'But why can't I go and see that poor woman?' Lydia asked Penny.
'For safety reasons. She thinks she's at the parking next to the police station and I want to keep it that way. She'll spend the night in Alonso's truck. Alonso will sleep on the attic.'
Lydia looked at Wyatt for help. He shrugged.
'Was she in a lot of pain?' Lydia inquired. Penny confirmed this.
'Poor woman. And those other women too? Looking forward to live in a real community and then getting attacked by zombies?'
'Yeah,' Penny sadly said. Lydia continued to cut peppers.
'But their RV getting on fire because you guys hit the fuel tank… I mean you were defending yourselves from zombies, but it's too bad it happened?'
'What about the tower? You expect visitors?'
'Standard procedure after encountering new people,' Penny reminded her stepmother. 'Howard, Tom and Neill are there now. I'll take Raj to house zero tomorrow to do his magic.'
'Something else,' Wyatt said. 'The stuff you're getting them is more than what we're getting in return.'
'Yes dad. With the RV gone... But I made the deal. And Randall and Caleb were delighted to see the roller and the other tools. And the bicycle will come in handy.'
Wyatt made a face. 'How are thirty-six issues of Cosmopolitan going to help us build the new wall?'
'Oh honey,' Lydia came to the rescue, 'I'm sure Penny felt sorry for those poor people? On the run and all with children and no food. And she would never jeopardize our own people, you know that?'
Moved, and feeling slightly guilty, Penny, for the first time ever, kissed Lydia's cheek.
Maud had spontaneously promised Letitia that she'd join her for breakfast. She then recalled the instructions Penny had provided regarding what to tell Letitia and fearing she'd accidentally share forbidden information, she'd told Penny about the breakfast arrangement. To her relief Penny had invited herself over.
Letitia looked like a different woman. Her joy in being pain-free was diminished by what had happened to Martha and Camilla, something that only now kicked in, though it didn't prevent her from eating her breakfast at a fast pace. Penny provided details about what had happened. Maud listened and expressed how sorry she was that Martha and Camilla hadn't made it.
'They weren't family but they've been with us for over a year,' Letitia said. 'It was gracious of you to take them with you Penny.'
Maud told her patient that Penny had taken her in too.
'Were you all alone?'
'I travelled with Alonso and two children who happened to be with us: Duane and Sansa. Do you have children?' Maud asked, hoping that Penny would notice that she was changing the topic.
Letitia shook her head. 'Never had unfortunately. But we have nephews and nieces with us.'
'Whom?' Penny asked.
'Nigella's grandchildren: Nigella's my Henry's sister. Mitch is their half-brother and Rose is their half-sister and she has twins: Ann and Thelma.'
'Of about eight or nine right?'
'Eleven. They're eleven.'
'Do they go to school?' Maud asked.
'We have people teaching classes,' Penny said, casting a glance at Maud.
'Nigella is teaching Will and Paul to read and write. The girls learned that at school, all four of them.'
'I only saw three girls. Is the fourth among the missing?'
Letitia nodded and sighed. 'And her parents as well.'
Seeing Letitia glance at the left-over porridge, Penny offered it to her.
'Did you make this?' Letitia asked, looking from one woman to the other.
'Denise did. She's one of our cooks,' Maud said. 'Uh. I'll prepare the practice.'
Maud left and Letitia finished her meal. Soon enough Alonso showed up, who examined his patient and declared her good to go.
'I would like to subscribe some drugs,' he told Penny outside his practice. It was almost sunrise. 'To prevent an infection. Is that all right?'
'Good, well, I'm glad you've brought her. It was fun to do a root-canal.'
Penny laughed and Alonso's olive skin turned red.
'You know what I mean.'
'Yeah, I know,' Penny replied supportively.
'Won't Penny get into trouble for losing the RV and still bringing us the goods?' a teary-eyed Nigella asked Howard.
'The boss didn't like it but Penny insisted that she'd made the deal,' Howard said. 'I'm sorry for your friends.'
Nigella bit her lower lip. Howard felt like hugging her but he kept his hands free and his eyes on Penny and Pete. While Howard had not met particularly happy people the day before, Bill's flock now acted like cowered sheep. Once in a while someone would eye the boxes they'd brought, but even Moses remained silent and the children kept close to Bill's RV. A woman Howard hadn't seen the day before was quietly sobbing and Letitia held her tight. 'Was she fond of Martha and Camilla?'
'Her husband died on the road. We buried her daughter yesterday evening.'
'I feel depraved for not being here yesterday morning,' Pete told Penny. His appreciative gaze made Penny look down shyly.
'I guess your beauty made Bill here forget about his negotiation skills.'
Pete slammed Bill's shoulder, which the older man bore with a strained grin.
'I'm sorry for your friends,' Penny said. 'Martha and Camilla looked forward to live with settled people and they seemed real nice.'
'They were. They were. Fortunately their companion Marlene is still with us. We'll make sure to comfort her.'
Penny looked down to hide the anger in her eyes. Howard joined them and he too said that he was sorry the two women hadn't made it.
'So am I. But life goes on and frankly I'd like to trade with you. My brother Hank and I have stuff we can part with. We'll get it so you could have a look.'
At his name being mentioned Hank, who was doing press-ups nearby, got to his feet. The brothers walked away.
'He feels I got us cheated,' Bill whispered. 'I couldn't tell him that I had a debt of honour to pay.'
Bill's grandsons approached them.
'That is a great sweater you've got Paul,' Penny told the youngest boy. The sweater was at least two sizes too big, but it was clean, unlike the shirt he'd worn the day before.
'Yeah,' Howard agreed. 'It's my favourite turtle: Donatello.'
While Howard answered Paul's question as to how he knew the turtle's name, Will demanded Penny's attention. 'Your shoelace needs fixing,' he pointed out. 'Grandma taught me how to do it. See: mine are done really well. I can also read and write very well and I can recite two poems!'
Penny praised Will and knelt down to handle her shoelace. Howard informed the boys about the three other teenage mutant hero turtles. Bill told his grandsons that their father had liked to watch the turtles on the magic box but he was interrupted by Pete and Hank approaching. Moses came to stand near them, as if he stood guard. The brothers placed their stuff on the pavement. With the air of a connoisseur Pete took a cotton bag from his pocket.
'Honey,' he said, as he let Penny glance at the contents, 'you would be the perfect display for all this.'
Penny wanted to kick him but she let her lips part and made a longing sound.
Howard coughed. 'Jewellery I take it?'
'Valuable goods,' Pete insisted.
Howard shook his head. 'Penny. The boss wasn't too happy, remember? What do you think he'll do when you bring home trinkets?'
'Howard is a spoil-sport, isn't he? I would never deny you jewellery.'
Penny smiled gratefully but said that Howard was right. 'After the RV got destroyed, I can't afford, well, this.'
Hank smirked but Pete regarded Penny with pity.
'You know what? We've got an RV that's not being used anymore. It belonged to my deceased cousin. Bill why don't you bring all this stuff to my RV,' he said without asking. Hank whistled a tune.
'But his wife is alive,' Howard said.
'She'll live with Rose. For a fair price the RV's yours. Imagine how your boss will feel about that Penny?'
Bill walked away, holding a box in his arms.
'We'll even bring it to you, so you won't be blamed in case something happens to it. You may hand us half what you owe us until after the RV is safely parked near your police-station.'
'Why that's generous of you Pete,' Moses said admiringly.
'Ain't that so?'
'The question is whether we can afford another RV,' Howard said.
'My brother and I will come up with something. Why don't you check these goods and decide what you can use. Got the prices written down here,' Pete said, handing Penny a note.
Pete and Hank walked away a bit. Penny and Howard went through the short list.
'Make a bet that they'll want a pair of household gloves, some batteries, a handful of aspirin and a pack of tea-bags for the RV?' Howard whispered so Moses wouldn't hear him.
Bill, returning for another box, handed them a note from Pete, listing the RV's price. Pete turned out to want just a little more than the guilt-driven Bill had asked for the first RV.
'The award is in the bringing,' Penny softly told Howard.
'We could say it's too expensive. But then…'
'They'll find a way to get to us anyway. Let's see what they are willing to accept.'
Followed by Moses they walked over to where Pete and Hank were waiting. Pete was talking to Rose, with his brother and Nigella listening.
'And?' Pete asked Penny, cutting off what his cousin had to say.
'I realise you're offering us a great deal,' Howard said, 'but –'
'Let the little lady do the talking. I like her voice for one.'
Penny beamed up at Pete.
'We'd like the fishing gear Pete. What you want in return for that, we've got. But as for the rest and the RV… You want canned food, we'll manage maybe a tenth of that I think, right Howard?'
Howard nodded. He would have done the same if Penny had said a quarter or a fifth.
'And as for the clothes and the bullets you want and the other stuff: we'll need to scavenge first and that will take several days at least. And we can't guarantee that in the end we've found what you want.'
'I get that. But surely you have bullets?' Pete said in a concerned voice.
'Only for emergencies like when we ran out of arrows. We used arrows to kill the zombies that attacked Martha and Camilla.'
'Short range only,' Hank said. 'But then an arrow wouldn't have ended up blowing up the fuel tank, would it? Jeez!'
Penny turned red. Howard patted her shoulder.
'What about four days?' Pete said.
'Four days?' Penny repeated. Her voice reminded her of Lydia's and she gave herself a compliment for that.
'We'll expect you back by then, early in the morning. You bring the stuff you gathered and if say you can't get the jeans, you'll think of something to replace them. I trust you.'
Penny, pretending not to see that Nigella cast her a worried glance, turned to Howard for help. 'What do you think?'
Howard thoughtfully nodded. 'I take it that when you gentlemen won't agree with our offerings, the deal is off.'
'Same when you're too late. We like to keep moving. But if you arrive in time and we accept the trade, you'll drive back home and we'll follow you with the RV.'
'How would you get back here?' Moses asked.
'We'll need someone to escort us by car.'
'I can do that!' Moses eagerly said.
'You're our best protectors. We'd be defenceless without you,' Nigella said in a pleading voice.
'You managed fine these past days. No worries.'
Five minutes later on they were on the road again. They travelled in silence for a while.
'I hate having to play dumb,' Penny said at last. 'Are we being followed Tom?'
'That's something,' Penny muttered.
'Are you ready my sweet?' Henry protectively asked Letitia.
'Of course she is. Why wouldn't she be?' Hank said. 'We'll just ask her some questions.'
'Can you confirm the chick's story about what happened on the road?' Pete asked.
Letitia nodded. She had been unconscious during the trip, almost right after she'd taken a pill Penny had told her would make her sleep and forget about the pain, but she wasn't going to admit that. When she'd woken up she found herself in the waiting room of the dentist's truck and Penny had told her what had happened. The teary-eyed young woman had had zombie gore on her jacket and jeans that hadn't been there before and she smelled as if she'd been near a fire.
'It's what she told you. Tom noticed that there appeared to be something wrong with a front tire of the RV – '
'Howard mentioned that, remember?' Bill commented.
'- and they got out to help. Howard stayed with me and he told me what happened,' Letitia continued, glad to have come up with that white lie. 'There were biters coming from a ditch and Penny and the other men screamed that Martha should get back in the RV.'
Recalling the detailed story Penny had told her and Maud that morning Letitia could vividly picture what had happened. Henry put his arm around his shoulder.
'And then?' Pete urged.
'Martha got bitten in the neck and Camilla was dragged down. Penny and Tom and Neill killed the biters but it was too late.'
'If those bitches had stayed here, they'd be alive still,' Hank said. 'How did the RV explode?'
'They run out of arrows when more biters showed up. They used their guns and there was an explosion.'
Maybe you heard it: Howard told me that you startled at the sound, Penny had told Letitia at breakfast. Letitia had dreamt while being knocked out by the pill, but she couldn't recall what about. An explosion seemed to have been a likely part of her dream.
'That stupid cunt!' Hank cursed.
'I call that justice,' Pete said. 'Chick should have waited until the biters could be knifed but she couldn't stomach that. Serves her right. Now, what about their settlement? How far away, are there road-blocks, how many people?'
'I'm really bad at guessing time. I'm sorry. But I know for sure there were no road-blocks as far as I could feel,' Letitia said, feeling cunning.
'Feel a road-block? Are you –' Hank started but his brother eyed him into silence.
'I wore a blindfold,' Letitia meekly reminded him.
'You got to see the police-station?'
Letitia shook her head. 'They kept me blind-folded until after I'd entered the dentist's truck.'
'Yes. They said it had electricity from solar panels.'
'How many people did you get to see?'
'Alonso, he's the dentist, and Maud. She's Alonso's assistant.'
'How many people did you hear? Think!'
Letitia wished she didn't feel so small when facing the likes of Pete.
'There was a man called Randall. And one called Leo. And a woman called Sharon. They drove with us this morning to a place where Tom, Neill and Howard were placing animal traps. They got out there, trading places I guess.'
'They talked or what?'
'Randall told me about his young son. A toddler.'
'What did they talk about among themselves?'
'Leo asked whether I was free of pain. Sharon said that ever since she watched a film with Tom Hanks - '
'Yeah yeah. Did the dentist and his assistant talk to you?'
'At breakfast Maud said that there were people teaching classes. And they have at least two cooks. Oh, and Maud and Alonso adopted two children, a boy and a - '
'What else? Didn't you hear anything? Cars? People chopping wood or so?'
'I was in the truck most of the time. I guess it being a dentist's truck it was isolated very well.'
'Wearing a blindfold all the time?'
'No, but they put sheets on the outside of the window of the sleeping cabin.'
'Someone there is smarter than that chick,' Pete said. 'What did you hear outside the truck? Think!'
Henry placed his hand on his wife's back to reassure her.
Letitia didn't want to help Pete any more than she already had but if he got more upset with her, Henry might do something foolish. Therefore she said that she'd heard two children playing ball. 'Randall told them to get to school.'
'That's it?' Hank said.
'Those children could play outside before school. Means they have guards or a fence or both,' Pete thought aloud. 'Anything else?'
'I thought I smelled horses. And I heard pigeons.'
'They brought one, didn't they? Means that they don't have modern communication devices. Tell me more about the guards Letitia.'
On her way back Letitia hadn't been unconscious and shortly after leaving she'd been quite sure that she'd passed underneath something: however briefly the sounds had been different and it had become darker behind her blindfold. She realized Pete would find this information valuable but she truthfully said: 'I didn't hear any guards and they weren't mentioned.'
Pete eyed her and nodded. Letitia had to stop herself from swallowing her nerves away.
'They gave you breakfast?' Pete asked.
It had been weeks since Letitia had had a full meal and that was only partly due to her toothache. The thought of her treat brought a smile to her face but she wiped it away as soon as she became aware of it. It was too late though. Pete smiled his charming predator smile at her and kindly asked her what she'd eaten.
'There was bread with marmalade and porridge with fruit. And tea.'
'Looks like Martha and Camilla could have ended up in Cockaigne,' Hank remarked. Pete's answering smirk gave Letitia the shivers.