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Authors: Joe McKinney

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BOOK: Plague of the Undead
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24
In the morning the scraping drill started over.
Jacob and the others went about their work like it was the only thing on their mind, but they were actually trying to repeat the bit of intelligence gathering that Jacob had lucked into the day before.
Right away they got lucky.
As they were scraping down the sides of one of the RVs, a rusty metal Airstream, two free women emerged.
“It’ll be any day now,” said the first woman. She was heavyset, with a red face and flabby arms and gray, wiry hair that stuck out in all directions. “I’m worried that the baby hasn’t dropped down more than it has.”
“Maybe it’s just a big baby,” the other woman said. “Happens with the diabetes.”
“Yep,” agreed the first woman. “Let’s just hope we can stay here for a while. A week at least. Give Linda a chance to recover after that baby finally comes.”
Whatever the other woman’s response might have been they didn’t hear. The two women went around a corner and were out of earshot.
“I bet that’s Casey’s wife they’re talking about,” Jacob said.
“Yeah,” agreed Kelly. “Sounds like we’re going to be here for a while. Might give us a chance to figure out how to slip away.”
“And go where?” he said.
“Away from here,” she said. “God, anywhere but here.”
“Yeah, but where? Seriously, we can’t just go off half-cocked like we did before. If we make a blind run for it, they’ll catch us in no time. We might as well shoot ourselves and save them the trouble.”
“What are you saying, that you don’t want to escape?”
“No, of course I want out of here. I’m just saying we have to be smart about it. Even if we steal some horses, there’s nothing around here but grassland. Once we get out in the open, we’d be visible to God, man, and everybody. Even these assholes.”
“So what do we do?”
“I don’t know,” he said. He glanced toward the town of Dexter. What little of it he could see was in the process of being consumed by ash and dogwood trees. Here and there he could make out a few one-story buildings, some shops, in the distance a water tower, but little else. “Over there, maybe,” he said. “That’d be our best bet. Find some attic or cellar somewhere in there and hide until they decide to move on. They’re caravan people, prairie Bedouins, so they won’t spend forever around here looking for us. We wait them out, and then we go back home.”
“Is that really as good as we can do?” Kelly asked.
“If there’s something better, I don’t know it.”
After a long hesitation, she nodded in agreement.
They scraped around to the other side of the trailer, and there they stopped again. There was a large pit fire burning about twenty yards away. A large section of chain-link fencing had been stretched over the fire, and a handful of slaves were sitting sullenly, watching for pots of all different shapes and sizes to come to a boil.
“Good Lord,” Kelly said. “Is that how they clean their water?”
“I guess so.”
“What are you two doing here?” came a voice from behind them.
It was Casey, and next to him was Mother Jane.
Jacob was about to make some lame excuse about working, but Kelly didn’t give him a chance.
“Is that how you clean your water? In pots and pans?”
“Gotta boil the water if you want to get all the bugs and shit out of it,” Casey said.
“Well, yeah, but . . . it’s not very efficient.”
“What do you mean?” Casey asked.
“Well, like look at that. You’ve got what, about twenty gallons there? The average person needs a gallon of water a day. More if they’re active. Horses need even more. And you’ve got plenty of both around here.”
“What’s your point?” Casey looked close to losing his patience.
“Only that . . . why don’t you have a still?”
“You mean like for making whisky?”
Kelly nodded. “Well, yes, you can use a still for making alcohol. But you can also use it to clean huge amounts of water in a single batch.” She pointed at the fire pit. “Doing it that way would take you all day to make enough water for this camp. But if you had a large capacity still, maybe one you mounted on a trailer, you could clean a week’s worth of water in a few hours.”
“Yeah, that’d be nice,” Casey said. “But this isn’t Kentucky. We can’t go out and find a still someplace.”
“You don’t need to,” she said. “You just make one. It’s easy.”
“Out of what?”
“Sheets of copper are the easiest thing to use.”
He laughed. “You see any of that around here?”
She looked at Jacob and shrugged. “I don’t know. Any ideas?”
“You got a ton of fifty-five gallon drums around here. You could use those. You could make a really big one if you had an empty propane tank and the exhaust pipe off a pickup truck or a tractor. It’d take some serious cleaning, but that would make a giant one.”
Casey frowned. “I saw a place in town that sold propane. They had a bunch of big tanks outside. How long would it take you to build something like that?”
“As long as everything was cleaned first,” Jacob said, “I don’t know, a few hours. I’d need some kind of welding torch, but it wouldn’t take long.”
Mother Jane had been listening to all of this with growing interest, but now she just shook her head in disgust and said, “Wasted opportunity. I done tole you, Casey, wasted opportunity.”
25
Later that afternoon they brought Jacob everything he’d said he’d need to make the still, and true to his word, by nightfall, he had it done. It was a simple column still, made of a fifty-five gallon drum and the exhaust pipe from a pickup and a length of garden hose. It was a big version of the kind he’d seen Kelly use for the last ten years whenever she made up a batch of the gin she did so well.
It took Kelly the better part of an hour to show them how to use it, and that was pretty much all it took. They had it up and running and the first batch of clean water ready by the time she was done with teaching them how it worked.
Casey came over, gave the still a dubious look, tasted some of the water, and finally nodded. “That’s not bad,” he said. He looked around at his fellow riders, the inner circle, from what Jacob had been able to discern and nodded. “A little smoky, but not bad.”
The others laughed and gathered round to fill their cups and canteens.
Casey stepped away from the still, drinking more water from a metal cup, and raised it to Jacob and Kelly in a toast. “This is good shit. You two done well.”
Kelly could only frown, but Jacob saw an opportunity.
“Where we’re from we have a law we live by called the Code. It says that everybody works, everybody does their fair share, everybody watches out for the other guy, and nobody steals from anybody else.”
“Sounds like a regular fucking love-in,” said Casey.
“It works for us,” Jacob said.
“Yeah? How’s it working out for you now? ’Cause from where I’m looking, you guys are pretty fucked.”
“I’m hoping that’s not the case,” Jacob said. Casey had given him exactly the opening he was looking for. “I was hoping, if we did this for you, you’d do something for us.”
Casey’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. “Like what?”
Jacob showed him the bloody bandages that made his arms look like a mummy’s. “I need fresh water for what your dogs did to me. I need to rinse these wounds out on a regular basis.”
“And we’ve got others with us who need fresh water, too,” Kelly said, picking up on Jacob’s thread. “Clean water could make all the difference in the world to us, and now you can make enough to float this caravan across the prairie.” She even borrowed a line she’d heard Nick use on one of the riders. “It wouldn’t put you out any.”
He looked them over, but his expression showed little beyond disgust. “I’ll consider it,” he finally said.
“But we need it tonight,” Kelly said.
“And I said I’d consider it. Now get the hell out of my face before I shoot your boyfriend here and turn you over to the boys as the evening entertainment.”
Jacob put a hand on Kelly’s wrist. “Come on,” he said.
She gave him a nasty scowl, then reluctantly turned and walked with Jacob toward the edge riders’ campsite.
“Wait a minute,” Casey said.
Jacob and Kelly stopped and turned.
“Your name’s Jacob, right?”
“Yes.”
“This Code you talk about, it sounds like you people have got it all figured out.”
“No,” Jacob said. “We’ve found something that works for us.” He gestured toward the still. “And now, it works for you.”
Casey smiled. It was a nasty, slippery smile, like that of a man always on the lookout for a weak spot, a way to overcome his opponent, and he just found that spot.
“But it doesn’t work,” he said. “Does it?” He paused a moment, looking at them both, still wearing that greasy smile. “It ain’t done jack shit for you people, has it? You know why?”
“Why?” Jacob asked.
“Because out here, there’s a different Code. Out here, a man makes his own way. He doesn’t get to rely on the welfare of a bunch of do-gooders. A man pulls himself up by his bootstraps, or he dies a slave. How’s that for a Code?”
“It sounds barbaric,” Kelly said.
“And yet you come asking me for water.” Casey looked down his nose at both of them. “You two go on back where you belong.”
“What about the water?” Jacob asked.
“I told you. I’d consider it. Now get your ass back with the slaves before I put a bullet in your gut. Go on, get!”
Casey met Jacob’s stare, daring him to react. But Jacob didn’t rise to the bait. He simply turned around and started back to the slave encampment. But they’d only gone a few yards when the fat woman with the gray, wiry hair they’d seen earlier that day came trotting around the corner. She saw Casey standing in the middle of the group and ran straight for him.
“Casey, it’s time.”
So that was it, Jacob thought. He’s anxious, not insane.
“What . . . what do I . . .” Casey said, stammering.
“She’s asking for you. Come on.”
Casey let the old woman lead him away, never even glancing at Jacob and Kelly. When they were gone, one of the free women came up to them and said, “That still’s gonna really help us out. Thank you.”
“Yeah, sure,” Jacob said.
The woman lowered her voice to a whisper. “If you go around the side there and wait I’ll bring you some fresh water and some deer meat you can take back with you. It’s past dark so I think you already missed feeding time.”
“That’d be nice, thank you,” Kelly said.
When they returned, they found Nick with a fresh black eye. He was holding his ribs.
“What happened to you?” Jacob asked.
“It’s easier to get a meal when there’s two of us,” he said. “Where’d you get all that?”
“One of the Family gave it to us.”
Jacob glanced over at Chelsea, who was sitting up, hugging her knees, watching them. Her fever had broken, thanks to some of the meds in Bree’s kit, and she looked to be feeling better. Still pale, still sore, but much better.
“We got enough for you, too, Chelsea.” He held out one of the jugs of water. “Come on over here and join us.”
She looked distrustfully at the water, then at Nick.
“It’s all right,” he said. “Come on.”
She sat down next to Nick. “You people are nice. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” Kelly said.
Chelsea took one of the pieces of deer meat and tore into it eagerly. She hadn’t eaten in days, Jacob guessed, and it showed. Clearly, she was starving. He almost joked with her to slow down, enjoy it, but that would have been cruel. Instead, he just traded a smile with Nick and offered her the water jug, which she drank with equal gusto.
After she put the water jug down, she said, “Nobody shares anything around here.”
“It’s our way,” Jacob said. “Everybody works, everybody does their share, everybody watches the other guy’s back.”
She nodded as she took another bite of the venison. “Nick told me about that,” she said. “Your home sounds such a lovely place.”
“Where is your home, Chelsea?” Kelly asked. “Were you born here, in this caravan?”
“Oh, no. I belonged to another caravan before this one. This Farris Clan sold my brother and me to Mother Jane about four years ago.”
“The caravans trade back and forth?” Jacob asked. “When I overheard them talking yesterday, they made it sound like they’re at war with the other caravans.”
“Most of the time it is war,” she said. “But sometimes they trade, if they know each other.”
“How many caravans are there?”
Chelsea shrugged and took another bite. “Nobody knows.”
“Well how often do you see other caravans?”
“Not very often. In the time I’ve been here we’ve seen four others.”
“And do they all use slaves?” asked Kelly.
Chelsea nodded. She was almost done with her venison and eyeing the rack of short ribs next to Jacob.
He slid them over to her.
“Really?” she said, her eyes wide.
“Yeah,” he said with a chuckle. “Eat. Enjoy.”
“I can’t believe that about the slaves,” Kelly said to Jacob. She pursed her lips in disgust. “Barbarians.” She caught herself then and turned to Chelsea. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to insult you. It’s just that I find this kind of existence, and the keeping of slaves, to be brutal and degrading.”
“Oh, you’re not offending me,” Chelsea said. “Slavery is anathema to the human condition.”
Jacob glanced at Kelly, who raised her eyebrows in surprise.
“Anathema?” Jacob said.
“Yes,” Chelsea said. “It means something held in contempt or abhorrence.”
Nick laughed.
“I, uh, yes, I know what it means,” Jacob said, catching himself. “It’s just that I didn’t expect to hear it . . . out here.”
“Why not?” Chelsea asked, oblivious to his attempt to dance around insulting her. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
“Well,” Jacob said, “yes, I believe that.”
“No,” Kelly said. She gave Jacob a frustrated look. “Good for you you’re good at being a cop. Book learning never was your thing. That’s the keynote line from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail.’ ” To Chelsea, she said: “ ‘We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.’ ”
“Oh, yes,” Chelsea said, brightening. “You’ve read it.”
She tore one of the ribs from the rack and her eyes rolled up into her head as she ate.
“That’s so good,” she said.
“Yes, Chelsea,” Kelly said. “I’ve read it. I read it back in school. It meant a lot to me then, and it’s been close to my heart ever since. But please forgive me for sounding condescending or rude, but I’m surprised that you’ve read it. I’ll be absolutely honest and say that I’m surprised you know how to read.”
Chelsea was about to eat another rib, but that last part struck a nerve. She frowned and said, “Of course, I know how to read. I speak three languages.”
“I, uh . . . what?” Kelly asked.
“English, Spanish, and Mandarin. I’m fluent in all three. I can read and write in all three.”
Nick had leaned back on his elbows and was watching the exchange with a bemused grin on his face, but upon that he sat up. “Where did you learn three languages, Chelsea?”
“Back in school.”
“Oh,” Kelly said. “Did the Farris Clan caravan have a school?”
“No way,” Chelsea said. “They were religious nut jobs. The only lessons they ever taught were out of a paraphrased version of the Christian Bible.”
“Chelsea, wait,” said Nick. “I’m confused. Clearly you’re a bright girl. Where did you go to school?”
Chelsea didn’t answer. She lowered her head and put the ribs back on the plate next to Jacob.
“Chelsea?” repeated Nick.
“I’m not allowed to talk about it.”
“Why not?” Nick said.
“It’s the law of my people.”
Nick started to speak, but Jacob put a hand on his shoe to quiet him.
“Chelsea,” he said. “In Arbella, we have a similar rule. Nobody says anything about Arbella to anyone not part of our group. When we first sat down, and I heard from you that Nick had told you about our home, I was upset. But I’m not upset now because after hearing you speak, I realize that there are people out here in the wasteland worth getting to know. Maybe we can help each other. I’m willing to try. Are you?”
She shook her head. “I’m not supposed to.”
“It’s okay,” Jacob said. “We won’t force you to say anything.”
She looked up, surprised. “You won’t?”
“No. You should know that about us by now. That’s not the kind of people we are.”
She looked from Jacob to Kelly and finally back to Nick.
He nodded. “It’s true,” he said.
She looked uncertain still, but at last she said, “I was onboard an aerofluyt that crashed. The
Darwin
. Chris and I were just a few of the survivors. Our parents and a bunch of others died. Chris and I hung around the wreckage for a few days, hoping for a rescue team, but they didn’t come in time. The Farris Clan came upon us while we were trying to pick soybeans from a pasture, and before I knew it, seven years had gone by and now I’m here.”
She stood up to go. Her voice had grown unsteady and charged with emotion, and Jacob got the feeling there was a hoard of hurt and pain buried deep in that girl just waiting to bust out.
“Wait,” Kelly said. “What’s an ‘aerofluyt’?”
Chelsea stopped and made a half turn toward Kelly. “You know the big airship you saw the other day?” she said. “That’s an aerofluyt.”
BOOK: Plague of the Undead
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