The door knob rattled, nearly making Jesse fall out of the chair he sat in. His eyes were gritty and the inside of his mouth tasted foul and gummy. Jesse had no clue how long they had been in the room, but the lamp was barely glowing, making Jesse think it might have been most of the day—or night. Mitch jerked awake and bit out a curse of his own as he tried to orient himself as to where he was. Realizing that he had not yet gotten out of the predicament they were in, Mitch growled out another curse and both he and Jesse stood and stretched. After mumbled complaints, they stared at the door, waiting for it to open, gripping their improvised weapons and ready to do battle with whoever was prepared to come into the small room. The door shook once more and then someone knocked on the surface of the barrier.
“Jesus Christ, open the fucking door.”
Mitch and Jesse grinned at one another.
“Forgot I locked it,” said Mitch.
“Fuck you,” said Jesse to the speaker.
“We’ll just tear it down,” came the exasperated voice on the other side. “Open it and save us the trouble of being pissed off at you.”
“Why should we give a shit if you’re pissed off?” asked Jesse. “You’re the cock-suckers that stuck us in here.”
“Hey--,” joked Mitch.
“Expression, that’s all,” assured Jesse. Mitch nodded that he understood.
There was the sound of arguing that they could not decipher the meaning of.
“Listen there’s been a change of the guard, as it were--,” came the voice again.
“So baldie’s not in charge no more?”
“Well, he never was in charge, he was just the security.”
“Than who was in charge?” asked Mitch.
“If you’ll open the door, we can talk a little easier.”
“Piss off,” said Mitch.
“Jesus--,” came the voice. “Fine then.”
“I guess that means they’re going to break down the door,” said Mitch.
“You know what we ought to do?” asked Jesse. “We ought to throw open the door and rush them, I mean, we’re gonna get beat up or killed either way, so lets take the fight to them.”
Mitch thought about it for a brief second. “Why not? Stupid things sometimes work out for the best.”
“You wanna go first or you want me to?”
“It was your idea.”
Rolling his eyes, Jesse took up a position next to the door as Mitch laid a hand on the knob and readied himself to push it open. Jesse took a deep breath and began to count. Mitch leaned close.
“What the fuck are you doing?”
“Countin’ for you to open the door--”
“So what’s the count?”
Leaning away from Mitch, Jesse gave him a disgusted look. “Three is the accepted number in most cases.”
Giving the other man another look and shaking his head, Jesse retook his deep breath and readied himself to charge out into the room where they had stripped down hours before. Jesse started his count again. Mitch put his hand on the door and nodded with Jesse’s count, preparing himself to follow Jesse through the doorway, the letter opener gripped in one hand while Jesse began to swing the sock filled with the pennies and candle jar. Just as they reached three, the door shook as something very heavy hit the door, shaking it on its hinges and sending a reverberating BOOM through the air. Both Jesse and Mitch jumped away from the door with curses filling the vacuum left by the noise of the blow to the door passing by.
“Fuck,” exclaimed Jesse. “I guess they’re serious.”
“You think?” snapped Mitch as the door boomed again and a split appeared in the veneer of the door.
“I guess we should just open it--.”
The sharp side of an axe broke through the door. The blade seemed to be caught and the gleaming metal was cranked up and down until it loosened enough to be pulled out. Light burst through the crack, almost too bright after hours of near darkness. Blinking, Jesse and Mitch stared at one another across the small space, each thinking their own thoughts about the situation. Finally, Jesse looked at his sock and dumped the pennies and jar out on the desk. Mitch sighed and tossed the letter opener on the desk beside all the pennies.
“There are thirty of them--.”
The axe made a bigger hole. More light streamed in.
“Here’s Johnny,” muttered Mitch. He shouted at the people on the other side of the door. “Fine, you made your point. We’re opening the door.”
Jesse sat down and pulled off his boot replacing his sock. Mitch waited until Jesse was finished and then cautiously unlocked the door. The barrier swung slowly outward to reveal a cluster of people on the other side, peering into the space where Jesse and Mitch were about to exit. In the forefront was the man who had tried to get Lorain to let Jesse and Mitch go. Beside him was the bald man leaning on the axe, the cigar still in his mouth and behind the cigar, a wide grin as the two men cautiously exited the small room.
The man who had stood up for them nodded to them and held out his hand in apology. “Sorry about all that, we’ve had some things happen here in the last couple of hours.”
“Yeah?” Jesse ignored the hand. “How about you just give us our gear back and let us get the fuck away from you assholes?” He stared at one of the people in the room. “That’s my fuckin’ rifle by the way.”
The man looked sheepish and started to hand it over to Jesse.
“Wait a minute,” said the speaker. “Not so hasty, we still don’t know who you are.”
“Yeah, you do,” said Mitch. “We’ve told you. And where we are from.”
The rifle holder looked at the other man. “Com’on, Rich, quit this. It’s not like they can go anywhere anyway.”
Rich sighed and nodded for the man to hand Jesse his rifle back. Jesse grabbed it and inspected the CAR before turning it on the crowd. “What the fuck does that mean?”
Rich held up his hands this time. “It’d be easier if we just showed you.”
“We want ALL our gear back,” stressed Jesse. “Food, ammo, guns, whatever you fucks took from us.”
Nodding, Rich simply waved a hand towards the door that lead out into the main room. “You need to look.”
Jesse and Mitch followed the crowd out of the small room. In the main room, people were setting up cots and improvising walls with shower curtains and blankets. Everyone still seemed to be dazed from all of the events of the day. Many of them simply stared at the group as they walked past them, their expressions defeated. Adding to the sense of defeat, the smell of their unwashed bodies in the closed room hung in the air like a tangible cloud. Jesse wondered why they didn’t open the windows and just what could have happened in the few hours they had been out of contact.
When they stepped through the door, the stench of the undead hit them like a physical blow. There were people rushing around and adding bracing to the fence, which in places bowed inward under the weight of the bodies pressing against it, headless of the tearing of the dead flesh on barbed wire and the press of those behind them. The groans and hisses of the creatures filled the air, nearly a deafening sound as the things shuffled and swayed. Every now and again, one of the ragers, runners or whatever they were called, would rush through the press of cadavers, tearing at the bodies of those around it, limbs flailing, hands ripping and shredding the decaying flesh of their brethren to attack the fence. Snarling and growling the things shook the chain links, biting at the metal as they pulled themselves through the wire that was strung on the fencing, slicing the already dead flesh to reach the to of the obstacle. When this happened, one of the town’s people rushed to that spot in the fence and shot the monster as it attempted to scale the barrier that separated it from the living. There were random pops of weaponry from all around the compound.
Jesse could see Lorain directing people to push against a particularly stressed portion of the fencing while other leaning plywood against the fence so that their comrades could brace the plywood with long sections of four by fours and whatever else they had handy. To relieve the weight so the task could be accomplished, Lorain and others tried to clear the fence by shooting into the crowd. The number of zombies was so great that those shot failed to fall, they simply sagged until the A bulldozer finally appeared and the blade was used to push against the plywood and lean it back to nearly upright while the supports were hammered in place. Once that was finished, it rumbled off to the next breaking point.
“These things showed up about three hours after we got here,” explained Rich. We’ve been buys trying to save the fence ever since. So you see, no matter whose side you were on, you’re in the same boat as we are now.”
Jesse looked over at Mitch the disbelief etched clearly on his face.
“Another fine mess--,” breathed Mitch.
Jesse could only return his gaze to where humanity was barely stemming the tide of undead. He felt the overwhelming sense of frustration start to take over his being and with a shout bent and picked up a large rock and heaved it over the fence at the horde beyond. He watched the rock disappear among the heaving mass and cursed the moment they had decided to stop and see what had happened to the town.
“Fuck,” he repeated.
He’d never felt this lost in his life; at least in the military and in prison he knew he could get out, eventually. Viewing the horde in front of him, he doubted he’d see the next week.
They were on patrol.
It was something that everyone did at one point or another in their service to the Lodge. In this case, it was a simple foot patrol around the lake—from the Lodge to the dam and into the camp grounds and the Park Service areas. The Park service areas were extensions of the Lodge dwellings and the manufacturing co-op’s for the Lodge’s most important product to the outside world; suppressors. Hannah had made the first one out of a piece of PVC pipe, SOS pads and duct tape and they had progressed to threaded bodies, real expansion chambers and caliber specific tubes. Nearly all of the lodge weapons now sported suppressors of some kind on them, as long as the barrel could be threaded to fit the suppressor. Everyone at the Lodge spent time learning the trade and fitting their favorite weapon with the sound dampener.
Jesse and Mitch walked with the other four people on patrol, scanning the trees and roadside for signs of people passing through or trying to make a permanent camp. All of the people in the group wore some kind of web gear or MOLLE gear and the small bits squeaked and chattered as they walked. They were outfitted for a three days, the patrol itself only being a two day hump, with food, ammo, weapons, sleeping gear dry socks and all the other things which went with a patrol carried in backpacks, or pouches hung off vests and slung around shoulders. Jesse was often reminded of the seemingly worthless patrol exercises in his military days, with the boredom and complacency of current patrols for the Lodge setting in. They had been fairly safe in the last couple months, and no matter how he tried, the urgency of the early days was slowly falling away as things became routine. The patrol had checked the campground closest to the Lodge and were now moving down the hiking trail toward the main park camping.
They currently had four family groups living in very rough conditions at the campgrounds close to the town of Loudonville—existing in a rough fortress of connected trailers and RV’s surrounding one of the pavilions at the main campground. Jesse would not have wanted to be that close to the little vacation town having heard the horror story of the last visit to the area, but the people had no other place to go and once contact had been made with the patrols from the Lodge, they agreed that by staying at the campgrounds, they would keep in contact with the Lodge by radio and serve as a forward observation post for them in exchange for suppressors of their own and some basic food needs. The group had missed the last radio contact so part of the mission, other than the normal keeping an eye on the territory, was to reestablish contact with them and find out why they were not answering the radio broadcasts. There were many theories as to why they had not done so, the most popular were simple radio trouble or they had been overrun by a wandering horde from town.
One of the jobs of the patrols was to keep the paths cleared and maintained so that they could be used for rapid movement to various areas of the park. While the park had a fairly good road system, they foot paths provided alternate routes to the main areas of the park so movement could be made relatively undetected to the preexisting ambush sites they had build through the winter months. There were also small caches set up near the ambush sites in case the Lodge personnel needed instant resupply with out drawing attention to themselves. They had been assigned to check on several of those caches to be sure they remained undiscovered. Many of the sites doubled as listening posts, especially the ones nearer the entrances to the park. The fire tower was one of the sites where they could keep an eye on the entire valley floor, it was also one of the places the patrol was supposed to stop, being one of the loneliest duties to have as the small tower could only comfortably hold two people for a prolonged period of time. The tower had not reported any unusual activity from the main camp ground, but not everything was apparent from a mile or more away.
As they walked the fairly well maintained path toward the main camping area, it was apparent that people were on the move again; in some of the camp areas there were signs of recent occupation—used fire rings, newly cut wood and scattered trash. When they found the trash, the patrol stopped and cleaned up the area, depositing the trash in the parks bins to be picked up and burned as summer progressed. Jesse surmised that as long as the park remained relatively free of undead activity, the camp grounds would be seeing a fair amount of use as the residence of the main building felt the need to escape their neighbors.
This summer was also the time they were going to have to go in and clear out the juvenile detention buildings within the park. The prison for kids, as some of the Lodge folk referred to it, was full of the undead teens who had been trapped in the facility at the outbreak of the plague. There was no telling just how many of the zombies now wandered the halls and yard, but it had been easier to leave them alone for a time when they could clear the grounds at their leisure. There was also speculation on what they might find as far as material and supplies within the walls of the place. Once the facility was cleared it might be possible for people to move into the modern fortress and have an extension of the Lodge there as well. In addition to the detention facility, there were several cabins and farm houses they had found empty and planned to use along with another park maintenance building which had been discovered over the winter. Some of the more obsessive members of the Lodge’s council wanted to encompass the Lodge and park itself with at least a large split rail fence system to hinder the undead that wandered the earth, but to do so would mean trying to fence over 1100 acres and five miles of river. The task was nearly impossible to do and it was easier to build walls around the areas where they were living.
The group began to slow as they entered the main camping area of the park. Jesse felt the hair on the back of his neck begin to stir as they walked past the abandoned RV”s and trailers, all of which had been searched and stripped by the Lodge and the people now living in the camps. While the number of undead had been few, the number of those who had ended their lives in those first few weeks was staggering. They had gathered body after mummified or decaying body and placed them all on a funeral pyre which had burned for days. The small amphitheater where the fire had been was still covered with ash and littered with the bones of the dead. No one went there that Jesse knew of.
“Pretty quiet,” commented Mitch to no one in particular as they began to get close to where the outpost was.
“Yeah, maybe they’re just--,” began one of the others, her voce falling off as she realized that she had nothing to fill the sentence she had left hanging.
“That’s what I thought too,” Mitch told her, getting a scathing glance from the speaker.
Jesse, who was in charge of the group, held up a hand for them to be quiet as they approached where the outpost lay. The group spread out into their battle formation with two of the people hanging back to provide the others with cover fire should they need it and a third person with a longer range rifle providing overwatch for the entire group. It would be the duty of Jesse and two others, Mitch and the woman in this case, to move forward and check out the camp. He would have preferred to be in one of the armored HumVee’s, but the walking patrol was the way it was done. Personally, Jesse hated the walking patrols, but it had been decided that they were worth the risk do to the area they covered and the personal attention that could be given to the area that was patrolled. The problem was that they were starting to not give as much attention to them as needed. The random chatter of the people in the patrols was an indication of their growing lax.
Mitch and the woman, Jesse struggled to remember her name, came up to Jesse as they reached the small clearing marking the beginning of the outposts fire zone. There was no smell of woodsmoke or the sound of voices. They whispered to each other from the cover of a low concrete wall.
“I’d rather not call out,” said Jesse. “Let’s fan out a bit and move in, if we’re challenged, we’ll give answer. Let me talk, you two take up defensive positions until we find out what is going on.”
The other two nodded. Jesse stripped off the backpack which contained his personal gear and they did the same in order to move with as little hindrances as possible. Making sure that the magazine was seated in the rifle, Jesse shouldered the CAR and after a glance to be sure Mitch and the woman—Paula—were ready to go, he began his Groucho walk forward after clearing the wall. The red dot on the CAR glowed in front of him as he kept the rifle shouldered but down far enough so that he was not tunneled in on just what was in front of him. His eyes searched the RV’s and trailers for signs of life—of which there were none. The solar panels they had traded the Lodge for were resting on the top of the east and west facing mobile homes, and Jesse could see that those were undamaged as well, but seemed to be a little dusty from neglect, an indication that they had not been cleaned in the last week or so.
The people had built a low wall of wood and various scrapes materials between the fire zone and the area they claimed as a barrier against wandering undead or to slow down any human attacks. The wall seemed to be intact and there was no sign of destruction or damage to the RV’s and trailers. They worked their way around the wall to where the opening was—a section of wall which overlapped with a space for egress—and found no one guarding the entrance to the area. Jesse paused for a moment to allow Mitch and Paula to take up cover positions before he slipped between the two RV’s and into the compounds common area where the pavilion stood.
It was empty.
He motioned for Mitch and Paula to move forward.
They began to check the individual housing units, opening doors and moving into the small spaces with weapons at ready. All of them contained the detritus of daily living, all of them showed signs of recent habitation. Canned and boxed food was still in cupboards, in boxes in storage areas, clothing was hung or folded, bedding still on bunks, but there was no sign of life at all. None of the cooking gear was used, or had been left on stoves unattended, ammunition and weapons were racked and stored, shoes and boots still rested outside of doors, but there were no people to use them. There were no notes or any signs of leaving, it was as if they had simply disappeared off the face of the earth.
The three of them gathered in the common area and confirmed what each had found.
“Fucking weird,” said Mitch. “Like they just vanished simultaneously or all got up and walked off at the same time.”
“Or got snatched by aliens,” added Paula with a nervous laugh.
Jesse gauged the sun in the sky as he spoke.
“Did anyone find the radio?”
Paula nodded. “It was in that RV over there. All hooked up, but shut down.”
“Okay, I’ll get it fired up and contact the Lodge, let them know what we’ve found, or not found, we’ll be spending the night here.” He nodded to Mitch. “Go give the all clear to the others. When they get in, get one of the grills started and let’s make a meal out of what they got around here rather than waste our MRE’s. Paula, find the best looking grill and drag it over to the pavilion, I don’t think we’ll want to spend the night in any of these tonight.”
Mitch hurried off to do as Jesse had bid as did Paula. Walking and thinking, Jesse went to the indicated RV and found the radio that had been provided by the Lodge. He wondered where the people were. And where had they gone? Had they gone anywhere? He knew that they were going to have to search the area to see if there were any clues as to where the people had gone. His two day patrol was going to turn into a longer stretch, and with each day spent here, Heart of the Moon was getting further away. Jesse sighed at the thought of having to spend more time at the Lodge unable to make preparations for leaving, but at the same time, he did not want to leave without his duties being covered by others. He and Mitch still had to pick a vehicle and get the permission of the council to take the vehicle from the Lodge’s vehicle pool. Pausing inside the RV, Jesse let his eyes scan the interior until he spied the radio. The radio was in the forward part of the RV, set up next to the driving cabin. Jesse leaned his CAR against the wall and collapsed into the captain’s chair near the unit.
As Paula had told him, it was undamaged and in good working order, all the lights coming to their proper glow when he turned the system on. Checking the Lodge time on his watch, all time was now Lodge time, he grabbed up the hand unit and identified himself into the mouth piece as he looked around his surroundings. The RV was one of the huge ones for summer travel, the kind that was usually driven by a retiree to sunny locations and then parked in some RV camp until the snows of winter thawed for good in Ohio. Jesse had never understood why people had spend a life savings on something like this, he personally would have simply bought into a time share and traveled by motorcycle to the winter spot, but he supposed that it took all kinds.
“Eyre to Cardinal Long,” came the reply. “Go ahead.”
They had chosen the handle Eyre for the Lodge and the patrols all had bird names as well, mostly because of the huge display of birds in the Lodge’s common room.
“Sparrow Nest is empty. Repeat, Sparrow Nest is empty.” They had given all of the outlaying extensions of the Lodge birds names and called them nests, rather than giving them numbers and blatantly broadcasting how many there were. If someone wanted to take the time to listen all day long, they might have been able to piece together how many outposts they had, but any casual listener would have to work at it.
“Confirm,” said the radio operator, Jesse thought it might be Stacy, “Sparrow Nest is empty.”
He knew that she was going to be getting the mayor and the head of security, a former Green Beret Jesse respected, and advising them. While he waited, Jesse looked out the big window where the rest of the patrol was coming in and he could see that they were nervously looking around at the empty space where four families and their extended people had once played, cooked, laughed and lived. They were setting up camp in the pavilion, moving away from the empty RV’s and trailers as if they were contaminated. The radio crackled.
“Cardinal Long, go to alternate three.”
Jesse switched the channel to the prescribed frequency. It was one that was a narrower band and less likely to be heard in a broad scan. The alternate channels were for longer ranges than the unit or patrol channels, which were designated as Tactical Channels, or tac channels. The tac channels were line of sight channels and nearly impossible to pick up unless the listener were with in the immediate area.
“What’s up, Cardinal?” came the voice of the John Davis, the security head.
“There’s no one here. It’s as if they just walked away.”
“No signs of struggle?”
“None. Food still in place, weapons racked and ready, no sign that they intended to bug out, nothin’.”
“Roger that.” There was a pause as John unkeyed the mic. Jesse could almost hear the man thinking across the distance. “Cardinal, stay in place, give the area a good search first light. We’ll be sending down a mobile patrol mid morning.”
“Cardinal, any ideas?”
Jesse laughed before keying the mic. “None, but speculation abounds.”
“Right, keep it to a minimum. Contact as needed, Eyre out. Return to main.”
“Cardinal out, returning to main.”
Jesse switched off the radio and sat back for a long moment. He sighed and picked up his rifle and returned to the pavilion. The others looked expectantly at him.
“Like I thought, we’re supposed to search the area first thing tomorrow, they’re sendin’ down a mobile unit mid mornin’,” informed Jesse. “Get some food started and claim a patch of dirt as your own. Bill and Trevor, you two round up some cover for us, I want at least four firin’ positions by dinner. Melissa, you start a walkin’ patrol inside the wall. Yell if you see anythin’ at all that seems out of place. We’ll draw cards for watches.”
“You think they’re dead?”
“I know they’re gone,” replied Jesse, putting an end to any more questions. He picked up the CAR and motioned to the surrounding mobile homes. “Let’s make a big ass meal, I’m hungry and there’s no need to be stingy.” He paused for a second and then gave the order he himself was not happy with. “Oh, no booze tonight.”
There were answering groans which he ignored as he walked back to the big RV to search the pantry.