Kramer rubbed his knee as Jones drove. The shrapnel in his knee was always irritated on the day they would kill someone…. or everyone. It was a warning sign he was very aware of. That morning, Jones picked him up with a smile on his face. “fifty thousand credits!”
“Who are we skinning?” Kramer said, hopping into the jeep.
“Oh, fuck…” Kramer said, and felt his knee begin to hurt.
Each bump in the road made his knee throb even more. He hoped he could run later, they both were about to.
“Man, knee hurts today.” Kramer said, a dark tone present in his voice, a rare occurrence.
“Oh, thank God! It has been awhile since we shed some real blood. All this talking we have been doing is really starting to haunt me. I’m itching to stick the gun barrel in the mouth of some of these pricks!”
“This is one is bad. Let’s try to aim for the heart or throat this time. We don’t need what happened last time.” Kramer said.
“I shot him in the fucking mouth!” Jones explained.
“Yeah, but the bullet ricochet off the jaw bone and went out his forehead, ruining the scalp we were going to get a bonus for! Fuck, it really hurts today.”
“Well maybe if you didn’t spend your off nights on your knees you would be in good shape for work.”
“Fuck you, man.” Kramer said, lighting one of his rolled-up smokes, trying to avoid laughter.
When the jeep approached the woods, they were located under 10 klicks from Head Hunter territory. “We got to be careful here. They could be watching us.” Jones mumbled.
At the entrance into the woods, he stopped the jeep and they both considered the green foliage for signs of anyone. The trail in front of them had a bloody sign peering at them. At first glance, they thought it was a Head Hunter sign. “I’m not seeing shit.” Kramer said, coiling his gun in both hands.
“Sometimes we can smell them, but I can only smell the woods.” Jones said, sniffing the air like a rabid dog.
“That sign isn’t Head Hunters, is it?”
Jones and Kramer stepped out of the Jeep, Kramer limping as they did so, and wondered over to the sign, guns raised. The sign was a wooden post at first glance, but was covered in a bloody sheet. The sheet was made of human skin, an entire blanket made from some person that had been flayed. From the top of their head to their tip toes was present before them. The eyes were present in the skin, but they were the blackest eyes and they were bulging out from the face they were stuck in. The hair and scruff of the beard were matted and caked in crimson mud. A sign was tacked into the chest of the skin.
Kramer read the sign in a whisper. “I was once skinned and I can’t control the crying. Now, I skin and I can’t control the laughing. Can you say the same? Will you think the same? I drowned in a Sea of salt and blood, but now Eye Sea everything!”
“Fuck is that supposed to mean?” Jones asked. “The previous sign is laying on the ground.” Jones kicked at it. “Petersburg, 1 mile.”
Kramer touched the blood on the skin and rubbed it between his fingers. “It’s jellied and the bugs haven’t done much to it. Maybe a day old.”
“Can’t be head hunters. They use skulls.”
“These are not human eyes.” Kramer suggested, pulling one out of the face.
“Buck eyes. They came from a deer.” Jones said. “I watched Georgie dig those out of a doe I killed last year.”
“What do you think it means?” Kramer said.
“That man is game now. Whoever did this, is sending a message. Sounds like he has been scalped before.”
A light breeze came from the woods, and chilled their skin on a late summer day. “Let’s keep going.” Kramer said, heading back to the jeep.
The tires kicked up dirt as they drove into the woods. Branches were scraping at the sides of the jeep. More alert than ever, the Scalp Collectors kept their guns unsheathed in their laps, waiting for the killer or killers to strike. An outsider wouldn’t be able to tell from their appearance, but they had their hearts filled with a sick love. They wanted to kill, something the Queen’s people slipped into their brains during their youth builds. They were calmer than ever, just itching to squeeze the trigger on anyone who gave them a reason to shed some extra blood. Kramer would gladly kill anyone if it would make the pain in his knee die out and Jones just wanted the game to be played. Maybe this was the day they would be bested? Or maybe this was another day of much slaughter, something to help them both sleep at night and make the money needed to get closer to the end. This was the best therapy for them.
“What’s that on the side of the road?”
Jones jerked the jeep to a complete stop. The foliage was thick on each side of the road, but there was no doubt there was a moving arm trying to drag themselves out of the brush. The skin was white and blistered. “A Burned One.” Jones said, stepping out of the vehicle.
Chaz followed and they walked over to the brush, guns raised.
The Burned One’s head was present, eyes red with a tanned orange face that contrast with his pale skin. It took them a minute to realize he spread some type of clay across his face. “Aye,” He said. “No harm from me. I am about done anyways.”
“Man, what you are doing rolling around in the bushes for?” Kramer asked.
“I ride the dust devils like the others, came to close to the woods and got caught in a tree.”
“Explains why you are not walking.” Jones said.
“Aye, lost that trick years ago.” The Burned One said, coughing in his raspy voice, beads of sweat rolled off his bald head towards his lips and he licked at them eagerly.
“Never met a dust devil rider that could talk.” Kramer said.
“Some can, I choose not to. I only do now because I know I am dead.”
“Yeah.” Kramer agreed.
“Can I trouble you boys for any water? It’s been a couple days. I have only had a couple handfuls of piss. I would like to die with a wet whistle.”
“Sorry, can’t spare it, man. I mean what happens if I get thirsty? I got a lot of better choices than piss back in the jeep.” Kramer said.
“Very well. End it then. I aint done a thing worth living. I might as well die like nothing.”
“Rock, paper, scissors, for it?” Jones asked, holding out his hand.
“Deal. 1, 2, 3, go!”
They shot their hands out and Jones’s scissors cut Kramer’s paper. “I usually never win!” Jones laughed and put his gun away. He drew his Bowie knife, his skinning blade to perform the deed.
“I thought you would just shoot me?” The Burned One asked.
“Yeah, I would, but I only have a few bullets. I have to save them for a really good time!”
“Well, be on with it, but can you humor me for a bit? Since I will be heading there soon, what do you think happens when we die? I never really thought about it until today, but where do we go from here?”
Jones knelt near his face. “Heaven? Hell? Some place in between the Void? Maybe a cool place in the shadows, or a dip in the icy pool? Fuck if I know, but what I hope for is a dark world where nothing exists. It’s just nothing.”
“That’s gloomy.” The Burned One said.
“Yeah, well, I don’t really give a fuck.” Jones slapped the blade into the temple of the victim and twisted the eleven inches of steal around his brain, and yanked the blade out before slamming the tip into the top of the skull, pushing his face into the dirt for good. When he yanked the knife free he watched the blood pool for a moment, and noticed the nerves twitched before he remained still for good. “That was quick, I guess he was close to death. How did that do for your knee?” Jones asked.
“Not a fucking thing! It is starting to stiffen.” Kramer said, massaging his leg.
“Well, if we hurry we can make it to town before night fall.” Jones said, using the arm of the dead Burned One to wipe the blood off the knife.
They journeyed on through the woods, hoping to reach Petersburg before dusk. Jones fiddled with the radio until a broadcast could be heard over the static.
“-when the Bloodsuckers hit St. Louis, they devoured and pushed out all the refuges from Illinois, all of which were victims of the bird attacks that were occurring upstate. During this time, the military was trying to hold the east coast from destruction. Panic had already spread and the only side of the United States with minimum panic was the west coast. Talk of the dead were the only report coming from San Francesco as of this broadcast. The dead have kept their distance in the south and west. The dry weather is treating them better than the harsh winters in the north and east experience. The Bloodsuckers are the real threat in the surrounding Missouri area. Just an hour before the broadcast I dropped a Molotov off the top of my tower to burn six of them that tried chopping their way in. Remember folks, fire kills them faster! The bird threats look to be tamed now. An unsung group of heroes started eradicating all the bird nests in the north. There is hope along the horizon! We will not divide! Remember, protect your loved ones and yourself! This is Riley Scott, and this was The Midnight Hour!”
“Fucking rerun.” Jones mumbled, switching off the radio.
“I wonder how many times we have heard that one.”
They drove on, down the dirt road, time clicked from the clock, and the sun was lost behind the trees. “I really don’t want to camp here.” Kramer said.
“So, what are we going to do? Scalp the mayor and sleep in his house?”
“Yeah, I am saying that.”
“That should go over well.”
Kramer cackled. “Yeah…. It will.”
The road took a large turn in the woods and they came upon the front of a gated town. A gateway was in the road, surrounded on each side by brick towers, but no access to a vehicle could happen, for large metal spikes were crossed in front of the gateway. A single person could move through them, but a car had no access. Walls, made of brick with barbed wire at the top were surrounding the town. It was more fortified than the Scalp Collector’s home.
Armed guards stood at the top of the towers, holding pipe pistols, potato guns, and house made rocket launchers. “How goes there?” One of the guards yelled down.
“Just a couple of the Queen’s men, hoping to enter your town and speak to your mayor?” Kramer asked.
“On what grounds?”
“We have word on some dangerous people in the area and we are here to offer our aid incase these people attack the town of Petersburg.” Kramer lied.
“The guards radioed back to someone else. After listing to a reply one motioned to the other. “Leave the vehicle and walk through the spiked gate. The mayor will be out shortly.”
“Christ, these guys are easy. That wasn’t even your best lie!”
Kramer smiled, “I know, man. How many guards do you think?”
“Homemade guns, maybe a dozen, probably less.”
“I was thinking that.” Kramer said, wincing at the pain in his leg.
Jones walked through the rusted spikes first, maneuvering through them carefully, keeping one hand on his gun’s holster. He laughed when he watched Kramer attempt with his crippled leg.
“You think this is funny, huh?”
“Crippled motherfucker!” Jones said, laughing.
When Kramer was free one of the guards yelled, “The assistant mayor will meet you down the street.”
“Will he show us to the real power around here?” Kramer asked.
When no answer came, Kramer rubbed his knee, nodded to Jones, and they walked side by side. They loosened the guns in their belts.
“I saw the guards were wearing dog tags. It’s a good target. Aim a little above and it should be a direct hit.” Jones said.
“How many are you thinking?” Kramer asked. “We only have seven bullets between us.”
“I only saw three.”
The town was well kept compared to what they know. Clean and kept homes with yards of fresh green grass. Everything was clean compared to wear they came from. The few people they saw on the street moved inside. Children were playing on a swing set and the mother called them into the house. “Well we sure stick out.” Jones said, watching the children running inside.
“Only one person was still standing outside. He’s leaning against the stop sign smoking something.” Kramer said.
“Might be our guy? Or the assistant.”
As they walked up to the guy, they noticed his faded t shirt, and torn jeans. His scruffy beard leads up to his blazed bloodshot eyes. He looked at them as if they weren’t there. He smoked more of his rollup and blew the smoke in the air. Kramer and Jones could smell the weed as they got closer.
“You know where we can find the mayor?” Kramer asked.
“He’s up in the house. Will be down in the minute. I am his assistant. What can we help you gentlemen with?” He offered the joint to Kramer who took it eagerly. After hitting it, he said, “Just an offer we have for him.” Kramer pasted it to Jones who took a long hit from it before passing it back. “That’s good shit,” Kramer began. “You have a stockpile around here?”
“The man smiled and said, “Got a whole garden in the back. You boys help yourselves to a bug full before you leave.”
“Nice.” Kramer said.
A man walked out onto the porch of a building to their left. He was wearing all black with a gun belt on his right hip. Jones noticed what kind of gun he had and knew then he was going to take all his bullets.
“Scalp Collectors. I recognized your kind as you walked down the street.” The mayor said. Kramer watched the assistant try sliding his hand behind his back all smooth.
“You are the mayor, Paul Peters?” Jones asked.
“Wait! That’s his fucking name?” Kramer chuckled.
The mayor’s face grew red behind his long white hair and mustache. “That is me. How about you boys come inside and have a drink while we discuss this business you brought to my doorstep.”
The assistant was struggling to pull something out from his pants and Kramer watched from the corner of his eye. “Sounds good,” Kramer said. “Lead the way.”
The assistant tried to pull his gun early and the killing began. Kramer drew his knife and slashed at his gun hand and the pistol dropped to the ground. The knife circled up into the assistant’s neck and Kramer pulled the throat open. Blood splashed out down Kramer’s arm and he laughed while the blood rained.
The mayor was quick with his revolver, but Jones was a second faster. While the mayor pulled the gun out of the holster to fire on them, Jones shot from the hip and the slug struck the mayor right through the wrist on his gun hand and the gun dropped into the dirt. The mayor screamed and ran back inside the building he came from. “Kill them you bastards! They came from my scalp!”
“Kramer jerked his pistol out and swung backwards, shooting three single shots at all the guards men. He could make out where the dog tags were and aimed a little above. These were hard shots, but all their training made them experts. Each bullet shattered into the chest bone of each guard. The chest bone exploded, sending shards of bone into the heart and lungs. Kramer watched one of the guards fall from the tower dead. They never got a shot off.
Others did, as people with homemade guns fired from the windows of their home. The bullets missed by a couple feet and Jones said, “Get the mayor! I’ll handle them.”
“On it!” Kramer said, and ran at full speed towards the building, ignoring the fact his knee was even hurting. The mayor slammed the door shut behind him and they imagined he locked it, but Kramer threw his shoulder into it and it smashed open. Jones moved his guns back and forth between every window on the street as bullets flew passed him. Homemade guns shot like shit, but Jones was carrying real steal, something he could rattle them back to their skeleton ancestors. The assistant mayor laid bleeding out on the ground, he recognized the 22. Pistol on the ground but ran backwards from a spray of bullets that came from between the houses. “There is one of them! Fucking kill him!”
Kramer ran into the building that looked like an old-time saloon. Chairs sat upside down on tables and a bar with a large mirror was present. He heard a door slam from somewhere nearby and he saw that the blood that sprayed from his gunshot wound left a blood trail heading towards the stairs. Kramer power walked with his gun drawn, knowing that he was going to have to kill this guy, but knew he probably had more guns.
As Kramer headed for the stairs. Jones ran to the porch, stopping to pick up the mayor’s gun as he did. A whole witch mob of people came from around the houses with homemade guns, knives, axes, whatever weapon they could use to cut down the Scalp Collectors.
“Fucking knew we were coming!” Jones yelled as he ran into the building, following Kramer. He checked the mayor’s gun and saw they were the same caliber. Jones’s gun was well oiled with a hair trigger, the mayor’s gun was rusted to the point of a dead weapon. Jones wasn’t sure the gun would even fire. The cylinder was full of six fresh rounds and Jones took these with pleasure, and rolled them into his own gun till he was fully loaded with a couple to spare.
Kramer made it to the top of the stairs and threw himself into the door till it opened. He found the mayor digging through a cabinet, knocking boxes of bullets to the floor, trying to find what he needed for shotgun he had laying by him. A pool of blood was forming from where the slug went through his wrist. A milk white color was staining his body. Kramer knew he didn’t have much life left. “You are feeling alright, man?” Kramer asked. “You are looking a little sick there. Can I get you anything? Medicine? Bandage? I’ll trade you for the scalp?”
Jones Pushed a chair to the door to try and block it from the witch mob that was making it to the porch. “C’mon Chaz!” He would mumble by flipping around to each window, knowing it was only a matter of time before they blew their way through. Gun shots rang and the windows broke of ancient glass as the bullets flew into the wall behind him. One hit the grand mirror, turning it into a spider web.
Kramer’s gun rang its last round throughout the room and echoed through the building. “C’mon God damn it! They are coming in!” Kramer heard Jones’s gun go off three times from the floor below. “Fuck you! Fuck you! Fuck you!” Kramer laughed as he began skinning the mayor’s head. He let the poor man load the shotgun, but got so distracted by a gun in the cabinet that he almost let the man get the drop on him. Kramer pulled the trigger and the mayor’s throat exploded. He choked and wiggled but soon died. “I don’t fucking think so!” He heard Jones scream as more glass broke.
“You alright, man?” Kramer yelled. “I think you need to get up here. You need to see this.”
He heard him run up the steps and run into the room, gun still pointed. “What!? We need to go…”
Jones looked upon the open gun cabinet. Barrels lined the back wall and boxes of bullets we all over the floor. His jaw dropped. “Seriously?”
“Yeah, he tried loading this triple barrel shotgun. Looks a bit homemade.”
“I want that.” Jones said.
Kramer cackled. “Good! Because I want this one!” He pulled a tommy gun out of the cabinet and began to load it. “Plenty of your .45 rounds in here and my 9’s.”
“Hell yeah!” Jones dropped down and began digging around the bullets.
The door broke down and they heard the footsteps run around the bottom floor. Kramer shut the door. “Alright, so what’s up, man? How are we going to do this?”
Jones checked the shotgun and the barrels. All the hammers were welded into one big hammer. This gun was meant to unload all three barrels at the same time. He checked if it was loaded and stood behind the door and placed the barrels onto the midsection of the door. “When I drop down, unload the tommy on them.”
“Nice!” Kramer laughed. “What is this, like the ninth time this has happened?”
Jones felt pressure on the door and he unloaded the gun. It nearly kicked him over as if blew the entire midsection of the door apart. The midsections of three people behind the door spilled down the stairs. Blood rolled down onto the bottom step, ropes of intestines swam down like water snakes. Jones dropped and Kramer fired like a mad man, laughing as he did. The gun wasn’t the most accurate, but in the space of a stairwell it landed its mark as much as it missed.
Bodies slipped on blood and several more were thrown back as bullets caved in their torsos. The fell back when the bodies were piling to high and the rest ran out of the building. The Scalp Collectors ran to a window and began raining down on each one. Driving bullets into their back as they ran, screamed, and pleaded for their lives. The ones who tried to be brave died first and the cowards died last, using their handguns to see who could hit the farthest victim as they ran down the streets. Jones replaced bullets from a box next to him and Jones traded out a couple preset magazines that were waiting from him. The last person to run up at them had the white hair and beard of a crazy man. A red stain was all over his beard and he pointed a chunky finger at the window. “I only eat tangerines with my sghetti!”
“What?” Jones said lowering his gun.
Kramer chuckled. “Hey man, I always eat tangerines with my sghetti!” He shot the man twice through his throat and they watched as he choked to death on his own blood.
“Eat this,” Jones said. “You should have said that. Fits whatever the fuck he was talking about.”
“Dude, I have no idea.”
The mob was dead. One of the worst makeshift groups that ever tried to kill them. The whole slaughter only took about seven minutes Thirty-eight were dead and the biggest stockpile of ammo they have ever seen.
Let’s camp here. I am sure we just abandoned some of these houses.” Jones said.
“Yeah, and there is promise of sghetti for dinner.”
“Fucks sake.” Jones said.
Kramer laughed as they began to raid the gun cabinet. “So, how should we divide this all up? I mean, we probably have over thirty scalps worth 10 or more credits each.”
“I saw a couple who had been scalped in the past before.” Jones said.
“Right, I know we give ninety percent to The Dwellers, but what about that last ten percent? Like I feel that I killed most of them, so I should get a bigger cut.”
Jones laughed. “Right, you didn’t see the ones I gunned down at the windows, and I took out more far away than you did.”
“I got the three in the guard tower, and the other ones coming up the stairs!”
“Let’s just split it fifty each.”
“How about sixty-forty?” Kramer said.
“fifty-five for you and forty-five for me, but I get to pick through the guns first.”
Kramer found a large duffle bag in the closet and started loading all the ammunition in it. Even if they didn’t have the right gun for it, they could sell it for a lot of credits. Jones investigated a cabinet by the desk and found a bottle of whiskey sitting at the bottom. “Hey, Paulie. Hiding the good stuff down here?” Jones said. “What year do you think this was?”
Kramer took it and pulled the cork out and smelled it. “Man, before the bombs dropped. Wanna do some shots while we scalp the pile?”
“Yeah, man. Find more of that weed too.”
With the guns lined up on the floor, Jones picked a .38 revolver and hid it behind his belt in the back, a .22 Derringer pistol that he slipped into his left boot, and the sawed off three-barrel shotgun that he blew the door open with. “So, I’m getting the tommy gun, this gold plated .50, and this fucking blunderbuss?” Kramer said. “Look at the barrel on this thing, it’s like a megaphone! It doesn’t even take actual bullets! Pour some black powder in it, throw a bunch of metal shit in it and hope it shoots!”
“Got a problem with it?” Jones asked.
“No, this is pretty sick.” Kramer said, cackling.
They dragged all their goods to the bottom floor. Kramer found two shot glasses behind the bar and filled both. They clinked their glasses together and took the first shot down. “Hey man, I think you are bleeding.” Kramer said, pointing to Jones’s right arm.
Jones looked and saw a line across his arm that dripped blood down to his wrist. “I didn’t even feel that. One of those bullets grazed me. What luck?”
Jones rolled his sleeve up and took some of the scalping salt and clapped that one the wound to stop the bleeding. “Yeah, that burn.” Jones said, watching the white foam bubble from the wound. “It is almost addicting.”
They spent the next couple hours scalping and throwing back drinks. They would drag the bodies from the street into the building and scalp the ones who needed it. Thirty-five good scalps, counting the mayor’s. The flies were beginning to fill up the building to feed on the dead so they saw it best to camp in another house. Before they left, Kramer was chopping at one of the scalp victims. He removed the severed head of the last kill.
“He held the scalped head up and started moving the jaw, treating the severed head like a puppet. “I only eat tangerines with my sghetti!” He said in his best worst impression, something he constantly did to people who irritated him. Kramer chucked the head like a ball out the window.
“Fucking weird people live here.” Jones said, laughing. They took some string and linked all the scalps together like a large multicolored animal pelt, blood still dripping from the skin rags.
They walked down the street with their pay, guns, and booze when a little boy stepped out into the street. Jones and Kramer both drew on him but didn’t shoot. They boy had been crying. His red, wet, tired blue eyes were nearly hidden behind his sandy hair. “You killed my daddy.”
“Oh shit, I am sorry kid! Which scalp is his and I will let you have it!” Kramer said.
“I am going to kill you both one day.”
“Really?” Jones asked, Lowering his head smiling. “You know, I don’t know how many people in this world have threatened that. So far we are still standing.” Jones lowered down till he was standing eye level with the kid. He took his revolver and spun it to where the barrel was facing his own chest and the butt of the gun was facing the kid. “Come here, kid.” He gestured for the boy to take the gun.
The boy walked over, reluctant at first, Jones made a note of his dirty bare feet. He took the gun in both hands. Jones pushed the hammer back for him and he pushed the barrel into his own chest. Jones pressed his hands against the boys. “Pull the trigger, kid. Kill me. You may even have enough time to kill my partner. You got the look of a killer in those eyes.”
“I’ll do it.” The kid threatened, snot rolling from his nose.
“I bet you could, but that is the trouble with children. They think they know the whole truth of the world. You know, from the mouth of babes, but if that was true then the world would be a better place, but I see angry eyes on you, kid, but I also see something else. I see a little boy who can’t pull the trigger.”
Several seconds passed and Jones stared in a glaring smile. He flipped the gun out of the boy’s hands and pressed the barrel to the boy’s forehead. He slowly released the hammer and holstered the gun. “Don’t be like you dad, kid. Or you will end up just like him. Now get your ass back to your house before your mother worries.”
They walked on in silence. Knocking on doors, waiting to see who was home and who wasn’t. They settled on a two-story house. They could lock the bottom doors and sleep upstairs to give them the high ground incase if someone broke in to kill them in their sleep. Kramer locked picked the door and they walked in and investigated the house. It was in good shape, clean with paintings on the wall. Upstairs they found three rooms with empty beds. They decided to settle here for the night. Kramer tied a trip rope around the front door in case anyone kicked it open. The rope connected to the trigger of his blunderbuss that was filled with knives from the kitchen. Looking through the cupboard, Jones found jars of peanut butter, a half loaf of bread, and some salted meat. “It aint sghetti, but I guess it will do.”
They ate peanut butter sandwiches and salted meat that they believed to be pork. After drinking the rest of the whiskey, they each took a different bedroom. Kramer took the master bed, while Jones took a bed that looked to be for a guest room. They slept with the doors open, guns loaded on the nightstands and they dreamt of blood and torture. The residents that were hiding after the gun fight scurried through the night, but stayed clear of the house they knew they went in.
In the morning, they wondered down the street, headaches from the whiskey and they craved their own home.
“Someone sold us out.” Jones said. “Seemed like they were waiting for us.”
“It did seem like that.” Kramer said, squinting in the bright sun. “Rival skinners I think.”
“Probably. Your knee isn’t hurting, is it?”
“Nah, man. I guess we are in the clear to drive home.”
They twisted around the rusted spikes and made it to the front of their vehicle. They both stopped and stared at the wind shield of the jeep. Blood was dripping down the glass and a message was spelled out. “Eye Sea You.”
Jones walked forward and saw that a pair of black buckeyes were sitting on the hood, a bloody smile was drawn underneath, creating a monstrous face.
“Looks, like we have a fan.” Jones said.
“But who?” Kramer asked.
“I am not sure, but I think he knows who we are.”