This is Issue #68 of Dead Frontier by Walkerbait22, titled Narrow. This is the second issue of Volume 12.
Issue 68 - NarrowEdit
Cole squeezes his eyes shut, and moves his lips, silently muttering "Please, please," under his breath, hoping this guy, this stranger, decides not to check here. But he heard the entire conversation and accepts that that won't happen. He can hear the stranger getting closer by the second, whistling a familiar, repetitive tune.
Cole then realizes Duke broke the lock forcing his way in and feels a wave of hopelessness. He presses his back against the door, the man a mere few feet away.
Walter turns the knob to the tiny storage closet and pushes, only to be met with resistance. He scowls and tries once more, unaware that on the other side Cole is using all of his strength to press himself against the door and keep it closed.
The faintest sound catches Walter's ear. A sound similar to a dog's growl. He slowly releases his grip on the doorknob and leans his head in close, nearly pressing his face to the door. Cole, Duke, and Adam tense up the second Wrigley makes a sound, hoping to God the strangers on the other side didn't hear.
"WALTER!" Sterling calls from the other end of the store. He peeks over a shelf. "What you got?"
"Ah, nothing. Damn door won't open. Probably boarded up with something on the other side," Walter replies. Still, he tries the door once more, ramming his shoulder into it a couple times. It budges, only the tiniest bit, but not enough for him to enter. He sighs and turns away, blowing off the noises of a dog as his own imagination.
Adam, Duke, and Cole collectively let out a sigh that releases all of their built up tension in the cramped room, as they hear the sound of retreating footsteps. However, they don't move for a few more minutes.
"Aye," Duke whispers as quietly as possible. "Should we...go out there, talk to them?"
"Are you...are you crazy?" Cole replies. "No. No way. You can't trust the groups out there. They could have weapons, and we've got the food and supplies they want. They'd kill us in a heartbeat."
"You don't know that."
"I know enough to consider that as a likely possibility."
"He's completely right, Duke," Adam whispers. "We wait, ten minutes at least, then we leave."
There's a new, hastily constructed training area in the Hyatt, so anyone that wants to brush up on their skills can; it’s a large, bleak room filled with targets and crude human-like figures made of wood. Marsh tried to rationalize with Alexander that they make training mandatory, but was shut down before he could even spew out an argument.
Alec stands in a small boxed in area, where in front of him a large target is stuck to the wall, similar to a shooting range. He has a small pistol gripped in his right hand, and one eye squinted at the target. The epitome of focus. Behind him, Devon watches with a smirk on her face.
"Are you gonna get it this time?" she asks him.
"You know the answer to that question," he replies.
"I have faith in you."
"No, you don't."
"Oh, come on. I have a little faith."
He plants his feet on firmly on the ground, steadies his hand, and fires. He's jolted a bit by the shot, but quickly regains his footing and examines the target, observing where he hit. But the target's unscathed. "What...? Did...did it not fire or something?" he asks, perplexed. He turns to Devon for an answer, but she has a giant smile on her face.
"It...it fired," she says with a nod. "But you hit the wall. Over there." She points a few feet to the left of the target, where a fresh bullet hole has found its place in the grey wall.
"Ooooh," he says, scratching his head with his stump.
"But you were so close. Really."
"Not really. But thanks, anyway. Guess I can count on you to lift my spirits, huh?"
"Anytime." She smiles and leans in to give him a kiss. But it doesn't last long, because a guard a few feet away barks at them:
"Aye! You're supposed to be training! No kissing."
Devon sighs and rolls her eyes. "Whatever," she says, and takes the gun from Alec. She moves a few strands of hair out of her face and squints her eyes, focusing at the target. She fires off three quick shots, each one hitting only a few inches away from the center.
"HAPPY?!" she calls to the guard.
He's pretty damn impressed, but he doesn't show it. He clears his throat and orders, "Just no more kissing."
"Wait, wait," Alec says, looking to Devon. "You learned to do that...when, exactly?"
"I've had some practice. I'll even teach you...Try to teach you, at least..."
Marsh has a cup of coffee in his hands as he sits across from Alexander in his superior's office. Marsh's hands are unsteady, making the the brown liquid shake and nearly spill as he brings it to his lips. He swallows the lukewarm coffee with distaste and finally makes eye contact with Alexander.
"Are you ready?" Alexander says gently.
Marsh sets the cup down on the desk and folds his hands together to conceal the shaking. "I think.." he starts, but his voice cracks and he starts again. "Yes. Sorry." He takes a deep breath. "Um. I've just been...sleep isn't even an option anymore. I don't even want to try, after the last one."
"Sorry to interrupt, but 'the last one?'" Alexander asks.
"The last nightmare. That time they were all there. James, Porter, and Charlotte. And their faces..." His upper lip curls in disgust. "Their faces were just mauled to...I couldn't recognize them. I only knew it was them because th-they talked to me a-and told me it was my fault." He jabs a finger into his own chest. "My fault, Alexander. They said it with such...such hatred. Like they were absolutely disgusted with me."
Alexander leans back in his chair, his hand thoughtfully placed under his chin. His listens intently, nodding at certain times, as Marsh delves into his nightmares and regret. About how he wishes he could have saved his three friends, but failed. Failure; that enemy that always seems to find him, somehow.
When Marsh is finally complete, his eyes look drained of all happiness, and the shaking in his hands has returned. "Marsh," Alexander says as the man gulps down the last of the coffee, "this..."
He wipes a few drops of coffee from his mouth and interrupts: "I know, I should've gone to Linda with this. You're not a fucking therapist, I'm sorry."
"No, no, that's not what I was going to say. It's good you came to me with this. I need to know these things. I do consider you my right hand man, after all." He sits up straight and places his elbows on the desk, leaning closer to Marsh. "This is perfectly normal. I've gone through the same things. Nightmares, with my son and my wife. They're terrible, yes, but it's just your mind playing awful tricks on you.
"See, I had no reason to feel guilty over what happened to Richard and Lauren; you have no reason to feel guilty about James, Porter, and Charlotte. Sometimes...others' fates are out of our hands, and there's nothing we can do."
Marsh nods. "Just think about that," Alexander concludes. "Don't let this plague you."
"It's tough," Marsh responds.
"I realize that."
This is his chance. "I don't ever want to feel that again. That nagging feeling that I could have done something to better prepare them for what happened. So I have a suggestion."
"What do you propose?"
"Alexander, don't shut me up before you hear my whole argument," Marsh begins. "But I think it'd be good to consider bringing live infected, for train--"
"Infected? Here? Where people sleep?" he practically scoffs.
"Please, let me finish. Yes, here, for training purposes only. We can teach them how to shoot, sure, but that barely prepares anyone for the real thing, out there. If we're planning on going out more often to gather supplies, and to defend against Roxie, we--"
"I never said anything about that."
"Well, it's inevitable."
"No, it isn't, because we've got a good deal going with her," Alexander counters.
"And when we can't uphold our end of the bargain, what happens then?" He finds that is volume is rising, but does nothing to hide it. "What happens?"
"We cross that bridge when we get to it."
"No, we don't! That's not how it works! We need to prepare."
"If I recall correctly, I thought I made the decisions? Right? Okay. Please leave my office. Thank you."
Walter, Sterling, and Savannah have left the store after gathering a few meager items and now drive recklessly back towards the large park where their camp resides. Sterling drives, and he grimaces as he glances at Walter and Savannah kissing sloppily in the backseat.
"Weren't you just fighting? What the fuck," Sterling says, steering straight into an infected and obliterating it. He beckons the wipers, which smear the blood and brains across the windshield until the mess is gone.
"Maybe, maybe not," Walter says.
"Well, could you stop? It's nasty as shit."
"Man, Sterling, we need to hook you up. Such a fucking prude." Walter awkwardly transitions his large body from the back seat to the passenger’s side. He spots an infected coming into view, and eagerly pats Sterling on the shoulder. “Don’t hit that one. Move to the left little.”
“The hell you doing?”
“You’re gonna fuck up the bumper if you keep hitting them that. Let me take it out. ‘Vannah, hand me Sherry, would you?”
Savannah reaches into the back row of seats for it, and pulls out a wooden handled axe with a solid black blade. Walter grabs it eagerly, and rolls down his window all the way. It's just enough so he can lean his torso out while still having a firm grip on Sherry.
He's in optimum position; Sherry is lined up perfectly with the infected's head. Walter doesn't even have to swing. The speed of the car makes it easy for Sherry's blade to glide through the infected's neck, effectively decapitating it. Its head rolls in the opposite direction, its jaws still chomping.
The drive is long and the few stops they're able to make before dark, tedious. Soon, however, the gates of their camp come to view, built in what once was a public park outside the city. Sterling flips the headlights on and off three times, and the metal gates open slowly, emitting an eerie scraping sound in the night. He rides along the cobblestone path that flows throughout the camp's center, passing by crude houses and unremarkable stone buildings, and makes a final stop in the parking lot.
"I ain't telling her we got jack shit," Sterling spits out before exiting the car.
"Not it," Savannah says, smiling and peeking a glance at Walter.
"That's not how it works..." he says.
"Then how does it?"
"You do it, because you should try to be the sweet, loving, responsible girlfriend I know you are?"
"Not good enough, man. Just try to come back in one piece." She gives him a kiss on his bearded cheek before leaving the vehicle. Walter's left there, groaning, but he too leaves after building up the courage to walk the few meters to Roxie's quarters.
Cole, Adam, Duke, and Wrigley finally return from their run to the small store, slightly shaken up. “Take this,” Cole says, handing Adam and Duke his bags. He starts to walk away, towards the escalator, when Adam’s voice causes him to turn. He continues to walk backwards anyway.
“Um...where are you going?” Adam asks.
“I’ll tell you everything later.” He ends with that, and rides up the escalators, searching for Alexander’s office. He passes by a few people, giving them head nods and insincere “how are you’s” until he spots Billie heading in the opposite direction. She tries to stop and chat but he passes by her quickly.
“We need to talk later,” is all he says, leaving her standing with raised eyebrows.
He pounds on the wooden double doors and waits patiently with his hands in his pockets for someone to answer. This is all too weird. The way Alexander acted during his interview, the mention of a Roxie, the shadiness of it all. He’s aware it’s probably not his place to intervene, but hearing that mysterious name “Roxie” also mentioned by a group of possible hostile strangers can’t just be coincidence.
Finally, the door opens, and Cole moves out of the way to allow a wiry, tall teenager to exit the office. “Thank you for your concern, Jake,” Alexander says pleasantly to the kid.
“Y-yeah, sure, Al-Alexander,” Jake responds, his eyes plastered to the ground as he walks away.
Alexander’s gaze suddenly shifts towards Cole. The smile on his face contradicts the exhaustion in his eyes, making his expression look eerily unnatural. “Yes? Can I help you?”
“I’d like to talk to you,” Cole says.
“I’m actually really busy right now. I’m not sure if--”
Alexander sets his jaw, and opens the door wider, giving Cole access to enter. “What is it?” Alexander asks immediately, his calm demeanor from before replaced with a sense of urgency. He moves to his desk and shoves various papers into his the drawers.
“I know something’s going on. But I’m not entirely sure what that something is.”
“Don’t be coy with me. Spit it out.”
Alexander’s fists clench impulsively, and he takes a step towards Cole. He feels his blood boiling and suspicions rising simultaneously. “You know about her? How?”
“I heard you and Marsh talking. Apparently we have to defend ourselves against her, is that right? She’s dangerous?”
“Mr. Pruitt, you haven’t been here very long; I don’t think you’re the person I should be discussing this with.”
“Is she close?” Cole asks.
“Does she live close by?”
“Why would you--”
“We ran across a few strangers on our run. Me, Adam, and Duke. Apparently they know a Roxie. I heard your conversation with Marsh, and it can’t just be coincidence.”
“You told me you didn’t hear anything.”
“Guess that was a little white lie. What’s going on? Is she a threat? We’re in danger?”
“You--you’re jumping to too many conclusions! We’re not in danger,” Alexander responds breathlessly. “This isn’t something you should know about. I’ll ask you very politely to please leave, and don’t bring this up again. Don’t mention it to anyone, pretend like you don’t know anything. Relay that to Adam and Duke, too. That’ll make it much easier on everyone if you just do that. Understood?”
Cole notes the man’s desperation, but can’t shake his uneasy feeling. “Yeah. I-I’m sorry. I've got people I care about. Just wanted to make sure we were all safe and sound here."
Alexander seems to relax a bit, and opens up the door, a silent but bold gesture ordering him to get out. Now. "Perfectly fine. But next time, please don't question me."
Cole sits on his suite’s kitchen counter, his feet dangling above the tile as he waits for Billie’s reaction to all of his information: the three strangers, Alexander’s denial, and Marsh’s suspicions about a mysterious ‘Roxie.’ She internalizes all of it and tries to formulate an opinion.
“Well, what do you think about this, Adam?” she starts off. Behind them, on the couch, Adam lies down with his arms crossed behind his head.
“I don’t like it,” he says. “Bad vibes. Bad vibes everywhere.”
“And you?” She nods to Cole.
“They’re not being straight with us. Now that we know this Roxie chick and her ‘people’ could be close, that doesn’t sit right with me,” Cole responds. “I think Alexander owes it to us to tell everyone what’s actually going on. And right now, he’s not budging.”
“Then...how do we get him to budge?”
“I can tell right now, he’s not going to. So, we take a different approach.”
“What’d you have in mind?” Adam asks.
“Detective Starr, Detective Dugall, we’re gonna do some snooping.”
“Oh, wow. This sounds fun,” Billie says with a smile.
“You--” He points to Billie. “--do you know that Jake kid? I saw him coming out of Alexander’s office earlier, really nervous and fidgety. He’s been here longer than most, too, so see if he knows about any of this shit. And Adam, talk to Marsh. He probably has more information than anyone else, so see if he wants to say anything."
“And what are you doing?”
“I was going to head to Alexander’s office; he’s always scribbling shit down on these papers and messing around with his calculator. He always stuffs them in his desk so I was going to...break in.”
“Oh, shit. Break in?” Adam responds, sitting up from his position on the couch. “That’s some crazy shit. You sure about this?”
“Not really, but I’m going to do it anyway.”
Late that night, very few people roam around the hotel, most either sleeping or upstairs, cozying up in their rooms. But Cole’s decided this is the optimal time to go through with his plan. He sweeps through the lobby and up the escalator where he bumps into a pajama-clad Hiro.
“Where the hell you going in such a damn hurry?” Hiro says. “It is nighttime.”
“Just, y’know, doing stuff. And...yeah,” Cole stutters.
“ ‘Doing stuff...’ Sounds reasonable.” Suddenly, a smile envelops on Hiro’s face as he seems to realize something. “Oh, shit, I know what you’re doing. Why else would you be up in the middle of the night, right?”
“...Uh, I don’t--”
“Ah, man, I’ve seen you two. Going to see that Lucy chick, yeah? Good catch. Would’ve snatched that up just like you if I was fifteen years younger. Keep at it.”
As Hiro walks down the escalator, Cole lets out a sigh of relief that releases the amazing amount of tension that formed in just that thirty second conversation. He can’t help but acknowledge Hiro’s attempts to be less harsh and more friendly, but his past impulsiveness leads Cole to try and keep his snooping around a secret. He’d like to keep is a secret from most others, too, for the time being.
He finds his way to the doors of Alexander’s office and glances around before pulling out the key he stole from Lucy’s room earlier. He feels a little bad about it, but if all goes to plan, he’ll return it later without a trace that it was ever gone.
He silently enters the familiar office; the air freshener on Alexander’s overly large desk fills the room with a floral scent. Wasting no time, he locks the door behind him and rifles through the drawers, pulling out various papers with scratch marks, numbers, and red slashes. Cole tries to make sense of them when he spots the familiar name.
Under the name ‘Roxie,’ theres a large arrow pointing downward and, in bold red pen: '50%.' At the bottom, there’s a crudely drawn timeline that leads into the next year. The numbers written above each month dwindle steadily.
Is this bad? Is this good? He doesn’t know. He flips through more papers, trying to find answers to his questions. He just finds a half-empty bottle of orange pills when the doorknob starts to wiggle.
He scrambles to return the papers to their original location to the desk, and as he does so, he hears a key sliding into a lock and the turning of the knob. There’s nothing he can do--he’s caught--but he is slightly relieved to see Lucy open the door instead of Alexander.
She stops in the doorway, an expression of utter confusion cloaking her face. “What are you doing here?” Lucy says.
“...What are you doing here?” he retorts.
“Getting my dad’s briefcase. Your turn.”
“I’m just...Don’t tell your dad.”
“What are you...are you spying on him? What is this?”
“I’m not ‘spying.’ It’s a lot to explain.”
“Then you better explain it fast,” she decides.
And he does, as they both sit side by side on the desk. She doesn’t betray her feelings, but remains stoic throughout his speech, nodding periodically. “What do you know about her? About Roxie?”
“Nothing,” Lucy replies. “This is the first I’m hearing about her, or any of this.”
“Lucy, you can’t tell him you saw me in here.”
“Of course I won’t. I’m curious about this too, you know.”
“Really? Thank you. And...I’m sorry about taking your key. Here.” He fishes it from his pocket and hands it to her.
“You took it? Oh, that’s slick, Pruitt. I had to use my dad’s.”
“Yeah, that was a dick move. Never again, I promise.”
“Wow, can I even trust you in my suite anymore?” she says.
“Hm. I don’t know. I hope so.” She grins and, to his surprise, she leans in and kisses him. He wasn’t expecting to move forward with her--not this soon-- but he closes his eyes and accepts it anyway.
Then something triggers in him, and almost as fast as the kiss began, he ends it. She wonders why, but a quick look in his eyes gives her the answer. He still loves that girl, and any efforts he’s making to move past her death just aren’t working.
“Sorry. I need to get back to my dad anyways,” Lucy says.
So she grabs the briefcase, and she’s gone.