And out came her fretful tone of voice. High-pitched and panicky, she didn’t even bother to try and rein it in. “No, you’re not, Finn.
You’re bleeding, aren’t you? And we need to figure out how to get the bullet out.”
“Later.” Finn turned his back on her and reached for his rifle in the back of the pick-up. Dismissing her, apparently, which didn’t work. She knew better now.
“Hey.” Ali slipped her good arm around his waist, pressed herself against his back. “Stop. Turn around.”
With an exaggerated sigh Finn did so, careful of bumping either of their shoulders. The lines around his beautiful pale green eyes were embedded deeply. “Al …”
“I love you.”
He canted his head. “I know, but you need to stay put when I tell you to.”
“Love means sticking together. Thick and thin. Good and bad.” She leant against him, rose up on her toes and kissed him. “I needed that.”
Finn put his pistol on the pick-up’s bed, stroked her neck with the tips of his fingers. The scent of blood and gunpowder was thick in the air. “I need you. I nearly lost you again today.”
She shrugged, put on a stoic face. “Things are bound to calm down eventually.”
Finn sighed, pressed his forehead against hers. “I’m gonna lock you up.”
“You’ll try. We’l fight. There’ll be make-up sex. Life goes on.”
“Sam said there was a dental nurse,” said Daniel. “She can dig out the bul et. I’m probably going to have to pop your shoulder back, babe. Sorry.”
“It’ll feel a lot better once it’s done,” Finn said.
“Okay.” She nodded, lips compressed. Her eyes stayed on Santa, huddled aside with a crying Erin. Things could have been much worse. Daniel and Finn stood beside her, close and comforting. So many dead lay about them. “We got off light, considering.”
Dan stopped to catch his breath. He leant against one of the big old jacarandas. A couple of members of the militia stumbled past, dragging bodies toward the mammoth bonfire burning bright at the top of Main Street. Several of Blackstone’s remaining citizens stood close to the funeral pyre, saying prayers. Mourning. There was no time for burials and no space in the little town cemetery. And fresh blood attracted infected.
Long as he lived, he didn’t think he’d ever forget the smel of the bodies burning. Twenty-one of the townsfolk were dead. A hel of a toll. Lindsay’s body had also been consigned to the fire. So too had the remains of the slain infected, including Rachel and Owen.
Death made all things equal.
Ali and Finn lay tucked up in bed, safe and sound. Finn had wanted to be down here, overseeing things, but Ali wouldn’t rest without him. She’d won this round with the use of big, sad eyes and a healthy dose of common sense. The dental nurse, a lovely lady by the name of Lila, had dug the bullet out of Finn without too much hassle. Fortunately, it hadn’t been deep, but the kid had still lost a good amount of blood. Dan had popped his girl’s shoulder back in. Her pretty face had blanked, and she’d passed out for a couple of minutes, her skin whiter than he’d ever seen. It felt like his heart had stopped. Causing her pain, no matter the reason, was not on his list of things to ever repeat. It had all left his nerves a little raw.
Maybe Finn was right. Maybe they should lock her up. Something to consider. He sighed, hung his head. She’d just figure out how to pick locks.
They were all okay. They were good. Everyone would recover. Unlike Sam.
Dawn neared, the sky a hazy mix of violet and pink in the east. The renewed build-up of infected on the other side of the wall slowly dispersed, the moaning and groaning gradually calming. They’d attracted more than their fair share of attention tonight with al the noise and commotion.
Time was running out for Santa. In the eight to ten hour incubation period a fever took hold, causing the person to sweat profusely.
Skin turned from tan or pink to an eerie gray. With the light of dawn, Dan could al too easily see the toll the sickness took in Santa’s sunken eyes. It was hard to look at him, but even harder to look away. Any minute now, Santa could turn from man to mindless predator. Erin remained at her father’s side, posture rigid and face set. She wasn’t crying. Her hand lingered on the butt of the pistol holstered at her side. Waiting.
Her father was filling his last hours with organizing the small community before the virus took him. Talking to everyone. Solidifying the council. He had already asked Finn to step up and take a seat. Erin would lead them for now. The locals weren’t ready for so much new blood so fast. Finn had agreed.
“She shouldn’t have to do that,” said Sean, the militia captain, tipping his chin at Erin and her pistol.
He and his men had helped hunt down the last of the infected inside the walls. Then they’d moved on to the grisly job of dealing with the dead in a respectful but efficient manner.
Everyone watched the newcomers, waiting for a misstep. Acceptance wouldn’t come easily. Considering how trigger-happy folks were feeling after the carnage tonight, it wouldn’t take much for al hel to break loose once more. The militia seemed to appreciate that fact, moving slowly, wary of spooking anyone. There were lots of sincere nods and wary greetings. As to their true intentions, time would tell. The fact remained that the town needed them. The wal wasn’t without its weaknesses.
And who knew what the hel else was out there, ready and waiting to come at them?
“I agree. Erin shouldn’t have to deal with her own flesh and blood.” Dan stretched, cracked his neck and winced. Another death on his hands. Better his than Erin’s.
They walked toward the small group. A couple of remaining Council members with grave faces stood beside Erin and her father. It wouldn’t be long now. Dan had seen the signs often enough to know.
“Wait,” Sean said, watching the scene with tired eyes. “It’s already being taken care of.”
Two militia men were waiting close by, behind Erin, out of her line of sight.
Santa turned to his daughter and his whole body started shaking, twitching. He clutched his arms to his chest. “I, ahh … I may have left it too late.”
Erin’s face fel but she nodded.
One of the strangers stepped up to Erin, put a hand to her elbow. He leant in close, mouth moving fast. Whatever he said was too soft to hear.
“Let him.” Santa fel to his knees, lips curling back in a pained snarl. “Do it!”
“No!” Erin leapt forward, toward her father, as a low growl escaped him. His fingers curled into claws and his eyes rolled back into his head, tremors racking his body. The stranger grabbed her, hauling her back.
The second militia man drew and fired, the blast of his revolver echoing through the quiet town, reverberating off the neat lines of old buildings.
Santa’s body tumbled to the ground. Dead.
Erin gasped, mouth slack and eyes wide. The man who held her released her, drawing back. But a hand remained stretched out to her, in case she stumbled.
Daniel swore fervently beneath his breath. Aah, man. What a thing for her to have to see.
Her fingers flexed and closed, flexed and closed as she stared down at her father, lying in an expanding pool of blood. Somewhere in the distance kookaburras started laughing, greeting the dawn. The wood in the funeral pyre popped and crackled, the scent of charred flesh heavy on the breeze. Daniel swallowed back the nausea. Death wasn’t something you ever got used to. Not really.
Erin spun and stepped up to the man who had killed her father. His gun was stil in his hand. Her fist caught him fair in the face, slamming into his cheekbone, leaving a smear of blood in her wake. She drew her hand back again, her intent clear.
The man grimaced, straightened and holstered his gun. He stood tall, not moving an inch, with his eyes wide open, waiting to take anything she had to give him. Not saying a word.
Her fist trembled in the air between them, wavering.
Erin’s shoulders crumpled first, caving in. Her hand fell next, spine bowing and knees folding. She made no noise at all as she knelt beside her father’s body.
Captain Manning nodded at the two men standing guard behind the woman. “They’ll look after her.”
Daniel raised a brow.
“You’d have her live with kil ing her father on her conscience?” the captain asked.
“No. Just curious about exactly how they’re going to ‘look after her.’”
Sean’s tired gaze stayed on him a long time. “We realize we’re going to have to prove ourselves.” He narrowed his eyes at Erin. She remained huddled beside Santa’s corpse. “It’ll be easier for her to hate them than herself, or anyone else here for having to kill him.
They’ll look after her by dealing with his body, if she wants, when she’s ready. They’l make sure no one bothers her if she wants to be left alone. That’s al .”
Daniel rolled out his lips. “Yeah. That’s what I thought you meant.”
“You think you’re funny, don’t you?” asked the captain in a low tone.
“No, not particularly. Sure as hell, not right now.” Dan smothered a yawn, widened his stance. “You’l get your chance to prove yourselves. Be careful though. People are going to be edgy for a while. It’d be sad if there were any accidents and one of you got shot by mistake.”
The captain’s eyes lit with a wolfish grin. “Wouldn’t it be?”
“Now then, I’m just saying.”
Sean grunted, frowned off into the distance. “How did the world get so fucked up?”
“Dunno. Why don’t we all just concentrate on helping each other stay alive, hmm?”
“Believe me, that’s the plan.”
Un-fucking-believable, they were arguing again.
Finn climbed the steps silently. Loath to interrupt, because not all arguments were bad. Especially not if the room reeked of sex.