Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead: Search and Destroy: New Excerpt

Robert Kirkman's The Walking Dead: Search and Destroy by Robert Kirkman, Jay Bonansinga
Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead: Search and Destroy by Robert Kirkman, Jay Bonansinga
Robert Kirkman's The Walking Dead: Search and Destroy by Jay Bonansinga is the 7th book in The Walking Dead series (Available October 18, 2016).

What could possibly go wrong?

For one brief moment, it seems Lilly and her plague-weary band of survivors might just engineer a better tomorrow. Banding together with other small town settlements, they begin a massive project to refurbish the railroad between Woodbury and Atlanta. The safer travel will begin a new post-apocalyptic era of trade, progress, and democracy.

Little do they know, however, that trouble is brewing back home …

Out of nowhere, a brutal new faction has attacked Woodbury while Lilly and the others have been off repairing the railroad. Now the barricades are burning. Adults have been murdered, children kidnapped. But why? Why subject innocent survivors to such a random, unprovoked assault?

Lilly Caul and her ragtag posse of rescuers will soon discover the chilling answers to these questions and more as they launch a desperate mission to save the kidnapped children. But along the way, the dark odyssey will take them into a nightmarish series of traps and hellish encounters with incomprehensible swarms of undead.

And as always, in the world of the Walking Dead, the walkers will prove to be the least of Lilly’s problems. It’s what the human adversaries have in store for her that will provide Lilly’s greatest challenge yet.

ONE

On that sweltering Indian-summer morning, not a single person working the rails has any clue as to what is transpiring at that very moment in the small survival settlement once known as Woodbury, Georgia. The restoration of the railroad between the village of Woodbury and the outer suburbs of Atlanta has consumed these people—occupying every daylight hour for nearly twelve months now—and today is no exception. They are closing in on the midway point of the project. In a little less than a year, they have cleared nearly twenty miles of track, and have laid down a sturdy barrier of split-rail and chicken wire on either flank in order to keep the line clear of roamers, stray feral animals, and any other obstruction that might blow, seep, grow, or creep across the tracks.

Now, oblivious to the catastrophe unfolding right then in her home community, the crew’s de facto leader, Lilly Caul, pauses in her post-hole digging and wipes the sweat from her brow.

She glances reflexively up at the ashen sky. The air, buzzing with the drone of insects, is redolent with the fecund stench of fallow, neglected farm fields. The muffled clang of sledgehammers—spikes going into ancient railroad ties—provides a syncopated drumbeat to the thudding diggers. In the middle distance, Lilly sees the tall woman from Haralson—the one who goes by the name of Ash—patrolling the edge of the worksite, a Bushmaster AR-15 on her hip. Ostensibly, she’s keeping watch for any stray walkers who might be drawn to the construction clamor, but on a deeper level, she’s on hyperalert today. Something doesn’t feel right. Nobody can articulate it but everybody senses it.

Lilly peels off her soiled work gloves and flexes her sore hands. The Georgia sun hammers down on the back of her slender, reddened neck where her auburn hair is pulled up in a haphazard French braid. Her hazel eyes, buried in the fine crow’s-feet of her skin, scan the area, surveying the other workers’ progress along the fence line. Although still a few years shy of forty, Lilly Caul has developed the worry lines and wrinkles of a much older woman. Her narrow, youthful face has darkened over the four hard years of plague life. Her boundless energy has flagged in recent months, and the perpetual slump of her shoulders has given her a middle-aged air, despite her trademark hipster attire of tattered Indie-rock T-shirt, ripped skinnies, broken-down motorcycle boots, and countless rawhide bracelets and necklaces.

Now she notices a few errant walkers a hundred yards to the west, dragging through the trees—Ash notices them as well—nothing to worry about at this point but still something on which to keep tabs. Lilly regards the other members of her crew spaced at regular intervals along the rails, slamming post-hole diggers into the stubborn ground cover of kudzu and ironweed. She sees some familiar faces, some unfamiliar, some she just met days ago. She sees Norma Sutters and Miles Littleton, inseparable since they joined the Woodbury clan over a year ago. She sees Tommy Dupree, the boy now fourteen going on thirty, hardened by the pandemic, a prodigy with firearms and edged weapons. She sees Jinx Tyrell, the loner from the North who proved herself to be a walker-killing machine. Jinx moved into Woodbury a few months ago after being recruited by Lilly. The town needs new citizens in order to flourish, and Lilly is exceedingly thankful to have these badasses on her side of the playing field.

Interspersed among Lilly’s extended family are the leaders of the other villages that dot the ramshackle countryside between Woodbury and Atlanta. These are good, trustworthy people such as Ash from Haralson, and Mike Bell from Gordonburg, and a number of others who have joined Lilly’s crew out of common interests, common dreams, and common fears. Some of them are still a bit skeptical of the grand mission to connect the survivor towns with the great city to the north via this rough-and-tumble rail line, but many have joined the cause purely out of a belief in Lilly Caul. Lilly has that effect on people—a sort of osmosis of hope—and the longer these people work on this project, the more they buy into it. They see it now as both an admirable attempt to control an environment that is out of control as well as an attempt to recapture a lost civilization.

Lilly is about to put her gloves back on and get back to her digging when she sees the man named Bell about a quarter mile away, coming around a bend from the north at a fast canter on his swaybacked horse. The thirty-something leader of the small survivor group hunkered down in the little village once known as Gordonburg, Georgia, is a diminutive man with a mop of sandy hair that now bounces and flags in the wind as he approaches the work crew. Some of the others—Tommy, Norma, Miles—glance up from their work, ever protective of their friend and leader.

Lilly hops the guardrail and walks out onto the gravel apron as the man approaches through the haze on his mangy strawberry roan.

“Got another one in our path,” he calls out. The horse is a twitchy animal, thick in the neck, probably a cross-breed with a trace of draft horse in its blood. Bell rides with the awkward, bouncy clumsiness of the self-taught. He yanks back on the reins and staggers to a stop on the gravel, raising a small whirlwind of dust.

Lilly braces the horse by grabbing the bridle and steadying its wildly nodding head. Dirty foam drips from its mouth, its coat damp with sweat. “Another what?” She looks up at Bell. “Walker? Wreck? Unicorn … what?”

“Big old trestle,” Bell says, sliding off the horse and hitting the ground hard with a grunt. A former IT guy from Birmingham, his boyish face sunburned and slathered with freckles, he wears homemade chaps stitched from tent canvas. He fancies himself a country boy but the way he wrestles with the horse and speaks only with the faintest trace of drawl screams city. “About a half mile north of here,” he says, jerking his thumb. “The land ditches, and the tracks go right across this rickety span for about fifty yards.”

“So what’s the prognosis?”

“You mean with the trestle? Hard to tell, the thing’s pretty furry.”

“Did you take a closer look? Maybe ride across it, test it or whatever?”

He shakes his head. “I’m sorry, Lilly, I just thought you’d want to know about it right away.”

She rubs her eyes and ponders. It’s been a while—months, actually—since they’ve encountered a trestle. And the last one was only a few yards long. She starts to say something when the horse rears suddenly—spooked by either a noise or an odor undetectable by humans. Lilly girds the animal, gently strokes its withers. “Ssshhh,” she utters softly to the creature, rubbing it along its tangled mane. “It’s okay, buddy, chill out.”

The animal has a goat-like scent, musky from its sweaty spoor and filth-encrusted fetlocks. Its eyes are rimmed in red from its labors. The fact is, this broken-down roan—and its species as a whole—has become as valuable to survivors now as they were in the nineteenth century to those attempting to tame the West. Cars and trucks that are still operational are getting more and more rare every day—even the supplies of cooking oil for the biodiesel are dwindling. People who have had even a rudimentary knowledge in horse breeding in their prior lives are now becoming highly sought after and respected as wise elders who are expected to teach and pass on their knowledge. Lilly has even recruited a few to live in Woodbury.

In recent months, many of the rusted-out carcasses of cars have been sliced in half and made into makeshift buggies and contraptions to be hitched to horses and teams of horses. In the years since the outbreak, the pavement has weathered and deteriorated beyond repair. The remaining strips of weedy, crumbling, impassable pathways are the bane of survivors’ existence. Hence the need for a safe, dependable, and fast transportation system.

“He’s been like this all day.” Bell nods deferentially at his horse. “Spooked by something out there. And it ain’t walkers, neither.”

“How do you know it isn’t walkers? Maybe a swarm coming or something?”

“We passed a bunch of ’em this morning, and the things didn’t even faze him.” He strokes the animal and whispers to it: “Did they, Gypsy? Did they?” Bell looks at Lilly. “There’s something else on the wind today, Lilly. Can’t put my finger on it.” He sighs and looks away like a shy schoolboy. “I’m sorry I didn’t check the trestle for stability—that was pretty goddamn stupid of me.”

“Don’t sweat it, Bell.” Lilly gives him a smile. “I think the old saying goes, ‘We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it’?”

Bell chuckles a little too loudly, holds her glance a little too long. Some of the others pause in their work and glance up at the twosome. Tommy leans on his shovel and smirks. It’s basically an open secret that Bell has a desperate crush on Lilly. But it’s also not something Lilly wants to perpetuate. Taking care of the Dupree kids is all she can handle in her personal life at the moment. Plus, she’s still grieving the loss of just about every person she ever loved. She’s not ready to dive into a relationship yet. But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t think about Bell sometimes, usually at night, when the wind whispers through the gutters and the loneliness presses down on her. She thinks about running her fingers through Bell’s gloriously thick ginger-colored hair. She thinks about feeling the downy touch of his breath on her collarbone.…

Lilly shakes off the wistful ruminations and pulls an old Westclox turnip watch from her hip pocket. Attached to a tarnished fob, the watch once belonged to the late Bob Stookey, Lilly’s best friend and mentor, a man who died heroically a little over a year ago trying, among other things, to save the children of Woodbury. Perhaps this is why Lilly has all but adopted the town’s orphans. Lilly still mourns her lost pregnancy, the spark that could have been Josh Hamilton’s child, miscarried in the tumult of the governor’s regime. Maybe that’s why her ersatz motherhood now feels almost like part and parcel of survival itself—an innate piece of her future as well as the future of the human race.

She looks down at the yellowed face of the watch and sees that it’s edging toward lunchtime.

She has no idea that her town has been under attack now for nearly an hour.

*   *   *

When Lilly was a little girl, her widower father, Everett Caul, once told her the story “Stone Soup.” A well-loved folk tale with myriad versions existing in many different cultures, the story tells of three wandering strangers who are starving when they come upon a small village. One of the strangers hits on an idea. He finds a pot in the town trash heap and gathers some stones and collects some water from a nearby creek. Then he builds a fire and starts cooking the pebbles. The villagers get curious. “I’m making stone soup,” he tells them when asked what the hell he’s doing, “and you’re welcome to have some when it’s finished.” One by one, the residents begin to pitch in. “I’ve got some carrots from my garden,” offers one. “We’ve got a chicken,” says another. And soon, the stone soup is a bubbling caldron of savory goodness with vegetables and meats and herbs from the various homes.

Perhaps the memory of Everett Caul’s beloved bedtime story lay in the back of Lilly’s mind when she decided to connect the small survivor towns in her area with the big city to the north via the defunct railroad.

She had first thought of the idea last year, after meeting with the leaders of the five principal communities. Initially, the purpose of the meeting—which took place in Woodbury’s venerable old courthouse building—was to share resources, information, and goodwill with the other towns in Central Georgia. But when the leaders of the five communities began to vent about their supplies dwindling and travel becoming so dangerous and the feeling of being so isolated out in the rural wastelands, Lilly decided to take action. She didn’t tell anybody her plan at first. She merely began to clear and repair the old petrified rails of the West Central Georgia Chessie Seaboard line that runs up through Haralson, Senoia, and Union City.

She started small, a few hours a day, with Tommy Dupree, a pickax, a shovel, and a rake. It was slow going at first—a few hundred feet a day in the blistering sun—with the walkers continually being drawn to the noise. She and the boy had to repel countless dead in those early days. But walkers were the least of their problems. It was the land that gave them the most grief.

Nobody is certain of the causes, but the postplague ecosystem has changed over the last four years. Opportunistic weeds and wild grasses have taken over to the point of choking culverts, clogging creek beds, and virtually carpeting roads. Kudzu vines have multiplied in such profusion that entire billboards and barns and trees and telephone poles have been literally covered in riotous tendrils. The green rot has turned everything furry with vegetation, including the countless human remains still lying in gullies and trenches. The world has grown hair, and the worst of it seems to have seized up the iron rails of the Chessie Seaboard line in stubborn braids of flora as thick as cables.

For weeks, Lilly and the boy chipped away at the unforgiving vines, sweating in the sun, moving a hand-car northward over cleared sections with laborious slowness. But the noisy work—not unlike the bubbling pot tended by the strangers in the “Stone Soup” story—attracted curious glances, folks peering over the walls of survivor towns along the way. People began coming out and pitching in. Before long, Lilly had more help than she ever anticipated. Some folks volunteered tools and construction equipment such as augers, hand mowers, and scythes. Others brought along maps of derelict rail lines found in public libraries, hand-cranked two-way radios for communication and reconnaissance purposes, and weapons for security. There seemed to be a general fascination with Lilly’s quixotic mission to clear a rail all the way to Atlanta. In fact, this fascination spurred an unintended development that surprised even Lilly.

By the second month of the project, people started seeing Lilly’s foolhardy undertaking as a harbinger of a new era, perhaps even a bellwether of a new postplague regional government. And nobody could think of a better person to be the leader of this new regime than Lilly Caul. At the outset of the third month, a vote was taken in the Woodbury courthouse, and Lilly was unanimously voted the town figurehead—much to her chagrin. She didn’t fancy herself a politician, or a leader, or—God forbid—a governor. At best, she considered herself middle management.

“In case anybody’s interested,” a voice behind Lilly says as she digs in her pack for her meager lunch, “we just crossed the twenty-five-mile marker.”

The voice comes from Ash. She carries herself with the pronounced swagger of a jock, all bowlegged and muscle-bound. Today she has a Vietnam-era canvas bandolier of twenty-round magazines canted across her Hank Williams Jr. tank top and a do-rag bandanna around her coal-black hair, all of which belies her aristocratic former life in the wealthy enclaves of the Northeast. She ambles up with a half-eaten can of Spam in one hand and a wrinkled map in the other. “This seat taken?” She points to an unoccupied stump.

“Take a load off,” Lilly says without even looking up, digging in her canvas rucksack for the stale dried fruit and beef jerky that she’s been rationing for weeks. She sits on a mossy boulder as she pulls out her delicacies. Lately, only edibles with long shelf lives—raisins, canned goods, dried meats, soup mixes—are all that’s available in Woodbury. The gardens have been harvested to the nubs, and it’s been a while since any wild game or fish have drifted within killing range. Woodbury needs to expand its farming capabilities, and for months now Lilly has been tilling the earth around the periphery of town.

“So let’s do the math.” Ash puts the map in her back pocket, sits down next to Lilly, spoons another gob of Spam into her mouth, and savors the processed meat as though it were foie gras. “We’ve been at it since last June. At this rate—what? We hit the city by next summer?”

Lilly looks at her. “Is that good or bad?”

Ash grins. “I grew up in Buffalo, where construction lasts longer than most marriages.”

“So I guess we’re doing okay.”

“Better than okay.” Ash glances over her shoulder at the others scattered along the site. They are currently devouring their lunches, some sitting on the rails, some of them in the shade of enormous, twisted, ancient live oaks. “I’m just wondering if we can keep up the pace.”

“You don’t think we can?”

Ash shrugs. “Some of the folks have been complaining about the time spent away from their people.”

Lilly nods and glances out at the jungle of kudzu twining and weaving over the land. “I’m thinking we can take another break this fall when the rainy months roll in. It’ll give us a chance to—”

“Excuse me if I sound like a broken record,” another voice chimes in from behind Ash, interrupting and drawing Lilly’s attention away from the dense jungle of vegetation to the east. She sees the gangly, knob-kneed man in the fedora and khaki shorts loping toward them from the ring of horses. “But is there a reason nobody has a clue as to what our fuel situation is?”

Lilly sighs. “Take a breath, Cooper. Eat some lunch, get that blood sugar back up.”

“This is no joke, Lilly.” The rawboned man stands before her with his hands on his hips as though waiting for a report. He has a Colt Single Action Army .45 holstered on a Sam Browne belt around his waist and a coil of climbing rope on the opposite hip. He juts his prominent chin as he speaks, affecting an air of rakish adventurer. “I’ve been through this too many times.”

Lilly looks at him. “Been through what? Was there another plague that I missed?”

“You know what I mean. I just came from the depot in Senoia, and they still haven’t found any fuel up there. Lilly, I’m telling you, I’ve seen too many projects fall by the wayside because of fuel issues. If you remember, I was involved in designing—”

“I know, you’ve told us that one before, more than once, we got it memorized, your ‘firm designed more than a dozen of the biggest skyscrapers in Atlanta.’”

Cooper sniffs, his prominent Adam’s apple bouncing with frustration. “I’m just saying … we can’t do a damn thing without fuel. Without fuel, we’re just cleaning up metal rails that go nowhere.”

“Cooper—”

“Back in ’79, when OPEC goosed the oil prices and Iran shut down their fields, we had to completely write off three buildings on Peachtree. Just left their foundations like dinosaurs in the tar pits.”

“Okay, listen—”

Another voice rings out behind Ash. “Hey, Indiana Jones! Give it a rest!”

All heads turn toward Jinx, the young drifter whom Lilly took in earlier this year. A volatile, brilliant, bipolar mess of a person, Jinx wears a black leather vest, myriad tattoos, multiple knives sheathed on her belt, and round steampunk-style sunglasses. She approaches at a fast clip, her hands balled into fists.

Cooper Steeves backs away as if giving quarter to a rabid animal.

Jinx gets in his face, her body as tense and coiled as a watch spring. “What is this compulsion of yours to bust this woman’s balls every fucking day?”

Lilly stands and waves Jinx back. “It’s okay, sweetie, I got this.”

“Back off, Jinx. We’re just having a conversation here.” Cooper Steeves’s bluster thinly veils his fear of the young woman. “You’re way out of line.”

By this point, Miles and Tommy have sprung to their feet behind Ash with cautious expressions knitting their faces. Over the past year, probably more due to the heat than the stress of being out in the open, there have been horrendous arguments and even a few fistfights along the train line. Everybody has their guard up now. Even Norma Sutters—the zaftig, Zen-like former choir leader—now cautiously moves her plump right hand to the grip of her .44.

“Everybody dial it down!” Lilly raises her hands and speaks tersely, firmly. “Jinx, back off. Cooper, listen to me. You’re raising legitimate issues. But the truth is, we’re making progress on cooking up more biodiesel, and we got that one engine in Woodbury we’ve already converted. Beyond that, we’ve got the horse-drawn flatcars and a few handcars to get us where we need to go until we get more engines running. Okay? You happy?”

Cooper Steeves looks down at the dirt, letting out a frustrated sigh.

“Okay, everybody! Listen up!” Lilly gazes out beyond the group around her to the rest of the crew. She squints up at the flinty sky, then back at her people. “Let’s finish up with lunch and get another hundred yards cleared and fenced off before we knock off for the day.”

*   *   *

By four o’clock that afternoon, a thin layer of clouds has rolled in and stalled over Central Georgia, turning the afternoon gray and blustery. The breeze carries the smell of rust and decay. The daylight diffuses to a pasty glow behind the hilltops to the west. Exhausted, sweaty, the back of her neck prickling with inexplicable nervous tension, Lilly calls an end to the workday when she finally sees Bell’s offending trestle in the middle distance ahead of them. The rails follow the span across a densely forested gulley like the bulwark of a Gothic drawbridge, an ancient broken-down span of mildew-black timbers tangled in vines and wild ivy, crying out for repair and reinforcement—a massive undertaking that Lilly is more than willing to put off until tomorrow.

She decides to ride home alongside Tommy Dupree in one of the makeshift horse-drawn carriages—a burned-out shell of a former SUV, the engine, front wheels, and quarter panels removed to accommodate a pair of draft horses tied to the jutting stubs of its frame. Tommy has rigged a system of elaborate reins and slipknots to the team, and between the snorting and clopping of the animals, and the creaking and squeaking of the jury-rigged cab, the whole thing makes quite a racket as they wend their way down the dirt access road that descends into the tobacco fields to the south.

They travel mostly single file, Tommy’s carriage in the lead, followed by the rest of the work crew, some on horseback, some in similar hodgepodge conveyances.

When they reach Highway 85, some of the team splits off from the group to return to their communities to the north and east. Bell, Cooper, and others proffer nods as they turn westward and vanish into the haze of the dying afternoon. Ash gives Lilly a wave as she leads a half dozen of her fellow residents of Haralson around the petrified remains of an overturned Greyhound bus lying across the northbound lanes of the highway. The years have blanched and covered the wreckage with such thick vegetation that it looks as though the earth itself is in the process of reclaiming the bus’s metal shell. Lilly looks at her fob watch. It’s already after five. She would prefer to make it home before nightfall.

*   *   *

They don’t see signs of the attack until they reach the covered bridge at Elkins Creek.

“Wait—hold on—what the fuck?” Lilly has moved to the edge of the cab’s bench seat, and now leans forward, peering up at the tarnished pewter sky over Woodbury about a mile and a half away. “What the hell is—?”

“Hold on!” Tommy snaps the reins and leads the carriage through the darkness of the covered bridge. “What was that, Lilly? Was that smoke?”

The gloomy shadows swallow them for a moment as the horses labor to pull the buggy through the malodorous enclosure, the noise bouncing off weathered planks. When they come out the other side, Jinx has already zoomed past them and spurred her horse up an adjacent hill.

Lilly’s heart begins to race. “Jinx, can you see it? Is that smoke?”

At the crest of the hill, Jinx yanks her horse to an awkward halt and reaches for her binoculars. She peers through the lenses, then goes perfectly still. Fifty feet below her, Tommy Dupree brings the carriage to a rattling stop on the access road.

Lilly can hear the others pulling up behind her. Miles Littleton’s voice: “What’s going on?”

Lilly hollers up at the young woman on the horse. “Jinx, what is it?”

Jinx has gone as stiff as a mannequin as she peers through the binoculars. In the distance, a column of smoke as black as India ink spirals up from the center of town.

***

Copyright © 2016 Jay Bonansinga.

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JAY BONANSINGA is the internationally acclaimed New York Times bestselling author of over twenty books in fifteen languages, including Perfect Victim, Shattered, Twisted, and Frozen, with several optioned by major Hollywood studios. He lives in the Chicago area with his wife, the photographer Jill Norton, and his two teenage boys, and is currently hard at work on the next Walking Dead book.

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