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Surviving the Dead (Book 7): The Killing Line
 


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Surviving the Dead (Book 7): The Killing Line


  Surviving the Dead Volume 7:

  The Killing Line

  By:

  James N. Cook

  ONE

  Heinrich peered through his binoculars and tracked the caravan as it crossed the Kansas plains.

  “I count thirty-two,” Carter said. “All armed, a few women and children, eight Blackthorns. The rest look capable.”

  Heinrich grunted assent. The two men lay prone on a wooded hillside where they had spent the last several hours waiting for a target to present itself. At this juncture of the trade route they knew someone would come along sooner or later. In this case, it was sooner.

  Heinrich lowered his field glasses. “They’re headed for 160.”

  “Probably going to Tennessee or Kentucky. What do you think they’re carrying?”

  “Hard to be sure. Whatever it is, it must be valuable to hire eight of Jennings’ men.”

  Carter frowned at the mention of Tyrel Jennings and his mercenaries. He’d encountered them in the past, and his experiences had invariably resulted in lost comrades and permanent scars.

  “I’d take ‘em just for that.”

  Heinrich grinned. Two teeth were missing on the left side of his face, courtesy of an elbow strike from one of Jennings’ men. “Any excuse to take on the Blackthorn Security Company, eh?”

  Carter’s battered face returned the smile. “You know you want ‘em.”

  “You know me too well, old friend. Let’s get back and round up the others. Make a plan.”

  Heinrich turned his head to one of the men waiting farther down the hillside with the horses. “Locke. You and Rourke follow the caravan. Stay out of sight, but keep a visual. Leave the usual signs.”

  The two men acknowledged and swung into their saddles. Heinrich gazed out over the plains. Eight Blackthorns. The rest armed, even the women and children. People did not survive on the road long if they could not defend themselves, meaning the caravan was a hard target. Heinrich and his raiders would be outnumbered, and eight men trained by Tyrel Jennings was enough to tip the scales of any fight. Hell, four men would have been enough. Maybe it would be best to leave off, find an easier target. Heinrich almost convinced himself until he looked down and saw his left hand. The first two knuckles of his ring finger and little finger were missing, the product of a swipe from a Blackthorn’s kukri. Heinrich would have died that day if Carter had not ran the mercenary through from behind with his cutlass.

  No. This one is mine.

  They would need the element of surprise, which meant a night raid. His men would not like it, but then again, they didn’t like anything except ambushing people foolish enough not to travel in large numbers. Heinrich would bring them around. Hurl the usual insults, call them weak, call them cowards, tell them they didn’t have to join the raid, but they would get no share of the spoils. And they had damn well better be in camp when he got back. If they weren’t, he would hunt them down and kill them slowly. That would goad them. They had all seen what happened to deserters. Signing on with Heinrich was a commitment. His people either fought, or they died.

  Carter slid back down the hillside, staying low. Heinrich gave the caravan one last look, then followed.

  *****

  They had made camp in an abandoned farmhouse on the north side of what remained of Liberty, Kansas. Feral chickens and goats roamed the surrounding fields, providing an easy food source. The well on the property had a hand pump, giving them access to clean, potable water. There had been a few infected when they got there, but Heinrich and his men had dealt with them. All told, it was a good place to hide out.

  The scarred raider chieftain looked out over the wide expanse of Kansas and thought how ironic it was he should be grateful to the Army. Despite the trouble they had given him over the years, he had to admit that Operation Relentless Force had been an unequivocal success. Kansas was as close to a revenant-free zone as existed in the continental United States. And the resultant boom in farming, ranching, and trade had created ample pickings for those with the will to take what they wanted.

  Heinrich looked back toward the barn, his raiders’ temporary barracks, and saw Carter talking to the men. Good. Between his height, bald head, shovel of a beard, heavy build, and the gruesome keloid scars on his face, he was an intimidating sight. Precisely the reason Heinrich had made him his second in command.

  He would let his enforcer snarl at the filthy dogs for a while, then step in and calmly lay out the plan. A reasonable voice and commanding presence would reassure them, get them thinking about the rewards and not the risks. Then, when the time came, the three who had best acquitted themselves in the last raid would get to remain behind, still receiving a full share of the loot, while the rest went forth to do the fighting. And the best of those would sit out the next fight, and so on and so forth. Those were the rules. Heinrich was very strict about the rules. Without rules, there could be no discipline, no unit cohesiveness. He had learned all about such things in Marine Corps Force Recon. Offenses needed to be punished, and exemplary performance rewarded. That was how he kept them hungry, ready to fight.

  When Carter had finished whatever tirade he was on, Heinrich strode to the barn entrance, gave his second in command a nod, then addressed his men. “Is there a problem here?”

  The men glanced sidelong at one another, but no one spoke.

  “Come on, you dogs. What’s the issue? You have my permission to speak freely.”

  One of his squad leaders, Maru, a stocky Maori with a tattooed face and thick New Zealand accent, stepped forward. “We’re just worried about the odds, Chief. Thirty-two is nine more than we have, and eight of those are Blackthorns. Got to be an easier mark out there.”

  Heinrich nodded slowly. “A valid concern. We all know firsthand just how capable the Blackthorns are.” He held up his diminished left hand for emphasis. “But do we let that stop us? Are we suddenly afraid of a hard fight? Did you all become scared little pussies when I wasn’t looking?”

  He paused to let the question sink in. After a few seconds, he said, “Ask yourselves this. How much would it cost to hire eight of Jennings’ men?”

  Another silence. Maru nodded, eyes thoughtful, seeming to grasp the point immediately. Heinrich approved. If anything happened to Carter, he knew who his next second in command would be. “Something on your mind, Maru?”

  “Yes sir. I see your point. Eight Blackthorns would cost a small fortune. Whatever that ‘van is haulin’, it’s got to be worth it.”

  “Exactly.”

  “But that doesn’t solve the problem of the Blackthorns.”

  Heinrich put his hands behind his back and began pacing. “I’m reminded of two quotes from Sun Tzu’s seminal masterpiece, The Art of War. Have any of you read it?”

  He stopped pacing and looked. There was a general shrugging of shoulders and shaking of heads.

  Figures.

  “The two quotes I’m referring to,” Heinrich continued, “are as follows: First, ‘opportunities multiply as they are seized’. Second, ‘let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night. And when you move, fall like a thunderbolt.’”

  He stopped pacing and waited to see if the quotations had any effect. A few heads nodded, faces pensive. The rest were either blank or confused. Well, I didn’t hire them for their towering intellects.

  “What it means,” Heinrich said, “is when you spot an opportunity, you take it. But you don’t go rushing in half-cocked. You make a plan, and you stick to it. In this case, since we’re outnumbered, we’ll need the element of surprise.”

  “You’re talking about a night raid,” Maru said.

  Heinrich nodded. “
Exactly. And before anyone starts whining, I know the risks. I’ve survived the Outbreak as long as you have. We need to remember this is Kansas, not Kentucky or Missouri. There aren’t nearly as many infected here. Hell, this whole town only had a little over a dozen when we got here, including crawlers. Night ops here aren’t nearly as dangerous as most other places. Additionally, there will be a full moon tonight. Add that to the fires the traders will have in their camp, and there will be plenty of light to see by.”

  “And the dumbasses in the caravan will ruin their night vision looking into the fires,” Carter said. “It’ll be hard to see us coming.”

  “The Blackthorns won’t make that mistake,” said Slim, another one of Heinrich’s squad leaders. No one knew his real name, he just went by Slim. The name was a joke; Slim was a hulking monster of a man. “They’ll be on the perimeter, looking outward. And them fellas got sharp ears. At least one or two will have NVGs.”

  “That’s where I come in,” Heinrich said, smiling. Between the missing teeth and the scar that turned his mouth downward on one side, the smile put his men ill at ease. Even Carter took a step back. The raider chieftain slid his sniper rifle around and held it at port arms. “Knight’s Armament M-110. Suppressor equipped. One of the most advanced sniper weapon systems ever created. I’ll watch, and wait, and take out their night-vision boys. And when I’ve done that, I’ll radio the others’ positions, Carter and Maru will lead you in, and we’ll slaughter the fuckers like babies in a blender.”

  The raiders started getting into the spirit, heads bobbing, grins appearing, yellowed teeth bared in the dim light of the overcast afternoon. Filthy, scarred hands strayed to weapons, guns and blades and bludgeons of all kinds.

  “We’ll take out the men, capture some Blackthorns, kill ‘em slow. And when we’re done, we’ll take stock of the women.”

  Fierce laughter, the sounds of eagerness and bloodthirst in rough voices. Heinrich knew he had them now. “And whatever it is they’re hauling, whatever’s worth hiring eight fucking Blackthorns to protect, we’ll divide it up and set out for Parabellum. And there’ll be booze and brawls and gambling and as much pussy as we can fuck.”

  Then men had drawn blades and other weapons and were clanking them together, sending forth a steady chant, Heinrich, Heinrich, Heinrich, each syllable punctuated by the clash of metal on metal.

  “But first.” Heinrich held up a hand for silence. The chanting and clashing stopped. “We have to prepare. Squad leaders, see to your men. Set up the panels and start charging radios. Carter, ride out and get a report from Locke and Rourke. We need to start mapping our route in.”

  “Yes sir.” The big brute headed toward the barn, and his horse.

  The raiders broke up into small groups, squad leaders checking their men’s weapons and makeshift armor. Some were lucky enough to have ballistic vests taken from dead soldiers, while others had made their own armor from whatever they found lying around: scrap metal, leather, nylon, plastic, wood, books, bone, anything that could stop one of the Three Bs: bites, bullets, and blades. Or at least slow them down.

  Heinrich walked to the farmhouse and climbed the stairs to his quarters in the master bedroom. He felt no pity for his men sleeping in the barn. Rank had its privileges, and he was the only one strong enough to hold these men together, the only one with the will to keep them from killing each other. He controlled them by redirecting their aggression, by giving them something they wanted more than watching each other die.

  He gave them a purpose.

  And that purpose was to raid, to take from others, and to use what they gained to indulge their vices. Which were many and varied, and, even to John Byron Heinrich’s loose sensibilities, downright detestable. But he did not judge them openly. Doing so would start a fight, and his men were far more useful alive and motivated than lying dead on the ground with one of Heinrich’s blades protruding from their throat.

  He put his rifle on the bed, disassembled it, and gave it a thorough cleaning. When it was reassembled, he counted his ammo. Two-hundred twenty three rounds of 7.62 remaining. Four magazines, each holding twenty cartridges. He would have eighty rounds on hand when the fighting started, not counting the bullets in his pistols. Heinrich had other rifles, but he elected to leave them behind. Once Carter and Maru led the men in, it would be all up close and personal, pistols and blades and looking into a man’s bloodshot eyes as he died. He anticipated losing a few men in the coming violence, but that was all right. He could always recruit more from the ample supply of murderers and thieves at Parabellum.

  Heinrich sat on the bed and stared out the window as the sun went down. When the last red traces of daylight barely hovered above the horizon he lit a candle, smeared black grease on his hands and face, shouldered his rifle, and left the farmhouse. Moments later, armed with a detailed report from his scouts, Heinrich consulted a map, plotted his course, and set off. The raiders in his band held their weapons high in a gesture of respect, the sound of metal clashing against metal receding in the distance as he rode steadily eastward.

  *****

  Midnight.

  The moon was high, illuminating the valley two-hundred yards ahead. Heinrich watched as the men on guard duty grew bored waiting to be relieved. All except the Blackthorns. Those bastards never got bored.

  It was a good spot for a camp, he had to admit. Nestled between two shallow hills, low-banked fires fed by nearly smokeless bio-mass logs instead of wood that could be smelled half a mile away, and guards rotating on two-hour shifts. All precautions taken on the advice of the Blackthorns, no doubt. The camp would have been invisible to anyone approaching from the north, south, or west. Hardly anyone was headed east this time of year, least of all raiders and marauders, so the traders’ probability of being spotted was low. If Heinrich had not seen them on the road, he never would have found them. But he had. And the time to strike was growing near.

  “Strike Bravo in position,” Carter said over the radio.

  “Strike Charlie, ready to go.” Maru this time. The other two squads checked in as well.

  Heinrich keyed his mic. “Hold position and stay the fuck quiet. Wait for my command to commence.”

  A round of affirmatives. Heinrich’s pack lay on the ground beside him. He slowly and carefully opened it and took out his secret weapon, a FLIR infrared scope. He had found it in an abandoned house in Missouri a few months after the Outbreak, along with the M-110 rifle he now carried. Its former owner had been a soldier bitten by one of the infected. The doomed man had holed up in the empty house and later turned. But before he turned, the soldier had propped the rifle in a corner and there it had remained until Heinrich happened along. A swing of an axe later, and Heinrich had himself a brand new sniper rifle and state of the art optics complete with rechargeable lithium-ion batteries. Shortly thereafter, he’d found a twenty-watt solar trickle charger and a USB connecter, giving him virtually unlimited ability to recharge the scope.

  In the following years, as his band of raiders and his reputation had grown, he had kept the scope a closely guarded secret, never allowing any of his men to see him using it. In so doing, he had achieved legendary status among them for his skills as a sniper. In a land with no electricity, nights were extremely dark. His ability to shoot accurately at long rang in pitch black conditions had led some of his followers to believe he had supernatural abilities. Heinrich did nothing to discourage this thinking.

  He mounted the scope, activated it, and scanned the interior of the camp. Most of the traders slept in their carts or in small tents, fires banked low. A few of the men sat on low stools around warm embers, conversing with their heads close together. Smart. Kansas had a very low infected population, but people knew better than to make more noise than necessary. Not if they wanted to live.

  Next, Heinrich searched the perimeter. There were six men on watch, the warmth of their bodies glowing bright white through his scope. Four were hiding in patches of trees and long grass, while two others l
ay prone on hilltops, clad in ghillie suits.

  Counter snipers.

  Heinrich dialed up the magnification on his scope, and sure enough, both of the counter snipers had the tell-tale shape of night vision scopes on their rifles. Heinrich smiled. His men were far enough away and sufficiently hidden that the Blackthorns would not be able to spot them even with night vision. Not that it mattered, really. The snipers would be the first to die.

  He radioed the positions of all the guards, settled over his rifle, and spent a few moments gauging the distance between hides. The first two shots were the most important. Hit the first sniper, transition to the next target, and fire again. Two shots, two kills. No room for error. The M-110 was equipped with a suppressor, but its muted crack would still be audible down in the camp. Sound carried very well at night, and the hills would form a natural echo chamber. He would have less than two seconds from the first kill to the second. Any longer, and he would be firing at a moving target, greatly reducing his chances of getting them both.

  So he aimed at one sniper, imagined himself pulling the trigger, then quickly moved to the second. After four practice runs, he figured had the timing down. Maybe it was perfect, maybe it was not. In Heinrich’s experience, the longer he waited to engage the enemy, the worse his accuracy. Better just to clear his head, focus on the process rather than the result, and get to killing.

  The reticle settled on the first sniper, half a breath left his lungs, and he squeezed the trigger. The figured jerked, his brain and skull collapsing in a white mist through Heinrich’s scope. Less than a second later, Heinrich aimed center of mass at the second sniper and fired three times. Three jerks. The figure rolled onto his side, shuddered, and then tumbled halfway down the hill.

  “All stations, move in and engage.”

  The gunfire started immediately. Automatic weapons chattered from the north and west, catching the traders and Blackthorns in a crossfire. The men in the camp scrambled for cover, reaching for rifles as they went. Some of them went down screaming in the darkness.

 
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