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“Hey, wait a minute!” Another voice, very angry, coming from the crowd. “Who says she’s yours?”


“I said she’s mine!” Uzi clamped a beefy hand around her left wrist just as someone else—she couldn’t see who—grabbed at her from the right. She felt the puppy clawing at her shirt, and then the dogs began to bark, not snarling or foaming, but in a prancing, jabbering frenzy, and then it seemed that these were not people anymore but plucking, grasping hands and angry mouths and shattered, ancient faces full of desperation and hatred and despair. They weren’t really seeing her at all, only what she represented: the cause of the disaster—a symptom and the disease itself.


The puppy was crying, trying to squirm its way out of her jacket. “Careful!” she pleaded. “Please. Stop, you’re going to hurt him, st—”


“Calm down!” From the front of the crowd and far away, the man with the bullhorn was shouting. “What’s the trouble here? Everyone, calm down, just stay calm!”


The ripping roar of bullets, a stuttering flash of light, split the night. “I’m telling you, back off !” Uzi brandished his weapon. “Just back the fu—”


Another shot, this time from behind, and Uzi jerked, a look of stupid surprise on his face, and then he was falling in a rattling heap.


“Get her!” someone shouted.


And then they were running, the crowd boiling around, pushing her back and forth in a tug-of-war. Hands tore at her clothes, tangled in her hair. Her jacket burst open, and the puppy was suddenly gone in the crush, although she heard it yelping. The man with the bullhorn was shouting, and there were more shots, and then she screamed as fingers stripped off her coat.


Someone sang, “She’s got a gun, she’s got a gun!”


A chaos of dogs thrashed and twisted on their leashes, the clamor of their barking and yawping redoubling in the general roar, and now the people were shouting: Kill her! Get her! Get—


Quite suddenly, she was airborne, her feet swept away from under her. She screamed again as the night sky—and that sinister moon—spun in a drunken whorl. They were passing her from hand to hand like a crowd in a gigantic mosh pit. She couldn’t see where they were taking her, what they meant to do, but then she was pinned to the ground, staring up as if from the bottom of a very deep well.


“Little bitch!” The old woman with the Luger darted one gnarly claw-fist at her face. Shrieking, Alex wrenched her right foot free and kicked; feeling the solid thump all the way to her knee and the moment the woman’s beaky nose crumpled. Flailing, the old woman staggered back as a great spume of blood gushed down her face.


Alex kicked again, but more hands caught her, and then she felt her head being pulled back and the skin of her neck exposed, and she thought, Oh, God, they’re going to cut—


Instead of a knife, she felt the rough bite of rope. Her scream choked off, and then they were dragging her by the neck over the cold, hard earth. This was like the nightmare at the gas station all over again, but there were so many of them, and she had no chance. Still, she fought, twisting, digging in with her heels. She clawed at the rope, felt her fingernails tear as she scrabbled for a handhold, but then they were hoisting her up, hands catching at her to keep her from falling, and her air choked off as the rope tightened.


The woman whose nose she’d broken—Luger Lady—was back. Her mouth hung wide open in a bloody, ravenous snarl, and this time, she clutched a knife. “Gonna cut your little head off!” Luger Lady shrilled. She exhaled a cloud that reeked of iron and rage. “Gonna cut your little—”


The sudden crackle of gunfire was crisp and sharp and glassy. Then a voice, very clear, cut through the din and the thundering roar of blood in her ears: “Go, Jet, go!”


Someone screamed as a German shepherd bulleted out of the crowd. The shepherd was black as coal and very large, and as Luger Lady half-turned, the dog sprang. Luger Lady had time to get her hands up, but then the dog barreled into the old woman. She tumbled to the ground, her knife flashing away, and then the old woman was shrieking, “Get it off me, get it off me!”


“Jesus Christ,” someone said.


“Don’t shoot it!” a man shouted. “It’s one of theirs, don’t shoot it!”


Around her neck, the bite of the rope suddenly eased, and then Alex was on her knees. Her chest was on fire, and her throat felt as if someone had taken a razor blade to it and slashed. Gasping, she hung on all fours, trying not to be sick.


Luger Lady was still screaming, but no one moved to help her and, incredibly, no one tried to shoot the dog. Alex couldn’t really see what was happening, but she heard the voice again, closer now: “Jet! Off, boy, off!”


And she had a single, stunned thought: That voice … he’s not old.


The shepherd instantly obeyed, dancing away from the old woman, but it did not leave. Instead, the dog turned toward Alex, its black lips curling back, and Alex waited, helpless, for the jaws to snap at her flesh, tear her skin.


Instead, the dog nosed her: a single playful nudge. The scent that came from the animal was like a splash of cool water on a hot day. She thought of the morning Mina had broken out of the underbrush to save them from the wild dogs, the intense relief that had melted the icy sludge of fear in her veins. She remembered how, all of a sudden, Mina had been reluctant to leave her to follow after Ellie.


She thought of the wolf: no threat.


All around, dogs bristled and snarled—but not at her.


They were growling at their owners.


The voices in the crowd fell instantly, deathly silent, and people let go of the dogs. Surging forward, the animals ranged around Alex in a tight, protective circle. Some licked her face. Others nosed at her as she dragged the rope from her neck. The big black shepherd pressed against her, as if daring someone to cross it, and then something very small spurted from the crowd and into her lap. It was the puppy, wriggling all over, so frantic with relief that it tried to climb on top of her head.


“Good boy,” Alex said, still stupid with amazement, and then looked up as the crowd wavered and broke. She saw old men with rifles and shotguns parting the crowd like Moses at the Red Sea, wading into the dogs.


Looking up, Jet let out a soft whine, his black tail whisking the air in greeting. Following the dog’s gaze, Alex pulled in a sudden, startled gasp.


“Are you all right?” He knelt on one knee and reached a hand to steady her. His eyes were as jet-black as his dog, his cheekbones were high and sharp as ax heads, and his scent was a complex mix of the darkness itself: cold mist and black shadows.


With a little yelp, the puppy jumped to lick at his hand, and the boy smiled.


“Hey, you,” he said, ruffling the dog’s ears. “That’s a good pup.”


42


The dark-eyed boy’s name was Chris Prentiss, but his friend, Peter, was in charge of men who were, with few exceptions, old enough to be grandparents.


“I don’t care about the damn dogs. We don’t know that it’s not a trap.” Peter didn’t look much older than Tom and had a tumble of wheat-brown hair that fell to his muscular shoulders. “She could be luring us, man.”


“I’m not,” she said. They’d marched her back, under guard, behind the semi, and she now sat cross-legged in a wagon. They’d taken her pack, and one of them might have her Glock, but she wasn’t sure. The puppy curled in her lap, its ears lifting anxiously as Chris and Peter argued. When they’d nudged her into the wagon, the shepherd had sprung up after to lie quietly by her side, as Mina had done. “Aren’t the dogs supposed to know?”


Peter’s face flashed with annoyance. “Could be early yet. You still might change. Anyway, the dogs won’t know if you’re telling the truth about this other guy. We go out there, you’ve got an ambush set up, and there go a wagon, horses, weapons …”


“I think the risk is worth it,” Chris said. He was the quiet one, the observer, and Alex thought he was about her age, maybe a year older. “We need someone like him. He’s a soldier; he knows bombs. You’re always saying—”


“I know what I’m always saying.” Fuming, Peter planted his hands on his hips. “Okay. But we wait until morning.”


“That’s too long,” she said.


Peter fired a warning glance. “I don’t think I’m asking you. But if you want to march on out of here, fine by me.”


“Peter,” said Chris in his calm, patient way. “You know we can’t let her leave.”


Alex wasn’t sure she liked the sound of that. On the other hand, she wasn’t particularly anxious to face that mob again. “Look,” she said to Peter, “I’ve been out there all day. We’re not talking zombie hordes.”


“I’m sorry, but you don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Chris. His tone didn’t change, but she heard the rebuke. “You’re lucky to be alive. Three attacked you, and you said one had a club. That’s new. Even though they didn’t coordinate their attack, they’ve never really hunted together before either.” Chris looked at Peter. “Could be a first step toward them getting organized.”


“All the more reason to get Tom now,” she said.


“If he isn’t dead yet,” Peter said.


“You keep saying that, he will be. Is that what you want?”


Peter scowled. “Of course not. I’m not an asshole. I’m just saying that you’re really lucky. If you’d been caught farther out from town when it got dark, you might not be sitting here.”


In case they hadn’t noticed, a bunch of old people had nearly lynched her, so she hadn’t exactly been safe close to town either. “Is that why you’ve got the roadblocks? To keep out those brain-zapped kids?”


“Brain-zapped.” Peter barked a humorless laugh. “I like that. We call them the Changed. But yeah, that perimeter’s one of the reasons they’re not walking down Main Street.”

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