Daniel leant in to brush her bruised cheek with a quick kiss. “God, I’m sorry, baby. You alright? Keeping it together?”
No. Not really. “Yep.”
“Atta girl.” Daniel winked and sat back on his haunches, dealing the stranger an assessing look. He raised his chin and gazed at the guy frankly. “You saved our asses, all power to you. And yet …”
“Finn Edwards. I was an officer, a cop, before …”
“A cop,” Ali echoed in surprise.
“Yeah. For what it’s worth.” The stranger took a hefty gulp of water. She tried not to notice the blood stains on his arm and the sleeve of his blue t-shirt. No uniform, just jeans and a t-shirt. What use would a police uniform be? The blood and gore would have been from those two bastards on the floor with their throats missing. Two people he had dispatched to protect her. It was surreal.
Her hands started shaking. About time the rabbit hopped back onto the scene. “You’re really a cop?”
“Hang on. I’ve got my badge in my pack.” Finn hopped up and made for a pack waiting by the half-torn away shed door. He returned with a black leather wallet and flipped it open with practiced ease, displaying the shiny silver shield within and a picture ID. “If it helps any.”
His jeans were hitched up on one side; a knife in its sheath jutted out from one of his big brown hiking boots. What a weapon.
Probably the one he had used to slit those throats.
“You haven’t told me your name.” Finn bent down, putting himself back into her line of vision. He cocked his head, smiled briefly.
More choirboy than killer.
“I’m Ali. This is Daniel.” She tried to smile back, but the expression wouldn’t quite work. “Why were you following us?”
Finn rubbed his chin with the palm of his hand, his forehead furrowed. “I spotted you two on the highway heading west yesterday, heard the gunshot the day before. I figured I’d follow. A man and a woman alone … perhaps you don’t want company. Making new friends is difficult these days; there are a lot of dangers to consider. You weren’t likely to just accept whoever came along.”
He hesitated, seeming much older for a moment, and very serious. “Humans are social creatures. I didn’t realize how much until nearly everyone was gone. Then there’s security, safety in numbers …”
Daniel made a noise. She couldn’t tell what the noise meant, but apparently, it made sense to Finn. He nodded solemnly in reply.
“They got the drop on you. No offense intended. They were halfwits, but they were trained halfwits. They came prepared and they outnumbered you.” Finn gave the badge in his hand a long look, eyes going blank. “I can help you protect her,” he said to Daniel.
Daniel cocked his head. “And what do you want in return for this help?”
“Good question.” Ali pulled herself up, let her hand drop down to rest atop the gun beside her. Hopeful y, a valiant show of strength.
Finn tracked the movement. “No, Ali. Guys … I’m not asking for that. Shit.” He kept his hands low and out front. “Eventually you two are going to run across more people and not all of them are going to be assholes. Eventually, you’re going to want to find someplace safe, settle down, rebuild. That’s what I want. I want to know there’s something after all this. Us banding together, that’s a beginning.”
And what was Daniel’s take on this?
Her boyfriend shrugged, gave her a small nod. She had to make the final decision. Odd, Dan had pushed at every turn up until now.
Finn’s elegant face was al seriousness. Pale green eyes honed in on her. It felt like his hopes were on a tight leash, but his heart was on his sleeve. He had seemed so contained, controlled, but not so much now. She knew what it was to be alone and without hope.
“You want to be friends,” she said, feeling her way tentatively. She’d lucked out with trusting Daniel. Twice in one week might be pushing it. But Finn had saved them from certain horrible deaths. There was a familiar edge of desperation in his eyes, a craving. She’d seen it in Daniel and she’d also seen it in the mirror a time or two. Everyone was scared of something these days. Her rabbit heart sped and her skin felt too small. She couldn’t leave him on his own without hating herself a little. They’d just have to take the risk.
“I want to be friends,” he said.
“I appreciate what you did for us in there. Stepping in when you didn’t even know us.”
His eyes searched her face. “I’ll have your back, Ali. I promise.”
“Okay.” She stopped, sniffed the air. “I smell fire. It’s close.”
The supermarket was burning but it wasn’t alone. Thick plumes of black smoke rose into the air, much too reminiscent of the bombings down south for Finn’s peace of mind. He had enough to contend with without lobbing flashbacks into the mix.
Every now and then a car would go, exploding as the spark hit the gas tank and “whoosh”. He had to empty his mind, de-escalate the tension and get on with the job. Depend upon his training. Things were getting more dangerous by the second as infected stumbled out of nearby buildings, lured by the noise and drama.
It could work for or against them.
The gunmen were having fun for the moment, setting the whole world on fire, but still making their gradual, inexorable way toward them. The drugs and liquor and whatever they were on were slowing them down, but not stopping them.
As a fear tactic, the extra fires worked a treat.
“They’re helping the blaze along.” The big guy, the civilian, Daniel, scowled in the direction of the bonfire.
It was far too fucking close for comfort in Finn’s professional opinion. “Let’s get moving.”
Daniel helped Al to her feet, tucked a strand of hair carefully behind her ear. It was a tender moment that spoke volumes. The way the big guy could step into her personal space without her blinking. The way he could touch her.
Finn watched while Daniel melded his hands to the curves of her hips. Al fit the length of her body against him. It hadn’t even occurred to Finn that he wanted that, not until right then.
A thorn caught in his throat.
Okay, it had occurred to him. Of course it had. The usual hot, sweaty thoughts passed through his mind. But this was specific, wanting to fit her against him.
Just. Like. That.
“Baby, good to go?” Daniel asked. “We need some distance from these dickheads.”
Al didn’t look good. She was dazed, the bruise on the side of her face bloomed in dark gray and blue. The gun was stil in her hand and at the ready. What were the odds of her shooting straight with a concussion to guide her? Shit.
“What about a car?” she whispered.
Finn cleared his throat, and her eyes darted to him nervously. “Ali, there’s still four of them that we know of. Going further into the center of town would be a bad idea. Probably we’d be flanked with more infected around to manage. Plus, they came from that direction; they’l know the area. There’s only one road heading back to the highway from here, and it’s a mess. We’d be slowed down and exposed. If we made it to the highway there’s too much open space. They would run us to ground.”
Al’s arms tightened around Daniel. She opened her mouth and nodded slowly, her gaze at her feet.
Finn didn’t blame her in the least. While he might not like the report, he would give it fully.
“I didn’t think of that,” she said.
Finn settled his pack over his shoulders. He picked up a pistol, double-checking the clip, from habit more than necessity. It was full.
“To sum up, a car or a bike would be bad. Stealth is more important right now.”
“What’s your plan, then?” Daniel asked. He deferred without antagonism. This time at least. They didn’t have time to butt heads and clash antlers.
The man ran a hand down Al’s back. Part territorial, part reassuring himself maybe. It had to be killing him what had gone down in the supermarket. Her getting hurt because of him, no matter the circumstances.
Finn knew he’d been right. All round nice guy or not, Daniel could not keep her safe. Not like Finn could.
Not like Finn would if it came down to it, when it came down to it. Daniel could fend for himself.
“There’s a river about a kilometer west. I say we make for—” An almighty explosion shook him, the ground trembling beneath his feet. It was soon followed by a second. No time for talk. “They’re getting closer. Let’s go.”
They ran, keeping careful and low. They dashed from shed to shed, then along a line of dumpsters.
Ali did wel to keep up, sequestered between them. Daniel led. Finn found it easier on his concentration if he could keep her in sight.
She was less of a distraction right in front of him than she would have been behind.
Plus, the assholes were back there.
Flames roared in the distance, but they could stil hear the pack of gunmen over the fiery cacophony. They yelled and fired their guns into the air. The assholes were doing their best to round them up and hunt them down.
Suburbia surrounded the shopping precinct, older-style wooden buildings mixed in with newer brick and tile.
They moved as fast as they could. Daniel helped Al scale a chest-high wire fence while Finn stood guard. A few feet from the ground, she lost her footing and tumbled down, landing hard. The big guy hurried down there in a flurry of action. He landed deftly beside her while she stood and rubbed at her fine ass.
“Umm, I’m okay.”
Daniel cupped her chin and gave her a good long look. “Hurt anything?”
“My butt, my pride, otherwise, no.”
The big man gave a tight nod, walked her back from the fence so there was room for Finn amongst the shrubbery. “Come on over.
We’d better keep moving.”
Finn got up and over while the big guy watched their back trail, gun in one hand, Ali in the other.
Moaning drifted up from within some of the houses where the infected had been sheltering from the daylight. The situation grew worse.