“Are you sure this is a good idea?” she hissed, voice barely above a whisper.
“Nope,” I said. I would have said more, but Paul and Ichabod had reached the van. “It’s open!” I called.
“Much obliged,” said Ichabod. He opened the van’s rear door and climbed inside, with Paul close behind him. “I’m Nathan. This is Paul.”
“Nice to meet you folks,” said Paul.
“Charmed,” said Becks, with a professional smile. Anyone who didn’t know her would have trouble telling it from an expression of actual pleasure. Anyone who did know her would recognize it as a cue to grab a weapon and run.
“You look like a Paul,” I said, ignoring the danger inherent in Becks’s expression. She might not be happy about having strangers in our van, but she could cope. In the back of my head, Georgia laughed. “Go ahead and close the door. I assume you know where we’re going?”
Paul slammed the van door and replied, “Just keep heading up the road. You’ll see the turnoff in about another twenty yards.”
“Awesome.” I started the van’s engine and began driving slowly down the uneven dirt road. Much to my surprise, the surface leveled out dramatically before we’d gone very much farther. The van stopped jarring and jouncing, settling into a more normal, smooth ride. The look on my face must have been good, because Nathan and Paul both burst out laughing.
“Oh, man, that gets you newbies every time!” said Paul, slapping his knee with one meaty lumberjack hand. “We maintain the road once you get far enough off the surface streets. Never know when you’re going to need to burn rubber without blowing an axle.”
“Yeah, that was high comedy,” I said, barely managing to keep the annoyance out of my voice. I couldn’t afford to get annoyed. Becks was already halfway there, and one of us needed to be the reasonable one.
I could do it, offered George.
One of us who actually had a body needed to be the reasonable one, I inwardly amended. “Where to next?” I asked.
“Keep going,” said Nathan. “You’ll know the turnoff when you see it.”
“Sure,” I said, and hit the gas a little harder, accelerating from two miles an hour to a more respectable five. The turnoff came into view a few seconds later, leading to a broad gravel road. Trees shaded it almost completely; I could tell just by looking at the branches that it would grant almost total protection from aerial surveillance.
Even Becks abandoned her suspicious observation of our passengers as she leaned forward to study the road, and pronounced her verdict: “Cool.”
“Very cool,” I agreed, and made the turn.
The trees that sheltered the road also cut off most visibility as we drove. That, too, was almost certainly intentional. We had been following the gravel road for about five minutes when it curved gently to the side, a last veil of foliage fell away, and we found ourselves facing a pre-Rising building that looked almost unchanged from those careless, bygone days. Unchanged except for the electrified fence with the barbed wire around the top, that is. The fence didn’t fit with any of the pictures I’d seen of pre-Rising architecture. The rest of the structure, however, was almost certainly older than I was, built when this area was a thriving tourist corridor, and not the blasted back end of nowhere. Two men were pulling the gate open.
A row of fuel pumps sat off to one side, inside the fence but distanced from the main building, as if they had been an afterthought. There was also a row of portable toilets, and what looked like a portable decontamination shower. These people had thought of everything, and then they’d jury-rigged it all with plastic sheets and duct tape.
“Welcome to Denny’s,” said Nathan.
I glanced over my shoulder at him as I pulled the van through the open gate and steered to a stop just outside a second, shorter fence. This one only encircled the main building. “I thought that was a diner chain.”
“It was. So was this.” He grinned. “We’re handy out here.”
“Really?” I turned back to the building, blinking. “I’ve never seen one with the windows intact.”
“We got lucky out here,” said Paul. “The Denny’s was already closed down when the Rising hit. They said it was an ‘economic downturn,’ and then the zombies came before anybody had to admit that we were having a depression. Good timing for everybody.”
“Except the people who got eaten,” said Becks.
“Well, true; probably not for them,” allowed Paul. He opened the van door, sliding out. His boots crunched when they hit the gravel. “Come on. Let’s see what we can work out in terms of trade.”
Nathan followed him out of the van. The two of them seemed to be perfectly at ease as they ambled toward the refitted diner. I stayed where I was for a moment, squinting at the trees.
Becks paused in the process of unbuckling her seat belt. “What?”
“We’re in the woods. Even if there aren’t any bears out here, there should be deer. So why are our friends so calm?” A glint of light high in a tree—in a spot where light had no business glinting—caught my eye. I jabbed a finger toward it, not caring if anyone saw me. “There. They have cameras in the trees. Possibly snipers, too. They were stalling us on the road while their people got into position.”
“Did anyone ever tell you that you really know how to make a girl feel all warm and fuzzy inside, Mason?”
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