Ed was tucked in tight behind the carbine as he entered the service door to the Waffle House, his body leaning forward aggressively, body taut but balanced, and he moved fluidly with a preternatural focus that came from many violent encounters. His senses strained to pick up movement in the dim hallway as he crept toward the swinging door which led into the seating area of the restaurant. That was where he believed most of the gang had taken up residence.
Ed knew Sal’s place well, had spent hours there as a younger man, back in brighter days, drinking coffee and reading the newspaper. Now, a lifetime away it seemed, he was inching into a situation he had tried to prevent, and there was little to do about it now but get on with it.
In the hall the two doors on his right were marked as bathrooms, a single doorway on the left was marked Staff. He knew that it led to the kitchen, a small storage room, and an office. Ed inched closer to the swinging door to position himself where he could see into the restaurant through a view port in the door. He peeked through the small window and a few dim LED lights hanging from the ceiling illuminated a macabre scene.
Sal was hanging from a rope tied up in the rafters, his body stiff from rigor as it swung over the serving counter. Several of the stools beneath him were occupied by raiders; they were slumped over, snoozing, using their arms as pillows. One was sleeping on the bar itself and beyond him, another was tending a cook pot on the stove.
Several knots of two or three raiders were sleeping in the booths or on the tables. A couple were apparently on guard – one at the front door, sitting on an upturned bucket, dozing in and out of consciousness. Another nearer the front of the restaurant was more alert, pacing back and forth, looking through what remained of the large glass panes. Strips of duct tape and pieces of cardboard and plywood held the broken glass together, but there were enough gaps that it still provided a good observation post from which to watch the highway.
By Ed’s count, that totaled eleven men, which sounded about right from Matt’s description of the assault on his homestead. What Ed couldn’t see from his vantage point was any trace of Matt’s wife or his teenage daughter.
Ed turned back and cupped his hand over Will’s ear and whispered “Check for the girls, I’ll stay here.” Will nodded that he understood. Ed gave him a knowing look; Will nodded in return. He was only seventeen, and a few years ago he’d have been considered a boy, but Will had long been a man. It was a harder world now, and it called for hardier stock.
While Ed stood ready to unleash a wall of lead into the raiders, Will slung his pump shotgun over his shoulder with a practiced ease and then pulled a revolver, which was handier for this close range work. He gently eased open the first of the bathroom doors, found nothing inside but refuse, and so he gently let the door close and moved to the next. He found nothing there either. That left the office and storage area.
He was tempted to cock the hammer back on the old Colt, but decided against it. “Never show your hand,” he remembered his father telling him. He pushed against the Staff door and it budged a little, so he slowly guided it open, peering around the door inside, handgun at the ready. The room had been converted ages ago to Sal’s sleeping quarters and a general storage room. It was filled with crates of canned goods, sacks of potatoes, and other food for which Sal had bartered. The room had a damp earthy smell to it and in the dim light it seemed more like a root cellar than a fast food restaurant, but he was able to make out two forms, gagged and bound on the floor. The girls were here, and they were alive.
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