Pocalypse RoadLilith Saintcrow
Copyright © 2017 by Lilith Saintcrow
Cover art © 2017 by Skyla Dawn Cameron
Print ISBN: 9781977087294
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
Roadtrip Z - Season Three
For Papa, again
I. Pocalypse Road
1. I Killed the Car
2. Plumbdamn Insane
3. Good Breeding
4. Getting Along
5. Safe Second
6. The Decent Thing
7. Cutting Deadweight
8. Mandy and Carline
9. Early Enough for Rules
10. Batter Up
11. Sweetheart Honeypot
12. No Use in Shouldas
13. Enough to Shine Your Shoes
14. Two Conversations
15. Looking Up
16. Immunity Factor
17. Prosaic Comfort
18. Democracy in Action
19. Dark Well
20. Noisy Death
21. Take Care of Myself, Thank You
22. All Sorts of Messed Up
23. Stay Handled
24. Heightened Circumstances
25. Entirely Decided
26. Only Need One
27. It Got Loud
About the Author
I Killed the Car
A brand new, bullet-spattered brown-and-white RV rollicked down the unplowed, snow-choked freeway, swaying dangerously as it slalomed past abandoned cars clotted near exits and onramps. A black 4x4 and a white-and-red Chevy truck followed in its wake, anxious herd dogs hanging back only because cutting in to slow their charge might founder it. Melting slush splashed from miraculously unharmed tires, and after a good fifteen miles of wild motion, the RV’s brake lights came on and stayed lit, ruby eyes in the glare of an early winter afternoon. Smoke and steam boiled from its front end, streaming along its brown-striped sides.
That much momentum was difficult to halt, but the RV was barely going at an idle when it kissed the shattered edge of a jackknifed semi reclining across a heavy concrete divider. It jolted to a stop, and the hazard lights began to stutter. The sun slid behind a scrim of grey cloud and the other two vehicles came to a cautious halt as well, both with plenty of room in front, their noses pointed unerringly for the clear lane heading east and slightly north.
“God damn it.” Broad-shouldered, dark-skinned Juju Thurgood slammed the black 4x4’s door, all but vibrating with fury inside his fatigue jacket. Underneath, yellow stripes on his black sweater glowed. “Look at this! Just look at this bullshit!” The four-by’s spare, held on its metal arm, was Swiss-cheese riddled. Juju flung his arms out, his pink-palmed hands knotted. “Fucking crackers!”
“You hit?” Lee Quartine barked, his window all the way down and a high blush on his stubbled cheeks from cold or adrenaline—or both. He jammed the truck’s gear-lever into park and stamped on the emergency brake, barely pausing before wrestling his door open and unfolding all six-feet-odd of his lanky frame out into the cold. “Juju, you fuckin hit?”
That settled Thurgood something wonderful. “No. Ain’t hit.” He glared, hazel eyes wide and wild but full of sense, and the pompom on his blue knit cap bobbed as he shook his head. “You?”
“Watch the road.” Being under fire again felt almost normal. Lee glanced back into the Chevy’s cab, and the bruised blond man huddled in the passenger seat glared at him, too. Idiot. Big bear-shouldered Brandon French was worse than useless, but Lee had other concerns at the moment. “French, grab that first-aid kit under the seat.” He set off for the RV, steam and smoke boiling from its front end. Ginny had kept it floored for a good bit, slewing around abandoned cars whenever they appeared, showing a fair bit of fancy driving. She was probably in a state, and Lee’s shoulders were about to crawl up near his ears. He wasn’t breathing quite right, and he’d been swearing under his breath for at least five miles. That was probably why he felt like he couldn’t get a good lungful in. Probably why he was sweating, too, under every layer meant to conserve body heat.
What had tipped Ginny off and made her hit the gas away from the trap? Probably the still-smoking wreck blocking the rest stop exit. The murderous assholes had put it too far up the curve, it was plainly visible if you were in anything higher than a sedan. Lee hadn’t been sure she’d make it once they started shootin’; Brandon French was fucking useless, whimper-yelling in the passenger seat without even the sense to return fire even if he’d had his damn empty carbine.
Miraculously, none of the tires on the assorted vehicles had blown. They were goddamn luckier than they had any right to be, every single mother’s child of them, especially if no bullets had tumbled into flesh instead of engine or car-body.
Lee skipped the regular door halfway down the RV’s long, bullet-dotted side, stalking for the front. Passenger windows were broken into glittering chunks, some of the screens on the back ones punched by flying lead, and his guts seized up.
A bluetick coonhound was barking furiously. Lee grabbed for the passenger door’s handle. It was locked, and the slumped form in the seat was Steph Meacham, her fine dark-to-blonde changecolor hair free of its usual scrunchie and blowing every-which-way. “Steph.” He didn’t even sound like himself, it was a dry croak. “Stephanie Meacham, you sit on up and unlock this, now.”
It just proved he was a real bastard, he knew. Because what Lee was thinking was, fine, let one of the kids get hit. Just not Ginny. Just let her be all right.
Steph twitched. She uncurled, slowly, and her big, haunted blue eyes peered over the windowsill at Lee. Strands of her hair moved on the cold breeze. “Mr Quartine?” she whispered, a smattering of freckles glaring across her nose since she was transparent-pale. “Is it…is it over?”
“Seems to be.” They could be comin after us in that big old truck. If so, we’ve got a few minutes, but I don’t like our chances. Still, it was one thing to trap the unwary, and another thing to go after forewarned and possibly armed prey. Juju’s swearing drifted past, borne on a cold wind. The man was probably all but kicking his tires. “But we’ve got to move. You hit? Anyone in there hit?” Please, God. I don’t care what you have to do.
Just let her be all right.
“M-M-Miz G-Ginny…” Steph straightened further, turning in the seat, and Lee’s heart hit the bottom of his guts with a splash.
Christ. No. Please, no.
“I’m all right,” he heard, from deeper in the RV. Hoarse, husky, and sweeter than all the angels singing to God whenever the Big Fellow had a desire for some music. “Mark? Mark, say something?”
There was another mutter from inside—Mark Kasprak, proving he was still among the living. Lee hopped up on the running board, peering into the now-mangled RV. Driven off the lot less than three days ago, dammit.
Ginny Mills, deathly pale, still clutched at the steering wheel. She stared at Lee like she didn’t recognize him, her pupils wide and black, chestnut curls escaping her French braid. Her lips, slightly parted, were bloodless, and her black jacket almost swallowed her whole. Her chin trembled a little before she gulped in a shallow breath and her gaze snapped forward, and he realized she was practically standing on the brake and probably the emergency as well. The engine bumped and thumped, and more steam boiled free.
Big blond useless Brandon banged on the door midway down the RV. Steph jumped, her pup
ils swelling, eating at her irises. Lee almost swore, swallowed it, and reached in to get the door unlocked. Traveller, yelping and yowling, was careening all over the inside.
Dogs didn’t take to upsets in their routine well. It had been nothing but upset for a while, despite Ginny’s insistence on regular bathroom stops and mealtimes.
“Steph.” Gently, firmly, Lee pitched the words low and soothing. “Let’s get this door open and that seatbelt off. Come on, now.”
Bad enough they had to deal with the chewing, once-human critters. Now they had to be wary of other survivors, too. The only wonder was that it’d taken people this long to start being assholes again—or that it had taken Lee and his group this long to come across said assholes.
“O-Okay.” Steph fumbled at her belt catch; Mark Kasprak peered around her, his eyes huge and the rest of him cheese-pale, his dark hair standing up like it wanted to make its own break for freedom.
“What happened?” The boy’s Adam’s apple bobbed. He looked scared enough to pass out or piss himself, and Lee hoped he wouldn’t do either.
We can chowder-to-cashew it later, kid. Lee settled on the most pressing question. “You hit?”
“I…I don’t think so.” Mark swallowed hard, again, and swayed, almost falling onto the center console. “No, I don’t…What was that?”
“Someone who didn’t want to play nice.” Lee hopped down and wrenched the door open. Steph spilled out, clearly in one piece, and Traveller scrabbled right after her, hit the ankle-deep slush, and began prance-dancing in a circle, yip-barking. “Shit.”
“Language,” Steph said faintly, and swayed. Lee propped her against the vehicle-side and was about to climb back in, but next came Mark, his hands trembling. Lee grabbed his elbow and helped him down. Back up on the running board again, almost cracking his head a good one on the top of the doorway, he pitched forward and got his feet in. The dog was running loose, but right now Lee Quartine didn’t give a single damn about anything other than the woman in the driver’s seat.
Slowly, dreamily, Ginny put the RV in park, eased of the emergency brake. Twisted the key, and the engine died with a thankful wheeze. Then, she stilled, staring out through the cracked windshield. It was a wonder the vehicle had kept going as long as it did, there were bullet holes stitched along the side. More than likely at least one had found its way into the engine, and that was enough to make Lee sweat.
Lucky, again. Goddamn lucky. Unless she was hit, and just didn’t know it. “Ginny.” He grabbed her shoulder. “Darlin, come on. We’ve got to move.”
That got her attention. “Move?” Her lips were downright chalky, and she didn’t even shiver at the chill coming through her own rolled-down window. Both were bad signs. “Oh. I…sorry, the car won’t…it’s not running well.”
No shit. “You did real good, darlin. But they may be comin up the road. Grab your bag, let’s go.”
“Okay.” She nodded. Blue veins stood out against her paleness. She was almost transparent, like Steph. “Okay.” She didn’t move. Her hands clutched the steering wheel, her arms tense. Soft grey sunlight fell across her wrists, sparkling on those thin gold bangles caught below the cuff of her jacket. Tiny gold hoops in her ears, too.
Even in the middle of all this, she was so damn city. Soft and classy and civilized, and whatever the bastards with their big truck and sealed-up RV at the rest stop wanted, it wasn’t anything nice at all if they were gonna shoot to get it. A hot complex burst of something too sharp to be relief and too crooked to be clean fury filled Lee’s chest, and he had to exhale sharply to shove it back down and clap a lid on. “Ginny.” He jostled her shoulder again, as gently as possible. “Come on. We’ve got to move.”
“All right.” Still, she didn’t let go of the wheel; she probably thought she was moving already. Shock. If she hadn’t headed for the rest stop exit, God alone knows what would have happened. There were no casualties only because she was smart, and had made the right decision under pressure.
Now ain’t the time for that, Lee. “Ginny.” It had to be right tone—firm, but not commanding. Gentle enough not to spook her, but sharp enough to get her attention. “Undo your seatbelt.”
When she still didn’t move, he hit the catch. It unrolled over her chest, and that made her look up at him.
Those big dark eyes, pupils too far dilated, were now swimming with hot water. Which made him feel twice as unsteady, his head full of colorless fumes. Just looking for a spark.
Christ. “Come on.” He had to work her fingers free of the wheel. “You got anything in here you can’t leave?” Most of their luggage was in the back of the truck, but she needed something to focus on.
“J-just my purse.” She blinked at him, and a single tear tracked down her left cheek. Slushmelt, dripping from every surface, made a thin staticky noise while she paused. “I’m sorry. I…I think I killed the car.”
“You did good, darlin.” More than good, she’d done fantastic, especially for a civilian. He found her leather purse, its contents thankfully not scattered hither and yon, and scooped it up. “Come on. Let’s get out of here.”
“Why would they do that?” Skinny Steph Meacham hugged herself, pushing back into her seat with her legs like she thought she was driving and wanted to slow down. At least she was behind the front passenger seat and not Juju’s. “Why?”
“Some people are assholes.” Mark, his arm over her shoulders, glanced guiltily at Juju. It was pretty lucky a bullet hadn’t made it into the four-by’s engine; they’d been shooting mostly at the RV to bottle up their victims. It was a plain miracle Miz Ginny had been able to ram past the wreck blocking the exit, too.
For a librarian, that was some damn fine driving.
“That they are.” Juju didn’t quite have the shakes, but it was close. Nobody ever liked getting shot at, but it was worse when you were almost helpless, crouching in the driver’s seat and praying nothing would give out while training fought with the body’s idiot responses, adrenaline soaking every tissue it could reach and your balls crawling northward to find a more congenial home. Worst was trying to look everywhere at once, because tunnel vision snuck up on you. “But it don’t matter why they shot at us, kids. What matters is we got away.”
“Yeah.” Mark, his skinny shoulders hunched, squeezed Steph again. The boy was plain gone over young Miss Meacham, and his awkward attempts at comfort probably did more to help his ownself than her. Still, it was kind of nice to see. “Everyone’s okay. Lee said Miss Ginny was fine.”
Traveller hunched on Steph’s other side, his slobbery wet nose pressed to the back window Juju refused to have rolled down for him. The last thing they needed was the idiot hound deciding to take a header onto the highway. The dog didn’t like being separated from Ginny, but he put up with it. And Juju was damn glad that French fellow wasn’t in his four-by too. The blond college boy would not shut up, he needed Maalox for the mouth. I don’t want him in with the kids, Lee had said, glowering, and that gave Juju a whole lot to think about.
All of it was unpleasant.
To cap it all, the season was just beginning. This melt, forgiving and sloppy as it was, wouldn’t last forever, and they were heading northeast. Right through mountains, and toward winter’s icy heart. Lee kept poring over atlases when they stopped, the old worry-line between his eyebrows and his expression the same as it had been in the jungle once or twice, when he was chewing on how to get his team out of yet another blood-drenched manure pile the brass had landed them in. You didn’t have to worry too much when you were one of Little Lee’s folk, long as you kept your head down and did your damn job.
But the man was not thinking straight, taking them towards the North Pole in winter during the gat-damn Pocalypse. That library gal had him all turned around. And even if she had done Juju a good turn or two, he was about wishing Lee had never laid eyes on her.
Tires shushed through slush; Lee’s tai
llights ahead glowing as the truck sped up a little. In a half-hour they’d have another check-in with the walkie talkies. This stretch of freeway was deserted, and it was a nice change. Juju forced his fingers to stop clutching the wheel. His knuckles creaked but his legs were steady enough, especially since he was sitting down. Steph sniffled a little, and Mark said something in her ear, soft and soothing. The two of them were a pair of turtledoves, all right.
Christ, he wished Billy Tipton was here. He’d have a thing or two to say about Brandon French. The two of them could even suss out how to solve the damn problem for Lee. What the Lieutenant didn’t know wouldn’t hurt, right? You did for your own, and if he and Billy Tipton had any “own” to speak of, it was Lee Quartine.
Except Tip was dead, his head beaten in with his own flea-market lamp, and the fact that he’d been trying to chew his good buddy Juju’s throat out at the time didn’t change the fact of murder.
Just like nothing would change the fact that the survivors of the goddamn Pocalypse were just as likely to bite you as the walking dead. Shit was deep and getting deeper, with no shovel in sight.
The sky was getting uglier and uglier. The walkie-talkie on the dashboard crackled with formless static. French was no doubt filling up the Chevy’s cab with noise, and Lee was probably wearing that faint grimace he got when brass dogs was barkin’ and the shit was rollin’ downhill. Traveller whined a little, and Steph patted the dog’s head, smoothing behind his left ear. Mark closed his eyes, his Adam’s-apple bobbing as he swallowed, over and over again.