THE RETREAT #3: DIE LAUGHING: Welcome to Philly, Lightfighters
And here’s a quick little gallop through The Retreat #3: Die Laughing, by none other than the inestimable Joe McKinney!
Corporal Sandra Rawlings jumped from the Humvee just as another Molotov cocktail hit the windshield and splashed fire and broken glass across the hood.
She landed out in the open, no cover, but she kept moving, her carbine held tight, the blood pounding in her ears. They were still taking fire from the Klowns at the end of the street, but it was sporadic and poorly aimed. Bullets whistled overhead and slapped into the sides of wrecked cars abandoned in the street with muffled, metallic plunks.
They weren’t her main problem, though.
The Klowns rushing across the Dunkin Donuts parking lot to her left were closer.
They were the real threat.
They were the ones throwing the Molotov cocktails.
A bullet zinged over her head. Close enough she could almost feel it. She ducked down to a crouch and ran for the cover of a burned out car. The doors were missing and she could see the blackened cinders of a man still sitting behind the wheel, holding what might have once been a gas can. The entire interior had melted and turned black from the heat. He looked like those bodies from the excavated ruins of Pompeii, frozen by fire in the midst of his last action.
Whatever that might have been.
Andy Muldoon came up beside her, his hulking frame barely fitting behind the vehicle’s fender.
“What are you smiling at?” she said.
“Didn’t I tell you I’d show you a good time?”
“Just a little of the old in and out,” she said, sneering at him. “It’ll be painless, you said.”
Muldoon gave her a wink. “I thought a Nasty Girl like you would get a kick out of the old in and out.”
“You’re already a jerk,” she said. “Don’t be a pig.”
“It’s what I do, babe.”
“Don’t be an ass,” she said. “And don’t call me babe.”
Rawlings rose over the hood and fired a three round burst at a Klown rushing toward them with another Molotov cocktail, cutting his legs out from under him. He landed face down in the weeds and broken cement at the edge of the street. He looked up at Rawlings, his face speckled with blood, and laughed through broken teeth.
Rawlings killed him with another three round burst.
The Klowns down the street started firing again, forcing her back down next to Muldoon. Her face was thick with dust and grime, and when she smiled her teeth flashed in the morning light.
A few of hers were broken too.
Rawlings looked around, trying to get a handle on their situation.
Clouds of dust and smoke drifted heavy in the air. They were in an intersection in the middle of what, to Rawlings anyway, looked to be the shittiest part of Philadelphia.
Of course, she’d thought that about every part of Philadelphia she’d seen so far, but who was counting.
Every building on the block was a tumbledown, three story, red brick townhome. Most of the windows looked to have been boarded up long before the Bug hit, three months ago. The scar of urban decay, the soul-sucking bleakness of poverty and neglect, was staggering. Tangled, overgrown fields next to long abandoned buildings. Wrecked, windowless cars, sitting like shipwrecks up on blocks. And everywhere she turned, bullet holes and rust and weeds growing through cracks in the streets.
What had the Klowns painted on the sign outside the city? Welcome to Philadelphia, the Shitty of Love.
It made her sad.
The Klowns were insane, but they weren’t wrong.
# # #
Two days earlier, the battered remnants of the 10th Mountain Division, under the command of Lt. Colonel Harry Lee, had rolled up to the rubble that had once been the Divine Lorraine Hotel and got their first glimpse of Philadelphia.
For Rawlings, it had been a moment of hope and relief.
From their retreat out of Boston to the punishing battle at Ft. Drum, they’d taken heavy losses. They were down to around three hundred soldiers. They had restocked on ammunition and fuel and food after their victory at Drum, but that hadn’t counted for much.
Their air cover had been destroyed at Drum.
The trucks they had left were battered and limping along.
They’d been forced to leave so many assets on the side of the road, and with the Klowns at their back there hadn’t even been time to cannibalize the broken down stuff. They had to keep moving.
And, as if that wasn’t enough, they had a caravan of about a thousand civilian survivors towing along for the ride.
The constant fighting and moving had flushed everybody down the toilet, as far as morale went.
Rawlings was exhausted.
She’d seen the lights of Philadelphia blazing in the darkness like something out of a John Winthrop sermon and, for the thinnest scrap of a moment, she’d allowed herself to think they were marching into the welcoming arms of safety.
Into a city on the hill.
But then Lee had ordered them to set camp in West Fairmont Park, well outside of the city, and everything ground to a halt. For the first time since the retreat out of Boston began, the surviving members of the 10th Mountain Division had time to look around and take stock.
They had time to lick their wounds.
And think about all they’d lost.
It wasn’t what she wanted. Sitting around doing nothing gave her time to think about Harvard Stadium and the horrors she’d endured there.
And of Scott Wade, the young man she’d almost, almost, come to love.
Thinking of him was like having an icy fist squeeze her guts.
The Klowns were easy to take in, easy to wrap your head around, while you were looking at them through the scope of a rifle. But they were a whole different beast when you watched a man you thought of as a friend, and even as a potential lover, slip into their laughing pool of madness.
Rawlings was still looking for a comfy chair for that thought to sit in.
So far, she’d managed to keep those thoughts at a distance. The moving and fighting had helped with that.
And now that they were at the gates of Philadelphia, she’d hoped they’d march right into town and join up with the survivors there.
Instead, they sat around and waited.
They tended to their wounded and broken equipment.
For most of the day, nothing happened.
Nothing but memories and a lot of self reflection that did little more than piss her off and leave her feeling like a complete bitch every time somebody tried to talk with her.
So, hiding in the shade of a truck, she sat in angry, resentful silence and watched Philadelphia take to the day. The city lights dimmed as the morning sun took over, and from her spot in camp, Rawlings caught a view of what had become of the City of Brotherly Love.
The northern half of the city was in ruins, and crawling with Klowns. Very few buildings were left intact. Most were burned and blasted, little more than facades. She’d seen plenty of pictures of cities destroyed by war, and Northern Philadelphia looked like all the rest of them.
The southern half seemed relatively undamaged though. There were walls of flattened and stacked cars blocking off multiple streets, and those walls were topped with scrolls of razor wire; but other than the barricades, she saw few examples of the ravages of war.
And that had confused her.
Why weren’t they going in? Why weren’t they reaching out to the survivors there?
From the rumors spreading through the civilian caravan, she’d heard that the 28th Infantry Division, under the command of Major General Anthony Bell, had managed to take and hold Philadelphia.
It was supposed to be free of Klowns.
It was supposed to be a port in the storm.
She was looking forward to a break from the meatheads she’d been fighting next to since barely escaping the shithole that had been Harvard Stadium. She loved those guys, the Bushmasters, there was no doubt about that.
She had even, kind of, taken a shine to him. But after fighting next to him for more than a month, she needed a break.
And a shower.
And a decent meal.
MREs cooked in the stovepipe of a five-ton MRAP were all well and good when you were constantly fighting and marching, but they were miles away from a real meal.
She wanted a steak.
A bone-in rib eye.
With a side of baked sweet potato, slathered in butter and brown sugar and maybe topped with some fresh grated cheddar cheese.
She loved partially melted marshmallows, butter and caramelized brown sugar on sweet potatoes.
Oh yeah, and while she was wishing, a bottle of Jim Beam and a bucket of ice would be nice.
A little something to quiet the ghosts in her head.
At least for a little while.
Sandra Rawlings had some emotional baggage she needed to download.
But she’d sat instead, sober as a judge, in the shade of an ancient five ton, and waited to see what was going to happen. She’d waited the day through before Lt. Cassidy, the ranking officer presiding over the remains of the Bushmasters, came to them with news. Colonel Lee wanted to reconnoiter the city’s defenses. He wanted to know exactly what they were marching into. Cassidy had been tapped to lead a unit into the city. Their task was to scout out the walls and report back.
The way Cassidy described their mission briefing was simple. They would go in, stay invisible, take as many pictures as they could, and bring it all back to Lee.
In and out in less than twenty-four hours.
So, under cover of night, they’d crossed the Schuylkill River on the Greenland Drive Bridge. Even in the dark, it was some of the most beautiful country Rawlings had ever seen. Vast forests stretched off in every direction. A cool wind whispered through the trees, full of the musty smell of the river. It had all seemed so peaceful, so quiet. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen so many stars.
But of course the peace didn’t last. Once they put the river behind them, they entered the rundown streets of Strawberry Mansion, the heart of midtown Philadelphia. Every street was dotted with ruined cars and abandoned buildings. There was trash everywhere, piles and piles of it, and here and there amid the blank stares of windowless and empty houses, the bodies of dogs and men rotted in the waist-high weeds.
The ruin and poverty of it all depressed her to her core.
There wasn’t time to wallow in the misery of it, though.
Shortly after midnight, while they were taking video of the wall along the barricade wall, explosions rang out.
The night sky filled with fire.
Columns of smoke rose into the sky and melted into the clouds, blotting out the stars.
On the ground, it was chaos.
People ran screaming in every direction, fleeing the Klowns that poured through barricades, laughing, even as they heaped their atrocities on those unlucky enough to get caught up in their rush.
Cassidy ordered them to pull out.
They tried to get out the way they’d come in, but the Klowns were everywhere. The Bushmasters were forced first to the south, and then to the east. They’d taken heavy fire at the barricade, and they’d been forced to run through the gaps themselves.
It had been a rolling gun fight ever since.
Rawlings was spent. Beside her, Duke Muldoon calmly ejected an empty magazine from his rifle and slapped in a new one. After the last Molotov cocktail had lit their Humvee on fire, Corporal Nutter had belly crawled over to an abandoned car, where he was picking off every Klown that came running through the vacant lot to their left. On the far side of the Humvee, Lt. Cassidy and their company’s First Shirt, First Sergeant Antonio Urena, were arguing over a map.
“Looks like mom and dad are fighting,” Duke said.
“Which one’s which?” Rawlings said.
Urena stabbed the map with his finger. The young lieutenant shook his head and drew his finger across a different part of the map.
Urena stabbed the map again.
“Jesus,” she said. “They’re both idiots.”
“That’s what happens to you when you’re in charge,” Duke said.
More bullets whistled overhead. “How are we gonna get out of here, Duke?”
He turned his head just a little, and the look he gave her confused her. Like he was trying to be smolderingly hot or something, but didn’t know how to pull it off. Then he winked at her, rolled onto the hood, and started firing into the crowd down at the end of the street.
Boys, she thought. They made no sense.
Frowning, she glanced back at Urena and Cassidy. Cassidy said their plan was to push south, to Girard Avenue, and cross the Schuylkill River there. Rawlings didn’t know anything about Philly, and after watching Cassidy try to figure out the gas station map they’d been given, she guessed he didn’t either. What was it her dad had told her? The most dangerous weapon in the United States Army was a junior officer with a map.
From down the street, the Klowns suddenly let out a huge cheer.
She looked up at Duke. “What was that?”
“Damn,” he said. “Get back on the line, Rawlings. We got problems.”
Duke opened fire, burning through his whole magazine.
Rawlings glanced over the hood. There had been about a hundred Klowns at the end of the block, last time she’d looked. Now, there was three times that number. Where they’d come from, she had no idea, but they were there, and in between the laughter and the shooting, a few of them were obviously taking charge. They were pumping their fists in the air, and pointing toward the Bushmasters.
Another roaring cheer rose from their number, and the next instant, they were all charging as a mass on the Bushmasters.
“Oh shit,” Rawlings said.
She pointed her rifle down range and started shooting.
“Hey, Lieutenant,” Duke called over his shoulder. “If you guys have got the directions figured out, we got some problems up here.”
Cassidy and Urena looked up from the map, but it was Urena who took charge. “Ritchey,” he said, and pointed to the young private that had joined them for the mission. “Man that turret. Give us some suppression fire.”
“On it, First Sergeant,” Ritchey said.
The soldier wasn’t even nineteen, and he scrambled up to the turret with ease. Rawlings watched him drop in behind the big .50 and start firing.
Klowns scattered from the street, disappearing between the gaps in the houses.
He kept up a steady stream of fire, even as a fresh cheer rose up from the Klowns.
When Rawlings looked down the street again, she saw why. The huge flood of civilians she’d seen earlier now had a pack of armed soldiers and cops fighting alongside them. The soldiers and the cops were leapfrogging over each other, rushing from one spot of cover to the next, putting down a constant field of fire.
For the first time, they were facing organized return fire, and it momentarily rocked them back on their heels.
Three months earlier, back in Boston, a band of infected Boston cops had overrun her original unit. They’d caught her unit by surprise. They’d looked normal. They’d acted normal, like cops were supposed to act.
And then they’d opened fire.
She’d watched a hundred men and women she called friends get butchered by handguns and an assortment of AR-15s, shotguns and collapsible ASP batons.
Now, seeing infected cops again, her legs went weak.
A bullet zinged off the hood just inches from her head and Duke pulled her back down.
“What are you doing?” he barked at her. “Keep your head down.”
She nodded, but said nothing.
It took her a moment to notice that the .50 had gone silent. She looked over her shoulder in time to see Urena yelling up at the private.
“Ritchey, goddam it…”
But Ritchey was dead. You didn’t need to be a doctor to see that. There was a bullet hole square in the middle of his forehead. He had fallen backward against the rear of the turret, arms outstretched like he was greeting the sun in some ridiculous yoga pose, eyes wide open and full of blood from the still leaking wound.
A lucky shot.
“Rawlings,” Lt. Cassidy said. “Get up there! Man that turret!”
Beside her, Duke ducked back down behind the car. “Are you fucking kidding me?” he said. “We need to get out of here. There’s too many of them.”
Cassidy was on one knee, looking over the map like a second string quarterback studying a playbook, but he’d been in the thick of it long enough to harden under fire. His eyes narrowed at Muldoon.
He didn’t get a chance to put down the law on Muldoon, though.
The advancing Klowns were still firing, and a stray round caught Cassidy in the throat. Any orders he might have given turned into a choking cough. His eyes went wide with surprise and he put a hand to his throat. Instantly, there were trails of blood leaking from between his fingers.
The young lieutenant fell to his knees, a horrible look of shock and fear in his eyes as he struggled for breath. He rolled over onto his butt, his back against the rear tire of the now useless Humvee, and began to choke like a fish out of water.
“Shit,” Urena said. The First Sergeant ran to the lieutenant’s side and tried to staunch the bleeding with some gauze from his crash kit, but the blood soaked through the cloth as soon as he pressed it to the wound. Cassidy’s face turned pale and shiny with sweat. “Come on, Lieutenant,” Urena said, pressing even harder. “Fight this. Don’t you die on me! Come on, stay with me.”
At the far end of the street, the Klowns let out a whooping yell and charged. Rawlings started firing as fast as she could, but there were just too many of them. Every time she dropped one, more appeared.
Muldoon motioned to Urena. “We’re kinda fucked over here.”
“I know that, Sergeant!”
Rawlings chanced a look back.
Urena let the bandage fall.
It was a bloody wet mess in the lieutenant’s lap.
Cassidy was dead.
“Okay,” Urena said. He stood up and motioned for Nutter, Hawkins, Cline and Brandt to follow him. “Muldoon, you and Rawlings cover us.”
Rawlings glanced over at Duke.
He gave her a wink.
“Right behind you,” Muldoon said.
He turned to Rawlings. His face was all business, calm, yet serious. If he was worried at all about their situation, it didn’t show in his expression. She didn’t expect it to, though. Duke was in his element. He wasn’t the brightest bulb in the box, that was true, but he was calm as a rock under fire.
“You ready?” he asked her.
“Show me the way, you big stud.”
For a moment, his calm seemed to waver. A little smile tugged at one corner of his mouth. Despite the bullets whistling over her head, Rawlings found the crack in his veneer terribly funny.
She didn’t get a chance to laugh, though. Before she knew what was happening he stood up and started firing. He was all business again.
“Get moving,” he ordered.
She didn’t need to be told twice. She rose to her feet, fired three bursts down range, and then ran for the vacant lot that Urena, Nutter and the others had disappeared into.
By the time she reached the grass and started weaving through the broken concrete and other trash that crowded the lot, Duke had caught up with her.
Together they ran for the neighboring street.
Urena and the rest of the remaining Bushmasters had already crossed the street and were climbing over a six-foot high chain link fence that led into the fleet yard for some kind of construction company. The lot was filled with white trucks and vans parked in uneven rows.
Rawlings heard shrieks of laughter from her left and saw Klowns running around the corner, headed straight for them. Some of them carried guns. Others were armed with sticks and rocks and kitchen knives. But they all had murder in their eyes.
She reached the fence, stopped long enough to sling her rifle over her shoulder, and started up the fence. Duke put his hand under her ass and pushed so hard she nearly flew over the top. She hit hard on the other side, but didn’t let it slow her down. She jumped to her feet again and turned to cover Duke as he scaled the fence.
The Bushmasters were light infantry, though that had nothing to do with the amount of gear they carried. Between ammunition, medical gear, communications, tools and all the rest of it, the average light fighter carried a hundred pounds of gear on his back. They’d scaled down for this mission quite a bit, but Duke’s pack still weighed at least sixty pounds.
He made climbing the fence look easy, though. Big as he was, he could move with an animal like grace at times, and he was up and over the fence in seconds.
“What’s a girl like you doing in a place like this?” he said, dropping down beside her.
Two of the Klowns reached the fence and started up. Rawlings shot them both before they were halfway up.
She shook her head at Duke. “Waiting on my pet ox.”
More Klowns were filling the street. Most were civilians, but there were soldiers and cops mixed in with them too, and they were starting to fire. Bullets smacked into the side of the white van behind them and shattered the driver’s side window.
“Time to go,” Muldoon said.
They threaded their way through the parked trucks, staying low.
When they reached the far end of the lot they found Urena and the others about to scale another chain link fence. Beyond the fence Rawlings saw more burned out buildings, and she couldn’t keep the thought out of her head that they were just running in circles. They were never going to get out of here.
“Uh oh,” said Nutter. “Looks like we got some company.”
He was right. The Klowns were working their way through the lines of parked trucks. Sunlight gleamed on the windshields, casting the charging Klowns in silhouette, dark shapes laughing so loudly and so crazily it made Rawlings guts turn to water.
“They coming from over here too,” Urena said.
The streets on the far side of the fence had been quiet only moments before, but all the shooting and screaming and laughing was starting to draw a crowd. Klowns were appearing in every doorway, and filling the street.
“Damn,” Urena said.
Duke Muldoon ejected the empty magazine from his rifle and slapped in a new one. “Load up, boys and girls. The fun’s about to start.”
This goes live on December 30th, so consider this a Christmas tease!