July 20, 2010
The redneck's hoarse scream just makes Shane tighten his grip, genuinely afraid Dixon will actually kill Rick if let loose. The man is frightening in his grief. "File a complaint."
"How about I take that complaint and take Dixon off your hands?"
The combination of the unfamiliar voice and the redneck suddenly going limp makes Shane loosen his grip and drop Dixon to the ground. He turns to stare at the strange woman, who stands at the edge of the camp, hands on her hips. She is dressed in military gear, with her dark hair braided up tight. The only thing out of place is the bow sling around her chest in place of a rifle strap.
Before he can reply, Dixon is on his feet and has nearly tackled the woman, bringing her into a crushing bear hug. She returns the favor, keeping a wary eye on the crowd that gathered during the fight, murmuring softly to the redneck in some language that is neither English nor Spanish.
Nothing could surprise Shane more than Dixon replying fluently in the same language before finally giving her enough breathing room to wriggle within his grip to better face their audience. He notes she is careful to keep the arm she'd brought free of the hug near her right hip, not far from the pistol strapped to her thigh. The shift brings his attention to the name tape on her BDU shirt, and he glances to her shoulder for her rank, wishing the service branch tape isn't obscured by the redneck.
"Staff Sergeant Dixon, if you can keep him that calm, by all means," he replies. It earns him an assessing look, although the expression turned absolutely arctic when Rick moves to stand beside him. It makes him focus on the fact that while her hair and skin make her appear Latina, maybe Asian, her eyes are a vivid pale blue. A network of scars litters the left side of her neck and lower jaw.
"Officer... Friendly." The second word couldn't have been more inflected as an insult if she called Rick Officer Bastard instead. And the intake of breath from those who made the Atlanta run meant it is important. Shane might not have Rick's easy way with people, but he has an instinct for bad blood between people that rarely fails him. The woman now eyeing his partner is definitely carrying a grudge.
"Mrs. Dixon, I think we're off to a bad start," Rick begins, only to be cut off.
"Staff Sergeant Dixon." It is snapped out in a tone that left no room to imagine she is going to be placated. "We'll just be on our way, once Tihu gathers what belongings he doesn't want to leave."
That rouses Dixon and damned if Shane isn't going to confuse himself with the surname in a way that hadn't mattered between the brothers. Daryl then. "They left Merle behind in Atlanta," he growls.
"I know. That's what took me til this morning to come to find you. Had to snag Merle off that roof and help another group this asshole got stranded with his wild west show." She moves her free hand slowly to untie a mesh drawstring pouch from a strap on her uniform, tossing it at Rick's feet. It lands with a thud. "I'm afraid your handcuffs met with an accident, Officer."
Rick tries again. "Merle was out of control up there on that roof."
"He was higher than a kite, but that doesn't justify him being left to die of heatstroke or be eaten alive by those dead things."
T-Dog steps in, looking remarkably sheepish for such a large man. "It was my fault the key got dropped, but I locked the door with chains."
That only draws the chilly gaze to the big man. "There was more than one door on that roof. Do you think for an instant if it had been one of the rest of you that it'd be the goddamn next day and no one's mounted a rescue mission?"
Daryl snorts. "Not worth your time, Scout. These folks decided Merle and me were useless rednecks the second we hit camp, even if they did gobble up every bit of meat we brought in."
"Wait, Scout?" Glenn's voice startles Shane as he steps out from behind the Jeep to get a good look at the woman, who was on the other side of the vehicle when she approached the camp and the scene of the fight.
"Glenn?" A bright, genuine smile breaks out across her face.
The Korean nods, bouncing a little. "Does this mean Cricket made it okay too?" he asks.
"Yeah, and she's going to be over the moon that you're safe." She tugs gently out of the redneck's embrace and throws out an arm in an obvious offer of a hug. Surprising them all, Glenn accepts, before exclaiming, "Oh my God, Merle's your dad!" He is overtaken by a spell of giggles, which earns him a tentative pat or two from the woman.
"First time anyone's ever laughed over stating my paternity," she says, glancing to Shane's group as if one of them had the answer to the boy's unexpected hilarity. Shane is still trying to wrap his mind around Merle having fathered a biracial child. He probably isn't the only one.
Glenn calms. "Um, not that. All this time, everyone has just been assuming, me included since we never met," he waves a hand at Daryl. "He's a cop too. No wonder he was yelling chokeholds are illegal."
Andrea scoffs. "No way Dixon's a cop. He's a dope head just like his brother."
Normally, Shane is the one who rubs new people the wrong way. He acknowledges that facet of his personality, even used it to advantage while a cop, but apparently there is already enough asshole going around. He narrows his eyes, trying to remember if he's ever seen the younger Dixon brother acting strung out and drawing up a blank. Merle was high more than he was sober since they came to camp.
"Wow. That stick wedged up your ass so far it hinders your thinking?" The look of complete disdain from the woman, whose uniform displays she is a Marine now that Shane can see the other tape, is withering. "The state of Georgia sure as hell has employed him as a cop for damn near a decade."
This is going to get out of hand in a hurry if Shane judges Andrea's expression correctly, so he intervenes. "Ranger?" he queries, going with his best guess. Trooper or a GBI special agent wouldn't have let himself be part of the background like Daryl has, and the man definitely doesn't strike him as a university cop in the least.
It seems he startled Daryl with the question, but the man nods. "Sergeant in Region Three." He levels Andrea with his best glare. "And my brother ain't usually a dope head. He went off the deep end when he thought his kids were all dead."
The blonde woman doesn't look convinced, but Staff Sergeant Dixon interrupts. "If I don't check in soon, they're going to think the worst." She unhooks a walkie talkie from her belt, waving it in Shane's general direction. With half the camp loosely circled behind him watching the spectacle, he supposes it could have been any of them, but he nods anyway.
Raising the walkie, she keys it on. "Mockingbird to Gator. Found our missing Ranger and tell Kersee I found that Kimchi Pizza she's been missing. All quiet down there?" Glenn sputters out another round of giggles.
The walkie crackles back in reply as a man replies. "Gator here. Seeing some shuffling activities from the city. Nothing we can't handle yet, but Revere and Badger have taken out four just in the last ten minutes. Might be building up a herd coming this way." It pauses and then crackles again. "Kersee wants to know if you're delivering that Pizza to her or just letting her know it didn't get eaten in Atlanta?"
"I'll get back to her on the delivery question. Hold the position for another ten minutes while we take care of business. Should give you a better bead on whether it's a herd or not."
"Gotcha. Report back in ten."
She returns the walkie to its place on her belt. "Tihu, why don't you go pack up yours and Merle's camp while I see if Glenn's agreeable to being delivered?" Daryl snorts and shrugs, walking off from the group as if the fight never happened and he has no more care about their opinions with his niece back. He probably doesn't.
Shane jumps in while he has the chance. "You got military, more than just you?"
Shaking her head, she sighs. "Wish I had even a full squad, but I can't even boast a full fireteam right now. Blount Island had already fallen when I reported in, and the naval installations at Jacksonville were gone too. Ran into a navy major there that had been bitten, lost most of his men as the city fell alongside the base. Last orders I got, of any type, were to take the few Marines left standing that didn't have families to return to and rescue any civilians I could and get my ass back to my family."
She rubs at the back of her neck, surveying the crestfallen faces, obviously realizing they were hoping for something more. "Had three Marines coming out of Jacksonville and nine civilians, four of them under eighteen. One of those civilians is a wildlife officer and another's a firefighter, so not without skills, but there's worse out there than the dead walking. Lost a good Marine to an ambush and nearly another when we found out that you don't have to get bitten to turn into one of those things. We learned the hard way."
"I don't believe it. The news said it was all bites or scratches," Lori exclaims.
"Believe whatever you want, lady. I'm guessing y'all have been cozied up here in camp for the most part, but I know I watched a good kid bleed out from a bullet wound to the throat and then rise up two hours later and try to eat us before we could get her properly buried. I personally inspected every inch of her body and there was nothing but that first goddamn bullet wound and the one that put her to rest for good."
Rick twitches uneasily, and Shane glances his way, wondering what he's seen on his journey here that has him looking like he might halfway believe the story. He turns to Shane, urgency in his tone. "We need to go back and get that gun bag I dropped then."
Lori squawks a protest but is interrupted by Scout. "Big duffel dropped near that poor horse in Atlanta?" she asks. Rick nods. "Long as me and my uncle make it back to our people safe, it'll be tucked up in that brush pile by the boulder to turn off up here. Near two months traveling through Florida and Georgia has me a little paranoid about the goodwill of a group I don't know."
Shane feels his eyebrows raise as he looks at her in a little disbelief. "You're going to just give us a bunch of guns?"
She shrugs. "Guns are noisy and inefficient. More likely to draw in more dead or living with ill intent. More trouble than they're worth if you've got alternatives." She reaches back to swing the compound bow she wore in the bow sling from her back to hang at her side and pats it. "Much safer and quieter for ranged work. Blunt weapon or edged weapon for up close." That makes him note that she has something else still strapped to her back in addition to the quiver and a large knife sheathed on her combat vest.
A noisy thump accompanies Daryl tossing a duffel into the bed of his truck. "You want me to load the bike up or ride it?" he calls out to Scout.
"Load it up. Too noisy with the dead on the move today. Can't believe you two idiots brought that down with you. Shows neither of you does well without female supervision!"
"You don't say," Glenn mutters, then looks sheepish when Scout looks at him. Apparently, the young Korean is allowed the comment, because she just pats him on the shoulder.
"You coming or going, Glenn?" she asks.
He squirms, looking to the people grouped in front of the RV, then to where Daryl throws his bagged up tent into the back of his truck to join the duffel, then back to the group. "There are kids here, Scout. And without your dad and uncle, no one to hunt. So they need me to do supply runs. You know how it turned out when I took that group."
She fumbles in a pouch on her pants and pulls out a small notepad and pencil, scribbling something down before tearing off the page and giving it to him. "Memorize that address. There's a radio setup there if you don't have a CB handy if no one steals it. It's not where we're heading, exactly, but it's within radio range if that place has stayed safe and secure. Set it to the channel of your apartment number and call for Buffalo Bill. I can't make any long-term promises. If things are bad there, we might head into the mountains. Tihu worked that area pretty steady for years, so he knows the best bolt holes."
Blue eyes meet Shane's, then sweep over the group, noting the women and children, then back to Shane. "We're going to be in the area for another two or three days, clearing a few places for supplies. Promised I'd help the other group out from the city, and they've got elderly depending on them. Need a good stock of meds. Figure I've got the manpower to share some up to y'all."
"You and your group could stay here, at least as long as you're in the city. Make it easier if you're willing to help out and maybe you could show some of us how," Shane offers, ignoring the outraged gasps from behind him. Lori, for sure, at least one more. He hasn't gone on any runs before, worried to leave the camp with so few able-bodied men. He was a dumbass for letting Merle go along on the Atlanta run as it was. Rick is going to shove in and take over the group, he figures. Best to have more skills on offer than his gun.
Scout at least does him the courtesy of thinking it over - and even Rick doesn't interrupt her thought process. She studies the camp, assessing the setup. "Not entirely sure there's enough room," she says at last.
"Just how big is your group?" Rick asks, incredulous.
"Adding in my two lost sheep and counting myself, thirty-five. Took that rescue civilians order from Major Ballard just a little bit seriously. Collected them up in twos and threes over half of Georgia."
Almost twice the size of their group, Shane realizes. "Bunch of civilians here."
"Yeah. But a large number of the adults here seem pretty happy to be rid of my dad. Didn't figure any of you were going to want to repeat the experience, and I'm not entirely sure everyone in my group would be entirely comfortable here either."
"We're good people here," Rick insists. "Your father was on drugs and beat up T-Dog. He had to be stopped."
"Didn't say he didn't deserve a good beating, Officer. But none of it was worth the death sentence your group tried to dole out."
T-Dog looks anguished, surprising Shane with the evidence of the beating Merle gave him still so obvious. "Um, is he going to be okay?" the black man ventures.
Scout looks surprised at the inquiry. "He's blistered to a dangerous level from the sun and was suffering from heatstroke when we got to the roof finally. The drugs in his system sure as hell didn't help his case there. But he'll live. Won't be happy for a week or two until the sun exposure heals and he gets through the worst of the withdrawals. We'll manage that. I should ask the same of you." She indicates the damage the man carries. "Got someone who can look you over if you'd like."
"You've got a doctor in your group?" Shane feels hopeful for the first time in a while. He ended up with a group with very few skills applicable to the disaster they are living in now.
"Veterinarian, actually. It'll be amusing to see his face when my daddy puts two and two together on that one. But checking for broken bones and such works much the same. Saved one of his daughters from some..." She glances to the children within earshot. "Really, really bad men. He decided being the only grown man looking after three females on a remote farm wasn't safe anymore, few towns back."
Rapists. Goddamnit, she has to be avoiding calling the men rapists with that look to the kids and the emphasis. That's all they need to have to worry about, Shane thinks as he meets Rick's worried gaze, then some of the other men's. He didn't miss her ambush talk earlier either. The dead didn't shoot guns.
Daryl approaches, reaching out to grip Scout's upper arm. It doesn't seem to be a grab, but more a reassurance that the woman is real. "M'ready when you are."
She tilts her chin toward Shane. "We've been invited to share camp for a few days, til we clear out of Atlanta"
He frowns and replies in the unknown language from before. Replying in kind, the discussion goes on for a couple of minutes in front of their increasingly baffled audience, including a couple of understanding glances to the children by Daryl, before the walkie crackles back to life.
"Gator to Mockingbird. It's a motherfucking herd."
Shane is pretty sure Scout cursed in at least three languages. He knew the Spanish, another sounded like maybe French, but he isn't sure if the rest was all the other language she's been speaking.
"Mockingbird here. How many?"
"At least forty. Still some movement in the distance though, so maybe more. We'd clear out and meet you at the checkpoint, but if they stay on this same path, they're headed right for your current location, next 24 hours or so."
"Load up for a pull-out, but get those capable to the high points and thin out as many as you can. Move out if you need to. I can clear this location if need be. No chances. No noise."
"Acknowledged. No chances on your end either." The walkie falls silent and Scout finally turns her attention back to the others.
"We still don't know why, but these things cluster up sometimes and move out in bigger groups from towns or cities, and they're more vicious than normal when they do. The population Atlanta has, with how close your camp is, an actual herd is a real possibility. If all that's broken off is forty or so, they can handle that, but I'm not taking risks on it being more than that."
She sighs, pacing a little before continuing. "We had to route completely around Macon after we had over a hundred of them on the move south of the city. I know y'all haven't encountered them like that, since they haven't been leaving Atlanta in the same numbers, maybe because of the firebombing, but this camp is like a damned all-you-can-eat-buffet with everyone all spread out." She winces when one of the children began to cry, but doesn't apologize.
"We've made it just fine until now. How do we know that you didn't just lead them out of the city?" Lori demands, Carl clutched to her.
"Lady, if anything riled them up in this direction, it is your group. Officer Friendly here rode into town on a damned horse and firing off his gun like it was some sort of John Wayne film. That kinda racket is like throwing chum from a shark cage with these things. You want to hold on to your uppity pride and sit here waiting on the next herd to come rambling through, be my guest. You're not my family to look after."
"We can go help," Daryl offers as she begins to pace, obviously anxious that she is here rather than with her group.
"Wouldn't get there in time. Gator's good to lead without me there." Hooking the walkie back to her belt, she looks back to Shane. "I can't make you pull up stakes on the possibility they might have more than they can handle, and we'll have at least a couple hours warning if they do have to clear out, but can you please get the children out of the open? Things can be replaced."
Shane turns to Dale. "Dale, okay for the kids to go in the RV? Moms too." The older man nods, opening the door to usher first Miranda Morales and her children inside, then Carol and Sophia. Lori stays stubbornly in place until Rick moves to tug Carl from her arms and push the boy toward the RV. They have a heated, whispered argument that Shane tries desperately not to watch. His brother returned from the dead and coveting his wife is worse now than it was when they first fell into bed together in the camp after the Atlanta firebombing.
Scout stops pacing abruptly. "The duffel bag." That makes Rick and Lori's argument pause. "Faster down the hill and back if I have a ride," she says, turning expectantly to her uncle. Daryl fishes out his keys, heading for the truck. They are gone before Shane thought to suggest going along.
"Probably just an excuse to abandon us," Lori spits out. "I bet she's not even really in the military. Or deserted."
"She's on her third enlistment," Glenn interjects, surprising everyone. He normally avoids confrontation as if it were the plague, especially with the women. It reminds Shane that they have someone with personal insight to the Marine and getting Glenn to gossip is like taking candy from a baby.
"How do you know her?" he asks, interrupting whatever else Lori had been about to say.
The Korean shuffles a little. "My roommate in Atlanta is her younger sister. I never met her dad or uncle, so I never associated Merle and Daryl with the Daddy and Tihu that Cricket was always talking about. I mean, Dixon isn't exactly an uncommon last name, and they didn't talk about their family in camp, so..." He looks guilty that he didn't figure it out. "We've only been roommates since Thanksgiving or so, but Cricket talks on Skype almost nightly to her sister. But Scout? She enlisted out of high school, served in Iraq and Afghanistan both. Got really hurt last fall, purple heart and some other medal you get for rescuing another soldier. She's been at the VA hospital in Tampa doing outpatient rehab."
He pauses, looking around earnestly. "She's the real deal. Her siblings were on an end of school trip down in Florida to see her when things got bad. I really thought they hadn't made it. Been checking our building on my runs to Atlanta, just in case. Even left a message for Cricket about how often I try to do runs so we could meet up if she did make it back to Atlanta."
"What the hell, Glenn? You left details about the camp?" Shane can't help himself from barking out the accusation.
"Well, unless someone's fluent in Korean and breaks into that particular apartment building, we're pretty safe." Glenn squares his shoulders.
"That language she and Daryl kept using... that Korean?" Rick asks.
"No. Um, Chamorro, I think. But I can't swear to it, because Scout speaks like five or six languages, and I honestly don't know how many Daryl might know too. But I know he speaks Chamorro because English isn't Scout's first language. Pretty sure Merle knows it too because I've heard Cricket on the phone to her dad and they don't speak English half the time. That name Scout was calling Daryl - Tihu - that's just the Chamorro word for uncle."
"Where's that from?" Dale asks, curious even as he eyes the road, where the rumble of Daryl's truck returning to camp can be heard.
"Guam. Their mom's from the island originally, met their dad when he was stationed over there in the Marines."
"Merle as a Marine. That's a bit of a scary thought," T-Dog mutters. "But I guess that explains the whole... racist with kids that aren't white. Lots of military guys like wives from overseas."
Any further gossip is interrupted by the truck coming back into camp. Scout hops out, dragging the duffel bag with her and dropping it at Rick's feet. "Can't hurt, even if gunfire's a bad idea normally. Better than nothing. Anybody other than you two cops and the guy with the rifle know how to even use a gun? Because if they don't, friendly fire risk is more dangerous than the damned dead things."
"Yeah, Ed can. He's got a rifle. Andrea's got a pistol. Morales can shoot too. We haven't had the ammo to spare for anyone else to learn," Shane replies as Rick sorts through the bag, fishing out ammo for Shane's gun and passing it to him.
"Best for them to opt for something with a blade or enough weight to crush a skull then. Baseball bat, machete, ax, hell, even a shovel works if you swing it right." She glances toward the road as if she can see all the way to wherever her people are engaging the walkers. "Don't think they'll let anything by unless it's more than they can handle, but just in case."
She reaches behind her, unstrapping a heavy club the length of a cane from her quiver with practiced ease and tossing it to Glenn, who catches it after fumbling a bit. "Shillelagh. Works just like a baseball bat."
"I can't take your weapon," Glenn protests.
Scout only laughs and pats the knife strapped to her vest. "Even if something's too close for my bow, I still have a backup, plus my pistol. And I can replace that just as soon as I'm back with my group." She turns to Shane. "We've got enough extra of the quieter weapons that I can spare enough for everyone to have something if they're willing to learn how to use them without lopping off their own hand."
It is interesting, that she keeps referring to him instead of Rick, Shane thinks. Even as deputies, he noticed people tend to gravitate to talking to Rick first, probably the earnest trust-me expression he constantly wears. Shane never had his kind of optimism. He saw the writing on the wall last night, that Rick will take over, the returning hero who fought his way back to his family and is trying to resign himself to it. He left his brother behind, after all.
But the Marine seems intent on treating him as the camp leader and it is a balm to his ego, especially since she seems to have little tolerance for Rick. If they stay a few days, it will be interesting to see how the two work things out.
"Guess that means you are going to bring your group here for a bit?" Ought to verify that, after all.
"Yeah. Talked it over with Tihu. He doesn't like leaving y'all without some improvements and said it's as good a base as any to finish up our errands here. I'd suggest enough supplies to be able to relocate to somewhere secure. Gated community, school, something with a good heavy fence."
She studies the camp critically enough to make Shane want to cringe. "Those stupid old jokes people make about bears and campers? 'What's a camper in a sleeping bag to a grizzly bear?' 'A burrito' That's the reality now. Out in the open, in tents, people are just burritos waiting on the dead to arrive."
Surprisingly, Rick seems to agree. "We should check out the CDC. They'd be working on a cure for all this."
"You're welcome to go by and bang on those closed up shutters, but from the looks of it, the CDC went into lockdown. Protocol there isn't likely to allow civilians inside, no matter how bad things are outside. If it did, they'd have someone out gathering survivors in the city, and the other group we met, the one with the nursing home, says they've seen nothing from them at all. Just a lot of bodies outside where the troops protecting the facility got overwhelmed by the dead. They've been going by because they figured if anyone had meds, it'd be the CDC, but no luck.
Scout looks pissed and stressed both as she continues. "This whole thing is a clusterfuck of epic proportions. Everywhere we've been, there's no government presence at all. We took I-75 up into Georgia, worked around some of the biggest damned traffic pileups I've ever seen. Made it to Albany, figured we could try the Marine Logistics Base there, but they fell, just like Blount Island and the navy at Jacksonville did. We're on our own, best I can figure. Just clusters of survivors."
"What about Fort Benning?" Shane asks. It is a lot bigger than the bases she mentioned, a city unto itself really.
"Even if they managed to hold on, most of their troops would have been deployed as emergency measures. We've come across uniforms of all branches, hell, even Coast Guard, where they tried to protect towns and resources and were just spread too thin. Military installations are targets now, of the ones who've gone lawless. They know there are supplies, guns, ammo. Mostly the smaller ones like the Guard depots, but if there's not a good chunk of the military there at Benning, I'd be afraid to clear out a safe space there. Be like a sitting duck, just waiting to be raided and everyone knowing where the base is to come looking."
She looks almost apologetic that she's shooting down his idea and adds more details. "Not to mention that Columbus was the third-largest city in the state even without Benning's population count. Some of the survivors I've picked up said they were setting up camps there like Atlanta. No city with evacuation camps seems to have held so far." There is hesitation for a moment as she seems to struggle with how to phrase something. "But if you folks really feel you need to make the attempt to go there, we'll help you get the supplies for the trip. My people... I'm taking them north."
The walkie squawks, and she unhooks it to exchange the same greeting as earlier with the man on the other end.
"Fifty-three dead put to rest," he reports. "Not counting the four that Revere and Badger took out beforehand that didn't seem to be part of the herd. Been clear for five minutes, so we're going to retrieve bolts and arrows and make sure they're all at peace."
"Stay safe," she acknowledges. "When you're done, we've been invited to the camp for while we're in Atlanta. Ranger and I accepted the invite."
"We'll check in when we head your way then. Give us about half an hour."
Scout acknowledges the request and put away the walkie. She looks around the campsite. "I need to park eight vehicles, most the size of the RV here, most pulling twenty foot or so trailers. Prefer to circle most of them up, like the old wagon trains. Gives a safer place for tents. Think I can get them over there away from y'all's RV. Provide another point of protection for your camp if we edge up to the trees since ours can be secured."
Shane doesn't even bother to look at the others. Her group has a doctor of sorts and is willing to help them out. "Sounds like a plan."