House of the Damned
Jess held back and Linnet with him. Nina peered from the bars of a corral.
“Chicken?” said Wainwright and sauntered in. He sprinted from the house and a scream followed him out. Jess spun firing an arrow at a man running from the brush. Linnet’s crossbow snapped at something in the house and Nina screamed, her knife flashing. A man grunted over it and fell. The knife a blur, she struck twice more.
Jess clubbed the bow at two men and Wainwright jumped on the back of another. His hand flashed and there was a dry crack. Unwashed and stunned, the man collapsed staring at the ground. The one who so scared Wainwright fired a rifle. Jess ducked from what appeared to be a woman in a white dress. Linnet had no qualms and put a dart in one eye. Almost too fast to see Linnet move, the little crossbow had another dart ready.
In a crouch, Jess looked around. Linnet was in the house aiming at anything that moved. She hissed. Eyes wide, threatening her, Jess slid in. Nina dodged around Wainwright but the man caught her, swinging her in the air to set behind him.
“Let the professionals handle it,” Wainwright said, whispering. “We’re in the way.”
The woman in the robe was a man. Jess kicked him over and saw a red dragon on the back. Shaking his head, he eased by Linnet to the next room. A stove held a small blue flame and a pot bubbled there. The smell of coffee drew Jess’s eyes, the percolator sooty brown from not being washed. Jess winked at the pot.
His foot slid over a piece of linoleum rug that shifted. Jess grunted, nodding at it. Linnet eased against the wall and crouched there. With no little caution, Jess lifted the plastic rug. A trapdoor sat in the floor. He took the ring, glanced at Linnet and threw the door aside.
Dank and silent, a hole yawned and nothing moved in the basement.
He moved to the edge but Linnet hissed. He signed, What?
She shook her head. Cold.
Trusting her instinct, he backed from the trapdoor.
“Come out with your hands up,” he said. “This is the police. Come out with your hands up.”
Faint weeping came from the hole and a hoarse Linnet said, “Listen up, you scumbags. Come out or we’ll drop a gas in there.”
Jess mouthed the word, Scumbags? He signed, Meaning is used condoms, no?
She rolled her eyes, but snorted a laugh. Linnet stomped a foot and a man cried out.
“We can’t. We’re in a cage.”
Jess frowned and bellowed. He dropped spinning through the hole. A small cry caught his ears, then Linnet whistled. Bloody streaks marking her back, a naked woman lay tied face down over a much-repaired table. She glanced at Jess, then away, towards rows of shelves with glass dome canning jars.
Jess twisted firing at a shadow. A man staggered from between the rows, jars clicking on each other and raised a pistol. Linnet shot him in the arm and he cried out, but fired. The bullet chipped stone from the wall at Jess’s back and splinters of stone stung bare flesh. He clubbed the man with the bow.
“You are not thee poe-leess,” the man said, weeping. “You are but thieves. Low-life murderers and robbers.”
Jess raised the bow, raking cobwebs from the ceiling. With a small cry for mercy, the man huddled on the dirt with his arms over his head.
Weeping, the man cried, “I beg mercy, my lord.”
Linnet whistled for Nina and dropped next to Jess.
“A door,” she said. “Eight o’clock.”
Jess nodded and peering in she backed from him. Nina whispered and the baby cooed.
“Jess, there’s folks in here.”
“...No. I don’t think so.”
Metal grated and he glanced at her. Linnet hesitated, but opened the door. A huddled mass crouched on the floor.
“Please,” a woman said, her voice rasping. “Can we have water?”
“Come out.” When there was no sound of feet, Jess shouted it over Linnet’s demand.
The women came first. Three of them, naked and bruised, one of them swollen with new life. Then a dozen children, all girls. All showed signs of the whip, even the youngest, who squatted to urinate on the floor. Linnet scowled but ran by Jess to chop the bonds from the woman in the table.
“Is the canned stuff good?”
“We canned it, sir.” A woman cast a frightened eye at the man on the ground. “We did it just last spring. There’s gardens and such close by. H-How did you get through the booby traps?”
“We saw them.” Jess tipped his head at the jars. “Eat something and get cleaned up. It’s a long climb into the mountains.”
The women tore down jars of fruit, tugging at wire locks and weeping when they couldn’t open the jars. Linnet grabbed one. The woman shrank from her, but she snapped open the wire and pulled the glass dome. Her knife pried up the inner glass plate and it opened with a loud pop. Linnet glanced at Jess and gave a curt nod.
The woman took it and started to sip, but took the youngest, feeding her the juice. Nina hopped down and gasped.
“I knew this place was a bad un,” she said, glaring at Jess. “How come ya all never listen when I tell ya?”
“Well, we will now,” Jess said. “Might be God wanted us here, to help these nice folks. Now, scoot and help Miz Linnet.”
Wainwright leaned over the hole. “They’ve electricity and a methane digester. I can access the cell phone now.”
“See what Mister Solomon says about the place.”
“I’m on it. By the way, the coffee is done.”
A minute later, Wainwright shouted, but leaned over the hole. “A walk-in cooler. They have a man hanging there.”
“Aging the meat.” Jess looked from Linnet. His father had been tough to chew.
He frowned at the oldest of the woman. With a small grimace, she shook her head.
“The traps,” she said.
Wainwright’s shadow disappeared. “I’m throwing it out.” There was a heavy thump and then springs squeaked. A door slammed shut then Wainwright was back. “All done.”
“Play baby catcher,” Jess said. “Linnet, get them up in fresh air.”
The women rose, each taking several children. The pregnant one grunted and clutched her belly. Jess muttered for Linnet to find blankets and a mattress. The woman glared at him.
“Get me out of here, boy. I want my kid born free. Not with filth like that.” She spat on the huddled man and he gave her a sullen look. He wiped his face off and looked at the spittle. He jumped at the woman but the bow clubbed him to the dirt.
The man grunted and shivered. “The great One, our God will throw you in the Pit for that, filthy slut. You will be damned--”
Teeth bared but hardly grinning, Jess fell on him, driving a knee in the man’s spine. Jess kicked and the man flopped to his side, but stayed silent. Wainwright dragged a ladder over the trapdoor, sliding it in the hole. The women chased the larger girls up and carried the smaller ones.
“Give me a reason to kill you,” Jess said, snarling hate. “Just one. I’m begging ya.”
Linnet hesitated. “Jess?”
Jess gave her a crooked smile. “Now, I’m not gonna take on more trouble.”
“Trouble?” she cried. “They need help.”
“I mean a harem. More than one women and it’s literal hell to pay, so Pa always said.”
She stomped a foot, but fled up the ladder.
He shouted, “You’re more than any man can handle, anyway.”
Her foot pounded the floor and dust sifted over them. Jess chuckled and slid a knife under the man’s throat.
“He’s coming up.” To the man he said, “Easy, boy.
“Filthy American pig,” the man said, but muttered. He rose and tensed, and a little blood trickled from under a matted blond beard.
They moved to the ladder and Jess stepped back. The man climbed it only to be thrown back to sprawl on the kitchen floor. Jess hopped up grabbing the sides and clambered out. He eyed the man.
“What did he do?”
Linnet cocked an eye and waved at the women and children. “Slaves. You know what, Americans used to hang slavers, till until the Jacksonite Party stole the nation. The feds were told to lay low about it. Even local cops had to ignore it. I bet Pa called the cops a dozen times a week. Man, but we helped bury hundreds of dead kids and women where the coyoteros murdered them.”
Jess winced. “Mine, too. The summer before the war, they counted over eight hundred dead. Most were drug runners, but too many women and kids were killed.” Softly, he said, “They raped them, then killed them to stop them from telling the cops. Most, I heard, wound up in places like this, as slaves.”
He kicked the man over. “Law say, a man who rapes is made to rape no more.” He held up the knife and the blade hacked down, past his groin. The man choked.
“No, please. It-It’s kismet. Fate, you know? It’s their fate to be slaves. Th-The m-more babies a woman has, much better her place in paradise.”
Eyes growing cold, Jess smiled. The man screamed and tried to bolt out the back door. A cast iron frying pan clanged on his head and he sprawled over the floor.
The woman eyed him with a cold satisfaction. “Mama used that on Pa a time or three, no? He got real peaceful for a few hours, but was a regular bear with he woke up. Then she fed him a lot of aspirin and mescal.”
She went out to a shaded ramada and returned with a length of rope. She hog-tied the slaver and they dragged him to the back porch. Jess took an uncertain step, but a harsh whisper from Linnet stopped him.
“I was kidding,” he said. “Hang him, sure, but--”
A scream came from the porch. The kids looked up, but jaws continued to chew and grubby fingers took handfuls of stewed tomatoes and fruit from bowls. Ice formed on his groin and Jess walked to the living room. A wide-eyed Wainwright shuddered.
“We caught one in the cellar,” Jess said. “The women are--” Another wail filled his ears, this one rising to a shriek and Jess winced. “The women are taking care of him.”
“Linnet and Nina?” Wainwright gaped at the kitchen door.
“Watching the little kids. It’s a private affair, as Pa would say.” Voice dropping low and bitter, Jess said, “All girls. With a half-dozen men to bed, old lady Packer would fit in here. But she never liked competition.”
He walked out into the sunshine. A canine whined and tugged at a corpse. Jess raised the bow to shoot it only to lower the bow. The animal fled them.
“Coyote,” he said to Wainwright. The man staggered to a porch swing and sat in it.
“Yes.” Face buried in his hands, Wainwright groaned. “We hoped something would survive, though most were adamant nothing would. The mountains would have shielded most life from the radiation. And, of course, abandoned mines. People retrofitted them so wildlife could use them, but no human enter too deeply as they’re deadly. First kilometer radius is the dead zone. After that, it depends on cover. During the first weeks after the war more people--perhaps as high as ninety percent--died of starvation or fouled water.”
Jess shirted to stand on one foot. “Yeah.”
The rapist wailed and pleaded and Jess frowned, but the children giggled over something. He closed his ears to how the women took their revenge.
When the sun stood high overhead, the screams faded and a woman shouted a laugh. Steel groaned and a splash came to them. Still naked and filthy, they ran around the house to grab bloating bodies and hauled each to a shed near the barn. Jess went through the house to watch. He stepped under the ramada but avoided a wet place where a woman scrubbed a brush over flagstone.
Not looking up from her work, the woman said, “Sheila had a little boy. Linnet says you’re name is Jess. Jesús Tubisi.” Then she looked up and knocked a brush on the edge of a cracked bucket. “Tubisi. Means redbird, doesn’t it? I remember reading a vampire story about a woman named Tubisi.”
Wondering why she used the name Tubisi when she knew he was a Ganian, he nodded. Jess watched the women open a metal door and roll the bodies into it. Water splashed.
“Septic system.” The woman sat back on her heels. “I hope the grinder can handle that much bone.” Signing rock-solid, she chortled and tapped her heart as she stood to take the bucket.
Jess grabbed it by the rope bail and carried it to the septic system, pouring it in.
Just a little on the cryptic side, a woman said, “Waste not, want not. Now that Nazi’s happy, buried with his damned brothers under the sheet.”
A woman pulled a switch inside the shed. A grinder gave a muted growl. It shuddered and groaned, but bone cracked and flushed deeper into the system.
“The gardens will like this.” She took the bucket to a well, rinsing it out and sat it to one side with a bouquet of gray rag mops. There’s a quarter acre greenhouse half a mile down the way. We dug up six-inch water mains in town and buried it in the ground to the place. Those Yankees were bad neighbors, but not no more.” Then she winked.
Jess tipped his head and smiled at the joke. Wainwright crept around the house. He looked at the wet spot and blanched. A large black bird dropped to pick at something drying on the packed earth. He cawed and shot away. The raven circled once and headed south.
“Golanv,” Linnet said. When Jess looked at her, her face burned and she turned from him. “True friend, a friend sent by God A’mighty.”
“Walk in beauty.” Jess nodded but she stared at dead trees around the house. He stepped close behind her.
“Weird, you know?” Linnet said. “They never took even the branches. They use the fireplaces and got an old wood-fired cook stove in the kitchen.”
Voice soft, he said, “To make a better trap, maybe.” Hands gentle, he turned her. “A true friend sent of God.” He lowered his mouth to hers and the sudden silence made his head jerk up to look. The area was empty of humanity, but the raven called again. A pair of them rose from a dead ponderosa pine to sail south.
He glanced in that direction. The birds were said to be a sign and they drifted towards the ranch. Linnet stood with face tipped up and eyes closed, so he lowered his mouth to hers and smiled.
A shrill wolf-whistle came from a grinning Nina. Jess warned her off with one hand, but Linnet gasped for air and her arms slid from his neck.
“Auntie Sheila,” Nina hollered. “She wants ya.” Dripping wet, she wore clean clothes and grinning children were clean, as well.
Sliding a hand under Jess’s arm, Linnet walked into the house. Jess even held the door, something he remembered his father doing for Mama and Tricia. A pile of clothes lay on the floor with the women sorting them for dresses and men’s clothing. They looked up smiling and as one, they nodded at a ladder that led to the loft.
Jess crawled up to a single room under the eves. Hollow-eyed and happy, a woman lay with a tiny infant at her breast.
“His name is Jess Redbird,” she said before he could speak. “You got to lay a hand on him and say a prayer so he lives to be a man. One like Linnet says you are, hard but gentle and kind, a warrior.”
Jess lay a hand on the back of the newborn’s head. The hair was black and silken and the child grunted, rooting for a nipple. The little girl who urinated on the cellar floor peeked out with a grin. Cornflower blue eyes didn’t match the mother’s gold brown, but even after being in the cellar she was a little dark. None of the men killed were that dark, either.
Jess shifted from one foot to the other and asked for protection for the boy. A strong right arm and wisdom and to be a dutiful son. He backed a step and the girl hopped over her mother to his arms. A ragged towel made a diaper, and she clung to him.
“Uncle Jessy,” he said, smiling. “I don’t know your pa.”
“She’s a might slow,” the woman said and a tear ran down her face. “Malnutrition. God knows, they never fed a scrap ‘less they had to, to keep us alive enough to work and make babies. She’ll outgrow it, God willing. We got gardens and sometimes a deer. And we got you, too.”
Linnet whistled a warning. Jess sat the child on the bed and dropped through the trapdoor. Linnet was clean now, her hair washed and combed in a single braid. She wore a dress, as well, and smelled of flowers in her hair.
One of the women said something. Linnet nodded and, her smile growing shy, took him by the arm, tugging him out to the porch. Instead of sitting, she looked at the trees and waited.
Jess frowned and a harsh whisper said, “Help her t’ sit, ya fool.”
“Oh.” He jumped to Linnet and helped her sit in the swing. He stepped back frowning, but she patted the seat and he squatted in it, unmoving for a while. Bare and a pale copper, her feet gave a small push and he leaned back, feeling odd in a real seat. Just a little wary of the swing, he forced himself to relax. Jess swung a little and then one arm stole around her shoulders, drawing Linnet close.
The sun cast wild shadows over the land, painting everything a garish red and gold. Linnet sighed. Jess held her until the moon rose.
“This is so romantic,” she said. A coyote raised its head to sing to its god of death. A wolf added his voice. The coyote shut it, and fast. Jess raised a thumb in the direction of the wolf. He gave the swing a little push and sighed.
Wearing a clean dress that covered her to bare feet, a woman came out with a tray. She smiled and placed it in a small table. Linnet snuggled close but Jess’s stomach rumbled. With a shout of laughter, the woman fled into the house. Jess gave Linnet a sorrowful look, but she only smiled.
“Eat, mister. You got to keep up your strength so you can save the rest of the world tomorrow.”
Face scorched at her pride, Jess looked away.
“Just being a hand, Miz Linnet. Nothing more.”
Wainwright shouted and dashed from the house. He skidded to a halt gaping at Jess and Linnet. Mumbling an apology, he backed into the house and the door slammed shut.
They ate in silence, Jess ignoring a gold fork until Linnet used hers. He tried and managed to stick his tongue and then mouth a few times.
“Been a while.”
“Me, too,” she said and put down the fork to eat with her fingers and a spoon. Jess put his down to eat, then wound up licking off her fingers.
He took a cup of coffee, real coffee not toasted grain, and took a sip. It was cold and bitter, but he smiled over the rim and the cup shattered.
“Durn you,” he cried. “Not now.” He grabbed Linnet and rolled against the wall.
Snarling and furious, Linnet pulled the .38 from the folds of the dress. Inside shutters slapped closed and the lights went out. The screen door creaked and a woman hissed. A second shot chipped splinters from the wall and Linnet fired. Brush crashed and a horse charged to the corral and in it.
Jess pushed Linnet to the door. She crawled in and Jess took the .38. He crept out trying to keep to shadows. He made a dash over a moonlit patch of earth to dive into the brush. Dagger limbs snapped around him. He stepped from where he landed and waited.
When coyotes started a cautious howl, he slid forward ten feet, then angled deeper to where the shot came from. A man slumped against the silvered bole of a tree. Frowning, he tried to raise a hand only to let it fall.
“Mister... Kill ya.”
“More likely you’ll be dead in a few minutes.” Jess leaned over to check the wound and made an impatient grunt, shoving a fist down. “I better load some shells and teach that woman how to shoot. She missed the heart. Did it hit a lung?”
The man turned his face away. Jess saw no blood on his mouth, so he only shrugged. A whistle came through the brush, questioning what happened. Jess turned to whistle, but the man grabbed his arm.
“Please,” the man said, his face gray under a deep tan. “My kid. My Alice. Is she alive yet? I c-can pay for her a-a-and her mama. M-My mother and sister, too, if you’ll give me time.” A weak hand tried to clutch Jess by the arm. “Don’t eat them. Got some gold with me. Swear I can.”
Jess shook off the hand and whistled to come ahead slow. Linnet was there in a flash with the crossbow locked and loaded.
“Another rapist?” she said, and there was hope in her eyes.
“What?” The man shook his head. “Who are you? This used to be my place. G-Grandad bought it years ago for a summer camp. Mother and Dad inherited it. A-a-a neighbor, he came in one night with a group of OTMs. It was after the war. T-Two years ago--” He gave a soft cry and doubled over.
“Son?” Without regard for sharp rocks and branches, the woman rushed from the house. She fell at his side and began to cry. “Son?”
He slumped and she cried out, but felt for a pulse.
“Jenny, Willie, its Trevor. Get coats and make a stretcher.”
“He’s alive?” One of the girls shouted and bellowed, “Shelia, it’s Trevor come home.”
A faint cheer came from the upstairs windows and Jess stood. He gave the woman a look of sorrow, but she clutched at his hand.
“No, son. He fired first. He did it for fear of us. You could have been one of the enemy.” Her eyes took in the night. “There were dozens of them on the next ranch west. A few survived, but something happened to their woman. Most died, and they came here, asking help. Trevor was gone looking for more livestock. Father shouldn’t have let them in. He never liked them, but they were neighbors. They killed him and Lisle, my son-in-law. We have a few horses, but Trevor had them at the line shack down south in the mountains.”
Wainwright ran from the house with a lantern. A tallow candle slumped in it and he peered at the wound, then opened the shirt. Ann rasped an angry cry, but Linnet pushed her away.
“He’s a doc,” she said, holding her. The woman sighed and sank back to her heels.
Wainwright scowled and grimaced. “His heart is strong,” he said. “Get him in the house. Hurry up and get that stretcher here.”
Coats stretched over poles, the woman ran to them. Jess helped ease the man onto the stretcher. He grabbed an end and with Wainwright, carried the man to the house.
Sheila and the babies waited in the living room and she gasped, but sank to a chair. Face drained of color, she leaned forward and the newborn whimpered a kittenish mew.
Wainwright turned on all the lights. He cut a hand at the floor and Jess dashed to him to help drag the trestle table into the living room. They raised Trevor from the floor to lay him on the table. Wainwright scowled at the women.
The mother stood. “You’ll need clean rags and hot water.” She marched to the kitchen trailed by her daughters and granddaughter. Fire on the stove flickered and they lit candle lamps.
Her arm flashed, working the handle of a pump to fill a kettle and then buckets. Wainwright grunted over the wound. He took a clasp knife from one pocket.
“Boil this,” he said, handing it to a frightened Nina. She blinked, but grabbed the knife, carrying it before her into the kitchen.
Linnet gave Ann a polite touch on the arm. “Do you have calendula or tobacco?”
Calm, yet somehow weak, the mother turned.
“We had calendula. We weren’t allowed to work the flower beds, just tea camellia and vegetables.” She shivered but caught herself on the wall. “I’ll go see if the flowers survived.”
Jess said, “Tobacco?”
Wainwright scowled. “You don’t smoke, so don’t start now.”
“It’s a disinfectant. Not like calendula, but it’s strong.”
Wainwright grimaced, but nodded. “We weren’t allowed to study it. Petunia, nicotinia, and some other flowers are related.”
“No tobacco.” The mother frowned. “They killed it all, saying it was the devil’s weed.”
In a mutter at the wound, Wainwright said, “They must have come by way of DC.” He winked to show he made a joke. Trying not to show his confusion, Jess gave him an uncertain smile.
“Whisky?” said Wainwright. “It works, but I’m reluctant to force it on a man who thinks it’s the devil’s--ah, his urine.”
The woman shook her head. “No alcohol, no pork, no dogs. They killed our dogs right off. They were cow dogs, good Belgium Shepherds, Groenendael. Not mutts or even police dogs.”
“And the pig.” Staring at the floor, Sheila trembled. “They burned it alive, calling it Satan and such. They said because we were pork eaters, we were cursed and only good to relieve a man’s needs.”
Her niece pressed against her. Jess looked from their shame, but Linnet and Nina held them. The mother walked in with a steaming pot. She sat it next to the man.
Hands folded over her womb, she said, “Heal my son, Doctor.”
“I’ll do my best, but under such primitive environs...” Face grim, Wainwright used the knife to pull a clean rag from the water, holding it until it cooled. He draped it over the wound.
The mother stood for a moment, only to march back to the kitchen. Pots clattered and she stilled.
Wrapping a clean rag over his mouth and nose, Wainwright smiled and winked. He pulled the rag from the wound and used a sterilized knitting needle to it open. One finger slid in and Sheila looked from them.
Wainwright made a slow, thoughtful sound. “The lung. He seems to be all right. Blood loss made him pass out.”
“His heart?” said Jess and then wished he hadn’t asked. The women shivered and moaned.
“No, it’s slow, but strong.” Wainwright glanced at Sheila. “He has a reason to live, if only to shoot you, boy.” Mouth twitching, fighting a grin, he slid the finger deeper. Trevor grunted, shifting from the pain. Jess fell over his legs and Linnet took his arms, pinning him in place.
“There.” Wainwright closed one eye. “I can feel the bullet.” He looked over and took a pair of tweezers from the tray. They went in and he grimaced, but began to draw them from the chest.
As Wainwright pulled the bullet free the wound made a small, sucking noise. The bullet clattered on the tray and he peered at it, then shifted to cast more light over it.
“Whole, do you think, Jess?”
“Yeah,” he said and Linnet echoed him.
“Is the needle and thread ready?”
Ann rushed in but looked from her son. Wainwright pulled yellow-brown thread from the stick.
“Cotton or cat gut?”
“Cotton.” The woman bit her lip. “From wild plants up in the canyons. They let us pick it.” She held up one hand that showed thin scars. “The shells cut like a knife. Most of the cloth was sent to their lord.”
Wainwright nodded and washed the wound. The sister ran in with a few dried flower heads.
“It’s all there was, Mama.”
“Save it,” the mother said. “We have green tea from the camellias for a poultice.”
Wainwright staggered and collapsed gasping on a chair. Jess stepped towards him, but it was Nina who ran in to climb in the man’s lap and hold him. Wainwright held up blood-stained hands and hugged her with his arms.
He shifted, rising, and Nina ran to Linnet to hold her, then to Jess and the mother, Ann. They eased the man from the table to the couch and the mother covered him with a clean sheet. She sank to her knees giving him a weary smile.
“Funny, how I can still find comfort in prayer after that bunch of loonies.” Ann bowed her head and sank back on her heels. Linnet sat beside her, one arm over her shoulders. Jess bowed his head for a moment, but went out the back door to the corral. Udders swollen with milk, a dozen goats bleated, but ran from him. The buck, though, stamped a hoof and offered a challenge.
The horse grunted and rattled the bit. Muttering softly, Jess reached for him, but he danced away. With a smile, Jess closed the gate and hunted for a bucket. He filled it from the barn pump and offered it. The horse stepped forward to drink. Still whispering, Jess took him by a cheek strap, throwing the reins over a rail to unsaddle him while he drank. The horse gave a sour grunt, but stilled.
He pulled the tack and dropped it over a rail. The blanket went over that, then the bit. Hands stuck in his back pockets, he watched the horse sniff around the corral for something to eat. There was hay in the loft. Jess charged into the barn and up a ladder to fork some to the ground, then refilled the bucket. He backed away smiling.