Zeke-Chapter 4

The world swam into focus, just shapes above him, shadows in the night. He only began to feel alarmed when the shadows took the shape of people, standing over him where he slept. He tried to pull himself up, to try and at least get to a place where he could fight back, but his arms were stuck. He looked at his wrists and saw the dull gray of duct tape trapping his wrists together.

“Who are you?” Zeke asked of the shapes. It was still dark out and they were night incarnate as they looked down upon him.

One of them moved, reaching towards Zeke. For a moment, it was ma, reaching her burnt hand to comfort him, and he almost screamed. It was too easy to see those blackened fingers crushing down on his windpipe, choking the life out of him, whispering, “You’ll like being dead.” It was almost a relief when the shadow only put more duct tape over his frozen mouth.

They pulled him up and Zeke caught his first sight of one of them, an older man with a curly beard streaked with gray. His eyes were hidden in the shadow of his brow and Zeke could only see the wrinkled forehead and bent nose.

Then they pulled a bag over his head and the world vanished. He heard one of them whisper, “Don’t forget his bag.” And then they were leading him, down the steps of the bus. They were walking through the cool of the morning. The only sound was their footsteps, really just the scuffing of boots.

He tried falling back, thinking he might be able to put some distance between him and the others. Then maybe he could make a run for it, shake off the bag over his head, find someplace he could cut the tape off his hands—

His planning was cut short when he felt a metal cylinder press into his back. A gun. He wondered if it was his own .38 Special, pressing into his spine with its cold dead weight.

“Make any moves and I put a slug right in your ass, kid. Don’t be a goddamn fool,” whispered a voice in his ear.

After that, he just kept pace with them. They walked for a long time, for an eternity it seemed. Before they came to the stop, they’d passed through a set of doors, with hinges that screamed heavily as they swung. Zeke thought that they must have been huge doors—they settled closed with the clang of metal on metal.

Then another door opened, quieter than the first, and it was dank and cold within. The others pushed him inside and then slammed the door behind him. There was a scraping sound and an echoing click. He recognized the sound immediately. It was the sound of a door being locked.

And that meant that Zeke was trapped.

*          *          *

He finally managed to lose the bag over his head, shaking it loose as he lay on the ground. He got to his feet—no mean accomplishment with his hands still tied together. He was in a small room without any furnishing. The outside wall was red brick. The rest was beige stone. It had a feeling of solidity. It had withstood the end of the world and it looked like it could withstand the next thousand years.

The window had the same wire mesh as the bus and it was covered with a layer of filth. It looked east, since he could see the sun rising over the hills on the other side of the bay. Closer was a stone tower. There was a perch atop the tower, just a steel and glass enclosure with floodlights perched on its ceiling. They were dead; they likely hadn’t shed light in the past century. The tower stood in the middle of a field, something he almost turned away from without interest. Until he saw how well-ordered the plants were, how there were formed into rows. These weren’t wild fields of brush and weed, growing haphazardly. It was farmland.

He turned away from the window, more confused than ever. Still, it didn’t matter what he’d managed to get himself into, he needed out. He saw that they’d tossed his messenger bag against the opposite wall, right next to the door. He tried the door, knowing it was useless. All he learned was that the door was made of metal, and that it was locked from the outside, since the doorknob turned while the door itself refused to budge. Locks on the outside of doors , mesh on the window, the strangely solid construction…

He realized that he was in a prison. He’d heard of San Quentin before, but he hadn’t known where it was. He certainly hadn’t known that he was sleeping right next to it.

He opened his bag and saw that the water was still there, The Once and Future King, what little food he had, and even his ammo, all nestled in the bag. Only the revolver was missing. Why would they have left everything there for him and abandoned him in a locked room?

He grabbed the bottle of water that was the least full, handling it as well as he could with his hands tied. He grimaced and then threw it against the wall, where it shattered in a spray of water. He regretted the loss, but he had to use the resources at hand. He grabbed the thickest chunk of glass he could find and started rubbing at the duct tape. It was a sharp angle and he kept jabbing his own wrist. By the time he’d worked through the tape, he had sheared away a flap of skin on the inside of his wrist, which beaded over with blood as he watched. He pulled off the tape, which took a stripe of hair from off the back of his wrists, leaving his skin raw and bare.

There was a clicking sound at the door; they were coming back. He thought they must have been brought by the sound of a shattering bottle. Still holding the chunk of glass, he moved right next to the door, pressing his back into the wall.

The door swung in, hiding Zeke, as the man with the curly beard and hair stepped inside. As soon as he was in, Zeke pushed the door closed and pressed the bottle into the man’s neck. He was tall and Zeke had to reach just barely upward to find the flesh of his neck. The man had a gun in his hand, something low caliber for self-defense.

“Drop your gun,” said Zeke.

The man was calm. His hands were spread out before him, though the gun was still firmly grasped. “I don’t think you’re going to want to do this, Son.”

“I didn’t ask for advice. I told you to drop your gun.”

He chuckled, just a little, the sound of it like the rumble of an avalanche. “Son, if you took the chance to look out that window, then you saw the tower out front. There’s always a sentry up there, and he waits day in and day out, just praying for someone to shoot. You try to get out of here, and he’ll get his wish, I promise you that.”

Zeke hadn’t seen anyone in the tower, but he hadn’t really been looking, either.

“Son, if you give me a chance, you’ll be fine. We’ll both go our separate ways. But if you kill me, you’ll be shot before you can get away.”

It only took a moment for Zeke to realize that the man was right. Even if there wasn’t someone in that tower, ready with a rifle round with Zeke’s name on it, there were other people here. People he would have to fight, perhaps kill, before he could get out. This was more than a single scavenger or even a band of them. This was a settlement.

He dropped the glass and moved away from the man, backing deeper into the room with his hands held up. The man turned to Zeke, lifting the gun that seemed like a miniature in his giant hand. Then he tucked it into a holster strapped to his chest. Zeke noticed that he didn’t put the strap over the butt of the gun; he could have it out in a second if he wanted to shoot Zeke. For now, though, they merely eyed each other from across the room.

“What’s your name?” asked the man.

“Zeke,” he answered. “And yours?”

“Johnny Pritchett,” he said, his eyes glimmering in the darkness above a wide grin. “An honor to meet a fellow reader.” When Zeke looked at him strangely, he said, “You do know how to read, right? You ain’t keeping that book for the extra weight, I assume.” He nodded to the canvas messenger bag, still leaned up against the wall by the door.

“Yeah, I can read. You have books here?”

Johnny nodded. “Yessir, we do. We got the whole prison library. Everything from the Bible to Ulysses. We don’t got that one there, though. The Once and Future King. Sounds mighty fine.”

He’d already realized he was in a prison, but hearing it out loud made Zeke’s breath hitch in his chest. “What is this place?” Zeke asked.

Johnny raised his hands, stretching them out towards the walls. “This here is the Free Colony of San Quentin, Son.”

“Why did you decide to live here?” asked Zeke. This place had an eerie feeling, like the walls were closing in on him.

“Same things that made it a good prison also make it a great fortress. Those towers give us the edge. And even if some troublemakers give our snipers the slip, the walls will keep them out just as good as they kept dirtbags in. We want to live a life aside from the world and I’m of a mind that there ain’t a place better built to keep us safe from the Vultures. We got the room to grow our own food between the parking lot we tore up out front and the prison yard, places to sleep even if they ain’t comfortable, and safety from the walls. Way I see it, we got it better than most. Even if the caravans ain’t trading with us no more.”

The Vultures. Zeke thought that was a very apt name for the scavengers.

“Why don’t the caravans trade with you anymore?” asked Zeke. He was expecting it to be the bridge again, the same bridge which had killed travel from New Frisco to Sausalito.

“We refused to swear fealty to the mayor of New Frisco, Abram Saunders. So he told any caravaners that they could make a choice: trade with us, or trade with the city. Not hard to see why they don’t come by no more.”

Now the name made sense. The Free Colony of San Quentin. Free from Saunders and New Frisco.

“Why did you kidnap me? What are you going to do with me?” It seemed suddenly strange to think of these things, but Johnny was disarming, even kind. Menacing as well. But that was overwhelmed by the novelty of the situation. New people in an actual settlement. Only now that he knew a little more about them did his mind return to his own predicament.

“Well, Son, you did come right to our backdoor, you know. Sleeping on that bus was a touch brazen, don’t you think? We saw you sauntering up the road after sunset and thought you’d just wander by. When you stayed the night, we figured we ought to do our part and find out exactly what you are.

“So have at it, Zeke. What are you about? If I believe you, you’ll walk out of here with our fellowship. If I don’t, you’ll be returning to the dust of the earth, Son.”

Zeke began to tell his story. Only the last forty-eight hours, only the past two days with all the horrors intact. By the time he was nearing the finish, the sun was filtering through the window, illuminating golden bars of dusty air. Johnny listened, leaning against the wall, tapping his fingers against the stone. Finally, Zeke told him that he was chasing after the men that had taken his sister, and Johnny sighed, scowling.

“I don’t know much of this business that the Vultures are about, but I know they’ve been hunting girls. They take them east, sure enough, but I can’t say anything else. Dreadful thing, whatever their up to, that much I’m sure of.”

“Then you believe me,” Zeke said.

The scowl remained for a moment, while Johnny eyed him. “That I do, I suppose. I can’t say much one way or the other, truth be told, but I won’t make you face the end on account of a little doubt. We can help you even, may be the case.”

“How?” Zeke asked

“The tower out front can see the bridge. If you think your sister is being taken east by means of the bridgeway, then maybe Rick, our sniper, saw something.”

“He would tell me if he saw a group go past?” asked Zeke.

“Only one way to find out.”

*          *          *

As it turned it, Rick had been keeping his eye on a group camped out right at the mouth of the bridge. There were at least four people, though it was hard to see even with a scope. They settled in during the afternoon—he thought it was so they wouldn’t need to travel the bridge by night—and then began their journey earlier this morning. Maybe an hour ago, at most.

He shared this information with Zeke eagerly, shouting it down from his perch. Johnny had explained that he might be free to leave, but Zeke would never be allowed to speak to their sharpshooter face to face. They were always worried that someone might kill him, and they only had ten shooters, two for each of the five towers they manned.

After Rick told him of the group, Zeke was marched to the end of the field, through the neat rows of plant life. Johnny stopped him at the far edge and turned him around. “Before I give you your gun, you best know that you’re within range of Rick’s rifle, but too far for your pistol to do a bit of good. Just keep that in mind.”

Zeke took his .38 Special, surprised that they were giving it back at all.  He returned it to his messenger bag and smiled. “Thank you, Johnny.”

Johnny looked surprised. “For what?”

“For not being a Vulture.”

Johnny laughed. “Well you best be moving, Son. It won’t do to waste no more of your time here. Not when Alice is waiting.”

Zeke thought that that was exactly right. Alice is waiting.

To continue to Chapter 5, click here.

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