“What’s going on?” Georgina asked in a breathy whisper, in a way glad of the distraction.
“Might be a checkpoint,” Ryan conjectured.
They all went quiet again and listened. The words “Just fucking move or you’ll be shot” could be heard quite clearly. This was no checkpoint; somebody was blocking the road.
All of a sudden, gunshots rang out. Georgina yelped aloud and threw herself onto the ground next to Ryan; Harry went sheet white and froze. Bullets hit the truck with a tinny sound and Georgina squealed with each one. Ryan shuffled closer to shield her.
The shooting continued for several minutes then all went quiet. Ryan and Georgina listened out intently for any noise, eventually greeted by voices that spoke indiscernible words. Then the words “Check the trucks” came through. Whoever had stopped the convoy moving had been successful in defeating the army officers.
Ryan looked down at Georgina. “Move as far away from the door as you can.”
“Who are these people?”
“I have no idea. I can only assume they’re rebels.”
“What does that mean?”
“I guess we’ll find out. Do as I say, George.”
Georgina scooted quickly and quietly towards the cabin end of the truck as instructed.
Ryan looked at Harry, who still hadn’t moved. “Harry, get your arse back there with Georgina.”
There was no response as Harry continued staring into space.
Ryan kept his voice quiet and calm in spite of rising ire. “You had a gawker snapping in your face earlier today and you didn’t do this. You fought for your life. Don’t go all soft on me now ‘cause there’s a few blokes with guns. Get back there now! Don’t make me have to tell you again.”
Harry looked fleetingly at Ryan. His bottom lip shook visibly as he slowly made his way to the cabin end of the truck and sat next to Georgina, nuzzling into her.
Ryan chose not to look. All he felt inside was regret at having not allowed the gawker to eat the man’s face off earlier. What a coward!
After a couple of minutes, the handle to the truck moved. Ryan tensed up; he had no idea what was to come. The door creaked open and he squinted as a flashlight shined in his eyes.
“There are people in here, Jay,” the man called out in a northern accent with a hint of an Asian overcoat.
“How many?” came a faint reply.
“Three. Two blokes and one female.”
Ryan found himself mildly amused at the slang term used for the males and the more respectful term for the female. That caused him to remember a time when Georgina had hit the roof when he’d referred to her as his “bird.” He was in the doghouse for days after.
“I’ll be over in a minute,” Jay responded. “Get as much info out of ‘em as you can.”
“No worries, boss.”
The man stepped inside the van. He was, as suspected, Asian and about the same height and build as Ryan. He was a good-looking man with a full beard and hair stylishly combed over. His piercing dark brown eyes gleamed with intelligence and were warm and friendly despite a stern expression on his face. Ryan noticed he kept his SMG lowered but at hip height, suggesting he was more than ready to fire if necessary.
The man glowered at Ryan a moment when his thin lips parted into a smile that revealed pristine white teeth. “My name’s Kassam. Call me Kas. What are your names?”
“What do you need our names for if you’re just gonna kill us?” Ryan asked.
“Kill you? Nah, guy. You’d be dead already if I was gonna kill you,” Kas said with a light chuckle. “I’m intrigued as to why you’re chained up in here. We’ll get to that. Just your names’ll do for now.”
“Fair enough. I’m Ryan. Those two are Harry and Georgina.”
“Cool, man, cool! So, why are you in here then?”
“Long story short, the army burst into my house and took us all.” Ryan purposely gave as little information as possible.
“Strange! The army doesn’t storm random houses unless they’re lookin’ for somethin’… or someone.”
“Assume what you like, guy!”
“Listen, I know you don’t know me or trust me. We’re only as suspicious about you as you are about us. It’ll be much easier if you cooperate.”
“Why should I cooperate?”
“Because if we like your answers then we may decide to bring you with us,” Jay cut in, appearing behind Kas. “If we don’t, we’ll leave you here to fend for yourself. The choice is yours.”
Ryan looked up at Jay and felt his resolve quickly weaken.
The man was huge in every sense of the word. His blonde hair was shaven short and his face extremely handsome and rugged. Everything about his appearance screamed military, from his bulging biceps to the muscular legs that threatened to rip the fabric of his cargo pants. Like Kas, Jay’s expression was only one of kindliness. His ocean-blue eyes were bright and as smiling as his mouth. He had the face of a pretty-boy, the physique of a bodybuilder, and not a trace of arrogance was evident.
“Who are you guys?” Ryan asked quietly.
“We don’t go by a name collectively because we aren’t that shallow,” Jay answered with a grin. “I’m Jason Walker. Jay to my friends.”
“A pleasure to meet you, Jason Walker,” Ryan said facetiously.
Jay was unperturbed by Ryan’s aloof behaviour. “I appreciate your doubts. The way things are right now you’re best not to trust anybody.
“I’ll lay my cards on the table. We’re essentially renegades. The guys in charge of our faction have either defected from the army or have a military past. We have insider knowledge of the real plans of the military and they aren’t good. Bit by bit, they intend to take away everybody’s freedoms. We’re here to counterbalance that. We have our own safe zone; a place where people aren’t bound by curfews and such. The only rule we have is that people put in their fair share to keep the place running. In return, we head out and take down any military convoys we find doing the rounds so we can get our hands on their weapons and provisions.”
“Am I right in thinking you’re the leader of the whole operation?”
“No. I’m the leader of this detachment. The overall leader is back in New Haven.”
“New Haven? Let me guess: another safe zone with the military strutting about ruling the roost?”
“Trust me, buddy, it’s nothing like that. We put in our fair share of the graft and there’s certainly no strutting. I don’t lament you thinking the way you do because I saw what it was like in those safe zones. I understand your concerns. You’ll have to see New Haven yourself to realise how different it is. I assume you managed to bust out of a safe zone?”
“I had a feeling. I was stationed in Hull.”
“How did you get out if you were military?”
“That’s a conversation we’d be better having back at New Haven; that’s if you’ll come with us.”
“If you break us out of these chains you’ve got yourself a deal!”
Jay nodded and shouted for one of his other men to bring the key taken from the cadaver of one of the soldiers. It was handed to Jay and he unlocked the shackles of all three of them. He stood in front of Ryan again and held out a hand.
Ryan hesitated before shaking it and locked the big man with a bold stare. “Ryan Lloyd.”
“Nice to meet you.”
Ryan, Georgina, and Harry were taken from the back of the truck to another vehicle that was every bit as uncomfortable. Jay and Kas stayed with them the whole time and imparted more information about New Haven. The safe zone had been established about a month ago in a location set away from major towns and cities. It pleased Ryan to know he hadn’t been the only one to see the sham of the safe zones; he’d always known something was amiss.
When Ryan told Jay about his experiences since leaving Sheffield, Jay admitted to being impressed. “The usual reaction from people is panic when those things approach. You seem to have got your way of dealing with them down to a fine art.”
“It’s either me or them; that’s how I look at it.” Ryan noticed a disapproving glance from Georgina and a slight shake of the head. It irked him that she disapproved of any pride he showed in himself, so much so that he couldn’t stay his tongue. “Did I say something that bothered you, George?”
“Nothing you say bothers me. I got used to your big man act a long while ago.”
“You mean the same big man act that saved your boyfriend’s life today? How many lurchers have you both killed again?”
Ryan grinned. He knew that was her response when she was proven wrong.
“You sound like a resourceful bloke. Maybe I can get you a gig out on the streets with us,” Jay suggested.
“Do you not worry about infection?”
“If it’s gonna get me then there’s nothing I can do about it!”
“Yeah, I developed that mindset shortly after I left the safe zone.” Ryan thought about Georgina and the fact she’d tested positive for New Black Plague. He wondered if he should tell Jay, then thought about what her fate might be if he did and decided against. “I reckon it might be a laugh getting my hands dirty,” he said with a grin.
“I’ll see what I can swing with the boss back at New Haven.”
“Although, if I’m gonna do this, I do have one request.”
“Did you find a 7-iron in amongst the army’s haul?”
“Yeah, we did.”
“I’m gonna need that back!”
The virtual shanty town that made up New Haven wasn’t what Ryan had expected. When Jay had mentioned it was understated he’d really meant it. The lodgings were hastily prepared shacks and no more than a storey high. All around were ploughed and barren fields. The safe zone sat on a precipice: a natural vantage point that allowed the people within to see for miles around.
Practically in the centre of New Haven sat a building that was noticeably taller than the others, yet still modest enough in height not to draw much attention. Jay told the new guests that the leader resided within and they’d meet him in due course. Little had been said about who this elusive person was and Ryan was ill at ease with the fact that Jay and Kas were reluctant to provide information. All they’d say was that he’d find out soon enough.
The truck came to a halt outside one of the shanties, a place that was effectively a holding area for new residents. Jay assured the three of them that permanent lodgings would be arranged in due course and to get comfortable in the meantime. Harry and Georgina did so immediately. Ryan, on the other hand, was restless.
“Something isn’t right about all of this.”
“Do you have to be so suspicious?” Georgina asked. “Just relax for tonight and we’ll get some answers tomorrow.”
“That’s always been your problem, George. You’re too trusting.”
Georgina’s face flushed red and her jaw trembled. If Ryan didn’t already know he’d gone too far then the slap in the face he received before she stormed out of the room definitely delivered the message. He was at a loss on how to react, so he didn’t and slowly sat down on an available bed instead, massaging his cheek.
Several moments passed when Ryan noticed Harry was glaring at him. “What’s up with you?”
“Why didn’t either of you tell me you had history?”
“You’re asking the wrong person. It wasn’t my place to tell you.”
“Bullshit! It was the place of either one of you to tell me!”
Ryan quickly jumped to his feet and approached Harry, grabbing hold of his face, forcing him back to a lying position, and leaning over him ominously. “Listen to me you little prick! I come home after a week of fighting off lurchers to find you and my ex-girlfriend have been shacking up in my bed. A lesser man would’ve killed the pair of you. Instead, I took you under my wing and taught you how to survive out there, and you have the cheek to say I owe you anything? I should break your fucking jaw right now!”
“I… I’m sorry… Ry. I’m s… sorry,” Harry uttered fearfully, his bravado immediately vanquished.
“You will be if you ever talk to me like that again!” Ryan shoved Harry away. He stood up, walked towards the door, and turned to look at him again before walking out. “I won’t babysit you anymore, kid. You’re on your own. Enjoy however long you have left with Georgina.”
TO BE CONTINUED