March in Country Online - Vampire Earth 9 - E. E. Knight

CHAPTER ONE

Firsch County Wayside Number Two, the Kentucky-Tennessee border, February of the Fifty-sixth year of the Kurian Order: the recent violent winter, the worst in living memory for even the tough locals, has ebbed at last. Nothing that might be called spring warms the sky; rather, it is a quiet between-season pause, like the lassitude between the break in a life-threatening fever and recovery.

One winter can do only so much damage. At an old intersection between two neglected county highways, with only one route showing even some signs of maintenance—the northbound stretch has been reduced to little more than a horse track—the Wayside squats behind a lattice of young fir. It might be a monument to entropy.

It is an enclave that could best be described as lumpy. No two structures match. The central building used to be a gas station and convenience store, still identifiable by a few chipped logos as a BP for connoisseurs of pre-22 corporate branding. It stands out from the others in that all the verticals and horizontals are square. The other structures lean as though tired: relocated sheds, prefabricated housing, a fire-gutted strip whose gap-toothed storefronts serve as an improvised garage and junkyard. A double layer of barbed-wire fencing, no two posts standing quite the same, surrounds all, pulled this way and that by the growing pines. The more observant may notice dog feces among the dropped needles between the layers of wire.

Farther off, crowds of trees and brush and brown kudzu envelop what had once been a little two-street town of houses and a barn or two.

Everything in the Wayside, from crumbling brick and trailer home to boarded-up window, is painted a formerly bright shade of orange, now faded and dirtied into a rotting pumpkin color.

Wayside Number Two looks as though it would be improved by a return of the short-lived snow. You wouldn’t see the mud, for a start. The garbage mound out behind the prefabs could be camouflaged into and inviting, snowy hill. The dog litter couldn’t be seen—or smelled—and white would hide the slime molds coating the bricks of the gutted strip.

For all its forlorn appearance, the gas pump and parking lot in front ticked with vehicular life.

One pair of vehicles stand out. A shining new red compact truck—or oversized, high-clearance car with a lighted roll bar and stumpy cargo bed, depending how precise one’s definitions—and the bulldog shape of a heavier, ten-wheeled armored car are parked so as to block the roadside gap in the wire. A tall, muscular, alert-looking black man stands beside the compact truck, radio crackling inside. The uniformed men in the armored car are more casually disposed as they wait. They blow smoke out of their lowered windows as they play cards, using the dashboard as a table. The pitiful collection of rust buckets, motorcycles, a bike, and horse wagon nearer the Wayside’s main entrance look like sheep penned by a pair of wolves.

A brown truck slows as it approaches, but the bearded driver, getting a glimpse of the Georgia Control circle-and-bar logo on the doors of both vehicles—huge on the armored car, discreet on the red compact truck—thinks better of stopping. His worn tires kick up a shower of grit as he changes up after making the turn south, suddenly eager for the horizon. …

If there’s one thing I hate, John Macon thought to himself, it’s grocery shopping.

The trick, of course, was not to let on to the groceries that they were being selected. He had driven ahead, alone in his not-quite-unmarked Pooter, so the flotsam at Wayside Number Two wouldn’t become alarmed at the sight of the heavier armored car holding the Reapers. Once he established there were suitable pickings at the Wayside—a quick glance through the door’s glass confirmed a collection of warm bodies, none of whom looked important enough for Tennessee to miss—he’d called up the Transporter.

He strode into the dining room. They’d taught him in the Youth Vanguard how to walk authoritatively: chin up, shoulders back, a little extra strike on the bootheel. He glanced across the counter and the booths. Six hanging fluorescent fixtures containing three bulbs, two of which still managed to produce light, illuminated the sparse condiments and a desiccated piece of pie on the counter and a cash register with drawer wide open revealing only a few bills, coins, and rows of loose cigarettes, as if advertising the poor pickings a holdup would bring.

The remaining lights had a lot of work to do, despite the light of afternoon