by William Knight
Darkness chased the storm clouds on the eastern horizon, obscuring the fractured land below.
The carbonized plastic stock rested coolly against Codman’s cheek, finding its marshal niche through familiarity with deeds done in the name of waning patriotism.
He listened contentedly to the sounds of the deserted market—the snap of a plastic bag entangled on a rusty fence, the permutations of rain water sluicing through the sewer grates. Even the spectral caw of a crow had an odd sort of poetic beauty about it.
He found the eerie desolation comforting. Away from Langan and his constant complaining, he found his center, a dimension inhabited only by his senses.
Through the scope, he saw movement. A slight flutter of cloth, an opalescence betraying the shadows. He felt his stomach clench in excitement. It had been many weeks since he’d had a target, maybe months.
His hands were clammy and he had to force his heart rate to slow, to become the hunter.
The riven steel frames jutted from the scaly earth, casting long shadows over his quarry. It would be a difficult shot, but not impossible.
He took a deep breath, centered the collimated reticules on the rippling shadows. The myriad noises in the market, so beautiful in his seclusion, were now voluminous, desperate to impose upon his harmony, to disrupt his shot.
With great difficulty he blocked them out, focused on the rhythmic exhalations of his breath.
He adjusted his sights. Three hundred thirty meters. Well within range.
He gripped the trigger lightly with his index finger, held his breath.
At the last moment, his quarry slipped into a divulging light beam. The infrared reticules found harbor on the man’s chest.
Codman squeezed the trigger, felt the familiar exhilaration as his optically enhanced vision disintegrated into a rainbow of crimson.
The crows retreated in a mad riot, the fluttering of their wings overpowering the fading resonance of the gunshot.
All was silence in the market.
He smiled, remained hidden. The man might not have been alone.
All was silence. He waited, triumphant in his ignorance, as the sky opened and the rain washed his victim’s blood off the pavement and into the overflowing gutter.
He waited, the hesitant smile giving way to weary indifference, and the hollow cavity in his chest widened, became a throbbing ache demanding attention.
Soon the crows returned with bleating remonstrance. In his mind, he began to wonder: did the crows appreciate his offering on the bloodied mantle of warfare, or did they castigate him for his tenacious zealotry?
* * *
“Botulism, eh? You prick! You must think I’m stupid,” Langan said, chucking the can of tomato soup across the room.
Codman gave him a noncommittal shrug.
Langan stood, placed his spindly fingers on his hips. “Well?”
He sighed and walked to the bakery’s small window. Sunlight broke across the back of Whim Creek’s downtown district, imbued the dilapidated brownstones with a fiery glow.
Langan stomped his foot on the moldering floorboards, releasing a plume of tangy black-dust into the already stagnant air. “You better explain yourself, Fish.”
He turned. “I wasn’t forcing you to eat it, Langan. In case you haven’t noticed, our provisions have been a little low of late.”
“Yeah, I’ve been meaning to ask you about that.” He walked over to the small cabinet that served as their larder and ripped open the door. “I’m sick of eating this waxy tasting just. You must think I’m an idiot.”
He took the high road and didn’t respond.
“I know you’ve been hoarding food. Probably rad-pills, too.”
Codman slumped into a fusty armchair and studied his comrade-in-arms. Langan had been letting himself go of late. His hair was getting long, the silvered ringlets framing his narrow face with slovenly impertinence. His once bright blue eyes had faded to the color of the twilight sky and were liberally tinged with choppy yellow.
“I’m not holding out on you. It’s hard to scavenge a picked over corpse. If you ended this self-imposed hermitage of yours, you’d realize that.”
Langan’s face turned beet red. He clenched his knobby fingers into a loose approximation of a fist. “I pull my weight around here.”
“I know, I know. Look . . .” Codman picked up the discarded can and pried open the rusty top with his combat knife. He drained the revolting contents in one shuddery gulp. “See?”
Langan looked unconvinced, but at least it served to end the pointless, one-sided bickering.
He situated himself at a rust-mottled desk, shooting Codman one last contemptuous look before pulling on a pair of nicked spectacles.
“I got one of the Thin Man’s spies, today,” Codman said, hoping to switch the conversation onto a less turbulent path.
Langan didn’t look up from his tinkering. “Yeah, good for you.”
He sighed. “I thought you’d be happy. It’s my first credited kill in a couple months.”
Langan laughed derisively. “Couple months, eh? Try a year.”
“A year? Has it really been that long?”
Langan glanced at him over the top of his glasses. “Give or take a couple weeks. Time tends to lose its imperativeness after the apocalypse. Besides, how do you know the Thin Man sent them?”
“I just know. Why else would they be in our sector?”
“You just don’t get it, Codman,” said Langan, shaking his head with theatrical disappointment. “We’ve been fighting for seven years. Don’t you think the lines tend to blur after a while?”
Codman blinked in confusion. He hated it when Langan spoke in riddles. The man had gotten more and more obscure as the years plodded by on their meandering course.
“I don’t understand.” He finally admitted. I don’t really care; he kept to himself in the interest of diplomacy.
“This is a miserable world we find ourselves in, Fish. Maybe it’s time we stopped treating Upstate New York like a warzone and got down to the business of rebuilding.” Langan pressed his smudged glasses fiercely up the narrow bridge of his nose and sucked in a noisy, wet-sounding breath. Usually a sign that he was about to expound. Codman sighed inwardly and braced himself for the wave of pedantry to follow. “Let me ask you a question. Before the bombs fell, what was your occupation?”
Codman scratched his chin and stared up at the leaky and fissured concrete ceiling, hoping to look introspective. In truth he was trying to buy himself some time. He hated traipsing into the past. It was poisonous and unproductive and a sure-fire way to throw a campaigning soldier into an intractable malaise. “I was a cook,” he said at last, keeping the details threadbare.
Langan smiled and set down his current project, which looked to Codman like some sort of modified car-bomb. “A cook? Plodding through life, slinging hash and deep-frying customers their processed heart attacks?”
It was a rather denuded and belligerent description of his pre-Armageddon occupation, but he nodded nonetheless.
“And now, you’re what? A valued asset for the long defunct federal government? A sniper protecting Upstate New York from the red menace? From seditious domestic threats?”
“I guess . . .”
Langan clapped his sinewy hands together. “See? There you go, from a small town Podunk cook, to a soldier press ganged into fighting a war of attrition.”
He had the feeling Langan was poking fun at him, but lacked the energy to care. His apathy precipitated the following comment: “I see your point, Langan.”
Langan gave him a world-weary sigh. “I hope so, Fish. Maybe the next time you get a victim in your sights, you’ll think twice before shooting.”
* * *
Codman pulled the trigger. The bullet ricocheted off the hull of a rusty discarded steamer trunk with a loud ting.
He cursed. Two targets in as many days, he knew it was too good to be true.
He scanned the market and muttered invectives at the discourteous wind, which had served to throw off his aim. The sun wasn’t helping either. A red disc languishing on the horizon, it turned the gleaming detritus of the marketplace into a scintillating sniper’s nightmare.
A soft noise to his right. Perhaps the shuffling of booted feet? He felt dread worm its way into his chest.
Surely his wayward mark hadn’t tracked the direction of the shot. He quietly slipped out of his perch—a loose conglomeration of shattered masonry and bright red bricks.
The building had once been a fast food restaurant, and a slight odor of grease still permeated the air, though he’d long ago written the smell off as the phantom desires of his body which had been forced into an ascetic lifestyle against its will.
He kept his rifle loose in the crook of his arm and knelt down in the Styrofoam bracken that coated the floor.
Crunch, crunch, crunch.
Now he knew he wasn’t imagining things. He slid up against the ordering counter which had been split in two like a mighty oak under a powerful bolt of lightening. He peered out of the ragged gap.
A bullet sparked off the exposed rebar, sent plaster flying everywhere. He let out a squeak of surprise as one of the flying pebbles cut a long gash under his eye.
Frantically, he jumped to his feet. His only thought: escape. He ran towards the square of sunlight. “Please, please, please,” he said, his voice turning to a shrill whine as he begged for some sort of divine power to intervene and guarantee his escape.
Pain exploded in his shoulder and he fell to his knees, the rifle clattering away.
Through the haze of near incapacitating pain, he heard ominous footsteps approaching.
Sobbing, he scratched and clawed his way toward the exit. Vaguely he heard someone laughing.
“Going somewhere?” a cruel voice asked.
Defeated, he flipped over on his back. A pair of dark eyes in a grime-coated, narrow face stared down at him. She looked young, though it was hard to tell through the soot and the hatred etched on her face. Her coal black hair was tangled and run with thistle. She wore old army fatigues, frayed at the seams. More alarming than her feral appearance, though, was the pistol she held.
“D-don’t shoot,” he said.
“You’re the son of a gun who shot Manwaring, aren’t you?” she asked.
He shook his head, clutching his wounded shoulder. “No, please.”
She gave him an unconvinced chuckle. “If assassins have a god, I suggest you say a prayer to Him or Her.”
She squeezed the trigger. At the exact same moment he kicked out with his foot, landing a blow to her stomach. The bullet went wide, cracking against the dingy linoleum and dusting his cheek with hot gravel.
The girl cried out with alarm, hacking to regain her stolen breath.
Codman dragged himself to his feet and lashed out with his good arm, sending her plummeting to the ground in an unconscious heap.
* * *
“What the hell is that?” Langan asked, jumping to his feet.
Codman bodily threw the girl’s limp body onto the sofa and grimaced. “A prisoner, what do you think? Can you patch up my arm? She shot me.”
Langan’s eyes were wide with bewilderment. “What?”
He pointed to his shoulder. “I’m shot! Snap out of it.”
Langan didn’t move. “What are we going to do with her?”
Codman pulled off his sweaty and blood-soaked tunic. “See if she wants some tea. Interrogate her, moron. See if we can’t suss out a little tactical information on the Thin Man.” He slid into a chair as Langan begrudgingly began to examine his shoulder. “Then we kill her.”
* * *
Codman splashed water onto the girl’s face. She spluttered and her eyes opened, going wide when she realized the gravity of her situation. She started bucking against her restraints and shouting. Somewhere in the midst of her wild diatribe, he thought he heard some wholesome swearwords thrown in for color, but otherwise, it was unintelligible.
Langan paced behind him, his hands on his protuberant hip bones, shaking his head. “This isn’t right,” he said over and over again in a melancholy mantra.
Sensing the futility of her struggle, the girl stopped thrashing and was still, her chest rising and falling as she took in a deep lungful of air. “Let me go.”
Codman shook his head. “Not likely, now is it?”
“Fish, don’t mess with the poor girl, can’t you see she’s scared witless?”
He studied the girl. As if in defiance of Langan’s words, her eyes held a steely resolve—more hatred than its boon companion, fear.
He’d have to change that if he were to have any success loosening her tongue.
He pulled out his recently whetted combat knife and lazily traced it along her thigh to the renewed muttering of the spineless Langan. To the girl’s credit, she barely flinched.
“Now . . . what do we call you?” he asked.
She didn’t answer.
“What’s your mission?”
The girl pretended confusion. “My what?”
“Your mission. Why’d the Thin Man send you?”
Codman rapped her on the forehead with the blade. “Don’t play coy, missy. That won’t fly here.”
“I’m not playing ‘coy.’ I honestly have no idea what you’re talking about.” She glanced around the derelict bakery with obvious disdain. “Is this some sort of joke?” She tilted her head forward convivially and flashed a white-toothed smile. “What are you guys? Cannibals? Religious fanatics?”
He took umbrage with her mocking tone. “We’re members of the Ontario County Brigade. Northern District.”
She looked up at the ceiling and laughed. “Oh, no. Not Militia. You guys are the worst extremists of them all. I’d rather face a horde of mutated cannibals. At least they have a singular objective; not one bogged down in fascist rhetoric.”
“Shut up,” he said, glaring at his supposed comrade. “As for you,” he said, turning back to the girl. “You better start making sense or I turn your face into a pin cushion. Got me?” He brandished the knife exaggeratedly, in case she needed further encouragement.
Her face turned serious. “Fine, fine.”
“That’s more like it.”
* * *
The sun was a dying ember in the western sky, swiftly banking behind the distant mountains, as if it personally resented his company.
“She doesn’t know anything, Fish.”
“I’m starting to figure that out, Langan.” Codman let annoyance seep thick into his tone. He wasn’t in a talking mood, and the man was a constant burr on his reverie. Usually when he came to the roof of the bakery, Langan got the message: Leave me alone. But today he’d apparently chosen to ignore that unspoken ward.
Langan dejectedly stuck his hands in his pockets. “So, what do we do now?”
“I don’t know.” He stared out at the rundown skyline of Whim Creek. The town was under a heavy film of gloom, like he was looking at it through a pane of dirty glass. The occluded sky was rife with electrical malfeasance, causing the hairs on his arms to stand on end. “We can’t let her go. I killed her friend.” He laughed humorlessly. “She’s bound to hold it against me.”
Langan kicked a random stone churlishly. “We’re not going to kill her,” he said. “We’re soldiers, not executioners.”
He rolled his eyes. “I suppose, you’re right. Still, I don’t like the idea of having my throat slit in the middle of the night. Best to just send her on her way.”
“Best. Look, you’re going to need some antibiotics for that arm.”
Codman tenderly moved his arm, mumbling about Langan’s hatchet job. It was braced with dirty cloth.
“We’re out. Remember what happened to Casper?”
He laughed. “Yeah.” Casper was currently immortalized in the form of a brackish stain on the floorboards near the bakeries long dormant ovens. He’d been shot in the leg; the wound had turned gangrenous, issuing a sickish green puss along with a nasty smell. Casper had done them all a favor.
“It’s not funny, Fish.” Time for Langan’s self-righteous chastisement. Maybe he deserved it, though. “I’ve heard of callous, but come on!”
* * *
The hospital was a sturdy brick affair, with peeling gable shutters and moss eaten whitewash.
Codman approached it cautiously, keeping the rifle pegged to his good shoulder. He hated coming here. When the bombs had hit, people had lined up at the hospital expecting to be treated for chemical burns and radiation poisoning. However, the bombs were indiscriminate, striking down the medical professionals along with the people who looked to them as saviors.
Now, the hospital served as a tomb for hundreds upon hundreds of the desiccated condemned.
Codman picked his way carefully through the shattered front door, nearly gagging at the powerful odor of decay that assaulted his senses.
Bodies were strewn everywhere, like scythed wheat at harvest time. Some were stacked neatly as cordwood, others were little more than cobwebbed bone. One rather large corpse had the ungentlemanly nerve to block the front entrance with its fetid countenance. Codman’s boot scraped across the body’s stomach, and he cringed at the morbid noise it made, like crumbling old parchment.
He heard a noise to his left and dropped to his knee. His heart beat a mad tattoo in his chest, and his wounded shoulder ached with renewed vigor, as if reminding him of the price for eschewing vigilance.
A rat scurried across the blotchy parquet floor. It was easily the size of a small dog, and a reflexive shiver broke down his spine.
“Prick,” he muttered to no one in particular, least of all the insentient rat.
He continued on his way to the pharmacy, ignoring the ghoulish skull-smiling of the dead and the protruding rib bones which reached up like bramble to snag the unwary passerby.
The pharmacy sat adjacent to the lobby. The room was inky black and the ceiling leaked, coating his forehead with a slimy substance he prayed was trapped rainwater and not sewage. The air was a cauldron of foul odor, not the least of which came from the splayed out body on the pattern-stitched carpet.
He groaned as he viewed the sparse offerings. He started stuffing pill-bottles into his rucksack, being careful to avoid the corpse. The body seemed determined to inconvenience, or dissuade, potential pilferers.
“You’re a real jerk, buddy,” he said, shooting the corpse a disgruntled look.
Despite what he’d told Langan, he had some thinking to do. He was pretty certain the girl would kill him, if they let her go. He’d killed her friend, Merring, or whatever the hell his name was. If it came down to a choice between himself and the girl, it damn well wouldn’t be him.
But damn it all if Langan’s words weren’t starting to make sense.
* * *
The sounds of laughter wafted down the hallway, making Codman suspicious. Leave it to Langan to cavort with the enemy.
Another raucous wave of laughter descended on his sensitive ears as he reached the paint-chipped door to the bakery.
He pushed the door open, keeping his expression firm, his stance unimpressed. If he’d hoped the dramatic nature of his entry would quell the mirthful pair, he was dead wrong.
“Fish, you gotta listen to this,” Langan said, waving him over. He sat at the bubbled and flaked linoleum table with the girl. For her part, she viewed him with a bemused expression, one eyebrow arched primly.
Langan stopped laughing and wiped his teary eyes on the sleeve of his grease-stained tunic. “We’re just talking, Fish. Calm down.”
Codman threw down the sack of medicines he’d just risked his sanity to procure and stormed over to the table. He yanked the girl off the chair roughly, pinioning her arm in his hand.
“Hey!” she said.
Langan jumped up, started to speak.
“Shut up—both of you.” Codman squeezed the girls arm tighter and speared a finger in Langan’s direction. “You’re a disgrace, you know that?”
Langan shrugged his shoulders. “Easy, Fish. She’s a hundred pounds soaking wet, what’s she gonna do?”
“I don’t know, and I don’t want to find out. Langan, this is a military outpost, not a sorority hangout.”
The girl glanced around the squalid room. “Military outpost? You got to be jok—”
Codman silenced her with a glare, though he swore that her lips briefly curled in amusement. Her eyes, though, relinquished none of their venom.
He forcefully shoved her into a chair and wrapped her wrists together with duct tape.
He ignored Langan’s muttered protestations.
“Listen miss . . .” He couldn’t bring himself to call her Megan, to humanize her. “This is how it’s going to go. I’m going to ask you a couple more questions. If I like the cut of your jive, I’ll take you to the edge of town and let you go.”
“You’re not taking her anywhere alone, Fish.”
“Langan, will you please shut up?”
Langan shut up.
The girl stared back at him with her spiteful eyes. “What do you hope to accomplish here?”
“Why are you doing this?” She wiggled her trussed hands in front of his face.
He opened his mouth and shut it. Why was he? “There’s a war,” he finally said.
She laughed. “War? The war’s over, moron. Guess what? You lost. I lost. We all lost. You’re fighting shadows.”
He shook his head, but without much conviction. His thoughts tumbled together.
After a couple minutes of undesired introspection, he stood. “I’m going on patrol,” he told Langan, not looking him in the eye. “She’d better be tied up when I get back.”
The patrol did little to quell his bad temper.
He returned dejectedly to the bakery.
Langan and Megan were sitting at the table, deep in conversation. They both paused when he entered.
“What now?” she asked.
He walked over and set the rifle on the table in front of her. He lowered his head, tears burning at the corners of his eyes. “That’s up to you.”
She eyed the gun warily, as if sensing a trap.
Codman turned and walked to the window. If she wanted her revenge, she could have it. He was done fighting.
He flinched as a hand fell on his shoulder.
He turned. Megan was holding the rifle. She slapped it into his chest. “No more shadows,” she said.
He nodded. “No more shadows.”
William Knight lives and writes in Upstate New York. His work has appeared in
Electric Velocipede, Space and Time, and Necrotic Tissue among others. When he’s
not writing he enjoys gourmet cooking and reading. He’s currently pursuing a degree
in European History with a mind towards teaching. He maintains an irregularly
updated blog over at www.williamknight1.blogspot.com.