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River City:

Vera
By Donovan Galway

The aroma of bacon and grease filled the air as the sun lit up the country diner through the large windows. Bert and Andy sat at the end of the counter swallowing coffee and doughnuts and arguing about livestock. Vera deliberately stayed at the other end of the counter.

“Don’t tell me the son-of-a-bitch didn’t steal ‘em. My brand is still on every one of ‘em,” Bert said through a mouthful of chocolate long-john.

“Looks like his brand to me,” Andy countered.

“He put his over mine. You can tell.”

“Your brand is a straight line, Andy. You could see that in anyone’s brand.”

“It’s a Bar-None. That’s the old name of my ranch. Just you go up there and see what he done to my wire.”

The jingle bell at the top of the door announced the arrival of Sheriff Myron Oglethorp. Bert instantly turned to him to complain and the Sheriff stopped him.

“Don’t,” he said without looking. His open hand was the only part aimed at Andy.

“But I’m getting rustled, Myron. They keep cutting my new fence. You gotta do something.”

“Not until I’ve had my coffee. ‘Morning Vera.”

“But I can’t afford to keep stringing new wire every week. Just go up to the top of the hill and investigate…”

Myron ignored him with such definitive body language that Bert didn’t finish his complaint. As the sheriff continued to a stool a safe distance, Vera answered with her usual, “’Morning, Handsome.” She checked to make sure the noisy family of city folk in the corner booth seemed content before reaching for Myron’s favorite mug. She filled it with the only designer coffee in the county. Colombian. Myron liked a ton of sugar but it never stopped her from asking, “How about a Danish with that?”

Myron invariably grabbed his waistline as if it were smaller this day than the last and invariably responded, “Maybe one. Thanks, Gorgeous.”

As she set the pastry on the counter, she jumped at the sound of a loud crash of breaking glass in the corner booth. The family, mom, dad, brother and sister had not stopped arguing and bickering since they arrived. Vera went over to clean up the third broken item from their table. As she cleared the glass, the people continued talking about their trip and the food as if Vera didn’t exist.

“You want a fresh soda, Sweety?” Vera asked the boy.

She was stunned to hear the ten-year-old look up at her and angrily reply, “Shut the fuck up.”

Vera looked at the boy’s mother who half-smiled and asked the boy, “Now is that going to get you a soda?” The father continued looking at the map as if he didn’t hear a thing.

She had to say something. “You know, most little boys around here don’t use that kind of language…” The entire family suddenly looked at her as if she had lobsters crawling out of her nose. Vera sensed she had crossed some sort of line and attempted to counter. “…But then… none of them have any respect for their elders. Ain’t that the truth, Ma’am?”

A dollop of cold scrambled eggs struck her on the right cheek. The little girl laughed and her brother high-fived her for the well-aimed shot. Vera again looked to the parents for some sort of discipline but they were back to discussing the map as if nothing had happened.

Vera turned away from them and took some solace in the fact that they were from out of town. As she came back around the counter, Myron noticed her stressful poise.

“Rough table, Sweetheart?”

“Rudest people I’ve ever seen. Even for city folk.”

“Want me to have a talk with them?”

“Don’t bother yourself, Myron. I’ll just spit in their coffee and watch them drive off forever. But I swear that young ‘un could do with a swift kick in the…”

The jingle bell over the door chimed again for a new arrival. Vera stopped in mid-thought at the sight of the stranger walking slowly in. She nudged Myron to turn and look.

The tall man was dressed in motorcycle leather from the black jacket to the heavy boots. He was pulling his gloves off but kept the pack on his back as he strode cautiously across the café toward Vera. He lifted his head and she could just see his dark, piercing eyes through the long, matted hair that hung across his face.

Myron turned to look the stranger over but the man walked behind him and up to Vera. Without sitting, he placed a metal thermos on the counter and said in little more than a gruff whisper. “Can I get that filled, please?”

Vera nodded, hypnotized by the stare. “Sure. Got time for a cup and a Danish?”

Before he could answer, the small boy in the corner shouted, “Where’s my fucking soda, Bitch?”

She shook out of her trance and started to turn. Myron stood angrily. “I’ll talk to them.” He stepped behind the dark stranger with a suspicious glance. He didn’t want these rude city folks distracting him from the biker for long but he wouldn’t tolerate that kind of rudeness in his jurisdiction. He stepped up to the booth and cleared his throat loudly. The family seemed oblivious to his presence. He spoke up. “You folks normally behave like this in public?”

Vera picked up the thermos and asked the stranger, “You want me to rinse this for you?”

He stared at her as if frozen.

“S’cuse me,” she pressed.”

“Shhhhhh,” he finally replied without moving. She shushed, though she had no idea why.

The little girl looked up at Myron, then at her father. “Why is HE taking to us? I don’t want him here.”

Myron smirked at the unbelievable rudeness of these kids and started to speak to the parents but the father spoke up first.

“Well what have we told you about that?” the father asked the little girl. “What do we do if a stranger talks to us?”

The leather clad man reached over his shoulder and opened a corner of his backpack without diverting his stare from Vera.

The little girl extended her hand and her mother gave her a brightly coloured vinyl bookbag with some sort of rock star images on it. The child deftly unzipped the bag and produced a semi-automatic pistol.

Myron immediately changed his tone. “Hey now! Don’t be playing with…”

The child pointed the gun and shot Myron in the face three times before he fell.

Vera froze, dropping the thermos to the floor but standing petrified. The image of the girl sitting there with a smoking gun while the rest of her family smiled proudly was burning into her subconscious as the father produced another gun.

“Here we go,” he said to his family.

“Get down,” the stranger growled at Vera. He pulled a pistol gripped short barrel shotgun from his backpack as he turned to the family.

Bert and Andy leapt from their stools, each panicking in his own way. Andy ran hysterically toward Myron screaming, “Oh my God! Oh my God!”

The father fired twice hitting him in the chest and head. Andy fell across Myron’s body.

The stranger fired the shotgun and the father fell. His wife was outraged and took her husband’s pistol. The stranger pumped another shell into the Mossburg and fired again before she could take aim. The heavy plywood and dense padding in the old country booth served as partial protection as she took only some buckshot in her shoulders. Not enough to keep her from firing back, though her aim was affected. The stranger dove to his right to keep the edge of the booth between them. He immediately regretted it as he was now in plain sight.

Bert’s method of panic was to freeze, stunned and paralyzed. As he stood petrified at the door, the boy saw him and ordered his sister to, “Get him!”

“I will,” she argued as she aimed. Bert turned to escape but she hit the big man with five shots in the square of his broad back. The glass door shattered as he fell lifeless through the frame.

Their mother moved to her right to fire another volley at the leather-clad man. He was ready for her and she took the shotgun blast in the chest, falling back on the little girl.

“Damn it!” shouted the girl, pinned beneath her mother’s dead weight. She grabbed the vinyl knapsack with her free hand and tossed it to her brother. “You get him.”

Vera had dropped to the floor behind the counter. She clung to the cast iron safe for security and cursed her eyes for being locked shut. She could only measure by the sounds and voices what was happening on the other side of the paneled counter.

The stranger stood to get the boy before he could find another weapon. He aimed and fired, but the agile youth saw him and jumped away in the knick of time. The blast killed his sister instead. The boy came up with the pistol and fired, hitting the stranger in the shoulder. The man fell as the second round was fired. It missed, though the boy thought he’d hit him on the fly. The man rolled over Bert’s body to fall on the floor near the counter. He lay still and allowed the lad to think it was over.

Vera was fooled and, hearing only the silence, she dared risk a peek over the countertop at the carnage but feared moving to any great degree. A shiny metal spatula seemed to be the answer. She slowly lifted the polished metal above the countertop to use it as a mirror. Her eyes widened with terror at the reflection of the wounded father kneeling on the floor in the booth with a semi-automatic pistol trained at her. She gasped and covered up again as bullets rained on her from all sides. They pierced the side of the counter and destroyed the front of the grill and drop-sink at the rapid-fire rate. Vera cowered behind the safe, shielded from the deafening hale of gunfire.

After six long seconds, the Uzi was empty. The father stared at the holes in the counter, looking for movement or blood. The stranger’s cheek was flat against the tile floor and he could see the man’s knees under the short legs of the booth. The shotgun was out of reach so he reached under himself and grabbed the revolver from his belt. He knew once he moved he’d have only a few seconds. Lying flat on the linoleum, he trained the pistol and fired four times, shattering the man’s kneecaps. He rose to finish him but found the boy waiting. He fell to his left as both fired. He was hit in the arm and his shot grazed the boy’s head. The lad fell backward, grasping his injured head and crying as if he’d fallen off his bicycle.

As the stranger lay face down on the floor, he opened his eyes and saw Vera peering cautiously at him through the bullet holes in the counter. Without moving, he whispered, “Stay down. Don’t move.” He could tell from the eye and chin visible from different holes that she nodded in agreement. He risked another comment. “Is there a gun back there?” He saw her shake here head. His pistol had been thrown when the boy hit his arm. He wasn’t sure where it went but the shotgun was in front of the booth. No hope there.

“Are you alright, Daddy?” the boy asked.

Vera looked past the stranger to see the boy talking to his father. The man had pulled himself into the seat, wincing in pain from his injuries.

“No, son. I’m hurt pretty bad. That bad man did it.”

“I’m sorry, Daddy. I thought we killed him.”

“What did I tell you about that?” the father quizzed the boy.

As Vera watched, she came to terms with the genuine surrealism of the moment. She watched in horror as the father lovingly dabbed the blood from his son’s head and adjusted his shirt as if sending off to school. Then he put the pistol in the boy’s hand.

“Now you know what you’re supposed to do. Right?”

“I’ll kill him for you, Daddy. And I’ll make sure this time. I promise.”

“He’ll wait,” the father said. “Go get that one behind the counter.”

Vera felt her blood chill as the young boy headed toward her, reciting his lessons. “In the chest if they’re moving. In the head if they’re not. Right, Daddy?”

Vera looked through the hole at the stranger. “The sheriff’s gun,” she whispered.

He took her meaning instantly. The second the boy turned the corner of the counter, he reached under Andy and found the service revolver in Myron’s holster.

The boy turned and calmly aimed at Vera. The click of hammer on Myron’s gun drew his attention and he turned to look down the barrel. A single shot separated his eyes and the nine-year-old fell against the wall. Vera was unable to look away from the sight of the child murderer slumping down into a lifeless heap before her.

The stranger turned to the booth to finish it. He found the father calmly talking on his cell phone.

“I-94 just outside Cornville. We’ve failed. One of the Subs got us all. Send more…” A bullet unceremoniously ripped through his temple before any more instructions could be sent. But too much had already been released.

“Are you hit?” he said in a clinical tone.

Vera slowly rose from the safety of her bulletproof barrier and scanned the room. Seven bullet-riddled corpses littered the once tranquil country diner. She was unwilling to drop her guard completely as the stranger coldly gathered his weapons.

The man turned and pushed the long hair from his face. “It’s not over. Can you move?” He took her trembling nod as an affirmative and reached for her arm. “Let’s move then.”

“To where?” she asked as he led her around the counter. “Shouldn’t we call the police or something?”

He continued toward the door, stepping over Myron’s body. “Isn’t this the police? He wasn’t much help.”

“But they’re all dead now. We should call the State Troopers or…”

“No time,” he insisted, still hurrying her to the door. As he led her through the glassless doorframe and over Bert’s lifeless body, “That asshole made a call before I could stop him. They’ll be coming soon.”

“Who? How soon?” She followed him out onto the parking lot. The main road passed in front of the diner and all of the cars were in plain site, as was the flat black Harley-Davidson. He didn’t hesitate to pull her toward the chopper.

“Depends on where the next cell is. They could be in the next state or the next county. State Troopers don’t know how to deal with these freaks.” He shoved the guns into the saddlebags and straddled the motorcycle. The electric ignition turned it over and he extended a hand to her. “You can come with me or wait for them. Your choice, but you need to make it now.”

Vera looked up and down the deserted road. In the distance, she thought she could hear the faint sound of an approaching car or truck. She knew that even if it were a normal passerby, she would be jumping at every car unless she moved. She hiked the polyester waitress skirt up to her hips and lifted her leg over the low backrest to settle in behind him.

“I’m not cut out for this,” she mumbled, hanging onto his waist.

Without a word, he kicked the bike into gear and burned off the cracked asphalt. He was doing thirty before he hit the street. The pick-up truck Vera heard came around the bend just then. The stranger accelerated but there was no where to hide. In the bed of the truck, a young man leveled a shotgun and fired.

The blast hit the stranger in the thigh and the bike sped out of control into a deep ditch. The driver of the truck locked up the brakes and spun the truck around. They hurried back to where the motorcycle left the road and looked down the wooded hillside.

“You sure you got him?” asked one of the three, clearly hesitant to be the first to pursue the stranger into the bushes.

“Didn’t kill him,” said the shooter. “I got the bike and his leg though. He ain’t going far.” Like his partner, he was all but anxious to go in until he knew the state of the stranger. They stared at the trail of broken weeds and listened for a sign.

A short way up the nearby hill, the stranger leaned on Vera as they limped through the tall grass. “Gotta keep moving,” he urged her.

“I’m doing my best,” she responded. She looked at the blood streaming down his leg. “You need to get to a doctor and I mean soon.”

“No time. They’ll be coming any minute. Dammit! Why didn’t I grab a gun?”

“I think you were preoccupied with not dying,” Vera grunted. They came to a barbed wire fence. “Climb over. There’s a barn over the ridge.”

“How far?”

“Doesn’t matter. We have to make it. Do you know who these people are?”

“They’re a weird cult. They believe they’re a more evolved species and are destined to take over the planet. But first they have to eradicate the sub-humans.”

“Sub-humans? Meaning us?”

“They think of us as Neanderthals. Competitors for earth and they need to wipe us out. Since they truly believe they’re superior to us, they aren’t concerned about our laws or morals or feelings. They can kill us as easily as we step on a cockroach. No way to reason with them or change their mind.”

“So you’re out to kill them all?”

The stranger winced with the pain in his leg. “I wish. They’re everywhere. No way to spot them until they talk. They’ve forgotten how to behave in public. They don’t know how to be polite or interact with others.”

“So are there more like you?” Vera kept pulling him up the steep hill as she talked. She thought he might lapse into shock from the gaping wound so she did her best to keep him coherent.

“They killed my whole club at a hotel near Silverton. My wife and son, my brother and all of my friends. Far as I know, I’m alone in this.”

“Then why?”

“Got nothing better to do.”

From below, they could hear voices.

“I don’t think I can make it,” he whispered, breathless from the pain and loss of blood.

“You don’t have much choice.” Vera placed her hand between the barbs on the top wire and pressed down. His leather jacket served its purpose as he lay across the wire and fell over to land on the ground on the opposite side.

Not far down the hill, the three men heard the muffled sounds. One of them strained to see where it came from.

“Why didn’t you kill him when you had the chance?”

“If I’d aimed for his head and he ducked, we’d likely never have caught him. I took out the bike and his leg in one sure shot.”

“Good plan,” said the third man. The oldest of the three at thirty, he held the rifle against his shoulder as he stalked. “Too bad it didn’t work. That sub will likely get at least one of us before we kill him.”

They approached the barbed wire fence. The high grass around it was clearly trampled in one spot. The men spoke in signs and gestures. The first handed his rifle to the other before stepping carefully over the fence.

The second and third pushed the top wire down for him. The fence was newly strung and very tight so it resisted their weight. Once clear, the first man turned and took the guns from the others. Experienced hunters, they knew better than to cross this obstacle carrying a loaded weapon. The first over laid the last of the guns on the ground before helping hold the wire down for his partner.

The stranger watched them from the tall grass just a fence rail away. As the second man was straddling the fence, the man squeezed the wire cutters and the tight barbed wire sprung across the man, ripping through his neck and chest as it coiled around him. As he fell to the ground, hopelessly ensnared in the razor-sharp barbed wire, the other two turned to the stranger. The first across realized he was the only one near the guns but as the realization struck him, a hunting knife pierced the side of his neck. He went down, mortally wounded.

The stranger was aiming for his chest but throwing the knife while sitting in the grass was hard enough without his leg being nearly severed. Knowing he had no time to race the last man for the guns, he grunted and pulled his good leg under him to leap.

The third man dove over the fence and fell on the rifle. Rolling away and to his knees, he came up as the stranger landed on the shotgun. The leather clad stranger had only time enough to feel the weapon in his hand before the third man fired.

Vera heard the shot but had no way of knowing who fired and who got shot. She heard only one shot so she had to assume it was a finishing blow. She had run into the barn and hidden in the hay strewn about the floor. Lying as still as death, she became desperately aware of the sounds of her own breaths and the pounding of her heart. As she heard footsteps approaching she silently cursed herself for not climbing up into the low rafters. The door opened and the morning sun silhouetted the man as he entered. She strained through the straw to watch him stalk her across the barn.

The man seemed drawn to the rafters, certain she’d hide up there. Cautiously he grabbed a pitchfork and, as he walked along, he poked up through the broad gaps in the overhead boards. He jabbed repeatedly into the hay above as he stalked. She watched from her floor sanctuary as the hunter stepped closer with each lunge of the pitchfork.

As the man stared up into the rafters, he moved his hand to adjust his grip. Glancing down, he caught a glimpse of Vera’s thigh not quite covered by the hay. He pretended not to see her and continued prodding the rafters as he stepped closer to her.

He was within striking distance when he turned his hands around on the wooden shaft. Aiming the fork toward the floor, he smiled and muttered, “You stupid subs kill me.”

The shotgun blast from the door hit him squarely in the side of his ribcage. The impact took him completely off his feet. He landed several feet away with his chest blown wide open. He was dead when he hit the floor.

“Yeah,” the stranger said as he limped in. “We do every chance we get.” The shotgun became a walking stick as he dragged himself toward the center of the room. Leaning against a support beam, he looked at the sprawled carcass, then up toward the rafters. “You up there, Girly?”

The pitchfork pierced his back with enough force to drive it through his heart and pin him to the support beam. As he hung there, Vera walked around to the front of him to watch him die.

“You subs should really learn to stay out of it,” she said in an emotionless tone. “We’re thinking about keeping some of you around after we wipe them out. But if you keep getting in the way…”

He tried to lift the shotgun, but as the strength drained from him, he felt the gun fall to the floor. The pain in his leg and shoulder were gone. He felt the iron points inside him but the only real sensation left him was cold. Dying, he could only stare at her as she talked.

“You were only half right, Hero,” she continued. “You see, there are two groups. That cult that you hate, and the real heirs to Earth. You subs just don’t enter into it.

She ran her fingers through his long hair. “I knew one of us wasn’t cut out for this. I thought it was me.”

Her attention was suddenly drawn to a rustling sound in the rafters. She lifted the shotgun and watched silently. A pigeon flapped around in the rafters searching for an escape route. As she watched, she recalled the image of the man poking and prodding above, hunting and stalking.

Loomis held the broom tightly and moved with a deliberate stealth worthy of greater prey. Verathought to tell him to stop annoying the customers, but they seemed more indifferent or entertained than bothered so she allowed the simpleton his folly, shook away the cobweb remnants of the daydream memory and went back to serving coffee. That man adjusting his son's raincoat must have triggered the memory.

End

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