Chapter 38: On the road
Miles passed and minutes ticked away. My thoughts returned to Nana’s book. Mom, and perhaps Dad, believed the book. The major, however, remained skeptical.
Penri did acknowledge legends and myths contained embedded truth. Time and arcane language had a way of obscuring facts. Distorted generation after generation to serve the needs of the storytellers, the trick was to discern relevant information from pure fantasy. David and Goliath, the Minotaur of Crete, the Trojan War, there were truths buried in these legends. One needed enough context to tease it out.
I gazed out my window and pondered the wanting measure. Last night, I convinced myself I had heard the phrase before. However, in the light of day, doubt gnawed at me.
Did I, when I first read the book, recognize the phrase? Uncertainty gripped me. I’m sure I didn’t recognize those words at the time. So why had I convinced myself they were known to me? Probably wishful thinking. I must have grasped at the shadow of a memory which didn’t exist.
“Look at that,” Theo exclaimed.
A signpost announced Farrar to be four miles away. “Hmm, nice,” I murmured.
“No. The farmhouse. Look.” Theo pointed ahead.
I pulled myself from my thoughts. Hundreds of moaners surrounded the farmhouse. A sight to chill, they were ambulatory. Worse yet, several of the undead turned and stumbled our way. The radio exploded with chatter.
The highway swerved left and soon we traveled along the bluffs. We swept past, a safe distance from the house, but we had attracted the attention of the herd. The horde moved as one in pursuit. They stumbled, awkward and not yet fully thawed. The highway veered away from them as if detouring around the menace.
After we put a mile between the herd and us, our walkie-talkie started to screech. Short bursts interspersed with silence. I shuddered. The squeals reminded me of nails on a chalkboard. I beat the radio against my palm in an attempt to silence it.
“Stop,” yelled Theo. “You’ll break the thing.”
“Too late. Can’t you hear it?”
“Come again?” Susan’s voice crackled across the radio.
“No, it’s fine. It’s Klara or the major,” Theo said.
Puzzled, I stared at Theo.
“Me and Chris,” Theo explained to my confusion, “couldn’t fix the major’s handset. We rigged it up so when he pressed the trigger it squeals. It’s Morse code.”
Again, the stuttered screech came across the radio. This time I discerned a pattern.
“The major wants to stop,” Susan said.
Theo came to a stop. Behind us, the other vehicles halted with the exception of the Humvee. Klara pulled out of line and parked by Dad’s truck. Finally, the Humvee moved and Klara pulled alongside our wrecker.
Penri stood up through the gun hole. He removed his goggles, put his binoculars to his eyes and scanned ahead. He lowered the glasses and turned to our truck.
“We have a situation up ahead,” he said when he leaned down to get closer to us. “What I want you to do, is follow the road around the bend. When it starts to reach the end of the curve, you’ll find a set of yellow and black caution signs. Stop there. Under no circumstance are you to clear the bluffs. Got that?”
“Got it.” Theo squinted toward the signs.
“Good.” Penri put his goggles back on.
“What do you think?” Theo asked.
“I don’t know. Moaners maybe?”
In less than five minutes, we reached the caution signs. Klara brought the Humvee to a standstill alongside our wrecker. We were twenty feet from a sharp turn in the highway. Penri no longer stood in the gun hole. Klara jumped from the vehicle and ran around the Humvee to assist him out.
Penri handed Klara his binoculars. “Take these and run up there and keep an eye on things.”
Klara dashed across the road. She kept close to the cliff and made her way to the edge of the wall. Penri waited for the others to join us.
“Here’s the situation,” Penri said. “About a klick down the highway a roadblock has been set up. Unfortunately, because of our friends behind us, we have no choice but to go forward. The question is, how we continue our journey with the least amount of trouble?”
Everyone stared at each other, uncertain of our next move.
“Good. I see you understand our predicament. Now, it’s time to get a better view of what we’re up against.”
Penri let out a sharp whistle, got Klara’s attention, and waved her back.
“Well?” he asked when she returned.
“It’s like you said. There’s three men on the road and two Humvee’s with no hardware up top. And they’re waiting for us,” Klara said.
“Well then, let’s give them something to look at. Dave, come with me, please.”
Dad and Penri walked a few steps before the major stopped. He turned and pointed to me. “Come with us.” He grinned. “And, Anna, get your gun.”
Just great. A fine time for him to get a sense of humor.
We walked toward the bend in the road. The major used only one crutch and instructed me on how he wanted my assault rifle held. He had me point the weapon toward the ground with one hand on the barrel and the other on the handgrip with the stock up above my armpit.
Penri stopped. “See my stance? Do that when we stop. Make them think you own the situation.” He handed me his helmet. “Here, put this on and look the part. Don’t talk, don’t cough, or any unnecessary movement when we get to the point of contact.”
The roadblock came into view. Penri stopped, Dad to his left and me on his right. I stood next to the major and held my rifle in the manner instructed. Penri peered at the roadblock through his binoculars.
Gaze fixed ahead, he said, “Anna, turn your torso to the left then to your right. Let your rifle lead the way.”
I swiveled my body at my hips, neither slow nor fast, but purposeful.
“Good, you’re doing fine,” Penri said when he lowered the binoculars. “Now, when we meet these people, do what you just did.”
Penri handed the binoculars to Dad. “Dave, have a look.”
“See the tall man in the center?” Penri asked after Dad had a moment. “He’s our objective. He’s the man we will deal with.”
“He’s a soldier, an old timer.”
“How can you tell that?” Dad lowered the binoculars.
“Old soldiers find it easy to recognize each other.”
“Any ideas?” Dad asked.
“Several. But we will have to make contact before we formulate a plan of action.”
“I don’t know about this,” Dad replied.
“Listen, Dave, I’ve been in these situations before. The longer we talk, the less chance there is for things to go wrong.”
“There’s only three of them.”
“Unlikely. We don’t know what’s in the Humvees. I’m sure there will be flank support we don’t see. These men are the tip of the spear, I’m afraid.”
Dad thought for a moment; indecision seemed to grip him.
“Dave, you were right about the moaners. You have shamed this officer. Everything you have done, I realize, has been the best strategy possible. I, for my part, lost my command clinging to pre-conceived ideas on how best to conduct this war.
“Unfortunately, when it comes to the living you have much to learn. We must take these people for what they are and not what we would like or assume them to be. Once we figure out what we are dealing with, we can proceed accordingly.”
“Fine, I’ll try it your way.”
Damn. I sure hope Penri knows his game.
“Good, let’s join our adversaries before they have time to call up reinforcements.” Penri and Dad headed toward the safety of the cliff. I walked backward a few steps before I turned to follow.
“The most probable outcome,” Penri explained, “is a stalemate. We keep them talking for a half-hour or so and the herd down the road might alter the circumstances in our favor. In the confusion we may be able to slip through their defenses.”
“What if they’re not in the mood for conversation?” I asked.
“That’s a possibility,” Penri conceded. “In that case we drop the hammer and run. However, I suspect these are not your run of the mill highwaymen. Which to some extent increases our difficulties. People react unpredictably when they have something to protect. I’ve seen it too many times. Good, rational folks can turn dangerous when they’re frightened.” Penri sighed. “Quite dangerous indeed.”
Penri commenced to bark orders when we reached the trucks.
“Lock and load,” he yelled. “I want a rifle or shotgun out every window. Fully loaded with safeties on. We don’t want any accidental discharges. You,” Major Penri pointed at Jane.
“Yes, sir.” Jane snapped to attention.
“Keep that thing buttoned up tight. I want them guessing who or what we have inside. You’ll take point. Stop one hundred feet from the roadblock and do nothing else unless I tell you. Also, I need Anthony to drive the Humvee.”
He turned to Klara. “Get up on the .50 cal and mean business.”
“There’s a round in the chamber if it comes to that. Just stick an ammo can up there and act as if you would like nothing better than to knock some heads off.” Penri caught the enthusiasm on Klara’s face and hastened to clarify his order. “In a not too threatening way, of course.”
“Ohh, can do!”
“Something’s wrong with that girl,” Penri muttered and nodded in admiration.
He turned to Anthony. “When we come to a stop, I want you to pull from line, to the left, away from the rest of the convoy. Provide Klara with a clear line of fire.”
“And you,” Penri hobbled toward Susan, who stood up through the sunroof of Mom’s SUV. “Take these.” He handed her his goggles. “Put them on and grab a helmet from my vehicle. When we round the bend, I want you to train your rifle on the tallest man you see. Let him know we know he’s the man in charge.”
Dad objected, “I thought you didn’t want to shoot our way through.”
“I don’t.” Penri’s face grew stern. “But I want that bastard to know he’s the first to drop if the situation gets out of hand.”
“One more thing.” Penri raised his voice. “Maintain radio silence. If I say vector vector, stand down. If I say Theo tango, open up with all you got. Susan, you’re tango tango. Wait for a specific order from me before you do anything.”
Theo muttered, “Man, am I ever going to live that down?”
“Do exactly what I say and we might get through this alive. Move out,” Penri shouted.
Jane led us up the road. We passed the cliff and came in sight of the soldiers.
I peered back at Susan. She dressed well for the part of a soldier in her camo, goggles, and helmet. She lowered her rifle and set her sights on her target. Theo and I both rolled down our windows and, careful not to angle the muzzles forward, pointed our weapons out. Jane set the pace at thirty miles an hour. It did not take long to reach the roadblock. She came to a stop one hundred feet from the soldiers.
Nervous, I waited for something to happen. A car door slammed. A tension-filled minute passed before Penri stood at Theo’s window.
“Come with me, woman. Same as before, with your rifle, and bring the radio.”
I glanced at Theo before I stepped out from the truck. I joined Penri and we made our way toward the roadblock.
“Stay loose and put these on.” Penri handed me a pair of sunglasses. He groaned in pain but continued to walk with just the one crutch.
“Why am I here?” I asked after I put on the sunglasses.
Penri grinned in a most unpleasant manner. “You’re my canary in the coal mine.”
We emerged from behind Jane’s vehicle and came into view of the soldiers. “Excuse me?”
Penri declined to elaborate. After we walked thirty feet, the three soldiers left their positions and advanced toward us. They too pointed the muzzles of their weapons toward the ground.
“Good. They’re following protocol,” Penri whispered.
Several unpleasant thoughts swirled through my mind while we approached the soldiers. Foremost, the unpleasant fact that I really, really needed to fucking pee.
Both parties stopped ten feet from each other. The two taller and better-disciplined soldiers glanced at me, then at my assault rifle, then turned their attention to the major. The third soldier presented himself rather less well. He leered at me.
Major Penri drew a deep breath and proceeded to verbally unload on the suddenly hapless soldiers.