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“It’s one of my best qualities,” I said. I climbed out of my seat to exit through the van’s rear door, grabbing the first of the boxes of trading supplies as I passed it. Becks followed me, muttering something under her breath. Not for the first time, I was glad that George was the only woman who had a direct line to the inside of my head.

You’d go crazy if there was more than one of us in here, said George.

I smothered a snort of laughter and didn’t say anything at all.

Nathan and Paul were waiting by the second fence when Becks and I came walking up to them. This gate was standing open, with no blood test in evidence. Nathan must have seen the surprise in our faces. He shrugged, scarecrow shoulders jerking up and down in a sharp, birdlike motion as he said, “We can’t afford the kind of paranoia you get out there in civilization. Unless we’ve got reason to think you’ve been exposed, we handle our outbreaks the old-fashioned way.”

“With bullets,” added Paul, just in case we were too dumb to get the point.

“Yeah, thanks for that,” I said. Hoisting my box of trade goods, I asked, “Is this where we get down to business, or can we go inside first?”

“Sure thing,” said Nathan. “Indy’s got coffee on.” He beckoned for us to follow as he stepped into the circle of ground protected by the fence. Paul stayed where he was. They weren’t going to let us get behind them both once we were past the gate. Smart. I like people who can manage to be paranoid and smart at the same time. They’re usually the ones who make it out of any given situation still breathing.

“Any chance I could get a Coke?” I asked. Becks glared at me as we followed him past the fence. Unsurprisingly, Paul swung the gate shut behind us, leaving himself on the other side.

“I’m not comfortable leaving the van unattended,” said Becks.

“If you’re worried we’ll loot it, don’t be,” said Nathan. “If you pass the last checkpoint, we’ll give you gas and supplies and whatever else you need, and no one will touch anything you don’t trade freely. We’re civilized here. That’s probably why the Doc told you to come see us.”

I winced a little. One of our former team members, Kelly Connolly, went by “Doc” most of the time. My choice, not hers. She’s dead now, like so many others. “And if we fail the last checkpoint?” I asked.

“It’s not looting to take from the dead,” said Nathan implacably. He opened the diner door and stepped inside.

“And on that cheery note…” muttered Becks.

Durno v. Wisconsin was the case that decided the dead had no rights regarding property on or around their immediate persons at the time of death, making it perfectly legal to take a zombie’s car and claim it as your own. It’s been abused a few times over the years. It’s still seen, and rightly, as one of the best legal decisions to come out of the Rising. I mean, who has the time to transfer a pink slip in the middle of a zombie uprising?

“At least there’s coffee.” I caught the diner door as it was in the process of swinging closed, indicating the doorway with a grandiose sweep of my free arm. “Ladies first.”

“What, ass**les second?” asked Becks—but she smiled as she stepped inside, and that was what I’d been shooting for. I followed her into the surprisingly bright interior. The windows must have been tinted to make it harder to tell that people still used the place. That made a lot of sense. The infected don’t seem to recognize light as a sign of possible human habitation. The police do.

The last Denny’s in California closed years ago, when the new food service and hygiene laws were still shaking out. I was pretty sure this one had been heavily modified from the original floor plan, since I can’t imagine many “family diners” would have ammo racks or hospital beds in the middle of their dining areas. A few booths were intact, cherry-red vinyl upholstery patched with strips of duct tape. Most had been ripped out, replaced with wire convenience store shelving. About half the shelves were empty. The rest were filled with packaged snack foods, first aid supplies, and the necessities of life: toilet paper, tampons, and cheap alcohol.

The diner’s original counter was also intact. Standing behind it was a tall African-American woman with strips of bright purple fabric wound around her dreadlocks and a suspicious expression on her face. She had a pistol in either hand. I was relieved to see that they were pointing downward, rather than aimed at us. Somehow, I didn’t think she’d hesitate for a second before shooting us both.

“Indy, these are the folks that our cameras caught coming down the old post road,” said Nathan. “They say the Doc sent ’em. They need to gas up.”

“Hi,” I said. “Nice place you’ve got here.”

“Hello,” said Becks.

Indy frowned, eyes narrowing. “What’s the password?” she asked.

Becks blinked. “There isn’t one.” Then she froze, tensing. I did the same. If these people had been looking for an excuse to shoot us, our not knowing the password would probably count.

Hold on, cautioned George. Look at her face.

Indy was smiling. She looked a lot less menacing that way. “See, if you hadn’t been from the Doc, you would have tried to make something up. Welcome to Shantytown.”

“Is that the name of this place?” asked Becks.

“Hell, no. They’re all Shantytown. That way, no one can ever really give away a location. Nathan says you’ve come looking for fuel?”

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