“Lemme ask you something, Martinez.”
“How did you end up here?”
Martinez lets out a sigh. “God’s honest truth, I don’t really remember.”
He gives another shrug. “I was alone, ex-wife got bit, my kid up and disappeared. I guess I didn’t give a shit about much of anything any more but killing walkers. Went on kind of a rampage. Put down a whole slew of those ugly motherfuckers. Some locals found me passed out in a ditch. Took me here. Swear to God that’s about all I remember.” He cocks his head as though reconsidering. “I’m glad they did, though, especially now.”
“What do you mean?”
Martinez looks at him. “This place ain’t perfect but it’s safe, and it’s only gonna get safer. Thanks in no small part to the guy we got in charge now.”
Josh looks at him. “This is the ‘Boss’ guy, I assume you’re talking about?”
“And you say we’re gonna get a chance to meet this guy?”
Martinez holds up a gloved hand as if to say, Just wait.
He pulls a small two-way radio from the breast pocket of his flannel shirt. He thumbs the switch and speaks into the mouthpiece. “Haynes, take us to the courthouse… they’re waiting for us over there.”
Another loaded glance passes between Josh and Lilly as the lead vehicle pulls off the main road and heads across the town square, a statue of Robert E. Lee guarding a kudzu covered gazebo. They approach a flagstone government building on the far edge of the park, its stone steps and portico ghostly pale in the snow-veiled darkness.
The community room lies at the rear of the courthouse building, at the end of a long, narrow corridor lined with glass doors leading into private offices.
Josh and Company gather in the cluttered meeting room, their boots dripping on the parquet floor. They are exhausted and in no mood to meet the Woodbury Welcome Wagon but Martinez tells them to be patient.
Snow ticks against the high windows as they wait. The room, warmed by space heaters and dimly lit with Coleman lanterns, looks as though it has seen its share of heated exchanges. The crumbling plaster walls bear the scars of violence. The floor is strewn with overturned folding chairs and littered with wadded documents. Josh notices blood streaks on the front wall, near a tattered Georgia state flag.
Generators thrum in the bowels of the edifice, vibrating the floor.
They wait a little over five minutes – Josh pacing, Lilly and the others sitting on folding chairs — before the sound of heavy boots echo out in the corridor. Someone is whistling as the footsteps approach.
“Welcome, folks, welcome to Woodbury.” The voice that emanates from the doorway is low and nasally, and filled with faux conviviality.
All heads turn.
Three men stand in the doorway with smiles on their faces that don’t match their cold, lidded stares. The man in the middle radiates a weird kind of energy that makes Lilly think of peacocks and fighting fish. “We can always use more good people around here,” he says and steps into the room.
Lean and raw-boned in his ratty fisherman’s sweater, his cinder-black hair shapeless and shaggy, he sports a five o’clock shadow of whiskers on his face that he’s already trimming and styling into the beginnings of a Fu Manchu mustache. He has a strange nervous tic that is hardly noticeable – he blinks a lot.
“Name’s Philip Blake,” he says, “and this is Bruce over here, and that’s Gabe.”
The other two men – both older – follow on the younger man’s heels like guard dogs. Not much of a greeting from these two – other than a few grunts and nods – as they stand slightly behind the man named Philip.
Gabe, on the left, the Caucasian, is a fireplug of a man with a thick neck and jarhead crew cut. Bruce, on the right, is a dour black man with an onyx, shaved head. Each of these men holds an impressive automatic assault rifle across his chest, fingers on the trigger pads. For a moment Lilly cannot take her eyes off the guns.
“Sorry about the heavy artillery,” Philip says, indicating the weaponry behind him. “We had a little dust-up in town last month, got kinda hairy for a while. Can’t take any chances now. Too much at stake. Your names are…?”
Josh introduces the group, going around the room and ending on Megan.
“You look like somebody I knew once,” Philip informs Megan, the man’s eyes all over her now. Lilly does not like the way this guy is looking at her friend. It’s very subtle but it bothers her.
“I get that a lot,” Megan says.
“Or maybe it’s somebody famous. Doesn’t she look like somebody famous, guys?”
The “guys” behind him have no opinion. Philip snaps his fingers. “That chick from ‘Titanic’!”
“Carrie Winslet?” the one named Gabe speculates.
“You stupid fucking idiot, it’s not ‘Carrie,’ it’s Kate… Kate… Fucking Kate Winslet.”
Megan gives Philip a cockeyed smile. “I’ve been told Bonnie Raitt.”
“I love Bonnie Raitt,” Philip enthuses. “’Let’s Give ‘Em Something to Talk About’.”
Josh speaks up. “So you’re ‘The Boss’ we’ve been hearing about?”
Philip turns to the big man. “Guilty as charged.” Philip smiles and goes over to Josh and extends a hand. “’Josh’ was it?”
Josh shakes the man’s hand. The expression on Josh’s face remains noncommittal, polite, deferential. “That’s right. We appreciate you taking us in for a while. Not sure how long we’ll be staying.”
Philip smiles at him. “You just got here, Friend. Relax. Check the place out. You won’t find a safer place to live. Believe me.”
Josh gives a nod. “Looks like you got the Biter problem under control.”
“We get our share, I won’t lie to you. Herd comes though every few weeks. Had a bad situation a couple of weeks ago but we’re getting the town squared away.”
“Looks like it.”
“Basically we run on the barter system.” Philip Blake looks around the room, regarding each of these newcomers as a coach might size up at a new team. “I understand you folks scored big at a Walmart yesterday.”
“We did alright.”
“You’re all welcome to take what you need in trade.”
Josh looks at him. “Trade?”
“Goods, services… whatever you got to contribute. As long as you respect your fellow citizens, keep your noses clean, abide by the rules, pitch in… you can stay as long as you like.” He looks at Josh. “Gentleman of your… physical endowment… we can use around here.”
Josh thinks it over. “So you’re some kind of ‘elected official’?”