The early dawn rays peaked over the horizon. Dew on the grass licked at Eva’s shoes as she trampled the blades on her way toward the hangar. The raised metal door left mere inches of clearance for the vehicles to exit. Volunteers for the supply run gathered inside the opening, chatting quietly and stifling yawns.
“Listen up.” Eva clapped her hands. The sound echoed in the building. “We’re going to have three groups going out this morning. Extra caution needs to be exercised with the increased risk.”
A line formed in front of her, all eyes focused and intent. She nodded, scanned the faces, and beckoned Claire to her side.
She pranced over, her voice chipper, “Yes, ma’am?”
“I’m going to put you on lead of food. I’ll take medicine.”
“And Allen?” Claire pointed over her shoulder. “Wouldn’t it be better for you to go with him, and Devin can oversee medicine?”
“Allen will have Kenneth.”
“Ken has only been out a few times.”
“Yes, but when we found him, he had been on his own out there for months. He can handle things if they get rocky.”
“You’re sure on that?”
Eva raised her brow and cocked her head to the left. “It’s a done discussion. You take Irvin, Devin, and Van.”
“That leaves you with Andre.”
“The pharmacy is a mile down the road from where you will be. We can get back quick enough.”
“What happened to groups of no less than three? Take Van.”
“Van will be your watchman. That location is too exposed.”
“Allen and Ken need another, too.” Claire threw her hands in the air. “We can send Van with them and then go as a large group to get both food and medicine.”
“Good thinking. They have the highest chance of plans changing. Van will go with Allen, but we will keep three groups. I don’t want us outside of the gates any longer than necessary.”
Eva and Claire turned at the sound of pounding footsteps behind them. Wade ran up to them, waving his arm through the air.
“I thought I would be too late.”
“Wade, what are you doing?” Claire stepped forward.
“I want to go.”
“Perfect. He can replace Van on food.” Eva turned her palms skyward.
Claire whipped her head around. “He’s too young,” she hissed. “I will rush my men into the vehicle, lock the doors, and drive off without him.”
“Then he’ll be my third.”
“Thought you didn’t need a third.” Claire placed her hands on her hips.
“Don’t want to break my own rule.”
Devin walked over and raised a hand in greeting to Wade. “Everything okay?”
“I don’t want him going,” Claire answered.
“I want to help.” Wade pushed past Devin and faced Claire. “I’m sick of sitting around being useless.”
“You’re not useless.” Claire tucked his hand into both of hers. “Irvin has said you’ve been a great help in the kitchen. Devin thinks you have a knack for mechanics. With such a large run, we need someone to step in and watch the livestock.”
“The pigs aren’t going anywhere,” he huffed and tore his hand out from Claire’s grasp. “They’re both going out. I’m not doing my full part.”
“Eva, tell him no.”
“It’s his decision,” Eva said.
“Devin,” Claire pleaded, her eyes wide enough to threaten popping from the sockets.
“What if he is middle of food. I’ll go in first, he’ll follow, and you’ll bring up tail. We’ll protect him.” Devin pressed a loose fist against his mouth. “Acceptable?”
“Hardly,” Claire grumbled. “That leaves Irvin on lookout.”
“I’m fine with that. I can load to double check we didn’t miss anything,” Irvin called from a few feet away, dropping the act of not eavesdropping.
“Perfect.” Wade’s eyes lit up. “Thank you! I won’t let you down.”
“Neither will we.” Claire shot a glare to Eva, tossed the medicine list at her, and stomped to her vehicle.
“You’ll watch out for him?” Eva asked Devin, picking the note up from the ground.
“She’d kill me if I didn’t.” His gaze followed Claire as she retreated.
“Maybe maim. Claire’s not a killer. That’s my job if you let anything happen to him his first run out.”
“Shouldn’t you have stopped him then?”
“We could use the help. Doesn’t mean he shouldn’t have some protection in exchange.”
Devin shook his head, but a small grin worked into his frustrated expression. “You’d be the best to offer him protection.”
“Don’t be insubordinate.” Eva cracked a smile. “I’ll have Claire make your life a living hell like only a girlfriend can.”
“Aye aye, cap-e-tawn.”
“Get to work.” Eva shoved Devin forward, and then waved Andre over.
“What’s on the agenda?” he asked.
“We’ll lead the group to the grocery, make sure they’re settled, and then make our way to the pharmacy. Grab your backpack this morning?”
He nodded and turned to show the empty bag slung over one shoulder.
“Perfect. We’ll take the motorcycles. Are you okay being bait if need be?”
“Having to ride fast, are you kidding? I’m game.”
“Knew I could count on you. Grab any extra weapons you might want, if they’re not picked clean yet.”
He nodded again and joined the rest around the weapon safes against the wall.
Eva slipped on a pair of brass knuckles per hand, then wheeled her bike outside. Andre parked next to her with a shot gun strapped to his back.
“You want heavier fire power than your Glock?” he asked.
“All I need. I’m a good shot.”
“Wish I had CIA training.”
“Trust me, your EMT training is invaluable.”
He beamed and started the engine. Claire’s group pulled their Suburban to the entrance, Allen and Ken behind them in a Titan. Eva signaled the start of their expedition, whistled to Kayla to open the gates, and headed out.
At the first major intersection they came upon, Eva fell back and waved to Allen as he parted ways from the group. She remained in the rear after their departure, keeping an eye trained for rustling or disturbances around them.
In the parking lot of the grocery, Eva and Andre circled the building to check for roamers near the delivery bay or behind abandoned semis or cars.
“You’re all clear,” Eva yelled to Claire. “You’ll be all right?”
“Hurry up,” she nodded. “Get back here and help.”
“Keep an ear on the walkies. I want updates every fifteen minutes.”
Andre revved the engine and started down the road. Eva followed behind at a slower pace, leaving room for defense against any appearances from roamers out of the thick forest.
“What’re we looking for?” Andre set his helmet on the seat after parking the motorcycle in front of the doors.
Eva handed him the list. “Grab the pills. I’m going to get other necessities.”
He scanned it over, raised his brow, and gave her a thumbs up. “Thanks for that.”
Eva chuckled and lifted her Glock as they approached the door. “You’re welcome. I’ll scan the back with you.”
They found all the aisles clear, and broke apart. Eva propped the door to the pharmaceutical area open, taking no chances of an obstacle between them if an attack happened. She opened her backpack and shoved in feminine hygiene items, toiletries, and other amenities that made life more comfortable.
“How’s it going?” she called to Andre.
“Nope. Another minute.”
Eva wandered into the card aisle and picked one of every birthday card available. As she slipped them into the front pocket, Andre stepped in front of her and snapped his fingers.
“I thought Claire did that,” he said with a sly grin. “You do care for us.”
“I will have Lily remove your vocal chords and not give you any of the pain medicine you just picked up if you tell anyone.”
Andre held his hands in front of him. “Secret’s safe with me. Why you don’t want us to know, I couldn’t imagine.”
“Does everyone think it’s Claire?” Eva asked, her lips turned down.
“Pretty much. Allen has his own theory of Barbara. He keeps searching the library for her stash.”
“Good. Claire should take the rap.”
“Not much of a rap,” Andre offered, his lip curled down.
The walkie interrupted Eva’s reply. “We found food,” Claire’s dry voice came from the device.
“You don’t say,” Eva answered into the walkie with an amused smile. “Surely there wouldn’t be food in a grocery.”
“You asked for updates,” Claire snapped.
“Is everything sound there?” Eva ignored her attitude.
“We’re done here and heading back to you.”
Silence filled the air, and Andre raised an anxious brow at Eva when no confirmation came. “She’s taking the sarcasm a little far.”
“Something’s wrong.” Eva shook her head. “Claire?”
“Might want to crank up that torque. We have a visitor.”
“What kind of roamer?” Eva tensed and dashed through the store. The front door banged against the plexiglass window as they exited, Andre on her heels.
“Not a roamer. A person.”
“A person?” Andre mouthed, his eyes widened and jaw dropped.
“Hard to tell. Irvin is talking to him, but it’s getting heated.”
“Be there in a flash.”
She clipped the walkie to her pants and kicked off with her motorcycle, Andre close behind. They ignored their usual formation and sped toward the grocery. The pavement of the parking lot came close to her as she angled the bike low to make the turn.
A stranger faced Irvin, his face red from his neck to cheeks, his gun drawn on her cook. Eva yanked her helmet off and stepped between them.
“What’s going on?”
“Eva, he attacked me,” Irvin said.
“You attacked my man?” Eva raised a dangerous brow at the stranger.
“It didn’t happen like that.” The man held up his free hand, the other tightened on the grip of his pistol.
“Really? From here it looks indisputable that you did. Drop your weapon.”
“Him first.” He jabbed the gun forward.
“Do it now, or he will drop you.” She pointed to Andre.
The stranger stared at the large man with the shot gun that arrived with the woman, noticed his curled lip, and searched for signs of a bluff. Moments passed, then he lowered both hands.
“Who are you?” Eva asked.
“Kevin,” he said, shifting his gaze between the rest of the group crowded in the doorway.
“Where you from, Kevin?” Eva snapped her fingers to bring his attention back to her.
“There’s a camp about ten miles from here. I got separated.”
Eva looked behind her back at Claire, who lifted her shoulders an inch in a shrug.
“We weren’t aware of a camp around here.”
“It’s there. Wouldn’t have made it this long on my own.”
“Why not go back?”
“Can’t make it alone. I was hiding in the pawn shop down the road when I saw you all pass.”
Eva motioned for Andre to lower his gun, and after a silent exchange, he complied. With a shake of his head, Andre moved to help Irvin load the remaining boxes into the Suburban. Irvin snarled at the stranger, but acquiesced to Andre’s tug on his sleeve.
“I’d be eternally grateful for a ride home,” Kevin said in a low voice.
“Absolutely not.” She turned from the man, but kept him in her peripherals. “Claire, what’s the status?”
“Eva,” she whispered and stepped forward. “This man needs our help.”
“Please,” he begged. “I’ve been out here for three days. I don’t want to face another one of those things alone.”
“How far are we through the list?” Eva plucked the piece of paper from her friend’s grip.
“A good portion.” Claire waved her hands through the air, dismissing the conversation. “It’s ten miles.”
“It’s endangering six people for someone we don’t know and can’t trust.”
“Please,” Kevin’s voice cracked. He dropped to his knees and pressed his palms together. “Please.”
“Wouldn’t you want someone else to do the same for us if we ever got separated?” Claire whispered, looking over Eva’s shoulder with a frown.
“Not an option. I’d never leave someone behind.”
“You’re about to leave him behind.”
“He’s not my responsibility.”
“Eva,” Claire hissed. “Can you pretend you’re human for one moment?”
“You took me in without reason to trust me,” Wade said and pulled his shoulders back.
“We might as well sign his death warrant if we leave him here,” Claire said with a nod to Wade. “How can we restore humanity if we can’t act like humans?”
Eva squatted in front of Kevin. “Where exactly is this camp?”
“Downtown. We’re holed up in one of the tall rises.”
“Good luck.” Eva stood. “Let’s load up and hit the road.”
“No.” Kevin crawled forward and grabbed Eva’s ankle. “You can’t do this to me. Please, I’ll do anything.”
She shook him off her and took a large step backward. “I’m not exposing my people to the city or the roads leading there. The noise alone might attract a herd.”
“Wrong. We’ve set many traps around the city. It catches most of them.” He returned to his knees and brushed the dirt from his hands.
“Catches?” Eva raised a brow.
“Keeps us safe. We’re in the old bank. It’s a reinforced building. Bomb proof, even. There’s never been a breach.” Kevin pulled his shoulders back and gave a proud smile.
“I’m not concerned with the building.”
“We can offer you protection. A safe haven.”
Eva pressed her lips together and looked toward the sky. “Kevin. Do we look like we’re suffering?”
He glanced from person to person, and licked his lips. A small frown tugged at his mouth, and his brow knitted together. “No.”
“I’m sorry your group left you behind. I hope they come back for you. Best of luck.”
“Eva,” Claire stomped her foot and pursed her lips, “stop this.”
Fingers cupped over her chin, Eva blinked at Claire. She allowed a staring match for a few seconds before she turned to Irvin. “Are we done here?”
“Yes, ma’am.” He shot a sidelong look at Claire, who had balled her hands into fists.
“Good, let’s go.” Eva circled her finger in the air.
“Andre.” Claire lifted her chin and held a hand out. “We’re trading keys.”
“Pardon?” Andre coughed.
“What are you doing?” Eva groaned.
“I’m taking him to his camp.” Claire squared her shoulders to Eva.
“Claire,” Devin whispered in her ear. “It’s too dangerous.”
“No!” The group flinched and looked around the tree line. “We’re not animals. I won’t sleep at night knowing I sentenced a man to die.”
“Not your decision to make,” Eva said.
“Last I checked, I still had free will. Andre. Keys, now.”
“Andre, you do that, and you will not come back to camp with us.”
All members of the group began a protest for Eva to do something. Their hands waved through the air, gesturing toward Andre and Claire. Worried looks twisted their features.
Eva pressed the base of her palms against her eyes, laced her fingers through her hair, and sighed. “All right,” she dropped her chin to her chest, “all right. We’ll go.”
The group fell silent.
“Thank you.” Kevin jumped to his feet and stifled a cheer. He shook Claire’s hand. “Thank you so much.”
“Andre, switch keys with Claire,” Eva said. “You’ll take the rest of the group back to camp. Inform Kayla what happened and to keep watch for our return. Claire and I will be back as soon as we can.”
“I’m going, too.” Devin stepped in front of Claire and eyed Kevin.
“Fair enough.” Eva pointed at the newcomer. “You’ll be with me.”
Kevin swallowed and stroked his neck. “Sure.”
“Andre, check in with Allen. I haven’t heard from him.”
“If he needs help, grab Stanley for reinforcements and bring them back safe.”
“Absolutely.” He saluted and closed the door to the Suburban. He poked his head out of the window, his arm hugged against the metal side. “You take care, okay?”
She nodded, lines creased around her eyes.
He gave a small smile and pulled out of the parking lot.
Devin strapped the helmet onto Claire. “Snug?”
The black shape bobbed up and down. Devin grabbed both sides and kissed the top.
“Good,” he smiled.
“I’m going to have the worst helmet hair.”
“I still won’t be considered attractive standing next to you,” Devin scowled with a wink.
“Shush you.” Claire slapped his upper arm.
“I know we’re in the most romantic of settings, but are you two done with the foreplay?” Eva mocked. “I want to get back before dark.”
“Sorry.” Devin flushed. He aided Claire into climbing onto the bike behind him.
Eva revved the motor and slammed her visor down. “Do you want to stay here after all?”
Kevin blinked. “What? I don’t get help on?”
“What can I say? Chivalry is dead,” Eva grunted.
“Has anyone ever told you that you’re a real charmer?” Kevin asked and settled onto the seat.
“Watch your tone.”
“Just being grateful for your hospitality.”
“I will let you fall off the back.”
“Can I go with the other guy?”
Eva took off with smoke spiraling from the back tire. Kevin grasped onto her waist and slammed his eyes shut. She growled and switched gears with a jerk of the bike, smiling at the yelp next to her ear.
Devin pulled up next to her, and Claire shook her head. Eva rolled her eyes and put a hand up. Devin shrugged one shoulder and shot an apologetic look her way.
As the group neared the downtown skyline, Kevin leaned forward and yelled in Eva’s ear. “There’s a pit in the middle of the road. You’re going to have to go off the shoulder to get around.”
Tires screeched as Eva halted to a stop. Kevin’s body slammed into hers. She turned and flipped her visor up, her eyes blazing an inferno at her passenger. “Are you kidding me?”
Devin turned around and pulled up next to them.
“Didn’t want us to all crash and die,” Kevin snapped.
“What’s the problem?” Claire asked, her visor pushed up to reveal a set of worried eyes.
“Dumbass here just informed me there’s a pit in the road.”
“A pit in the road?” Devin scrunched up his face. “What for?”
“I told you, we have many traps set.”
“Because the roamers travel from place to place following roads,” Eva grasped at the air in front of her and shook her fists.
“Look,” Kevin snarled. “It’s effective. We’ve caught a few that way. I don’t care if you approve. I’m simply letting you know it’s there.”
“Why do you keep saying ‘caught’?” Eva hissed. “Don’t you mean killed?”
“We’re exposed here.” Kevin broke eye contact. “We’re less than a mile away.”
“He’s right,” Claire said. “We’ll go around it, drop him off, and get home.”
Eva narrowed her eyes and sighed. “Fine. Take it slow and steady off road, okay?”
“Always,” Devin said.
“Go on,” Eva pointed forward. “I’ll take tail.”
“Behave,” Claire warned with a long finger.
Eva followed a few feet behind as Devin veered off the road. The pit had been covered by large palm fronds spanning an eight foot diameter.
“How deep is it?” Eva asked.
“About twelve feet.”
“That won’t do much against the larger roamers.”
“Does enough,” Kevin shrugged. “It serves its purpose when they fall in.”
“What purpose is that?”
“Hold up,” Kevin yelled in front of the tallest building. Claire tapped Devin on the shoulder and Eva stopped next to them. “I’ll go ahead and open the door.”
“This is as far as we go,” Eva started to turn the motorcycle around.
“Stop there!” A deep voice called out. “Who are you?”
Eva snapped her head in the direction of a glass window protected by iron bars, and flashed a severe glare at Kevin. “Go.”
Kevin raised his hands above his head. “Isaac, it’s Kevin. These people brought me back.”
“Kevin? Dude, we thought you were a goner.”
“Thought I was, too. Open the door.”
“I don’t have those orders.”
“Get them.” Kevin glanced around him, shuffling from foot to foot.
“Well then,” Eva clapped her hands together. “See ya.”
“I said stop!” Isaac yelled and aimed his gun at her through the hole in the teller’s window. “I can’t let you leave.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Eva growled. She swung her leg over the bike and stormed up to Kevin.
“Eva!” Claire tore off her helmet, bounded to Eva’s side, and yanked on her arm. “Leave him alone.”
“He’s turned us into hostages.” She tore out of her friend’s grasp.
“We don’t know that.”
“Honey, usually I’m on your side, but the guns trained on us begs to differ,” Devin whispered and shielded Claire with his body.
Eva whipped her head around to see two more men standing guard at iron-barred doors on either side of the entrance.
“I should have left you to rot,” Eva hissed.
“Calm down.” Kevin took a few quick steps backward when he saw neither Devin nor Claire making any attempt to control Eva.
“What is the meaning behind this?” She pressed a fist against her hip and motioned to the building with her other hand.
The main door swung outward. A man with a rifle strapped to his back ducked out of the entrance and opened his hands toward the four people scattered in front of him. “Precautions and protection,” he answered in a honeyed voice.
Eva slammed her eyes shut, and dropped her head while closing her visor.
Claire took two small steps forward and pressed her hand against Eva’s shoulder blade. “You okay?”
She shook her head.
“Why don’t you come inside and we’ll clear matters up?” The man steepled his fingers outward at his waist before opening his palms to them. “Kevin, it’s wonderful to see you safe.”
“Thank you.” Kevin walked forward and joined the man.
“Please, step inside,” the man repeated, his voice full of command.
“Eva?” Claire whispered.
“We don’t have much of a choice,” she answered. “Stay silent and I’ll get us home.”
“You don’t trust him?”
“Not at all,” Eva lifted her chin.
“You don’t want to stay out here and exposed.” The man shoved his hands in his pockets, his thumbs tucked into his belt loops. “Do you?”
“If we say yes, would you go about your business and let us be?”
“That would put me in a tough position. You know where we are, and I have to protect these people. They trust me with their lives. I must insist that you step inside.” He spoke the last sentence with icy emphasis.
Eva marched forward and the man held the door open for her, bowing as she passed.
“Oh.” He snapped and bolted the locks when all were inside. “If you’ll be so kind as to leave your weapons with Isaac. You understand.”
“I don’t.” Eva crossed her arms over her chest. “I will not relinquish my weapon.”
“There is no threat inside here. I ask you once more, hand over your weapon or I will have no choice but to take them by force.”
Claire held out her pistol. “We don’t want any trouble.”
“Just dropping off your man,” Devin said and handed over his gun.
“Quite a risk you took.” He focused his gray eyes on Eva and extended his hand.
“If we wanted to harm him, we would have. I’m keeping my weapon.”
“You leave me no choice.”
He twirled a hand through the air, his fingers curled back with the swift motion. Two men burst through a door behind him and swarmed Eva. They took hold of an arm each to allow Isaac to remove her Glock, both brass knuckles, and a knife from her boot.
“The helmet as well.” The leader pointed and raised one side of his mouth in an insincere smile. “I like to conduct my business without disguises.”
“No.” Eva struggled against the men’s grip, but the helmet lifted off her head anyway.
She glared at the man through a stray lock of hair hanging down her face. The man’s eyes widened and his jaw dropped for a moment before recomposing into an empty expression.
“Eva,” he said, not quite containing the surprise.
“Grayson,” she snarled.
“How nice to see you again.”