CHAPTER 9 – Blood
Carl had never been in the presence of Vince’s brutal father, but he had formed a mental image of the big man from listening to the two sons talk about him. And now, looking up at the face of the tall man before them, and then at the rage building in Vince’s face and posture, he had no doubts that it was his father’s face that Vince saw.
“What... Young man, what’s the meaning...?” the old man stammered. Only his widening eyes and convulsing throat moved as Vince’s blade stood upright, black and foreboding, but glistening at its keen edge in the bright sun.
Snap-twisting back and shoulders to add to the power of the stroke, Vince’s muscular arm swung the machete horizontally to just above the old man’s left shoulder and through his neck, drawing it back toward him so that it sliced as well as hacked.
The headless body stiffened for an instant, and then it slumped to the ground in a heap. The old man’s head landed at the edge of the pavement a few feet away before rolling to a stop near Carl’s feet.
For long seconds, the only sound was the rumble of fire and surf. Then bedlam broke loose with screams and shouts from all directions. The first came from Crissy, still inside the Bronco. But dozens up on the hill had also witnessed the killing, and shouts of outrage and screams of horror rained down about the Bronco.
“Jesus Christ!” Carl muttered between choking gasps for breath. For long seconds, he couldn’t pull his eyes from the sight of the bodiless head just inches from him. Finally, shaken back to action by the ear-splitting boom of the shotgun in Vic’s hand, he looked about.
Vic pumped another shell into the chamber and sighted along the top of the barrel at a second target, a man trying to run up the hill with a badly injured leg.
“Get `em!” Vince shouted. He sprang over the headless corpse and began running up the incline waving the blood-smeared machete above his head like a scimitar.
Vic’s shotgun boomed. Screaming at the top of his lungs and pumping another shell into firing position, he followed Vince.
Carl hesitated for only a moment before he, too, became infused by wanton blood lust and charged up to the slaughter.
Stunned survivors of the burned-out community fled screaming. Terror filled limbs feeble with age and weakened by burns and cuts, and whose bodies had been barely able to walk to meet their rescuers, ran from their attackers. But they were still weak and old, and the strong, young butchers easily overtook them.
Second to fall to the blade was the first who emerged at the old man’s shouts, a portly man of fifty or so from a nearby house spewing smoke from beneath the roof eaves. Under his arm, he still carried a small, black lacquered box from the Orient. As he huffed his way back up the hill towards the house with the smoking roof, Vince caught him, and then ran past his falling body without slowing.
Carl passed Vic who had stopped to work loose a shell jamming the shotgun slide. He ran behind Vince and watched the feverish pitch with which Vince lashed out in his killing frenzy. The revolver bucked in Carl’s hand each time he focused on a target, and he reveled in the violence with which even the wad-cutter bullets tore into them. A man, who knelt beside a pile of wood, cradling the head of a moaning woman, looked up into the muzzle of the Python just as it fired. The woman continued to moan in semi-consciousness as Carl ran on.
Vic shouted in triumph when he cleared the jammed gun and resumed his charge. He spotted an old woman standing in a large window that overlooked the flatter land below and shot from the hip without breaking stride. The woman flew backwards in a shower of flying glass and blood.
Carl slowed when he caught up with Vince again in their leapfrog advance. As he went by, he peered back in awe as Vince continued to hack the obviously dead body of another tall, thin man. He heard mutterings, half spoken, mostly unintelligible, coming from Vince’s snarling mouth.
He knew better than to intrude, and so he ran off across the road and into a small meadow where he spotted a man running between two trees. Before he could take aim, though, the target disappeared through heavy brush. Carl saw the peaked roof of a house just beyond the thick growth, so, with a twitching grin, he crouched and pushed his way through the bushes.
Next to feel the steel of Vince’s blade was a heavyset woman who had turned screaming a short distance up the hill when Vince decapitated the tall envoy. Wearing a large, colorful muumuu and still screaming, she huffed and panted as she ran up the middle of the road. She had not watched the speed of the young killers racing up the hill and was unaware of the rapid approach of death until Vince closed in on her like a swooping hawk. But he didn’t strike until she glanced over at him and horror blanched her already pale face. Then, instead of a killing stroke, he dealt her a vicious backhand swipe of his blade to the thigh of her nearest leg to send her tumbling in the dust and ash. She lay writhing as Vince ran on up the hill.
Vic fired the last shell he had brought with him—he remembered too late that a nearly full box sat on the front seat of the Bronco—and he turned the gun around to swing as a club. He didn’t notice for several seconds, during which time he dispatched two more pleading victims, that the overheated barrel was burning his hands. He dropped it to the ground and continued to chase around the hill, screaming and shouting and laughing like a child in a greased-pig rodeo.
Vince caught sight of a figure slipping out of sight around a house corner. With temples throbbing, he dropped into a crouch. He thrust the machete out like a man probing a dark room with a flashlight as he crept across the flower garden and edged around the corner.
His body prickled with heightened awareness. He turned his head this way and that, searching out the slightest tell-tale sound among the overlying din of surf, fire, and slaughter. A board creaked in the smoking roof of the house beside him. A fiery brand crashed to the ground from a tall pine several yards ahead. A half log clattered as it rolled and slid from the top of a stack of firewood to his left. Had something nudged it, dislodged it?
With a barbaric cry, he leapt to the end of the wood stack. As he cleared the end, he spun to the right and froze, the machete held firmly in his right-hand level with the ground, straight out to the front like a pointing finger. His war cry tapered off to a low growl...then silence.
Before him, three people huddled low in the lee of the woodpile where it abutted the side of a sheet metal shed. A man, probably fifty-five or sixty, slim and with a full mane of stark white hair, wore a heavy bandage on his left forearm that could have been burned or broken. A small, white adhesive bandage stared out from the center of his forehead like a third eye. He wore only one shoe. Under the dubious shelter of his arms crouched a boy and a girl, possibly his grandchildren from the familial resemblance in the shape of the chin and the way a fold of skin hooded the outer corners of the eyes and the curl of lip. The girl had a small, blood-soaked bandage on her left knee. They all stared back at Vince with wide eyes and open mouths.
“Run!” the old man shouted as he sprang to his feet. He pushed both children toward the far corner of the shed, away from Vince.
The kids were out of reach before Vince could react, and the old man was almost out of the trap, too. Vince sprang forward, and, with a scream of rage, thrust with the machete. The blunt tip knocked the old man off balance, and he fell against the shed. Blood oozed from a fresh cut across his side under his ash covered white shirt. The machete’s blunt tip had scored, after all, just not lethally.
The old man started to scramble back to his feet, but Vince stepped in front of him. He slouched back to the ground and lay in Vince’s shadow. “Why?” he pleaded. “What do you want? We have nothing left.”
Vince’s voice was a coarse whisper. “Blood!”
Savoring the moment, Vince raised his machete before his eyes, held it vertical so the blood on it ran down over the handle and over his hand. He slowly raised the blade farther, skyward, until his arm was fully extended, and the red-black blade was a silhouette against the blue streaked with the brown of smoke. He repositioned his hand for a better grip on the gore-smeared handle and cocked his arm for the decapitating swing. His lungs expanded to their capacity, sucking in energy-giving oxygen for his racing heart. He glanced down at his victim to drink in and savor the man’s terror before delivering the blow.
The old man had not remained cowering before him, though, but had reached out behind him to the woodpile. And before Vince could react, the old man slammed a three-inch diameter log against the side of Vince’s left knee.
Vince retched and fell sideways, spun, and collapsed against the trunk of a cedar. Pain erupted like lava spewing from the burning throat of a volcano. Agony radiated up and down his leg—to his foot—to his abdomen—his chest—his temples. Each pulse beat of his hammering heart rocked through his body. Tears streamed from unseeing eyes. As he rolled on the ground, his hands sought for a way to hold his screaming knee, to cradle it, comfort it. It was as though his kneecap had been pried off in pieces, lifted off to expose the inner, sensitive workings of the joint like a cracked egg yielding to the cruelty of prizing thumbnails.
Through tears blurring his returning vision, he watched the old man scramble out of sight after the children.
Carl kicked open the door just as the bolt clattered into the lock, and he snap fired at the startled man staggering backward under the door’s impact. The man tumbled over a heavy, redwood burl coffee table; dead by the time he hit the floor. A woman cowering at one end of the couch screamed and lurched to her feet. She looked left and right but didn’t have a chance to run before Carl shot her, too.
Another woman, a bit older than the first, lay on the couch where the first woman had been tending a cut above her eye.
Carl strode over beside the couch and peered down at her, and she up at him with deep green eyes wide with terror. He slowly brought the barrel of the Python to line up with her quivering mouth, cocked the hammer, and laid his thumb beside the gun frame.
Her emerald colored eyes watched the finger on the trigger jerk—and the hammer fell with a loud click.
Carl gripped the gun hard and squeezed the trigger twice more in double action. But each time the cylinder rotated, and the hammer slammed forward with the same heavy click. He hadn’t even thought to count the number of shots fired, but it seemed like he had been shooting people for a long time. He hadn’t thought to bring any extra rounds with him from the Bronco.
The woman looked from Carl’s tense face back to the muzzle only inches from her own face. Before she had time to speculate on her sudden turn of luck, Carl whipped the barrel of the heavy revolver across her face.
The blow stunned her. The second blow, swung from a greater height and better aimed, cracked her skull. The third blow killed her. The fourth, fifth and sixth merely mutilated her corpse.
Reaching down, he pulled a scarf-sized piece of soft, emerald-green satin, closely matching the color of the woman’s eyes, from among several similar pieces scattered beneath the coffee table, each one cut to a pattern. Before turning to the door, he wrapped it about his neck, loosely knotted it and tossed one end over his shoulder.
Back down the hill, Vic staggered to a halt. He wrapped his arms about his waist, leaned over, and hugged. The stitch in his side throbbed. He stood in the middle of the road and panted. A residual grin softened the hard lines that his exercise in savagery had begun to etch in his young face.
He walked down the hill a few yards to where he had discarded the shotgun. He tentatively touched it with his fingertips until he was satisfied that it had cooled enough to pick up and propped it over his right shoulder, butt end up.
He had no idea if it had been ten minutes or ten times ten minutes since he had followed Vince up the hill. The events were all strung together in a patchwork of running figures and burning houses and trees and screams and shouts, and lots of blood. He thought how the things he had done would have meant the rest of his life in prison at the very least, and that was no longer ago than yesterday—no, just this morning, just hours. Now—and Vince had assured him that it was so—he was free to do whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted, and no one could stop him or punish him, or accuse him of being spawned of evil. And if they did, why, he could simply punish them. His sense of unlimited freedom was intoxicating. He wanted to jump up and shout, to run about the hill again in a wild, uproarious search for more victims.
But he was tired. And, besides, if anyone was left alive on the hill, they had managed to remain unseen, and, therefore, in his own, perverted sense of fair play, they deserved to be left alone...maybe...for now.
A movement up the hill caught his attention, and he watched Vince step out onto the road several houses away. The dancing light from the fires amid the cloud of swirling smoke at first obscured the severe limp. But when Vince went to one knee and stayed there, head down, it became clear that he was hurt. Vic cried out and ran to his brother.
“You okay? Hey, you hurt or something?” Vic’s voice quavered as he knelt beside Vince. “Somebody getcha? Huh? You been hit? Vince?”
“I’ll be all right. Just haul me back up.”
“Yeah, sure, man.” Vic’s eyes stayed wide with fear while he raised them both upright. “What happened, Vince? Oh, man! You get cut?”
Vince looked down at himself, at the blood-soaked shirt that had been torn on a snag when he had bumped into the tree. But blood was splattered all down his pants. Blood made red splotches and smears on the tan leather of his shoes. He held out his right hand after taking the machete in his left. He turned it slowly as he examined the solid coating of gore up to his elbow and large smears above it.
A slow grin worked onto his face. “No, man. This ain’t mine. I just...bumped my knee.”
“Really? Oh, man! Man, you scared the hell outa me! You sure you’re gonna be all right? Oh, man! Yeah, come on, lean on me—that’s it…easy....”
Vic helped Vince hobble down the middle of the road where fewer sparks landed and less debris had scattered, and where there was less chance of being jumped by an avenging survivor of their berserk rampage. Vic threw a quick glance over his shoulder and saw Carl hailing them from a hundred yards or so up the road. Without slackening his pace, and with Vince hanging on his shoulder, he waved for Carl to follow them back down.
Vic, with Vince leaning heavily on his shoulder, had gone only a few more paces when they came to an abrupt halt. Just a few feet ahead of them, a young woman staggered out from between two houses. She hunched over and carried her arms arched over her head as if to ward off things falling from the burning trees and the cinder filled sky. She didn’t seem to be aware of the brothers standing in the middle of the road as she stumbled out toward them, tripped over a smoking, blackened limb near the road edge and fell to her hands and knees at their feet.
They remained still as they peered down at her slim figure, her rib cage heaving as she hacked and coughed smoke from her lungs. She wore tight fitting jeans and a buttoned shirt with the front tails tied in a knot above her slim waist and bare midriff. Her head hung down from her drooping shoulders amid a mass of sooty, blond hair.
Vic grinned at his brother with a telling wink before saying, “Well now, look at this. What have the gods sent me? It looks young, but not too young, and maybe even tender, too.”
Vince winced in pain as he shifted his full weight from Vic’s support onto his good leg and elbowed his brother. “Well, help her to her feet for a better look. See if she’s a keeper.”
Being careful that Vince was well balanced before stepping out from under his arm, Vic leaned down to grasp the woman’s upper arms and raised her slowly, even gently, to her feet.
The tangle of ashen locks cascading over her shoulders fell back from one side of her face to partially uncover an eye. When her head came up to face her rescuer, a weary smile tried to creep into her summer-sky blue eyes and her full, pouty mouth. Her breasts jutted forward beneath the front of her loose-fitting shirt, and the fill of her tight jeans was as appealing from the front as they were from the back.
Her sneakers stirred up little puffs of ash as she scuffled her feet for a firmer standing position.
She brushed the hair back from her other eye to fully reveal her ash-covered face.
Vince leaned over past Vic and put out a hand to touch her face with its dark, tear tracks. He pulled it back and rubbed the fine ash between his fingers.
“Hi, what’s your name?” Vic’s smile was friendly.
She reached up with both hands to wipe away some of the grime as well as fresh tears still forming in the corners of her eyes. Through quivering lips, she softly replied, “Rachel.”
Vic’s grin didn’t falter until he glanced back for Vince’s nod of approval, but saw, instead, a look of shock.
Before Vic could say anything, Vince muttered, almost in a whisper, “Mother.”
Vic looked back at the young woman before him. Looking closer, probing beneath the layer of gray that concealed her actual appearance, he could see her youth. She was young, younger, even, than him. She wasn’t much more than a girl, a very well-developed girl, certainly, but still only a girl. But why did Vince look so shocked? He had seen good-looking women before. And Vince’s reaction was not simply a momentary surprise at such a find amid such devastation. Vince stared at the girl like she was, literally, the last thing in the world he expected to see. And then, Vince repeated himself.
“Mother?” was, again, a mere whisper, but a question, as well.
“Huh? What do you mean, man? What’s wrong?” Maybe Vince had hurt his head as well as his knee.
Vince slowly stepped past Vic toward Rachel, reaching his hand out to her face that appeared as though it may have been sprinkled with stardust by a fairy. When his hand again gingerly touched the powdery ash that covered her skin, he softly brushed his fingertips through it. He drew his hand away and gently rubbed his fingertips together, savoring the feel of the stuff. Vince shook his head like he was fighting to come out of a dream. He looked at Vic for a moment, and then back at the girl whose growing smile of gratitude had dissolved into a half smile of bewilderment as the inner corners of her eyebrows scrunched. After she lowered her eyes from the intensity of Vince’s gaze, he dropped his hand back to his side for a moment before he raised it again and dealt her a vicious backhand blow, knocking her back several feet and to the ground.
Vince looked back at his brother again. “Nothing,” he answered as he began to hobble unaided down the street. “Nothing’s wrong. Come on. Let’s get back down the hill. My leg’s killing me. Bring her.”
With Vince going down the hill on his own, Vic glanced at Rachel and back at Vince, scratched his head in puzzlement and shrugged his shoulders. “Oh, well. Come on. It looks like you’ve just been drafted…and I’ve been ripped off.”
Rachel remained on the ground, agape at Vince as he walked away from her and Vic, holding her hand to her cheek that blazed bright red even through the smear of gray that still clung.
Vic pulled her gently to her feet then motioned with his hand for her to precede him down the hill after Vince. When she didn’t move, he gripped her upper arm and guided her in that direction, this time not so gently.
“Owe! Please, what’s happening? Why are you and your friend doing this? What do you want?”
“Hey, he’s not my friend. I mean, well, yeah, we’re friends, too, but he’s my brother. And we’re doing it...because.”
“But, what? What are you doing? Why do you want me?”
Vic paused for a moment and scratched his head. “Well, I don’t know what you did to piss him off, but I guess you did something, and he said to bring you, and so that’s just what I’m going to do. I don’t know why. Maybe you’re gonna replace Crissy.”
Rachel tried to stop every few steps, but Vic maintained a grip on her arm and kept her moving.
“But, for what? Who’s Crissy?”
“Vince used to like her, but since everything went to hell, she’s been trying to get away from him. And, to tell the truth, I don’t think he’s real happy with her anymore.”
“But, replace her doing what?”
“Ha! What do you think? Besides decorating his sheets, just about anything he wants.”
Ahead, Carl caught up with Vince and helped him negotiate the hill.
Vic and Rachel continued down without speaking for several paces while she digested what Vic had said, and then she began shaking her head, pulled her arm free from his grasp and, finally, stopped walking.
“No, no, please. Don’t do this.”
Vic stopped, too, and paused for only a moment before starting toward her.
Rachel walked backwards, uphill, with Vic pacing her. With her hands out in front of her as though to fend him off, she continued to shake her head as she spoke. “Look, I really don’t know what your brother thinks I did, or who he thinks I am, but whatever it is, he’s mistaken. I’ve never seen either one of you before. I’m not even from around here. He must have me confused with—OH!”
Vic lunged and grabbed Rachel’s arm and jerked her forward and down, so she wound up back on the pavement on her hands and knees. Before she could rise or make any other move, he grabbed a handful of her hair and wrenched her head back sharply, bringing her face up to gaze directly into his own. Unveiled fear had her eyes wide as he glared into them.
A slow grin spread across his face. “I said, anything he wants. No, actually, that’s what Vince said, that we can do or have anything we want. Period. And he said to bring you, so I guess that means he wants you. And that means he gets you. And it don’t matter what you want. Now do you understand?”
To emphasize his meaning, as he released her, Vic flung her head down almost to the pavement.
Still on her hands and knees, she looked back up to him and shook her head in bewilderment. “But you can’t just...please let me go. How can you just—OH!”
Again, Vic had a handful of hair. But, this time he used it to drag Rachel back to her feet. Ignoring her cries of pain and fear, he hurled her staggering down the hill ahead of him. When she stopped after reeling and stumbling for ten feet or so, he caught up with her and gave her another vicious shove. They continued in this fashion until they caught up with the other two near the bottom.
At the Bronco, Vince and Carl stared in wonder. Crissy sat on the ground near the passenger side door with her arms wrapped around her legs that were bent up on front, so her knees were beneath her chin, and she was crying. Mandy stood near the right rear and leaned against it.
A smear of blood painted the corner of Crissy’s mouth, and a similar one was on Mandy’s. No one else was near.
When Vic arrived with Rachel, he helped Vince ease himself down on a patch of grass on the road’s shoulder. Without a word, he faced Rachel and pointed to the grass beside Vince.
When she made no move or any indication that she understood what Vic wanted her to do, he took a step closer to her and whispered, “Sit down and stay put and be good or I’ll rip your scalp off.”
Rachel eased herself down on the edge of the grass.
Vince massaged his agonizing knee as he glared at Crissy’s down-turned face.
After conferring with Mandy, Carl came back to Vince and Vic. “I think Crissy’s gonna give you trouble unless you let her go. Mandy had to knock her down and practically sit on her to keep her from taking off. She knew you’d be pissed if Crissy left, and she was afraid you’d take it out on her.”
Vince continued to glare at the girl who had made such a willing and passionate love partner back in Mill Valley—a lifetime ago in another world.
The fires raged on.
The main body of the fire stayed above them on the hill with its abundant fuel supply, and the sea breeze pushed it inland. Flames ran through the thick stands of pines and cedars spotted among the oaks that forested the east slope. They raced across meadows of tall, summer-browned, wild grass and to the next grove of trees. They soon joined up with the devastation created by the fires that had started when the inn out at the highway had been hit, and they continued eastward on the inexhaustible breath of the sea.
“Look’s like you found this new one just in time.”
Vince turned to Vic’s grinning face and returned the grin with a soft smile. He winked at his brother and patted him lightly on the cheek. “Yeah, man, just in time. Okay, listen up. Carl, reload your Python for me. I’ll stay here with Mandy and watch these other two. You and Vic go check out that house up there—the two-story with the big front porch. I think it might do us for a while. Just get rid of anyone there. We’ll wait here. And, Vic, don’t forget to reload your shotgun.”
Grinning, Vic hefted the shotgun and patted it on the side of the receiver. “Yeah, Boomer’s hungry.”
Nate had found a few survivors on the circuit up the sea-cliff and over the top that Jim had suggested, and he had treated them as well as he could with no medical supplies other than what he found in their houses. Now he was anxious to check on Patty’s injury—just in case Evelyn’s judgment was lacking. But when he approached the house, the sight of the front door ajar and creeping closed on an errant draft puzzled him. As he drew closer, a feeling of dread began to flow through him like an icy mist. He paused just outside and called out…twice, because the first one stuck in his constricting throat.
When no one answered, he tried again and stepped into the shadowy interior, “Evelyn? Patty, you okay?”