Meg hastily snatched up the gas gas can, saving the greater part of the gas- probably about a gallon. She then retreated to the front of the main building. The shuffler that had passed her by was coming back, in a kind of jog like a toddler trying to run, and the one around the corner was coming faster. Even Art managed to roll over and begin to crawl. She crouched at the corner, using the opportunity to screw the cap on the can. Then, just before the shuffler came into view, she shot upright and swung the wrench. The blow caught the shuffler across the jaw, and it went sprawling on its side. Meg was surprised to see that the shuffler was not the one she had seen inside, but another in the uniform of a service station attendant. It came as a further surprise when she looked at the badge and read the name "Dwayne". Then, before she could do anything decisive to the fallen shuffler, the one she had been expecting came straight through a window behind her. She pulled her self free, leaving the shuffler straining against the steel window frame. But she left the can behind, and she had a number of cuts on her arm. As she inspected her wounds, she saw a shallow but unmistakeable bite mark. With strange detachment, she drew the magnum, and looked down the barrel
"That'd be a bit premature, Colleen," a voice spoke in a heavy cockney accent. She looked back to the corner, and saw what in that moment was a more startling sight than any shuffler: A black man, with hair starting to go to gray, dressed in the regalia of a geologist or prospector, complete with a French Foreign Legion-style hat and a large rock hammer in his hands. "For un thing, that's a bit big for close-in work, innit?"
The black man glanced at Dwayne, who was up on hands and knees, Art, who had made his way to the asphalt, and the one-time daredevil still straining against the window, but he turned his attention first to the shuffler from the desert. As he strode to meet the shuffler, Meg got a better look at him in profile, and saw that, apart from the color of his skin, he did not look much like any black man she had ever seen. His nose especially had a hooked shape that made her embarrassed to think immediately of a Jew. He wore a light shirt that covered his arms, but the wide-open front and sleeveless undershirt beneath left no doubt that he had plenty of muscle to go with his wiry frame. He had not one but two shotguns slung across his back, but he made no move for either as he sized up the shuffler, a man in exactly the kind of shorts and tank-top that marked a 30-something yuppie trying to go back to nature. "Roighta," he said. "So you tried out the aerobics and whatnot. I s'pose you kept in decent shape. But you still go ta the same place." Then his shirt and the headdress of his cap swirled as he swung, and swung again.
Meg edged to the black man's side as he jerked the point of the hammer out of the base of the shuffler's skull. "What's your name?" she asked in a stage-whisper voice.
"Carlos," he said. He wiped the hammer with a rag he tossed aside and finished, "Wrzniewski."
"Ah," said Meg. "Ahh... where are you from?"
"Little bit o' everywhere," Carlos answered. He twirled the hammer. "I just got here. As a rule, I'da taken more time 'fore comin' out like this, but you just made an exception."
"Well, I suppose I should be glad you did."
"Aye. There's plenty o' people who wouldn'ta. Now what can you tell me 'bout them?"
"There's one in the back, a cop. I suppose you saw him." Carlos nodded. "All the rest that I've seen are the ones you see here. Except... There were four that wandered in behind me. I shot one over there on the road, and I... I don't know where the other went."
"Aye. Nobody can ever keep track of all of them. Any sign of others? It coulda been a sound, or something disturbed... or just something lying around that didn't look like it belonged to the others."
"I've been looking at the names on the uniforms," Meg said. She pointed to Dwayne, who was back on his feet and looking toward them. "That's Dwayne, evidently, and the other one's Art. I saw two more names on a clipboard in the garage- Jon and Phil."
Carlos looked at the pumps. "Roight, an' if Pete's the one who put those in, he's prob'ly long gone. But, you never know. First things first..." He hefted the hammer and grinned at the approaching shuffler. "Howdy, Duh-wayne. What's up?" He gestured profanely downward. "Not you, anymore." Dwayne stretched out his arms. "That a soft spot, aye?" said Carlos. "What are you gonna do 'bout it, boit me?" He eyed a jaw that looked like a sack of bricks. "Oh, roight- ya can't!"
Dwayne made a short lunge, his hands going straight for Carlos's throat. The black man- or whatever he was- backed up, toward the garage. Meg raised the wrench, but he waved her back. Then she called out in alarm: Carlos's strategic retreat had taken him in reach of Art, who came plowing across the gravel driveway with an oddly effective porpoise-like undulation. Carlos flashed Meg a grin as he sidestepped Art's lunge and in the same motion came at Dwayne from the side. The blunt end of the hammer caught him across the ear with an audible crunch. The shuffler fell straight back, striking the back of its head on the corner of the concrete island for the pumps with an even louder crunch. Carlos had already sprung for his other foe. Dropping to one knee, he pinned the crawler and drove the point of the hammer into the joining of brain and spine. Art convulsed and wheezed out an abortive "EEE" when Carlos pulled the hammer back out. "Nay worries," he said as he wiped the hammer on Art's coveralls. That was when the shooting started.
Carlos instinctively dived for the nearest cover, which was the intact pump. Then he ran like hell, straight through a volley of shots that ended in a click as he dived out of sight on the far side of the garage. Inside the garage, the striding cop goosestepped forward, continuing to pull the trigger of a big Colt 1911 pistol. He finally halted in his path, directly beneath the hydraulic lift, and after little tentative probing managed to eject the magazine. With a little patting at his hip, the strider took out another one and tried to put it in, backwards. The magazine slipped from stiff fingers, and the strider promptly bent down to pick it up. Carlos peered around the edge of the door as he unfolded the stock of a compact 20-gauge military shotgun. The cop was still bent over, fumbling with the gun and magazine. Then there was the unmistakeable click of the magazine sliding into place.
The strider straightened, or rather would have if not for descending hydraulic lift. Incredibly, the strider pushed back, like Big John shoring up the mine shaft. Even more incredibly, there was an audible whine and hiss of strain from the hydraulics, and it did seem that the descent of the lift slowed. A little. But clearly, the strength of the reanimated was not a match for massive hydraulics plus the sheer inertia of a truck on a platform big enough to support it. Carlos lowered the shotgun and watched the inevitable. The strider gave a final shriek, almost indistinguishable from the hydraulics, cut short by a grisly crunch. He looked across the garage and gave a respectful nod to Meg, who stood at the lift's simple control box.
Suddenly a scream came from the shadows, and a scuffle of feet. Carlos brought the shotgun to bear, but the suspended engine was in the way. Instead, he threw himself against the engine and shoved. The engine swung like a pendulum, and the shuffler speed-scuffed straight into it. Carlos stepped back and fired straight up, and the engine came straight down. He stepped closer and leaned forward to survey the damage to the shuffler pinned beneath, when the pickup door opened.
Carlos pivoted immediately and snapped off a slug at a figure in a station attendant's uniform. It was a clean miss that took out a chunk of the Ford's windshield frame, but still the attendant staggered and dropped, presumably wounded, stunned or simply thrown off-balance by shrapnel. They always were shaky on their feet, and sometimes they fell over for no reason at... Carlos pumped the shotgun and pivoted again at the crash of the engine hitting the garage wall. The pinned shuffler had all but thrown the engine aside, but it clearly was in no position to take advantage of its freedom. Hands scrabbled at the floor, but the legs only twitched feebly, and there was hardly enough left of its pelvis and abdomen to begin to sit up. In the second or so it took Carlos to size it up, the Ford suddenly rolled back as if in reverse. He turned yet again, and fired point-blank down the throat of the shuffler who had shoves the vehicle aside.
"This is Jon," he said after a glance at the name tag. "So where's Phil?"
Meg shrugged, and then started at yet another impact behind her. "What the hell," she said, not quite shouting, "do they see through walls? And why's it after me, anyway?"
"They do that, sometimes," Carlos said as he took his hammer to the cripple. He attended to Jon, too, taking no chances. "Whatever they've got for senses seem to work best on the living human. They can be literally blind- I'm pretty sure they all are- and not show even a blind man's skill navigating a room, and yet I've seen 'em go for straight for guys I didn't know were there. An' sometimes I see a bunch gang up on just one guy. A couple times, I saw 'em do it to the same guy. Then there's another thing...
He made his way to the door that joined the garage to the station. "Just about everybody still 'round has at least one story about one of those things that just homes in on one particular person and stays on the trail. Not just in a chase, not even just in one area, but over days or even weeks, and ranges of many miles. Me, I never seen it, least not that I could attest to m'self." He finished reloading his weapon, but then folded the stock and shouldered it. "But once, I'm with that guy I just told you 'bout, right after we first run into each other. We stop, an' I get out my binoculars an check on a bunch comin' up behind. Then without even looking, he describes one in particular, and he starts telling me details even before I can make 'em out. He's seen it before, no question. He says he's been seeing `her' behind him, now an' then but regular, over the last two weeks an' what he reckons to be more'n ten thousand miles. He's sure it was his kid. Most all of them say something like that. But then, how many people see a thing like that wi'out it stickin' in the mind?"
Meg shuddered, and not at the impact on the other side of the wall. Carlos took out his other gun, a 12-gauge double. "You get it, right? If it's onto you, then it's staying with you. So if you stay there, it stays right where I can get to it."
Meg nodded, then said, "Mr. Wrnz-ns- Carlos? Why are you doing this?"
He looked at her, and seemed to ponder. "I do it because they are not us, and I don't think they ever were. I do it because everyone thinks they're stronger than us, an' I know they aren't. I do it 'cause they always win, an' it's only because the best of us do nothin'." He hefted the double in one arm, and in the other hand, he twirled his hammer.
"Carlos?... What are you doing?"
He grinned. "Something." With two blows of the hammer and one swift kick, he knocked the door open and charged through, with the shotgun raised and hammer held high, point-first. Then things happened very fast.
The office door opened at the padding of a shuffler going into high gear, and the shotgun went off. Carlos swore loudly and foully, and followed up with a louder curse when the hammer lodged in bone without coming out. Then there was the heavier tramp of the enraged shuffler in full charge,. The double went off again, and Carlos let out a steady stream of semi-intelligible curses as he was slammed against the soda machine. He rallied with a grunt that announced a hard shove, and the shuffler went back far enough to catch the butt of the double before the weapon clattered on the floor. Carlos shouted exultantly and pumped his 20-gauge, but then a chair was swung or flung with a crash, and the backup weapon in turn went skittering out the door into the garage. With an unearthly screech, his adversary charged. There was a crash of bone against metal, and a jangle of coins. A thud, a groan of an opening door in the machine front, and another thud as the door slammed shut again. Glass bottles clonking, clattering and breaking, fluids sloshing, spilling and foaming. The beginning of another cry, cut short by a strange "schlonk". Then another metallic thud, and another, and another, louder and louder, and then- fizzing?
In an instant, Meg snatched up the shotgun and dashed for the door. Carlos stepped in her way, grinning. The only thing she could see behind him was a modest but steady geyser of foaming soda. "Want a Pepsi?" he said, holding up a bottle. "Because I sure wouldn't count on getting another one." Meg shook her head, and stepped back. Carlos came out, dragging the body of a final attendant with his hammer still lodged in its ear. With one motion, he extricated the hammer and flipped the body. "And, this would be-?"
"Pete... Junior," Meg read.
Carlos frowned. Meg pumped the shotgun, ejecting a shell already in the chamber, and scanned the shadows. "Okay, gi' me that," Carlos said. He followed, reaching for her, as she stalked into the garage. "C'mon, you ahn't even holdin' it right! Fo' Chrissake, at least let me show ya how t'do up the stock!"
She elbowed him back, scarcely giving him enough heed to be annoyed. An electric thrill of hypervigilance filled her, and she felt guided by some unguessed sense. Indeed, she was already traversing the shotgun when a shape in a pinstriped uniform suddenly stumbled right into her sights. She smiled as she pulled the trigger, at the very moment Carlos slammed her against the Dodge. The shot went wide, and the figure belatedly cried, "Don't shoot!"
Meg limply handed the gun off to Carlos, who looked plenty unhappy himself as he addressed the cringing newcomer: "Phil, I presume."
David N. Brown