Aware of, but not observing the activities inside the church; the two men who had been assigned the more boring job of supply looting had started on the armoured van their latest captives had driven there. Their boss had given them one lecture; just one. How important it was, how vital their own needs were, how stock means life and life means... well, that other kind of stock. Just keeps 'em coming, he repeated to them. Just keeps 'em coming. Anyone who followed got a cut and sometimes, maybe even treats. Anyone who didn't got shot. There had been six of them; they were now down to five – two of whom were captives forced into following the depraved behaviour and intentions of the sallow man. The other man argued. He didn't like what they were doing. Unfortunate for him, really.
The sallow man had not always been evil. In fact, despite his haggard and aggressive appearance now, he had been little more than ordinary. He was a telecom salesman before the Infection struck and had a long term girlfriend he was conflicted about marrying. An ordinary man he was, but he was also a bitter man; for his indecisiveness and the fact that he found decisions (since his early teens or perhaps even a little younger) difficult had often cost him. His relationship was yet another straining thing in his life that drained the vitality from his skin and put a layer of oil on his forehead and nose. He constantly stressed and fidgeted, playing with pencils or biting his nails; habits similar to a heavy smoker in their first week of taking it cold turkey. His colleagues at work would remark on it often.
"Hey, twitchy Larry, howd'ya hold that there phone when all ya do is shudder?"
His name was Larry Lewis; a comic book alliterative. He was not unpopular at work, but he often tired of being the butt of banter. On the times he brought up the courage to mention it to his workmates how it irritated him, he always felt guilty in the way they looked at him afterwards; like he was spoiling some harmless fun.
When the disease however hit and Larry saw his girlfriend dead and his office burned to the ground, suddenly decision making didn't seem such a chore anymore. His fear vanished completely and instead left him with something else. A doctor might call it madness, hardly surprising considering the situation, but Larry used the madness he had gained and twisted it towards his own survival. He preached to lost men like him; crazed in the idea that rebuilding wasn't just possible, but they could in fact do it alone. That money was still worth something and could somehow contribute to their future lives. Enough believed him – and enough was all he needed. The rest would have to fear him.
The man backing the truck between the gates did not believe. He was the only surviving captive and he carried out his commands in silent hatred. The others knew little more about him aside from the contents of his driver's license. His name was Chuck Bull and he was from Miami. The other man who was directing Chuck was wholly voluntary. Gareth Hynes, an all round sinewy little asshole who lived on the same street as Larry in the apartment block opposite. He was twenty four, out of a job and much further out of school (having dropped out in the ninth grade) and he had a bad marijuana habit; which he also dealt (after heavy duping with oregano, of course). He also loved setting things on fire – especially living things. It had been an infatuation since he was large enough to climb onto the countertop in the kitchen and reach the matches in the top cupboard. His favourite incident had been when he was thirteen. He had set up a booby trap in the nearby park for squirrels; something he'd tried before unsuccessfully. He would make a ring of fire around the terrified little creatures using lighter fluid or sucked car gasoline, which he kept in a glass coke bottle. One of them had caught fire and ran off into the gloom, shrieking desperately. It had looked like a lively ember; combing bright and confused between the trees.
"Slow it the fuck down, Chuck!" Gaz yelled indignantly. Chuck floored the accelerator and Gaz swept out of the way in the nick of time, yelping furiously. He fired two warning shots into the hood and it stopped abruptly. He flung open the car door and got up in Chuck's face, pointing the barrel of his gun into his temple.
"I ought to blow ya brains out, asswipe!" Gaz yelled, spraying foamy spit into Chuck's face. Chuck didn't reply, except for smirking slightly which just pissed off Gaz more. He laid two good ones either side of Chuck's chin, which immediately sprung up plum purple against his tanned skin; then shoved him, hard.
"Now get out and help me fuckin' unload, ya hear?" Gaz flicked the barrel of his gun in his direction. It glinted in the sun and he saw the other man's eyes glance it before he looked away again. Good. The fucker knew he meant business. He was being especially testy today. Gaz wondered if it was because of the tail they'd managed to pick up. Two age ranges – the older being mighty pretty. Damn, he could taste the green already; what their business partners would pay for that sort of cooze, considering the usual plain ass pussy they got through there. He had recognised the little one when she came in, too, which brought a smirk to his face.
Maybe I'll show her personally the courtesy we showed to her mother, he thought to himself, smirking. Teach the little whore some manners.
Tempting as a thought it was, Gaz knew Larry wouldn't approve. Keep 'em clean was another of his mottos. The virgins stay virgins. Buyers pay higher that way – yeah, yeah. She had bit him when he tried to grab her. It hurt like a son of a bitch too. He'd bandaged and tried to clean it but it had gotten infected somehow anyway. His entire finger was swollen up like a goddamn salami and pus was welling out from her little semicircular bitemark.
Gaz, nevertheless, did not know how fortunate he was. Nathalie was a carrier. A normal person would have become infected with green flu mere minutes after her bite. However, Gaz was also a carrier – and, unbeknownst to him, one of only two to be so lucky; the other being Larry. Before today, he had no so much as touched Chuck; let alone spat at him. They had worked together, doing general yard and organization work for the last few days since Nathalie's bite, so he hadn't had much contact with him, or anyone really at all since Nathalie infected him.
It surprised him therefore when he opened the back door of the van and Chuck sprang at him. He didn't have time to call out for help before Chuck's teeth were tearing out his right ear. His scream was huge and (ironically) ear splitting; enough to rouse something else in the back of the van, which had been sleeping soundly for the majority of the journey the van had taken there; nestled under a pile of blankets between two young girls.
It smelt fear and it smelt death. But what moved it was the smell of spilt blood. It could smell its master. It could smell the kind girls who had given it food. It could smell their pain and it bared its teeth in anger.
Max's teeth were in Chuck's throat even before the final wet tear of flesh from Gaz's ear signified its separation from his head. Blood burst into his mouth, ill blood. It smeared his muzzle and coated his fur as he wrestled with the man like a chew toy, swinging him from side to side almost effortlessly amid enraged growls. He dropped the body when he felt the pulse go. As gentle as a family dog Max was, he was trained to protect. And now, these beings – things – to him were no different than the many crocodiles and snakes he had gutted in the woods at the foot of Ellis's backyard.
His eyes locked on Gaz's.
Gaz screamed, holding onto the right hand side of his face, where his ear had been. Blood squirted between his fingers and mingled with the scents of fear and sickness. It pricked the dog's nostrils – and his fury.
The greasy looking man hit Ellis again. It was the third time since he'd been conscious. Two on the right and one on the left. His teeth had split the inside of his mouth and he was bleeding; the taste of warm metal slithering into his throat as the man drew away, leaving nothing but another layer of vivid pain. Ellis spat his mouthful of blood on the floor in front of him and coughed out another few gobs with it. He smiled up at the man, whose face was straight; but the look in his eyes was one of increasing agitation.
The man suddenly grabbed Ellis's face. He stared right into it, smiling.
"You're a tough kid," he said. "I like you. Really think you could do some good around here. I'm not a mean guy. They'll be fine, I promise. You have my word."
"Yeah," Ellis shot back, grinning at him, "but half an hour ago you said you weren't inta hittin' yer own kind. Whatever the fuck that means."
The man looked almost offended. It was if Ellis had said the stupidest thing; for how could he not know? A crack of light was shining through the boards in the window. It hurt Ellis's eyes and he looked away. The sight of his own blood, at least in smallish quantities, didn't disturb him like it used to. The pool reflected the ceiling darkly and was already clotting over with dust falling from the rafters. The place hadn't been cleaned; even months – hell, probably years – before the breakout. Ellis didn't need to ask the man whether or not it had been a ruse.
"You're the first uninfected young man I've seen in over a week and a half," the man replied, matter of factly. "I need young men like you. We have a comfortable system here."
"Yeah," Ellis grinned. "I'll bet you do."
The man smirked back at him. He stooped down to Ellis's level; blocking out the light. Aside from his sallow skin; nothing at all about his face was remarkable whatsoever. Plain face, brown hair, brown eyes. They were muddy coloured; red-ringed and tired looking. Not from lack of sleep; more the eyes almost, of someone bored. No, not quite. Closer to someone who... who had given up caring, even in the slightest. About anyone, or anything. They were dead; hollow and dull.
"My name is Larry Lewis," he said. "The two men behind me are Diago, on my left and James, on my right. They understand me. By the end of the day, so shall you."
Ellis stared back at him, amazed by what he had heard. His disgust rose up so rapidly, that it expelled itself in a snicker; followed by a genuine bout of laughter. All of them looked upon the young man as if he had suddenly gone insane; one of them going so far as to ready his gun.
"Ah, aha... sorry there, gentlemen," he wheezed, rubbing a tear from his eye. "Just that I... can't really get my head around what you just said. I'd ask you to repeat it; but then I'd just start laughin' again, which would be a waste'a all of our time."
Ellis took a gulp of air. His mouth was sticky and uncomfortable; hot agony still throbbing from his cheek. The scars from the acid encircled the upper part of his left arm; reminding him of how long it'd been since he'd felt as much pain, though it was far from the worst he'd suffered. The spare blade he carried, the switchblade in his boot; poked at his heel insistently as he stretched out his legs.
No, not yet.
"You see," Ellis continued, "men like me and men like you, differ. Where you get off on feeding people to the dogs for your own gain; well, I just don't think I could live with myself. Our lifestyles, well... I'd say, are mutually incompatible. I'd rather live like a man, die like a man; than ever become the monster that you've become."
Larry looked furious at first. He went forward to hit Ellis again; but then, his fist midair, changed his mind. He motioned instead for the others to pick Ellis up. The imbalance of lift in Ellis's shoulders was considerable; one of the men, chubby Diago, being far stronger than his skinny companion.
"Let's see if we can change your perspective, then."
Outside a comfortable old farmhouse in suburban Savannah, a large helicopter circled downwards; heading in for a landing. Infected looked up at it with awed expressions before running towards in droves; squawking and screaming. They met their end, rapidly chasing pipe bombs thrown from the copter; which bleeped and destroyed them below, overturning a dumpster and two cars in the smash.
Finally, after a few minutes of uneasy fidgeting, it touched ground; the motor ceasing its roar and coming to a halt. Rochelle and Nick stepped out, turning to face the others.
"In and out," Coach said abruptly. "We don't wait around."
They both nodded, and made their way across the overgrown grass of the McKinney's backyard to the backdoor. As they had expected, it was locked, but not bolted. Ellis had left it that way, so his group wouldn't be taken off guard from behind; though it would still be easy enough to get in, with a rudimentary knowledge of lockpicking. Nick retrieved a bobby pin from his pocket and started to work on the door as Rochelle scanned the place quickly.
It was very Ellis, from the structure of the main building to the chicken coops at the bottom of the garden. Rochelle didn't need to imagine him living here – she could see it already. She could see the barbecues near the woods, his pickup full of old bike parts and the hearty meals he ate; talking around a battered old oak table with his mother. It sang of country ways and good-natured living.
She suddenly noticed how foul the stench was in the air, around them. She coughed a little, covering her mouth and nose. Two dead hunters lay sprawled in the grass, several feet apart.
She heard a click and looked around.
"Got it," Nick said, pushing the door aside. Eager to get away from the smell as soon as possible, she ducked under his arm and he followed her inside.
"Ellis?" Rochelle called out, excitedly.
Immediately, panic hit like a bucket of cold water tossed over them. The lack of response hung heavily in the air and it pushed both their will and patience.
"ELLIS?!" Nick bellowed; cupping his hands around his mouth.
Still, no reply came.
"I'm going to look around," Rochelle told Nick briefly. Before he could argue, she strode away from him, making her way into the hall. A few moments later, Nick heard her pondering footsteps above him; clumsied due to worry. He turned left, into the kitchen instead.
He felt extremely numb. As much as the kid pissed him off, he had to admit to himself how much he'd actually missed his company. Christ, he was even beginning to get the need for optimism lately – how fucked up was that? Nick sighed, running a hand through his hair. He wasn't dead. He couldn't be dead, they were speaking yesterday –
He suddenly noticed the folded piece of paper on the kitchen table.
Nick grabbed it; immediately reading it. Rochelle came back down, just as his small green eyes finished scanning the last few words.
"There's nothing –"
Nick held up a hand to shush her. When he finished reading a few seconds later, her handed over the note.
"I found this on the kitchen table," he said. "Ellis wrote it. It's his crappy handwriting, for sure."
If you arrive and we're not here; we set off early in the morning to the address on the ad inside this letter. It's a personal thing I had to do, but it's less than an hour away and I'll be back early afternoon, with Zoey and Nathalie, the little girl I was telling you about.
God speed, folks.
Rochelle was silent for a moment; as she took in the content of the note.
"It's nearly nightfall," said Nick. "Wherever he went... he should have been back by now."
She nodded, clenching the papers in her hand. The church on the Our Lady of Martys ad crumpled; the steeple a black fang across the page.
"You know what we have to do," she replied.
Nick inhaled to protest, but then thought better of it. He could say many things about himself, but something had not always been was a good man, or even a moral man. However, one thing he liked to be able to pride himself on was his compulsion to clear his conscience, especially when it meant something. And on more than one occasion, he had owed Ellis his life.
The two of them left together tell the others. For the first time, on the walk back down the backyard, Rochelle took Nick's hand and held on tightly.
A/N: Again, thanks for your patience guys. I've been busy with a lot of things; so I hope this tides you over, at least a little for the time being. I'll do my best to get the next one out as soon as I can.