I’ve met a few crazy, militant types in my time. Roy’s cousin, back before virus Z took him out, was part of a citizen militia. That’s what they called themselves. Their camp was a shack in the woods a hour west of our place. Everything was second or third hand, pieced together, and dirt cheap…except the munitions. They had a veritable library of weaponry with an emphasis on semi-automatic and automatic guns. The Kings probably had them beat in weaponry.
At gunpoint, I carried Harvey and followed Paul through the park they’d made of the old mall’s inner courtyard. Men and Women with blades dappled the space, some lounging and others chatting. They wore their knives like jewelry. It was a small crowd, maybe fifty people or so. Most of them wore regular street clothing, but with the steel glinting in the sun like that they seemed a lot more exotic than they were, like a cast from some action film resting between shoots.
Just ahead I heard Paul whisper, “Action!”
“You think this is funny?” Darling asked. She turned around and poked Paul in the shoulder.
“No,” he said. “Not at all.” His shoulders slumped lower. Harvey rumbled in my arms again.
“Keep moving,” Jeb shouted from behind. “We’ve gotta get them cleaned up before we present them.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Darling said. She turned and led us along the edge of the park the Ruby Tuesday. The windows were boarded up on one side. A tall, lanky woman leaned in the entryway.
“We need the shower, Clara,” Darling said.
Clara glanced over her shoulder at Harvey and I. She frowned. “No dogs,” she said.
“It’s The Herbalist,” Darling said. “She won’t put the dog down.”
“I don’t care. No dogs,” Clara said again. She folded her arms over her chest and repositioned herself to fill the doorway. “He can kiss off if he thinks I’m letting any furry creatures into my kitchen.”
“For God’s sake, Clara, let the damned dog in. You really want me to tell him you’re the reason why The Herbalist won’t cooperate? Why she smells like old hippy? Why we’ve kept him waiting?” Jeb asked.
“It’ ain’t sanitary,” Clara said, but she stepped aside. “You owe me,” she added to Jeb as I passed through the doorway.
The Ruby Tuesday had been converted almost entirely into an industrial kitchen. I was shocked to see fresh vegetables, carrots, kale, beets, and fava beans, piled high on one counter. A teen boy was chopping away while on the other side of the store a girl washed dishes in the shop’s deep sink.
Darling led us through to the back room. The Kings had fashioned a make-shift shower above the old floor drain. Darling opened the back door then pulled a folding table from next to the old washtub and set it up near the shower.
“You’ve got about ten minutes to treat your dog and shower up,” she said. “Jeb’ll stay here with you.”
“Have you got any bandages or towels?” I asked.
“You’ll have to make due with what you’ve got,” Darling said.
“Are you f—” I said before Paul stopped me.
“It’s okay,” he said. “We’ll figure it out.”
“Too right,” Darling said over her shoulder as she departed.
Paul and I worked in silence. We’d been through so much together, times like these we didn’t need to talk to get the job done.
I set Harvey on the table while Paul filled a bucket with water. Harvey’s wound had crusted over, so at least it was no longer bleeding. It was clearly tender, but he was tired enough to let me examine it with almost no protest. It lookeed like a flesh wound, probably the bullet did graze him.
I gently washed it, trying not to dislodge the scab that had formed, then bandaged it with cloth torn from my tee shirt. His temperature seemed about right, and his breathing was steady and quiet. I looked into his eyes. He looked bone tired, but his pupils responded to the little shift in light I could create by gently cupping his eye and taking my hand away quickly. I hoped that meant he was just plain tired and not in shock.
Paul removed his blood-stained clothing and splashed his face and hands with water, washing up as best he could without soap or towels, while I worked with Harvey. When he was done, he stood by Harvey while I washed up, too.
“Just The Herbalist,” Darling said when she returned. “He wants you to take them to Chico’s and wait there for further orders.”
“What?” Jeb asked. “I ain’t getting squeezed outta this one, Darling.”
Darling’s hulking boyfriend stepped into the doorway. “You got a problem with your orders?” he asked.
Jeb scowled, but shook his head.
“Let’s go then,” the boyfriend said.
“Be careful not to jar his leg,” I said to Paul. I touched his hand. It was cold and shaking slightly. I hadn’t even thought about the shock he was probably going through.
“I know,” he whispered. “Be careful.”
“You got any blankets at Chico’s?” I asked. “He needs to stay warm and quiet for awhile. With Harvey.”
“Whatever,” Jeb said.
“No, not whatever,” I said. I turned toward Jeb. I was about ready to launch into him, gun or no gun.
“Don’t worry about them,” Darling said. “Jeb’ll take care of them all right. Won’t you Jeb?”
“Whatever,” Jeb said.
“No more stalling,” the boyfriend said, waving his gun for emphasis. “Let’s go.”
Reluctantly, I followed Darling’s boyfriend out of Ruby Tuesday to meet the leader of The Kings.
The leader of The Kings resided in the old Ann Taylor across the courtyard and just off the second floor balcony. His men were dressed in security guard black from head to toe. Honestly, they looked like they’d just stepped off duty guarding the Governor. They flanked the doorway sporting blades and guns. I wondered, maybe for the first time, where they were getting all the ammunition they’d need to fill those guns, but I didn’t have long to think on it. One of them announced us like we really were entring the presence of royalty then Darling and her boyfriend hustled me through the door.
Near what had probably been the middle of the store, they’d set up a seating area around a Persian style rug. Two couches and a settee that looked like they’d come straight out of Pottery Barn along with a set of ebony side tables made what would have been a classy space were it not for the apocalyptic world we inhabited.
The leader of The Kings was considerably smaller than I’d expected, short and wiry. He lounged on the leather settee with his feet up, clunky Doc Martins still on. His white tee shirt and army fatigue pants contrasted with the sleek red leather, making him look like a petulant rich teen. Were it not for the tattoos that covered his arms and curled up around the back of his neck, I would have had a hard time taking that flat-topped little blonde runt seriously, even if he’d been wearing a blade or cradling a gun like all his thugs, which he wasn’t.
“This here’s Zombie Hunter C, sir, just like I promised,” Darling said when we’d reached him.
“So, you’re the one the Trader’s been asking for?” the Leader said. “You’re the Herbalist?”
“What if I am?” I asked.
“You don’t look like much. Kind of dumpy and a lot bigger than I’d expected,” He said. “You’re sure this is her?”
“Her hair’s right, and she’s got the scar,” Darling said. She grabbed my arm and yanked back my sleeve. “See?”
“What the Hell do you want with me?” I asked, pulling my arm from her grip. Darling’s boyfriend struck my shoulder with the butt of his rifle. I stumbled forward a step and rubbed my shoulder.
“Show some respect,” he said.
“It’s all right,” The leader said. “Forgive my friends. They’re anxious to help out in this time of need. Darling, Tim, why don’t you leave us?”
Darling and her boyfriend, Tim, withdrew. Darling’s scowl was almost enough to quelch some of the thirst I had for smacking her right upside the head. Almost.
“Do, have a seat,” the leader said. He gestured to the couch to his right. “My name’s Glen. Welcome to my Kingdom.”
“What do you want with me?” I asked again.
“Please, sit. There’s no sense in making this unpleasant, is there?”
The couch was plush compared to my usual digs. In all honesty, it felt uncomfortable, like something from a different lifetime altogether. I kept wanting to look over my shoulder and listen carefully for Zs.
“I’ve got a proposal for you,” he said. “One of my contacts sown south is in bind. The Trader says you’ve got the knowledge to help out. I’d like you to give them what they need.”
“After treating us like prisoners, what makes you think I’ll help you with anything?”
“Your friends, they’re important to you, aren’t they? I hear you’re one of those compassionate types, unwilling to leave anyone behind,” he said. He tapped his fingertips together like a James Bond villain.
“Are you threatening my friends?”
“I’m offering you an opportunity to help some people down south who’re in need. You wouldn’t want to see your friends, Paul and Harvey, suffer, would you? So why would you let other innocents suffer?”
“So you’re not threatening them? You’ll just let them go, even if I refuse to help you?”
“I didn’t say that, but I have no intention of hurting you or your friends. I need your help. It’s plain and simple. If you cooperate, there could be something good in it for you, too. What do you need?”
“What kind of trouble exactly are your friends facing?”
“The leader of their cooperative is in a lot of pain. He suffers from some kind of dental infection. His teeth are loose. His gums bleed all the time. According to the Trader, it looks like a full-blown case of gum disease. They don’t have a dentist to confirm it, of course.”
“I’m hardly a dentist,” I said.
“According to the Trader, you know your plants. He thought you’d be the best bet considering they don’t have any pharm down there.”
“A good, healthy diet and daily brushing is the best way I know to handle gum disease. I haven’t had to resort to pure herbals just yet myself,” I said. Paul’s struggle with gum disease and the challenge we faced now that we’d run out of regular old toothpaste. “If it’s bad enough, even myrrh won’t cut it.”
“I don’t know how bad it is, but anything’s better than what they’ve got going now, which is a cranky and very powerful man in pain.”
“I tell you what, you give me back our packs and freedom, give us all we want from the place we were raiding before your thugs found us plus give us some protection while we collect our due, and guarantee you won’t come after us with guns again, and I’ll tell you what little I know.”
“I tell you what, how about we take you on down to see him and you can decide if you’ve got a solution?” Glen asked.
“I have absolutely no desire whatsoever to travel south, north, east, west, or in any other direction with you or your thugs,” I said, with probably a lot more confidence than I felt.
“Now that’s exactly the wrong answer,” Glen said. He cracked his knuckles. “I’d hate to see trouble coming your way, but I’m not against so much either. I think you’d really rather hoof it down to see the General, and once you’re there, I think you’ll agree that finding a reasonable solution to his plight is in your best interest…and that of your friends.”
“So, you are threatening me then.”
“Yep, I am. Are you stupid enough to fight me on this?” he asked. “You know why I run this base? I’ll tell you right now, it ain’t my size that keeps these guys in line.” He cracked his knuckles, which really underscored his intention. I was certain right then and there he’d have no problem at all hurting Paul and Harvey…and that I’d probably end up traveling to this friend of his whether I wanted to or not. I decided to cooperate, but on my own terms.
“I’ll go see your friend, but only if Paul and Harvey come with me,” I said.
“And, I want my packs. I’ll need some supplies from my camp, too.”
“That’s reasonable,” he said. “Anything else?”
“If you’re sure this is a dental problem, you’d best send a couple of your men with me to collect some supplies from the house your thugs found us at.”
“I’ll send my men to collect them for you. Make a map to your campsite and a list of what you want from it and from the house. I’ll send some men to retrieve it for you.”
“I can collect my things myself, thank you very much,” I said.
“No can do, sister. You’re going to rest up. The journey’s a long one to the General’s base camp, and my men won’t go slow just because you’re a girl.”
“Fine, but I’ve gotta go to my camp myself, even if you have to send your men along for the ride. They won’t have a clue which herbs are which.”
“Paul and Harvey stay here. You cause any trouble along the way, and they die. You don’t come back within a day, and they die. Am I clear about that?”
“I said I’d help. Leave Paul and Harvey alone.”
“They’ll be just fine, so long as you live up to your end of the bargain,” Glen said.
“You have my word. I’ll do my best to help your friend.”
“Deal,” Glen said. His grin stretched from ear to ear. Had I known then what I know now, I’m not entirely sure I would have let him off quite that easily.
May You Be Well,
Zombie Hunter C.