When I hustled out of the zombie Dentist’s house into bright sunshine behind Paul and Harvey, I was expecting to find a line of thugs, The Kings, all pointing guns at us. Instead, we found a man, a woman, and an adolescent girl…all pointing guns at us.
“Stop right there,” the man said. His was the semi-automatic rifle. The woman held a smaller pistol, and the girl had what looked like an old fashioned lever action .22. Since they were only about 20 feet away, even that .22 seemed a threat.
“Put your hands in the air,” the girl said. Her hair was bright blue with streaks of white. Her clothing looked like something out of one of those anime cartoons, like Pokémon or maybe an anime comic book. She stood with her hip slung out, like she was trying to mimic a movie character, and she sure looked like she had an itchy trigger finger, too. What the hell is it with youth these days? I thought.
Paul stopped short. I followed suit right quick despite the crazy-old-lady thoughts that’d stirred up in my head. I raised my hands.
“My dog’s injured. I’m not putting him down,” Paul said.
“What’re you doing in our house?” The man asked.
“We were looking for supplies,” Paul said. “We didn’t mean you any harm. We didn’t know it was yours.”
“You can’t read the tags all over this neighborhood, gramps?” The girl asked. “It’s pretty obvious to any fool this whole neighborhood’s ours.”
“Enough, Amy,” The woman snapped. Though she held her gun steady, I heard a distinct tremor in her voice.
“I told you not to call me Amy anymore. I’m Zoe now. Amy’s dead,”
“I don’t give a bloody damn what you call yourself,” The woman said. “It’s time for you to shut up. Jeb’ll handle this.”
Zoe pursed her lips, but didn’t reply.
“Surrender whatever you found, and you can be on your way,” the man said.
“We left it behind with the Zs inside,” Paul said.
“Yeah, we’ve got nothing,” I added.
“No way are you letting these two go,” the woman said.
“This is my show, and I don’t see any reason to keep ’em,” Jeb said.
The woman glared at him. “You don’t even know who they are. What if this here’s the woman he’s been searching for? Did you even think of that?”
“He’ll hurt you good if he finds out you just let ’em go,” Zoe added.
“You planning on telling him?” Jeb asked.
“She’s the right age,” The woman said. She looked me up and down in a way that sent a shiver up my spine. I nudged Paul from behind.
“Listen,” Paul said. “Our dog’s been injured. We need to care for him.”
Harvey whimpered, right on cue.
“We’ve got supplies of our own back at camp,” I said. “Just let us go, and we promise we’ll never get anywhere near here again.”
“I’m sorry,” The woman said. “I cannot let you just waltz outta here.”
“Seriously, Darling?” Jeb asked. He dropped his gun and opened his stance to face the woman and Zoe.
“Yeah,” she said. “We got a vet who can look at the dog, if they turn out to be who I think they are.”
“This here ain’t The Herbalist,” Jeb said. “She’s shorter and fatter, like one of those fertility dolls, according to Jake.”
“That’s not what I heard,” Zoe said. “I heard she’s an old lady with crazy crimpy black hair like hers.”
My hair’s always been kind of an untamed black mess bound in a big, fat pony tail at the nape of my neck, but this morning my binder snapped, and I decided to just let it go. At this point, I really wished I hadn’t.
“All right,” Jeb said. He turned back to face us. “Are you Zombie Hunter C?”
Paul glanced back at me.
“What do you want with that nut?” I asked.
“It ain’t my job to ask questions,” Jeb said. “I just follow orders.”
“I haven’t seen her in at least a season,” Paul said. “Good riddance. She was crazy.”
Zoe shook her head slowly.
“I don’t believe ’em,” she said.
Jeb and the woman stared hard at us a moment.
“It’s not like I’ve got an ID,” I said. “Why don’t you just let us go and if we run into Zombie Hunter C again, we’ll send her your way?”
“Go on over and check her,” The woman said.
Zoe set her gun on the ground and strutted toward us. Harvey’s growl rose from deep in his throat, and he struggled in Paul’s arms.
Zoe stopped a few feet away and angled out of the line of fire.
“Come here,” she said. I didn’t move.
“Go on,” Jeb shouted. He waved his gun. I edged past Paul and Harvey. Harvey struggled so Paul began to lose his grip on the dog. Blood smeared Paul’s jacket arm and part of his chest, but it was a lot less blood than I expected.
“Hush, Harvey,” I whispered. Harvey settled. His growling was like a low hum behind me as I approached the girl.
“Give me your right forearm,” she said. I complied. She shoved my sleeve up and flipped my arm to expose the long scar on my forearm I’d gotten from a half-starved dog three years ago. It looked like three long, red and white furrows, healed but bigger and deeper than the actual wound had felt.
“It’s her,” the girl announced. She yanked my arm around so Jeb and the woman could see the scar, too.
“Y’all are coming with us,” Jeb said.
“No,” Paul stated. “We’re –”
“I ain’t taking no for an answer.”
“Listen,” I said. “I can come with you, but you let these two go.”
“Are you insane?” Paul asked. “You can’t let yourself be dragged off like that.”
“What choice do I have? Harvey’s hurt. You’ve gotta look after him. Whatever it is they want, it probably won’t include healing him or letting either of you go afterward.”
“I doesn’t matter. I’m not leaving you with these thugs. Hell no.”
“Hey,” Jeb shouted. “It’s not like y’all have a say in this. Orders were to bring back The Herbalist and anyone who was with her. You’re both coming with that dog of yours.”
Just to underscore his point, Jeb fired off a shot in our general direction, not close enough to hit us, but definitely close enough to send a whole new wave of fear washing through my stomach.
It didn’t take more convincing for Paul or I. If they hadn’t had those guns, or if Harvey hadn’t been injured, we might have fought back. Things as they were, we didn’t have to discuss the point. We were going to visit The Kings like it or not.
The hike back to The Kings lair was uneventful. Harvey growled the whole way. I didn’t blame him. Paul and I were near as unhappy with the situation as was he.
As we approached the old upscale shopping plaza, it was clear The Kings had been busy remodeling. Most of the doors and windows had been boarded up with layers of plywood, old wooden doors, and blocks of concrete. The roof was patrolled with eight or ten men with guns. Old cars and trucks three deep surrounded the compound twenty feet or so from the storefronts with the outer layer tipped on their sides so the wheels and undersides were exposed. It looked like a moat or maybe a low wall around a fort.
“We’ve got The Herbalist,” Jeb announced to a set of armed men standing next to a huge dump truck that’d been backed into a narrow gap between the moat of cars.
“Show them your scar,” Jeb commanded. Zoe, who’d taken up the rear on our march from Zombie Dentist’s house, jabbed me in the back. I so wanted to turn around and slap that girl right across the face.
Instead, I pulled up my sleeve and showed the men my right forearm.
“All right,” one of the men said. “I’ll radio it in.”
The other banged on the back of the dump truck with the butt of his rifle.
A moment later, we heard a loud click and the back flap of the dump truck swung open. Inside, a man braced it open with a thick metal bar.
“Climb in,” Jeb said.
I climbed up and took Harvey from Paul’s arms. He was tired, so very tired, but at least I saw his leg barely bled. I didn’t get a great look at it, but it seemed likely that he’d been grazed by a bullet rather than full-on shot through his right front leg. He kept up the low growl, but it was punctuated with a few yelps as we jostled him back and forth.
“I think he’ll be okay,” I whispered to Paul after he’d clambered up into the dump truck’s box with us.
“Just move along,” Jeb shouted.
Inside the dump truck was a set of cobbled-together wooden steps that took us up, over the front edge of the box onto the cab, then a second set of steps back down to the sidewalk. I climbed up, then down carefully, cradling Harvey as best I could. Harvey’s growls faded into a quiet, rough whining sound. Just being near to him, even though he was hurt and we were in a world of hurt beyond that, gave me hope that we’d somehow see the other end of this together.
Once everyone had reached the sidewalk, they marched us down the sidewalk to the place where the old shopping center had opened to an indoor courtyard, right between two of those expensive women’s clothing shops filled with clothing that was clearly designed for the tiny, doll-like specimens of our gender. Another set of men with guns stood guard in front of a make-shift wooden door that almost blended in amidst the many adhoc boards and constructions they’d used to fortify the storefronts.
“This her?” one of them asked. He was the larger, darker, swarthier of the two.
“Yep, sure is, baby,” the woman said. She seemed to almost change shape, like a cat moving from sweet and cuddly to angry, wet, and fierce, except in her case it was the opposite. The man leaned forward and she reached up to give him a quick kiss. “Did you tell him we found her? I want credit for this one.”
“Darling, I sure did,” Lover Boy said. I decided Darling must be this woman’s name. What a name. She was anything but Darling, at least in my opinion.
“Let’s see it first,” the other guard said. The expression on his pale, freckled face made him look like he’d been asked to swallow some nasty medicine and wanted to be sure it was really the only cure first.
“Show them the scar, herbalist,” Jeb said. “It’s a beaut.”
“Seriously?” I asked. “I’ve got an injured dog in my arms. If it weren’t for you, I’d have treated him already. Hell, if it weren’t for you, he wouldn’t be injured in the first place.”
Zoe shoved Paul with the business end of her gun hard. He stumbled forward.
“Deal with it,” she barked.
“Cut it out,” I said. “If y’all don’t stop harassing us, I’m not going to give you whatever it is you think I’m gonna give you under any conditions.”
“It’s her,” Paul said. He laid his hand on my shoulder. “Zombie Hunter C in the flesh. Whatever it is you want, she’ll probably give ya if you just let her see to her dog.”
“Damn it, Paul,” I said.
“There’s no sense in fighting now, my love,” he said. His voice sounded defeated, tired, as if all the fire had somehow drained right out of him.
“You’re really her?” the pale-faced guard asked.
“I’m not saying I am, and I’m not saying I’m not, but if it’ll get us to a safe place where we can care for Harvey, then I’ll be Zombie Hunter C.”
Zoe shook her head. “Trust me,” she said. “It’s her. I saw the scar.”
“Fine,” the pale-faced guard said. He didn’t look pleased, but he stood aside and let Jeb lead us through the doorway into The King’s inner sanctum.
May You Be Well,
Zombie Hunter C