It is hard to believe that book 12 is almost here. And yes, my stress level over it has become almost debilitating. I am going to share with you the opening chapter of the Vignettes. Hopefully, this will whet your appetite and have you anxious for the release day. When is that, you may wonder? Halloween, of course. Until then, here is the unedited, non-Beta tested version of the opening chapter of DEAD: End, Book 12 of the DEAD series.
“I found their trail.” Gerald emerged through the brush, swatting at the cloud of mosquitoes that swirled around his head.
“Their trail?” Juan felt his stomach twist in an even tighter knot.
“They went towards the river.” Gerald flung open the doors to one of his sheds and began rummaging about.
“Towards the river!” Juan exclaimed. “I told them to stay away from the damn river.”
“Yeah…imagine that. Kids doing what they were told not to do,” Gerald hollered over his shoulder as the sounds of gear being tossed around could be heard from inside the shed.
The big man emerged from the dark confines of the sturdy wooden structure with a coil of rope hanging around his neck and a variety of weapons dangling from his belt and vest. Juan saw the wince as the man pulled the door shut behind him.
“You are in no condition to be out stomping around in the woods.”
Juan gestured to the man who was showing the outward and very visible after-effects of just having fought a grizzly bear. He had blood dripping from his beard and one eye looked as if it might be swollen shut before too long.
“As bad off as I might be, you are nowhere near in as good a shape,” Gerald quipped as he gave himself a pat down to ensure he had everything that he might need.
Juan forced himself to his feet. The pain he felt was incredible, but he made himself take one slow and agonizing step after another as he approached Gerald.
“Those are my little girls out there,” Juan managed through clenched teeth.
“And you will not be doing them any favors if you go out and get yourself killed.”
Gerald stepped up to Juan and put a massive hand in the middle of Juan’s chest. He gave the slightest bit of a push. Juan’s arms pin wheeled as he struggled to keep his footing. Gerald grabbed him by his shirt with the same hand and kept him from falling gracelessly to the ground.
“Like I said…” Gerald left the statement open, but the meaning was clear.
Juan was still standing there in impotent frustration when his crutch was thrust back in his hands. He felt the threat of tears in his eyes and forced them away.
“What you can do is build a massive bon fire here.” Gerald pointed to the clearing in the center of what served as his front yard for all intents and purposes. “I have no idea where they have gone or how far I might have to range to seek them out. And while they have certainly learned a great deal, they are still just little girls. If it gets dark, that may be the very thing that helps lead them home.”
Juan sighed and nodded. He knew that Gerald was right in pointing out the fact that he would be much more of a liability than a help out in the woods. He watched as the man waded out and vanished in the thick growth of the woods.
Forcing away any feelings of self-pity, Juan set about stacking up a pile of wood. He was still toting wood when he heard a low moan. Turning, Juan saw three zombies come stumbling from the trail just to the left of the cabin.
They both looked relatively fresh!
Feeling his anger build to the breaking point, Juan yanked free an axe from where it was kept to split firewood. He considered his crutch and just as quickly dismissed it; the time had come to walk without any help. He thought he remembered something from one of his cousins who had been in a car wreck and been put through physical therapy. She had mentioned something about the doctor insisting she “walk through the pain” or some such nonsense.
Raising his weapon, Juan allowed the closest zombie to approach. This one had been a man. While nowhere near the size of Gerald, he was still fairly hefty. He also had a thick, bushy beard that was now stiff with dark blood. The man’s throat had been ravaged, as had his left leg.
Juan felt almost a bit of relief as he was able to identify the wounds as most likely coming from zombie wolves. He probably would have lost what remained of his will to live if he’d seen the small bite marks of a child.
He swung down and split the man’s skull, letting go of his weapon and sort of hopping aside as the body crashed to the ground in a heap. It was the next zombie that was a little more difficult to deal with. Juan knew that a deader was a deader, but he still had a rough time with taking down the women or children.
This woman was a tall, skinny sort who looked very much out of place in the rough environment of the Alaskan Wilderness. Most of the women he had encountered were strong, thick, and on the edge (if not beyond) husky. Being skinny was a detriment in this harsh, cold environment.
The woman had lost an arm in the attack that had taken her life. Like the man, most of her throat was torn out. And then there was the curiousness of her being stark naked. Perhaps she had been bathing, Juan thought for the briefest of seconds as he yanked his ax free and awaited the woman’s approach.
He took her down with ease and then hauled her body to where he had been building his bon fire. The two bodies would add a good source of fuel to the fire and reduce the amount of wood needed by a small fraction. Yet, these days, waste was simply not something that was afforded. Also, dead bodies might bring unwanted attention.
Juan glanced over at the lump that was the carcass of the grizzly. He would skin and dress that after his fire was going. Bear was some of his favorite meat.
“Never would have even thought of something like that,” Juan said out loud as he limped over to the canister of oil that Gerald kept on the front porch.
Once he sprinkled some of the precious fluid on the wood, he eased himself down and produced his flint and steel. With a few deft moves, he had the dry curls of kindling lit and eased the small pile into the edge of his awaiting pyre.
He worked his way back up to his feet when he heard the scream. It was one that a person could never forget. He could still recall that first time he’d heard it; the scream of a person being eaten alive. Torn apart and feasted upon by the undead.
He did not need to look to know that his arms were pebbled with goose bumps. Even though he could not be totally certain, he forced himself to believe that it was not either of his daughters. But if not them, then who could it be that had just fallen victim?
There was a rustle in the brush and then Denita stumbled through, her sister Della followed. Both looked hot and sweaty, their breathing coming in gasps and pants.
“Papi!” Denita managed. “Hurry inside. Get below before they get here!”
Juan opened his arms to his daughters. They were almost on him when he noticed each was carrying the carcass of an already skinned rabbit. Actually, Denita had three.
“What is going on?” Juan asked once his daughters reached him.
“Lots of them!” Della gulped. She looked over her shoulder, and in that instant, Juan saw the scared little girl.
Both had put on such a show of bravery. They had seemed fearless to the point of reckless. Now they were visibly terrified.
“Lots of what?” Juan asked.
In answer, a chorus of moans could be heard coming from the woods in the direction that his daughters had just emerged. Then there was another sound—the cacophony of the smaller saplings and undergrowth being snapped.
“Deaders, Papi!” Denita said as she pushed Juan towards the cabin. “More than I ever seen!”
Juan allowed himself to be nudged toward the cabin. He opened the door and entered into the cool darkness. The single lantern seeming almost non-existent in comparison to the bright sunlight he was leaving behind.
“But Gerald,” Juan suddenly remembered. “He is still out there.”
“The Grizzly Man was trying to lead them away,” Della said with a sniff.
“Was?” Juan pressed as he shut the door to the cabin and limped to the trapdoor in the corner.
“He got stuck trying to climb some rocks. They pulled him down…” Denita sobbed. Her voice became strangled and she began to cry.
Her sister was in no better condition as each tried unsuccessfully to explain what had befallen the big man. Juan did not need a detailed account; he could figure it out for himself based on their reactions.
Juan helped both girls to start down the ladder built into the wall. Just as Denita, who had gone second, vanished into the pitch black of the makeshift basement, Juan heard the first of the deaders bump into the wall of the cabin.
Seconds later, it was almost like a hellish hail storm as more bodies collided with the exterior. Juan was just down to floor level and pulling the hatch shut when a series of slaps and thumps came at the wooden door. It would not hold long, of that he was certain.
Juan pulled the hatch shut with a solid thud as the sounds of breaking wood could be heard from above. He climbed down until he felt the solid dirt floor under his feet. In the pitch black, he felt around until his hands discovered a wall.
Making his way along it, he angled himself towards the sounds of sniffing and muffled crying. At last, he found the cot where his girl sat huddled together. They both shook and shivered.
Juan pulled them close and held them as the sounds of crashing could be heard from above. Dust drifted down and he could taste it in the back of his throat. His eyelids fluttered involuntarily as the grit found his blind eyes. Closing them, Juan pulled a fur blanket from the cot and slung it up and over their heads.
They sat in the blackness for what seemed like an eternity as the sounds of feet trudging around could be more felt than heard. At some point, there was a tremendous crash and Juan feared that the roof would collapse and seal them in a horrible grave where they would finally draw their last breaths before joining Mackenzie.
He had no idea how long they had been sitting on that cot. At some point, the girls had actually fallen asleep and their soft snores were the only sound.
The only sound! His brain was finally able to get that message to register. Still, Juan sat in the darkness and did not dare move. He might have stayed that way for hours or minutes; he had no way of knowing in the void.
Eventually, he eased the girls from his side and laid them down beside one another on the cot. It took him a while to grope about until he discovered the rungs built into the wall. Climbing slowly, Juan made his way up until he found the handle of the trap door. Turning the knob, he pushed and was given another fright as it did not budge!
He pushed to no avail. After many failed attempts, Juan stopped. He was drenched in sweat and felt dizzy.
Had this become their grave after all? he wondered.
“No,” Juan growled. “Not like this. Not after everything.”
Taking another step up the ladder, Juan braced his shoulder against the hatch. He pushed, straining to the point where he began to feel the pain in his injured leg. Blocking it out, he renewed his push and felt the slightest give. Calling on everything that remained, Juan pushed up and felt the door give with agonizing slowness.
Then it flung open so abruptly that he had to fight not to fall. The cool air rushed in and the sky above seemed so bright that it hurt his eyes.
“My God,” Vix breathed.
She relaxed enough so that her body would slide back down the embankment. She, Paddy, and the others had been on the move since before sunrise. For over two weeks they had done nothing but observe. Dolph and his wanna-be Nazis numbered over a thousand. Yet it was clear that only one person gave orders. It was history repeating itself.
It did not seem possible that one person could be responsible for so much destruction. Yet, down below was a testament. Of course, this man Dolph had found a way to utilize the zombies as his own private army.
By grabbing a few of the undead (over a hundred if what Vix had heard or seen was any indication) and then fitted them with backpack sized devices that made an incredible racket. From what they could tell, he obviously had quite a few in reserve. If he needed to re-direct the horde, he would simply move to a location and release one. Once he activated the pack, he used prisoners to lure the zombies wherever he wanted them to go.
“Looks like your little island did not fare well,” Paddy whispered.
When Vix had seen for herself that New England had fallen, she went numb. It had simply been a matter of the bodies building up to the point where the fallen made a ramp for those who still moved. The zombies had washed over the walls like a tidal wave of undeath.
Using binoculars, she had scanned for any signs of life and come up empty. She heard Chaaya weeping and glanced over at the woman. Losing her lover had not managed to elicit hardly any response; yet, here she was now, crying and near hysterics.
“Shut her up,” Gable hissed.
Seamus moved over next to the woman and his low rumbling whisper came almost like the buzz of a bumblebee. Chaaya’s sobs receded to hiccupping gasps, but at least she had quieted down. Vix looked down the line at the others. She saw the same look on their faces that she felt: defeat.
It had seemed so grand as they all sat around the camp fire and tossed out the different ways they would stop this maniac. Yet, every day was more of the same. They would look upon the destruction created by the army as they would happen upon some encampment or another…and do nothing.
Now they were where the River Medway met the Channel. The Isle of Sheppy was lost. New England was gone. A decade of rebuilding wiped out in days. Hundreds of the living torn apart or joining the ranks of the undead.
“Bugger this!” Vix spat.
She started to get up and felt a hand yank her back down. “Stay put,” Paddy whispered.
“What was the point of all this?” Vix argued.
“Point?” Paddy almost laughed, but the look on the woman’s face made him pull it back. He knew well enough how her temper could flare and did not wish to add any fuel to it at the moment. “There stopped being a point to things when the first dead body sat up and took a bite out of the closest living person it could find. It is not about points, lassie. It is about staying alive.”
“What happened to stopping this army?”
“It is not as easy as just wishing it to be so. We are only able to act within our own limitations. That madman had gathered followers in numbers that we can’t hope to stand against.”
“How many of them are doing so willingly?” Vix insisted.
They had gotten close two days ago when Dolph’s mob rolled into a small walled village. They hit fast and were scaling the walls before the alarm had even been sounded. By the time the people of that little hamlet managed to mobilize, it was past too late.
Vix and the others had watched as several of the citizens were either hung or exposed to the bite of a zombie and tossed into a cage on wheels that reminded Vix of the old circus train cars. That cage held the supply of zombies fitted with the noise packs. After everything of value was stripped, people were apparently given the choice of join or die. Not surprisingly, many joined.
“I would guess that at least half that army is there by choice,” Seamus muttered as he scooted close.
“That means that half of them are not,” Vix pointed out.
“So what do you suggest?” Gable did not hide the dubious tone in his voice. “We just slip in and organize a revolt?”
“We either do something or we abandon this madness,” Vix finally snapped. “What is the point in simply following this army around the countryside and watching him conquer England?”
“There is no more England,” Algernon broke his silence. “There hasn’t been for years. No Spain, no Germany, no France.”
“Thank God,” Vix muttered, earning a chuckle from Paddy.
“I think I have an idea.”
Everybody turned. It was not often that Randi spoke out loud. She could manage a whisper, but to speak out loud appeared to cause her pain due to all her facial damage.
“Well?” Paddy finally urged.
Gable moved close to Randi and listened as she whispered in his ear. He nodded and then faced the group.
“Instead of following and trying to seek out a weakness to exploit, perhaps we take a page out of the playbook of our Vix.” Gable leaned in again. “We return to London and take the palace.”
“Why would we want to do something like that?” Paddy asked.
“That wanker couldn’t have possibly rooted out every single survivor in the kingdom. I say we beat him at his own game. We move back to the heart of the country and gather anybody we can along the way. We build our own bloody army and prepare for the grand assault. It is a story that has been repeated through history, and if I am judging this Dolph person correctly, he may be even more delusional than Adolph.”
The group had retreated from the hill and was making their way into some nearby woods as Gable recited this last bit. Vix was nodding, Paddy and Seamus were strangely stone-faced, and Algernon was pinching his lower lip like he always did when in deep thought.
“I say we either do that or it is time to cross the Channel and abandon hope.” Vix came to a stop just after they had all ducked under the branches and entered the copse of trees. “Perhaps we put it to a vote?”
They returned to camp and met with the rest of their little thirty-seven person army. Gable recited Randi’s idea once more for the entire group. More than once somebody groaned or grumbled about the futility of the idea. A few brought up how the previous attempts by other groups to try and retake London had all ended poorly.
“That was before Dolph did us the favor of leading the zombies away like the Pied Piper,” Algernon pointed out.
“Have we not experienced enough war and death?” Mike finally rose from the stump he’d been using as a chair up to this point.
Mike Sellars was not what most people pictured when it came to the leader of a group. He was average height, average weight, and soft spoken to the point where you often had to lean close to hear him. His left hand was missing and the limb capped with a hook that would make a pirate envious.
He’d lost the hand early on when his fellow survivors had made a terrible and eventually fatal mistake. He’d been bitten and one of them had insisted on amputating the hand in hopes that it might save him from turning. That had been before the knowledge of immunity spread and became better known by the survivors.
“If we run now, then we will do so again and again. That crazed and delusional man wiped out a settlement…one of the largest in existence I would be willing to wager,” Vix spoke, standing as her emotions surged. “Men, women, and children who had managed to rebuild their life and start something wonderful and new.”
“Using that same logic,” Mike countered, “if we fight, will we simply continue to wage war every single time somebody we don’t like pops up? Ideological differences are a reality. We might not agree, but—”
“That’s rubbish and you know it!” Vix snapped. “This is not about ideological differences. This is about some delusional twat who wasn’t breast fed long enough and now fancies himself as some sort of leader who can rule any way he sees fit. It would be splendid if everybody could simply live and let live, but human beings always find a way to muck up the pudding.”
“Muck up the pudding?” Paddy snorted. Vix shot him a nasty glare and he made a gesture of locking his lips and tossing away the key.
“All in favor?” Gable said with a shrug.
Everybody raised their hands after a brief pause where Paddy appeared to be warring with his decision. Once it was settled, they returned to their own camp and packed up everything. An hour later, the group was headed west to London.
Each day passed with a surprising lack of the undead until Algernon reminded them that it had seemed like most of them were part of that massive mob.
By the second day, they were doubting their decision as they had yet to encounter a single living person either. It was late in the morning part of the group’s hike when one of them spied a curl of smoke that melded with the gray sky full of low hanging clouds that had kept up a steady misting since just after they had broken camp.
The group angled their direction towards that sign of life. It proved to be farther than they had originally thought as it seemed that the landscape was a continuous sea of rolling hills that could not be avoided.
It took until just before dusk—a condition hastened by the blanket of dark clouds that were now dumping buckets of water on the group—but at last, the palisades of the settlement came into view. As was the custom when they approached an unknown settlement, the group held back and sent only a small envoy detachment.
Randi, Gable, and Vix were chosen for this encounter. Vix was more than a little surprised. After all, she and Chaaya were the newest additions. Paddy had pulled her aside to tell her of the decision and its reason.
“You believe in this. Most of us are still on the fence. If we want to recruit others, then we need to send in the people who truly believe that this is the right course of action.
That was good enough for Vix. And so, as a series of lanterns were lit up on the distant wall, whether simply to ward off the night, or to signal the arrival of her and the others, Vix marched towards the massive and gated entrance of this settlement.
For the first time in a while, she felt like a hero in one of her stories. She was about to try and spearhead a campaign against a force of evil that had reared up in the zombie apocalypse. She only wished she had a flair for words so that she might jot it down for future generations.
Easy, old girl, she thought. It has not yet even begun…much less ended with a positive outcome.
Chad moved through the house with a smile on his face. They had been in the same place now for several months. His daughter seemed happy, and the two of them were getting along better than ever. Today was a shining example of that as she would be showing up any time now for their little vacation excursion.
Just the thought of it made him laugh. Here it was, over a decade since the zombie apocalypse had jumped out of mainstream fiction and wiped out most of humanity, and he was planning a vacation!
After they’d taken that first one, his relationship with his daughter had grown and become so much deeper. Of course he had scored even more points when he had assured his daughter that this trip would still be just the two of them.
He’d recently begun seeing a woman named Monica Wu. It was getting serious, but the woman had been very understanding about this trip just being Chad and his daughter. Ronni was still just getting to know Monica and had not yet become entirely comfortable with the situation.
“Dad?” a voice called from the tiny living room of his one-bedroom apartment. “Are you almost ready?”
Chad stuck his head out of the bedroom. The look on his daughter’s face was absolutely priceless.
He’d learned that she used to love the old Tweety Bird cartoons. Monica had an amazing knack when it came to knitting. In fact, her job was in the garment complex. Last night, she had handed him a box.
“Just a little going away present,” she said with her shy smile, a lock of her black hair drifting down over her eyes as she stared down at her lap and waited for him to open it.
The box had contained a knit cap made to look like the yellow cartoon bird. Chad had jumped up and hurried to the bathroom to try it on. It was exactly like he remembered the cartoon figure to have looked back in the day. That cap was now pulled down on his head as he peeked out at his daughter.
“My God!” Ronni laughed and shook her head. “That is so…yellow.”
“Do you have all your gear? It is gonna be cold where we are going,” Chad said, accepting his daughter in his arms as she gave him her customary hug in greeting.
“Yes, Dad,” she said with a huff that was the same one he’d heard from her as a teen.
He gave her a look from head to toe as he held her out at arm’s length. Her sandy blond hair was beginning to darken as the summer gave way to fall and winter. It was cut just below her shoulders; long for the norm considering most people had become accustomed to keeping their hair short in order to avoid allowing the zombies anything they might be able to grab hold. Her brown eyes sparkled and he saw just a hint of her mother’s mischievous gleam in them. Her lips curved in a slight smile and she tilted her heard to the side.
“What?” his daughter asked with an arched eyebrow.
“It is just so hard to believe that Daddy’s little girl is a grown up young woman,” Chad said with a sigh.
“Daddy’s little girl?” Ronni chuckled. You haven’t called me that in forever.”
Chad nodded. “That is because you are so dang grown up. I guess I didn’t think you’d want me calling you that anymore.”
Ronni renewed her hug of her dad and then looked up at him with a softness in her smile that was rare. “I’ll always be your little girl, Daddy. Isn’t that what you used to tell me?”
Chad kissed her forehead and enjoyed the moment of closeness for just another moment before stepping back and picking up his backpack. They had a long couple of days to hike up into the woods. The sun was going to be coming up soon and they needed to use every bit of daylight they could if they were going to make it to their destination as planned.
“Yeah,” Chad agreed to his daughter’s earlier comment. “It just feels so strange sometime now that you are so old.”
That earned him a kick in the rear end and an indignant huff. “Old?”
“Didn’t you always say that anybody over age twenty-five was old…and once you hit thirty, you are ancient?”
“That was when I was a teenager.”
“And now that you are about to turn thirty yourself…thirty isn’t looking so old anymore is it?” Chad laughed.
“No, but fifty-five is like dinosaur age.” Now it was Ronni’s turn to laugh.
The two shouldered their gear and headed outside into the early morning chill. Their breath turned to vapor and was snatched away by the breeze. It certainly felt cold enough for snow, but the light drizzle indicated otherwise.
They reached the main gate and checked out with the sentry. The young man found their names on the list and made a few notes. He gave a whistle.
“Heading up into the mountains…nice. I hear the snowboarding is epic right about now. In fact, some folks returned the day before yesterday and said there was a pretty gnarly base and that there was fresh powder almost every day.” The sentry looked up and gave Ronni a wink. “Watch out for the old-timer. A few of the slopes are way nastier than they look from the top.”
“Actually,” Ronni gave the young man a level gaze, “if this goes well, that old-timer is actually going to teach me how to snowboard, I’ve never done it. Always wanted to but just never had the chance.”
The young man flushed and handed them their papers. Chad and Ronni headed through the small gate and began the long hike that would take them to their ultimate destination.
They were about an hour into it when Chad pulled up and grabbed Ronni by the shoulder. She instantly went for the knife on her belt, but her dad gripped her wrist. She looked up at him and he gave a slight nod of his head.
To their right stood an amazing buck just off the main path that had once been an old logging road. The deer had a huge rack and Ronni counted five points on each side. They stayed still for several heartbeats until the animal finally bounded into the woods and vanished from sight.
By midday, they had reached an elevation where the ground was dusted with snow. They reached a fork and veered left towards the area where the old ski lodge would be waiting. While the lift had long since fallen to time and disrepair, the building had been maintained by a group of survivors that now acted as hosts for some of the surrounding communities. With money no longer used, people who stayed in one of the cabins and used the slopes would bring supplies and put in some work tending to whatever needed doing in exchange for staying.
Chad and Ronni were both carrying bundles of candles and several other items that were part of a list sent down the mountain every few months. Chad had marveled at the system in place during the first few trips.
“What’s that, Dad?” Ronni asked. She was pointing to the left where the embankment dropped off suddenly and the view of a valley unscrolled for what seemed like miles.
Chad stopped and shielded his eyes from the glare of the little bit of sun managing to burn through the gray sky above as it reflected off the coating of snow. He eventually spotted the curl of smoke rising into the sky. He pulled out his map and checked. He knew the mile marker they had passed and was quickly able to figure their approximate location and traced a line with his finger. There were no known settlements listed as existing in that general area.
“Maybe some travellers passing through?” Chad mumbled as he folded up the map.
“We should go check it out.”
Chad shot a look at his daughter. He knew that taking this “little detour” would chew up two days of their vacation. Also, if they did not report in within the forty-eight hour window, they would be listed as missing. He was about to say exactly that when Ronni shrugged her shoulders.
“It’s probably nothing. I just thought it might be fun to do something adventurous.”
Chad thought it over before he replied. “How about we check in and then, when we come back, we can see if it is still here. We can inform anybody heading out to pass along the information and that we will likely be four or five days late on our return.”
“You are getting so old!” Ronni snarked.
Chad frowned. “I thought that you wanted to go skiing and just have a laid back vacation together.”
Ronni looked back out across the valley. She spun back to her dad with a mischievous grin on her face. “They might be some of those Outland traders we keep hearing about. Supposedly, some of them have solar battery chargers and iPods with music loaded on them.”
Chad felt the crease in his forehead deepen. This was so unlike his daughter. It was Ronni that had gotten so mad about their having to move around so much back in the old days. Still, he had to admit, he had heard some of the stories about the merchants that specialized in the next-to-impossible-to-find items. And while he doubted that he would find a solar powered iPod, he had heard rumors that actual bottles of Jack Daniels as well as single-malt scotch had been dealt by some of these wanderers.
There had been a stigma that had its origins in the early days. Way back when the whole zombie problem started, there were some catastrophic events in some of the larger cities that had nothing to do with the undead. Fires raged; chemical and petroleum plants were some of the worst. It was not long before rumors began to circulate about how some of the nuclear plants had gone Chernobyl. That began a ban on items from the eastern side of the nation. Chad laughed, considering San Onofre was not too far away. Still, fear was easy to muster back then and that had caused a ban on traders known to delve in items scavenged from out east. He doubted that Lynchburg, Tennessee had anything by the way of nuclear power in the area, yet Tennessee was part of the quarantined zone. That had effectively meant the end of Jack Daniels.
“I guess it can’t hurt.” Chad gave a shrug of his shoulders. “After all, it’s your weekend, sweetie. Whatever you want, that is the plan.”
Ronni gave a squeal and clapped her hands. For that moment, she was not the grown up woman, she was his little girl. They shifted their gear and resumed their hike to the check-in point of the resort. The deep trench laced with spikes and the wall with watch towers set every fifty yards or so was the only thing that gave away the fact that danger still lurked and the undead remained a nuisance.
Still, things had really gotten ordinary the past several months. The zombies were almost all concentrated into the large herds. Lookout posts had replaced cell towers as the communities in this region of about a hundred square miles banded together to keep eyes open for any such problems.
Some of the smarter types had put their heads together and made these huge, portable noisemakers. Any herd that came within view of the perimeter towers was easy to spot and the noisemakers were deployed to divert the raging rivers of the undead that tore through the area from time to time. Life was almost normal.
As they checked in and were given their cabin assignment, Chad wondered if maybe all those years of living on the edge had changed him and his daughter. Were the two of them some sort of adrenaline junky?
“We got cabin twenty-three!” Ronni hissed as they headed up the trail that led away from the main lodge and out to the dispersed cabins. When Chad did not say anything in response, Ronni punched him gently in the shoulder and shook her head. “That is the last cabin all the way out by the lake. All we need to do is skirt the shore and we are actually just to the south and east of that valley. We could hike out there and nobody would have to know.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Chad shrugged.
Perhaps this distraction would work in his favor. He’d been hit with some bad news a few days ago and was struggling with how he could break it to his daughter. He had not wanted to ruin her birthday, and he thought that perhaps he would just wait until after the holiday season was past before he dropped this bomb. If this was a black market merchant’s camp, perhaps they would have some good booze. This was news best given over a stiff drink, and the homemade stuff that passed off as drinkable alcohol these days was truly awful.
The head rolled away and bounced twice before coming to a rest in the grass. There was a scream of anguish and George Rosamilia came around the corner of the house wearing full battle gear. He had a helmet and face shield, heavy gloves, arm and leg guards, and the body of Bill Pitts in front of him as a human shield.
“One of yours for one of ours!” George roared. He brought up a nasty looking blade and sawed it across the throat of Bill Pitts. A wash of red flowed down the front of his body and the man was shoved away as George turned to face Gable Matczak who was already coming down the stairs and stalking his direction.
Jody could not help but fixate on the body of Bill Pitts. The man had been a lot of things to Jody over the years. Hell, there was even a time when he considered the man an enemy. The relationship he’d had with the man was complicated. They had never really been friends, but there was always something about the man that Jody had trusted on some level. Even if he was being an ass, the man had spoken directly and truthfully.
He looked back up to see Gable and George still considering each other. That was what Jody thought to be happening until the two figures dressed in full battle gear much like George came around the other corner of the house. They were moving up behind the man very carefully. Jody brought his crossbow up and sighted on the lead person. Taking a deep breath and holding it, he squeezed the trigger. Almost before the bolt had reached its target, he was already reloading.
The first person stopped in their tracks and then appeared to look down and try to brush something away. Of course those were simply the final firings of the brain as the bolt through the heart had been almost instant in its fatality. The second figure stopped, reflexively trying to catch the person who was now on their knees and would have been face down if they had not been grabbed. Jody used that opportunity to line up his next shot. He fired, but the person had apparently figured out what was happening and dove for cover.
That little ruckus was not enough for Gable to turn away from George and Jody had to marvel at the man’s apparent composure. George said something that Jody could not hear and then charged the man. Gable danced nimbly aside and if Jody would have blinked, he might have missed the quick slash that the curly headed man made on his much larger opponent.
When George skidded to a halt and spun, his protective vest simply fell away, there was even a dark stain where the knife had obviously cut the man down his right shoulder. George yanked the protective piece the rest of the way off and tossed it aside.
“I’m gonna rip your head off, and tap dance down your tonsils!” George snarled. This time Jody heard the man clearly.
George charged again, and just as before, Gable side-stepped the lumbering behemoth and made another swipe with his knife hand. When George turned around this next time, Jody saw a bright red line across the man’s face.
“You know, the last time I actually heard somebody say that,” Gable spoke casually as if he did not have a care in the world. “it was the American Dream, Dusty Rhodes. I think he was talkin’ to the Four Horsemen. You almost sounded as cool, but I think you gotta put a bit more oomph into it.”
This time, George screamed and charged. Gable did not step aside this time. He dropped to his knees at the last possible second and then rolled away, coming up to his feet. George was much slower turning around this time. When he did, there was a dark stain spreading across his belly.
George looked down and then dropped to his knees. He stared straight ahead at Gable as his hands came away from the darkness just a few inches above his belt. Even from as far away as he was, Jody saw blood dripping from George’s hands.
“Fuck you all,” the man spat, and then fell flat on his face with a meaty thud that sent a cloud of dust up around the now lifeless form.
“Okay,” Gable called as he stood up, “you want to come out and give up, or do you want to stay hidden and be considered a threat that either I or the man with the crossbow will have to kill on sight?”
“I’m giving up!” a voice called as a man stood up, hands in the air.
Jody advanced, his eyes still sweeping the area. He was not fool enough to think that this was the sum total of the people involved or responsible. From the way that the kids in the RV had sounded, this was an organized force. Plus, knowing Bill Pitts like he had, that man would not have been taken down by a couple of thugs and their lackeys.
“How many?” Jody finally called after he closed half the distance.
The man looked over at Jody, but his lips remained pressed tight. Without another word, Jody fired his crossbow. The bolt struck the man in the upper thigh and caused him to howl with pain.
Jody closed the rest of the distance, his eyes no longer scanning for additional threats. Something in the back of his mind told him that Gable was likely more than capable. When he reached the man, he grabbed the end of the bolt and gave it a little wiggle. This caused the man to renew his screams.
“I will only ask you one more time,” Jody hissed. “How many?”
“N-nine!” the man wailed as Jody twisted violently on the shaft to emphasize his point.
Doing the math, Jody realized that left four people unaccounted for…provided this man was telling the truth. The one thing that was really bothering him was that he had not recognized a single one of these people up to this point. That had to mean something. Most likely, there must be some sort of settlement nearby. That was the most likely source of these individuals.
“If you move so much as an inch from this spot, I will cripple you and leave you for zombie bait,” Jody said as he let go of the bolt and turned to Gable. “Did you see Jan?”
“Nope, and I went all the way around the—” he was saying when there was a yelp and a sudden crash from above. Just as suddenly, a body came crashing through the window above where Jody and Gable were standing.
The two men dove out of the way, but unfortunately for the injure man on the ground, he was unable to react and ended up on the receiving end of most of the broken glass. He was fortunate in the fact that the falling body landed barely a foot away.
“Who’s the new guy?” Jan called down.
“Name’s Gable Matczak,” the man called back up before Jody could answer. “And we still have three unaccounted for, so maybe we could do this later.”
“Umm…correct that number. We got one left,” Jan called down.
“Okay!” Jody shouted. “We know you’re out there. If we have to look for you, there won’t be any mercy. We will see it as kill or be killed. If you surrender now, you have my word that you will be unharmed.”
“Is that right?” a voice shouted back.
Jody spun towards where the RVs were set up. Coming out from behind one was a woman and she had one of the girls that he recognized as having been tied up inside the RV he had entered in front as a shield. A large knife was to the young girl’s throat.
“We heard all about you, Jody Rafe,” the woman called over the girl’s shoulder. “Military dictator who kicks people out if they don’t do things the way he likes. George told us all about y—” the woman’s voice ended with a sharp cry and a figure appeared where she had once stood.
“She said dick tater,” Danny chuckled as he wiped off his blade and put it in the sheath at his side.
“What the hell, Danny!” Jody barked once he was able to recover. “We might have been able to make a deal with her.”
“Screw that bitch!” the young girl who had been the hostage a moment ago cried and then kicked the corpse for good measure.
“She killed the other kids,” Danny said, allowing the distraught girl to fall into his chest and cry. “All of them.”
“Jesus,” Jan sighed from above. “Hey, Jody, your daughter is here along with three other women. I’ll bring her down in a minute. Maybe you might want to clean things up a bit first.”
Jody looked around at the carnage and the protest he was about to make against any delay in being reunited with his daughter faded. There were bodies everywhere, including Margarita’s headless corpse on the porch. His daughter had already seen enough gore and violence to last a lifetime; he gave Jan a nod.
“I see you won them over with your usual diplomatic charm,” Danny said as he hobbled up looking less mobile than any zombie.
“Where is Sasser?” Jody ignored the barb and went over to grab George’s lifeless corpse and drag it around to the side of the house.
“He went to your house to keep an eye on things.”
“I thought that is what I asked you to do.”
“Yeah, I was never good at the whole following orders thing.”
Once the area was at least clean of the dead bodies, although plenty of dark stains marred the area and were drawing flies, Jody returned to the man with the bolt in his leg.
“Where?” Jody hissed as he knelt in close to the man’s face.
Obviously, this man saw something in the eyes of Jody Rafe that made it clear there would not be a second chance. He began talking right away, giving directions on how to reach his settlement. If the man was telling the truth, there were only around fifty people staying there.
“Around fifty?” Jody asked with a raised eyebrow.
“Yeah, something like that,” the man said between clenched teeth.
“Okay.” With that, Jody whipped out his military blade and slit the man’s throat.
“Jesus, Rafe!” Danny yelped, trying to get clear of the blood spray that jetted from the man’s throat. “What the fuck, over?”
“He was lying,” Jody said flatly as he rose.
Without being asked, Gable moved in and gripped the body under the arms and dragged the still kicking but soon-to-be-dead body of the man to the side of the house with the others. Danny glared at Jody, a look of disbelief on his face. Sure, he had just killed that woman, but she had executed a bunch of children. This man, as far as Danny had seen, had answered every question and shown no signs that he would be a problem.
“Around fifty?” Jody said slowly.
Danny waited for the man to continue, but it was obvious that he wasn’t going to so he pressed the issue. “What is wrong with fifty? Hell, I thought you might be glad it ain’t some fucking army.”
“If we only had around fifty, not only would we know them each by name, but we would know exactly how many people we had in our compound,” Jody said.
Danny stood there for a minute until what Jody was saying finally lined up and made sense. He nodded and then scowled. “See, that is why they named you sergeant. You always were the smart one.”
The following is an excerpt of a diary found in an abandoned cabin on the banks of Spirit Lake near the base of Mount Saint Helens.
Evil comes in all shapes and sizes. I have learned never to judge a book by its cover; nor will I dismiss the potential for horrible acts of violence based on gender…or age. Maybe we just forgot about things like gangs after the zombies. Street gangs were a real problem in some of the bigger cites way back in the Old World.
I guess that is why I was not surprised when I arrived at a small trading outpost as I made my way up into the lush forests that surround Mount Saint Helens. I made the decision to come here simply because I had never seen an active volcano before. This one has been blowing ash into the air for a few weeks and when I first saw it, I mistook the ash cloud for a nuclear warhead detonation.
The cloud rose way up into the sky and had that mushroom shape that you would usually associate with a bomb. Of course I initially turned away and intended to put as much distance between me and the cloud as I could. I didn’t want to turn into a human glowstick.
I came upon a small village and was corrected when the locals explained to me that it was “just the mountain blowing off some steam.” Once I heard that, I decided to go take a look for myself. It is not like I have anything else going on in my life.
I had come close enough that I was able to experience a few ground tremors. That made something else I could check off my bucket list. Sure, they were nothing like those earthquakes from the many time California tried to break away from the continent.
Later that day, I arrived at a small outpost beside a stunningly beautiful lake and that is where I was greeted with a wake-up call. Call it fate, chance, or whatever you like, but it would figure that it had to be me arriving on the scene of a full-scale slaughter. There was one survivor, but he was so hacked up that I could only help him along to meet his maker.
Before I ended the man’s suffering, he did relate to me how this had happened. It started when a boy no older than fourteen showed up. He said that he had escaped this terrible gang of bandits. The people of this outpost brought him in and cleaned him up, fed the boy, and even invited him to stay if he wanted. They offered him a job helping with the gardens. So basically, these people were some of the good ones. The few and far between types that believe that there is something worth saving when it comes to humanity. Anyway, apparently the boy got up in the middle of the night and opened the security gate after slitting the throat of the guard. (You do remember the part where I told you about the kid being maybe fourteen?)
Anyways, this group of freaking KIDS stormed the place and hacked everybody up with axes and machetes and spiked clubs. Nice…huh.
It took me the better part of three hours to gather the bodies into a central location, spike the heads of the few that started waking up (which told me two things that I consider important: one was that some of these people had been Immunes; and two, that this had happened very recently), and then build a pyre to dispose of the bodies.
Yes, I could have simply gone on my way. After all, this didn’t have anything to do with me, right? And it wasn’t like I got hired to do a job and owed anybody. I guess that is why I felt the need to stop here and try to figure out who had done this if possible.
I have done over a hundred hired jobs since I started offering my services. I am always paid handsomely. I think there was a part of me that started to feel guilty about how I made my living. After all, people hire me when something terrible has happened. They expect me to find the perpetrator or perpetrators and execute them. Sure, there are a lot of ways I could try to make that sound better…nicer. But why should I try to pretend? Haven’t we come to a point where that is no longer needed? I think we should all just be content with who and what we are and not try to be something else. Certainly most of those I hunt have adopted that ideology.
I went back to that little village that educated me about the cloud belonging to a mountain. When I related what I discovered, you could have heard a pin drop…if anybody would have had one handy.
“The New Aryans,” one of the men finally said.
Great. Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups are eliminated from the face of the earth, but racism manages to survive. If the reports I have are true, this group is made up mostly of late teens and early twenties kids. Apparently they have an older man as the leader, but nobody can actually tell me anything about him. He stays in the shadows, slips into communities and poaches some of the disgruntled youngsters. A little programming and viola, he has a shiny, brand new racist.
This is not a hired gig. I repeat, this is NOT a hired gig. The good people of that village were very happy to hear that I was going after this Aryan gang, and they even offered to send a few of their people with me. If they thought that I didn’t catch the look of relief on their faces when I said no, then it is good that I did refuse, because they aren’t very observant.
I was told that there is an old observatory where these punks supposedly call home. Seems like a pretty straight up deal. My only issue will come when I can get a real assessment of their numbers. Five or ten would be no problem. Humans are lazy and sloppy by nature. I would have half of them dead within the first few hours I found them. After that, it would be a matter of staying out of sight until they fell back into their old routine after the initial excitement wore off.
Once you are talking about groups of twenty or more, the tactics change dramatically. Oh well, at least I will still get to check out this volcano up close. This observatory apparently faces the open crater of Saint Helens; basically looking right into the throat of the thing. I am just to the east and will be moving behind a long ridge until I reach what the people of the village assure me is an easy to spot set of buildings that sit up on the top of the ridge.
That is where things will be a bit dicey. This compound is supposedly on top of a ridge. By all descriptions, the place is in a wide open clearing and is basically impossible to sneak up on. In my experience, that is never quite true. For one, it isn’t like they have spotlights scanning the area. The world is a much darker place without electricity.
I should know. I have been down near what used to be Las Vegas where there is an actual community with honest-to-God hydro-electric power. Of course that place is the zombie apocalypse equivalent of North Korea. The region is ruled by a ruthless warlord and nobody gets in that area around the Hoover Dam without being allowed in, but that was a few years ago. I have no idea if it is still in existence, but I am daydreaming.
I have at least a five day hike to reach the place where these New Aryan types live. One good thing about this region, I don’t have to worry about food or water. I don’t think people felt comfortable drinking directly from these rivers and streams back in the Old World, but these days it is not really a problem. That said, I won’t lack water for sure. There are plenty of edible plants and berries to be had, and then there is the fish. The salmon can be so plentiful at the right times of year when they are spawning that you can actually reach in and scoop one out of the water by hand.
I think they used to have a name for this…what I am doing. I think it was once called a working vacation.
I almost forgot why I was out here; at least until this afternoon. I was moving along at a fairly leisurely pace, staying parallel to the trade route. The scenery can really become so amazing that you forget everything. I am considering the possibility of making this area my choice for retirement.
I was perched on a boulder that looked out over a large open meadow. There were three deer grazing. Hmm…is it deer or deers? Okay, so there I was, just watching out over the meadow and nibbling a handful of berries, communing with nature and all that crap.
It happened so fast that I think I actually popped another berry into my mouth like I was watching a movie or something. Two of the deer dropped, each had a few arrows jutting from them that made the location the fell an easy thing to spot with the shafts poking just above the grass. That other deer hauled ass, bounding away gracefully. A moment later, these two figures emerge from the trees almost directly across from where I am sitting and watching.
They flipped back their hoods and I could see one was a boy, the other a girl. They were pretty young; perhaps early teens. I am not a believer in coincidence.
Pulling my tomahawk from my shoulder, I dropped down and circled the pair. They went on like they didn’t have a care in the world. I made up my mind what my course of action would be before I’d even swallowed that mouthful of berries so I didn’t really feel anything when I popped up just a few steps away from them just as they had finished field stripping that first deer. (In other words, I crept forward very slowly.)
I brought the ‘hawk down on the back of the boy’s head, splitting it open and ending him in one stroke. The girl did not react like I expected. Shame on me. I figured she would scream or maybe try to plead. Instead, she whipped the knife she was using to gut the second deer at me. I’ll be damned if that thing didn’t catch me right in the center of my chest. Had it not been for my studded jerkin, it might’ve actually done some damage.
So, long story short, I punched her in the face and knocked her out cold. I have pulled back to an old abandoned shack of a cabin. The place looks like a gentle breeze might blow it over. Nothing a little hard work shouldn’t be able to fix.
As for the girl, I dragged in a log that was about five feet long and secured her to it nice and tight. I am pretty sure she is barely out of her teens, but she has perhaps the foulest mouth I have heard on a person in quite some time; and considering some of the circles I have traveled in, that is impressive. She has made repeated threats about what she plans to do with a very specific part of my anatomy when she gets free. I actually had to go over and make sure that she was tied up nice considering how confident she sounds in regards to separating my reproductive organs from the rest of my body and nailing it to my face so that I can truly be, and I am quoting here, “A bloody dickhead.
When she is not cursing or making threats, she actually looks like a normal girl. She has dirty brown hair that is a mess of nasty dreadlocks, she has brown eyes and even a few freckles splattered across her nose. She has not told me her name yet, and that is not a question I care if she ever answers. When I asked her about the murders at that trading outpost, she just smiled and winked.
To my credit, I have given her twenty-four hours to answer my questions of her own free will. After that, I told her that I would be getting those answers, and that she would not like the manner in which they were obtained. Her reply: “Oooo…big scary man, you think you can scare me? What…you gonna try and shove that pencil dick of yours in my ass or something? If you think I’m afraid of you or that you can do anything that would get me to talk…well, then you are as stupid as you look.”
I have not, nor would I ever take sexual liberties with anybody, so that flippant retort did not bother me as much as hearing her say something like that. I mean, where would she even get the idea that such a thing was on the table. Granted, what I have in mind is perhaps equally as bad since it involves inflicting tremendous amounts of pain.
I let her rant on as I sat quietly and sharpened my collection of knives. Eventually she stopped talking. I looked up just once and saw her watching me. She did not have even the slightest trace of fear in her expression.
I’m not sure if she is brave…or stupid.