James finished screwing the final bolt tight over the pressure switch box for the Red Bones’ well system. He was still surprised at how well maintained the whole single-drop jet-pump system was. The bright white lights along the ceiling had only the faintest hum, the bolts and wire connections he had just finished looking at were some of the shiniest pieces of equipment he had ever seen, and even the storage tank was polished to perfection.
The mechanic ruffled his hand through his scruffy brown hair as he looked around the rest of the concrete basement. Whole place is cleaner than my garage. Based on the savagery he had witnessed firsthand, James was still in awe over the apparent genius that had kept the oasis’ well pump in prime condition.
Thinking of the Red Bones and their skeletal war paint made James’ heart beat a little faster. Shooting them with the turret wasn’t a distinct memory, only because he was flinching from gunfire the whole time. He still wasn’t sure how many he had killed that way. The woman with the hatchets.
James closed his eyes and lowered his forehead to the bench. Shooting the raider with the shotgun was a clear memory. He had still flinched at the shot, but not enough to block it out. James had blown the woman’s arm off and sent her flying off the back of the moving truck. Warm blood had splattered his face, and all he could think was that Tate had probably crushed the rest of her body under his pursuing tank.
The urge to vomit and hit something wasn’t as bad as it used to be. James reached for his leather-bound flask and quickly unscrewed the cap for a quick swig. Then he thought about the headless corpses above. Did the rest of her tribe miss her? Would she have just died here with the rest? Would she have died defending them? Was she a mother? A sister? Another swig helped distract James as he walked away from the pump.
At the far wall next to the concrete stairs, James stopped to leaf through the notebook he had left on the polished, stainless steel workbench. There were very detailed notes about what section of equipment did what, how it operated, spare parts they needed to look out for, troubleshooting and more. The first forty pages or so seemed to be written by one person, but every couple of pages after seemed to be notes from other people.
With each noticeable change of handwriting, James realized the notes had faded away from hard facts to vague theories on how to troubleshoot and replace bad parts. The last entry was more well written than the previous two or three, written at the start of the notes was: Head Engineer Brody. Immediately after that was a picture of a big smiley face. James closed his eyes and squeezed his flask.
Footsteps were quickly descending; James slid the flask into a drawer. Long-legged Tsara entered the basement, her deep blues met James’ light green eyes. He liked how her light brown shirt, green pants and boots fit her. James knew she had a hard time finding clothes that fit her height, and this was one of her favorite outfits.
Tsara glanced around the basement before speaking, “How much are you taking?”
Does she still love me? He scratched the back of his head, “I’d like to take everything. This water pump is in better condition than some of our pumps at home. The solar globes on the roof are more efficient and tougher than any I’ve ever seen—”
“James, the scouts are calling it in. There’s no sign of Deborah, and whoever slaughtered this village could be back any minute.”
James tilted his head as he was taken aback, “Did you give up?”
Tsara looked like she might start crying, or throw a punch. She shook her head as she looked down at him, “We had one lead. This was it.” Tsara turned to leave but stopped short. Without facing him, she said, “I know you’re still drinking.”
After her footsteps were gone, James reached into the drawer and saw that he hadn’t capped the flask. Whiskey had spilled into a small pool before he retrieved it. He took a deeper gulp than before and capped it. Praying hasn’t worked for a while.
James flipped the notebook closed and slid it to the side. He glanced back to the overhead shelf where another notebook was lying. As he flipped through it he wondered which was more valuable, the pristine equipment littered throughout the small village, or the expert knowledge he had found in the last notebook.
The young mechanic’s eyes narrowed as he read. Recipes? Flipping to the earlier entries of the first book, James found identical handwriting. Whoever had started making guesses to fix mechanical problems was also the first to make notes in the second book. Chief Peter?
James quickly discovered that Peter knew more about botany than James had ever learned in engineering. Grabbing the last notebook overhead, James saw how smart the man really was. Identical handwriting showed the exact amount of mushrooms, herbs and molds that the Red Bones had traded for other goods.
A few of the traders’ names sounded vaguely familiar. Dust Giants, Grand Canyon Gang and Redstone. Each town or tribe also had a person’s name next to it, sometimes switching back and forth or only once. One trader stood out from the rest, only because there was never a name associated with it. Wayne Manor?
The handwriting eventually shifted over to another name James recognized. Brody, with a smiley face. Along with the change of hands, James saw that the ledger had cut off all ties with the traders except for Wayne Manor. A shiver ran down James’ spine. According to Brody’s notes, the last delivery date was February 8, 723. Two days ago?
James fumbled his hand around the shelf, but found nothing but blank paper and grid paper with equipment measurements. Shit. He scrambled through the papers he had thrown just to find the ledger once more. He double checked the date before running out of the basement.
Clearing the stairs and a dirty kitchen, James skid on the marble and emerald tiles into the large entry of the mansion. “Tsara! Anybody!”
The older scouts, Harris and Linda, had reached for the sidearms, and immediately sighed as they released them. Linda almost chuckled as she shook her faded brown ponytail from side to side, “Boy, you yell louder about the toys here than a vamp’s blood bag.”
Tsara was standing between the scouts with a look of concern, “What’s wrong?”
“I think I know who hit this place.” James handed the ledger to Tsara, who shared a view with Linda.
As James caught his breath, Harris chimed in, “You’re supposed to be gathering supplies, not playing detective.”
“This… Wayne Manor tribe might have Deb! Or at least know what happened to her!”
Linda nodded, “If the Red Boners here were a drug cartel, with one customer left, there’s a chance these Wayne people just came in to wipe ‘em out and steal what they had left.”
Tsara stared at the page, her grip tightening. James looked for a glimmer of hope in her eyes, a cracked smirk, a tear… anything. What is she thinking? Is she having a breakdown too?
Harris cleared his throat, “Well then, this place might be more valuable than we thought.”
James wanted to roll his eyes, “That’s what I’ve been saying. There’s no way the fuckin’ Red Bones could manage this place so well. Look at this place! Most of these people didn’t know how to wipe their own asses let alone rewire a well pump. This tribe had major connections.”
Linda glanced between James and Tsara before carefully repeating, “Had connections. We’ve swept this place very carefully. The only people we found are being burned in the town square now. Unless you find another book with a road map, we won’t find whoever came here before us.”
Harris joined in, “We came in quiet, damn quiet. If these people were already here and left without taking anything, I say we got plenty of time to sack this place.”
James turned on Harris, “Hey! We came here for Deborah, not—”
“Not what? A goddamn treasure trove? You bet your livelihood to find Deb, and I respect that. But now you’re coming back to Anthill with a small industrial plant in your back pocket. This is what you need to barter your way up. We can expand the town out here to a small colony if we wanted. This is how you find Deborah. You offer this to the fat cats on top of the hill and they’ll let you bring an army out here to find Wayne Manor.”
James was taken aback. “Wow, I just thought you were being a dick. Thanks man.”
Harris furrowed his brows with a grin, “You’re welcome.”
Linda spoke up, “So no one’s worried that the Waynes might just be running late?”
Harris shrugged, “I’m no optimist, but if they didn’t behead the population here, they probably ran after seeing what we saw.”
Tsara mumbled, “And maybe Debbie was never here.”
Before James could think of a response, Harris jumped in, “Considering the risks and rewards, I’m volunteering to return to town and get more people out here.”
Linda also helped gloss over Tsara, “I guess sending one person will leave the rest of us a little safer in case we have company.”
Harris focused on James, “Mind if I borrow the tank?”
Caught off guard by the entire conversation, James just went with it, “Uh, yeah, that’s smart.” James stared back at Harris until he realized the old scout was waiting for the key. “Drive safe.”
Harris held the key up and motioned to James and Tsara, “Anyone else want to go back?”
James darted his eyes to Tsara who replied, “Not quite yet.”
Linda watched Harris leave and looked back to James and Tsara. “Well, I better catch the others up to speed.” She kept eye contact with James as she backed away, nodding to Tsara.
James took a step toward Tsara and pointed to the book. “Any idea what that stuff is?”
She shook her head and handed it back. “Never really got into drugs.”
He took the ledger and motioned to a couch, “Can we sit down and talk?”
“There’s blood all over it.”
“Tsara, please tell me what happened. I just found another lead for Deb, why aren’t you at least a little hopeful?”
Sighing, she rubbed her arms and looked at the ceiling, “I guess… it just doesn’t feel real. I just want to believe you lied to me about Debbie leaving. And being so far away from town, I can’t imagine she left us for, anything out here.”
“I walked in her shoes for one day. I can’t imagine how anyone could grow up out here.”
Tsara nodded, still avoiding eye contact. “She didn’t like talking about it,” Tsara looked into James’ eyes, “Why go back out to it? Why choose to live that way?”
James stepped closer, “We’ll find her.”
He outstretched his arms, but she stepped back, “Just tell me what you’re lying about, or not telling me.”
Would she really want to know? James took a deep breath, “When I lost Deb… we were ambushed.”
“You told me this.”
“I didn’t tell you the sun was rising and how I ran into the light. I ran while Deb fought off three of those… vamps. She told me to run, but I shouldn’t have. My gun didn’t jam, I dropped it because I panicked. I waited until the sun rose higher, higher than it needed to be.
“I threw up because I thought about how you’d look at me if I told you the truth. The way you’re looking at me right now. Thinking of you was the only thing that made me stand. The rest of it is pretty much how it happened.”
Shit. “I didn’t get to her in time. Because I was a fucking coward, I didn’t get to her in time.”
Tsara’s tears were streaming down her cheeks. “Dead?”
“Infected. Turned into the one thing she hates more than anything. I couldn’t kill her like she wanted, and I stopped her from killing herself. I couldn’t believe how fragile she suddenly was.”
“Why did she leave?”
“I don’t know. We saved each other back and forth, and I think she might be back to how she was. And from seeing what she can do in a day, I completely believe that she tracked down this tribe and killed every single person here.
“Honestly Tsara, I am horrified of that woman. If we find her, we better hope she still loves you.”