room, just once, and I’ll use whatever strength I have left to slit the fucker’s throat on the broken pieces from whatever bottle it is this time. He stared back at his shit bucket, which mocked him better than any mirror could, as the false steel left his body, leaving only the shame. I hope it’s whiskey this time. Less nightmares with that shit.

Two face-painted lunatics appeared before his cage with looks of disgust. The foul stench assaulted them. They started to unlock his cell.

Here we go, Hash thought, slowly rising to his feet, using the wall for support. Once standing, he turned to face the back of the cell, placing his dirty hands behind his head. After two weeks of this shit, the good sergeant had finally learned that a compliant prisoner resulted in complacent jailers. Hash once believed he could use that to his advantage, but now… it was more about receiving fewer beatings, depending on how generous Candyman’s moods were.

The good sergeant waited while one of the Lunatics replaced his shit bucket. “Fucking disgusting,” he heard one of them swear. The other was standing near the doorway, gun up and aimed at the back of his head. Moments later, he heard a fold-up chair being opened and placed roughly on the floor, causing him to flinch. The last sound was the tray, presumably his meal, being placed near the cell door, followed by the rush of both men exiting the cell and slamming the door shut.

Now the hard part, Hash thought, as he continued to stand facing the wall.

Sometimes, this was a trick to see if he’d disobey, turning around prematurely as the armed men waited just inside the cell to beat him within an inch of his life for moving out of position. Most of the time, it was just Candyman’s way of asserting control over the former soldier as he made him wait there, drawing out the anxiety of the whole affair, studying him from just outside the cell. The leader of New Cleveland had made him wait for an hour once, ending the suspense with two sentences. “You may eat now, Sergeant. See you tomorrow,” he’d said, before abruptly departing.

“Good morning, Sergeant,” the pleasant voice said. “Please, come sit down and eat.”

Hash could hear the man sit down in his chair placed just outside the cell bars. The exhausted man finally relaxed, lowered his hands slowly, then turned.

Candyman sat patiently, wearing slacks and one of his turtleneck sweaters. He seemed preoccupied with one leg crossed over the other, staring over his notebook and wearing his reading glasses while sipping on a glass of wine.

Hash stared at the chair placed on his side of the bars. A neatly folded blanket was placed on top of it, his food tray and a cup of water sitting beside it. With as much dignity as he could muster, he walked over to the fold-up chair, wrapped the blanket around his shoulders and chest, then sat down in the cold chair. He picked up his food tray, not caring what the meaty slop was, and started cramming it into his mouth with both hands.

Candyman ignored him while he ate, waiting for the man to finish.

After devouring the food, Hash sucked down the cup of water, and then wiped his sticky hands on the blanket. “Thank you,” he said, maintaining the appearance of total compliance.

Candyman finally looked up, peering at the man over his glasses and smiled. “You are very welcome,” he said, closing the notebook and leaning back in his chair. “I asked the men to make sure you had the blanket this time. A reward for your good behavior.”

Hash nodded. “Thanks for that, too.”

Candyman never seemed to mind the repulsive smell coming from the cell. In fact, he often treated the good sergeant as if they were sitting across from each other at a table in one of his favorite cafes. If not for the exhaustion and the hangover, Hash would find the man’s demeanor amusing, despite the circumstances.

Candyman removed his glasses and clipped them on to his notebook before setting it down on the floor. He picked up a bottle of wine, refilled his glass, then stopped, staring at his prisoner as if he were the rudest host. “My apologies. Would you like some, Sergeant?”

Hash closed his eyes and sighed heavily. More than the food, water, or blanket… it was the only thing he really wanted. He opened his eyes and said, “Yes… please.”

Candyman smiled. “Of course, you do.” He carefully slid the bottle between the cell bars until Hash could reach it.

The good sergeant, throwing dignity to the wind, greedily tipped the open bottle of wine back and let the warm, sour fluid flow down his throat. He brought the bottle back down, letting the numbing alcohol steal over him.

“Better?” Candyman asked.

“Yes. Thanks for that.”

The smug leader looked pleased with himself. “What shall we talk about today, Sergeant? And please, feel free to speak plainly. It’s not often I get to chat with anyone, man to man, not like we do down here. I find our exchanges very… refreshing.”

Okay, he’s in a good mood. Works for everyone. This was the easiest role the good sergeant had to play because it only required honesty on his part. Hash let out a light laugh. “You mean, because I don’t kiss your ass and agree with everything you say like some fuckin’ programmed robot?”

Candyman laughed. “Precisely.” He leaned over in his chair, looked down the hallway to make sure his guards were sufficiently out of earshot, and then finished, “Down here, you and I…well… I feel we’ve established a bond of sorts. I’ve always appreciated your candor and that we can talk without titles or ranks getting in the way.”

“I get that,” Hash said. He took another sip from the bottle. “There’s no bullshit between us. I may be your prisoner, but we’ve cleared the air of that, haven’t we?”

“Yes,” Candyman said. “You know as well as I that I’ll eventually end your life, and I’ve made that perfectly clear… no bullshit. And you’ve already expressed how much you’d like to… how do you put it? ‘Shove my head up my ass repeatedly’?”

Hash laughed. “Something like that.”

“Yes. Well, you’ve made it abundantly clear how much you would love to end my life if these convenient bars weren’t here to stop you, and that you don’t give a damn about my threats on your life. So, we’ve made our positions equally clear.”

“Yeah,” Hash said. “We each know where the other stands. No bullshit.” He took another swig off the wine bottle. “Speaking along those lines, when do you plan to kill me? As much as I appreciate the fucking booze, the accommodations suck. I’m not going to tell you anything more about Tony and his friends, I’m sure you know that by now, so why keep me alive? And don’t tell me it’s because you’re some sick fuck who likes watching me suffer. That’s seems petty coming from a man like you.”

Candyman nodded. “Yes, you are correct. I don’t derive any pleasure in watching you like this. Maybe initially I did, but that has become tedious. Truth be told, I keep you here, like this, as an example.”

Hash nodded. “I see. You and I have these civil chats when no one’s looking. But your men see the rest and spread the word about how ruthless you treat anyone who crosses you.”

“Correct. But don’t misunderstand. I also enjoy our conversations. There’s a certain… freedom… I have in discussing things with you, as I hope you have found with me, as well. I know that I’m talking to a dead man who knows it. I don’t have to worry about you betraying my confidence because, well, dead men don’t have to be trusted with secrets.”

“You’re assuming that I don’t find a way to kill you first,” Hash added with a wink.

This made Candyman laugh. “Of course. But either way it works out the same. If you kill me, none of my secrets will matter. I consider this a ‘win, win’.”

“Unless I escape this cell and you escape my vengeance. What then?”

Candyman gave him an amused look, as if listening to the reasoning of a small child. “Do you really believe there is still that possibility?”

Watch it, Hash thought. He laughed. “No. I was just being an asshole. I’m going to die in this cage. I’ve accepted that already.” He took another sip of wine. “I guess I was just hoping it would be from alcohol poisoning by now.”

Candyman laughed. “Yes. You can certainly drink. It’s a good thing I’m well-stocked in that department.”

“Now that is the most encouraging thing you’ve said since I’ve been in here.” He took a longer gulp from the wine bottle.

“Careful,” Candyman teased. “Don’t want you belligerent before we’ve had a chance to talk.”

“Talk away,” Hash said. “I do some of my best contemplating under the influence.”

Candyman nodded, then shifted gears. “Tell me again about the power plant?”

“Again, with that story? That’s old fuckin’ news.”

“Yes, but I gleam something from it each time you revisit that place.”

Hash shook his head. “Maybe you do like to watch me suffer.”

“It’s not that, Sergeant. You just have a certain… flare… for the telling of that particular tale. Especially your take on ‘desperation’. I find that most intriguing.”

The good sergeant gave the evil little man a hard look. “I thought you were interested in the behavior of that fucking horde we fought. You know, for your research? Or whatever it is you’re really doing down here. I assume we’re underground?”

“True, this started off as a bit of research, but I’ve learned so much more from your story than I ever expected. As for the rest, don’t concern yourself with what happens down here.”

“I’m always waking up to gunfire,” Hash pushed. “Is this that lab you mentioned? You know, where you conduct tests on infection rates? Sometimes I even hear screams before those gunshots… and they don’t sound human.”

“Again, Sergeant… that’s none of your concern.”

Hash raised his hands defensively, sensing the sadistic leader’s good mood starting to shift. “Alright, don’t get your panties all bunched up. I was just curious to know if I had that ending to look forward to.”

“I assure you, Sergeant, your death, and what happens down here, are two separate matters. Unless you continue to test my patience on the matter.”

“Got it,” he said with a laugh.

“The power plant,” Candyman pushed. “Tell me again what happened after your superiors issued the… what was it again?”

Hash frowned and closed his eyes. “It was called a ‘DF5’ event. ‘Desperation Factor Five’.”

“Yes,” Candyman said. “That was it. If I remember correctly, you were firmly against the order, but relayed the message to your squad, anyway.”

“Don’t forget the part where I was threatened at gunpoint by one of my own men,” Hash added bitterly.

Candyman laughed. “Yes, yes. You’re fond of bringing that up to justify your actions. But let’s be honest… hmm? We both know you had to issue the order.”

Hash closed his eyes and drank more wine. “It was a fucking massacre order,” he said. “A coward’s order. We should have fought harder for those poor people, but the powers-to-be started to panic. That fucking order was just a desperate move to save their own asses.”

“Yes,” Candyman said. “A desperate move, indeed. One might argue that your superiors had no intention of letting anyone inside the power block… and that the attack gave them an excuse to issue the order.”

“That’s crazy,” Hash said. “I won’t believe my government, as shady as it was, would be on board with pre-meditated mass murder!”

Candyman raised his hands defensively. “Fine. I was just speculating. I’m not trying to upset you, Sergeant.”

Hash nodded. “Well… alright then. Let’s move on from this conversation. It’s a tragic story you’ve already heard, and one not fit for wasting wine over.”

“But answer me this, Sergeant,” Candyman pushed.

Hash shook his head. “Man, you just don’t quit.”

“If you had refused the order, provided you had avoided getting shot in the face, what would you have done differently?”

“What the hell kind of question is that?”

“I mean, would you have led the remains of your squad out in the center of that camp just to watch them get slaughtered, too?”

“Damn straight!” Hash said, defensively. “That’s what we were there to do. We were charged with protecting the people… that was why they all came to that goddamn power plant to begin with! They thought they’d be safe… protected… and we failed!”

Candyman leaned in and smiled. “Okay. What if you and your soldiers had saved a few, led them safely inside, and then found out that even one had been infected?”

“We would’ve been careful before we let anyone like that in,” Hash said. “Point is, we didn’t do a damn thing. We didn’t even try! We just followed orders and ran inside like cowards. Then they opened fire on everyone!”

“But you followed orders, Sergeant, and probably saved everyone inside by doing so. Isn’t saving some better than losing everything? What you were forced to do may not have been heroic, but the end results still saved lives.”

“Whatever you say,” Hash said, waving a hand at the man. “Those cowards weren’t worth saving. After the deed was done, everyone inside just turned on each other eventually anyway. Once the winter came and the dead were still surrounding the place, it was just a matter of time before the supplies ran out. We were stuck in there, cut off, and-”

“Desperate?” Candyman finished.

“Yes. Desperation’s like a slow working poison,” Hash said. “One you can’t see or smell or shoot down with another fucking order. Once it gets inside of you, it strips away the bullshit you believed about yourself. And then the real you shows up… and it’s downright ugly.”

Candyman nodded. “Winter came, supplies were running out, and orders were given for the soldiers to go out and find supplies.”

“They were suicide missions,” Hash corrected. “Everyone who went out there died. If those hungry savages didn’t get them, then the cold finished them off. We were screwed.” Hash raised the wine bottle up in a mock toast, and finished, “Here’s to fucking karma, assholes. You deserved everything that happened, fuckers!”

Candyman laughed. “Who started the uprising?”

“The hell if I know,” Hash said. “I spent most of the time locked up in the power plant’s version of the brig. I punched a few higher-ranking officials and told them all exactly what kind of spineless men they were for gunning down innocents. I threatened to report their murderous asses if I ever got out of there, and they were quick to shut me up and put me away.”

“And then your old unit broke you out of the brig during the revolt?”

“Yeah, something like that.”

“Why didn’t you stay at the plant? I was under the impression that the top brass responsible for the massacre had been thrown outside, correct?”

“Yes… that’s right.”

“You were a respected soldier and could have had a persuasive position in the restructuring of things. Perhaps you could have had a run for leadership. But you chose to sneak away, with your unit, instead.”

Hash nodded sadly, taking a deep breath. “I was against the DF5 order that those cowards in power issued. They deserved to be tried for their crimes, and I wanted to see justice.” He shook his head and closed his eyes. “But that doesn’t mean that I condoned what the others did during the winter. We’re soldiers, not blood-thirsty mutineers. I watched what I thought were good men do very violent things to those politicians—cruel, malicious things. And then, throwing the rest out in the cold and watching the dead prey on them… that’s not justice… that’s barbaric! There was no honor left in that despicable place. So, I told a few of my old squad that I was going to take my chances outside, and a few of them joined me. Even that dickhead, Thompson, the asshole who was always giving me shit for bending orders, even he saw what the place had turned into… what desperation had turned those men into.”

“Monsters,” Candyman said. “I believe you called them, ‘monsters’.”

Hash smiled. “Yeah… I might’ve said that when I told this before. It’s true. Before I left that place, I couldn’t tell if the monsters inside were worse than the monsters outside. All I knew was that I had to get the hell away from there.”

“Before you, too, were infected by Desperation, yes?”

Hash stared at the man. “Yeah. I didn’t want to stick around and find out what kind of a man I truly was… or what I was capable of.” He shook his head. “As it turned out, my buddy Desperation wasn’t exclusive to the power plant. I had no idea how hard it was out there, or how bleak everything had become during that long winter. I was completely unprepared for how fucking desperate everyone calling themselves ‘survivors’ had already become.”

Candyman leaned back in his chair and shook his head sadly at the good sergeant. “You really need to let the past go, Sergeant. Yes, we have both seen first-hand what became of society once the dead took away the ‘civilized’ parts of it. Mankind was quick to turn on each other once the initial wave of the dead came through and reduced the population—winter made it worse. And now you can understand why New Cleveland has grown into the prosperous stronghold it is today. You can judge what goes on within these walls all you want, but the truth is, very few people who enter these gates choose to leave. Why do you suppose that is?”

Hash frowned. “Because they’re afraid,” he said. “Afraid of everyone and everything… out there. In here, they feel safe… or safer. In here, they can take a break from the stress of making decisions moment by moment that could result in getting them killed, or the ones they’re trying to protect.”

“Oh, not just because of all that, my friend,” Candyman said. “I have given them back the illusion of what made their lives so mundane and pointless in the first place. I’ve given them rules and laws and let everyone know that there’s consequences for breaking them by establishing my very own ‘police’ force. They stay, Sergeant, because New Cleveland is the closest they will ever get to having that old bullshit world back—the one which made them feel like no one was allowed to harm them, because here, the predators are still in check and are forced back into the shadows.”

Hash shook his head. “That’s really fucking sad, when you put it that way.”

Candyman smiled. “New Cleveland, in all it’s dark and horrifying glory, is just another version of the prison most people needed to make them feel… in control. I provide it for them, but it’s not free.”

“Yeah, I think my new friends and I have figured that out.”

Candyman laughed. “You’re only in the predicament you’re in because you gave up the town that I sent you to protect.”

“I explained what happened,” Hash said. “And I brought you everything of value from that town.”

Candyman frowned. “The town of West Farmington had more value than the supplies within it. I’ve set up border towns for a reason… and I expect them to be secure.”

“You mean, you expected me and my men to act as early warning should the deal you’ve made with those freaks up at Mosquito Creek go south.”

“Where did you hear that?”

“Come on,” Hash said. “It’s no big secret. All you have to do is wander your own streets long enough and you can hear everyone whispering the same damn thing: You’ve made an arrangement with Mosquito Creek. You send them shipments, and they leave this place alone.”

Candyman stared at Hash, his thoughts drifting elsewhere. “No matter,” he finally said. “Point is, you lost my town… and now you’re here. I don’t need to justify to you why I need the border towns protected, and I don’t have to concern myself with every wild story that circulates around my town.”

“But I’m right, aren’t I?”

Candyman smiled. “Yes, dead man, you are correct. I’ve made a… border agreement… with those things to the west, and that’s all I care to say on the matter.”

“You send them people… like food… and they stay away from here, so as long as the food keeps coming,” Hash said with disgust.

“It’s a small price to pay. The majority are protected by the sacrifice of a few.”

“You’re a monster,” Hash said, looking away.

“Desperate times call for desperate measures,” Candyman teased. “I do what I must… and no one has complained. What does that tell you about the good people of New Cleveland?”

“It tells me that you’re all on borrowed time. Those things will eventually shit on your arrangement and take this town… probably when they’ve exhausted all the other ‘food’ sources around that lake.”

“Tell me again, Sergeant, how you could murder twenty-seven people in a hospital in order to secure my town, and then still call me a monster.”

Hash’s shoulders sank. “That was low. You already know that story.”

“Yes, but if you’re going to push my buttons… all I need to do is tap lightly on yours. Tell me again, how you and your men came crawling to my gates, like so many others, and out of desperation, offered to do anything to become part of the same damn illusion?”

Hash had to swallow that bitter pill. “I know what I did. I’m not proud of it.”

“But you did secure the town… after killing… how many children in that hospital? I believe there were also some elderly folks and women, too.”

“Stop.”

“And… they were unarmed, yes?”

“Yes.”

“But they wouldn’t vacate the hospital. So, your men opened fire on them.”

“Yes. But I wasn’t there to stop them.”

“And after the deed was done… where was justice for those innocent people… hmm?”

“You’ve made your point,” Hash growled. “No need to salt the wound.”

“Have I made my point? I don’t think so. You call me a monster for the things I’ve done behind the scenes to secure my town. You have also done some nasty things behind the scenes, to aid in the security of New Cleveland.”

“I never said that,” Hash defended. “I never once excused what my men did… for any reason.”

“Doesn’t matter,” Candyman said. “You acted on my orders to secure that hospital. I’m as much responsible for your actions as you are responsible for your unit’s actions.”

Hash laughed. “That doesn’t work in your favor, telling me that the blood spilled in that hospital is on your hands. Do you think that makes you less a monster for taking the heat off me?”

“Is that what you think I’m doing?” Candyman’s frustration was apparent. “I’m not trying to make you feel better or absolve you of your actions. You have killed people, and so have I. But we do what we must to keep the wheels of society moving smoothly, because without it… we would all be reduced to savages, killing each other off until Mankind was finished.”

Hash laughed. “So, it’s all for the fucking ‘greater good’? Is that the bullshit your selling now?”

“No,” Candyman said. “What we have done to keep society intact, makes us the lesser of two evils. It’s either, ‘Pay the Lunatics…”

“…or feed the dead’,” Hash finished with a bitter laugh. “Never quite understood that shit until now.”

“But you do finally understand, yes?”

Hash stared at the heartless leader of New Cleveland and said, “I understand that you, and all those assholes at the power plant, have all adopted the same compassionless logic. Like them, you justify the murder of innocents as though it were a math problem, and no more.”

“Isn’t it though?” Candyman said. “Isn’t it better to sacrifice a small percentage of what’s left of humanity to save the whole?”

Hash closed his eyes and shook his head. “We’re not going to agree on this one, no matter how hard you try to persuade me. I don’t give a fuck about the math. Better to let the dead wipe us all out then to live with what we’ve done to survive. There’s nothing worth saving if we can kill each other off so… systematically.”

Candyman smiled, considering the good Sergeant’s words. “I appreciate your… noble stance… but it’s that kind of thinking that will kill us all off in today’s desperate world.”

“Then let it happen,” Hash said. “Maybe our time on the planet is done.”

Candyman laughed. “And with an attitude like that, I for one am glad that you are on that side of the bars, and I’m on the other. I’m not ready to give up on humanity yet.”

Hash gave him a disbelieving look. “You already gave up on humanity the moment you justified murdering people.”

Candyman nodded. “And this is where we part ways, I suppose. I completely understand why your superiors issued the DF5 command… and I respect them for making that hard decision. It probably saved them at the time.”

“Then you’re as lost as they were,” Hash said. “Perhaps you, those pricks at the power plant, and all the rest who are like you, are dead already.”

Candyman raised an eyebrow in surprise. “How do you figure, Sergeant?”

Hash smiled. “You’re all rotting away on the inside, like those walking corpses outside. Soon, there won’t be much to distinguish any of you from them.”

~~~

Next Episode 51-2

Previous Episode 50-9

~~~

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__________________________________________
“Chapter 51-1: 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.