Chapter Thirty Three

Edward had feared for a minute as Billy Horton gave him the keys to a rusty old Ford pickup that it would be like the van, complete with controls and features he didn’t know how to operate. But it was a good old model, probably ugly-looking under the hood from all the jury-rigged parts, but it ran and that was all that mattered. He must have been slipping. He was starting to actually like the sight of Fords.

He gave Horton all the right assurances that he would be in contact soon and took the keys from the man, all the time trying not to act like he was in a hurry. He didn’t know how many men Horton had out there or even if they searched for their zombies anywhere near the van, but he felt now like he was running against a clock.

He sped down the highway as fast as the truck would take him, which unfortunately wasn’t that fast anymore. He ignored the way the truck shimmied horribly with every bump and pothole in the road and how it felt like it might shake apart if it went anything over forty-five. After what felt like too long he saw the van in the ditch, although instead of making him sigh with relief it made him wince. The dust and dirt hadn’t done much at all to keep it from being visible from the road. If anyone else had been along here recently, they had definitely seen it.

He pulled the truck right up next to the ditch and hopped out, leaving the engine running. The van looked exactly as he had left it, but he wasn’t reassured until he scrambled down into the ditch, opened the back door, and saw Liddie sitting there. The smell inside the van was horrible now, and not because of the pheromones. The zombie bowel issue had apparently finally hit her.

“It’s okay, Liddie,” he said. “When you wake back up I will completely deny that this ever happened. Now come on, we need to get out of here right now.” He held his hands out for her to grab so he could help her out, but she just stared at them. Although he didn’t like doing it, he tried giving her a little nudge with the pheromones. All respect for her aside, they didn’t have time to do this the right way. They could have minutes or they could have hours before any of Horton’s men found them, but he had no way of knowing for sure and didn’t plan on risking it.

He must have fumbled a little with his control of the pheromones, because she froze and looked around frantically. He tried again, and this time she came to him. He helped her out, taking just enough time to give her a strong, heartfelt hug and a kiss on the cheek.

“Time to get the hell out of Dodge,” Edward said, then held her hand to lead her out of the ditch. He looked up, trying to find a hand hold that she could use too with the right cajoling from him, and instead saw the barrel of a rifle pointed right at him.

The man holding the gun stood in the back of the truck, and the shocked look on his face would have been priceless if not for the threatening way he held the weapon. “Don’t move, freak,” the man said. “Don’t you dare fucking move.”

He kept the rifle pointed at Edward with one hand as he pulled a cell phone out of his pocket with the other. He pressed a button and held it to his ear. “Billy, your guess paid off, but you are never in a million years going to believe the sick shit I just saw…No, he’s got a zed with him, had it hidden out in some abandoned van, but you need…Yeah, I can do that. But hurry up, though. I don’t want to hang around this perverted bastard any longer than I have to.”

He put the phone back in his pocket. “You’re going to be in some deep shit now, you twisted fuck,” he said.

Edward stared at the guy and tried to wrap his head around the situation. It was obvious by now that the man had been in the back of the truck the whole time. Edward had been in too much of a hurry to look back there. But that didn’t make a lot of sense to him.

“What exactly is going on here?” Edward asked. “What are you doing in the back of my truck?”

“Not your truck, fuckstick. This is Billy Horton’s truck.”

“Which he gave to me.”

“Oh, wake the fuck up. He only let you have the truck because he realized there was something seriously fucking wrong with your story. I was up there in the tower with Bert when you came in. What, you think we’re all just dumb fucking hicks that can’t tell which way Denver is? You didn’t come from the south, you came in from the west.”

Edward debated whether or not he should deny it and try to continue on with his cover story. They obviously knew he wasn’t what he said he was, but maybe he could sow enough doubt in this man’s mind that he would let his guard down. After all, he really didn’t want to be still standing here when Horton showed back up.

“That’s because that’s where our research equipment was set up,” Edward said. “I swear to God, I wasn’t lying about any of it. I just want to get this nightmare over with and go home.”

“Really? And what the fuck was that I saw when you let that thing out of the van, huh?”

Edward would have cussed if he didn’t still think there might be a way to get out of this. This man had seen the kiss. Edward looked over at Liddie and tried to decide if she could still pass at all for being alive. She might, he realized, if the man didn’t get too close of a look at her. She was still fresh enough, although if the man got a real close look he might see all the telltale signs that she was a zombie. Of course, no one in their right mind would get that close to zombies. They would go in for the attack if they so much as got a glimpse of a living person.

Which, Edward suddenly realized, was exactly what she had right now. She was looking directly up at the man in the back of the truck, yet she made no move to go after him. Either Edward was holding her back with the pheromones without even realizing it, or there was still enough of her in there to think about the situation and act accordingly. He prayed to God it was the second. Either way, that gave him an idea.

“What the hell do you mean, ‘that thing?’“ he said. “This is Dr. Gates.”

“Bullshit. Do you think I was born yesterday? I know a fucking zed when I see one.”

“How the hell could she be a reanimated?” Edward asked. “If she was, she would be trying to kill both of us by now.”

The man looked confused at that, and he lowered the rifle a little. It was still pointed at Edward, but that was a step in the right direction.

“Yeah, I guess that’s weird,” the man said. “But just look at her. She’s not moving and she’s not talking.”

“She’s in shock, okay?” Edward said. “The entire rest of our team was killed. She hasn’t said a thing since then.”

The rifle lowered just a little more. That was good, but this was taking too long. If Horton was coming out here in a vehicle like this truck, he wouldn’t arrive that quickly. But if he had something better—and Edward had to assume that this truck here was the worst thing Horton had, just in case Edward really had been about to take it somewhere else—then going at a flat-out speed even over the rough road still wouldn’t take very long. For all Edward knew, Horton had already been on his way when the man called in. He had to hurry this up.

“Why didn’t you bring her with you into Laramie?” the man asked.

Edward decided a little bit of pretend outrage was in order. “Are you fucking deaf? I just said she was in shock. It was hard enough getting her this far. I saw this abandoned van and thought she would be safe here as I went into town.” He toned his voice down, going this time for pleading. “Please, just let us go. I’m telling you the truth. Why the hell would I lie?”

The man hesitated a moment longer, then lowered the rifle completely. Edward found it ironic that such a question was what finally convinced him. It never occurred to the guy that a lie could be more believable than the truth.

“Shit,” the man said. “I’m really sorry. It’s just Horton had this feeling about you, and his hunches are usually right. He thought you might be hiding something out here.” He climbed over the truck’s tailgate, leaned the rifle against the nearest tire, and bent down to offer Edward a hand up out of the ditch.

“Apology accepted,” Edward said. He grabbed the man’s hand and yanked. The man lost his balance and tumbled into the ditch. Before he could move from his landing spot Edward kicked him square in the ribs. Whether it was because Edward lost his focus for a second or the sudden action spooked her, Liddie came out of her calm moment and went straight for the prone man on the ground.

“Liddie, no!” Edward screamed. He used that same burst of random pheromones that had stopped the teenage zombie back at the CRS, and it was just as effective in stopping Liddie. But that didn’t feel like enough to Edward. It wasn’t enough to just confuse her. He felt like he had to appeal to that part of her he still knew was inside, to bring it closer to the surface. The man moaned on the ground, apparently not aware yet that a zombie stood right over him and wanted desperately to rip him apart. Edward pulled back slightly on his control of her, talking all the while.

“You don’t want to do this. You have it in you to resist all those urges. I know you can.” He didn’t want to add that he hadn’t been able to do that himself, mostly because he didn’t want to hear it. She could be the one that was different, he just knew it. “Just leave him where he is, and let’s get up to the truck. Can you do that? Can you follow me?”

He felt her own pheromones struggling against him, trying to convince him to join her in eating this thing, this prey. In fact, the honey scent was far stronger than it should have been. After a moment Edward realized what had to be happening. There were other zombies coming this way. He could smell at least two other sources of pheromones, and they themselves had picked up the traces of meat in the air. Between Liddie and the two approaching arrivals, Edward thought maybe it wouldn’t be the best idea to try letting Liddie be herself right now. The urge from the pheromones would be too great, and as much as this man had pissed Edward off, he didn’t want Liddie to get her first taste of human flesh just yet. In fact, if he had his way she never would. When she finally came back, she would be able to do it with a clear conscience.

That left him with a choice, though. He couldn’t take this guy with them, but did he really want to leave him here to possibly get eaten? Did he really deserve that fate? He could leave the rifle behind, far enough away that the man could reach it before the zombies got here but not before Edward and Liddie made a clean getaway. That meant, however, that the zombies would be the ones to get shot, or worse, get taken back to Horton’s hideous arena. They might not have been real people to anyone else, but they were real enough to Edward and they hadn’t asked for the fate this man would give them.

This wasn’t a decision Edward was ready for yet. Human or zombie? Where did his loyalties really lie?

Edward pulled Liddie up the side of the ditch, then quickly ushered her around to the passenger side of the truck. After she was in he ran back to look into the ditch. The man was just starting to get up, and Edward could now see the two zombies coming up over a hill about five hundred feet away. He grabbed the rifle, hefted it in his hands like it could tell him the right answer that way, then made his decision and threw the rifle in the back of the truck (although this time he looked to make sure there was nothing else back there other than the tarp the intruder had hid under). The guy could get away easily enough if he ran, but the zombies wouldn’t have a chance if he had the gun. It was the closest thing he could think of to a win-win.

Edward got in the driver’s side, ignoring the way the guy screamed at him from the ditch, and pulled a tight u-turn so he was headed back east on the highway. This time he ignored the way the truck creaked and groaned with every crack and hole in the road. He didn’t have time to worry about making sure the truck survived. Horton would be on his way, and in all likelihood he would be coming up this very stretch of road. If Edward had known anything about the local terrain he might have tried to find a way around that wouldn’t possibly result in a confrontation, but Edward couldn’t risk getting lost or stranded so close to Laramie. His time here had been brief, but he’d already worn out his welcome.

He could see something coming toward him from over a mile away, but he couldn’t see exactly what yet. Whatever the vehicle, Edward had to assume it was Horton and he wasn’t going to just let Edward go by easily. He briefly hoped for a moment that Horton would think he was the other guy coming to meet him, but Horton seemed to have told him to wait at the van, and Horton didn’t seem like the kind of guy that many people chose to disobey. Also, Edward realized, the guy back at the van had still had his phone on him. He’d probably already told Horton exactly what had happened, complete with lurid tales of Edward kissing a zombie. No, Edward realized, this was about to get very ugly.

He could see now that the other vehicle had started out its life as a truck, but it didn’t look much like one anymore. A cowcatcher had been mounted to the front, and it had been jacked up and given larger wheels. The whole thing still looked rusty and decrepit, but there was no mistaking that this thing had been built to not let anything in the road stop it. It was moving straight down the middle of the highway, and as soon as the two vehicles were close enough to see each other it moved over so it was heading directly at Edward on the right side.

It had to be Horton, but he didn’t look like he had any intention of playing nice. He was going to catch Edward in a game of chicken, yet Horton had no reason to be the first to back down. In a head-on collision, Edward would obviously be the one to lose.

Suddenly Edward was painfully aware that neither he nor Liddie were wearing their seat belts.