With the shotgun and rifle loaded back into the jeep, Graeme felt considerably lighter. The release from the pain of chaffed shoulders alone felt wonderful. It was difficult getting used to carrying two weapons again.
Rubbing fingers over the red stripes of abrased skin where the weapons' shoulder straps had bitten into his flesh, Graeme watched the clouds bustle overhead, pondering. Heavy and pregnant with rain; it would be good to feel the rain again. The past week had been baking summer heat - normally he would have welcomed sunny weather in Scotland, but now it just accelerated the rotting of dead flesh, and heightened the stink of their furious decay. The air was thick with it, that and the flies it drew.
Shaking himself, he checked the magazine on his Sig Sauer automatic for the hundredth time (can never be too careful), slid the smooth pistol back into it's velcro hip holster and clambered up behind the wheel of his recent acquisition.
A Mitsubishi Shogun jeep, 4.2i engine with five and three speed boxes; two and four wheel respectively. A nice machine at the best of times, but compared to his old Nova it was indescribable luxury. The thing had been sitting in a driveway in Burnside, and less than five minutes of rooting around after a forced entry revealed the keys. So much easier than fumbling around under the dash trying to hot-wire it.
He'd already tested it's off-road prowess in the Braes, and had been most impressed. An added bonus were the bullbars on front and rear; protecting the fragile head and tail lights while simultaneously smashing zombie legs and ribs to kindling. It's only vice was fuel; the big 4x4 was a gas-guzzler, and he was uncertain how much longer there would be mainland power to keep the petrol pumps automated.
Hence the painful calluses on his palms from pumping and lugging gas canisters all day yesterday. There was a garage across the road from the station full of drums of the stuff - he'd thought it wiser to separate as much of the fuel as possible, couldn't be too careful what with the hot sun and all.
A supermarket had yielded a bounty of fresh food and tinned produce, more than enough to keep him going - almost indefinitely. But then he hadn't really cast his mind much further than the immediate future, wasn't even sure he'd want to keep living beyond his current food reserves running out. He estimated he had a year of consumables and fresh water at best, beyond that he'd have to start hunting or foraging for himself.
But that was then.
Reaching across to the passenger seat, he plucked a chilled can of Budweizer from it's six pack seal (no need to worry about drunk driving now), cracked it open and took a swallow.
His mouth creased at the bitter taste. He'd never really enjoyed beer that much, but right now he felt like he should have one. Getting the beer had been her idea, anyway - and now it seemed pointless to waste it.
Peering out through the dash, he perused the street ahead. Windblown and litter strewn, the entire avenue was mostly empty but for a single stumbling shape at the far end. It seemed to have gotten tangled in a shopping trolley, and the two were attempting headway in opposite directions, making for much stumbling, reeling and generally unproductive behavior.
The rifle was probably fairly well in range, he supposed. And the more practice he got in, the better a shot he would eventually become.
Resting the beer on the dash, he leaned into the back seat and withdrew the rifle, a sleek, black, dangerous looking weapon. He had no idea what make or model it was, but the telescopic sight had been the biggest in the shop and he assumed it would provide the best magnification.
Stepping down onto the hot asphalt, he slotted the long weapon snugly against his shoulder and leaned forward into the imminent recoil (the first time he'd fired it, he'd almost went on his arse, and had nursed the shoulder for three days until the bruising went down).
Squinting into the sight, he waited for his sun-dazzled eye to accustom itself to the bulbous, magnified image.
Sure enough, there in the centre of a series of fielding lines, was a zombie, shirt sleeve tangled in the wire mesh of a badly battered trolley. It's shirt and denims were splashed with unidentifiable gore, and a severe scalp wound obscured one side of it's haggard features with torn skin. It would have been a middle aged man at one time, perhaps into his early forties.
Curling one finger around the trigger, Graeme began to squeeze slowly, concentrating on keeping the long rifle's barrel steady. At about the anticipated point, the gun went off (it was so hard to tell with such a soft trigger) with a deafening krak, the recoil socking into his upper torso, kicking the wind from his lungs and jarring his teeth, the barrel soared into the sky.
Two hundred yards away, the zombie suddenly lifted and twirled, limbs flailing, leaving a corkscrew pattern of coagulated blood from the caved in section of it's head. It crashed into the trolley and trundled a dozen feet until one wheel tipped off the edge of the kerb and sent the whole parcel sprawling into the gutter.
After that, it lay completely still.
Excellent, Graeme thought, listening to the gun's echo rolling along the street. A head shot. He was definitely getting better.
Greater accuracy meant less shots, and less shots meant conservation of ammunition. There were four boxes of fifty shells in the rear of the Shogun, but it was better to be conservative with his stocks - no telling when he'd need the rifle.
The Shogun presented a far more cost-efficient method of zombie destruction. Already, the bullbars were chewed and dented looking; wreathed in torn clothing, parchment skin and hair. The whole front end and underside of the vehicle was sprayed with gore, having revved and wheelspun it's way over countless bodies, crunching them into the dirt with it's heavy barred grille, then mashing the life (or whatever passed for life in these things) from them with it's massive off-road tires.
He'd gotten fairly good at judging where they lay under the wheels while the vehicle worked, picking up a trick where he could crack their heads open like walnuts with a twist of the power-assisted steering. Safe, wholesale death, and all without wasting a single bullet. The smeared evidence of his work was strewn and trailed all up and down the streets.
The only downside was that it really drew in the flies. Soon, this place would be rife with bacteria and disease.
Resting the rifle against the sun-warmed off-roader's flank, he wiped at his brow and took another sup of the cool beer. Not too much, he warned himself. You can't afford to get drunk or even sloppy around these things; one mistake would be all it takes (all it took), and then it'd be all over.
Graeme paused at the rebellious thought, peering down into the amber sun reflecting off the liquid in the can. It wasn't his fault, he had accepted that. He'd told her they didn't have the resources, couldn't afford the risks - besides, he wasn't responsible for her actions.
There had been others at first, other survivors who managed to avoid the initial population explosion. The girl had been one of several - he'd literally stumbled across her on the third day seemed like ages ago, now. A lovely thing, perhaps only a couple of years younger than himself; long limbed with beautiful flowing copper-coloured hair, trying unsuccessfully to hot-wire a clapped out old Citroen.
They'd gotten on pretty well, he mused, under the circumstances. She'd been upset at the demise of her parents at first, very withdrawn; a normal enough reaction, he supposed. But soon enough, the business of survival took rightful precedence, and she began to come around to his way of thinking. Or so he thought.
They'd spent several days on supply raids, stockpiling food of every description that they could find, hiding it at his insistence in abandoned buildings and locked basements. She'd enjoyed the cloak and dagger of their crafty movements and secrecy; perhaps it was just a game to her. Graeme had gone along with her good humor, certain that she would come to understand his profound wisdom in later months when supply shortages became a real danger.
On the sixth day, they'd come across a small group of people, perhaps only five or six strong, journeying through from the city centre to Edinburgh and to the emergency centre set up there. They wanted Graeme and the girl to go with them, and of course she was eager to comply. She was still naive enough to think the government had a hold on the situation, and that there would be more of the shelter left than a burnt out husk after six days.
Graeme had monitored the TV and radio channels from the outset of the holocaust, he'd heard the broadcasts switch from live to pre-recorded on the second day. He had watched the storms, and had seen the sheer volume of corpses in the streets even since the first days, and had known what really awaited them in Edinburgh. But she would hear none of it, becoming insistent and eventually infuriated; she mistook his insight for obstinacy.
And so they left without him.
He drank heavily from the can again, oblivious to the beer's bitter tang as he brooded over those uncomfortable events. He had seen it coming; it wasn't his fault.
In preparation for the long journey, the party had decided to stock up with rations; the girl led them straight to the supermarket they themselves had raided only days before for just that purpose. Graeme had been careful and sneaked into the facility in the dead of night, loading pallets through the rear entrance; away from the streets and the congestion, and unseen by legions of hungry eyes.
The girl took them there in broad daylight with more than a hundred zombies on Main Street around them.
He could have warned them, he supposed. But then that would have put him in danger, threatened his own carefully engineered survival to rectify their blundering error. So he waited on the roof of the arcade car park they had barricaded off two days earlier, and he watched them through his telescopic lens. And he waited.
After a little while, there was some gunfire, muffled by distance and enclosure, and what might have been screaming. More zombies were drawn by the disturbance, stumbling from shadows and alleys to the fray; clumps and couples to swell the hundreds which had already clawed their eager way into the supermarket after the foolish would-be-raiders.
Eventually, comparative peace had descended and the crooning crowds had drifted away, returning to their empty shuffling, sloth hunting. Something more than curiosity made him take the Shogun down there, a quiet yet insistent necessity to see what had become of his former glossy haired companion and her brief crusade.
The last of the beer was gone and Graeme found himself staring down in mild surprise at the empty can. He didn't remember finishing it, nor did he register an unpleasant taste in his mouth from it's passing. Now that the realization was there, he found he couldn't taste much of anything.
He hadn't felt much of anything either as the Shogun rolled cautiously around the corner to the supermarket; devoid of satisfaction at his clever evasion of their own fates, nor did he feel the hollow injury of finally being utterly alone; not a hint of gnawing guilt at his inaction to prevent their deaths, not even the slightest spark of hope that perhaps she had somehow survived the assault and would stumble tearfully into his waiting arms.
But he went, all the same, simply because he felt he had to know.
Some of her hair was gone, he observed, when she finally re-appeared from the supermarket's dark interior. Her T-shirt (the one she had laughed so much at when she stole it from a window dummy, a suicidal teddy bear with a pistol to his head - the legend 'Couldn't Care Bear' blazoned across her chest) was torn and stained black with coagulated blood. The few sections of exposed flesh left intact on her arms and neck were pneumonia-blue in colour and flies swarmed in her slack mouth and across the her open eyes (the same ones which beaded with tears a week before at the loss of her family).
But none of that was important.
He crushed the can in one fist and let it clatter to the ground. It bounced off the Shogun's tire and skittered away under the front bumper; no need to worry about littering this late in the day.
As he bent to retrieve the rifle, a light breeze blew across the street, scraping the discarded can, ruffling his hair and the spilled papers in front of the newsagents, and a snagged tuft of coppery hair trailing from the edge of the off-roader's forward bullbars.
Graeme regarded it for the barest instant, then hoisted the rifle and slung it across the passenger seat.
It had seemed a shame to waste ammunition.