Six rows of cars stretched across West Northern Avenue, creating a barrier for vehicles and a serious obstacle for anyone on foot.
"What's with the blockade?" Shelly started to open the passenger door of the truck.
"Stay in here, Shelly. I think we should turn around and go back." Maddie pushed the truck into reverse and backed onto the sidewalk in front of a small store. Maddie pointed. "There's fencing down further too."
"Guess this area belongs to someone." Nancy looked at the paper map she held. "Should we try to figure out the boundaries, or leave them alone?"
"I'm not sure. It's probably the Pueblo enclave, and they've worked hard to remain isolated. What do you two think? We can cross back to the east of 87 and go north. There are quite a few neighborhoods in that part of town." Maddie shrugged. "We can always scavenge houses, I suppose."
Shelly groaned. "Not houses. I agree with August. I think most of them are haunted."
Nancy smiled grimly. "All the cities are haunted, Shelly. I wonder whether that's the legacy that will be passed on to the future generations."
"Haunted cities?" Maddie looked over her shoulder at Nancy. "No, we'll build something better in this world, Nancy. It will take time, a lot of time. We have smart people. We won't lose much technology. We have people that search it out, store it, and use it. We'll work together and create a better world. You'll see."
"I'm sad to say I think you are a little optimistic about human nature. You'll be here to see it, Maddie, one way or the other." Nancy shook her head. "I don't know if that's a blessing or a curse, carrying the memories of what was into a future that might be."
Maddie shifted into drive and turned the wheel back toward Highway 87. As she pressed the gas pedal and moved down the road, men stepped from the buildings on both sides and pointed rifles at the truck. She stomped on the brake and looked at them.
"Well," she whispered to the others, "it looks like we find out more about the Pueblo community." She glanced at Shelly. "Let's find out as much as we can since we have the chance."
"You'll want to stop here," shouted the man in the front of the group. "The Patrón wants to talk to you." He stepped closer. "We'll take you to him."
Their escorts left the truck on the road outside the massive iron gates leading into the city. Ten-foot black letters against a crisply painted white background proclaimed the name of the city as "New Pueblo." The guards marched the women to a house dominating the entire block, a large white mansion surrounded by well-manicured lawns.
A man stood in the doorway of the house. He waved the guards away and they faded into the surrounding areas.
"You're absolutely beautiful." The man smiled at Maddie. The pillars on the porch framed him like a life-size statue.
"Oh, my God," whispered Shelly, "he's like Adonis."
Maddie felt a familiar tug in her chest. "He's transformed, like me."
The man smiled widely. "Indeed. 'Transformed.' What a nice word, but I think I still prefer 'vampire' since it has such rich connotations in our legends."
His jeans were immaculately clean and his silken shirt shifted as he walked toward them, displaying the smooth muscles in his arms and shoulders. His dark eyes scanned Shelly and Nancy, returning to blaze at Maddie with blatant desire. Maddie's face reddened as she held out her hand to shake his.
"Maddie Stone." She swallowed hard, feeling her mouth go dry. "Of Selah Ranch."
"Selah Ranch. Of course. We've heard of you, and your fabled beauty, dear Maddie." His low voice vibrated through her. "My name is Tomás. I am the Patrón of …" he waved his hand dramatically encompassing the entire area "New Pueblo. Welcome." He took her proffered hand, turned it and kissed her fingers. Standing again, towering over the three of them, Tomás turned and looked at the other two women. "And your lovely companions?"
Shelly went to shake hands with him, but he intercepted it smoothly, bowing and brushing his lips against her fingers. Shelly cleared her throat. "I'm Shelly."
"Of course you are, and as lovely as a meadow on a mountainside, shining in the summer sun." He smiled at her, moving his black hair from his eyes with a casual pass of his left hand. "And as welcome as flowers in a meadow." He released Shelly's hand as she reddened and smiled back. He smelled like shampoo and cologne.
Nancy sunk her hands in the front pockets of her jeans. "I'm Nancy. I'm with them," she drawled as she jerked her head toward the two other women, her eyes narrow.
Tomás bowed to her. "And fortunate they are to have an Arcadian in their company, my dear lady."
Nancy frowned. "I'm from Loo-siana, not Arcadia," she said, "but thanks."
"Of course you are, dear Nancy. The original Arcadians settled in many parts of this once great country, most notably in Louisiana, where people called them 'Cadians, then simply Cajuns." He smiled at her again. "I think the term 'Arcadian' is so much more romantic, and more apropos to a lady of your quality."
"You just showing off how smart you are, now?" Nancy's eyes narrowed and she held her mouth in a tight, straight line.
The smile on Tomás's face wavered as he inclined his head. "I apologize. I remember everything I read, you see, so sometimes I tend to soliloquize." He addressed Maddie, his smile fixed. "Please, ladies. It is so rare for me to have visitors from another Domain, and I have anticipated a visit from the fabled Selah Ranch for quite some time. Your horses are fabulous, and we must discuss them! If you'll follow me, I'd be delighted to have lunch with you. I'm certain you're hungry."
Tomás moved to Maddie's left side and offered her his right arm, which, after a moment's hesitation, she took, holding her left hand in the crook of his arm. The two led the way to the front door, held open by a young man who bowed to them as they passed.
Shelly and Nancy waited, looking at each other, then followed them. "He looks good in those jeans, doesn't he?" Shelly whispered to Nancy. Nancy rolled her eyes.
"Really?" she said. "That's what you notice here?"
"You don't suppose he's taken, do you?" The tops of Shelly's ears reddened.
Nancy whispered back, a tight note in her voice. "Pay attention, Shelly. Something feels wrong."
The pristine condition of the house reflected simple elegance without the trappings of ostentatious wealth. The small table in the hall had carved lion's feet and a bouquet of fresh-cut flowers neatly arranged in a glass vase on the top. The smell of lavender and roses drifted through the air.
"I am sorry, my dear ladies. We did not expect company, so our dining choices are limited. We do have a nice meal of cold cuts and fresh fruits, however, as well as a number of beverages." Tomás led Maddie down the hall, followed by Nancy and Shelly, who both stared at the immaculate house, though for different reasons.
"Tomás, though we appreciate the offer of dinner, we must decline. We have other team members we need to find in the old part of Pueblo." Maddie paused, thinking. "We didn't realize you had such a magnificent establishment within the city itself, you see."
Tomás's eyes lit with pleasure. "Well, I can at least give you a tour and some slight refreshments, dear Maddie." An old man stood near open double doors leading to a dining room. Tomás waved his hand and the old man closed the doors and followed the small group, a few paces behind Nancy.
"It is a shame, however. My passion is a gazpacho soup my chef makes from our local gardens. I even think we used some of our own wines for the soup last time."
They exited out the tall back doors of the hallway and started walking down the clean streets of New Pueblo. "We grow our own grapes for wines, and I think we hit a nice balance of sweet and tart. You'll have to try some when we get back." As the old man closed the door behind them, Nancy noticed he picked up a double-barreled shotgun.
New Pueblo stretched in all directions, down streets with row after row of neat houses, though some needed paint. Tomás showed the women two buildings where they grew medicinal herbs and plants. "We have a doctor here, but much medicinal knowledge was lost, as you know." Tomás pointed to some glass-roofed houses. "In the winter we use grow lights, but those are becoming scarce."
Maddie looked at the vegetable gardens, each front yard growing a different crop, though some yards next to each other grew the same plants. A few yards had grass and Maddie asked about it.
"We're careful not to overtax the soil, so we rotate crops and every third year we grow nothing except the grass. Some of the people let goats graze on the grass, or chickens if they wish. I'm not too fond of goats, however."
Shelly laughed. "Neither is Jed," she said.
"Perhaps Jed and I have many things in common, Shelly." He looked at Maddie, his dark eyes brooding.
Maddie pointed at one of the greenhouses, the sun reflecting from the glass ceilings. "We are looking for more information on medical herbs and properties, too, though our doctor seems to know a lot about them already. Our friend Holden in the Fort Collins community is constantly searching different academic institutions for better information on everything. We're hoping he comes up with older medical books, ones we can use for better herbal medicines."
Tomás laughed. "Ah, Holden and his brilliant minds! His envoy came to visit us a few months ago and we arranged to trade with his community. It was a wonderful visit. He was much impressed with what we accomplished here, though he did have some suggestions." He smiled widely. "I'll not bother you with the details, but scaling up a community is a daunting task. It's easy to live in small groups, but larger groups take more maintenance and much more protection from outside threats."
After a few minutes Shelly asked, "How many people are in your city? It seems large, but not crowded."
Tomás smiled at her. "You're right. Originally there were about thirty of us. With thirty people you know everyone, of course. You personally know who is honest and dishonest, who will work hard, who is good with plants and who is good with animals." Tomás had a faraway look. "Those were good days, except that we often had to fight off bands of marauding Zs and, worse, bands of humans."
"And now?" Shelly reached up and took his free arm since Maddie chose to walk apart from Tomás.
Tomás patted her small hand. "Now we have over three thousand. I know each person by sight, but my personal knowledge of them is limited. I have team leaders who report to me."
Nancy kept her face completely blank. "I don't see any old people here."
His smile faltered. "It is a hard life. Often the old are not able to survive the harsh winters or some of the diseases we still fight." He looked hard at Nancy, his smile once again wide and charming. "Quite perceptive of you, Nancy."
Tomás continued the tour of his city, now addressing Shelly more often, smiling and trading anecdotal stories of New Pueblo with her. Shelly hung on every word. Nancy remained silent, but her eyes never stayed still, roving from street to street. Nancy glanced behind her, where the old man followed, his eyes sharp and the shotgun ready.
"Who is the old man?" she asked. "And why does he need a shotgun in your own city?"
Tomás smiled pleasantly. "He's my father. He's immune, fortunately, though not a vampire. He is getting along in years, but he is my constant companion here in the city." The smile widened. "And you might not be able to tell, but he is also my fiercest bodyguard. We don't need protection within the walls, of course, but he insists."
"He does look fierce." Shelly smiled at Tomás, leaning toward him.
Tomás leaned toward Shelly. "While I was sick, Papá barricaded us in a small wooden tool shed for two days. He went outside to gather water, even though infected Zs surrounded us. During his last trip for water they bit him. Fortunately I had recovered somewhat by then, so I fought them off and protected him."
"You're lucky he didn't turn," Nancy said, her brown eyes looking down a side street.
Tomás looked at her for a moment. "Yes, I am. I prepared myself for the possibility, of course. I prayed for guidance. I still had some fever, and dozed off and on, but during one fevered sleep I had a dream. I mixed my own blood in some water and gave it to my father. His fever passed and he recovered, though not with my abilities."
Maddie moved next to Nancy and spoke softly. "It isn't the same, Nancy. Your husband and daughters were already turned. We don't know of anything that can help at that point."
"I know. Still," Nancy's brown eyes sparkled with unshed tears, "there is a certain pain that never leaves you when you have to kill someone you love."
The old man looked at her and whispered softly, but loud enough for everyone to hear, "Yes, señora, there is a pain that sits in your heart forever. I, myself, had to destroy the demon who wore the face of my son's mother." He looked at Tomás's back as they walked. "We had no choice, you and I. The ache fades but never leaves." A tiny smile crossed his craggy features. "Wine sometimes helps, señora." His eyes shone in the sun.
"How do you power everything in such a large city, Tomás? Your electricity requirements must be huge…" Shelly touched the back of Tomás's right hand with her fingers.
Tomás grinned broadly, gesturing to his domain. "It was a trial in the beginning. Over the years, we extended New Pueblo to the north and the west, so that we can get access to the river and easier access to the substations for the wind turbine farm."
Shelly's eyebrows shot up. "Wind farm?"
Tomás laughed. "It was a big project outside Pueblo. I think they built it in 2003 or so. It was at risk with the collapse of Enron, but I was young at the time and didn't think much of it. We have one of the original engineers here in the city and he was an integral part of getting the turbines up and running. He ran the project to get the power to our gated community here."
"Sounds like quite a guy." Maddie chimed in. "How much power do you get from the wind turbines? Do they take much maintenance?"
"Oh, I think the idea was to power a half million homes, but I don't know what the final numbers were. We don't get anywhere near that kind of power, but it provides our needs. We rely on batteries in some homes, of course, but I have to confess we are having a hard time finding replacements."
"We have the same issues," Maddie said. "We can use car batteries, but they wear out fast. We're running into a disposal problem for the old batteries, but Hemanth said he had a solution for both problems."
Tomás leaned forward. "Hemanth didn't mention that to me when we spoke last. He did tell me he had some new wind turbines, BATs, I think he called them." Tomás waved at the sky. "BATs float above the city. How amazing is that?" He shook his head. "We lost contact with Hemanth about six weeks ago, though. I've sent two teams up to Fort Collins and neither reported back yet."
Maddie started. "We sent someone up there today, I think."
Tomás looked grave. "Well, I hope he is a capable man. My teams were reliable, and it concerns me that I haven't heard from them."
Maddie said nothing, though her stomach flip-flopped.
Tomás looked at his father. "Papá," he said, "I think we will go back and have some wine with our visitors."
"Certainly, mijo," said the old man. He bowed at the younger man. "Patrón." He turned down a side street and led the way back to the mansion.
"I'm sorry we couldn't meet your engineer. We have Sam right now, but we're not sure he's going to stay." Maddie studied the ripened corn stalks across the three lawns near the mansion.
Only Nancy noticed Tomás flinch at Sam's name. He turned to Shelly and told of an incident with an automatic tilling machine that went berserk. Shelly laughed along with Tomás.
"I'm sure you ladies are thirsty after that walk. Let's sit in the living room and we'll have some refreshments. We can talk about how New Pueblo and Selah Ranch can work together for our mutual good." Tomás led them to a beautiful large living room, running the width of the house. The windows let in the afternoon sun. The floors were dark wood, polished so they gleamed. Though the room was large, the furniture layout provided different sections for smaller groups.
"We have meetings here occasionally, but most of the time I sit with a few people. We have some excellent wines," Tomás said. He waved the women to a small section of the room where chairs sat in a semi-circle. "Please have a seat, ladies, and I will get some wine."
Tomás walked to a cupboard and took out two bottles of wine. Taking four glasses he set them on the dark wood table and sat down in a chair.
He lifted the bottle of wine. "This is a good vintage. It isn't one of our own, though." He smiled apologetically. "We manage to scavenge quite a bit of liquor."
"I'm surprised," said Maddie, leaning back in her chair and crossing her legs. She positioned her pistol so she could reach it easily. Nancy slouched in her chair, hands folded, though her right hand stayed near the handle of her gun.
Shelly leaned forward toward Tomás. She smiled. "When we scavenge, we've found most bars and beverage stores are out of liquor. During the pandemic, people self-medicated, we think, in order to avoid the horrors."
Tomás agreed. "Yes, and there were many, many suicides as well. Once people realized that the government Zombie plan - what was it? Plan 8888?" He winked at Shelly. "The government wrote that plan in 2011." He waved his arms in the air. "Well, it failed miserably. The original infection spread too fast, symptoms appeared too late. By the time we realized we were at risk, most people had some form of the infection."
"Which is why they gave up," Maddie said. "Most people assumed they were infected. Government responses were too late. Some paramilitary outfits managed to defend small areas..." Maddie looked around. "…like this, I assume."
Tomás opened the wine and waved his father to him, whispering in his ear. The old man whispered something back, but Tomás shook his head. "Yes, Maddie, that's what happened. A military colonel from the Army reserves gathered his men and fortified these blocks of the city. You saw the original wall and barbed wire as you came in the front gate. We gathered more ammunition and weapons over the years, of course, but we're well supplied."
He smiled. "I know you are reviewing our fortifications. You should. We are well-manned and control the entrances to New Pueblo. It is a haven here, a paradise." He looked at the three women, smiling. "If you ever get tired of living in the mountains and desire some taste of civilization, please feel free to move here with us. We'd be delighted to have you. A few people over the years have joined us from Selah Ranch."
"Who would those be?" Maddie smiled as Tomás poured two glasses of wine.
"Michael Stoddard. William, Teresa, Zoey." He smiled at Maddie. "They were looking for a larger community than your little place in the mountains. If you'd like to stay longer, I can see if they can come visit you."
Maddie forced a smile. "I appreciate it. Perhaps during another visit, though."
Tomás's smile faded. "A short drink, and we can talk about our mutual benefits, then I won't keep you further from your tasks, though I have to tell you the Pueblo city stores are pretty well scavenged."
"Perhaps instead of wine, I could have a small glass of water?" Nancy sat stiffly in her chair and she forced a smile.
Tomás looked at her. "Of course." He rose in a smooth motion and walked across the wooden floor, his bright black boots making a quiet thudding sound as he moved. He whispered to his father and Tomás returned, smiling.
"What about you, Shelly? Would you care for some wine?" asked Tomás sitting back down.
Shelly's smile was tight. "Perhaps. Could you taste it for me and tell me if it's sweet? I like sweet wines…"
Tomás laughed and lifted one of the small glasses of wine, sipping it. "Will that do, Shelly? It isn't poisoned, I assure you."
Shelly's ears reddened and she took the wine, sipping it. She smiled at Tomás. "Thanks. It is quite good."
"And you, Maddie? Are you concerned about poison as well?"
Maddie grinned at Tomás. "None of us are stupid, Tomás. We have to be careful." She motioned to his father, who entered the room with a pitcher of water. "But I'll have water, if that's okay with you."
"Of course." Tomás smiled at her and poured two glasses of wine, setting one near Maddie. "If you change your mind, however…" He drank from his glass of wine. "It's quite good and quite safe." He laughed.
Nancy took a glass of water from the old man and thanked him, but raised her eyebrows. He poured some water from the pitcher into a glass and gave it to Tomás, who obligingly drank. "All safe, Nancy. Please help yourself." Nancy watched him over the rim of her glass.
Tomás smiled at the three women. "Here's to a long and prosperous relationship!" He drained his glass, his head tilted back. Maddie watched him finish the wine then drank her water, setting the empty glass down on the coffee table. Tomás offered more wine to Shelly, who took another small glass. Nancy's now empty glass sat on the table, but she waved away a refill.
Tomás made some conversation about sharing technologies, though most of his innovations were also from the Fort Collins community. Maddie smiled at Tomás. "I'm sorry Tomás. I can see where your lovely city has much we could use, but we don't have anything to trade, except perhaps horses."
"Ah, and horses would be wonderful. Selah Ranch is famous for the marvelous horses they tame for so many communities. As our vehicles become harder to maintain, we think that horses would provide an excellent method of travel."
Maddie looked at Shelly and Nancy and her eyebrows shot up. They were sound asleep sitting up in their chairs, empty glasses on the table between them. Maddie started to get up from her seat, but Tomás grasped her arm and held her tightly.
"Please sit down, Maddie. There were some things I wanted to speak with you about and I did not wish for your two friends to hear."
Maddie wrenched her arm away and took a deep breath, steadying herself. She forced herself to sit down. "What did you do to them?" she growled.
Tomás waved a hand negligently. "Merely a sleeping potion. It does not affect Vampires. Trust me."
"The last thing I might consider doing since you drugged them," Maddie said through clenched teeth.
"I understand, but the things I need to discuss with you pertain to vampires only," said Tomás.
Maddie fingered the pistol strapped to her leg and considered the odds. Tomás smiled at her. "If you try hurting me, one of your friends might come to harm. I certainly would not like that." She lifted her hand and placed it back on her lap.
Tomás noticed the movement. "Thank you," he said. "I realize you have no reason to trust me, and even less so now, so I'll be as brief as possible. But first," he rose smoothly from his seat and beckoned to her. "I'd like to introduce you to some important people."
Maddie didn't rise. "I won't leave my friends, especially like this."
"Of course. That was thoughtless of me," said Tomás smoothly. "But we won't leave this house, I promise, and we'll be right back." His eyes grew dark. "It is important, Maddie, because you need to meet the children."
Maddie stood. "Children?"
"Yes. My children." Maddie's eyes widened as she followed Tomás through the open double doors of the sitting room.