The Land Rover bucking, Cassie struggled at the controls as I came around the passenger door with no shots fired, limbs still attached. We were making slow progress even once I’d sat, still only just drawing alongside the cottage. I couldn’t help but tempt fate, turning to stare at the door, hoping he’d not cleared a jam, wasn’t reloading a shell, wouldn’t be repointing both barrels and pulling the trigger.
He was still stood with his features set harsh, but the shotgun pointed to the ground and a woman leant on his shoulder. Her hand moved, hugging his waist. Her eyes fixed on mine, a kind smile on her creased face and were out of view in a moment.
“Swap over,” I said and Cassie stared back, her face set in a terrified expression as she let go of the wheel and lifted her feet. Our heads rocked forward as the engine stalled. Fists hammered at the windows, daylight dulling as torsos crowded, their flesh weak against the glass. Checking my door, I made sure it was locked, Cassie matching as she questioned me with just her face.
“Climb over,” I said and watched as she rose from her seat, awkwardly curling her left leg across the centre console. Right soon followed left, then came her body. For a moment she hovered above me, but her hands gave way and she collapsed to my lap. My senses lit and not just with the pain as I felt her warmth through her clothes, through mine. Her hands were on my thighs, were flat, drawing me in. Clenching my teeth I hoped time would not move on, but the soft hammering of the windows reminded our situation, reminded us we had to get going, had to move, to get away from those things and from anyone who wouldn’t care for what we’d just shared. Pushing her high against my pain, she hovered above me with her hands on the door and I slid, issuing a tirade of foul language before slapping down into the driver’s seat.
The car was surrounded with the elderly creatures, wrinkled skin, thin hair and that smell already radiating as if the windows were wide open. I turned the key and the engine sprung to life, the car leaping forward just before it died. Glancing at Cassie, her eyes were all over the windows as she backed away, moving as close as she could to the centre. I pulled the car out of gear and turned the key again, letting the engine roar. The creatures only reacted as we moved, the front four disappearing below the bonnet, the bull bars pushing them down, the suspension and hefty tyres hiding most of the sensation of their bones crushing as we drove.
Twisting to watch as the crowd followed, Cassie called out before I could round the corner.
“Stop,” she said, slamming her hand on the dashboard. “You’re leading them to the cottage.” I hit the brakes hard, having to lock my arms to stop myself from hitting the windscreen. She was right. In the mirror I watched the group of fifteen or more barely stumble as they crossed over their fallen. “Turn around,” she said and my eyes caught hers, they were wide and serious. I gunned the engine, turning the wheel full lock to the right, before coming to a rest and staring at the pack, their heads locked in our direction.
Cassie had taken a wide paper map from the dashboard.
“They’ve marked where they’ve been,” she said, turning the paper so I could flinch my eyes from the windscreen and to the black crosses scoring out several clusters of houses radiating out in a circle. Snatching a look forward, my eyes returned to the paper and found a wider concentration of buildings, a large cross pinpointing a darker area. I nodded in its direct and she let the map drop.
“Let’s lead them away,” I said.
Letting the speed build, I took out a cluster of three, splitting the group as their heads snapped forward, denting the bonnet one after the other. Watching in the mirror, I slowed as each turned and they started to follow. Cassie twisted in her seat and nodded, picking up the map and concentrating on the marking I’d pointed out.
“It’s the hospital they were talking about,” she said, not looking up from the page. “That’s where we need to be.”
“What about the others?” I replied, using all my willpower not to take us as far away from those things as I could.
“What have we achieved?” she said. “Did you hear what those two were saying?”
“About the hospital?”
“And everything else.”
I shook my head. I’d heard so much, most of it I didn’t understand.
“I hope they can help Nat,” I replied, nodding.
“We can try,” she said and reeled off the directions. “It’s about ten miles, but take it slow,” she said peering between the map and back through the rear window. I drove as she said, keeping those things in sight for a good five minutes before we were confident they weren’t going to turn back. Still, I didn’t speed, was mindful of what could be around each corner, expecting someone to jump out at any moment.
It took longer than I expected for the roads to widen to anything more than a narrow two lane. After twenty minutes of tentative driving we were within two finger widths of our destination, on the map at least. Ahead was a large car, a Mondeo, resting with its nose in the hedge, another the other side, narrowing the way to just wider than we could fit. There was no-one around, no sign of life and we agreed without words it must have been one of the first checkpoints. Neither of us continued questioning for long as the engine note changed, spluttering, giving me cause to interrogate the dashboard. I watched the petrol light which must have been bright orange since I’d taken the controls. The engine soon died and I dipped the clutch, hoping to get every inch of forward movement.
Rolling to a stop long before I wanted, I was out in the cold. Cassie stood on the door sill, peering up high over the hedgerow on one side and the dry stone wall on the other, watching as I limped around the car, opening the boot to find it empty. Taking the map and baseball bat and the tyre iron I found tucked under a panel at the back, we left the safety of the car and walked along the road.
“Ten minutes,” Cassie said, her features bunching as she looked down at my leg as I struggled to hide the limp. I was glad she couldn’t see the pain in my chest or she might have insisted she go for help alone.
Ahead, the two cars grew. The sound of an animal moving within the hedge turned us inward. I looked behind and saw the long road stretching away, knowing how perfect this place would be for an ambush, an ideal location for looters to take at will.
We walked on. I couldn’t stomach the thought of the long journey passed the Land Rover to find a way through the impenetrable hedge and on to the wide open fields either side. Still we carried on, boosted by the utter silence until a twig snapped in the hedge-line at our backs. With my hand tight around the cold iron, there was nothing there as I turned. It took a few moments as we walked again, to notice the tall pillars of undergrowth that hadn’t been there before, to notice the two tall towers with cold barrels open in our direction. Only when the deep voice made me jump did I realise the camouflage had worked so well.
“Drop the weapons.”
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Reading out of sequence? Why? Here’s Chapter One