CHAPTER 24 – Unskilled Killer
Whether with his cane or leaning on either Mandy or Rachel, Vince walked like his knee carried a glowing coal ember. Carl told himself he should feel sorry for Vince for his loss, for the agony of his knee, and for the way he had pushed himself about as far as he could on what was becoming a futile quest. Logan had spotted three more shoeprints in dirt at a couple of spots, but nothing since they crossed the first street. For the last three blocks, meandering in a zig-zagging course, they were going strictly on guesswork. So, when they came upon a small, neighborhood shopping center, he suggested a rest stop. With a tight-lipped nod, Vince relented, and Carl herded the others toward the small supermarket. He could feel sorry for him, but he found it harder and harder to relate to his old friend.
Most of the surrounding homes were black skeletons. The single, large building of the shopping center had been mostly spared for some reason, or for no reason other than the fortunes of war. Concussions from exploding gas tanks of the few nearby cars and tree sap superheated by fire until the trees disintegrated in blazing thunderclaps had reduced the supermarket’s bank of front windows to thousands of shards scattered across the floor. Glass crunched beneath their shoes as they waded into the chaos.
Merchandise littered the floor, but there should be enough to last the tiny group for days.
Carl stopped beside his leader. “Hell, Vince, let’s just lay claim to all this and feast every day. See? There’s even some barbecues over there. We could haul stuff back to that big house or just set up housekeeping right here and sell whatever we don’t want for a bundle.”
Vince turned one way then the other, peering into the shadows and shambles. “It’s got possibilities, but just to keep in mind for afterwards. Check in the back.”
When Carl and Logan came back to the front after exploring the full interior, including the stockroom and offices in the back, Logan was chewing on a piece of Summer Sausage and plopped to the floor near Mandy. He held it up to her as an offer to share. She gave him a glance and head shake but said nothing. Carl noticed but restrained himself from making an issue of it. The little twerp’s got about as much chance of impressing Mandy as he does to fly away on a cloud. He handed Vince a warm can of root beer and said, “No one here, Vince. Place has been raided more than once, I’d say, but there’s still a lot of stuff.”
“Okay,” Vince answered. “But, like I said—later. Go see if that bar next door is worth going into. Maybe there’s some real beer over there.”
Carl moved to the door but peered around to corner into the parking lot before venturing outside. Just as he started to take a first step beyond the door, his stomach clenched into knot, and he jerked back into the store. A figure at the edge of the parking lot moved furtively in quick spurts from one place of cover to the next. But he wasn’t far away, and it was clear enough that it was a man and that he was coming toward the door to the supermarket. Carl said in a coarse whisper, “Someone’s coming!”
Vince stepped over to the doorway, but to the other side from Carl. Satisfied there was only one man out there, he stepped outside the door and watched. After a moment, Carl joined him with Logan peering out from just inside.
The parking lot surrounding the building was almost empty of cars, so the man’s course was around the edge of the lot where fences and trees offered partial cover. The last leg of his approach was a short sprint to the front door of the supermarket where Carl and Vince stood.
The stranger slipped between them then through the door without slowing, but not without speaking. “You guys are nuts, standing around in the open like that. Those things are apt to be anywhere.”
With a small flick of his head, Vince motioned Carl and Logan to follow the man.
“Hey!” Vince called out as he re-entered the market.
The man stopped at the entrance to the third aisle and turned back to face Vince. “Yeah?” he replied in a friendly, but somewhat impatient tone.
“What are you doing?” Vince asked in a voice of complete astonishment.
“Gotta get some canned milk and a bottle. M’ wife found a baby down the street. Woman nearby was dead—must’ve been its mother. Anyway, baby’s cryin’ and won’t stop. One of those damned gargoyles is liable to hear it if we can’t quiet it down.” He turned and started back down the aisle. “M’ wife said it needs a bottle.”
“Get it somewhere else,” Vince said.
After a brief pause, the man stopped and turned to face back at Vince. “Huh?” He sounded like he either couldn’t believe what Vince had said or that he had miss-heard what was said.
“I said,” Vince stretched out his words like he was speaking to someone who either understood little English or was simply not very swift. “Get it somewhere else. Go to another store or something for your milk and bottle. This place is mine.”
“Hey, now, wait a minute. You ain’t the owner of this store. I know him, and you ain’t him. And, besides...”
“Logan,” Vince spoke softly. “Kill ’im.”
Although the silence before had been near total, the hush that suddenly came over the place was as though the air, itself, had suddenly gone away.
“Didn’t I just give you an order, Logan? Do I need to repeat myself?”
Logan sputtered and swiveled his head back and forth between the stranger and Vince, but he uttered nothing intelligible.
“Hey, that’s okay, Jack. Forget it.” The man started moving back toward the door. “You’re right. It’s your store now, I guess. So, I’ll just go get my stuff somewhere else. Whatever you say, Jack. I’m easy. I’ll just run over to—”
The man had to squeeze within arm’s length of Vince to get back out the door. But as soon as he was within reach, Vince slammed him backwards with a vicious backhand. The man stumbled and fell over a stack of plastic shopping baskets. He rolled as he landed and came to rest against a rack of magazines where he lay looking up at Vince and the others, anchored by shock and uncertainty.
“Come on, Logan.” Vince’s tone became friendly, cajoling, hinting at a camaraderie that had been missing in their relationship until now. “Come on, Ed. There’s nothing to it. And talk about a rush—a high—man, there’s nothing like it.”
“B-but M-Mister Morgan, I’ve never... I—I m-m-mean—I don’t—”
“You know, Ed, back there you found the trail of Vic’s murderers, just figured it out from nothing but a few marks on the road. Anyone else, me included, would have walked right past. I got the idea that you were really becoming one of us…you know, contributing your knowledge and skill and all. I thought you were ready to join us, to become one of us. Are you, Ed? Are you ready to be one of us?”
Carl just shook his head. One of us? Yeah, sure. Even I’m not one of us, anymore. Not since Vic died. But he stopped himself short when he realized what could happen if Vince picked up on his attitude about what was happening.
Logan wiped at his mouth with the back of his hand and looked about, at Carl, at Mandy, even at Rachel who stood with her eyes and her mouth agape in a mixture of awe and terror. He began to blink his eyes more rapidly, as though they had become as dry as his mouth.
“Here.” Vince held out White’s target pistol. “You can use this.”
“B-but—but, he said the things out there might hear the baby cry. And, the noise from a gun—”
“Hmm. You’re probably right. Good catch, Ed. Still looking out for our welfare, huh?” Vince turned to the man who still lay on the floor, both terrified and fascinated as he listened to their exchange. “Are they close?”
“Yeah, man. He’s right. They’d be here in a heartbeat.”
“Who? What?” Vince’s tone was that of a patient teacher attempting to coax the correct answer from a struggling student. “Just so I know we’re all talking about the same things, tell me what things you’re talking about.”
“You haven’t seen ’em?” Vince’s answer was a silent shake of his head and one raised eyebrow above friendly eyes and an easy smile. Certainty that he would be able to talk his way out of this predicament was suddenly within reach. “Man, you never saw anything like ‘em—I mean never! They’re the ones that burned the hell out of this town with those weird planes o’ theirs. They’re not all that big, about as tall as a man, and they are ugly! They almost look like a man at a distance, if you don’t look at their faces or see ‘em walk. And they got guns o’ some kind that’ll burn a hole right through ya. That’s all they do, go around burnin’ holes through people. Man, you don’t want to do nothin’ to bring ’em down on you!”
Vince turned to Carl and nodded. “Sure sounds like what we saw, all right.”
Vince slipped the pistol back into his waistband, and the man on the floor visibly sagged as the tension left his body. Still smiling, Vince unsheathed the machete and handed it handle first to Logan. “Here, use this.”
That’s when Carl realized that Vince was going to turn the wimpy little lap-dog into a junk-yard killer simply for amusement.
The man and Logan locked shock-widened eyes.
Vince began again, “Come on, Ed. This is your last chance, your final exam. You’ve gotta do it. …Oh, come on, now,” Vince cajoled. “Haven’t you ever thought about what it would be like? Remember back in the days of old when knights were bold, as they say? The blade wielded by the champion smashed and sliced through flesh and bone in a spray of blood. Think of it, Ed. Think of the sensation of swinging that blade—the power. The beauty! Why, it’s almost like dancing. It’s as graceful as ballet.” Vince’s excitement increased as he spoke, his voice growing firmer and more commanding, and finally, demanding. “Your arm grows in strength as you strike—and you strike again—you slash and strike yet again as the blood splashes back on you—and the power in your arm grows—you slash—SLASH!”
Logan’s own excitement expanded at Vince’s discourse. His hand gripping the machete curled into a fist around the handle—pumping. Eyes that had, at first, widened in horror, narrowed and grew threatening, menacing. His gaze shifted back and forth from the man’s terror-blanched face, where his paltry courage fed and grew, to Vince where it lapped up more encouragement.
When Vince shouted “slash—SLASH!” Logan was primed. He sprang forward and wielded Vince’s machete with nearly as much vigor as its owner. He swung the blade in sweeping arcs, first a roundhouse, over the shoulder, then a slashing backhand—another, short forward chop—another backhand. Giggling, he kicked the bleeding, dying man.
Logan pranced and gamboled. Little grunts and whines came from his throat, and spittle ran down his chin. Long after the man on the floor lay dead, Logan continued to charge the corpse to either slash and chop it or kick it with blood spattered shoes, and then retreat again.
At last, Vince intercepted him and, with a smile, reclaimed the machete. He patted Logan on the back and assured the grinning murderer of his total impunity.
Carl remained silent in his shocked disbelief. The gory display didn’t help his repeated attempts to expunge his memory of the butchery he had joined in just two days earlier, and a sour taste grew in his mouth that wouldn’t swallow away.
Mandy had turned away to gaze out the store window at the houses on the other side of the parking lot just as Logan made his first slash.
Rachel knelt on the floor with her hands clamped over her ears to block out the sickening sounds of the blows.
After wiping the blade on one of the few un-bloodied areas of the dead man’s clothing, Vince re-sheathed it and walked back to stand just inside the door. His tone was casual, even friendly, as he glanced about. “We can always gather up what food we need. Right now, I could use a drink. What say we hit the bar next door?”
Carl nudged Mandy to precede him out and lifted Rachel to her feet, guiding her, nauseated and faint, out the door. In a slow swagger while gazing back at his gory leavings, Logan was the last one out.
Fear, never far from Carl’s thoughts, guided his gaze around the far edges of the parking lot as they all walked next door. The man’s warning of the numbers and the nearness of the alien “gargoyles” had unnerved him, but no one—no thing—was in sight. He wasn’t all that sure, though, that their not being in sight was any better.
Vince limped to the solid, double doors and stopped. Carl stepped past him and pushed the unlocked doors open. After he made a quick glance inside, he stepped to the side and held the door open for Vince.
The large, darkly tinted window with the name of the place had been shattered, but the word, “BAR” was still undamaged in unlit neon tubing scrolled in twelve-inch high letters above the doorway. The inside was dark, cool and inviting.
The place had been ransacked, probably several times. Smashed bottles littered the floor amid overturned tables and chairs, but there didn’t appear to be a whole one anywhere. Carl was about to suggest to Vince to call off the futile search when he noticed Logan.
The little man had been stepping carefully among the debris between the tables while Carl and Vince examined the area behind the bar and in the back room. With his face beaming like that of a kid that had just found the Easter egg with the special prize, he held up the lower half of a dark amber bottle. Visible through the glass was close to six ounces of liquid.
“Good!” cried Vince. “Very good, Ed. Bring it over here. Gently, now. You spill it, and I’ll spill your guts.”
Although Vince’s expression and tone were warm and friendly, even playful, Carl suspected that Vince very likely would do just what he threatened, and enjoy it, if, due to some clumsy accident, those few precious drops should be lost.
It was also apparent that Logan understood this. Holding one hand under the base of the bottle and the other wrapped firmly around it just below the jagged break, he high-stepped and picked his way across the debris-strewn floor. His hands were shaking by the time he eased the container onto the bar.
Vince waited for Logan to step back before he picked up the broken bottle. He swirled it around and peered through the side and down from the top. He sniffed at the liquid and smiled. He sipped some of the fiery stuff over the jagged rim and passed it to Carl who did the same. When Carl had taken his fill, carefully gauged not to exceed that of Vince’s, he held it up to Vince again. With his eyes, he indicated Logan waiting patiently nearby and raised his eyebrows in silent inquiry.
Vince glanced at Logan, then back at Carl. With the regal disdain of a European prince, he nodded, and Carl passed the bottle fragment to Logan.
Logan sipped, taking less than either Vince or Carl, and handed it back to Carl. Carl examined the bottle again for any sign of glass slivers and set it back on the bar in front of Vince.
Without a word of thanks or an offer of further sharing, Vince picked it up and slowly drank most of the remainder. When only a drain was left, he tossed it, bottle and all, into the corner of the room.
Then, condescending to offer an explanation, he said, “Good chance there were pieces there in the bottom too small to see. Wouldn’t want anyone to grind up his guts.”
Savoring the comfortable warmth of the booze in his stomach as he rested on his elbows propped on the dust-covered bar, Carl used his little finger to sweep clear a spot large enough to see the grain of the dark wood. It was indistinct and faint, but he could see a reflection of his face in the deep finish. Locking eyes with himself, he thought about how his relationship with Vince had changed from being friends with equivalence, or near to it, to that of leader and lackey. It wasn’t that he would be leader in Vince’s place, just that his new subordinate position was feeling a bit prickly.