Rick Milton watched in amazement as two military-style vehicles rolled up onto a small hill and raked a band of looters with withering fire from their turret-mounted machine guns. Rick had never served in the military but he’d seen enough war movies to know that those two big guns were most likely pumping .50 caliber bullets into the vehicles and bodies of one of Rick’s chief rivals at a rate of about 450-500 rounds a minute.
Rick grinned, showing his rotting teeth, and pushed his shaggy, greasy hair out of his eyes. It gave him great pleasure to see that particular group of people being cut to shreds. They had been a thorn in his side for the last several weeks. Twice in that same period of time, Rick had barely escaped with his life as he had run into these cut-throats while trying to loot in the same neighborhood.
His business plan had been pretty effective so far, Rick reflected. First and foremost, he was alive. His survival was actually in doubt for a brief period of time. Rick recalled how he had killed a woman by shoving the handle of a spoon into her eye socket and how he had stripped his neighbor’s house bare, living off of what they had left behind for nearly a week.
Rick’s expansion plans had gone pretty smoothly for a while. He found an old Toyota mini-truck just a few houses down the block from his own. The pickup had been beefed up for off-roading and converted to run on propane. Unlike gas or diesel, propane was readily available. Just about every house had a gas grill on the back deck. Rick simply decoupled the grills’ tanks and tossed them into the back of his pickup when he hit a house with a LP grill.
The off-road capabilities of the Toyota had come in handy too. Rick avoided highway, freeways and interstates like the plague – partially because the rotting bodies along the sides of these roads likely were infected with some kind of plague and partially to stay out of sight and out of mind of the larger operators.
There were some fairly large looting operations running around. Some of them had military vehicles, like the crew cutting Rick’s rival to ribbons. Others had horses pulling carts or wagons. A few rode around on motorcycles and ATV’s. They would strike quickly, load up the beds on the side-by-side UTV’s and be gone before you knew it. Rick envied their speed and their shiny vehicles. His old Toyota was neither fast nor shiny, but it got around well and kept him out of the fuel war.
Rick guessed that more looters died every day in fights for fuel – gasoline and diesel – than from any other cause. The last non-U.N. Fuel deliveries had been more than four months ago. Most of the gas stations and convenience store tanks had been emptied within a few weeks of their last delivery. A few enterprising individuals located full fuel trucks and simply drove off with them, hiding them away. Most looters, though, had fuel as their top priority. In fact, Rick guessed, there were probably a lot of looters who traded most of their loot for enough fuel to go back out and loot the next day.
“Idiots!” Rick chuckled and then ducked below the crest of the hill from which he had been watching the action.
“These guys are new and they’re good,” Rick mumbled to himself. “I need to keep an eye on them.”
Rick slithered back up to the top of the hill as the gunfire came to a halt. The new paramilitary crew had exited their vehicles to check for survivors. Rick watched as one of his rival looters struggled to one knee and took aim at one of the paramilitary crew. Another member of the crew whipped his rifle to his shoulder and put a three-round burst through the looter’s throat.
“Whoa, these guys are good,” Rick whispered.
After the paramilitary group finished up with the looters, they turned their attention toward the houses up the hill to the north. Rick watched eagerly to see if he could learn anything from their style.
As they approached one of the houses, a woman burst through what was left of the front door screaming at the top of her lungs. The paramilitary gunners swung their machine guns in her direction but held their fire. A man of about average height stepped out of one of the vehicles and carefully crossed through the wire strung across the front lawn.
Rick had cased that very house before. He knew there were two families living there. They had placed big signs warning off looters, as had a few of their neighbors. Unlike some of their neighbors, Rick had seen them make good on their promise. Just before the military vehicles drove onto the scene, Rick had watched through his binoculars as someone firing from the house shot the leader of the band of looters. The looters had returned fire with rifles and then some sort of rocket launcher. Rick thought the house would crumble on top of its inhabitants.
The man bent down to help the woman back to her feet. She clawed at him at first and then buried her head in his chest.
Rick couldn’t quite figure out what was going on but the strange behavior only heightened his interest in these newcomers. They were well-armed, organized and … compassionate. It just didn’t make sense. Any other self-respecting looter would have drug the woman into the back of his truck and either kept her for himself of traded her off at one of the local markets the next day. These guys were giving her a hug instead.
Rick adjusted his binoculars trying to get a better view. From his vantage point, it was nearly 500 yards to the house at the top of the hill.
“Maybe they’re relatives,” Rick mused.
That was about the only thing that made sense to Rick as the rest of the group exited their vehicles and joined the first guy inside the house.
“Very interesting, indeed,” Rick was smiling again. “Maybe I can follow the gravy train back to the mother lode.”
It was a mixed metaphor but Rick didn’t care.
Rick watched for another hour as the group loaded the big military truck with supplies from the house.
“Impressive,” Rick would have loved to grab even a fraction of what came out of the house.
After the house was emptied, two more adults and three children joined the woman who had done all the screaming in the back of the big truck. The crew fired up the big diesel engines and cut back overland toward a gravel road than ran south out of the neighborhood and under the interstate.
Rick scurried back to his Toyota and fired up the engine. It purred like a kitten. Nearly 300,000 miles on the odometer but the truck still ran like a Swiss watch.
“They’ll never hear me over those loud diesel engines,” Rick reassured himself. “The trick will be staying close enough to follow, but keeping out of sight.”
The four-vehicle caravan set off to the south – three vehicles close together with a fourth following nearly a mile behind.