Forced back out onto the road, Chris is soon pitted against old foes - the Dead Men, a cannibalistic motorcycle gang, still thirsting for revenge after their last encounter. And in Amarillo, Texas, he runs into an old friend from his days in Pagan - Hooley Hoolihan.
Now Chris is pitched into a vicious battle on the streets of Amarillo. Opposing him, Colonel Gareth Stone's zombie army, now forged into a deadly alliance with The Dead Men; at his side, Joe Thursday, Hooley Hoolihan and of course, his daughter Ruby; at stake, the lives of his family and the survival of every human settlement in the west.
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Jed “Hooley” Hoolihan adjusted the sight on the Barrett M107 sniper rifle and peered through the scope along Polk Street. It was nine o’clock on an early fall morning and the city of Amarillo, Texas was already sweltering, with only a slight breeze to take the edge off the day.
Thirteen floors below, a tumbleweed traversed the cracked blacktop in lazy turns and came to rest against the makeshift tripod he’d constructed in the road junction. Suspended from the tripod by a length of rope, was a bucket, in it a vile concoction that included the contents of his latrine, some long expired army ration packs, and the rancid remains of a couple of prairie dogs. His stomach lurched as he remembered the putrid stench of it, but it was having the desired effect, the first of his customers had just appeared.
The rat peered out from a crack in the pavement and sampled the air, its whiskers twitching. Now it scurried a few paces from its hiding place, stopped and raised itself onto its hind legs, then sniffed again. He was a big feller, not as big as some Hooley had seen, but at least the size of a small dog. Hooley lined up the rat in his crosshairs, bringing into focus its course, black fur, white underbelly, yellow chisel-shaped teeth and pinpoint red eyes. He gave an involuntary shudder, then shifted his aim. The rat wasn’t his target. It was bait.
The scope of the rifle came to bear on the tripod and zoomed in on the rope. Hooley took a breath, held it, squeezed the trigger and felt the rifle kick back against his shoulder. A sharp crack echoed off the empty buildings.
The rat dropped instantly onto its haunches and scurried back towards its hideout. The bucket hit the pavement, tottered briefly then tilted and spilled its vile contents onto the ground. Hooley shifted the rifle again and picked out the rat standing frozen on the blacktop. He could almost imagine the dilemma playing in its fevered little brain - feed or flee.
He picked up movement at the periphery of his vision, another rat, this one smaller and brown in color, attracted by the delicious aroma wafting from the bucket. It scampered from an alleyway where another appeared, then another. Soon he picked up a cacophony of squeals as more of the creatures scurried from the alley. The black rat, perhaps sensing his meal slipping away, charged forward and reached the bucket just after his smaller brethren. He swiped at one of them, sending it tumbling across the road surface, then waded into the bucket.
A stream of rodents was traversing the blacktop now, a torrent of black and grey and brown pouring from the alley, from the drains, from the buildings. Other predators joined the fray, a pair of hawks swooped down and picked up a few squirming victims, a coyote and a gang of mangy alley cats, picked off prey on the fringes. And the rats turned on each other too, larger individuals attacking and cannibalizing smaller, weaker opponents.
As the road surface boiled with thousands of frenzied rats, the first of the Zs - a female missing an arm and a child with severe head trauma - staggering from one of the decrepit mansions along Polk Street. They lurched towards the massed rodents, while behind them more of the creatures appeared, most of them naked or in rotting rags, all of them carrying horrendous injuries. He saw a man without legs dragging himself across the blacktop, a female with a stomach wound that ran right through her, others with flesh falling away from their bones, severe burns, head wounds and missing limbs.
The first of the zombies had reached the rats. She swooped down and scooped one up, bit off its head and drained the flow of blood before chewing on the carcass like it was a piece of beef jerky. Now the rest of them waded in and fed, oblivious to the bites and flailing claws of the rodents.
Enough of the Zs were now in the killing zone. Hooley lined up the rifle on the head of a one-armed man, pulled the trigger and watched the man’s head explode. He shifted his aim and took out another, then another. The rats were in flight now, sent cowering by the sharp report of the rifle. The zombies, though, seemed oblivious to the sound. They staggered around in aimless circles, perhaps wondering – if they were capable of such things – where the feast had disappeared to.
“Sum bitches,” Hooley muttered to himself. He sighted through the scope, aimed and fired, again and again, decimating them.
“Order! The meeting will come to order!”
The convener slammed his gavel into the podium. “Order!” he shouted again, his face flushed and red under the stage lights. “Order!” This time his message seemed to get through. Shouts were stilled, conversations became muted, the few scuffles that had broken out, abated. The hall fell silent by degrees.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” the convener said, once calm had been restored. “I’ll ask you all to heed the chair. Really! We’re not animals!”
“That’s easy for you to say, Clarky,” someone shouted from the audience. “I got a family. We’re talking about their safety here. Hell, we’re talking about life and death.”
A trickle of “hell yeahs” and “damn straights” echoed through the auditorium.
“All the more reason for us to resolve this in a civilized manner,” the convener, Eugene Clark, said. He turned his attention to Joe Thursday, sitting fifteen rows back in the middle of the Flagstaff Community Hall. “Mr. Thursday, you were saying?”
Joe got to his feet and looked across the sea of faces staring back at him. To his right sat Chris and Kelly and their kids, to his left Ruby and her friend Ferret. Along with Kelly’s mother, Janet Capshaw, these were the only friends he had in the room.
“Thank you, Mr. Chairman,” Joe said. “What I was saying is that we’re prepared to leave if that’s the decision of the council. It was never our intention to place the City of Flagstaff or any of its citizens in danger.”
“Why’d you come here then?” someone shouted.
“Glad you asked that question, friend,” Joe said, addressing his answer to the entire gathering. “We came here mainly because we figured we had friends in Flagstaff.”
“Figured that wrong,” somebody said, triggering a ripple of laughter.
Joe held up a hand to still them. “But we also came here to warn you. While General Pike and his army are on the move, none of the settlements is safe. It’s my belief that General Pike intends destroying all of the settlements, and that includes Flagstaff, whether we’re here or not.”
“That’s bullshit,” a man at the front of the hall shouted. He got slowly to his feet, a burly man with a thick, black beard.
“You’ve not been acknowledged by the chair, Rayburn,” Eugene Clark said.
“Fuck the chair,” Rayburn said. “I’m saying my piece.”
“No, you’re not,” Clark insisted.
“Let him speak,” Joe said and Clark nodded reluctantly.
“Chair acknowledges Rayburn Finch,” he muttered.
Finch took his time, looking around the room and drawing nods from his friends and supporters. “I’ve lived in Flagstaff all my life,” he said eventually. “Both before and after the troubles. And when I look around this room I see friends and neighbors who’ve spent their whole lives here too, and it does me proud. It does me proud because while the rest of the country has gone to hell in a hand basket, we folk up here have done a damn fine job of maintaining a sense of normality. We take care of our town and we look out for our own.” Applause rippled through the auditorium.
“Mark what I said, though. I said, we look out for our own. These folks breezing in here from California, they’re not our people. We owe them nothing. Now, you all heard Mr. Joe Thursday tell you from his own mouth, he’s got some beef with this General Pike. We shelter them here and it seems to me we’re getting ourselves involved in matters that don’t rightly concern us. I for one ain’t going to sit by and allow that to happen.” This time the applause was thunderous.
“Now you listen to me Rayburn Finch,” Janet Capshaw said, jumping to her feet. “I’ve lived in this town a lot longer than you. Hell, I remember when you were still in diapers, wore them well into your third year as I recall.”
Finch turned to the chairman, “Has she been acknowledged by the chair?” he said in a mock hurt tone. Laughter rang out and the chairman raised his gavel to still it.
“Chair acknowledges Mrs. Capshaw.”
“Thank you, Eugene. My point is this, Kelly was born and raised here, she has as much right to be here as any of you.”
“Her maybe, but what about the others?”
“What? Her kids? Her husband? You expect her to send them away?”
“Sit down, Janet.”
“I won’t, I have a right to speak.”
“Why don’t we put this sucker to a vote?” Finch said
“Yeah!” someone’s shouted setting off another volley of “damn straights” and “hell yeahs” and evolving into a chant of, “Vote! Vote! Vote!”
“Silence!” Eugene Clark shouted, but this time he was swimming against the tide. The meeting soon devolved into chaos.
When order was eventually restored the vote was held. It was all but unanimous.
“Way I see it,” Joe said, “We’ve got three choices. We can head back west and take Pike head on, we can hunker down, find a place to hide and hope they don’t find us, or we can keep going east. I’ve still got men out there that are loyal to me. Dave Bamber in White Plains for one.”
Chris scooted forward in his seat and cast his eye around his mother-in-law’s tastefully furnished living room. His gaze came to rest on the sideboard where a vast array of silver framed photographs was displayed. He recognized one of the men in the photographs, an old friend of his, Charles Babbage. He wondered how Babs would have handled this situation.
“Chris?” Kelly said beside him.
“Just thinking this through,” Chris said, then to Joe. “From the way you’ve just put your argument, it sounds to me like you favor heading east.”
“Makes the most sense,” Joe agreed. “We don’t have the men or equipment to win a fight with Pike, and I never was one for laying low. What do you say?”
“I don’t know,” Chris said. “Feels like we’re running out, leaving a lot of good people to the tender mercies of Gideon Pike.”
“Out of necessity,” Joe said. “Getting ourselves killed won’t help those people much either. This way we can head back east, put together a force capable of taking Pike on, and then come back and kick his ass. We make a move on Pike with what we’ve got now, and it’s one step removed from suicide, and not a big step at that.”
“Joe’s right,” Kelly said. “I’d feel a lot better for the kids if we kept moving. You saw what happened in Lancaster.”
Chris knew they were right, of course, but still he was reluctant to say the words out loud. It felt too much like quitting, like giving up all the gains they’d fought so hard for these last twelve years.
“I know what you’re thinking, compadre,” Joe said. “I feel the same way you do, but remember what General Patton said, ‘he who fights and runs away, gets to come back another day and kick the ever loving crap out of his opponent. Or was that Gandhi? Either way, it’s the right thing to do.”
The door pushed open and Janet Capshaw backed through. She was wearing a blue dress that looked like it might have been designed by Donatella Versace, diamond earrings, and enough make-up to supply a small branch of Macy’s. In her hand she clutched a tray, on which a number of glasses clinked. “Who wants Margaritas?” she said. “My own special blend, limes grown right here in my back garden.”
“Mom, I don’t think now’s the time,” Kelly said.
“Nonsense, how often do I have my whole family together, not to mention a handsome man in the house?” She shot Joe a meaningful look and Chris was amused to see that Joe looked away and actually blushed.
“Well, I guess one won’t hurt,” Chris said. “No more than that though, we’ve got some preparations to make. We’re heading east in the morning.”
“Heading east?” Janet said. “When did you decide this?”
“Just a minute ago.”
“But when will I see the kids?”
“Mom, you hardly see them now. Samantha was just out of diapers the last time you saw her.”
“I know that, but now that we’ve been reunited, I thought we might spend some time together.”
“We might have done,” Kelly said. “If your citizen’s committee hadn’t run us out of town.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t bother with that,” Janet said. “Just a couple of Neanderthals beating their chests.”
“It was a unanimous vote!” Kelly said giving her mother an exasperated look.
“Yeah? Well, let’s see them try to make you leave. They’ll have to get by me first.”
“Too late mom, it’s already decided. We leave tomorrow.”
Janet looked back at Kelly with a sorrowful expression on her elaborately made-up face. She removed a handkerchief from her sleeve and blotted at the corners of her eyes. For a moment Chris thought she that she was going to cry, but then she lifted one of the glasses from the tray on the counter and downed its contents.
“Well, that’s settled then,” she said. “I’m coming with you.”