Into the Dead Zone Part VI


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Scene Title Into the Dead Zone Part VI
Synopsis After accidentally springing an old civil war-era trap while scouting around Lake Cavanaugh, Avi and Claire find themselves in the belly of the beast — which turns out to be not that beastly after all.
Date April 21, 2018

Sedro-Woolley Colony

There are worse places to be held captive than in a canvas tent being pelted with rain. For one thing, it’s warm inside, courtesy of a portable, wood-burning stove that expels its noxious fumes outside into the cold night air. For another, Avi and Claire’s hands are free to cradle bowls of venison stew and what looks and smells like whiskey contained in heavy tin cups.

Embers crackle in the belly of the stove as a large man crouches down to feed fresh cuttings into the fire, stoking the flames with an iron poker. He introduced himself as Johannes when he was gingerly wrapping a wool blanket around Claire’s shoulders, and has since tried to occupy as little space in the tent as possible — not an easy feat, considering that he stands almost seven feet tall in his bare feet, and looks like he wouldn’t fit inside a standard doorway.

He shows them his back as he tends the fire; either this is a strange gesture of trust, or he doesn’t believe that either of his charges are foolish enough to attack him with the small platoon of guerilla soldiers standing guard outside the tent.

“I’m sorry we don’t have something more comfortable,” he says of the wooden crates that Avi and Claire are sitting on, “but you won’t have to wait for much longer.”

What exactly it is that they’re waiting for, Johannes hasn’t said.

To say that their expedition west of the Cascades did not go as planned is a massive understatement.

“Y’know you’re the most kindly-mannered terrorist I’ve been kidnapped by yet,” Epstein manages to say through a split lip. The swelling at his right eye doesn’t do much to impede his vision, what with the eye itself having been taken a long time ago. Bruises spiderweb up the side of his face, hair matted down in some placed by blood. “Hotel Madagascar left a whole fuckin’ lot t’be desired.”

As Avi swallows down blood in his mouth, he offers a brief look to Claire, then back to their Herculean captor. “So, uh, Hulk you got any fuckin’ advil, or should I just expect the copper-jacketed .556 to take care of the dull ringing at the back of my head?” Gallows humor is his speciality.

There is no energy in the tiny woman, so she cannot make a protest about the blanket, only huddle there miserably under the scratchy fabric. Claire looks just as roughed up as her commander, though her bruises are already yellowing and cuts are slowly fading away. A few hours and he’ll be the only one that looks like he had been worked over.

On top of all of that, it currently sucks to breath, Claire is sure there are ribs broken. Fun. The downside to the damage to her ability during the war, it will take a lot more time to heal. A few days at least. At least her breathing wasn’t rattling as badly, though she still can taste the blood at the back of her throat. A faint silver lining in their situation.

Despite it all, Claire watches the giant of a man quietly, with only a glance to Avi when the old man speaks up.

Johannes tilts a look over his shoulder at Avi. “If they wanted you dead,” he says, his voice hovering above a whisper, “you would be.” He braces a hand against his knee and rises to his feet, shoulders hunched and stooping to avoid bumping his head against the ceiling of the tent. “Relax. Please.”

It’s a lot to be asking. He rattles around his coat pocket until he produces an unmarked bottle made from orange plastic with a white, childproof cap that his meaty fingers have some difficulty navigating in spite of his best efforts. “OxyContin,” he explains, freeing the cap with an audible pop. “Not as hard to come by out here as you might think.”

Before the war, parts of Washington state were deep in an opioid epidemic. Not much seems to have changed. Johannes measures out two pills, one for Avi and one for Claire, and offers them in the seat of his hand the same way he might cup an apple for a horse. “I know animals better than I know people, but I’m willing to bet by the looks of you that you’ve both seen worse. Go on.”

Avi eyes the pills, looking back up to Johannes. “Thanks,” is acerbic, and though he curls his fingers around it there’s no motion made yet to actually do anything more with it. “Yeah, look, I’ve been interrogated before so I realize that the execution typically comes after,” he makes a motion with one hand as if dividing the before from the after, then makes a gun-hand gesture down at the floor.

Regarding Claire, though, Avi suspiciously regards the pill she was given, then looks back to Johannes. “She might need one more. Fast healer, fast metabolism.” His one eye settles on the hulking mountain of a man. “She’s got the pain tolerance of a statue. A marble one.”

Claire could also be considered, as stubborn as one, giving a sharp shake of her head and a dismissive wave of the hand at the pill. Licking her healing lip, she says, “I’ll be fine.” The words rattle a little, which causes her to cough, the taste of pennies sharp on the back of her tongue again. It also send sharp pain through her side, though it starts dulling out again.

Mainly, she just doesn’t trust the big man, no matter how nice. Gregor had been nice too… look what he did. One tends to learn to distrust nice after an experience like that.

However, she does add a reluctant, “thanks though…” after. See, she can be polite sometimes.

Their reluctance to take the medicine does not go unnoticed by Johannes — or unremarked upon. “You can punish yourselves if you want,” he says. “It’s a free country, as they say.” He tucks the bottle of painkillers back into his coat pocket and lumbers in the direction of the flap that leads outside. His hand peels back the canvas, allowing Claire and Avi to glimpse the rain slanting down in the dark, illuminated by the glow of multiple fires burning in nearby steel drums.

“This place isn’t what you think it is,” he adds, and although his words are directed at his captives he points them out the flap. If Claire listens, she can hear laughter on the other side of the clearing where the tent is situated. Someone smashes a bottle and the crowing intensifies. “Try to look past the edges if you can. They’re rough, but so is this life.”

Tense, Avi looks at Johannes with a certain narrow-eye stare, then to Claire. “Yeah, it’s… charming.” Sliding his tongue over his teeth, Avi paces in as much as it comfortable before settling down onto a rickety wooden chair. He straightens his already bad leg, looking at the tear in his pants and the large scrape up the side of his leg spared from being worse by merit of his knee brace.

“Thanks for the poppers, Doctor Banner,” Avi flashes a twitchy smile as he adjusts in his chair, shifting posture enough to try and alleviate the discomfort provided by his injured leg.
Pulling the blanket closer around her, Claire doesn’t get up to look; but her head tilts a little as she listens to the sounds outside. Brows twitch upward at the disturbance, “I’ll have to take your word for it.” Which right now his words don’t have much weight, so the comment sounds a bit hollow.

Eyes watch the restlessness of her commander, showing only a touch of worry for Avi. Starting to say something to him, Claire stops herself and ducks her head down, turning back to listening to what is going on outside the tent.

A shape appears in the space created by the tent’s flap hanging open. It’s small and pale, and it takes both Claire and Avi a moment to register that this shape belongs to a child and not some sort of lanky animal. A girl of five or six steps into the tent from outside, a wool coat bundled tightly around her frame and a fur hat pulled down over her ears to shelter them from the cold. Mud covers the hem of her dress, which falls several inches past her knees and brushes the top of her cornflower yellow rain boots.

Johannes drops a hand and rests it on the top of the girl’s head, preventing her from moving further into the tent or approaching either of the Wolfhound operatives.

He’s as wary of them as they are of him.

“No, Odette,” he rumbles, and doubles over to scoop her up in his arms much the same way she’s cradling a porcelain doll in her own. A crack jags across its hand-painted face, recently touched up and smoothed over with some sort of makeshift sealant. Like the girl’s, its clothes are spattered in dirt.

“Where’s Charity?” Johannes asks. “Someone needs to run you a bath.”

“She’s occupied,” comes a smooth, southern drawl from beyond the tent. Odette turns around with wide eyes and a smile as a shadow moves in front of the tent flap, secure in Johannes’ arms. Stepping through the flap into the tent, Claire and Avi are face to face with the Butcher of Mandritsara, Joshua Lang, holding… a piece of bread topped with a fried egg in one hand. “Y’all go and run along,” Lang says mostly to Odette, “Daddy’s gotta talk t’these nice folks, ok?” He reaches up with his free hand, ruffling Odette’s hair and giving Johannes a pointed but inscrutable look.

Avi is frozen in his seat, eye wide and mouth agape. As Lang walks into the tent, it’s clear he suffers from none of the injuries he should have sustained in Madagascar. Shirtless, his — arguably terrible — tattoos are plainly visible across his arms, back, and chest. There is no scar at his sternum where the knife Gabriel killed him with should have split his heart in half. No scars on his face, just a few smaller and older-looking wounds.

Breathing in deeply, Lang takes a bite of his croque madame and chews noisily as he offers one last look back to Johannes and Odette before sauntering over to the colony’s guests. “Now, from what I hear you two went and tripped into an old booby trap from the war. Ya’ll don’t look like boobies t’me.” Barefoot, Lang carries himself with the cocksure gait of a man who has either cheated death, or never known it. His frayed urban camouflage pants have been patched multiple times, stained with dirt from the ankles up. “What’re ya’ll doin’ out here?”

Honeymooning.” Avi immediately responds.

Lang takes another bite of his breakfast, chewing noisily and slowly, and slides a look over to Claire with one brow raised.

While she lost some of her memories from a shotgun blast to the head, some of what she does remember are still vivid. Especially, his face on the other side of cage bars. It takes everything in her not to look physically ill or shudder at that memory. So much like Avi, the tiny regenerator is starting at Lang like he had risen from the grave. She looks pale, but that could easily be mistaken as a result of her broken ribs.

The question snaps her out of it enough to hear the question and Avi’s answer. It hurts, though not as much as earlier; but, Claire manages a one shoulder shrug when Lang looks her way for confirmation.

With a slow langid smile, she offers up with no hesitation, “What can I say, I like older men.”

“What’s honeymooning?” Odette asks Johannes on their way out of the tent. Whatever answer he gives her is drowned out by the wash of the rain and the giant’s squelching footsteps in the mud. Firelight casts their shadows against the tent’s exterior until they’re out of its ranged, swallowed up by the same darkness that Lang just emerged from.

The newlyweds are alone with the Butcher of Mandritsara.

If he is the Butcher of Mandritsara. He seems not to recognize either of them.

Lang looks from Avi to Claire, then back again. Both of them can see that lacking recognition in his eyes. Both of them can tell that he isn’t sure how to operate around them, because he has no pre-existing experience with them. Claire, of all of them, is familiar in the ways that memory manipulation can change the way a person behaves. The seemingly manic emotional changes Sandra Bennett would sometimes undergo later revealed to be the effects of whole experiences erased from her being. Unfortunately, Claire doesn’t have a clear enough cut of Lang’s personality to know if this is that same case.

“Look, I get that you’re all right spooked because we’ve got you held here in this tent.” Lang continues eating his breakfast, toast crunching noisily as he paces barefoot around the interior space. “But the only reason we’re a little nervous is ‘cause ya’ll are here right fast after Ya-Ma-Gato,” he over-enunciates, “got what was comin’ to ‘em.” Finishing off the last corner of his toast, Lang wipes his hands clean on the hips of his pants. “If you’re working for them, now that could be dangerous for the folks’ living here.”

Smiling, Land crouches down in front of Claire and Avi. “So this ain’t an interrogation, it’s a little pow-wow. You tell me why you’re out here,” he motions to them with one hand, “an’ I decide if it’s safe t’let you walk around with our people. Easy as that.” Lang looks back and forth between the two, and Avi flashes another displeased smile.

“You heard her. She’s really into older men.” Avi snorts, derisively, and Lang hangs his head and smooths both hands over his lightly stubbled scalp. He looks from Avi to Claire, brows raised, hoping she has a better answer.

It hurts too much to follow the man’s pacing when he moves behind her, she’ll have to leave that to Avi, but her brows furrow a little listening to him. When he crouches down he might notice how she seems to be searching for something when she looks at him. Cause he is familiar to her. There are questions… they are there, but… by the look in the man’s eyes, she knows the answer. He doesn’t remember her at all.

That brings its own sort of irritation with it, since she endured so much there. Not to even be remembered…

Of course, all those thoughts are derailed when the question is asked and Avi gives that ridiculous answer. it is really taking a lot of will power from Claire not to make any sort of sound of amusement, so when Lang looks her way again, all she can manages somehow is to give him a rueful smile and a single shrug of her shoulders. Unwinding an arm from around herself, she motions towards Avi as if to say, he’s not wrong.

Another silhouette appears in the tent flap’s opening. Tall and willowy, her dark hair shorn short, is a woman who wears a smile on her face that does not match the quiet cruelty in her eyes. She steps inside, dripping rainwater, and touches a hand to Lang’s arm. Even out here in the wilderness, she’s found the time and the means to paint her long nails in some sort of dark lacquer than shines red in the stove’s firelight.

“Bonjour, mes chéris,” Charity Thornton purrs. Hello, my darlings. She squeezes Lang’s bicep and lets her hand fall as she moves past him, toward where Claire is situated. Like Odette’s boots had been, her silky black flats are caked in mud, although she seems not to mind it anymore than she seems to mind the wetness clinging to her hair, skin, and the matching robe and slip she wears beneath a borrowed coat that Lang recognizes as belonging to Iago.

The last time Claire saw her, she was in the company of Rupert Carmichael.

“I’m sorry,” she says, “but I couldn’t help but overhear that our new friends were being difficult.” Her path carries her around the tent’s perimeter and ends behind the petite blonde, whose hair she begins to stroke between her fingers. The errant strands are tucked away behind Claire’s ears, except one, which Charity snakes around her knuckle.

“They smell like wet dog.”

Avi hesitates when Charity slides in, much in the way Lang also does. There’s a shift in the dynamic and neither men seem to have been aware it was coming. Lang looks down belatedly at his bicep, then over to Charity with one brow raised. “Don’t much know if I’d go as far as difficult, that’d imply they did anythin’ at all. More like impolite.” Lang eyes Avi, who continues to wordlessly watch the exchange between Claire and the woman that bares no familiarity to him.

“Charity here’s what I like t’call a nurturin’ sort.” Lang slides a look over to Avi, then Claire. “So you’re all nice an’ fortunate t’have her ear. But, you know, she ain’t wrong about the whole wet dog thing. Figured that might’a been me, but who’m I t’judge?” Lang flashes a knife-like smile and backpedals toward the tent flap.

“Why don’t we all go for a walk? I figure this’ll be more illustrative than sittin’ here in a damp tent wonderin’ when things are gonna’ get all Gitmo.” Lang backs up to the flap, lifts it open and more of the noise of the colony spills in from the outside, along with the dull light of an overcast day.

Avi bristles, looking briefly at his knee, then exhales a slow snort and pops the pill he’d been given in his mouth before levering himself up to stand. “You got a nice ditch picked out for us, Lang? It the one you crawled out of when you did your Lazarus trick?” That jab elicits a look from Lang, eyes narrowed and jaw set.

“Like my big buddy earlier said, if you were bound for a ditch I’d have already put you there.” A little of the southern comfort is worn off around Lang’s edges, and the bristly exchange between he and Avi is sliding toward more familiar attitudes. “So you gonna hop along, or do I need t’get one of them red scooter things?”


“What?” Lang squints.

“It’s called a fucking Hoveroun — nnnevermind.” Avi brings one hand up to his forehead, and looks askance to Claire.

When Charity had stepped into the tent, Claire had an instant feeling that she knew this woman. That nagging sensation at the back of her mind, but never offering up any sort of clarity. It has her turning a little to watch the woman, until her sides start to protest. When her hair is played with it takes everything in her not to flinch away. Sending a slightly confused look Avi’s way.

At the mention of going for a walk, Claire uses that excuse to try and put a little distance between her and the other woman. It’s painful, but the regenerator gets to her feet after shrugging off the blanket. If it wasn’t for her ribs, she’d offer the old man a hand up.

“You know… “ Her voice is strained with pain, as she straightens up. Tiny she might be, but there is a touch of defiance in the woman. “if we smell like dog, then you sure as hell smell a lot like horse to me.” At least this time there isn’t bars between them, as she looks him in the eye unflinching. There is so much she wants to say to him, but… clearly Lang… or whoever he is doesn’t remember her.

“My horse is big and black,” Charity answers Claire. “We’re all farm animals here, Ms. Bennet. So I hope we can get along. This way, s'il vous plaît.” She leads Claire and Avi out into the rain, past the oil drums where Lang’s men are gathered, drinking from the same tin cups with real heft to them.

“You wouldn’t know it,” she confines in the younger woman, “but Josué and Iago have built us a paradise here. When the clouds lift, you’ll see.”

There’s not much for them to see now: inky sky, slanting rain, distant lights flickering like fireflies on a smoky horizon. “For the first time in years, these people— they have fresh water, electricity, a sense of family and belonging. We have a doctor. Medicine. Children at play.” She’s talking about Odette, some fifty feet on the path ahead of them, her small hand consumed by Johannes’ much larger one as they slog through the mud together, side-by-side. “We are our own safe zone.”

Ambling along behind Charity, Avi’s stride is as uneven as the look he’s slanting her way. “That paradise of yours include murdering convoy drivers for giggles and tee-hees.” There’s a bitterness in his voice, tension too. He doesn’t presume he has much left to lose here. “I think one of ‘em was begging before your nightmare squad crushed the life out of ‘em. Cool friends you’ve got here.”

Behind Avi, Lang moves a hand down to the knife sheathed at his belt but hesitates when he sees Odette walking ahead of them. There’s a tension in his posture, a roll of his tongue over the inside of his cheek. “They ain’t all sunshine and rainbows, padre.” He picked that up from Iago, or so he likes to incorrectly attribute. “Things ain’t as cut an’ dry out here’s you might like t’make ‘em. But none’a us are livin’ in glass houses these days, so feel free t’tucker yourself out throwing all the goddamn stones you want.”

Avi looks back over his shoulder at Lang, then ahead at Odette. He sighs, heavily, and looks over to Claire with a momentary worry in his eye. Finally, to Charity he wonders, “So what, this is a PR tour?”

It doesn’t hurt as bad, but it still hurts to walk and it takes effort to keep up the pace, no matter the speed. “Safe Zone.” Her tone is flat and disbelieving. “I sure as hell don’t feel safe with the likes of him around.” A mild glare sent Lang’s direction, though it’s hard to look threatening, when you are struggling. Looking back over what she can see of the settlement and the little girl, Claire sighs. “But I can see why you’d think it was.”

Pressing a hand to her side against the developing stitch she asks Charity, “So are we going to be your guests” aka prisoners “or are you going to let us go?” The less time she has to spend here the better.

“Everyone is free to come and go as they please,” says Charity, “as long as they don’t threaten our way of life, mon poussin.” One of her thin, sculpted brows arches at the end of her statement in lieu of a question mark.

Is Claire a threat? “The head of our medical staff is away on, ah— business,” she continues, “so I’d recommend that you and your handsome silver fox stay for at least a few days. Let your injuries have a head start to heal, then you can all be on your way.”

She waves her hand in airy, dismissive gesture at Avi. “Nothing so elaborate or practiced, I’m afraid.” As they pass the last cluster of men, one of them passes a gas lantern to Charity, which she hefts and holds out in front of her, lighting the way. They’re on a path, flooded by meltwater, and it carves around the edge of a glen that smells sweetly of wildflowers and the mushrooms that flourish in its darkest, dampest corners. The lamp’s glow catches on spiderwebs strung between the hemlock trees crowding the trail on either side of them, although the spiders themselves are nowhere to be seen.

Like most of Sedro-Woolley’s residents, they’re probably taking shelter from the rain.

“I’ve run you both a hot bath,” she continues. “Newlyweds or not, I hope you don’t mind sharing.” A building that looks like it might have been, once upon a time, a rehabilitation center comes into view. A few moments later, Charity is helping Claire crest the concrete steps. “There is soap. Clean clothes. Fresh linens. We can discuss this more in the morning.”

An apologetic look is fired from Avi to Claire along with an exhaled, “Jesus Christ.” He looks back over his shoulder to Lang, who lingers several feet away like an animal that's followed them through the woods. He looks at Claire, not a bit of recognition in his eyes, then Avi, and then just crosses his arms over his chest and slouches backwards a few more steps.

“I'm sorry this is — very Kathy Bates of you all,” Avi says with tension in his voice, slowly turning to look at Lang. “But literally none of this answers my fucking question.” His stare is a ragged and cyclopean one. “Why the fuck are you alive?” The aggravated tension may be able to be washed away by a bath, but not here, not in the Bizarro world Epstein has found himself in and unable to rationalize.

Lang smiles, rather than rankling. He smooths a hand over his bare scalp, slides his tongue over his teeth and swaggers back and away from Avi again. “Looks like you ain't never learned one of the best lessons t’learn about life. The one that helps you accept everything.

Lang’s brows raise, one side of his mouth crooked in a lopsided smile. “Sometimes,” he exaggerates his drawl, “you don't get a satisfactory answer. Sometimes shit just happens.

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