Read After: Red Scare (AFTER post-apocalyptic series, Book 5) Online

Authors: Scott Nicholson

Tags: #science fiction, #military, #horror, #action, #post-apocalyptic, #dystopian

After: Red Scare (AFTER post-apocalyptic series, Book 5) (8 page)

BOOK: After: Red Scare (AFTER post-apocalyptic series, Book 5)
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CHAPTER FIFTEEN

 

 

Wanda sat on an uncomfortable couch in the reception area. “Shoot it out, or make a run for it?”

Jorge was surprised she even asked. Her pleasure at being reunited with a shotgun was plain.
Add a splash of alcohol on top, along with a built-up resentment of the Zapheads, and she must be struggling to restrain herself.

“I want revenge as much as you do, but not like this,” Jorge said. “Even if we kill these, more will come, and where will that leave the others?”

“You got family. Me, I got nothing. I don’t care.”

The Zapheads slammed against the thick glass of the door. A crack appeared in the upper corner. There was more movement along the dark street.

“The back door,” Jorge said. “The alley’s probably still clear.”

They’d still have to cross the street at some point, even if they tried to find the rear of the café and seek entry there. Or they could hole up and wait in one of the back rooms, which would offer some security if the Zapheads managed to break through the front. But he’d already been away from Rosa and Marina too long. And he was horrified to admit that he no longer trusted his wife to look after their daughter.

“I’m tired of running,” Wanda said. “Time for a little payback.”

“I can’t.” Jorge retreated to the dim interior of the office.

“All right,” she said, as another spider-web crack appeared in the glass. “I’ll give you a couple of minutes to get out of here.”

She laid a box of shells on the receptionist’s desk. Although her plump, creased face was cast in shadow, Jorge could see her smile.

“You sure?”

“Yeah. Just bring me that bottle out of McCutcheon’s bottom drawer before you go.”

“How did you know there was a bottle?”

“Zaps aren’t the only ones with a sixth sense.” She mushed her sibilants together, but seemed sober enough to make a suicidal decision. Jorge wasn’t going to argue with her.

Jorge retrieved the bottle from the bottom drawer of the desk. He thought about bringing another box of shells along with it, but Wanda would never live long enough to reload. He handed her the bottle, which had a good four inches of amber liquid in it.

“McCutcheon is a fine, uppity Scottish name but I’m glad the whiskey is Irish.” Wanda twisted the cap and toasted the Zapheads squeezed against the door and windows. “Cheers, folks.”

As she took a deep swig, Jorge made his way down the dark hall to the rear exit. He took one last look at the woman, not sure if he should be grateful for her sacrifice or angry that she was wasting herself on a meaningless confrontation. Even if she killed a dozen, it wouldn’t change the outcome here. The Zapheads would still outnumber them a hundred to one.

The back alley was barren, a red-orange river of light running down the center of it. Jorge stuck to the shadows and crept along the wall, keeping an eye out for movement not only along the intersecting streets but the doors and windows of the buildings across the way.

He let the .30-.30 lead him a block down, all the while bracing in anticipation of a shotgun blast followed by all hell breaking loose. The town was strangely quiet despite the destruction, like the aftermath of a storm.

Jorge took a side alley nearly clogged with vehicles and trash dumpsters, working his way through until he reached the street. Wanda must have held out to give him enough time to get well away from the crowd of mutants. While most of the street was clear except for the pack trying to reach Wanda, three mutants stood between him and the café two hundred feet away.

He slipped across the sidewalk, ducking behind the cars parked along the street. A dead body lay in the shadows in front of him. Jorge couldn’t tell whether it was human or Zap, and he didn’t really care. Everyone had their opportunity to escape. And death was probably preferable to whatever the mutants had planned for them all.

You know the plan. Like that baby said: Turn everyone into New People.

Whether dead or alive.

So maybe death wasn’t an escape after all.

Jorge’s rifle scraped against the side of a vehicle, and he froze. Raising his head to peek through the passenger’s-side window, he saw the three Zapheads moving in his direction. One of them took a couple of tentative steps.

Jorge didn’t want to shoot it out yet, but he might not have a choice. He ducked down and listened for their approach. He slipped his finger inside the trigger guard and held his breath.

At first he thought the nearest Zaphead was panting or shuffling his feet, and then he realized it was whispering. “
Come now come here, come now come here
.”

Then the words faded. They were moving away from him.

And toward the café.

Kuh-booooooom.

The shotgun blast triggered a shivering rain of falling glass, and Wanda’s drunken laugh followed the concussive echo that rang off the glass and brick storefronts. The three Zapheads didn’t head for the noise, and Jorge understood what that meant.

The babies are calling them.

The café would likely be secure enough to withhold such a small group of them. But what if Rosa let them in? Or Father Casey?

No time to look for a back entrance. Jorge sprinted across the street, waiting for the Zapheads to notice him. The shotgun boomed again, tearing a path of destruction through the crowd, although some of the mutants pushed their way into the shattered office windows. Wanda would likely be swarmed in seconds.

One of the Zapheads reached for Jorge as he passed. Impossibly, this one still wore a baseball cap that must have been clamped tightly to his head. He was four inches taller than Jorge and much heavier, and his right arm swung like a rotten log.

Jorge dodged the blow and drove his rifle butt under the man’s arm pit, then swung the barrel and clubbed the mutant’s skull. Although the cap flew off and a dark, wet furrow opened in the man’s scalp, he grabbed at Jorge again.

Wanda’s shotgun blasted two more times as Jorge danced away from his attacker.

And right into the thin, crablike arms of another.

This one squeezed him, her breath rich with rot, soiled clothes strong enough to smother the aroma of smoke. She moved with a lithe, animalistic fury, clawing at his chest. His insulated jacket protected him from harm, but he couldn’t twist free. Then her mouth passed over his neck and clamped down on his ear.

The pain ran through him like a live wire jabbed into his brain. He swallowed the scream that swelled up from his belly, but he couldn’t contain it all. The other two Zapheads closed in, still whispering, “
Come here come now
.”

The Zaphead’s teeth dug deeper into his earlobe. Jorge nearly dropped the rifle, catching it with one hand as his other arm jabbed backward at the mutant’s face and ribs. He relaxed his legs and let his weight drop—knowing and dreading the price of the maneuver.

He did scream this time, barely hearing himself over the red wall of agony that washed over him.

He rolled across the asphalt, skinning his knuckles but managing enough distance to raise the rifle. The female mutant’s eyes gleamed, a flap of Jorge’s flesh dangling from her mouth and dripping blood. The first shot struck her between the eyes, and they widened even as they dimmed.

Jorge worked the lever and reloaded before she even hit the ground, and his second shot struck the bulky mutant in the gut. That didn’t stop him, and Jorge
clacked
another cartridge into place, took his time despite his shaking, slick hands, and took off the left side of his skull.

The third mutant required only one shot, this one to the knee, and it collapsed and flailed uselessly after Jorge as he limped around it toward the café. He touched his ear and felt a ragged, slippery stub.

Wanda’s shotgun thundered yet again, and her colorful curses rang through the streets. She sounded hurt but strangely jubilant.

By now, the streets were full of Zapheads, pouring from side streets, alleys, and open doors. Although they still appeared confused from the earlier attack, they staggered closer, half of them coming for Jorge.

He’d never be able to shoot them all, especially without reloading. He hurried to the café and found the door locked as he’d instructed. He rapped on the glass with the tip of his rifle as he judged the speed of the nearest mutants. At most, he had twenty seconds.

He tapped again, and then called, “Let me in! Rosa! Marina!”

He peered through a gap in the curtains. They must have extinguished the candles, because the main room was dark aside from a dull, silvery reflection off the bar mirror.

Maybe you should have continued up the street and led them away. Even if you hole up here and manage to fortify the place, you won’t be able to hold them off for long.

But he couldn’t bear parting from his family yet again.

He pounded harder, frantically yanking the door handle.

He glanced behind him.

Ten seconds.

Jorge was already thinking of places he could hide Rosa and Marina as he drove the butt of his rifle into the café’s main window. The glass shattered inward and he climbed over the sill, cutting his palm in the process.

“Rosa!”

They had likely hidden in the back if they’d heard the uproar. But where? The storage room? Walk-in cooler? The kitchen? The bathroom?

He didn’t have time to look, especially in the dark, with Zapheads already clawing their way into the room behind him. He squeezed off two shots, barely taking time to aim, and then retreated deeper into the café. He shouted into each room as he went, and when he reached the back door he realized his foolishness.

They were gone.

All of them.

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

Franklin was drowsing, reflecting on his latest detour from utopian idealism—mostly wondering what his goats were up to—when he stirred with a start.

His ass was sore from sitting on a riding lawn mower, but he’d been determined to show how tough he was. In truth, he was probably the oldest member of Brock’s thrown-together civilian militia, and given the way he’d been presented as some kind of grizzled savior, he probably could have claimed one of the rocking chairs or recliners dragged into the yard and circled around the fire pit.

Brock had established quarters in a series of neighboring houses, which allowed for both easier defense and quick communication. The campfire in the yard was a risk, but they decided freezing their asses off was a bigger risk. So while half of the crew slept, a dozen stood guard outside while the rest scouted the town.

Even though lookouts were posted in the second-story windows, Franklin was annoyed to discover everyone else at the fire was asleep.

Brock runs a shitty operation. A bunch of hipsters and grad students who probably still check their cell phones twice a day to see if they’ve received any text messages.

Still, this was better than being part of Sgt. Shipley’s unit, drinking filtered urine in a doomsday bunker. And he had to admit, while his compound offered some nice advantages such as not having to deal with assholes, he was glad to be back among people. Maybe he was a humanist instead of a cynic after all.

But even humanists needed to watch their own asses in the apocalypse, because the next guy might be asleep at the wheel.

Judging by the shift of the stars and the position of Orion’s belt in the sky, Franklin figured it was somewhere between three and four in the morning. Although the burning town was out of sight beyond a forested band of suburban development, the smoke cast a haze that filtered the moon and stars.

Something rattled in the darkness to his left and he sat up, grabbing his rifle. He was about to aim when he saw the origin of the commotion—a gray tomcat licking at the bottom of a tuna can.

I’m going to have to talk to Brock about his security. A Zaphead could walk in and steal his Starbucks card before he even knew what hit him.

Not that Brock cared. Even though Sierra wasn’t falling for his line of bullshit, several of the young women in the camp were only too eager to play tsarina for him. But Franklin couldn’t really blame the guy. You had to strike while the iron was hot. Franklin’s own physical urges were so dormant that he couldn’t even rummage up a dirty memory of any of his three wives.

He was busy searching for one when someone called from the darkness. “Don’t shoot, it’s us.”

Franklin pointed his rifle into the night, already feeling stupid because Zapheads didn’t identify themselves. They just came at you and did what they did.

“Who’s there?” he called back, waking up several of the other sentries.

“Us.”

“That doesn’t narrow it down any.”

A quick golden light fluttered and vanished. Then four figures emerged from blackness at the edge of the firelight.

“I’ll be damned,” Franklin said as Rachel and DeVontay came across the yard, escorted by two of Brock’s crew.

“Found them in town,” said the man on the left, a beefy guy wearing a fedora, leather jacket, and diamond stud earring who was typical of this crowd. Like they’d enjoyed this opportunity to prowl through everybody’s shit and just take whatever they wanted. But he didn’t care if this guy was as big an asshole as Brock; he’d found Rachel, and that made Franklin want to jump up and kiss his bristly jowls in thanks.

Instead, he hugged and kissed Rachel. “Honey! You had me worried sick.”

“I had to go.” Her eyes still held that golden twinkle that was so deeply disturbing but oddly beautiful all the same.

Damn, you’re getting soft in your old age. You’d rather have her as a mutant freak than not have her at all.

She didn’t appear all that different from when she’d left the compound several days ago. Her face was a little dirtier and a couple of buttons of her blouse were missing, and she had to be cold considering how much of her neckline was showing. Then Franklin glanced at DeVontay.

Don’t tell me…shit.

“Hi, Mr. Wheeler,” DeVontay said, extending a hand. A rifle was slung over his shoulder and he looked like he’d marched across eighty acres of hell, with blood spattered on his clothes. His glass eye, always a little unsettling, didn’t seem to fit quite right, and the firelight danced against its surface in a surreal imitation of Rachel’s eyes.

Franklin ignored the outstretched hand. Such useless formalities were for the old ways, not After. “Hi, DeVontay. Were you the one that found her?”

“We kind of found each other,” he said.

The guy in the fedora said, “While ya’ll have your little family reunion, I’ve got to report to Brock.”

“What’s going on in Newton?” Franklin asked.

The other scout, a short woman in a knit wool cap that accented the roundness of her face, said, “Looks like Brock was right. The Zaps are already recovering from the attack, but any humans in the town have scattered. A bunch of them dead, too, whether the Zaps killed them or they got caught in the crossfire.”

“That’s Shipley’s style,” Franklin said. “Shoot them all and let Satan sort them out.”

“He was also right about the Zapheads collecting the dead. Looks like they’re after their own kind as well as the humans, so his plan might work.”

“The stadium,” Rachel began, and then looked off toward the reddish glow of town as if remembering something.

“The bodies are still there,” the woman said.

“Stacked like firewood,” the fedora guy said. “Looked like some kind of Hitler shit.”

“Go fill Brock in on what went down,” the woman said, rubbing her hands before the flames. “I’ll make sure these folks behave.”

As the fedora guy entered one of the houses that served as headquarters, DeVontay draped an arm across Rachel’s shoulder. Franklin shot him a glare but DeVontay didn’t remove it. “It’s the babies,” he said.

“That’s what we heard, too,” Franklin said. “Some of the people who escaped made their way here, so we know all about it.” He nodded at Rachel. “Seems like they were expecting you.”

As Rachel explained her strange connection to the babies, Franklin felt as if he was sinking into some kind of psychedelic tar pit. Babies were bad enough under the best of circumstances, tiny little tyrants that demanded nipples and lullabies and warm snuggies or else they’d bawl their fuzzy heads off. And even if you gave them everything they wanted, they still shit their pants and expected you to clean it up.

Cathy’s mutant infant had been bad enough but didn’t act too out of the ordinary. The Zaphead babies had since become so smart now that they were calling the shots, plotting world domination while forcing humans to wipe their asses. As a hardcore libertarian, such a social order really jammed sand in Franklin’s craw.

“So do you know how many of these babies are left?” Franklin asked.

“Bryan said eleven,” DeVontay said.

“Bryan? So you’re on a first-name basis now?”

“Well, that’s just in Newton,” Rachel said. “I could feel there are thousands out there, organizing even now, but a lot of their tribes have faced the same sort of…obstacles as the ones in Newton.”

Franklin was relieved to hear her talk like she wasn’t one of them. But he still didn’t trust her. He’d given in to her once, back at his compound, and let himself be convinced that she knew what she was doing. But she might have been sucked in and twisted and used by those Zapper bastards to help them wipe out the human race.

“So you’re with us now?” Franklin asked her.

DeVontay pulled her even closer and said, “She figured out what’s important.”

“You guys,” Rachel said. Then she looked around, her brow furrowing. “Where’s Stephen?”

Oh, shit.

“I lost him,” Franklin said, staring into the fire to avoid her fiery gaze.

“You
what
?”

Franklin dipped his head like a scolded child. “He snuck away during the Zap attack. Said he was going to follow you.” He fished in his pocket and brought out the crumpled note the boy had left.

She tore it from his hand and read it by firelight although Franklin was pretty sure her eyes cast enough illumination to do the job. She wriggled deeper into DeVontay’s embrace and said, “We have to find him.”

“We will,” DeVontay said, kissing her on top of the head.

“He could be anywhere by now,” Franklin said. “Lenoir, Stonewall, hell, even Tennessee.”

“We have to find him,” Rachel said. “He’s already been abandoned once. And I lost all my other kids…”

She’d taken her job as a school counselor seriously, driven by compassion, kindness, and patience. All those attributes were alien to Franklin, but he admired them in a way, mostly because she was so devoted to her children. It was tied up in her religious faith, and although Franklin considered that kind of thinking part of the past, Rachel clearly hadn’t left it behind.

“We’ll find him,” DeVontay said. “But we need to get some rest first. With all we’ve been through, we need to recharge or we won’t be any good at all.”

“Not so fast,” the woman said. “You can’t just go off wherever you want. We need you.”

“I didn’t sign any enlistment papers,” DeVontay said. “I came to Newton to find Rachel. I served as a carrier to do it, I traveled with a pack of Zaps, and I had to kill to make it out alive. So don’t be giving me any shit about sacrificing for the good of the team. I’ve made plenty of sacrifices already.”

Damn. I like this boy more and more every time I see him.

“We’ll see what Brock says about that,” the woman said, heading for the house after the fedora guy.

Franklin smiled at Rachel, feeling like an old fool for being so happy to see her. “Are you back for good? With us?”

She nodded. “I hope so. But we need to find Stephen.”

“First things first,” DeVontay said, guiding her closer to the fire. “I’m freezing. Let’s warm up and then get some sleep.”

“Separate beds,” Franklin said, propping his rifle in his elbow. “Unless you want to get married tonight.”

“You’re so old-school, Grandpa,” Rachel said.

He was glad to hear her call him that. Along with her desire to find Stephen, it was evidence that she might just be one of them after all.

But not so human that she needed to get all goofy in love.

“Some things you shouldn’t rush.”

“I guess you’re right,” DeVontay said, hiding any disappointment. “It’s not like it’s the last day on Earth.”

BOOK: After: Red Scare (AFTER post-apocalyptic series, Book 5)
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