The forage leader was a wiry young man named David. He wore his greasy hair tied into three separate tails and his dark eyes were rimmed in charcoal, giving his face the appearance of a skull. It was a look that had been favored by one of the teen gangs that rampaged through the city during the final days of the die-off. Before Cassie could register her concern, Leila gasped in recognition. “You’re not a member of—”
“KDS?” David’s eyes met hers in challenge. “Yeah, I used to run with the Kevorkian Death Squad, but my friend here,” he gestured toward Galahad, “Convinced me to change my ways. At least for now.”
Galahad looked up from rearranging some boxes in the back of the van. “Killing people is no way to live.”
“I’ll remember you said that and I’ll use it against you.” David’s lips twitched, as if he knew a secret.
“So are the Kevorks still around?” Cassie asked. “We heard they disbanded after there were no more grownups to kill.”
“That’s true. Once they ran out of adults, the younger ones started killing the older ones. People dropped out fast and now everyone who’s still alive is with some other group. Regents are kind of goody for my taste,” his gaze flicked toward Galahad who was still working with his head down, pretending not to listen. “But they suit my purposes.” He smiled and in spite of his intimidating appearance, it was a boyish grin that made Cassie want to smile, too. “So I hear you’ve got tools, propane and extra water filters.”
“Yes,” Cassie said cautiously. “I have some survival gear from my parents. Can you take us home to pack?”
“Girls with goods can always have a ride.” He waved them toward the shuttle, but from the way his gaze lingered on Leila’s hips, Cassie suspected his words had more than one meaning. She would need to warn her friend not to get too comfortable with these guys.
It was with a mixture of relief and regret that the girls loaded their most necessary items into the Regents’ battered hotel van. It would be good to have the safety of a group and escape the memories of their suburban neighborhood. Cassie tucked a family photo album into her duffel bag, but it was with the guilty knowledge that she hadn’t opened it in months and would probably be unable to do so ever again.
They settled into the van with David, Galahad, and two other foragers, who all wore blue suede gauntlets. The driver, who appeared barely older than fourteen, turned the shuttle out of the cul-de-sac and soon they were on their way toward the skyscrapers of downtown.
“So have you done any hunting?” David asked Cassie, stretching out on the seat in front of her.
“Just target practice.” She hadn’t been into the city in months, and gazed out the cracked window in curiosity at the wrecked and abandoned cars on the side of the road. Some had burned, some were stripped of parts, and some looked like children were living in them, or had tried to for awhile.
“We used to hunt dogs and cats,” David went on. “But they’ve been scarce since winter because there’s so much competition from the other groups. We’re starting to consider park squirrels and pigeons. Any experience with that sort of thing?”
“Traps and snares,” she said absently.
“The ones we tried don’t work.”
“I learned to make some in my survival courses. I can show you.” Cassie watched a group of girls run out of a grocery store, shouting and waving clubs made from mop handles.
David saw where she was looking. “Brats. I’m surprised they haven’t gotten food poisoning or been picked up.”
“They should be careful. It’s sad what some of the older guys are doing to the girls,” Galahad said.
“Sad for the girls, I suppose. For the guys, it’s just a good time.” David turned back to Cassie. “Speaking of food poisoning, do you know anything about food storage? There’s a girl in our group who knows how to use a dehydrator, but since the electricity went out….” he shrugged. “We tried laying some dog meat on the deck by the pool, but it went bad.”
“Did you boil and salt it first?”
He slapped his forehead with the palm of his hand. “Boiling! Who’d have thought?”
“And you’ll want some kind of netting to keep the flies off.”
While David mulled this over, Cassie noticed a cluster of signs in front of a church. Some were neatly painted, others less so, and they all seemed to be about sinners.
“Christian Soldiers,” David said. “They blame everyone who isn’t one of them for the Telo. They say it’s punishment for our sins.”
Leila leaned across the aisle. “But we’re still alive. Why didn’t God punish us, if we’re so sinful?”
“This is our punishment, Galahad said. “To be living like animals.”
“And don’t worry about being alive,” David added. “If they catch you, they’ll fix that.”
Cassie sat back in her seat. “So is the whole city like this? Just a bunch of tribes squabbling over who gets to eat the cats and whose fault everything is?”
Galahad shrugged. “Pretty much. I wish—”
“Back to what you were saying about drying meat,” David interrupted. “I think we can get netting.” He looked at Galahad. “The Thespians will have some. Maybe we can cut a deal, if they can stand to be parted from their petticoats.”
“Who are the Thespians?” Leila asked.
“They live at the theater,” Galahad explained. “They go around in costumes and greasepaint, but they’re basically all right. We’re on friendly terms with them.”
He was about to say more when the driver cursed. “Roadblock.”
While David and Galahad rushed to the front of the van, Leila and Cassie stared at each other, wide-eyed.
“It’s just kids,” David said with relief.
“Should I try to break through?” the driver asked.
“No. We don’t want to damage the shuttle. There’s enough of us to break up their little nursery party. We might even have some fun.” He drew a pistol from the holster at his hip. “Grab your guns, folks,” he said. “And don’t be afraid to use them if they pull any tricks.”
Cassie hesitated. This was precisely the sort of situation she had hoped to avoid. Reluctantly, she reached for her father’s hunting rifle, which she had brought along in its leather case. Beside her, Leila picked up Cassie’s target rifle, even though she had no clue how to use it. “Pretend like you know what you’re doing, and don’t point it at any of us,” Cassie whispered as the shuttle slowed to a stop. “Since it’s just a bunch of little ones, they’ll probably run off.”
Leila nodded and they moved to the front of the van.
They had stopped in front of a roadblock made of trash cans, furniture, and scrap lumber from burnt buildings. Around it, a group of dirty children glared. Two boys started throwing rocks, but their leader shouted at them and they stopped. He approached the van, brandishing a length of pipe. “This is a toll way. Give us some food.”
“Forget it, brat.” David held his gun high so all the kids could see. “Now clear this road before—”
The crack of a rock on the windshield cut him off.
“You little fuckers!” He fired a shot at the leader’s feet.
The kid jumped back with a yelp, and a storm of rocks, bricks and debris rained down on the shuttle, cracking windows and denting metal as the children whooped and shrieked. David opened fire, and Galahad and the other foragers opened the windows and fired, too. Cassie hung back at first, unsure what to do, but when some of the children rushed the shuttle and began rocking it back and forth, she made her way to a broken window.
“No!” David shouted. “Try to get the leader while I reload.”
Dodging rocks and leaning on the side of the door for balance, she raised the rifle to her shoulder. In the distance, she could see the boy who had accosted them doing something with a bottle and a lighter.
“Molotov cocktail!” Galahad called out.
“Shoot to kill,” said David.
Seeing no other option, Cassie fired.
She tried again and this time her shot hit home. The boy fell to the ground and the rioting children paused and looked at each other in confusion.
By now David had reloaded. He rushed down the steps and fired into the crowd. “Get out of here!”
The kids scattered and David grinned up at Cassie. “Nice work.”