Read Republic of the Living (Novella): Vengeance Online

Authors: Taz Gallaher

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BOOK: Republic of the Living (Novella): Vengeance
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The wind drafting off the front of the speeding
truck did little to relieve the parching heat.   Too hot, he thought
to himself.  Used to be the rains brought chilly, damp winter even this
far south.  Used to be. He smiled at the phrase.  Marcie would be moaning
about drought and the end of good weather.  To him, the funky seasons
seemed just another sign of change.  Mother Nature adjusting to the chaos
and disaster all around them, opening up new paths, closing down others.

“Everything fucked up,” he muttered aloud. “Todo
se chinga.”  

The girl stirred.  “What?” She blinked and
rubbed her eyes.

Chewy laughed.  “Nothing, cosita.  Just
thinking.”

She pulled herself up to sit against a mound of
black, plastic bags and rifled through her pack, finally withdrawing a water
bottle.  She stole a few gulps from the bottle and extended it to Chewy.
 He waved his hand and she returned it to her pack.


We’re almost there,” she
said, bobbing her head toward the edge of the highway.

Chewy rolled his head away from her, gazing over
the side of the truck at the dirty, soot-streaked warehouses and office
buildings that flashed by.


Oakland,” he said.
 “You know your way around, right?”

She gazed at him and drew her knees to her chest.
 She nodded wordlessly and dropped her head.   Chewy closed his
eyes.

Two days on the road.  From Arcata to Leggett
to Mendo to Mill Valley and across the bridge into Richmond.  He smiled to
himself as he remembered their night at the Naturist commune in Leggett.
 Even she had to cough down a giggle at the sight of Donny’s massive
flanks wobbling in the open air as the big man ushered them through the town
gate.  

She wasn’t a talker.  That was for sure.
  Her name was Mai.  She had a brother.  Her parents had
hired her out to a grow operation deep in the coastal range above Arcata.
 She’d escaped the camp and somehow found her way to Auntie and her
beehives.  She wouldn’t talk about the dead girl.
     

The truck slowed and he opened his eyes to the
thickening gray light of dusk.  Zipping up his jacket, he kicked the
girl’s boot and stood to stretch.  He settled his pack onto his shoulders
and hopped down from the truck.  The girl slipped onto the road next to
him.  With a wave of his hand out the open window, the driver pulled forward
and sped down the highway.


We’ll never get across
that.”  Chewy pointed at the long, thick wall of busted cars and debris in
the middle of the highway.  “Best to go up and around.”

She nodded and turned to hike toward an off-ramp
in the distance.  By the time they reached the exit, the fading sun draped
the highway in long shadows.  The gathering darkness made him nervous and
he stopped.


Hold on, Mai,” he said.
 “Night’s coming on fast.”

She spun around to face him.


Either we hustle on downtown
or we find a place to hole up until morning.”

She turned her head slowly, taking in the low
industrial buildings and garages that surrounded the highway.


Come on,” she said, turning
back to the ramp.  “Better get your hustle on, old man.”

He smiled weakly and followed her up the curving
ribbon of concrete.

They picked their way carefully around a handful
of cars scattered along the ramp.  Mai halted at the top of the overpass.
 Halfway across the bridge, a clot of abandoned cars surrounded a small
semi truck.  The night had reduced the traffic jam to a silhouette of boxy
shapes.  Chewy trailed close behind the girl as she made her way farther
onto the overpass.

Something rustled in the pileup ahead.  She
raised her left hand and pulled the machete free from her hip.  They
glanced at each other, the whites of her eyes almost luminescent in the
darkness.  He crept forward and paused.  A piece of rubble skittered
across the road in front of them.


Let’s go,” he whispered,
creeping forward.

She raised the machete and followed.

His boots crunched on grit and debris and his left
foot suddenly rolled on something bigger.  His boot sole twisted away
beneath him.  “Fuck,” he muttered, losing his balance and dropping hard
onto his side.  His staff clattered across the surface of the road.

She bent to search for him when a gust of bitter,
sweet odor swept across her face.


Stay down,” she hissed
through the darkness at Chewy.

She spun, machete rising upward, and took a
handful of steps forward.  She swung down and the blade connected with
something thick.  Jerking the machete loose, she swung again at the shade
in front of her.  The machete connected again and, without a word, the
dark shape slumped to the ground, pulling the weapon from her hand.  

Mai hopped forward and found the machete handle.
 Something else was slithering across the road to her right.  She
yanked the blade from the zombie’s skull and froze, rotating her head to track
the new sound.


Fuck,” Chew muttered as he
crawled to his knees.  “My ankle . . . .”


Shut up,” she whispered.
“Stay still.”

Pieces of debris scraped against the road to her
left.  She closed her eyes and turned slowly, lifting the machete over her
shoulder.  Chewy ignored her command and huffed as he tried to stand.
  It’s okay, she thought, let it drag itself toward him.  The
rustling sound seemed to move past her.  In the moonless night, the road
had become a pool of liquid black.  She squeezed her eyes shut again and
sprang forward, pulling the machete down with all her strength.

The edge of the blade crunched into bone and then
pavement.  Like a snake startled from its den, the zombie squirted across
the gravel toward Chewy.   She stepped forward and almost tripped on
a bare foot.  Twisting and jumping, she landed on the monster’s back.  Its
rib cage collapsed beneath her boots in a staccato of sharp pops.  

Chewy’s flashlight clicked on.  

The powerful lamp washed the creature in harsh,
white light and it arched its head toward him like a startled animal.
 Long, thin wisps of dark hair hung from a smooth, pale scalp.  Below
a pair of opaque eyes, high, sharp cheekbones strained against ashen skin.
 Its nose had been replaced by two gaping holes in an ugly bump of flesh.
 An ear lobe wiggled and flapped as the monster shook its head at the
flashlight.   Despite its twitching and jerking, it made no sound.
 The creature flashed its eyes to the girl and opened its jaw wide.
 She drove the machete downward.

Chewy hobbled toward her, the flashlight beam
bouncing back and forth across the creature at her feet.  She cleaned the
flat of the blade across its blue shirt and stood.


Damn,
sister!”  Chewy huffed.  “Nice work.”

She pushed the machete back into its sheath and
stepped off the zombie.  Chewy stopped next to her and ran the flashlight
up and down the body.  One leg of the dead man’s navy serge trousers was
still tucked into a leather and nylon boot.  The boot’s uppers were ripped
and dirty but the heel was still thick. The other trouser leg was shredded
above the ankle.  Below the bare ankle, a mass of cuts and sores tattooed
its bare foot. Three block letters were stenciled in white across the stained
blue fabric of its shirt.


State militia,” she said as
Chewy swept his flashlight across the roadway and lit up the other blue-clad
body.

He nodded.


What are they doing in the
middle of this?” She asked.

He shrugged and swept the flashlight across the
pile of abandoned vehicles in front of them.  Bare metal glinted under the
weak beam and empty car interiors swallowed the ray of light into shifting
puddles of darkness.


Used to be an outpost down
near the waterfront.  But that’s a couple of miles away.  Besides,
they lost that place last winter.”  He nudged the tattered body with the
tip of his boot.  “Could be they been wandering around the streets for a
while.   Either way.”  He paused.  “It’s a bad sign.”

She slid the machete back into the loop on her
belt.  “We’ve got a couple of more miles of this shit.”

He bumped his chin upward and aimed the flashlight
at the semi.  She nodded and they walked forward slowly together.  He
stepped gingerly on his right foot.  Not too bad, he reflected, shifting
his weight onto his good leg.  Maybe not a sprain.  Just a bad twist.

The wreck was an old one.  The drivers and
passengers were either dead or had wandered off.  He flicked the beam
across the intact windshield of a tall SUV.  Desiccated, bleached fingers
still gripped the steering wheel but the rest of the body was hidden behind the
dashboard.  They carefully navigated along the edge of the battered cars.
 The semi’s trailer jutted from the back of the twisted mess and he
flicked the flashlight beam across the truck’s rear door.


You first,” he whispered.

The girl pulled out her machete and advanced on
the truck’s rear.  She tapped the handle of the weapon twice against the
door and a dull echo sounded from within.  Chewy joined her.  He
reached down and yanked the trailer latch upward.  The door groaned as
they pushed it open.  The flashlight revealed a bare metal floor and a shrink-wrapped
pallet at the far end of the container.


Looks good,” he said,
placing the flashlight on the edge of the trailer and hoisting himself inside.

He leaned down and offered his hand to her.
 Her fingers gripped his palm and he pulled her inside.  Taking one
last look at the empty overpass, he drew the protesting door shut.  She
was already slumped against the front of the pallet.

He trained the flashlight on the plastic wrapping.


I’ll be . . .,” he muttered.
 “Need a smartphone cover?”

She twisted her head and read the words stamped on
the cardboard boxes cocooned in plastic.  


Need a smartphone, first.”
 She grinned up at him.


No shit,” he said, kicking
the pallet.  “All the smartphones in the world ain’t gonna save us from
those things outside.”

He slid down next to her and she passed him a
bottle of water.  He laid the flashlight on the floor and the metal ribs
of the container dissolved into slanting shadows.  He chugged the water.


You remember smart water?”
She asked.

Chewy returned the bottle to her.  “Smart
water?  Like water that can do math homework?”

She smiled.  “Yeah.  I guess.  Do
your algebra homework and text your mom when you need a ride.”

He laughed and pulled a handful of granola bars
from his pack.


Here,” he said, passing her
two foil-wrapped packets.  “Try some smart bars.”

They chewed on dry mouthfuls of oats and nuts and
traded the bottle back and forth.

“Your mom cook?” He swished a mouthful of water
across his tongue.


She cooks good,” Mai answered.
 “Shrimp, peppers, onions.  Garlic.  White sauce.  Soft,
tender rice and . . . .”


Stop,” he grumbled.
 “Forget I asked.”

She grunted.

He untied the blanket from his pack and spread it
across his legs.  Mai slide onto the floor and rested her head on her
pack.  He clicked off the flashlight.  The darkness amplified the
sound of the girl’s slow, regular breathing.


Hey,” she whispered.
 “I told you I had a brother.”

Her voice floated in front of him.


Yeah.”


That’s how I ended up in
Arcata.”  Her jeans rustled against the metal floor as she sat up.
 “He was supposed to work for the growers.  But, he ran away from
home.”

Chewy raised the blanket over his chest and pulled
it tight.


You know where he went?”


Got me,” Chewy answered.

He could feel her warm breath on his ear.


He went down south.  To
Modesto.  To join up with Pete Daley.”


Heard about him,” Chewy
murmured.

He could almost feel her smiling.


I bet you do.”  She
paused.  “You know all about the Durruti stuff, don’t you?  Modesto.
 Pacifica.  Fresno.  All those places where Durutti kicked out
the State gov.”

Chewy puffed a breath through his lips.


What?”  Her voice grew
taut.  “You telling me you don’t know anything about the Durutti?”

He sighed.  “The Durutti this.  The
Durutti that.  I been hearing that stuff for a long time now.” He tilted
his head toward her.  “Listen, hermana.  I’ll tell you the truth.”
 He slid his back down the pallet until his body stretched out on the
cold, hard metal of the container floor.  “The Durutti ain’t no thing.
 It ain’t no person.  It ain’t no group.
 
Comprende?  Durutti is just another
name for what happens when the people take care of their business.  You
understand?”

Silence filled the empty trailer.

“State gov or no state gov.  Zombies.
 No zombies.”  He yawned.  “Durutti was here long before all
this mierda.”

He heard her settle back onto the floor.  She
mumbled something, but he was already drifting into sleep.

 
 
 

Pearly stuffed yesterday’s sweaty t-shirt into his
pack and buckled the flap.  He set the rifle next to his axe and studied
the two weapons.  He patted the handle of the axe and picked up the rifle,
sliding its bolt back and forth and pulling the trigger on the empty chamber
twice.  He fished out a rag from his pack, spat on it, and began carefully
cleaning the long gun.  When he was finished, he extracted a pointed brass
shell from the pack’s side pocket and slid it into the chamber.  He pushed
the bolt forward and flicked the gun’s safety lever up.  Slipping an arm
through his pack strap, he grabbed his axe and made his way across the dusty
floor to the dim garage at the rear of the car showroom.

The horses bumped against each other quietly as he
strode across the garage.  He patted Ace’s dark hindquarters and stroked
and scratched his belly.  The animal whinnied softly with pleasure.


Good boy,” Pearly whispered
as he began saddling up.

Behind him, the other men stirred and mumbled.
 He finished tightening her flank cinch.  The axe handle glided into
its loop and he pushed the rifle into the holster on the other side of the
horse’s ribs.


No time for breakfast?”
 Hanrahan asked from the door to the showroom.

Pearly grunted.  “We can eat while we ride.
 They’re already up and moving.”

Hanrahan chuckled.  “Let’s go, fellas,” he
shouted over his shoulder.  “Pearly’s up and at ‘em.”

Ten minutes later they led the horses out onto
what remained of Piedmont Avenue.  Burnt-out, wrecked cars littered the
street.  The cab of a massive garbage truck butted against the office
building towering over the left side of the street.  Dark patches stained
the building’s window sashes and glass shards piled like snowdrifts along its
walls.  Clumps of rags moldered in the spaces between the abandoned cars.
 A pair of coyotes craned their heads toward the men and horses.
 They raised their noses into the air, sniffed once or twice and slinked
through a pair of yawning doors into the dark interior of the building.


Welcome to sunny Oakland,”
Tilt whispered to the other others.

They all mounted up, except for Luke who peered
down at his horse’s rear leg.


Goddammit,” he muttered,
probing the animal’s leg with his finger tips.

The others circled around him, horse hooves
clapping on the pavement and echoing down the empty street.


What’s the deal?” Pearly
asked.

Luke turned his face up toward Hanrahan.
 “One of those meatbags musta got her,” he said, rubbing his hand up and
down the animal’s foreleg.
 
“Deep.
Thought it was just a scratch last night.”  A long, ruby-edged welt
twisted from the bottom of the horse’s shoulder to the back of its knee.

Hanrahan nodded.  “Better get her back to
Fruitvale.  You need any help?”

Luke shook his head.  “Nah,” he replied.
 “I can manage.  I’ll stop by Phan’s place.  See if he can
help.” He walked around the horse, examining her legs and torso.  “Might
be able to catch up later today.”

Pearly snorted.  “Don’t fret, boy.
 We’ll find them before noon.”  He wheeled his horse around, pointing
it up Piedmont Avenue.  “Take care of that bitch and we’ll take care of
the other bitch.”  He glanced back at Luke.  “Enjoy your vacation.”

Hanrahan switched his gaze from Luke to Pearly and
shook his head.  “Here,” he said, pulling a short-nosed pistol from
beneath his coat.  He tossed it to Luke.  “In case you need some
extra help.”

Luke caught the gun and gazed at it for a moment.
 “Thanks, boss,” he said, stuffing it into his belt.  “You all be
careful.  I’ll see you soon.”

Hanrahan clucked twice and the three remaining
horses trotted slowly away from Luke.  Pearly took the lead and Tilt
brought up the rear.  They wended their way, the men swaying to the
horses’ steady gait, between rusted cars and piles of garbage to the corner of
Broadway.  The morning sun sparkled on the roadway and a pair of blue jays
screeched at them as they tugged the horses to a stop.


Meatbags probably moved on,”
Pearly said in a low voice.  “We should be clear to Rockridge.”

Hanrahan nodded.  “Best if we get to the
tunnel before they do.”

Tilt raised a water bottle to his lips and drank.
 


Broadway’s most direct,”
Hanrahan continued.  “But the golf course might be faster.”

Pearly nudged his horse forward and they turned
off the main avenue onto a narrow, tree-lined street.  There were fewer cars
here and they trotted along under a long, cool, arch of thickly-leafed
branches.  Low bungalows and weed-choked yards unspooled past them on
either side of the street.  

Hanrahan was daydreaming about Elise and her blue
agate eyes when the creak of bending metal snapped him back to his senses.
  Pearly heard it too and he tugged on his horse’s reins.  They
stopped.  Hanrahan scanned the overgrown yards and empty windows
surrounding them.  From the corner of his vision, he saw Pearly carefully
extract his rifle from its long holster.  He rested his hand on the grip
of the saber, still in its scabbard.  

A fly launched itself from Bama’s shoulders and
buzzed past his ear.  The horse snorted and stepped backward.
 Pearly’s eyes flashed at him.  Just as he tightened his fingers
around the reins and opened his mouth to urge the group forward, Tilt groaned
behind him.


Fuckkkkk.”  Tilt’s
voice growled down the empty street.

His horse twisted away from the others and
stomped. Tilt flopped forward onto the pommel of his saddle, the shaft of an
arrow projecting from the back of his jacket.  For a moment, Hanrahan’s
eyes fastened on the dark, iridescent fletching at the end of the arrow.
 Another arrow appeared in the quarters of Tilt’s horse.  The animal
squealed and hopped off its rear foot.  It roared once and bolted in a
panic past Hanrahan.  Bama snorted and Hanrahan jerked on the reins before
she could rear up.  Pearly’s horse began cantering forward.  With his
rifle still in hand, he grabbed the reins and yanked them.  He and
Hanrahan watched Tilt’s body bounce up and down on the back of his horse as it
galloped up the street.


Goddam,” Pearly shouted and
whipped his reins against Ace.

The big stallion sprang forward, its burst of
speed pushing the man nearly horizontal across its back.  Hanrahan spun
Bama around and another arrow whizzed past his shoulder.  He dug his heels
into the horse’s ribs and Bama shot forward, racing to catch up with Pearly and
Ace.

A block ahead, Tilt’s horse staggered and reared
backward.  The huge animal collapsed onto its flank in the middle of the
street.  Tilt’s head bounced off the pavement.  Wind rushed against
his jacket and shirt as Hanrahan raced Bama past Pearly.  “Whoaaaa,” he
shouted as he drew even with the horse struggling on the ground.  Bama
slowed and he jumped down, reins in hand. The horse’s hooves skidded across the
pavement and the leather straps scalded his fingers as he released the reins.
 Bama lowered her head, snorted, and shook her muzzle.

Pearly thundered up to them and dropped off Ace.
 With surprising gracefulness, the big man pirouetted to his right knee
and raised his rifle back down the street.  Hanrahan bent over Tilt.
 The right side of the man’s face had been hammered into a pulpy mess by
his fall onto the pavement.  A halo of blood crept outward from beneath
his head.  Eerily, the top side of Tilt’s face looked completely normal.
 Hanrahan thought he saw the man blink.

The horse squirmed on top of Tilt’s leg, shaking
its flanks and flexing its knees.  Its eyes rolled backwards as it
strained to rise.  Hanrahan rested his palm on the animal’s shoulder and
patted it.

Something cracked from a bungalow to their left
and Pearly swung the tip of his rifle toward the noise.  Hanrahan crouched
and turned to Bama.  


Go on,” he hissed.
 “Get.”

The horse trotted haughtily down the street
followed by Pearly’s mount.  Hanrahan ducked back down behind the flank of
Tilt’s prone horse.  


Hey,” a voice shouted from
inside the bungalow.  “Hey, motherfuckers.”

Hanrahan reached into his jacket for his pistol
and swore under his breath.  Pearly crept next to him, keeping the rifle
pointed at the bungalow.


We know who you are.”
 The voice had moved now.  A little farther to the right of the
bungalow.  “And, we know what you’re doing.”

Pearly glanced at Hanrahan and raised his
eyebrows.  Hanrahan shook his head.


You won’t find any fucking
slaves here.”  It was a woman’s voice.  Deep, but definitely
female.
 
Not the girl they were
searching for.

Tilt’s horse quivered on the ground in front of
them, trying one last time to shake itself to its feet.  Hanrahan reached
out to calm the animal.


I’m ready, boss,” Pearly
whispered, tightening his finger on the rifle’s trigger.


Fuck that,” Hanrahan
answered.  “Where are they?  How many?”

Pearly’s Adam’s apple bobbed up and down.
 
His wide eyes shifted left and right.


No slaves.”  The
woman’s voice rang out along the empty street.  “You go on home now.
 Tell the rest of your asshole friends to stay away.”

Something vibrated in the air behind him and he
twisted his head over his shoulder.  An arrow zipped past and buried
itself in the crest of the horse’s head.   A spasm rocked the
animal’s body and Pearly rolled to his side, his head knocking against
Hanrahan’s hip.


Get up.”  The woman
shouted.  “And get out.”

Another arrow whizzed past Hanrahan’s left
shoulder and planted itself in the dead horse’s rear quarters.  The
fletching at the end of the arrow shivered above the animal’s gleaming coat.

Hanrahan stood and raised his arms.  Pearly
slowly followed, holding the rifle outward at his side.  An arrow flashed
between Hanrahan’s legs and punched into the horse’s croup, right behind the
saddle.


We can’t leave our man like
this,” Hanrahan shouted.  “We want take him with us.”

In reply, another arrow crunched into the top of
Tilt’s head.  The ugly red-stained tip punched out below the dead man’s
jaw; the arrow’s fletching was driven tight into to his skull.  Pearly
stared down in horror and dropped his arms, grasping the rifle barrel with his
free hand.


No,” Hanrahan gasped without
taking his eyes off the bungalow.  “Don’t do it.  Don’t do it,
Pearly.”

A moment passed and the rifle dropped to Pearly’s
side.


Go on,” the woman repeated.
 “Get the hell out of here.  Nasty fuckers.”

Hanrahan nodded toward the horses who were
gathered together nervously halfway up the block.  Pearly sidestepped
toward them.  Hanrahan stepped over Tilt’s body with his arms still hiked
into the air.  He and Pearly moved slowly together, their eyes glued on
the bungalows across the street.  


Hold on there, Bama,”
Hanrahan whispered as they neared the horses.  “Just relax there, baby
girl.”

The horse whinnied and shook its head.  He
reached up slowly and grasped the reins.


You okay.”  He turned
to Pearly.

The other man nodded and clutched Ace’s reins in
his hands.  The tall animals shielded them from the bungalows and trees.
 


Real slow, now,” Hanrahan
muttered.  “Up and away.”

He pushed his boot into the stirrup and slowly
hiked himself onto the horse.  Pearly followed his example.  Without
looking back, he shook the reins.  Bama hesitated and then trotted
forward.  Pearly and Ace moved slowly alongside them.

Just as he prepared to knock his boot heels
against Bama’s flanks, a final arrow whistled over their heads and shattered
onto the road a dozen yards in front of them.  The horses twitched.


Don’t look back,” Hanrahan
muttered.  “Just keep going.”

A chorus of laughter broke out to their rear and,
as the horses moved forward, he thought he glimpsed a pair of boots in the tree
branches overhead.  He nudged Bama ahead faster until she shifted into a
steady canter.  Pearly guided his animal with one hand on the reins.
 His other hand held the rifle steady across his saddle.  They broke
into an open stretch of road and Hanrahan urged Bama into a gallop.

At the shattered gates of the golf course
entrance, they dismounted.


We go back,” Pearly said
grimly, working a handful of bullets into the rifle’s chamber.  “We go
back there and kill those fuckers.”  The rifle bolt slid forward with a
click.  “We kill each and every one.”

Hanrahan rubbed Bama’s neck as she grazed on the
thick, tall grass along the edge of the wall.


We aren’t gonna kill a
single one of them,” he said calmly.  “Not now.”  He paused. “Think about
it.”

Pearly glared at him, cradling the rifle across
his chest.


They’re probably watching us
right now.  They know this place.  Jesus, we couldn’t even lay eyes
on them.”

He spat onto the ground and raised a hand to
Pearly’s shoulder.


We’ve got one goal.”
 He squeezed the other man’s arm.  “Get that Chinese girl.  And,
the big fuck who’s traveling with her.”  He pulled his hand off of Pearly
and swept it back down the street.  “Sure, we could hunt them down.
 Might take us a day.  Two days.  We might kill some of ‘em.”

He turned back to Pearly.  “Meanwhile, china
girl and her friend reach the tunnel and walk free into the valley.  How
we gonna catch ‘em then?”

BOOK: Republic of the Living (Novella): Vengeance
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