The story telling lasted most of the night, it was extended after Jimbo and Veronica found out that the man named Max that Red was talking about was also the one they had ambushed in his home in Denver. After that that bit of knowledge came out both Veronica and Jimbo seemed to thaw noticeably towards Red.
“I never liked what we were doing to Max. I hated Nancy when she bit his wife. That was the very moment I decided to kill her.” Jimbo said.
“I'm glad you did it, I don't think I could have and she needed to die. She killed me. She killed you.” Veronica added.
“She sounds like a woman who had it coming, but couldn't you just vote to go somewhere else?” Red had heard Nancy's ideas on how the structure of her group was to work.
Jimbo shook his head, “No the others were still hers, she had some pull with them, mentally I mean. I think she was stacking the vote to do what she wanted.”
“So she was betraying you even as she made it sound like a partnership. That's a bad basis for cooperation.”
“So Max was okay when you last saw him?” asked Jimbo.
“Yeah, he wanted to go after his kids, but I sent him straight east with the cop.”
“She didn't last long in the fight, didn't you take her out Veronica?” asked Jimbo.
Veronica nodded, “But you got the prize, Nancy.”
“Easy to defeat someone when they don't know you're not on the same side. Last I saw Max he was pointing a gun at my head. For some reason he let me go.” Jimbo paused for a minute and looked at the other two, “I just had a crazy thought.”
“What?” asked Veronica.
“Well, remember that guy in Fort Collins, V?”
“Oh, the one with the six shooters? You'll love this, Red, he was decked out like a cowboy, had two revolvers, the boots and a hat too. Plus a western shirt with creases so straight you could cut yourself on them.”
“Yeah, the man was decked out like a good movie, but one thing he wasn't faking was how fast he was. We were avoiding people by this time, so when we heard the shooting we just came up on him real slow, to see what was going on. This was before most of the zombies moved east. The guy was mowing them down, every shot was a head shot; he never missed. And we got to see what happened when he ran out of bullets.”
“That's the best part! We only had a shot gun at that point.” Veronica said.
“Anyway the cowboy was facing off against a mob of about thirty zombies and two times six is only twelve, which left a lot left over by the time he emptied his guns. Still the zombies were slow and he was fast. He hadn't counted on the zombies firing back though, a couple of low level supers, like us, came out into the street when 'cowboy' ran his guns out. And they didn't come out to do the classic 'showdown at noon' kind of thing either; they came out guns a blazing.”
“Automatics! One of the bullets hit the wall six inches from my head, I swear to God it did!” said Veronica, laughing.
“I didn't find that so funny myself, but those guys sure weren't aiming much. Nonetheless, they tracked their guns right through cowboy. You know what happened?”
Red shook his head.
“He stayed up. Gut shot two or three times and the man, cool as a cucumber twirls one gun into the holster then reloads the other in a matter of seconds. He was alive, Red, he had the colors in him, like they all do. Then you know what he does?” Red shook his head again, Jimbo did laugh then, “He holstered his gun and reloaded his other fucking pistol, like he has all the time in the world! Now he was fast don't get me wrong, from the time he was shot until the time he had both guns reloaded was a matter of seconds. The zombies had a few problems that helped him out too; one of their guns jammed and the other just fired his dry and seemed to be having problems reloading. Both had pistols though, tucked into their belts and then Red...then the showdown at noon did happen. You ever seen a movie where one guy faces off on two others? The zombie threw their assault rifles down and reached for their pistols, and cowboy went for his. They didn't even get their guns out of their belts. One shot himself in the leg, but that was probably a convulsive reflex. Cowboy then empties the next ten shots into the slow zombies that are still coming towards him. It was pretty awesome.”
“So the guy was fast, what's that got to do with what you were saying?”
“Well what if it works both ways? You know we get better, stronger and faster if we eat more people. What if people start getting something from killing us?”
Red thought about it for a minute, remembering Max and the corn field outside of North Platte, he nodded slowly. “That could be, I've seen a few things myself.”
“So, how many zombies do you reckon Max killed before I ran into him? And how many more before he ran into you?”
Red shrugged, “Max could see zombies at a distance, he just knew where they were and he said his ability was getting stronger too.”
“So, did you just get better at one thing?”
“Probably he is better at more things than he knows.”
“Yeah, look where you going with this?”
“What if he can get what he needs? What if running into me and then you wasn't coincidence? What if he ran into us and set us on the paths we are on right now to help him out in the long run?”
“That'd be a might useful talent.” Red said doubtfully, “Kinda far-fetched.”
“Yeah, like seeing zombies from a distance or being able to protect yourself from other zombies messing in your head.”
“Still a bit of a stretch Jimbo.” said Veronica, “I mean carry that logic out far enough and you have Max getting himself arrested so Red would have to come break him out, which allowed this other zombie to kill Nita and take Hugh. Thus setting up Red to come here and meet us, to get the ability to resist the other zombie and help Max, and the other humans live safely in Iowa.”
“I'm sticking with it. Until I learn different.” Jimbo said stubbornly.
Veronica shook her head, but Red was more convinced by her chain of logic. 'Why am I here? Chance?' he thought, then said, “Well it'd be hard to prove. I guess we'll see if Iowa falls or not in the next few days. I think they are going to attack soon.”
“I'm right, the more I think about it, the more sure I am. So you know what that means don't you?”
“You get a brownie?” Veronica chimed in.
“No, it means we have to teach Red how to resist more powerful zombies.”
“What a surprise. I agree though.”
“Was it the Max connection?” asked Red.
“No, it was what you said about NASCAR.” All three erupted in laughter, which brought Bobby into the kitchen with his gameboy to see what was so funny.
“So what happened to cowboy?” asked Red as Veronica tussled Bobby's hair. The boy pulled away and sat on the floor, focusing his attention on the video game once more.
“Cowboy?” Jimbo asked, turning somber, “He didn't make it. He reloaded, then took about three steps and fell over while he was reloading. He wasn't dead and the rest of the mob got him. We didn't stick around to see him come back.”
“Did you think about saving him?”
Veronica shook her head, “No, what could we do? I was a barista at a coffee shop and Jimbo was an auto mechanic before this happened, neither one of us know anything about putting humans back together.”
“You could have changed him yourself.”
“There's a thought, how would he be when he came back? Still fast or would he start all over again.” the big man shook his head, “No, he was still shooting once in a while as the zombies approached, I wasn't willing to risk it. I supposed we could find him if we went back...well maybe not now with all the weaker zombies called east.”
“So what can you tell me about mind reading and resisting the control of more powerful zombies?” Red asked.
“I'll show you a few things first. Bobby? Put the game down would you, so we can show him what we can do?”
The music on the video game cut off and Bobby set it on the floor and stood up. Jimbo went to the counter and took a pad of paper and a pencil from a drawer and put it on the table in front of Veronica and Red.
“I'm going to stand over here looking outside.” Jimbo said as he moved to the back door and peered out of the window next to it. “Bobby why don't you write a number on the piece of paper.”
Bobby took the pencil and drew a square on the paper, inside of it he wrote the number twelve.
“Twelve, inside a square. Let's stick to numbers okay, you don't want to rely on me to guess what you draw.”
Red sighed, “This is no big deal Jimbo, I've seen that before, you can see through the boys eyes.”
Jimbo turned and smiled, “Oh? Well let's see if I can impress you a little more.” He walked over and took the pencil from Bobby. “Go over where I was.”
Bobby walked across the room and Jimbo wrote the number thirty three on the pad of paper.
“What'd I write?”
“Okay so you trained him to see through your eyes too, that is...different. Still not very useful.”
“Let's do it again Bobby.” Jimbo wrote two hundred and ten on the paper.
The boy shrugged his shoulders and said, “I can't see nothing.” Then a moment later he said, “Okay two, one and zero. Two hundred and ten.”
“See? I can choose to let him in or out.”
“Yeah, but how?” Red persisted.
“That is the crux of it, isn't it? Now for Veronica and Bobby here I went in and did something to their brains. We have a level of trust with each other and I didn't monkey around with anything I found there. It was like I went in and turned a switch to 'on' that was 'off' before. It's hard to explain exactly. The thing is I can't do it without you letting me.”
“How do I let you?”
“This is where it gets interesting. I don't know for sure. See Bobby was mine, I made him and that relationship gave me certain control over him. And V? She was my sister, she is my older sister though, if you understand what that means.”
“Sure, she was made before you. On the hierarchy that means she should be more powerful than you. But I know about siblings, I have enough zombie siblings.”
“That's it exactly. In your case you can kind of keep me out, but you aren't doing it consciously, it is like your body has a defense against me, probably because I am not as strong as you. But you don't really know what you're doing so I can kind of get in, read surface thoughts and stuff. I might, just might, be able to read a number with you resisting me. I think that's where we need to start. We'll try it, then I want you to try and resist me, then I want you to try and let me through. If we can get you to the point where you have some control, then maybe we can do more.”
“Okay, I am game. Let's give it a try.”
Jimbo went back to stand by the door and they practiced until the sun came up, by which time Red was able to let the other man through or deny him access with a fair amount of success. From there they went on to Red thinking things and trying not to let Jimbo read his mind, then letting him. Again the lesson went fast and soon he was able to give Jimbo messages with no effort at all. After a half hour more of watching them stand with Jimbo talking out loud, but Red only sending mental communications to the other man Veronica stood up.
“Well this is mighty boring for me. I am going to go take care of the livestock. C'mon Bobby-Sue, you're coming with me.”
“Veronica!” the boy complained, “Don't call me that!”
“Sure thing little man, but let's get moving, the cows aren't going to milk themselves.”
After they were gone Red spent a few minutes asking why they milked the cows and took care of the animals and Jimbo explained that the cows had to be milked or it caused them distress and they took care of the animals in case they ran into humans who needed meat.
“Jimbo, I'm not doing so well am I? I mean I can't read you at all.”
“You'll get it. I have to admit it is going slower than it went with them. Like I said, 'switch on', that was all it took.”
Red shrugged his shoulders and both men sat listening to Reilly barking at the animals outside, while Bobby called out encouragement for the dog to bark louder.
“There is always a nuclear option.” Jimbo said.
“You open up as much as you can and I hit you with everything I have to try and get in. It might work. It might not.”
“I guess I am still a little nervous about this. I know how it is to have someone else in my head. Doctor Sentry did it to me, it...well I can only say as an analogy I felt violated. Call it rape or what have you, but it wasn't a good experience.”
“See that is a problem right there. You have negative feelings associated with it and that will make things harder. It's up to you how we proceed, what's your timeline?”
“The faster the better. I don't know when the attack is going to happen. The horde heading east was probably three or so days from making it to the border.”
“Okay then, how about we try for the velvet gloves first and work our way up to the crowbar?”
Red nodded and they started in with the mind reading again. Jimbo warned Red when he was going to try and dig deeper, to allow him to open up his mind. The first attempt was not successfully.
“Closed up like a clam. Let's try again.” Jimbo tried unsuccessfully for over an hour, but which time Veronica and Bobby were back in the house with eggs and fresh milk. Red watched in amusement as Veronica brought out a butter churn and poured the fresh milk into it, then had Bobby take over the up and down motion on the handle.
“Why make butter?”
“It keeps longer than milk.” Veronica answered. “Plus it is good practice.”
“I was expecting more milk.”
“We dump most of it in the pig trough, to spread their feed out, plus Reilly got a good dose, she loved it. The rest we pour into the field, we can't keep it.”
“How much butter have you made?”
“A lot, we put it in buckets and store it in the basement. The books say it should keep for a long time that way, but I am going to start rotating out after five buckets. We need to figure out how to make cheese, that keeps even longer.”
All at once Red felt a stabbing pain in his head, he clutched it in both hands and put his elbows on the table in front of Jimbo, who was staring at him intently. A light sheen of sweat dampened Jimbo's face, a bloody mist that formed rivulets of red as he continued his assault on Red's mind. Finally, disgusted, he turned away.
“So much for the crowbar. We'll have to try something else.”
“You coulda warned me!” Red said, lifting his face up.
“No point, when I warn you, you clam up. Your mind was distracted while talking with V, so I seized the opportunity she provided. Fuck, you'll probably be on guard from here on out. Let's take a break, go play with the dog or tour the farm while I think about this.”
Red nodded, headed to the back door, then turned for a moment, “Thanks Jimbo, for trying.”
Jimbo waved him off, “Go!”
Outside Jimbo found Reilly lapping up fresh milk from a large bowl that was still half full. “Dog you drink that much milk and you are going to be sick.” He trudged down the stairs and picked the bowl up, looking around he found a spot on the porch railing to sit it out of the dog's reach and then said, “C'mon, show me around and walk some of that off.”
The door behind him banged shut and Bobby came out, he didn't look happy.
“I gotta show you around, Jimbo said to give you a penny tour, I don't know what that means.”
“It means show me everything. But I won't tell if you skip a few things. Where's your favorite place here? Let's start there.”
The boy looked even more forlorn, “My room. Upstairs, but the house is the last place we get to go.”
“Oh, what about the tree house in back?”
“That? It's boring.”
“Yeah, c'mon, I'll show you.”
Showing Red around took Bobby much longer than half an hour, the boy might say he didn't like a lot of the farm, but he certainly displayed enthusiasm for the hayloft, the pig sty, the stream a quarter mile away and the small air powered pellet gun that he snagged from the tree house.
While they were romping through the stream, which was a mix of pebbles and sandy mud, Bobby stopped and looked at Red, then said, “Get inside me.”
“You can do that to Zombies who are weaker than you. Jimbo says you can't read him because he has his own trust issues, but you're a lot stronger than me and maybe you can get into my mind.”
“Oh. Right here?” they were standing in the middle of the stream, playing some sort of soldier game that seemed to involve Red falling down into the mud and water after Bobby shot him with the pellet gun.
“Sure, it won't hurt. Jimbo does it to me all the time.” Bobby stared at Red, “Well, go on. Try. What am I thinking?”
Red looked at the boy and then fell over onto the bank of the stream clutching his chest, “Ya shot me, Army Ranger!”
Bobby laughed, “Exactly! What am I thinking now?”
“That I need a pellet gun too, so we can really play this.”
“See? Jimbo asks if you can see him in my head too. He's there now.”
Red concentrated, but shook his head, “No, not really.”
“Well watch, you stay in there. He is going to leave and come back and leave and come back a few times.”
Watching Red did start to notice as the other man invaded and left Bobby's mind, it was a subtle thing and he was not always able to tell when the other man was doing it, but he had a break through eventually; he was able to read the thoughts Jimbo put into the boy's head, before Bobby spoke them out loud.
“See? This is what you need to do to me.” Jimbo said, “We were so keyed up on trying that it didn't occur to me you should be practicing with Bobby or Veronica instead of me.”
“This is strange, I see the kid, he's standing here wearing more mud than clothing and staring at me, but I am reading your thoughts in his head.”
“I can hear them too.” Bobby projected to Red.
“Sorry, so now what?”
Jimbo spoke once again, a distinct, voice in the boy's head, “Well you into philosophy at all?”
The man's laughter came through in Red's mind, “I was thinking more like meditation or Zen or bushido or something.”
“But you know what a philosophy is?”
“Yeah, sure, like hippies or…or that Zen stuff you were talking about.”
“You don't know what a philosophy is?”
“Maybe not. What are you getting at?” Red asked.
“Well I am talking about the bigger philosophies here, like money or optimism.”
“Money is a philosophy?”
“It only has value because we give it value. How much value does a hundred dollar bill have to you now? Or a stack of hundreds? Not much anymore, because that philosophy has lost value in your head. This is important and maybe I am not saying it right, but what we are doing is giving this mind reading a name and a value. Sit up.”
Red pulled his legs out of the stream and sat up on the grassy bank while Bobby stood looking at him.
“Okay, now close your eyes. Focus on my voice, think about a philosophy we've always lived with, but don't subscribe to anymore.”
“As good as anything. Why did it lose value?”
“Because...well it just did, who cares about some paper when zombies are running around eating your family?”
“So protecting your family is more important than money?”
“It always has been.”
“Did you stay home from work to protect them all day long?”
“No.” Red scoffed, “That'd be stupid.”
“But before this all happened you knew someone could come in and rob your family or friends, it's a dangerous world, why did you go to work?”
“A man's gotta make a living.”
“Making a living has a different meaning.”
“Sure does. So the value of more than one philosophy has changed for you. Except you're dead, Red.”
“What does 'make a living' mean to you now?”
“Well, not a lot. I'm not hungry anymore, I don't want to kill anyone else. But I'm not tired either, I haven't slept in...a couple of months at least. All this free time leaves me wondering how I am going to fill it.”
“True, it's not like you are going to raise any kids or anything now, is it?”
“No.” Red said.
“Nor is there a need to discover a cure for cancer or build houses or learn how to fight fires.”
“What about writing a book? You got a story in you?”
“So what will you do, Red?”
“I'm not sure. I thought I would try and help the people who are still alive.”
“That's something then. It makes you more useful than tits on a snake at least.”
“Look, Jimbo, this is all well and good, but what are you getting at?”
“Open your eyes.”
Red cracked his eyes open. He was alone at the creek, the only evidence that Bobby had been there were the muddy foot prints on the opposite bank of the creek.
“What the hell? Where's Bobby?”
“What time is it Red?”
“A couple hours after dawn, maybe seven thirty.”
“Where is the sun?”
Red looked up and to his surprise the sun was high overhead. He experienced a bit of disorientation. “What is going on?”
“I am in, it turns out you are more susceptible to smooth talking than a crowbar.”
“How? I don't feel any different.”
“Where are we talking Red?”
“What do you mean?”
“I could read you, but you couldn't read me this morning at the table. You think Bobby is hiding behind a bush out there somewhere, ready to spring out and say, 'Surprise!'?”
Red looked around for just such a thing, then he shook his head, “He could be hiding, but I don't sense him.”
“Are you sure?”
Across the stream Bobby walked out from behind the tall grasses and ran splashing into the stream. Red watched him closely, something wasn't right. He should have seen the boy in the field before he came to the stream, instead it was as if the boy just appeared in front of him.
“That's not right.”
“It doesn't look right, there is something wrong with Bobby.”
Red thought for a moment, then said, “He's clean. Too clean. He got mud all over his shorts, now there clean, did he change clothes? And his chest isn't coated with mud either, plus his hair is combed. He's not real.”
Bobby slowly faded from Red's sight.
“Do you believe me now?” Jimbo asked. “I told you I could do other things.”
“Make me see things that aren't there?”
“See, hear, feel. Remember.”
“Don't mess with my head!” Red shouted, fear seizing him as he tried to force Jimbo out.
“Hold on partner! It's too late for that anyway, I am in and I leave when I want to. What have you got kicking around in here anyway? Deep secrets you think I shouldn't know about?”
“Good! See what you're doing? You are trying to build a wall, it won't work for me, I am inside already, but it will help keep other people out. And Red, I could care less about your secrets, I am not peeking, I am only interesting in two things, first do you want to do what you told me you were going to do and second, how can I help you make that happen?”
Red relaxed a little, but in his mind he kept building a wall, trying to wall Jimbo in, instead of keeping him out.
“Now, I've got my answers to both questions and I am going to hit your switch buddy. All that talk about philosophy wasn't just bullshit. This mental crap is insidious, you think about what you want and you make it happen. You don't want to be held by something more powerful than you, well what is hard to hold?”
Light dawned on Red, “A fish!”
“Or water, or air.”
“It works both ways though, my new found friend.”
Red looked at the walls he had around his mental image of Jimbo in his mind, to his dismay there were windows in the walls, and he saw the man climb through one to stand on a grassy mental meadow.
“I haven't run into anyone who doesn’t fight dirty, but so do I. If you can see what Bobby was doing to keep you from grabbing him when you first met him, you can build a counter against others too.” said Jimbo
“Like a net?”
“That might have worked on someone else, not Bobby, do you think we sit around rocking ourselves back and forth all day long after the chores are done? We've been practicing and I can tell you his mind is nimble, as soon as you caught the fish, he'd be a cloud, or superman.”
“So what does this mean? Am I ready? Can I make the zombies see things that aren't there?”
“Could I do it to you this morning? No. So you won't be able to do it to others either, you had to let me in, or be seduced into letting me in. The other guy will too, and he won't be standing around letting it happen. There are other tricks you can pull on him though. We've had time to think of a few.”
“So will you help me?”
“We already are. Come back to the house. Bobby is at the neighbors, looking for another pellet gun, he seems to think you'll be staying with us.”
“I gotta go take care of this little problem first, but I think I might be back, if it's okay with you.”
“I think we could use another hand around the farm, if things work out.”
Red nodded as he felt Jimbo leave his mind. He didn't raise any defenses to keep the man out either, he was fairly certain he wouldn't know how.