Welcome to Flash Pulp, episode one hundred and ninety-one.
This week’s episodes are brought to you by The Shrinking Man Project.
Flash Pulp is an experiment in broadcasting fresh pulp stories in the modern age – three to ten minutes of fiction brought to you Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings.
Tonight, Harm Carter tries his hand at grand theft auto.
Flash Pulp 191 – The Murder Plague: Open Hours, Part 2 of 3
As we retreated to the relative safety of the trees, to try and find a reasonably comfortable patch of dirt to camp on before the light of the sun had fully abandoned us, I began to feel as if something was amiss – I thought it might be a wafting undertone on the breeze, or possibly just the aftershock of watching a fourteen year old stomp a grown man to death, but I was wrong on both counts.
We slept fitfully, and rose eager to claim a vehicle.
The first car alarm we tripped was the tensest moment of the morning. We must have disturbed a dozen more during our search, but, after the initial squawk, the lack of response gave us the confidence to quicken our pace – and, frankly, to begin to behave stupidly.
Here’s what it boiled down to: you’re facing the door of a Dodge Grand Caravan. Is it locked? Well then smash the window with your trusty truncheon – I was using the butt of my unloaded pistol, which had largely only been an unpleasant souvenir up until that point. Is there a key under the floor mats? How about on top of the sunscreens? Are there some snacks in the glove compartment, or candy in the cup-holders? Great, search complete – now, choke down your sense of disappointment and move on to the next one.
The only interruptions in the process came when occasional speeding travelers would enter from the west and exit to the east, never slowing in their progress along the highway.
Given their consistency, following their lead seemed a safe bet once we finally found a conveyance.
My theory was that it would be better to start near the meth-head’s body, and work our way towards the store. We wouldn’t have to approach the corpse after a long day in the hot sun, and it would also give Minnie a chance to forget her recent ordeal by throwing herself into the hunt.
It was probably with that thought in mind that I kept myself from scolding Newton when he started to mess about, eventually setting the girl in one of the blue shopping carts and wheeling her in wide circles around the pavement.
In truth, it was good to hear her laugh.
By noon we’d run out of windows to smash, and had taken up seating on the Walmart’s curb, with bagged fertilizer, outdoor furniture, and tacky lawn ornamentation to our left, and silent Coke machines to our right.
“Well, we may not have a ride yet, but there’s got to still be plenty to eat on the shelves,” said Newton. “Lots of daylight too, so hopefully we’ll be able to see all right. I call dibs on all the Pringles.”
I’d been surprised by how intact the storefront had remained, and it seemed to promise sugary riches within. I also had it in my head that we might locate a few bicycles, but I was weighing the pros and cons of the idea, and didn’t want to mention it yet.
Instead, I said, “before we consider any sort of junk food haze, we ought to finish searching the outside. There may be some sort of employee parking around back.”
Newton licked his lips.
“Great, but let’s move it along OK?” he replied, jumping up.
His meaty hands wrapped about the steering bar of his cart of choice.
“Your chariot awaits, madam,” he said.
Minnie smiled, and allowed herself to be lifted into the buggy. As he set her down, the man’s thick arms made her appear even younger than she was.
“You go towards the highway, and we’ll take the side closer to the trees,” he told me, and, before I could respond, they were off.
Figuring he was hankering for a meal, and with the bedding department somewhat in my own mind, I returned to prowling.
It was one of the few times I’d been alone since leaving my burning home.
To my left was a fence, and, on the far side, the ditch that ringed the property. Beyond that lay a stretch of yellow-grassed turf, then the gravel shoulder of the highway. I was anxious to be on that road, but less so to be seen by anyone who might happen to be passing down it while I was so plainly visible.
My sense that something was off reached a peak while I crept along the grey wall, and, as I came to the shop’s rear, I realized exactly what the source of my agitation was: An engine sound, on the roof of the building, which had been largely muffled by its position beside a metallic stack of inert air-conditioning units.
I immediately guessed it as a generator.
Better yet, my new view gave me an idea on how the thing was being powered – a large transport truck was backed partially into one of the loading bays, and sealed in with a crust of Mad Max-style fortifications. Un-constructed entertainment units, computer desks, and flat-panel televisions had all been salvaged for the task – the gaps were even sealed with re-purposed plush animals.
It didn’t strike me as the work of a single person – and, if it was, it seemed too ill defended to be built by one of the paranoid infected. I would have expected barb wire, or a limb-removing booby-trap.
A stuffed monkey grinned at me cheekily from the tallest portion of the barricade, and I returned his smirk.
Excited to share my discovery with my traveling companions, I rounded the next corner.
There, lying beside his upturned cart, was Newton. His neck looked as if it had been assaulted by pack of wild ferrets, the obvious work of an amateur butcher with a short, blunt, blade.
Stooping, I closed his dull eyes. I owed him that much, at least, for bringing the greyhound to our rescue.
Where was Minnie? Snatched by an unknown assailant? Or had she committed the act?
Was she infected?
I found myself afloat on a sea of questions, with no sign of hard answers to land upon – so I simply kept moving.
Unsure of my objective, but feeling like I couldn’t just abandon the girl to a terrible fate, I followed the dollops of blood that moved steadily away from the deceased strongman.
They marched directly to the building’s main entrance. I made efforts at stealth as I attempted to peer through the glass, at what might lie beyond, but as soon as I moved within range of the sensor, the automatic portal swept wide, revealing Minnie within.
She stood at the center of the vestibule, with her right-forearm bloody, and the pilfered knife still in her hand. Through her tears, she screamed at me.
“I had to! He tried – he -”
Her explanation was cut short by a hiss, as the interior door also slid open.
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