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The girl shook her head emphatically. “No. You do not want that. Civilizations may crumble and fall, but small-town gossips never change. Give them an in and you’ll never get rid of them. They’ll be in here, searching for the satin sheets and mirrored ceiling, the candelabra you swing na**d on, that sort of thing.”

Ali smiled despite herself. “Going out it is.”

A few minutes later, Ali stood on the sidewalk outside Riley’s department store, proudly established in 1903. There were towers of boxes piled high. “You guys are serious about stockpiling,” she said.

The place was a hive of activity as people unloaded even more off the back of a pick-up truck. These people were dropping off weapons, faces somber, obviously fresh back from a trip outside the town walls.

“As Dad says, you never know.” Erin greeted the two men and one woman busy handing down boxes from the back of the truck.

“This is Ali. She came in with the party yesterday.”

The two men nodded hello and got on with their work, faces tense. Made her wonder what they had seen out there.

“Let me take that.” She held her hands up for a box and the woman smiled and passed it down. More helpers ambled out of the shop and got in line behind her.

“Thanks.” The woman was in her forties, handsome rather than beautiful, with ash-blonde hair in a braid. Add the rifle slung on her back and she looked eminently capable and al business. “Welcome to town.”

“Ali, this is Lindsay. My other personal hero.” Erin put her hand over her heart and the woman smiled, snorted a laugh. “When the men tried to protect us poor weak women by taking us off watch-and-supply rotation, she led the charge to defend our rights.”

“They were being asses,” the woman announced, loud enough to snag the attention of the two males nearby. Neither smiled in reply.

“And now they’re not. End of story.”

“They saw the error of their ways,” sang Erin. “Hal elujah!”

“Erin, go do something useful for once,” one of the men chided, earning himself a hastily flipped finger. It was Owen, the one who had been with the wire-thin goth at the front gate.

“You shouldn’t take the Lord’s name in vain,” a young, dark-haired woman hissed. Her hands clutched a well-worn Bible. Behind her, a gaggle of people held similar books and flocked close, as if they fully expected the young woman to protect them from the big bad world.

“I didn’t, Rachel. I said ‘hallelujah’, somewhat out of context. Get a grip.” Erin charged past the woman, who took a hasty step back to avoid colliding with the side of a box. “Move on.”

“It’s disrespectful.”

Lindsay jumped down from the back of the fast-emptying flat tray. “I believe you were told to restrict your God bothering to the hours after dusk, Rachel. It takes work to keep everyone fed, to keep the town running. Work needs to be shared equal y. It’s time you did your share instead of leaving it to others.”

“We’re doing God’s work.”

“Then I hope God will feed and protect you when they throw your lazy, self-righteous selves out of town.” Lindsay gave the girl a long look, tiredness seeping into her eyes. “Go away, Rachel. Your father would have been appalled.”

Rachel’s cheek twitched, her mouth dwindling into a tight little orifice. “Don’t you talk about him.”

Lindsay walked off without further comment.

A crowd had gathered to witness the confrontation, making it impossible to follow Erin into the shop as the doorway was now clustered with curious folk. Ali balanced the box in her arms. It wasn’t heavy, but it was sizeable, long and awkward.

The wicked witch with the Bible spotted her balancing act and took a step closer, beady eyes narrowing in on her. “You must be the one who came in yesterday, the one with the two men. Whore.”

She had been worried about people’s reactions but, funnily enough, this didn’t hurt at all. “I prefer the term ‘high-maintenance’.”

Several of those squished into the doorway tittered, and the woman sneered at one and al with a pantomime face. Her finger pointed skyward like she could summon thunder. “God is not finished judging …”

“Oh, for f**k’s sake, Rachel. Take it elsewhere,” Erin snapped, elbowing her way through the crowd. “People, show’s over.”

Andy, the goth from the gate, appeared beside Rachel. They argued in hushed tones. The young man looked genuinely pained as she shook her head furiously and stomped off down the street, her devotees rushing to keep up.

Erin sidled up to her. “Ignore Rachel. Her father was a minister, one of the first to die. He was eaten by one his parishioners right in front of her. Safe to say it doesn’t make for a healthy mental outlook. Just the same, someone real y does need to stick her head down a toilet.”

Ali could only nod her agreement. “I wonder if that would make the water holy.”

Erin snickered and watched the group disappear around a corner. She wasn’t the only one watching them, but Andy’s face held no anger. The young man looked like his heart was breaking.

“Dad put the snatch and grab expeditions on rotation; everyone over eighteen and able to fire a gun takes their turn. Unless someone’s wil ing to cover for you.” Erin tipped her chin at Andy as he resumed work, a worried frown fixed to his face. “He and Owen have been covering for her while she harasses everyone in town. It’s bullshit.”

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