CLEETHORPES, ON THE EAST COAST, WAS FIRST SETTLED by Danish Vikings in the eighth century. They arrived with a reputation for violent conquest but they stayed and made their homes. It was the latest occupiers who were there simply for the rape and pillage.
Reaper and Sandra arrived in the early evening, travelling through the Lincolnshire Wolds and heading towards the town along a road that arrowed out of the countryside towards the sea. They had seen no sign of life since Caistor, once a small comfortable Georgian town a few miles back. A door had closed silently in the market place as they drove through. They had felt that their progress was being watched and imagined the relief when they passed. Living so close to the evil on the coast, survivors would be wary of any intrusion into what life they held onto. Reaper reversed the Astra into the drive of a semidetached house on the fringes of suburbia. The sun was low, the sky blushing red. It promised good weather tomorrow.
He was in his middle forties, the girl still in her teens. They wore dark blue tee shirts, combat trousers and Doc Marten boots. Both wore Kevlar stab-and-bullet-proof vests. Reaper had two Glock handguns hanging from his belt, each in Viper drop-leg holsters strapped to his thighs. Sandra had only the one Glock in a similar holster on her right thigh. The guns held 17 rounds each. They both carried Heckler and Koch G36 carbines with twelve-inch barrels, fitted scopes and thirty-round curved magazines. More magazines were in the pockets of their police belts and vests. Both also had ten-inch Bowie knives in sheaths strapped to their lower right leg. Reaper also had three stainless steel throwing knives in a sheath on his left wrist. He had once asked himself how much armament he needed and had come to a swift conclusion: as much as he could bloody well carry.
They each put on a backpack, slung the carbines around their necks on straps and surveyed the empty road from the cover of a privet hedge. Nothing stirred. No cars, no people, no bicycles, no children playing in the late summer sun. Nothing had stirred down this road it seemed since the end of the world, five months before. Lawns and gardens were overgrown, and in the neat houses beyond the hedges would lie the occupants where the virus had taken them: in bed or sprawled on sofas to watch the news highlights of a dying world before they succumbed in their turn. Bodies that by now would be beyond putrefaction and breaking down slowly into bones and dust. The two exchanged a glance and set off down the deserted road towards the centre of the seaside town, carbines held ready.
They kept to side streets and paused often to listen. At last they could see the flat line of the ocean between the houses, the reflection of the dying sun glittering upon its surface. Reaper had two locations fixed in his mind. He suspected the enemy occupied a prominent apartment block on the seafront to the south and, possibly, a nightclub or pub a mile or so to the north. That was where he had last encountered them. The sound of bottles clinking together made them freeze in the shadows of an alley. It had come from a small all-purpose store on the opposite corner of the road.
They exchanged hand signals. Sandra crouched and levelled the carbine at the store. Reaper crossed the street silently and paused, his back against the wall alongside the shop door, which he could see was not properly closed. Someone was moving around inside, trying to be quiet and failing. He risked a swift glance. One man. He was putting items into a cloth shopping bag. He risked a second glance but could see no one else. The man seemed unarmed.
Reaper looked back across the street and raised one finger and then held his palm out indicating that Sandra should stay in position. He slipped the strap of the carbine over his head and laid the weapon on the ground. As he rose back to a standing position, he took the Bowie knife from its sheath. The steel reflected the last rays of the dipping sun. A gun might cause someone to dive for cover. A long, wide blade was far more personal and terrifying and silent. They didn’t want an alarm raised.
He moved into the shop quickly, the knife held forward at waist height. The man stopped, turned and his eyes widened in shock and horror. He dropped the cloth bag and the contents clanged on the floor. He raised his hands and said, ‘I’m sorry. I’m sorry.’
This was no wolf. This was a sheep, doing the best he could to survive by grazing the remaining stock from out-of-the-way food stores.
Reaper put a finger to his lips to tell the man to be silent. He glanced around but there was nobody else. The store had a counter to the right and three cramped aisles. The section that had housed the booze was empty. Any frozen food still in the refrigerators would have been ruined since the electricity died, but there were still tins and packets on the shelves, and cans and bottles of soft drinks.
‘I’m not going to hurt you,’ Reaper said. ‘I want information.’
The man was confused. He still expected to be hurt.
‘What’s your name?’ Reaper said. ‘Your name?’
The man was perhaps forty, slim build, average height, average features. He wore jeans and trainers and a green tee shirt depicting the profile of a man with a Mohican hair cut and the words Diesel: Home of the Brave. The wearer wasn’t very brave. He moistened his lips to lick away the fear and said, ‘Bradley. Paul Bradley.’
© Jon Grahame 2014