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It's not safe for anyone alone in the woods. There are predators that come out at night: critters and coyotes, snakes and wolves. But the woman in the red jacket has no choice. Not since the Crisis came, decimated the population, and sent those who survived fleeing into quarantine camps that serve as breeding grounds for death, destruction, and disease. She is just a woman trying not to get killed in a world that doesn't look anything like the one she grew up in, the one that was perfectly sane and normal and boring until three months ago.
There are worse threats in the woods than the things that stalk their prey at night. Sometimes, there are men. Men with dark desires, weak wills, and evil intents. Men in uniform with classified information, deadly secrets, and unforgiving orders. And sometimes, just sometimes, there's something worse than all of the horrible people and vicious beasts combined.
Red doesn't like to think of herself as a killer, but she isn't about to let herself get eaten up just because she is a woman alone in the woods....
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.20(w) x 7.30(h) x 0.90(d)|
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The Taste of Fears
Somewhere in an American forest
The fellow across the fire gave Red the once-over, from the wild corkscrews of her hair peeking out from under her red hood to the small hand axe that rested on the ground beside her. His eyes darted from the dried blood on the blade-just a shadow in the firelight-to the backpack of supplies next to it and back to her face, which she made as bland as rice pudding.
Red knew very well what he was thinking, what he thought he would be able to do to her. Men like him were everywhere, before and after the world fell apart, and it didn't take any great perception to see what was in their eyes. No doubt he'd raped and murdered and thieved plenty since the Crisis (she always thought of it that way, with a capital letter) began. He'd hurt those he thought were weak or that he took by surprise, and he'd survived because of it.
Lots of people thought that because she was a woman with a prosthetic leg it would be easy to take advantage of her-that she would be slow, or incapable. Lots of people found out they were wrong. Someone had found out just a short while before-hence the still-bloody axe that kept drawing the attention of the stranger who'd come to her fire without invitation.
She should have cleaned the blade, though not because she was worried about scaring him. She should have done it because it was her only defense besides her brain, and she ought to take better care of it.
He'd swaggered out of the trees and into the clearing, all "hey-little-lady-don't-you-want-some-company." He had remarked on the cold night and how nice her fire looked. His hair was bristle-brush stiff and close to the scalp, like he'd shaved it to the skin once, but it was growing out now. Had he shaved it because he'd been a soldier? If he had been, he was likely a deserter now. He was skinny in a ropy muscled way, and put her in mind of a coyote. A hungry coyote.
He didn't look sick; that was the main thing. Of course nobody looked sick when they first caught it, but pretty soon after they would be coughing and their eyes would be red from all the burst blood vessels and a few days after the Cough started, well . . . it was deceptively mild at first, that cough, just a dry throat that didn't seem to go away and then it suddenly was much more, a mild skirmish that turned into a world war without your noticing.
It didn't escape Red's notice that underneath his raggedy field coat there was a bulge at his hip. She wondered, in a vaguely interested sort of way, if he actually knew how to use the gun or if he just enjoyed pretending he was a man while flashing it around.
She waited. She wasn't under any obligation to be polite to someone who thought she was his next victim. He hadn't introduced himself, although he had put his hands near the fire she'd so painstakingly built.
"Are you . . .?" he began, his eyes darting over her again. His gaze paused for a moment when he saw the gleam of metal at her left ankle, visible just beneath the roll of her pants.
"Am I what?" she asked. Her tone did not encourage further conversation.
He hesitated, seemingly thinking better of it, then gestured at his face. "Your eyes are light, but your skin is brown. You look like you're half-and-half."
She gave him her blandest glance yet, her face no more expressive than a slice of Wonder Bread.
"Half-and-half?" she said, pretending not to understand.
Red had that indeterminate mixed-race look that made white people nervous, because they didn't know what box to put her in. She might be half African or Middle Eastern. She might be a Latina or maybe she was just a really dark Italian. Her eyes were an inheritance from her father, a kind of greenish blue, and that always caused further confusion.
Their eyes always flicked up to her hair, looking for clues, but she had big fat curls that could have come from anybody. She was used to speculative glances and stupid questions, having dealt with a lifetime of them, but it always surprised her (it shouldn't have, but it did) how many people still cared about that dumb shit when the world was coming to an end.
"I was just wondering what-" he said.
"Where I come from it's not polite to start asking people about their folk before you're even introduced."
"Right," he said. The intruder had lost some of the swagger he'd had coming into the clearing in the first place.
"What are you doing out here on your own? I thought everyone was supposed to go to the nearest quarantine camp," he finally said, choosing not to introduce himself despite her admonishment.
They were not going to be friends, then. Red did not feel sad about this.
"What are you doing out here on your own?" she answered.
"Right," he said, shuffling his feet. His eyes darted in all directions, a sure sign that a lie was on offer. "I lost my friends in the dark. There were soldiers and we got separated."
"Soldiers?" she asked, sharper than she intended. "A foot patrol?"
"How many soldiers?"
He shrugged. "I dunno. A bunch. It was dark, and we didn't want to go to the camp. Same as you."
Don't try to act like we have something in common. "Did you come from the highway? Do you know which way they were headed? Did they follow you?"
"No, I got away clean. Didn't hear any of them behind me."
This sounded like something he'd made up to explain the fact that he was alone in the woods with no supplies and no companions and sniffing around her fire looking for something he didn't have.
Red sincerely hoped he was as full of shit as he seemed, because she was not interested in encountering any soldiers. The government wanted everyone rounded up and quarantined ("to safely prevent the further spread of the disease"-Red had snorted when she heard that announcement because the fastest way to spread disease is to put a whole bunch of people in tight quarters and those government doctors ought to know better) and she didn't have time for their quarantine. She had to get to her grandmother, and she still had a very long way to go.
Red had passed near a highway earlier in the day. The experience filled her with anxiety since soldiers (and people generally) were more likely to be near highways and roadways and towns. She hadn't encountered a patrol there, but she'd had a small . . . conflict . . . with a group of three ordinary people about two or three miles into the woods past the road. Since then she'd tried to make tracks as fast as possible away from anywhere that might be populated. Red wasn't interested in joining up with a group.
She hadn't asked the coyote to sit down and join her, and it was clear he didn't know what to do with himself. Red could see the shape of what he figured would happen on his face.
He'd thought she would be polite, that she would offer to share her space with him. He'd thought she would trust him, because she was alone and he was alone and of course people were pack animals and would naturally want to herd together. Then when her guard was down or maybe when she'd fallen asleep, he'd take what he wanted from her and leave. She was not following his script, and he didn't know how to improvise.
Well, Red's mother hadn't raised a fool, and she wasn't about to invite a coyote to sit down to dinner with her. She stirred the stew over the fire and determined that it was finished heating.
"That smells good," he said hopefully.
"Sure does," Red replied. She pulled the pot off the fire and poured some of the stew into her camp bowl.
"I haven't eaten a darn thing since yesterday," he said.
Red moved the bowl into her lap and spooned a tiny bit of stew, just a mouse bite, into her mouth. It was too soon to eat it and hot, far too hot, and it scorched her tongue. She wasn't going to be able to taste anything for a couple of hours after that, but she didn't show it. She only looked at him, and waited for whatever it was that he was going to do.
He narrowed his eyes then, and she glimpsed the predator he'd tried to disguise under a charm mask.
"Where I come from it's polite to share if you've got food and someone else doesn't," he said.
"You don't say."
She spooned up some more stew, never taking her eyes from him. She was going to lose what was in the pot in a minute when he charged at her, and she was sorry for it, for she was hungry and it wasn't easy to carry those cans of stew around.
He pulled out the gun then, the one he'd been pretending not to finger the whole time.
"Give me what's in your bag, bitch," he snarled, his lips pulling back from his teeth.
Red calmly put the bowl in her lap to one side. "No."
"Give it to me or I'll shoot you," he said, waving the gun in her general direction.
He thought he was being menacing, and it made her snort. He looked like a cartoon villain in a movie, a mangy excuse for a badass-the kind that threaten the hero when he walks through an alley and get thrashed for their trouble. She wasn't dumb enough to think that he couldn't hurt her, though. Even an idiot with a gun was dangerous.
"Are you laughing at me?" His face twisted in fury as he stepped closer.
He was coming around the side where she'd rested the pot, as she'd expected. He was afraid of the axe, though he didn't want to acknowledge it, so he was giving the bloodied blade a wide berth. That was fine by Red.
"What's the matter, bitch? Scared?" he cooed. He mistook her silence for fear, apparently.
She waited, patient as a fisherman on a summer's day, until he was within arm's length. Then she grabbed the pot handle and stood as fast as she could, using her real leg and her free arm for force to push upward and tapping her other leg down only for balance once she was on her feet.
The trouble with the prosthetic was that it didn't spring-Red didn't have a fancy blade that could perform feats of athleticism-but she'd figured out how to compensate using her other leg. She needed to prevent the coyote from killing her for her food.
Her sudden movement arrested him, his gaze flying to the axe that he'd expected her to grab. Red could have, she supposed, stayed right where she was on the ground and embedded the blade in his thigh, but that might have resulted in a protracted struggle and she didn't want a struggle.
The goal was not to have a fancy movie fistfight that looked good from every angle. She wanted him down. She wanted him done. She wanted him unable to grab her.
Red flung the rest of the boiling stew in his face.
The intruder screamed, dropped his gun, and clawed at his skin. It blistered and bubbled, and she noticed she'd managed to hit one of his eyes. She didn't want to think about how horrible that felt because it looked like something awful. Red forced down the gorge that threatened at the smell of his burning flesh. She grabbed up the axe then and swung it into his stomach.
All the soft organs under his shirt gave way-she felt them squishing beneath the pressure of the blade, and hot blood spurted over her hands and then there was an even worse smell: the smell of what was supposed to be inside your body coming out, and she did cough then, felt the little mouse bite of her dinner coming back up mixed in with bile. It stopped her throat and made her whole body heave.
But Red wasn't about to let him get up again and come after her and so she pulled the axe straight across his torso before yanking it out. It made a squelching, sucking sound as it emerged. Red wasn't accustomed to that sound yet. No matter how many times she used the axe it made her skin crawl.
The man (for that was all he was after all, just a man, not a coyote, not a hunter) fell toward her and she backed away as quick as she could, no fancy acrobatics involved. Red was not some movie superhero any more than the man was a movie villain. She was just a woman trying not to get killed in a world that didn't look anything like the one she'd grown up in, the one that had been perfectly sane and normal and boring until three months ago.
The man fell to the ground, and the blood seeped from the wound in his stomach. He didn't make any noise or twitch or anything dramatic like that, because he'd likely passed out once his brain was overwhelmed by the pain from his burn and the pain from the axe. He might live-unlikely, Red thought, but he might. He might die, and she was sorry not that she'd done it but that she had to do it.
Red didn't like to think of herself as a killer, but she wasn't about to let herself get eaten up just because she was a woman alone in the woods.
She gathered all of her things from the site, slung her pack on her back, doused the fire she'd so carefully built. She cleaned her axe as best she could with a cloth, then covered the blade and put the handle in a Velcro loop on her pants.
The gun her attacker had dropped gleamed in the faint starlight, and she reluctantly picked it up. If she left it behind, someone else might find it and that person might cause her trouble later. After all, she hadn't killed all three of the people she'd encountered earlier.
Red didn't know anything about guns except that she didn't like them. Her father had liked to watch crime television shows, and on those programs everyone seemed to know how to click the safety on and off and load the gun even if they'd never touched a weapon before. Red didn't have the faintest idea how to do any of that and she didn't want to fool with a gun in the dark. That seemed like an excellent way to shoot herself in the only organic foot she had remaining. Shoving the weapon (which she assumed was ready to fire, based on the way that fellow had been waving it around) in her pack or waistband seemed just as stupid.