The True North Strong And Free*

The final installment in the adventures of Evie and Owen. Read the whole story here.

This is Colorado and not Nevada...but it's my blog and I do what I want. Photo © Vers Les Etoiles

This is Colorado and not Nevada…but it’s my blog and I do what I want. Photo © Vers Les Etoiles

         “It’s been over a week.”
         “No sign? Nothing at all?” Jessamy’s voice cracked on the last word.
         Evie stirred, trying to get the cottony taste out of her mouth as she struggled to open her eyes. Jessamy was talking to the surgeon.
         “None. His heart rate and temperature haven’t been steady—but that’s to be expected. He could still get any sort of normal infection in that arm; we were working with the roughest possible instruments. But I think,” he sounded as if he was trying to convince himself as much as Jessamy, “I think he’ll be okay. He won’t turn into a stumbler, anyway.”
         Evie could feel the wrinkles of the blanket imprinted in her cheek as she lifted her head. One of her hands was numb and she looked down to see Owen’s long fingers curled tightly around hers. His hand was limp last night when she held it. She tried not to breathe. The steady beeping of the monitor reassured her and Evie’s eyes moved up from his fingers to the stump lying on his chest, then to his face.
         “Hi,” he mouthed, no sound escaping his lips.
         Evie tried to say something, but her throat caught and she put her head back down on the rough blankets. She felt his fingers press hers every so lightly—she could tell it took all his strength and she raised her head.
         “Tears, Evie, love?” he asked weakly. “Tears for me?”
         Evie shook her head, biting her lip and willing the tears to stop.
         “You’re nothing but trouble,” she said unsteadily. “Knew it the first time I saw you.”
         Owen’s other arm stirred and he winced, glancing quickly away from the stump. He swore.
         Evie released his hand and half-rose from her chair, “Does it hurt? Let me—”
         Owen grabbed her wrist with his good hand, mindless of the ropes of IVs that ran out of it. He pulled her towards him, his hand running up her arm to cup her cheek as he drew her face down. She tasted the salt of her tears on his lips.

——–

         Owen’s legs were steady as he suffered Evie to buckle his pack across his chest. She shoved him gently as she felt his lips against her ear and hid a grin at his hurt expression. She rolled an eye towards the crowd standing behind them and he returned the expression.
         “Never thought I’d see that again,” Owen brushed a finger across her cheek.
         “What?” Evie asked, trying not to blush.
         “That smile,” Owen winked at her and she ducked away from him.
         “Worse with one hand than you were with two,” she hissed, sidestepping the swat he aimed at her.
         “Owen,” Gregg stepped forward and clapped Owen lightly on the shoulder. “Sure you won’t stay?”
         “No, Gregg. If you know what’s good for you, you’ll all head out, too. If I learned anything from Vegas, the tweakers are adapting to the cold. Staying here won’t keep you safe for long.”
         “I ’ppreciate the thought, friend. We got a good setup here—weapons, food, the goods. I think we can wait it out a while longer,” Gregg looked as confident as he sounded.
         “Stay safe,” Owen shook Gregg’s hand.
         “Evie,” Gregg awkwardly offered her a hand.
         “Thank you, for everything,” Evie shook his hand, holding his gaze.
         He looked away, “It was nothing. A favor for a friend.”
         Evie nodded, sharing a grin with Owen at Gregg’s embarrassment.
         “He don’t want anyone to think he’s got a soul, that one,” Owen whispered as they went to thank the surgeon and his aides.

——-

         The old Jeep was loaded with supplies, weapons, and ammo; all the goodbyes said except one.
         “I can still come with you,” Jessamy said, checking the straps on the bundles tied to the roof. “I can pack in a few minutes.”
         Evie smiled and shook her head, “No, you should stay here—if it’s what you want.”
         She watched as he glanced over his shoulder at one of the young women in the compound walking along the perimeter of the makeshift bunker, rifle resting easily on her shoulder. Jessamy flushed and then grinned at her. His face turned purple when she pulled him into a hug and he fought to regain his composure as he shook Owen’s hand.
         “You’re a good shot, Jessamy. I owe my life to you just as much as any of these doctors,” Owen said quietly.
         “Take care of each other, yeah?” Jessamy said, looking back and forth. “Try to remember the tweakers are the ones you want to kill, not each other.”
         Owen put a hand to his machete, “I’ll be good if she is.”
         Evie put her hands on her hips, “I hear there’s still some courts up north. I can still get that divorce, you—”
         Owen cut off further threats—encouraged by the whoops and catcalls of the men and women in the yard—until Evie ducked out of his embrace, trying to ignore the burning in her cheeks. They got in the Jeep and Evie put it in drive as the compound gates swung slowly open. She glanced once in the rearview mirror and stuck a hand out the window to return Jessamy’s wave. She looked over and caught Owen’s gray eyes on her, a smile spreading across his thin face.
         “Where to?” he asked.
         “Where you wanna go?” she replied, watching him fumble to open the map with one hand and hold it steady with his other wrist. She stopped the car and took a deep breath against the emotions that tightened her chest.
         “I’ve never been to Canada,” she looked at the snow-cloaked landscape.
         “Canada,” Owen shifted the map, swearing as part of it tore.
         “Don’t slow me down,” Evie said, struggling to maintain a serious expression.
         “Girl,” Owen looked over at her, tipping her chin up with two fingers. “I’ve been chasing you for years. Now that I finally caught up, ain’t no way I’ll let you go.”

* Title thanks to my favourite Dilettante and the Canadian National Anthem.
Writing soundtrack for this post: Last Train Home by Ryan Star

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“It’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah”

Read what’s happened so far to Evie and Owen here.

        Drip. Drip. Drip.
         Evie felt a tic starting in her cheek just under her eye with each drip of the liquid in the IV bag. She stopped wondering where all the medical equipment was from when several of the men addressed the surgeon as Sergeant. Owen’s face was gray and she saw his eyes moving back and forth beneath his lids. She didn’t look at the stump of his hand that was tightly bound and tucked into a sling across his chest. The stubble on his chin looked blue against his pallid skin. He already looked like a corpse. She stopped counting the seconds, the minutes, as the first hour stretched into three, into five.
         It took Chett a few hours—she thought, but she didn’t know when the first blood got into his leg. Somewhere in her head, she started counting down as soon as they hauled Owen into the helicopter. As soon as the stumbler latched his teeth onto Owen’s arm. The doctor—Sargent Surgeon, her brain called him—gripped her shoulder when they were done stitching and cleaning and bandaging, telling her to let go of Owen’s shoulders. She could see the bruises her fingers left under the edge of the cleaner shirt they’d put on him. She swallowed the bubble of hysterical laughter that rose in her throat. If he was awake, he’d joke about her trying to strangle him when he was flat on his back. If he was awake he’d smile that crooked, stupid smile at her. If he ever woke up.
         “Evie,” Jessamy’s voice was quiet—a crypt-voice.
         She took the cup of coffee he handed her with both hands and gulped the boiling liquid, tying to hide the way her eyes watered. Evie still heard Owen yelling, saw him standing on the rooftop, the tendons in his neck stretching with the force of his scream as the tweaker bit into his flesh. She felt the cup burning her hands, the faint numbness of her protesting fried taste buds, but everything else was cold. She leaned forward again to press her fingers to the inside of Owen’s wrist. His pulse hammered there, just under his cold skin. He felt like a corpse already except for the heartbeat. Sometimes they didn’t get the fever before the change, something whispered. Sometimes they just went cold before…
         “Evie,” his voice was clear as he said her name before lapsing into a garbled murmur.
         Every nerve drew tight as a bowstring as she waited for him to speak again. Five hours and Owen was still in there. Part of him at least.
         “You should—” Jessamy stopped at the look she gave him.          “Right.”
         “If I sleep…if I leave for a minute…he might not be there anymore. And if…when…” Evie took an unsteady breath. “I have to do it. It can’t be anyone else.”
         Jessamy looked stricken but he nodded, his face gray, he patted her shoulder awkwardly before shuffling back to one of the other beds they’d provided in the bunker.
         Evie scooted her metal chair closer and wrapped her hand around Owen’s chilled, unresponsive fingers. She pushed the hair away from his face and ran her fingers across his cheek—the bones already stuck out more from the loss of blood.
         “All you ever wanted to do was save me. And all I ever wanted was to run,” Evie didn’t try to stop the hot tears that spilled over her cold cheeks and splashed down onto the sheets as she pressed her lips to the back of Owen’s hand and squeezed his fingers as though she could force him to wake up.
         “I’m done running, Owen. But I think it’s too late for both of us.”

All Or Nothing

No matter what game you’re playing in Vegas, someone always has to lose. Find Evie and Owen’s story up until now here.

Photo © me

Photo © me

         Evie didn’t look down as she was hauled painfully upward; the rope bit into her skin. It was a relief when a hand reached down and yanked her up into the helicopter. She struggled with the knots, finally freeing herself from the flimsy, makeshift harness. The rope twisted back down again and she peeked out the open door long enough to see Jessamy gesturing at Owen before shaking his head and looping the rope around himself.
         Someone else was flying the chopper; Gregg had on a massive set of headphones and leaned over her. “Who’s the runt?” he yelled over the buffeting propellers.
         “A new friend,” Evie shouted back.
         “Good thing we brought this baby,” Gregg gave her a satisfied grin.
         Evie leaned back against the cold metal, too exhausted to pull herself up into one of the few precarious seats. Jessamy appeared a few minutes later, wincing as he shed the harness.
         “Chris’almighty,” Gregg swore, flinging the rope back down again.
         “What?” Evie asked, heaving her pack off and crawling towards Gregg and Jessamy.
         She saw Jessamy’s face turn white. Evie grabbed his arm and stared down at the building. Tweakers swarmed the rooftop; somehow, they managed to pull themselves up the icy metal rungs. Owen fired into the stumblers that were already over the edge, but Evie could see more crawling up behind.
         “Throw the rope! Throw it!” she yelled, her fingers biting into Jessamy’s shoulder.
         The rope swung wildly, buffeted by the wind and the propellers. The snow whipped around Owen and she saw him squint as he tried to grab the rope once, twice. Jessamy swung his rifle out the door and began shooting the tweakers as Owen tried to tie the rope around his torso. Evie saw one break free from the milling mass; it stumbled over another tweaker’s writhing body and stayed upright. Her scream froze in her throat as Owen gave a frantic tug at the rope. Gregg and Jessamy hauled at it so hard it knocked Owen off his feet. He struggled to right himself, to keep one hand on the rope and one on his gun.
         Evie reached out one hand—to warn him, to stop the tweaker, she wasn’t sure. But as he spun at the end of the rope like a rogue kite, the tweaker latched its grimy hands on Owen’s arm. She heard his scream as the stumbler buried its teeth in Owen’s outstretched hand. The gun dropped onto the snow and the men gave a tug that pulled Owen clear off the rooftop. Evie thought for a moment that the tweaker would come too—that he would rip Owen’s entire arm off. But Owen released the rope and drove the heel of his other hand into the tweaker’s face. Evie thought she could hear the bones shatter, but surely the roaring in her ears was too loud.
         Owen’s face looked gray as they pulled him over the edge. The whites around his eyes were showing and there was blood running freely down his hand. His thumb and most of his next two fingers were gone—mangled stubs of raw meat. They pulled him all the way in and Gregg, swearing enough to impress even Evie, launched himself into the copilot’s seat. They spiraled away from the rooftop—now completely overrun. Evie had Owen’s head in her lap and his uninjured hand clamped tightly on one of hers, she could feel the feeling leave her fingers.
         “Jessamy, in my pack there’s a black canteen,” she waited for his eyes to focus on her. “It should be in one of the side pockets.”
         She could see his hands shaking as he fumbled with the zipper.
         “Evie,” Owen said weakly; she could hear the panic in his voice.
         “Shut up,” she said, squeezing his fingers—hard.
         “Here,” Jessamy handed her the canteen, top unscrewed.
         “This is going to hurt like hell,” Evie said.
         She glanced at Jessamy and he moved to hold Owen still. The floor of the ‘copter was sticky with blood. Evie poured the moonshine over Owen’s ruined hand and felt him stiffen. A sound almost like a whimper escaped his lips and his fingers crushed hers. Evie poured a continuous stream over the seeping wound. The bright red blood didn’t worry her, but she saw the clear outline of the bite on the back of his hand and fragments of teeth. She bit the inside of her cheek. If he ripped out the tweaker’s teeth, there would have been blood. If that blood got into the bite…
         A scratch from a tweaker was fine—unless infected blood got in it. A bite might even be okay if their mouths weren’t bleeding. The problem was that the first things the drug killed were the brain’s pain receptors. The only way to make sure they stayed down was to cut off their heads, stick a knife through the eye, a gunshot to the head—anything that destroyed was left of their intelligence.
         Since they couldn’t feel pain, the stumblers tended to be riddled with diseases and infections. They staggered around bashing themselves into things, cutting themselves up. Most of them had some kind of internal bleeding. If you hit one with a car and didn’t crush the skull, the bastards could get right back up. Evie hunted one with a leg so mangled it was just dead weight. The thing kept going for miles and still had some fight left in it. Chett cut himself on something—a deep cut but not dangerous. Then, in a fight with some tweakers, he made a real mess of one and blood got into the wound. Just like that. Three days later, she put a bullet in his skull and never regretted it.
         She looked down into Owen’s gray eyes, half shut in agony as remaining fingers on his hand twitched convulsively. The eyes were the first thing she noticed when Chett started to turn.

You Can’t Save Me II

Read the beginning of Lara’s story here. This was originally “A Birthday to Forget” but after my dear friend and sometimes-editor made some much-needed suggestions, this is the updated (and improved) version. Thank you to my favourite Dilettante.

         I didn’t know if he was laughing at me, but in spite of myself, I laughed, too. It sounded like I was choking. I couldn’t get the hysterical bubbles of laughter under control. I noticed then the cuts on my knuckles and palms. They must have come from the gravel or the broken bottle. I shoved my hands between my knees and tried to stop the shaking. I stopped laughing. I gasped for air, there wasn’t enough in the RV and the walls seemed to shiver in front of my eyes. I felt hands on my shoulders and wrenched away. I tried to cry out, but the face of my rescuer swam into focus.
         “Sorry, I’m sorry,” he was saying. “God, you’ve really been through something.”
         I was having trouble focusing on his words. I had to watch his lips move, to make an effort not to see the light going out of beastly blue eyes, to not taste the tang of blood.
         “I killed someone. I stabbed him with a beer bottle, there was blood—blood everywhere,” I realized I was rubbing my hands up and down my arms, trying to stop feeling the warm, thick flow of blood running down them. “Oh, god. Oh, god.”
         I breathed hard through my nose, there wasn’t anything left in my stomach to bring up but it heaved all the same.
         “Hey, hey,” he knelt down in front of me—not touching me—but holding out his hands as if he wanted to steady me. “It’s…well, I can see it’s not okay. But, you can trust me—talk to me.”
         I nodded once, making the effort to calm my breathing. I held out my hand and he reached back to retrieve the bottle of whiskey and splashed some into my empty glass. I took it from him and the whiskey sloshed in my quaking hand. I drank a big gulp and didn’t care that I coughed. My eyes watered. I rubbed a hand across them, but there were tears now, too. He looked at me wordlessly, waiting for me to speak. He regarded me like some sort of puzzle, not someone evil—not a murderer. I faltered under that gaze.
         “I should go,” I said, but I didn’t stand up. I was afraid I couldn’t.
         “Go?” his pale brows pulled down over his nose. “You can’t go—look at you!
         “I’m a murderer—I can’t stay here! They’ll find me. Oh god, they’ll find me,” the whiskey spilled over my fingers onto his floor.
         He took the glass from me and I flinched as his fingers brushed mine. He grimaced, but not at me.
         “You didn’t just stab some guy with a beer bottle because he was staring at you funny. He did something. Bastard,” he spat the word out. “Did you know him?”
         I shook my head vehemently. I didn’t want to think about what he looked like, whether he had a name, a family. I didn’t want to think about anything. He stayed crouched in front of me, his brows furrowed, the bottle dangling from his hand. I saw his eyes drifting over the cuts on my hands and I knew there was probably still blood under my fingernails. There was dirt under the blue-eyed boy’s nails. They were long and ragged. I could see them again reaching for my throat.
         “He was stocky with bad skin…greasy hair, I think it was dark, I don’t know. His eyes—his eyes were blue,” the words poured out of me so fast I could barely get my tongue around them. “He was young—twenties, I don’t know. The coffee shop,” I jerked my head up to meet his eyes. “He was at the coffee shop. He saw me—his friend works there. He followed me to the bus stop and—” my words sputtered out like a spent birthday candle.
         His eyes widened briefly and then narrowed, “The filthy son of a bitch. Did he have any tattoos? Scars? Anything unusual?”
         I forced myself to think back to his hands, his neck, his face. Nothing. I shook my head.
         “I can think of a few guys around here that fit the bill,” he said. He must have seen the fear and disgust on my face. “Don’t think about it anymore just now.”
         I buried my face in my hands then put my face on my knees. I couldn’t shut my eyes and black spots were dancing across my vision, like black drops of blood. There was a roaring in my ears; it drowned out my rescuer’s muttered curses. I heard the floor creak as he stood and again as he began to pace. He was talking to himself, but I couldn’t make sense of the words—the noise in my ears was too loud.
         “Hey,” he was crouched in front of me again, his eyes hesitant.
         My mouth felt dry and I wondered if years had passed while I sat with my head on my knees, trying not to be sick. He held out a mug of something that steamed and his lips twitched in a crooked smile. I didn’t hear him cooking, I didn’t even notice the tirade of swearing ceased along with the roaring.
         “It’s just Ramen, but it might be good if you ate something…” He held it out to me, still carefully keeping his distance. “Are you hungry?”
         I realized that I was. Now that the nausea subsided, I was starving, but I was afraid the smell of food might make me sick again. I took the mug with numb, shaking fingers. It had some sort of yellowish broth and a pile of white noodles. I took the fork he offered and tasted it. The saltiness soothed my stomach, and the warmth that leeched into my fingers was heavenly.
         “I’m Jericho,” he said as I took another small bite. “Jericho Lang.”
         “Lara,” I said. “Just Lara.”
         He offered me both his names, trusting a confessed murder. I only had one to offer in return. My spine prickled as I remembered the letter in my knapsack. ,em>Nadia
.
         “Now you know why I have to go,” I said.
         He shook his head emphatically, “Now I know more than ever why you should stay.”

… Flight

Sometimes, even in Vegas, the luck can run in your favor. But, as any gambler will tell you, it often doesn’t last long. You can find Evie and Owen’ story up until now here.

         “Up there,” Owen pointed his machete at a rusty sign high atop a building.
         Jessamy nodded, panting. They had not slackened their pace since leaving the club. Every gust of wind across the ashy snow sounded like a stumbler’s dragging footsteps. Evie wanted to push Owen’s hand away, but his grip on her elbow kept her running. They saw a rusty set of metal rungs in the side of the building and Jessamy swarmed up them nimbly. Evie hoped the precarious steps would elude the tweakers.
        Owen shoved her towards the wall and she scrambled up the rungs, her numbed fingers struggling to grip. Near the top, her foot slipped and she heard Owen grunt as her boot smashed his fingers. Evie’s face hit the rung in front of her and she tasted blood as she crawled over the lip of the building and pushed herself to her feet. She shoved Owen’s helping hand away this time, and wiped her hand across her lip, looking down at the smear of blood for a long moment.
Owen’s rough fingers found her chin and tilted her face to look at him. His gray eyes were unreadable as he wiped the blood off her cheek.
         “First time I ever met you, your lip was split,” he said.
         “I remember,” Evie said, pulling away and spitting out red-tinted saliva.
         She saw Jessamy watching them with a strange expression on his face and laughed bitterly.
         “What?” he and Owen asked, almost at the same time.
         “He never knocked me around, Jess,” Evie said, jerking her head back at Owen.
         “What the hell are you talking about?” Owen looked between the two.
         “We were comparing war stories. And I let him think my battles were with you,” Evie said lightly, taking off her pack and setting it on the ground.
         She began to rummage through it for flares, keeping one eye on the steel gray sky. Owen was still staring at her, eyebrows raised, when she looked back up.
         “And why, Evie, love, would you let our young friend here think I hit you?”
         “In case I needed an ally—I knew I couldn’t get to Gregg’s plane alone, even if I did manage to get the satellite phone off you somehow,” she sat back on her heels, the flare gun in one hand.
         “You were going to take the sat phone, call Gregg, and just leave me here in this godforsaken city?” Owen asked.
         The disbelief on Owen’s face gave Evie a slight pang of remorse, but she shrugged.
         “I would have, if it came to that. Don’t tell me you wouldn’t do the same thing,” she continued her search for the flares, finally feeling them at the bottom of the pack.
         She loaded them into the gun, careful not to drop any into the snow that heaped the rooftop. Owen crouched down next to her and she had to look him in the eye.
         “I protected you from your bastard of a father, I married you. Hell, we were even going to have—”
         “Shut up,” Evie stood, using Owen’s shoulder to push herself up and unbalancing him in the process. “Don’t talk about it. Don’t you dare.”
         Owen surged up from the ground and grabbed her by both shoulders.
         “Why do you think I came back to Louisiana? What did you think I was doing there?”
         Evie gaped at him, feeling his fingers dig into her shoulders as he shook her slightly. His gray eyes were wild. She thought of the cigarette lighter in his pocket—the one with her initials. She thought of him telling Gregg he went back to Louisiana to “get something.” He slackened his grip suddenly and they stared at each other.
         “It wasn’t your fault we lost it. And it wasn’t my fault, either. Goddamnit, Evie. You should’ve known better. You did know better,” Owen’s voice was raw; Evie strained to hear it over the wind.
         “They’re coming,” Jessamy said suddenly.
         The three of them hurried to the side of the building and peered down. A shambling gray horde of tweakers was making its clumsy way towards the building. They moved in a pack, but without seeming to notice the others. They were drawn by the warmth of human flesh—their mutual desire and destination, nothing more.
         “The flares, Evie,” Owen said sharply.
She stared at the gun in her cold hands for a moment before raising it and firing it into the cloudy sky. It soared upwards in a burst of acrid smoke and streaked red across the cement-hued backdrop. They all strained their ears as it blazed for a moment and then began to fade, hoping to hear the plane’s engines. The stumblers grew closer, their grunting and shuffling seemed magnified in the expectant silence.
         “We have to get higher,” Owen said.
         They began to scramble up the creaking struts of the sign, finding precarious hand holds. Owen watched the hands tick on his watch, wedged into one corner of the metal frame. He gestured to Evie after what seemed like eternity and she fired another flare into the sky. Evie resisted counting the seconds as she clung to the rusted metal skeletal remains of the sign, peering through the fog.
         “He’s not coming,” Jessamy said, his shaggy hair falling into his eyes.
         Evie hugged her knees to her chest, glaring at the steely gray sky. A mechanical rumble broke the chilly silence and a Bell 205 helicopter dropped out of the clouds. Evie quickly shrugged off her surprise. If Gregg’s compound was all he said it was, it stood to reason they’d have more than Gregg’s crappy Cessna. She stood to wave, losing her balance. Owen’s hands caught her easily. She pulled away as the chopper dropped down, regaining her grip on the frame.
         “How is he going to get us?” she yelled over the sound of the propellers.
In answer, one of the doors flew open and a coil of thick orange rope snaked down. Evie looked at it in disbelief.
         “You first, Evie, love,” Owen said, catching the rope and winding it around her waist.

Fight or…

Anyone who visits Las Vegas knows that, sooner or later, your luck runs out. To read Evie and Owen’s postapocalyptic, zombie plagued story, start here.

        Evie’s first bullet drilled through the tweaker’s forehead and he dropped like a stone. She was glad she always loaded the gun before bed as the next one shambled out, his one yellowed eye peering around the room. She didn’t know if he could actually see out of the clouded, oozing lens but the bullet she put into it made the question moot. With a splatter of vitreous fluid and brain matter, he dropped, too. More shadows were shuffling through the yawning black hallway, dim gray shapes in the darkness.
        She could hear Owen grunting as he hacked at the tweakers’ faces and arms as they thrust themselves at the gap in the front door. The bar held—for now. A bullet whizzed by Evie’s ear and took down another tweaker, blasting the top of it’s skull off in a spray of red and fragments of bone–it looked like a female. Jessamy took down three more before Vanessa finally started shooting as well. She missed more than she hit, but the tweakers coming through the hallway were hesitating, confused. Several tripped over the bodies of dead stumblers and bullets ended their clumsy writhing. Evie’s clip was empty, so she thrust the gun into her belt and drew her knives.
        She chanced a look at the front door. Owen’s machete and arms were streaked in blood and sweat poured down his face. There was barely enough room for the two of them at the door but he moved aside as soon as he heard her coming. She could hear the crack and wet thunk of bullets behind her finding their marks and hoped Jessamy and Vanessa had enough ammo—it would have to be enough. She sliced a tweaker’s hand off at the wrist and it howled, staggering back away from the door. The sheer weight of the bodies piling against the door was bending the bar further inwards, widening the gap. Evie stabbed through a tweaker’s jaundiced eye into its brain and felt it twitch before it, too, slumped down.
        “We can’t do this for much longer, the door wont hold,” Owen panted, avoiding a set of snapping, rotten teeth.
        A quick slash relieved the tweaker of her bottom jaw and a terrible sound came from its ruined mouth. They could still feel pain–which was lucky for the uninfected. It didn’t slow them down as badly, but they felt it. Evie grimly dispatched another tweaker, jabbing her knife into the skin at its temple.
        “Got a better idea?” she asked, swiping at the sweat rolling into her eyes.
        “Gregg’s plane. It’ll be here soon,” Owen rhythmically sliced through several more forearms, ignoring the gore that splashed across his arms and chest. “If we can hold them back or drive them off long enough to get outside and get on top of a building…”
        Evie glanced over her shoulder.Jessamy and Vanessa stood almost shoulder to shoulder, angled so no tweakers could run by them. They were picking them off one by one. The stench was beginning to rise–unwashed bodies, blood, and the odor of excrement. It looked like fewer were coming through the doors, but she couldn’t be sure. The wind was blowing drifts of sand and snow over the bodies and through the gap in the door, Evie’s hands were starting to grow numb.
        “Can you tell how many more are out there?” she asked.
        “Not without getting a kiss from one of them,” Owen leaned away from gaunt, clawing fingers and cut through the tweaker’s face, shoving the body back through the door with his machete handle. “And that’s not something I fancy, Evie, love.”
        Evie didn’t have time to answer. The bar rattling in the handles creaked suddenly and they both stepped back. Outside, it seemed that the moans and snarls increased.The squeal of metal against metal shattered the air as the weight against the door increased; Evie grabbed Owen’s arm and pulled him back just as the rusting iron bar broke in half and the doors burst open. She bit back a scream and felt Owen’s forearm flex under her fingers as they backed away. Jessamy and Vanessa had turned at the sound, not noticing one of the tweakers that lurched out of the doorway.
        Owen’s wordless yell was all the warning they had as it grabbed Vanessa’s pack with its grasping fingers. She screamed, trying to get the straps off her shoulders as it clawed towards her. Evie stepped forward, but Owen grabbed her elbow and yanked her back, jarring her shoulder. Two more tweakers burst out of the shadows at Vanessa’s scream. Evie never saw them move that fast before. Jessamy stood frozen and Owen yelled his name three times before he turned a white face to them. Vanessa wasn’t screaming anymore. Her throat was torn out, but they could see her legs and arms twitching. Jessamy spun back around and fired. Her legs went still.
        The front door had collapsed under the weight of the bodies—no more tweakers were visible on the street. Owen drug Evie out, staggering behind him. She heard Jessamy’s feet pounding through the drifting gray sand and snow slush. Her breathing was ragged in her own ears and she concentrated on evening it out, on not falling down, on the pressure of Owen’s hand around her wrist. Anything but the sight of Vanessa’s boots twitching and the sounds of the tweakers gorging.

Pieces of the Puzzle

Holy Crossover, Batman! It was bound to happen sooner or later, so sooner it is. Our not-so-dynamic duo, Royston and Talan are interrupted by an unexpected and unwelcome guest. To catch up read this, this, and this.

        Royston stared morosely into his nearly-empty pint of beer, counting the rings of foam. His arm burned like the dickens and he kept rubbing it as though it would make the stinging sensation go away.
         “They sent us to the wrong place,” Talan said for the third time, disgusted.
         “Bloody wankers,” Royston agreed, wincing as fresh pain shot up his forearm.
         “Two more,” Talan gestured to the bartender.
         Roy nodded gratefully at the American.
         Once they realized there was no way around the pit in the floor, Royston called his handler. Felix Crowley then informed them that the parchment detailing their task had been mistranslated. Royston’s company mobile was now, for all he knew, still plummeting towards the core of the earth after he flung it into the hole–Crowley’s voice still screaming out of it. They walked back through the doors, which opened at a flash of Royston’s tattoo and, following Talan’s brilliant suggestion, went straight to the nearest pub.
         Royston took a gulp of the new, frothy beer the bartender brought after clinking it dissolutely with Talan’s. The American really wasn’t so bad. The accent, of course, was ridiculous and he had no concept of proper manners, but he did know how to shut up and drink a beer. It was a talent, Royston realized after weeks with Shafer, that not every man possessed.
         “Now what?” Talan asked finally, eyeing the telly in the corner as though he cared about the football match.
         “Well my mobile’s in the pit of the bloody silver pyramid where we were supposed to go and Crowley hasn’t tracked me down yet, so for now, we wait. I’m sure someone’ll turn up to claim me,” Royston said glumly.
         “How can they find you?” Talan turned away from the match, his blonde eyebrows shooting towards his hairline.
         Royston rolled up his sleeve—on the non-tattooed arm—and pointed to the tiny lump just above the crook of his elbow.
         “Tracking device. They can find me anytime, anywhere,” he grinned and swallowed another mouthful of beer.
         “Jesus,” Talan said, impressed. “Did they do that when they decided you were…y’know, him?”
         “No, mate. I’ve had this since I was nineteen, since they first offered me a post. They take their employees seriously, they do.”
         “They should, considering how much it costs to replace one of you,” a new voice interrupted their murmured conversation and both men froze.
         A blonde, Slavic-featured young woman slid herself into the stool next to Royston. She wore a black suit and her shapely legs were covered in black hose. Even Royston could tell it was expensive. A wiff of her perfume floated past him as she caught the bartender’s attention and ordered an extra-dirty martini.
         “Excuse me, miss,” Royston began.
         “It’s Elsa. Elsa Obrecht.”
         Royston blanched. Talan regarded Elsa with undisguised admiration.
         “I see you’ve heard of me,” her red lips curved in a smile and she took a sip of her martini, eyes focused on Royston.
         “I don’t b’lieve I’ve had the pleasure,” the American shouldered Royston to the side as he eagerly reached across him to shake Elsa’s hand.
         “Talan Davies, yes, I know who you are, too,” Elsa delicately took his hand in the briefest possible handshake.
         Talan looked pleased rather than otherwise and Royston dug his elbow into the beefy man’s side before he knocked Royston off his stool.
         “What’re you doing here?” he asked, scooting away from Elsa.
         “I know the Council has been making one mistake after the other and that you’re the fourth al’Uttarak they’ve declared in fifty years. The Firm is…displeased,” Elsa fished an olive out of her martini and rolled it between two scarlet-tipped fingers.
         “Bloody hell,” Royston said faintly.
         Talan jogged his elbow, demanding an explanation. Royston shoved the man back, waving at him to be silent. Had he thought the man wasn’t so bad after all? Wrong. He was an interfering prat.
         “There’s a certain…asset they are rather desperate to get their hands on. They think he can help unravel some of the tangles the Council has put in our plans. He may even be able to confirm whether or not you are the real al’Uttarak, or just another mis-read prophecy,” she smirked.
         “And this bloke, the Firm wants us to find him?” Royston asked, grasping for any crumb that might save him.
         “Oh, we know where he is,” she examined the olive before popping it into her mouth. “But a previous mission to…persuade him to partner with us did not go as planned.”
         “Who is he? The bloody President of the United States?” Royston ignored Talan’s grunt of disapproval.
         “He’s a vampire–” Elsa began.
         “Oh sod off. You come in here, interrupt me and my mate having a well-deserved pint and then say you want us to convince a bleeding mythological creature to partner with the Firm?” Royston laughed. “This is complete bollocks.”
         “You don’t believe in vampires?” Elsa raised one perfectly groomed brow.
         Royston’s laugh faded.
         “You’re not…you’re bloody serious? This is….oh sod it,” Royston put his head down on the sticky bar.
         “This particular vampire, Fritz, has the unique ability to read emotions, and, we believe, auras,” Elsa continued.
         “What does that mean, exactly?” Talan asked, his voice unsteady. “What’s an aura?”
         “Auras are like halos of light and color around people—not everyone can see them, and very few people can interpret them. We believe Fritz can. And, if he can, he can tell if Mr. Humphreys here is the real al’Uttarak or not.”
         Royston lifted his head and drained the rest of his beer, staring at the back of the bar as though facing a firing squad. He could feel Talan and Elsa’s eyes on him as he wiped his mouth on the back of his hand; Talan’s mouth hung open slightly. Royston closed his eyes for a moment and then turned to Elsa, resignedly.
         “Well, looks like we bloody better find this vampire then. What do we need to do?”
         Elsa tossed back her martini and smiled.

Showdown Part II

Sometimes you have to take a gamble and just roll the dice…see how Evie and Owen got here by catching up on the story thus far.

“When you’re facing a loaded gun, what’s the difference?” Frank Costello, The Departed

To Evie’s dismay, Edgar kept the gun jammed into her lower back, pressing his other hand to his face.

“Don’t you move, don’t you even move you little–Jessamy, you just gonna sit there?” Edgar’s voice was thick from the blood running down over his face.

Vanessa sat on the ground, her hands clasped to the back of her head, her face twisted in a grimace of pain. Owen had her gun casually leveled at the back of the dark head. His grey eyes were hard. Evie didn’t think he would actually shoot Vanessa but she could tell from the woman’s wild eyes that Vanessa wasn’t so sure. Edgar breathed heavily, spewing insults and curses as he tried to wipe the blood off his face. Evie thought about making a run for it, but if Edgar was a half-decent shot, he could put a bullet in her before she’d gone too far. Some of his blood dripped onto her shoulder as he wrapped his arm across her chest, jerking her closer.

“Edgar…” Vanessa’s voice trailed off as she looked pleadingly up at him.
Owen pressed the barrel of the gun into her dark hair and looked at Edgar, eyebrows raised.

“You think I give a damn about her?” Edgar’s laugh was ugly, and blood sprayed from his mouth.

Evie hoped she at least knocked a few teeth loose, too. She could smell the coppery blood and the sweat that ran down Edgar’s face. She pulled her arms in close to her body, wondering if she could drive her elbows back into his chest hard enough to knock him down. Owen gave a slight jerk of his chin when she looked up at him and it took everything in her to stand still.

“No, no, Edgar, I don’t. I don’t think you care ’bout anyone other than yourself,” Owen said.
“And why should I? Look at these three, women and a whelp of a boy. They’re no good to us. You and me though, Owen. We could catch that little plane of yours and be out of here with no more troubles.
“You’re right, Edgar. We could.”
Owen raised the gun and Evie could see the black eye of the barrel staring back at her.

Her ears rang and she lifted a shaking hand to her face—it came away red. Edgar hit the stage like a sack of rotting vegetables, half his scalp blown away. Evie turned, still holding up her bloody fingers and saw Owen standing with a pistol still pointing towards Edgar’s body. It wasn’t one of the ones he usually carried—his holster still lay in the mess of his bedding—it must be one he kept hidden. She felt cold, except for the spray of Edgar’s blood that ran down her forehead and cheek. She vaguely noticed movement at her side and someone thrust a bandanna into her hands: Jessamy. He stepped over Edgar’s body as though it was no more than a pile of clothes and put a hand on her shoulder.
When she made no move to use the bandanna, he reached to extract it from her trembling fingers. Owen appeared, handing his and Vanessa’s gun to Jessamy.

Vanessa still knelt on the stage, her face white and frozen. Owen gently tugged the bandanna from her hands and slowly began to wipe away the blood spatter from her face. She realized her teeth were chattering when Owen grabbed her chin and turned her face towards him.

“You okay?” he mouthed.
Evie nodded, unable to hear him clearly, but reading the question in his eyes.

Evie remembered the first time they met. She was walking along a lonely stretch of the interstate with no clear destination in mind, she ignored the chilly wind that blew the swamp smells of mud and decay in twirling tornadoes of leaves and debris. She shoved her hands deeper in the pockets of her worn, second-hand jacket as a truck roared by. The brake lights flashed red as the truck slowed and pulled over onto the shoulder. She slowed her pace, pulling her hand out of her pocket to feel for the knife that hung from her belt. Maybe he thought he had a flat or ran out of gas. No one emerged from the car and she hesitated; the driver stuck his head out the window and gestured to her. She loosened the knife and peered through the back window of the old Ford. He was alone. She walked to the passenger side of the car and he rolled down that window, too.

They looked at each other for a minute. She stared flatly at him, aware of the yellowing bruise around one eye and the blood that still caked her nose and lips. She hadn’t taken the time to clean up.

“You okay?” he asked.
For some reason, the familiar Louisiana drawl put her at ease. He was a local, too. She shrugged and waited.
“Heading somewhere in particular?”
“Not really. You?” she resisted the urge to scrub at the blood on her face and leaned warily against the door.
“Not really. Heard there’s a bar up the road that doesn’t care what you’re wearing,” he laughed.

Evie eyed him. He wore a faded blue flannel shirt and dirt streaked his tanned face. She judged him to be a few years older than her—by the dark scruff on his jaw and the beginnings of lines around his gray eyes. She couldn’t deny he was good looking–one of the best looking men she’d seen. He smiled again as he let her look him over and his teeth were white and straight. No one back in the park had teeth like that.

“You talking about Thad’s?” she asked jerking her head up the road.
“Yeah, you know it?” his dark brows rose and she smirked as she saw him trying to calculate her age.
“There are a lot of things Thad doesn’t care about,” she said as she opened the door and slid into the seat.

Check out Ray Devlin’s page for more beautiful photography.

Showdown Part I

There are some words you just can’t take back. Catch up on the story here.

         “Wife?” Vanessa looked back and forth between the two.
         Evie resisted the urge to slap the expression off Owen’s face; his mouth was still hanging open like a hooked fish. She squared her shoulders and took a deep breath calling herself every name she could think of and making up a few. Well, it was out there and there was no taking it back. She was glad Edgar at least seemed to be ignoring them. Jessamy slouched near the fire, taking in every word.
         “Yeah, how many years has it been, honey?” she crossed her arms over her chest, only then aware that her hands were shaking.
         Vanessa looked pointedly at Owen; he still stared at Evie, but he’d closed his mouth.
         “He never could remember the little things,” Evie cocked her head as she met his gray eyes. “Our anniversary, my birthday, not to sleep with other women.”
         She was pleased to see him flinch.
         “Evie, I never–”
         “Now, Owen, love,” she mimicked his drawl. “I’m sure you didn’t mean it, didya? Although, she sure seems to think you did.”
         “You listen, here,” Vanessa closed the gap between them, using the advantage of her height to stand over Evie. “I won’t have you talk about me like that.”
         “No, you listen. I don’t know how they do things out in California, but back home, if some woman sleeps with your man—no matter how much or how little you care about him—there’s no sitting back and ignoring that, sugar,” Evie stuck out her chin.
         Vanessa was tall, but Evie knew she was soft—she didn’t grow up fighting the swamps and her daddy. She wondered how much of that Vanessa saw in her eyes, because the taller woman stepped back.
         “We—that is, I—nothing ever happened,” Vanessa’s voice rose in a desperate whine. “I met Owen at a bar in New Orleans when I was down there working as an extra on a film. We talked and had a few drinks, some laughs…” she trailed off, looking back over her shoulder at Owen.
         “Is that right, Owen? Met her at a bar, is that how it happened?” Evie turned away in disgust—but she was stopped by a steely grasp on her arm and the cold, hard circle of a gun-barrel in her back.
         Edgar pulled her tight against him, his breath hot on her ear. She could smell his breath, the foulness that could not be disguised by the watered down coffee.
         “So, Evie is it?” He murmured against her cheek. “I don’t think you’ll be wanting to move any further.”
         Owen grunted and Evie tried to turn her head. To her surprise Edgar let her. Vanessa was standing next to him, a gun of her own leveled at his belly.
         “Now,” Edgar said conversationally, “Why don’t you tell us about this little plane of yours or we’ll kill your husband there.”
         Owen laughed and Vanessa shoved the gun harder into his side.
         “You think threatening me will make her talk?” his laugh was more of a cough as the barrel jabbed him again. “She hates me, if it weren’t for the damned stumblers, she would have divorced me five times over. Besides, if you kill me, my man will never let you on the plane.”
         “How’s about if we kill ‘er then?” Edgar’s voice was caressing and the gun barrel dug into her spine. “There’s some other things I wouldn’t mind doing to your sweet’eart here…we could make you watch.”
         Owen shrugged, “She’s been a pain in my ass for every single one of the ten years I’ve known her. Not to mention the four we’ve been married.”
         Evie held her breath for a moment. Despite her jab earlier about Owen never remembering their anniversary–which was true–he never forgot how long they’d been married. Five years, last time she checked. She caught his eye and one eyelid flickered in the barest wink. She tried to relax in Edgar’s grip, to let him think all the fight had gone out of her. The shudder than ran over her at his threat was one hundred percent genuine. She wondered if the friendly script writer from England was all an act or if the threatening man that held her was the charade. No use guessing. She let her knees go loose for a moment, as though she was about to faint and Edgar wrenched her upright again.
         “None of that now, missy. Looks like we have ourselves a bit of an impasse, here. You won’t tell us how to get to your plane and we won’t let you two go until someone opens up.”
         Not for the first time, Evie wished she had a little more height. The top of her head just brushed Edgar’s chin when he stood straight, but, just her luck, he was leaning in again and she swore she felt the dampness of his tongue against her cheek. In a move she’d used against an older, drunker man many times before, Evie jerked her head up and back. She felt the satisfying crunch as her skull hit Edgar’s nose.

Trouble Part II

Vegas, no longer the rich golden oasis in the desert, is starting to wear on Evie—or maybe it’s the new company they keep. For the story up until now, go here.

         Edgar chatted as they prepared breakfast–he even had a battered coffee can and some instant coffee that he brewed over the little fire. They added more scraps of wood and paper, but there wasn’t much left. Evie eyed the flare gun tucked in the side of Owen’s pack. They were supposed to use that to signal Greg. If he came back. Vanessa, Evie noted, looked worse for her night on the floor. Her dark hair was tangled and her full lips were pinched. She refused any of the coffee and stayed wrapped in her blankets, staring morosely at the fire.
         “Sleep okay, Van?” Evie asked brightly, savoring the gritty cup of coffee like it was fresh from the corner Starbucks.
         “Not really…E,” Vanessa’s eyes darkened and she refused to meet Evie’s gaze.
         “Maybe it was the snoring. Owen always snores when he doesn’t sleep on his side,” she smiled at her. “But then, you probably knew that.”
         Owen took a gulp from his can of coffee and swore when he burned his tongue. His eyes were red and there was a tighness around them that she recognized as signs of a headache. She knew he would be regretting finishing the rum before the day was out. Jessamy kept his head down, eating his soggy instant oatmeal with no comment to anyone else. Evie downed her portion as quickly as she could with a grimace. She hated oatmeal.
         “…so we’ve been trying to make it up to Reno, where we hear there’s some sort of out post, but, I’ll tell you, it’s been a bloody time trying to make it there,” Edgar was talking to Owen now.
         He didn’t appear to be listening, his dark eyes were half shut and there was almost a pallor to his bronze skin.
         “Reno?” Evie asked. “You really think there’s anything up there?”
         “It’s what we heard,” Edgar shrugged turning to her. “Where are you two headed, anyhow?”
         “We were making for California before we heard there’s nothing left,” Evie answered, afraid Owen might reveal they shared a destination.
         “I never saw anything like it,” Edgar shook his head. “Everything was overrun. There were…bodies everywhere.”
         Vanessa shuddered and pulled her coat over her shoulders. Jessamy’s can of coffee hung from his long fingers and his eyes were unfocused.
         “New Orleans was like that,” Owen said, his voice gravelly. “The streets were full of tweakers and dead bodies and drunks who had no idea what was happening–still. All the major cities—I don’t know if Reno will be any better.”
         “It has to be,” Vanessa said somewhat desperately. “You said your friend has a plane, that he’s coming back.”
         Evie made an involuntary move of protest, the Cessna originally sat six, but with the wear and tear and lack of fuel—she was worried it wasn’t going to make it off the ground again with three.
         “What?” Vanessa turned on her. “You’re gonna take that plane and fly up to Reno and leave us to walk? You little bitch,” she leaned forward, her eyes full of hatred. “Who are you to make those decisions?” She hooked a thumb at Owen. “It’s his friend and his plane. What is a skinny little piece of trailer trash like you going to do? There’s three of us and one of you.”
         “Now, Vanessa–” Edgar said in a soothing tone.
         “It’s his friend’s plane and I’m his goddamn wife,” E said, standing up so fast she almost spilled her coffee all over the fragile fire. “And I’ve taken down twenty tweakers myself before, and they’re a sight smarter than you, so I’d say the odds are pretty damn even.”
         Vanessa blinked as though Evie slapped her and Evie realized that she was breathing like she’d run five miles through the swamp back home pursued by a pack of stumblers. Edgar pointedly began stirring the coffee and Owen gaped at her. She realized what she said and felt her ears heat. Well, she thought, it’s technically still true .