Welcome to Flash Pulp, episode one hundred and ninety-two.
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 discovers the truth regarding the interior of an apparently occupied former place of commerce.
Flash Pulp 192 – The Murder Plague: Open Hours, Part 3 of 3
My left leg demanded I back out of the doorway, but my right insisted that I lunge for the girl in an attempt to save her from whatever lurked in the store’s interior. While I was still mediating, most of my decisions were made for me.
A pair of retirees stepped forward with hunting rifles at the ready.
“There’s only two of them,” Grandma said over her shoulder. While she launched into a stage-whispered argument with someone beyond my line of sight, her partner indicated that I ought to move closer to Minnie, and out of range of the entrance’s sensor.
I complied, although I must admit that I was keeping an eye on the teen’s knife-hand.
“Where’s the other?” asked Grandpa, waggling his barrel with practiced insistence. Given his stance, I guessed he was, at some point in his past, a fellow graduate of Uncle Sam’s two-booted finishing school.
“Well, that’s a complicated question,” I replied, trying for a tone several notches in tension below his own. “He’s dead – I left him moments ago, around the corner, with a fairly large hole in his neck. Now, while I realize that does not immediately bode well for my companion here, I should say, in her defense, that she’s never appeared infected, and that she’s under quite a lot of stress lately.”
The rifleman harrumphed. “Haven’t we all?”
With a gasp, Minnie took in a double lungful of air, preparing, I thought, for a protracted scream.
She did not.
“Listen,” she said, turning on me. “I appreciate that you’re trying to help, but I did not leave a mother####er dead in this parking lot because I’m “under quite a lot of stress”. That grabby bastard went for my zipper as soon as you were out of sight. I’m not sick, and I’m not just in a ####ty mood. It could have happened while I’d been riding a rainbow unicorn in Candy Land and I’d have done the same thing over – twice.”
She realized, then, that she was punctuating her remarks with thrusts of her still bloody blade.
Neither Gramps, nor I, could muster a reply.
“Come here, hun,” said the silver-haired woman, shouldering her weapon and wrapping an arm around the girl.
They disappeared into the dim interior of the store, and I followed.
Behind our greeters stood a second line of defenders, a motley bunch awkwardly holding looted wares from the sporting goods department. They seemed relieved to be able to lower their armament unfired.
The massive open space had been transformed into a small, covered, shanty town. Most of the racks were re-purposed into makeshift tents, their skins a collage of pinned together t-shirts and sweaters; or billowing layered sheeting; or taut plastic tarps.
From beneath many peered the eyes of children, or the occasional mutt.
I couldn’t help but notice that, even if he’d slung his gun, Pappy was sticking close.
“Am I wrong in thinking you spent a little time overseas?” I asked him, figuring I’d rather be chaperoned by an acquaintance.
“What’d they discharge you at?”
“Why’d you stay home?”
Given his apparent agitation over discussing personal topics, I decided to change my approach.
“You keep pets?”
“The uh, odour in here isn’t exactly an ocean breeze, but it’s not an internment camp either – and yet, I didn’t notice any dogs wandering the lot, how do you, uh, keep it so tidy?”
“We let ‘em squat in a corner of the maintenance area, then bag it and collect it on the roof. Actually, we use it as part of our SOS for passing planes and helicopters. There’s a herd of cats in the back, nearly feral now I guess. We don’t see ‘em much, but we got a place we pile the litter deep – helps keep the smell down.”
“So,” I said, motioning towards his compatriot, whose arm was still draped over Minnie, “where are we headed?”
“The maintenance area,” he replied, “if we’ve got to shoot you, we’d rather the mess all in one place.”
“Oh. Do you think that sort of thing will be necessary, then?”
“Not my call. There’ll be a vote.”
Pushing through a set of swinging double doors, we came to a semi-circle of folding chairs, set on the barren concrete of the stockroom.
A half dozen faces observed our entry, and they didn’t appear friendly.
They wanted an explanation of our presence, and I gave an overview of our adventures, with occasional interjections from Minnie. I was careful to throw the weight of my opinion behind the girl’s account of her crimson state, but I must confess: although I suspected she was healthy, I couldn’t be sure. I did realize, however, that if the inquisition thought her infected, it would put my own state under heavy suspicion.
Once we’d satisfied their historical questions, a slight faced man with a wreath of short hair ringing his bald pate asked, “So, what are your intentions?”
Without hesitating, I laid out my plan.
“Well, if you’re agreeable, I’d like to get a hold of the keys to that transport outside, and maybe a fill up before I go, if you don’t mind. From what I can glean you’re looking for rescue, but Uncle Sam helps those who help themselves. Detach the truck and let me drive it out of here – I’ll ride it straight to the blockade, and my first priority will be to get a helicopter out here to pick everyone up.”
It was a long shot, but even if I had to settle for staying a while, it was my thinking that at least I’d have planted the seed. I couldn’t have planned what happened next.
Mr Baldy stood.
“Carter, you always were an aloof bugger. It doesn’t sound like you’ve gone any more off your rock than usual, though.”
I had to squint to recognize him in his unshaven state, but it dawned on me that this man had once been my neighbour – the previous time I’d seen him, he was fleeing his home, even while I attempted to save my own from burning. We’d never exchanged words, and, frankly, after our last encounter, I’d rather suspected he’d murdered his family.
“We’ve known for a while that someone would have to go. We pushed the crazies out once, but we can’t risk their return – or worse yet, infection running through the store – and the shelves are getting emptier every day. To be sure he doesn’t forget his obligations, and to increase his odds, I’ll go with him.”
The group murmured consent, some going so far as to reach out and touch his hands in thanks.
“The sooner off, the better,” I said, afraid any delay might lead to a sudden change of minds, or a call for a more trusted driver.
Minnie cleared her throat.
“I’d like to stay,” she said, pointedly not looking at me. “I’ll try to find a way to earn my keep – I’m good with animals, so maybe I can help with the cats somehow.”
I won’t lie, I felt a pang at the turn.
As the gathered debated, she faced me, to explain.
“You’ve been nice, but there’s safety in numbers – and, well, after you left me with Newton… I’m not sure you’re the best travel buddy.”
Before I could come up with a response, the small council came to a decision.
“Fine,” said Mr Baldy.
They’d already prepared supplies, in case of an emergency evacuation, and we were on the road within an hour.
With a bit of experimentation in moving, then replacing, the burnt van-husks that acted as corks to the parking lot’s exit lanes, I was feeling much more confident in my admittedly rusty rig-wrangling skills, and it was some consolation to my wounded ego to see Minnie wipe away a tear as we hugged our goodbyes.
I couldn’t know then how well the girl would actually make out, and, I must say, as we departed, I felt some concern that I may have just left an infected killer amidst a gaggle of strangers, or a vulnerable teen amongst an unfamiliar horde.
Still, as my babysitter and I accelerated, it was difficult to argue with the pull of the engine, the blue sky, and the speeds achievable on the open stretches of deserted highway.
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