The dim light that filtered in the warehouse’s windows the next morning woke me from my fitful slumber. I rose and stretched out the kinks in my back. I was feeling my age like I’d never believed possible. I had aches in my knees and hands and there was the constant feeling that I had indigestion or something. At least I hoped it was my 35 years creeping up on me and not cancer or something.

A quick check of the scene told me everything I’d suspected the night before. The woman had probably been intent on murdering Jesse and I in our sleep, then kidnapping the women to sell as slaves. I’d missed it last night, but she had several zip ties stuffed in her boot to make quick, quiet handcuffs and a few rags stuffed in her shirt, which I assumed were for gags.

I drug her already-stiff body through the doorway that the second slaver had taken and then around the corner out of sight. I don’t know why I bothered taking her that far, the snow where I’d pulled her across was covered in congealed blood and could easily be seen from the road if anyone were looking.

People knew we were here and that meant it was time for us to go. It was fine with me. I wanted to go further south than we currently were anyways, but I had hoped for a few more days to allow more recovery time for Jesse. I also wasn’t thrilled about being the only driver that we had. Rebecca and Trisha just weren’t reliable enough to drive the truck with the road conditions the way they were. Hell, half the time, we were interpreting where the road might be since they were all completely covered in snow.

At the pace we were going, we were a couple of days out from needing to make a choice whether to risk driving through the mountains of Arkansas or sweeping further west through the plains before heading south. I decided that was the first thing we needed to do this morning, then we’d be leaving right after breakfast. I stared at the footprints of the escaped slaver for a moment longer and went back inside.

I was surprised by the activity on the warehouse floor when I went in. Jesse limped between the truck and the foot of the stairs carrying the supplies that Trisha brought down from the offices above while Rebecca was cooking our breakfast over an office trash can fire. I couldn’t quite make out what she was cooking since my mask hid the smell so I pulled the door as tight as I could, then removed my mask and attached it to my belt loop…Fried spam and canned green beans. We were truly blessed to have came from Virden, I thought as I remembered the weird meat that the slaver had in her pocket.

“I figured it was time to go after our visit last night,” Jesse said.

“Yeah, I thought the same thing,” I replied. “Let’s get everything loaded and then we need to discuss our route.”

“Ok, sounds good.” He placed a meaty palm across my chest when I walked by. Even injured, the dude could mop the floor with me. “Next time, don’t be such a hero. Come get me and we can work together.”

“I gotcha man. I know I should have, but I wasn’t sure about your leg,” I answered.

“It’s getting better. How the hell did you hear anything? We slept right through it,” he said pointing to Trisha.

“Rebecca heard the glass we’d leaned against the door break. I was asleep and she woke me up, otherwise…” I let the unfinished sentence hang in the air for a moment. “Otherwise, you and I would be dead and the girls would be in a cage somewhere, or worse.”

“Slavers huh?”

“Yeah, the one I killed had zip ties and gags on her and…” I stopped as Jesse cut me off.

“Her? You mean we were being attacked by a woman?”

“Yeah, I killed her before I realized that she wasn’t a man. Anyways, her companion got scared when they saw me kill her and took off. I ran after him, but they got away in an old pick-up truck.”

“Get anything useful off the body?” he asked.

I gestured towards the old gas mask. “She was wearing that and had a trench coat that will help in the rain or snow, but not much else. No guns or anything.”

“Smart. Didn’t want to injure her profit.”

“Yeah, well now the bitch is dead,” Trisha said. “Rebecca is almost done with breakfast. Let’s finish loading up and eat. I don’t want to be here when her husband or kid comes back with a mob and decides to burn the place down.”

That sobered us up pretty quickly and we finished loading the truck. Breakfast went down wonderfully and we all thanked Rebecca profusely for her ability to turn just about any canned item into a delicacy with some spices and kitchen know-how. Jesse and I opened the huge road atlas on the hood of the truck while Becca finished stowing the cooking gear.

“We need to decide if we want to go south through the mountains or west through the plains,” I stated. “We’ve got a few days to decide, but by the Joplin area,” I indicated a point near the southwest corner of Missouri, “we need to figure it out.”

“What’s the benefit of going south into Arkansas?” Jesse asked.

“Well, presumably, we’d get to warmer temperatures more quickly.”

“I don’t think so,” he countered and then flipped to the large blown-up map of Arkansas. “Look, the map shows that the roads south do all sorts of switchbacks as they go high up into the mountains and then back down. All those turns would have been dangerous even when there were road crews clearing them. I’d bet they’re catastrophic now. Hell, we almost wrecked coming down that huge hill outside of Jefferson City.”

“And there are lots and lots of choke points for ambushes,” I added.

“Yeah, fuck. I didn’t even think of that. How the hell did you, a guy who used to crunch numbers and drink lattes all day, think of that before I did?” Jesse said with a friendly punch to the shoulder.

“I had all night to think about it,” I reminded him.

“Good point. Anyways, those mountains are obviously treacherous, but beyond that we quickly move into the swamplands of Louisiana. Maybe that’s a good thing, help keep others out.”

“We don’t know if those swamps are going to be frozen or not, so we can’t count on that,” I said as I absentmindedly tapped my finger on the map. “My vote is to go southwest into Oklahoma, through Texas and look to put down some type of roots in the New Mexico or Arizona area.”

“Not a lot of food-growing ability in the desert. What about going southwest as far as this town, Lawton, then head south into Texas?” he asked pointing to a small city near the Oklahoma/Texas border. “The topo map still shows fertile soil that far west. Right around there is when it begins to change to the more arid conditions out west, so we might be able to scratch out our survival along the perimeter of that area.”

I looked over the map quietly for a few minutes and said, “Ok, let’s do it. I’m not sure if this Springfield here in Missouri was a big enough target to get hit with a nuke, but I want to avoid all towns named ‘Springfield’ from here on out!”

“Agreed,” Jesse said and we all piled into the truck to begin another long stretch of driving.

///Want to read more? You’ll have to wait until my new book Unclean Wonderland: The Apocalypse comes out late summer/early fall 2014 ////

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