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  Table of contents Issue Nineteen BEDLAM DAYS

Serial Novel Part 7

by
CHRIS CASTLE
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SHIRT OFF HER BACK



M

ike woke to the sounds of screaming and immediately pulled himself up in the bed, disorientated and reaching for a gun that was no longer by his side. The screaming, he realized, was in his head. Sarah walked back down the hall, holding Mae in her arms. She was wearing his shirt and the child was burrowing into it as if it were a new toy.



“It’s five,” she said, seeing him glancing around for a clock. She sat on the bed and kissed him on the cheek. Without thinking, he took her hand.



“I should go back to the station,” he said. “My next tour is at six,” he went on, feeling suddenly guilty at having left Nick alone. He remembered Glenda but then recalled how much wine she had knocked back. If anything should happen, she might be more of a liability than a help.



“Would you like to come with me?” he asked, suddenly aware of having no idea about how to go on.



“I’d better not. And you’d better go out the back way,” she said and crossed her eyes. To think there was still protocol in small towns, even after all that had happened in the last day, was ridiculous but the truth. He laughed at the face she pulled and somehow that small gesture of being goofy made his heart soar.



“You’re right,” he said, not letting go of her hand. “I…” he began to say and then trailed off. Instead, he squeezed her hand and was relieved to see a warm grin break over Sarah’s face.



“I know you want to get back to that station house and onto Nick’s breakfast,” she said, gently rising up. Their hands slipped apart and Mike felt the cool feeling of his empty palm.



“Maybe I could snag you a doggy bag,” he said, understanding that she wanted to keep things light now; no declarations, no heartfelt promises.



“Promises, promises,” she said, walking away to her daughter’s small room. A few seconds later, she padded out towards the bathroom.



“I’ll need my shirt back at some stage,” he called down the hall and then scolded himself for raising his voice.



“I know,” came the reply and Mike sensed a sly smile inside it somewhere.



CANDLES



Mike made his way back onto the street and walked through the heart of town. The breaking dawn was at odds with the candles that still burned in people’s windows, giving out the sense that it could be twilight rather than the start of a new day. People were not visible, but he was aware of movement inside the houses and people getting ready. The meeting had agitated them, the same way it had galvanized some and scared others. Even though he had not discussed it with Sarah or brought it up at the meal, Mike understood the meeting in a few hours time was going to be decisive in some way. Mike wanted to believe it would be for the good but deep in his heart, knew it would not be that way, not at all.



In a sense, he was no better than the people they were seeing as a threat. Wasn’t it true he had already set his stock with Nick and sided with both Glenda and Sarah? In doing this, how could it not trigger a knock-on effect; isolating some and squaring up to others by making such concrete statements with his actions? A chill ran through Mike, accepting he had acted no differently from the church group or, heaven help him, McKenzie and Jules.



Trudging onto the main street, Mike noted nothing had been disturbed as far as the eye could see. Everything remained as it was, although there was no question of the place being at peace. Instead, it seemed frozen, or paused even, waiting for what was to come next. He looked up to the sky and noticed the sun had not made its way through. The sky was bleak and gray. If the snow came now, Mike thought, everything would accelerate, for better or worse. The station house came into view and he suddenly saw how small it was; no different from an ordinary house, not really. It was not the fortress they had made it out to be since this began but a simple shack and one that reeked of weakness.



THE HALF-ASSED ARMY



“Good morning,” he said, stepping inside. Mike didn’t want Nick to muddle his new dark thoughts with the events of the last few hours. The older man smiled and nodded over to the coffee pot. “I walked through town. There’s nothing to report.”



“Good news,” Nick replied and went back to the paperwork in front of him. Mike was glad there was no discussion about the evening and poured his drink, taking it over to the desk.



The map of the town was laid out bare before them. Mike saw red dots where each house was situated and other marks next to certain spots. McKenzie’s place sat alone, like an unwanted guest, at the far edge of the paper. He looked over to find Sarah’s place and felt a fresh pang of guilt at having left her alone.



“Yellow are for the teenagers still here, green for those with internet, as far as we know.” Nick’s glasses drooped to the end of his nose and he pushed them back up.



“The blue?” Mike asked, admiring, once again, the efficiency of the man’s work, the logic that framed his thinking. Mike knew if Nick had McKenzie’s power, the town would be a lot safer than it was now.



“Older folk, seventy and over. I’m thinking heating, supplies, mobility.” He glanced over to Mike. “These are the people who’ll be regarded as fodder if the power shifts. We can’t afford to have them left vulnerable.”



“Absolutely,” Mike said and noted the steel to Nick’s voice. He wondered how much sleep the older man had managed and how much time Nick had devoted to worrying for some of the town and raging against others. “The bridge?”



“These areas could be made into checkpoints; if that’s the way it goes. We have good, secure spaces and it wouldn’t take much to move a few of the old gym port-a-cabins into place.” Mike knew Nick was against the idea of manning the bridge but understood his ideas were the most sensible. Scratch that, the sanest, in comparisons to some of the ideas they would face at the meeting in a few hours time.



“It could keep most people happy if they vote for it,” Mike chipped in, wanting him to know he both agreed with Nick’s stance against it but also acknowledged the need for a plan B.



“Some lunatics are going to come up with an idea of blocking it off completely and start talking about razing it or sticking TNT in the girders. This should keep the rabid ones in check.” Nick pinched his eyes and the glasses slipped to the edge of the table. Mike moved quickly and grabbed them before they slipped off. A fresh burst of concern ran through him as he handed them back.



“You doing okay, Nick? I’ll set up here for a little while if you want to rest up.” He looked over and saw a flash of quite how tired his friend looked, without the thick glasses to hide the bags under his eyes. “I’m sorry I wasn’t-”



“I’d appreciate it,” Nick cut in, accepting the former offer, while at the same time waving off the latter apology. “I’m glad you and Sarah spent time together. It’s good for both of you, I think.” He began to walk away, ending the conversation before Mike felt obliged to say anything in return. Nick turned back and his eyes sank to the map and the bridge at the far right corner.



“I’m worried they’ll turn into some half-assed army, making the checkpoints into border controls and the cabins rifle ranges,” he said and then turned back around without another word. Mike noted the limp in his walk and the stiffness that pervaded every movement. For a moment the vulnerability in him made Mike want to cry. If he’s our leader and a weak old man, what chance do we have? Mike thought and hated himself for thinking it, partly because it was so true.



FLUSHED



“Have you talked about the bridge?” Glenda’s voice came from behind him and Mike almost spilled his fresh cup of coffee all over the map. He looked round to see her wandering out of what was now his room, looking immaculate.



“I hope you don’t mind,” she said looking back to the bed but not sounding the least bit uncomfortable. “It seemed a shame to waste it…”



“It’s fine and yes,” he answered, wanting to move away from the thread of conversation that was dangling between them. “I’m behind Nick, 100%.”



“Of course,” she went on, moving over to the coffee pot. “But I need you to start thinking away from Nick, rather than supporting him all the time,” she went on, pouring the coffee. The edge that had hovered in her voice a few hours before was back.



“I think it’s important to back each other up,” he said, not wanting to engage in an argument but not wanting to back down, either. She turned and faced him and for a moment her expression was unreadable.



“I know that but a plan B has to be independent, otherwise the others will read it as simply as they did plan A.” Her voice softened a little and again, Mike wasn’t sure where to stand with her. A feeling of unsteadiness rode over him and he was vaguely aware that this was what she wanted.



“So what you’re saying is we should create secrets?” he snapped and was surprised at the force in his voice. It seemed to have no impact on her. It was as if she were braced and expecting his reaction.



“What I’m saying is that we should have options,” she answered and sipped her coffee, allowing them both to think it through.



“I work with a partner. If I have any theories or ideas, I’ll run it by him. And you, if you’ll let me.” He tensed, waiting for what was going to come next. Instead of speaking, she tensed, catching him by surprise.



“What’s the weather like, Mike?” she asked, again taking him aback with this sudden gentleness.



“Snow’s going to break soon,” he said, letting himself be led on, waiting to see where it would go.



“You know what happens in a small town, with a majority of elderly residents, when a cold snap hits, right?” She kept looking at him but Mike didn’t answer. “Have you had time for a shave this morning, Mike?” She used his name as bait for a trap. The question was loaded but Mike chose to answer.



“Not yet,” he said and waited. Her eyes hardened and she looked away from him for a second to peer out of the window.



“Pipes will freeze by the end of the day then, maybe tomorrow if we’re lucky. No fresh water to drink by the end of the week, most likely. How about the mechanics of the town, Mike? You flushed the toilet at Sarah’s this morning?” He felt himself reddening and hated that it was more with embarrassment than fury.



“The plumbing of this town will fall to pieces in a matter of days. The smell will be like an appetizer before the disease starts to spread.” Glenda looked back to him and held her coffee still in front of her like it was a microphone.



“You’re thinking about the battles but you don’t see the struggle, Mike; the cast-off bandages spreading infection, the cracked pipes and the two a.m. cold. You can look at a map but you can’t see the big picture. McKenzie can and that’s what his promises will be based around. And if you’re running around like a knight in shining armor and not thinking about the details, he’ll pick you off like a child.” She snapped her fingers and then lifted her cup as if breaking a spell. Mike was flushed but he couldn’t come back to anything she had laid out before him. It was true: he was charging ahead, not looking left or right.



“Think outside what’s in front of you and see what you can offer people. It’s the only way we’ll be able to dig ourselves out of this.” She set down the coffee and walked over to the door, grabbing her coat from the hook. He noticed a pistol was tucked into the back of her trousers. As she opened the door, the wind blustered in, as if to reinforce her point, and he put a hand down to grab the paper. Mike watched as she walked down the street and realized something; as much as Glenda had made a fool of him, she’d taught Mike a valuable lesson, too. It was two hours until the next meeting.



CLEAN COFFEE



Having chosen to walk, both Mike and Nick zipped their coats up against the bitter wind and drew on both hats and scarves. The cold weather always had a way of defining the different parts of the town, making them look sharper and squaring away the angles of each building. On another day, in another time, it might have looked beautiful. Now, however, with a few tiny candles flickering in the windows, most of the places just looked helpless.



As they came up to the factory, both Tina and Tom came into view from either side of the road and waved. Glenda was back at her place, running tests as best she could. Tina sloped over, looking hung-over and a little done in, while the old man marched over as if he’d just finished a five-mile run. Everyone’s breath became visible and Mike wondered if the snow would hold out to the end of the meeting or if it would begin before, adding yet another new dynamic to the discussion.



“How long, Tom?” Nick asked, looking up to the sky. The old man peered up once before tilting his head one way, then the other.



“I’d say two hours, maybe three. I’ve been out chopping wood. Thought I might have some ready for the other old folks if they needed it,” he added, running a thumb to his face as if he’d suddenly become aware of the red life in his cheeks. They don’t make ‘em like this anymore, Mike thought and smiled.



“Tina,” Nick said, turning round and then stopping short. He frowned, his face etched with concern. “What’s the matter?”



“There were folks going by my house last night, every hour or so. One of them put a brick through my window.” She reached into her pocket and handed him a slip of jagged paper, her hands shaking. Nick looked at it once and then handed it over to Mike.



TRATOR



“Those dumb bastards couldn’t even spell the word right. Unbelievable.” She shook her head and looked over to Mike. He had misjudged her; she wasn’t hung-over but simply wired with anxiety and a total lack of sleep. She looked haunted.



“I think you should think about staying with someone, maybe Glenda,” Mike said. “Strength in numbers,” Tom added, matter-of-factly.



“I’ve got my strength in numbers right here,” she replied and smiled, drawing back her coat to reveal a pistol. Mike swallowed, not liking the idea of sleep deprivation mingled with both anxiety and possible paranoia.



“Good girl,” Tom said before either Nick or Mike could speak and she nodded to him, winking. This is how it starts, Mike thought. People get pushed and then they go crazy without knowing it, winking at the other crazies.



“Keep a check on that, Tina and don’t even remember you’re holding on to it until you’ve had at least a few hours of strong sleep.” Nick’s voice was strong and brooked no argument. Mike looked over and saw sternness in his eyes but not intimidation or the wrong kind of authority. “If you’re feeling out of place, come by the station and sleep on the cot for a few hours after the meeting.”



“What if the next one’s not a brick, Nick? What if it’s a firebomb?” Her voice wasn’t pleading but clear and direct. Mike realized it was probably what she had spent half the night waiting for. Nick opened his mouth to speak but Tom beat him to it.



“I’ll be keeping an eye on folks, Ms. Poole,” he said, as they reached the factory doors. He looked up to the sky briefly and shook his head. “Fire would be a miracle in the next few days, regardless,” he added without a smile.



“What worries me is not so much who threw it as the list of potential suspects it could have been,” Mike said, setting up the paper and pens for suggestions. The coffee urn had been dispensed with, along with the water cooler. Nick was setting up the podium, while, a little distance away, Tom and Tina put out the chairs.



“Exactly what I was thinking,” he replied. “I think we could rule out teenagers, too. The last thing they’d want to do is bring attention to themselves, seeing how everyone looks at them at the moment. Most of them would be scared half to death, I’d imagine.”



“So we’re looking at grown men and women intimidating folks, while the kids are shut in, terrified.” He set the last of the papers in order and looked over. “We could check the writing against the suggestions after it’s over.”



“Yes we will,” Nick answered and Mike had another idea he was two steps behind already. “We should speak to the kids if they show up today. Only Sarah’s little one came yesterday. I think the others were either with the bereaved or kept back by their parents. We need to speak to them urgently, I think.”



“All done here,” Tom hollered from the far end of the hall. Mike watched as he sat down on the last chair and offered a seat and a coffee flask to Tina, both of which she gratefully accepted. Mike gave the thumbs-up, as Nick stepped away from the podium.



“You think Tina’s a target more because she’s a part-timer, or because of what was said yesterday?” Mike asked, aware they were both holding back from walking over to their friends straight away.



“Both. McKenzie knew what he was doing and that’s why I’m worried about the teenagers today. He’s marginalizing the people he can’t control. We have to pre-empt him where we can and hope it holds.” Nick’s face looked drawn and Mike knew the politics of all this drained him more than anything else; he hated being on the podium as much as the McKenzie’s of this world craved it.



“You’re thinking about Betty Thomas and the West couple?” Mike asked and watched Nick nod. All three were black: Betty Thomas worked in the local flower shop, while the West’s had retired here over fifteen years before from the city.



“What’s Jules role in all this?” Nick went on, already rolling to the next point. “He’s been brought in for a specific purpose but I can’t quite put my finger on what it is.”



“It must be related to technology somehow,” Mike replied, having already thought the same question through in his mind. “Maybe he’s giving more juice to McKenzie’s place somehow, keeping his store higher and maximizing the energy?” It was a weak argument but the only one he had. Nick nodded half-heartedly and knew the same concept had run through his mind.



“There’s something else to it,” he said quietly, as in the distance, Tom lifted his flask and Nick brought up his hand. Mike thought it looked a little more gnarled today; probably aching from the handwritten notes he’s had to make. He drew it down sharply, feeling Mike’s glance.



“I’m all for books coming back, partner, but I’m not so hot for the writing,” he said, as the two made their way off the podium.



“Maybe I could write them out for you next time,” Mike said, without looking over; he knew the older man hated to be reminded of his problems but now it was becoming a practical problem over one of politeness. When the trouble came, he needed Nick to draw his gun if it came to it.



“That’s kind of you to offer,” he said and patted Mike on the shoulder. As they walked to the back of the floor, their footsteps echoed, filling the place.



“Is this coffee clean, Tom?” Nick asked, accepting his paper cup. “I can’t be up there slurring my words to the good folks of Honey Falls at eleven a.m.”



“I don’t take a drink until it gets dark. What’s that, four p.m. these days?” he said and smiled. “Cheers.”



“Cheers,” they all said, as the sound of the first car came in from the distance. Mike turned to see Glenda walking towards the door, while a minibus pulled up beside her.



SPEAK WHEN SPOKEN TO



The church folk arrived, noticeably giving Glenda a wide berth as they climbed out of their minibus. They came clutching pamphlets, which worried Mike. As they entered the building they were muttering at a low, wasp-like hum, before stopping briefly. Each of them addressed Nick directly and gave the rest of them cursory nods and muted greetings, before finding their place at the front of the stage and immediately returning to back to their quiet droning.



Mike looked around, not knowing whether to be angry or to start laughing. This mood was reflected in the other three; Tina’s face was fuming, while Nick only looked on with a mixture of bemusement and acceptance. It was Tom Cloud who smiled broadly and looked Mike right in the eye.



“Guess we ain’t part of the flock,” he said mildly. “Or herd, depending on how you see it,” he added, before tilting his cup to his mouth. Nick coughed a sudden bark of a laugh, drawing a communal stare from the front row, which was quickly turned away by Tina’s still apoplectic expression. Mike reached out and patted her arm, bringing her back a little from the place she was at. A little of the heat went out of her. She looked to Mike and shook her head, turning away from the group.



“Save it for when we need it,” he said and she tilted the cup up again, before looking out of the window.



People came at a steady flow soon after that. Mike was surprised by the amount of folks who chose to still use their cars. He understood about the fear of any creatures being out on the streets but he wondered how they justified it, in the face of lowering resources. Maybe they’ve already made a decision not to leave, he thought and realized that was probably true of more people than he first anticipated. Maybe they see others not so much escaping but running, another part of him whispered. He became acutely aware of the tension simmering in the room and wondered how much of it was down to that very idea.



McKenzie entered surprisingly early, foregoing the grand late entrance of the day before. His driver wheeled in Jules, who looked remarkably smart without the straggly hair and the wild beard Mike had always associated with him. As well as the fresh cut and shave, he was wearing a suit and Mike wondered if the wheelchair itself was little more than a prop for sympathy, or on some warped level, respectability. From the years he had spent in court, Mike understood that if you put the devil in a smart suit, it was still the devil, but he looked around and wondered how many of townspeople knew that fact. Fear sometimes twisted logic and his heart sank as he saw a few of the crowd look at the new and improved Jules and whisper, with a not unkind smile on their faces as they did.



It was a smart play once again, Mike realised. By pushing all the attention onto Jules, McKenzie slipped onto the floor relatively unnoticed. He glad-handed a few men and pointedly walked over to the church group, but otherwise took up a position behind Jules, his driver to one side of him. Mike shook his head ruefully, as McKenzie assumed the position of helper, enabler, to the poor unfortunate before him. It gave him as much a platform as the one cobbled together where Nick stood, and probably less rickety looking. At the right time, Mike knew, he would step out to take the stage. Already, he felt things moving away from them and directly into the other man’s hands.



By eleven, Nick called the meeting into order. Sarah had appeared and briefly said good morning to Mike on the way in, taking her seat at the back the same as the day before. Mike studiously tried to avoid looking her way and in doing so, found himself finding her more than ever. Eventually, he gave up and turned back to the open road and saw everything was clear. He turned and looked up to Nick, noticing the floor wasn’t as full as the day before. As Nick began, Mike briefly looked down to his list of names and tried to make a note of the absentees as best he could. Tom was doing the same, he noted, and the two could compare notes after the meeting. Around a quarter of the chairs were empty but rather than freeing up space, it simply allowed the others to expand, setting down their coats, their notebooks of grievances, making the whole place look cluttered, rather than spacious.



Mike didn’t blame the folks who had chosen to stay at home, probably keeping warm and tending to their own. It was a plausible reason, he thought, but somehow, one he couldn’t quite believe. There was something else to the missing people, something deeper and more damaging, than simple self-protection or plain laziness. Mike swallowed hard, somehow knowing he would be in those houses this afternoon and more bad things would be inside each one.



The men and women listened to Nick as he outlined his plans but Mike could feel they were merely biding their time, waiting to explode. Each of Nick’s proposals met with a murmur and incredibly, almost no interest. He looked up and saw how disheartened Nick was becoming, aware of the lack of impact his words were having. Finally, he looked around and offered the floor up to questions and visibly stepped back, almost bracing himself for what was to follow.



“We need to make a judgment, for judgment day is upon us,” the Dater woman said, not waiting to be recognized and practically launching from her seat. There was an almost comedic moment, where, in her rush to be in the center of things, she nearly tumbled headlong into the bottom of the podium. Mike noted it was only the outstretched arms of the other church people who reached out to stop her falling and no one else.



Mike listened to the woman because it was important to follow what she was saying, not just to him but to the ears of the people around her. It was the same in the city; Mike had listened to wired, crazy thugs who made no sense to him or any rational person in the vicinity, but did make sense to other crazies. The principle was the same here; it didn’t matter that Mike thought the old girl was close to a lunatic, what mattered was if anything she said wormed it’s way into other damaged souls, who were just waiting to be told rather than thinking for themselves.



“We have to follow the words written and make sound judgement. This plague had been sent down onto us,” she went on.



Mike looked at her as she spoke, saw the pure, unfiltered rage that seemed to course through the woman as she spat out every word. Something else, too, he saw; joy. The way the veins thickened in her neck, like tubers, the relish with which she pushed every syllable from her throat. She was almost in a state of ecstasy. He glanced around and saw the congregation swaying along. To his dismay, Mike saw a few more people were following her with more interest, their eyes a little keener than when she began and had been seen as a figure of fun, bumbling around and nearly taking a header into the boards. Now, she was being listened to.



“Steps must be taken,” she continued, her brow beading with sweat. “Lines must be drawn,” she went on.



The pitch was subsiding and the tone lowering. As if to compensate, the people around her started to hand out the leaflets they had been clutching to their chests all through the sermon, and a sermon it was, make no mistake. Mike took one of the leaflets and stuffed it into his back pocket, drawing a dirty look from the woman, Mrs. Herbert, and realizing he had overtly made a statement. He looked around and saw Nick, Glenda, and McKenzie all looking through it like it was a choice recipe book. Mistake, he thought and knew it was too late to take it back out. Nick did not look over to him but Glenda did and her eyes were furious.



“Thank you,” Mrs. Dater, Nick finally said, after the woman finally sat down. “Would anyone else like to speak?”



A few more of the locals stood and raised issues, mainly about their farms and problems they were having in their homes. Mike watched as Nick patiently referred them back to what he had already outlined when most of them were clearly not paying attention. The floor seemed to be rocking, the residue of the woman’s speech and the fanaticism behind in, seemingly having left a lot of the people stunned. Even though it was close to freezing, there was almost the feeling of sweat dripping from the rafters after what had happened. Finally, McKenzie took the floor, patiently waiting for Nick to ask before he did. Again, Mike thought people were actually waiting for him to step up with a sense of anticipation.



“First of all, I want to thank everyone again for the place we’ve found ourselves in; the work of the officers and their friends Glenda, Tom Cloud and Tina Poole.” He glanced over to each of them, ending on Mike. Marginalised, Mike thought, then remembered the discussion with Glenda, his earlier mistake and smiled as best he could.



“I also appreciate the concerns of the local tradesmen and businessmen and of course, Mrs. Dater and her group for bringing up some very important issues.” He paused and looked around the floor, stopping at Sarah. Mike forced himself not to look and kept his eyes straight ahead. McKenzie’s eyes flicked onto his when they left Sarah’s and Mike’s heart plunged. He knows. He knows and now Sarah is in danger.



“Time is running out and we have to decide where we stand. I wish I could argue it on other levels, like our good friend the sheriff here, but I can’t. I cannot justify the time we spend waiting for what comes next. I cannot afford to guess about our future.” He stepped back and let his hand fall on one of the empty chairs.



“Where are the rest of us? Cowering, shivering…dying?” There was an audible gasp and a few whispers began that ended as he cleared his throat. “We need to act and act now. We need to close the bridge to any outside influences and seize control of the town. We need to keep out what will hurt us and protect what we have.” His voice had increased in speed and depth with each point, driving them home, one volley after the other. “This town needs to remove what is rotting it from the inside out and become stronger before the snow settles.”



“What do you mean by that?” Everyone turned to see Nick rising from his seat. People looked shocked at the interruption and even McKenzie looked mildly stunned. Mike, mindful of Glenda’s earlier speech, made himself stay on McKenzie, even as everyone else was distracted by Nick. He saw the sudden distortion in McKenzie’s face at being stopped; the white fury it aroused and the precious seconds it took to realign his features into that of the benign leader. It’s like he’s wearing masks, he thought and a pulse of terror rode through him.



“I mean we must stop the problem at the root and branch cause. We must quarantine the people up to 25 and monitor them for a few days. We must also confiscate all computer equipment and deal with the problem of the bridge.” His voice was bullet quick now, skating over the topics in order to rush them through.



“What you’re suggesting is too severe,” Nick said and Mike saw how he had stopped just short of uttering ‘madness.’ Mike wondered if that was a good or bad thing, as he looked around the crowd; a crowd that had now shifted into an audience.



“So you suggest we leave them be and turn out like poor Steven Riggs…the children?” he said, patting the empty chair for emphasis. “If we investigate the virus surely we would have more hope of finding a cure? Or do you not have faith in our small town, Sheriff?”



My town,” Nick said, with a barely restrained anger. “I have every faith in this town and its people to make the right choices and respectful decisions. But to suggest taking these young kids away from their families. To imprison them-”



He would say that,” Mrs. Dater interjected and once again the audience shifted. It was a seemingly nonsensical statement to make, but a few of the people began to mutter. A few lurid smiles flickered behind the church leaflets, now being used as little more than screens to whisper behind and offer commentary, though the Dater woman was too blind to see. Instead, she looked back purposefully to McKenzie, who seized his opportunity.



“You have seen what has rained down upon our poor town, Sheriff, more than most…this plague.” He looked to the church folk, using their words for just a moment to show his thanks at their intervention. My god, he’s like a chameleon, Mike thought.



“I have waited for you to act, Sheriff, and I have seen your results. Stacking up children’s bodies on the cemetery grass, letting the bridge go unchecked for all and sundry and god-knows-what to pass through into our town.” Gasps were audible now and one or two of the people looked close to screaming, or shedding tears.



“Helping those who seek your favour.” He went on, glancing to Tina, who by now, looked ashen-faced and ready to be sick. “We act and we act now. We close the bridge, we treat the sick and we remove the virus. Basic things, common sense things!” A smattering of applause began from somewhere and was soon picked up by Dater’s group. “I have an expert,” he went on, his voice raising another notch, so by now he was almost shouting.



“That man is-” Mike launched in, unable to stomach it anymore. Incredibly he was talked down by the crowd, all of them waiting to hear McKenzie’s next words.



“Seems like the sheriffs don’t wait to be asked, seems like they just talk when they feel like we should listen,” Jules piped in and people laughed. That was what stopped Mike in his tracks more than anything. He felt himself rock back on the balls of his feet as if punched.



“We have the means,” McKenzie went on, adapting to the sudden cruelly jovial atmosphere. Sure enough, a warm smile rolled onto his mouth. “My place will be yours, my resources yours, my co-workers yours,” he went on, putting his hand down onto Jules’ knee. “We can rise or we can be buried, as much under indecision as the snow that’s surely coming.” His voice tweaked into the 'local boy made good' accent on the last couple of words and by now people were on the verge of offering up a standing ovation.



“I propose an emergency meeting to take active measures. All those in favor, say aye.” A loud swell engulfed the floor and Mike looked over to see Nick now not even trying to stem the tide.



“We’ll meet here at eight p.m. tonight to activate the tasks at hand. I thank you,” he said, with a finality that told everyone the meeting was adjourned. “I thank you all.”



And like that, it was over.



ANYWHERE VISIBLE



The people bustled out, barely acknowledging anyone other than McKenzie, who swept out with his driver and Jules in tow. A few men and women stopped at Nick and shook his hand but the defeat that hung around them couldn’t be mistaken for anything else. It was a sympathy vote from one or two and flat-out condolences from others. As the hall emptied, Sarah brushed the back of her hand against his and slipped a piece of paper into it. Mike looked up, dazed, but she didn’t look back.



He slowly turned and saw Nick, Glenda, Tina and Tom, looking like small, humbled kids at the end of prom with no dates. Mike walked towards them, feeling woozy, as if he had been slapped.



“What…what just happened?” he managed to blurt out.



“We got railroaded son, pure and simple,” Tom said, unscrewing his flask, setting it on the floor and began to pour whiskey into it.



“We have to reach those kids before they do,” Nick said slowly as if coming out of a fog. Tina put a hand on his elbow, but in truth, she looked just as wounded.



“I think we should chase up the empty seats and find out where they are first, Nick,” Mike said, trying to catch his partner’s eye. When he did, a moment passed between them and then Nick seemed to harden somehow, become more like his old self.



“You’re right, partner. We deal with the most immediate problem and then go after the next one. How many people did you take to be missing?” Mike consulted his sheet and saw Tom doing the same, for which he was grateful.



“I made it eight houses, twelve folks in all. Tom?” He looked over and saw the old man nodding.



“I figure the parents will block any move on their kids while we’re doing this, but we shouldn’t wait for eight o clock. As soon as we’re done, we’ll make a move on meeting up with as many of them as we can.” Nick was looking around to all of them and finished on Mike.



“If Julian makes a move of them, we can still arrest him, regardless of what just happened here,” he said and Nick nodded in agreement as he fished something out of his pocket. Satisfied, he looked around to the other three.



“The rug’s come away under our feet and we’re going to be fighting against the tide now. With Mike’s say-so, I want to deputize the three of you and get you involved. You’re free to say no but it would be a great help if you said yes.” He looked over to Mike and realized he was waiting for his answer and more than that, his approval.



“I’m in,” was all Mike could say as he looked over to the three of them and saw pensive expressions on each of their faces. Mike wondered how much of that was about making this split-second decision and how much was the after-effects of the meeting and all that had happened. Glenda reached out first to claim the badge and slowly the other two followed suit, looking to each other to find out where to pin it and suddenly smiling.



“As long as it’s visible, it doesn’t matter where it goes,” Nick said, smiling back. Now I want you two girls to go to the nearest family and sit with them. Pass on your condolences and sit tight in case anyone makes a play for them. None of them were here today and probably don’t have a clue as to what’s happened, okay?” Glenda looked the more certain, but Tina was just as committed.



“Tom, I want you to use your pick-up and park up around the corner of Pine and Flank. From there, you should be able to see the Grounds house and the Todds. Any one of them gets interfered with; you step out with that dog of yours and send them straight back, okay?” The old man nodded and set down the coffee he’d just poured, frowning.



“Don’t want to be smelling of whiskey on some folk’s porch, now, do I?” He smiled but Mike read more into it than that: it meant that he was ready.



“Now, any of this looks dangerous, people drawing weapons or mobs gathering up, you take a step away until we’re all together, no exceptions, okay?” He looked around to all of them, Mike included, but lingered a second or two more on Glenda.



“There’s so few of us, if we lose any more at this stage, it leaves us helpless, you understand?”



“We do,” Tom said, “boss.” It broke the tension and all of them laughed. Nick’s smile faded first and his eyes tightened once more.



“We’ve lost most of the folks at this meeting, there’s no point denying it. But what we had here was empty chairs and we’ve got to reach out to them now and hope they can see a little more reason, maybe support us in the evening or further down the road.” Mike looked at Nick and admired his optimism, his hope in the face of just being crushed. It could have seemed foolish, or worse, reckless but it didn’t come over like that. It felt like he still believed in the people, whether they deserved it or not.



The group broke apart, leaving the chairs and the scattered leaflets as they were. Glenda began to speak to Tom and then Tina, assuming the natural role of leader inside their new group. Mike followed Nick out to the door, remembering the small wadded up piece of paper in his hand. He unfurled it and read it twice, before slipping it into his shirt pocket, over his heart.



Be careful



Mike stepped out into the fresh, freezing air and shivered. He thought about her and the way she had looked shaken in the crowd. As he checked his weapon, the first snowflake drifted on the breeze, looking as if it had been stripped directly from one of the pages of the pamphlets inside. He called over to Nick and then jogged back inside, the group looking up as he did.



“Check in on Sarah Paxton, too,” he said and turned back to the door without another word. The snow began to gather and fall in a flurry, making him turn his collar up as he caught up with his partner.



   
   

 

endmark



Chris Castle is an English teacher in Greece. He has been published over 300 times and has been featured in various end of year and best of anthologies. He is currently writing a novel. His influences include Stephen King and Ray Carver. He can be reached for feedback at chriscastle76@hotmail.com. Chris has become a regular contributor to our journal: His stories, Grid, Slumber, Last House on Vector Street, Stealing Three, Zombie Cake, Button and Pa, The Garden, Butterfly Eater, Finger, and The Last House all consecutively appear in the January, April, June, August, October, and December 2013 issues of HelloHorror and its February, April, August, and October 2014 issues. Chris Castle's novel, Bedlam Days, is serialized in HelloHorror. Part 1 appears in the Winter 2015 issue, Part 2 appears in the Winter 2015 issue, Part 3 appears in the Summer 2015 issue, Part 4 appears in the Halloween 2015 issue, Part 5 appears in the Winter 2016, and Part 6 appears in the Spring 2016 issue of HelloHorror.



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