As Sonia and Padma passed the following week evading the roving mobs, Sonia noted a pattern develop relatively quickly. The mobs moved about during the day and didn’t seem to have an abundance of firearms; gunfire was heard only sporadically and not continuously as one would expect from a group with access to ammunition. From what Sonia observed, they were armed for the most part with the sort of large bladed and bludgeoning instruments readily found in the average American home: axes, shovels, crowbars, tire irons, baseball bats, lengths of heavy pipe fashioned into pikes, sledgehammers. And they didn’t seem concerned in the least about blood borne pathogens from the way stabbed and slashed and wrestled with the infected.
Gasoline was another thing they lacked; they moved about by vehicle intermittently and, from what she was able to observe, seemed to use whatever scant supply of fuel they had mostly to set things on fire. Whenever any of them was fortunate enough to find a vehicle in running condition they would set out, other foot-bound looters in pursuit, beating at the windows, either getting run over or dragging the occupants out to make off with it, repeating the entire process.
The mob spent the days ransacking whatever buildings they came across, first the grocery stores and restaurants before moving into the residential areas. They didn’t seem very savvy about the habits of the infected and simply attempted to overcome them through brute force, making no effort to conceal their movements, moving about in large packs, speaking in loud voices while committing appalling breaches of light discipline, which they compounded by shouting and gesticulating wildly when they came under the inevitable attack.
One thing that genuinely surprised Sonia was the quantity of infected. In their weeks of moving about through the area they had observed plenty but rarely in quantities larger than a few dozen. Now with the noise and commotion of the evacuees, the infected began to move about again in great swarming packs, hundreds of the stinking and now sunburned brutes milling about in scenes familiar to them from the traffic copter footage of the final days of the Collapse.
Sonia watched all of this with a feeling of dread relief. It reminded her of a time camping with her family, in her early teens in Arizona. They were tent camping in the early spring and Sonia spent a morning stretched out on a large rock, enjoying the combination of the heat of the sun and the cool of the stone on her back, half napping before the heat of the desert afternoon took hold. She went out with her mother later that day and, returning to their camp, she saw an enormous rattlesnake, over six feet long, crawling out from beneath the same rock, from a crevice over which she earlier dangled her legs. She recalled how unsettled she was by that, a potentially fatal thing so close yet unnoticed, avoided only by chance. This felt the same way, Sonia and Padma sharing their living space with what appeared to be thousands of the horrible beasts, each unaware of the other’s presence.
The mobs soon got into the habit of setting upon each other and fighting among themselves, each mob guarding its loot from the other and each person doing the same. They seemed to follow one another, the first relying on the next to find food or shelter and immediately attempting to steal it.
Typical behavior for Jeantel voters, Sonia mused, recalling her father affectionately.
Sometime during the second week of the looting, while moving through north Madison Heights, Sonia and Padma witnessed one particularly ugly brawl at a health food store in a strip mall. The scene started when various members of one mob began to fight over their find, shouting and shoving each other while they attempted to fight off the infected simultaneously. This eventually attracted the attention of another larger mob, which had been hovering about and descended opportunistically upon the scene.
There were a few gunshots at first but, after a half dozen shots, the guns soon fell silent, mobs either running out of ammunition or attempting to conserve it. The few shots fired had no appreciable effect on either mob, each apparently too desperate to cede the prize to the other, the noise only serving to attract more infected to the scene.
The first mob, no doubt desperate with hunger, attempted to defend their prize probably figuring, from what Sonia was able to observe, to take advantage of the structure of the store for shelter, perhaps hoping that the infected would drive the second mob away. The second mob advanced on the front of the store amid shouted threats and insults which the first mob responded to in kind, all waving about their axes and bats and bars, most carrying improvised shields made from flat pieces of steel like cabinet or refrigerator doors.
“This is like something out of ‘The Lord of the Rings’,” Sonia marveled to Padma, the two watching with a growing fascination. Padma murmured something in reply, obviously unsettled by the depraved spectacle unfolding before their eyes. Sonia looked about then turned back to the scene, peering through her mini-binoculars; based on her experiences, the safest alternative under the circumstances was to simply hide and watch from a safe distance, allowing the inevitable to take its course.
After about ten minutes of nearly simian hooting and jeering, it became obvious that the first mob refused to flee and intended to defend their prize. Then the second mob advanced, some remaining behind to grapple with the infected while others ran at the front of the store, looking to overwhelm the first mob in a rush, throwing bricks and bottles and pieces of cinderblocks as they ran.
The two mobs met at the base of the shattered windows, fighting over the empty and overturned shelves the first mob had set up as barricades. They began clubbing and chopping, hammering and slashing at each other, some of the first mob hurling back the bricks and pieces of cinderblock that the second mob had thrown moments earlier back at them.
The infected swarmed about on the periphery, grappling with small clusters of mobsters at isolated points. Every few moments they would overpower one, knocking them from their feet and dragging them off, the other mobsters blankly watching as the infected tore their former companions apart, like herd animals impassively grazing as hyenas fed. Sonia watched as the infected set upon one mobster who had the misfortune of drifting away from the protection of the square, tackling him and clawing his clothing open as they tore at him, his cohorts content to enjoy the respite provided by his demise.
“You know why you don’t need a lid when you’re boiling crabs?” Sonia asked, turning her head away from her mini-binoculars.
“No,” Padma replied with an earnest lack of guile.
“Because as soon as one starts to crawl out of the pot, the others pull him back in,” Sonia answered, nodding sagely.
Padma frowned, shrinking back from the edge of the roof, not sharing her friend’s fascination with the degenerate exhibition. Live like a beast, die like a beast, Sonia mused.
Sonia scanned the parking lot, peering through her mini-binoculars intently. One of the mob, a large black male, was particularly interesting. He was wielding an improvised weapon fashioned from several iron weightlifting plates. They were held together by a large bolt, the entire thing attached to a length of chain about three or four feet in length. The hulking looter used his contraption like a mace, twirling it over head with his right hand while holding a freezer door before him with his left, smashing whatever was before him indiscriminately, barricades, opposing looters and even his own companions.
Sonia studied him closely, impressed with the effectiveness of the weapon, straining to see if he had fastened spikes to the plates or simply relied on the sheer weight for its destructive effect. As she watched though she noticed a weakness, his right side being vulnerable as his companions kept clear of the swinging mass of iron, no doubt trying to avoid being felled by an inadvertent blow.
Even as she noticed, the weak point was exploited; a smaller, but quick and nimble defender, wearing what appeared to be a wastebasket for a helmet, ducked out from the shadows of the storefront, crouching under the swinging chain, and stabbed him with some lance improvised from a length of pipe. The hulking mobster dropped his mace and staggered back, clutching his side and wandered out of sight, almost certain, Sonia believed, to die over the course of the following hours or days.
The fighting continued, the attackers growing frenzied as more infected arrived. Sonia knew from experience that the scene was reaching a tipping point and that the infected would soon outnumber both mobs, overwhelming them. She made a mental note of the location; in a few days, once the feeding frenzy stops and the infected disperse, she thought, it might be worthwhile to sift the trash for whatever provoked the battle, a few canisters of whey powder or some organic canned artichokes.
Sonia’s hopes for a supplement to their food supply proved in vain; a few moments later, the defending mob relented, half fleeing out of the back of the store with what they could carry, abandoning their companions in the process. Several of the defenders, seeing their companions escape, attempted to surrender; all were killed remorselessly, felled with sledgehammers and pickaxes. Several more gunshots rang out as mobsters tried to make good on their escapes or inflict what damage they could before the inevitable.
Finally, the mob left the scene, the people in the center bearing out a scant collection of boxes and bags while others formed a perimeter and escorted them out, keeping the infected at bay with the swinging of bats and shovels. The revolting scene finally came to its end when the infected set upon the injured and dying of both mobs, beaten and bleeding and deserted by their companions, tearing them limb from limb amid a horrifying cacophony of wails and screams.
As the victorious mob dispersed, Sonia crawled back from the edge of the roof, keeping out of sight in the shadows. She and Padma spent the rest of the day lying there, napping and waiting for dusk. Sonia passed the time pondering over the spectacle they had just witnessed, reflecting upon it with disgust. As the shrieks of the dying looters faded, Sonia took advantage of the light from the setting sun to read over her ‘notes’ – the various maps she had collected along with the locations of their various caches.
Despite the precarious nature of their existence, Sonia had reason to be well pleased. They had avoided the frightful scene with the mobs which, although she would never confess it to Padma, had been a positive; by the looks of the carnage in the parking lot, there had to be the remains of several dozen looters, now permanently eliminated as future threats or competition for food.
A self-limiting problem, Sonia thought as she watched at least one hundred infected feeding on the dead and dying mobsters.