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District: Surviving the Zombie Apocalypse

 

District:

Surviving the Zombie Apocalypse

 

 

 

 

By

Shawn Chesser

 

Shakespir EDITION

 

 

 

***

 

District:

Surviving the Zombie

Apocalypse

 

 

Copyright 2016

Shawn Chesser

Shakespir Edition

 

 

 

 

Shakespir Edition, License

 

This eBook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This eBook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please go and buy your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author. This is a work of fiction. Any similarities to real persons, events, or places are purely coincidental; any references to actual places, people, or brands are fictitious. All rights reserved.

 

[+ Shawn Chesser Facebook Author Page+]

Shawn Chesser on Twitter

ShawnChesser.Com

 

 

***

 

Acknowledgements

 

For Maureen, Raven, and Caden … I couldn’t have done this without your support. Thanks to all of our military, LE and first responders for your service. To the people in the U.K. and elsewhere around the world who have been in touch, thanks for reading! Lieutenant Colonel Michael Offe, thanks for your service as well as your friendship. Shannon Walters, my top Eagle Eye, thank you! Larry Eckels, thank you for helping me with some of the military technical stuff. Any missing facts or errors are solely my fault. Beta readers, you rock, and you know who you are. Thanks George Romero for introducing me to zombies. Steve H., thanks for listening. All of my friends and fellows at [email protected] and Monday Steps On Steele, thanks as well. Lastly, thanks to Bill W. and Dr. Bob … you helped make this possible. I am going to sign up for another 24.

Special thanks to John O’Brien, Mark Tufo, Joe McKinney, Craig DiLouie, Armand Rosamilia, Heath Stallcup, James Cook, Saul Tanpepper, Eric A. Shelman, and David P. Forsyth. I truly appreciate your continued friendship and always invaluable advice. Thanks to Jason Swarr and Straight 8 Custom Photography for the awesome cover. Once again, extra special thanks to Monique Happy for her work editing “District.” Mo, as always, you rose to the occasion! Working with you has been a dream come true and nothing but a pleasure. If I have accidentally left anyone out … I am truly sorry.

 

***

 

Edited by Monique Happy Editorial Services

www.moniquehappy.com

 

Prologue

 

Three things worked against Sid and Nancy as they traversed the open range fronting the tree- and scrub-covered foothills to their immediate left. First was the temperature, which had buoyed from well below freezing to the mid-fifties in the span of just a couple of hours. Snow-covered and firm underfoot when they’d taken flight from their captors in the dark early morning hours, the grassy expanse stretching out before them, a never-ending canvas of green and brown dotted with stubborn patches of snow, was now sucking mercilessly at their oversized boots and stealing what precious little energy they had built up overnight.

Then there was the problem of the clothing they’d taken from their high-centered Volvo wagon and layered on after they had distanced themselves from the string of headlights approaching from far off north on the nearby state route. Amounting to virtually every stitch of cold weather gear crowding their closets before the outbreak, the once thin and pliable high-dollar items—all either touted as GORE-TEX® Treated, Thermal Insulated, or purported to possess Wind Stopping Technology—were now heavy with sweat that had them bunching and pinching at the elbows and knees.

Lastly was the throng of dead angling in on them from the direction of the road and, in the process, blocking the way to Nancy’s sole objective: Securing anything tangible from the hulk of metal on the road that might help her to remember her dead little boy.

 

  • * *

 

Hours earlier, after having abandoned their overloaded car on the state route, Sid and Nancy had hopped the barbed wire fence and fled across a sparkling carpet of white toward the night-enshrouded tree line.

However, once they reached the perceived sanctuary the darkened copse of firs and alders promised, Sid looked back and gasped audibly upon seeing the laser-straight trail of shadowed footprints leading right to their position. Thankfully, Nancy had anticipated the effect the diffuse moonlight would have on the six-inch holes they’d stomped into the recent accumulation and was already, literally and figuratively, one step ahead of her husband. Without uttering a word, her breath coming out in great white plumes, she mouthed: “Follow me,” and, grasping his elbow in a firm grip, led him to their left, away from the damning footprints.

After a minute or two spent ducking low branches and fighting through tangles of ankle-grabbing underbrush, the soft yellow glow of approaching headlights crested a hill ahead and began to slow on the stretch of two-lane to their left.

Suddenly, and inexplicably, catching Sid by surprise, Nancy went to ground, dragging him down with her. They lay there for a moment listening to the sounds of engines laboring in four-wheel drive and breathing hard from the exertion of breaking brush along the north/south-running tree line. Then, after the trio of vehicles had passed from right to left on the state route and were drawing near to their inert Volvo, she rose and helped Sid to stand. They gawked for a minute, then, with the vehicles gearing down and their brake lights painting the white stripe of road blood red, Nancy nodded for Sid to follow and started off at low-sprint, leaving cover behind.

Attempting to conceal the evidence of their passage, Nancy stepped only in the shadow of a raised feeder road and led them straight to the hard-to-miss dark oval mouth of a galvanized culvert buried sidelong beneath it.

As the growl of engines softened to an easy idle, Nancy again fell to her hands and knees, taking Sid along for the ride. Together, panting and grunting, the two backed themselves into the drainage pipe and lay there as the thunk of doors opening and closing and low murmur of hushed voices carried back to them.

“Thank God they ate the dog,” Sid whispered to Nancy as the backlit silhouettes conferred on the shoulder beside the high-clearance vehicles.

“What makes you so sure that was all they ate?” she whispered as the dark forms crouched down and trained rifle muzzles on the Volvo.

Sid stared at her stump, but made no reply. Expecting the imminent braying of hounds finding their trail to shatter the night air, he buried his face in Nancy’s parka-clad shoulder and began to weep.

Nancy shushed Sid and then directed him to look to the road where a flashlight beam lanced out to illuminate the burgundy-red Volvo. “It’s empty,” a voice called out. Then there was cussing. Next, accusations were thrown back and forth for a minute or two. Finally, the voices died to nothing and a half-dozen new beams of blue light painted the field a couple of hundred yards south of their hiding place.

There was a shout, the words garbled, and then a disembodied voice said, “Wait a second. I’ll get the cutters and snip the wire.”

And someone among the group did just that.

The voices rose in volume and pitch as the group poured through the newly created opening. Nancy clutched Sid’s hand as their pursuers fanned out and started heckling and calling them by name. The insults and threats of violence continued as the five women and one man walked the length of the fresh tracks and probed the tree line with their flashlight beams.

Soon the cussing was back as the posse fought the same undergrowth Sid and Nancy had. The futile search lasted an hour and ended in more arguing. Within ten minutes of the searchers giving up on searching the tree line and crunching back through the snow towards their awaiting vehicles, doors were thunking closed and motors were turning over.

After letting the rigs warm up for a spell, the two SUVs pulled slowly around the lone 4×4 pickup and stopped single file in front of the Volvo.

Teeth beginning to chatter, Sid said, “You fooled them.”

“No … we fooled them,” Nancy replied, absentmindedly rubbing her bandaged stump.

As the first tendrils of dawn turned the sky to the west from deep black to a harsh shade of purple, the last vehicle in the small convoy, a squared-off black pickup truck, stopped alongside the Volvo. Without warning a lick of red flame lit up the retreating night and a thunderous report crashed across the countryside.

“There goes the window,” Sid exclaimed.

“We’ll get another car,” Nancy said consolingly.

Sid sighed. “What’s she doing?” he asked.

As if answering the question, where there had been darkness between the vehicles, a bright red point of light spewing smoke and spark suddenly appeared, illuminating the Swedish wagon in a lava-like red-orange glow.

A flare,” Sid whispered, his already damaged night vision etched further with red tracers as the truck driver swung the sputtering and spitting item lazily back and forth a couple of times before tossing it through the Volvo’s newly shot-out driver’s side window.

For a long while they remained silent and watched their car burn, their meager belongings—mostly boxes full of memories: curling pictures of their tow-headed boy, the certificate of live birth with his tiny footprints stamped in blue ink, and moldy toddler’s clothes Nancy hadn’t been able to part with after his death at the hands of the rotting dead—going up with it.

Nancy stared stone-faced. She was cried out. Had been for a long while. Sid, on the other hand, was not. He cried for a long while as tendrils of smoke curled from the smoldering Volvo. And while he did, a driving sleet started up and the snow began to melt.

Thankfully, their combined body heat was trapped in the culvert with them and Sid finally cried himself to sleep.

Nancy spent the next three hours staring at the bloody stump where her dominant hand used to be. The makeshift dressing was holding, but the cauterized wound had begun to seep again, the new yellow and red splotches mingling with the ground-in grass and mud.

After the first hour the sleet turned to a cold, hard driving rain—the water streaming in the culvert making things even more miserable.

Hour two saw the rain slow and the pewter clouds cruise off to the southeast.

By the third hour Nancy still had not heard so much as a single exhaust note from the direction of the state route—south or north. The temperature was also rising quickly, and as a result trees to the left were shedding snow at a quick pace—the thumps startling at first, then welcome as their true source became known. At the end of the three hours, as if a switch had been flicked, the storm had been usurped and to the west was brilliant blue sky as far as the eye could see.

Smiling broadly, Nancy shook Sid, urging him to wake up. Her simple moment of joy was quickly shattered when she looked down and realized that the red slush his hand had been resting in was melted fully, which meant the dead would be thawing out, too—a death warrant for sure, if they didn’t find shelter soon.

Feeling the sun warming her face, Nancy told Sid to stay put. After shimmying from the culvert, she commando-crawled a few feet down the ditch in the direction of the road and lay still in the shallow water pooled there. After listening hard for a moment and hearing only a steady dripping and occasional whoosh-bang of more snow calving off the tall trees behind her, she rose up slowly, her head barely breaking cover of the ditch, and regarded the dense forest that had saved their lives. It was much closer than she remembered. In the dark the sprint from the forest’s edge to the drainage pipe had seemed like a forty-yard dash with lions snapping at their heels. In reality, the lush green wall behind her was less than thirty feet away.

Dead ahead, Nancy’s vantage was mostly blocked by long tufts of grass slowly springing back after being knuckled under the snow for a day and a half.

“I’m going to take a better look,” she whispered over her shoulder to Sid. He muttered something a little louder than she would’ve liked, and she winced. Then, rearing up off the ground in a pose never attempted outside of a yoga studio, she got an unobstructed look at the burned-out windowless shell that had been their Volvo. Craning left, then right, she saw only a steaming ribbon of road spooling away from the charred hulk in both directions.

“Clear,” she called over her shoulder. Which was a little white lie, because though their pursuers were nowhere to be seen, a small group of undead had keyed in on Sid’s plaintive voice and were ambling onto the pasture through the breach in the barbed wire fence. The lie had been enough to get Sid moving and out of the pipe.

In the light of day, Nancy saw that Sid’s clothing, like hers, was drenched and sluicing water as he stood. So much for manufacturer’s promises, she mused, grabbing hold of her man and pulling him stammering and flailing in the general direction of the slow-moving zombies.

“Hell are we going that way for?” he asked, his voice gone hoarse.

“Because everything we had was in that car. Everything.”

And by “everything” she meant all of her dead son’s belongings, some of which she hoped had survived the fire. His favorite spoon, hopefully. Perhaps some of his Hot Wheel cars … at least the metal bodies. Anything tangible to have and to hold would be better than the memories that seemed to get fuzzier around the edges the farther she got from that horrific day in late July when she had lost him.

 

Chapter 1

 

Now, slowed by the unlikely combination of mud sucking at their oversized boots and waterlogged fleece and nylon weighing them down like suits of armor, the young couple were no faster than their new pursuers—nearly a dozen moaning and hissing dead things all in various stages of decay and undress.

Nancy and Sid trudged a rough semi-circle around the things to get to their car. Once there, they found only ashes and charred skeletal seat frames inside the metal shell that had once contained all of the memories of their past lives.

“Let’s go, Nance,” Sid urged.

Shaking her head, Nancy pounded on the car’s flat roof with her good hand, sending blackened, scaling paint flying in every direction.

“We’ll make new memories,” Sid called, as he led the slow procession of dead things around the front of the Volvo and away from Nancy.

“Fuck memories,” Nancy hissed, as Sid returned, grabbed her elbow, and lead her toward the fence.

“We can’t stay on the road. They’re coming back … sooner or later.”

The dead were hissing and moaning louder than ever as Sid dragged Nancy away from the now low-to-the-ground car.

Sid reached the snipped wire fence and ushered Nancy through. He burned the ten-second lead over the zombies by working feverishly to wind the longest of the rusty strands around a post as a makeshift barrier.

Falling short by less than an inch, Sid gave up and reentered the pasture through the breach and began shedding his leaden layers of clothing the same way he had donned them: on the run.

“Fucking Pineapple Express,” he shouted, tugging at a sleeve to extricate his arm. “Thought these kinds of wild weather swings only happened near the ocean.”

“Help,” Nancy called out, one arm bent at an awkward angle and stuck fast in the sleeve of her goose-down parka.

Sid stopped in his tracks and, as he turned at the waist to regard Nancy, there came a string of hollow popping sounds. In the split second between realizing what the noises were and opening his mouth to tell Nancy to duck, his side vision registered two slender women rising up from the roadside a hundred feet south. In the next beat he was delivering the warning and staring directly at winking muzzles as the two shooters advanced along the state route toward them.

Turning back to help Nancy with her coat, a bullet grazed Sid’s cheek, sending him to the ground where suddenly he found himself within arm’s reach of an emaciated female cadaver. Drawing in a mouthful of carrion-tinged air, his eyes were drawn from Nancy to the creature’s bare feet and on up to its horribly shredded mid-section that, judging by the advanced state of decay the remaining organs had suffered, had been exposed to the full wrath of the elements since the early days of the outbreak.

Hearing Nancy cry out, Sid scrambled backwards on hands and feet toward her.

More bullets scythed overhead, crackling and hissing. Two of the advancing dead fell under the withering fire, landing equidistant between Sid and his wife. Still locked onto Sid like a meat-seeking missile, the female zombie plodded through the sucking mud.

Finally, lamenting the fact that his vision was blurring and he was unable to move faster on his back across the open ground than the undead woman with what amounted to barely bungee cords for core muscles, Sid raised his hands defensively and focused his gaze on the hollow of her neck.

Feeling the sting where a flying fragment of rock or, God forbid, bone shard from one of the fallen zombies had cut a jagged inch-long wound on her shoulder, Nancy extricated her forearm and hand from the sodden sleeve. With the angry noise of bullets flying by her head, she turned toward Sid just in time to see the female zombie’s toothy sneer erased by a final long fusillade of gunfire coming from the direction of the state route.

The pasture suddenly went deathly quiet.

Casting her eyes groundward, Nancy waited for the bullets to tear into her and Sid. But none came. Which caused her to wonder why. Reluctantly, she swung her gaze up and around and saw that the other walking corpses had been cut down before they could fully flank her husband, who was now on his hands and knees and surrounded by their bullet-riddled corpses.

From out of sight a familiar, gruff female voice said, “Don’t move!”

Nancy could feel the beginnings of an icy ball forming in her gut. She looked at her good right hand and it dawned on her why the dead had been gunned down instead of her and Sid.

“Stand up,” the same voice ordered.

Nancy saw black combat boots in her peripheral. Then a long gun barrel, a curl of smoke wafting from it, entered the picture. Finally, she walked her eyes up the woman’s quilted snow pants and regarded her silver and turquoise belt buckle which struck her instantly as Native-American-made. It was very ornate. Dozens of light green shards of stone had been fashioned into the shape of a gecko. Zuni in nature, maybe. Nothing bought in a New Mexico gift store, for sure.

She felt the rough leather of a black glove brush the soft flesh under her chin. Then iron fingers gripped her jaw and lifted her head up, forcing her to meet the woman’s steely glare.

“Don’t take us back there,” Nancy said breathlessly, as the noise of engines firing carried from far off down the state route.

“I have no plans of doing anything of the sort,” the woman said, grinning wickedly as Sid, already bound at the wrists and ankles with thick plastic zip ties, was thrown to the ground near her muddy boots.

Nancy lowered her gaze and delivered a look to Sid that said: I love you. A tick later, in her peripheral vision, she saw the woman gripping her jaw receive a black parcel handed to her by one of the others.

Mercifully, the woman let go of Nancy and in the same motion set the kit on the uneven, soggy ground. Then, with the slow, calculated precision of a Swiss watchmaker, the big hulk of a woman pulled the thick leather cords and unrolled the foot-long item with a practiced underhanded flip.

There was a rattle of metal on metal as the four-foot-long rectangle of treated black leather unfurled. A strong odor of cowhide fought with the stench of the gunned-down corpses.

Sid saw Nancy’s rigid body go limp. The fight was gone from her. As was the last shred of dignity their escape had fomented in the strong-willed woman. He craned his neck and regarded the big woman everyone called Mom. Though nearly every square inch of her was covered in black leather, it didn’t hide the fact that she was morbidly overweight. Her lips curled at the corners, showing off pristine enamel, as she withdrew a wicked-looking knife from a slot amongst the squared-off bone saws and myriad other stainless steel rendering tools.

Sid looked at Nancy and was relieved to see that she had apparently fainted. Which was a good thing, because he would be first to go and wouldn’t have to witness what they had in store for her body. And as he steeled himself for the first sting of the butcher’s blade, he relived the moment the woman brandishing the knife had severed Nancy’s hand and awarded it to the blonde and blue-eyed woman who had captured them at the farmhouse outside of Eden, Utah the day before.

Suddenly a thumb found its way into Sid’s eye socket, bringing him back to the present and causing a flash of white hot pain to flood his brain. Next, gloved fingers clamped over his mouth and his head was drawn back, the corded muscles in his neck stretched to their limits.

Through his one good eye, Sid saw the patch of snow below him go red with his steaming blood. A biting metallic odor hit his nose and suddenly there was a strange warmth coursing through his body. In the end there was light. And in that light the faint outline of what had to be his boy, tiny arms outstretched, a knowing smile on his face.

Strange what endorphins could do to a man, was Sid’s last thought before the lifelong atheist’s wildly flailing arms and kicking feet ceased moving, the mud angel beneath his prostrate corpse truly a work of art.

 

Chapter 2

 

Cade Grayson rattled four 200-milligram ibuprofen into his palm, popped them in his mouth and washed them down with a swallow of water. He leaned forward on the folding chair and set his plate and fork on the small table next to the door of the particular Conex container in the subterranean redoubt that had come to be known affectionately by all of its tenants as the “Grayson Quarters.” With room enough for a trio of bunkbeds—and not much else—the place was about as close to home as anything Cade had known since fleeing the Graysons’ two-story Craftsman in Portland, Oregon on that fateful day in late July when the newly dead began to rise.

“Raven,” he called through the open sheet of steel serving as a door. “Time to police up the dishes. And bring your partner in crime with you.”

There were footsteps on the plywood floor and suddenly Tran was standing an arm’s reach from Cade. Wearing his easy smile, the slight man tucked a graying lock of his dark hair behind an ear and raised a brow.

“What’s up, Tran?”

“I’ll get your plate.”

“Oh no you won’t, Tran,” Brook Grayson called from her perch on the top bunk of the nearest set of steel Army-issue equipment. “Those girls earned the privilege of ninety days KP.”

Cade piped up, “At least ninety days. Besides … you did all of the work whipping up dinner for … twelve?”

“Thirteen, counting you,” Tran said, his smile growing wider.

More footsteps approached from down the corridor, out of sight behind Tran.

“Damn fine meal. Venison?” Cade asked.

Tran nodded. “You can thank Daymon for the meat. He bagged it up at the quarry late last night.”

Propped up on one elbow, her face lost in the gloom near the ribbed metal ceiling, Brook said, “What was he doing at the quarry?”

Tran shrugged as first Raven, then Sasha—a head taller than the Asian man, on account of her wild thicket of red hair—squeezed past him and edged sideways into the Grayson Quarters. Silently, without making eye contact, the girls took the camp plates and silverware and left the narrow room as they had arrived.

Back pressing the corridor wall, Tran watched them go. When he looked back through the door, he glanced up and met the dark-haired woman’s gaze.

“Chilly reception,” Brook said. “How’s it going topside?”

“It’s been real quiet. Heidi and Seth are manning the cameras. A few of the others are gearing up. They’re going to use the break in the weather to go foraging north of Woodruff.”

Grimacing, Cade leaned forward and snatched his water from the table. “Who all’s going?”

Tran shrugged. “I saw Daymon, Lev, and Jamie cleaning weapons. But there were at least six packs on the ground under the Raptor’s tailgate.”

Since the Raptor was Taryn’s ride, Brook cocked her head and asked the obvious, “Taryn and Wilson are going, too?”

Again, Tran shrugged. Then he flashed Cade and Brook an arched brow look. “Anything else?”

“Yes, there is,” Brook said. She crawled down from the bunk and approached Tran. Standing toe-to-toe with the man she matched in height and basic build, she whispered, “Me and Cade have placed the girls under a pseudo house arrest until further notice.”

With Cade looking on silently, Tran nodded.

Buying a moment to think, Brook adjusted her ball cap. Finally, after meeting Cade’s gaze and seeming to have read his mind, she said, “I need you to be our eyes and ears when we’re not around. If you see or hear the girls scheming or going near the entrance without one of us—or Wilson, in Sasha’s case—you have my permission to detain them.”

Face wearing a look of understanding, Tran nodded, then backed away from the door and disappeared down the corridor to the right.

Cade pulled the folding chair nearer to him and adjusted the pillow his still swollen left foot was propped up on. “I hate to do that to the girls. Especially Raven, but pardon the pun on this one, our Bird doesn’t have a leg to stand on after that stuff she pulled. Nor does Sasha for instigating.”

“Thank God it ended well,” Brook noted. “I think Raven may have learned her lesson.”

Cade nodded in agreement. “I concur. Raven’s following days are over, that’s for sure.”

“Keep that foot up, Cade Grayson … or this nurse isn’t going to sign off on your next mission.”

Smiling, Cade said, “I’ll just go and get a second opinion.”

Brook guffawed. “Glenda Gladson is not going to take your side of this matter.” Issuing a playful glare, she put her hands on her hips.

“I’ve got an ace in my hand.”

“Duncan?”

Cade nodded.

“He’s of sound mind now. He’ll do whatever his lady friend tells him to do.”

Conceding her point, Cade said, “I might just have a little dirt on Old Man.”

“Liar.”

Cade tried to keep a straight face, but in the end he couldn’t lie to Brook. Never had. Never would. So his lips parted with a revealing shit-eating grin.

Brook wagged a finger at her man. “Toes above the nose, Grayson. You’re almost there.”

“By tomorrow?”

“By tomorrow, do you mean during the day?” Arching a brow, she took a deep breath. “Or tonight at one minute after midnight?”

Cade’s game face was back. “Closer to the latter,” he replied, flatly.

Exiting the room, Brook shot Cade a no-nonsense look and repeated her earlier admonition. “Toes above the nose, Mr. Grayson.”

Smile fading, Cade threw a crisp salute at the closing door and, without missing a beat, rose from the folding chair, testing the ankle.

Good to go, he told himself, the grimace fading along with the resulting stab of pain. However, rather than following nurse’s orders and getting back under the covers on the bottom bunk and propping his foot up on the tubular metal footboard, he looped around the bunk, unlatched his Pelican gear box, and hinged the lid open.

Instantly the familiar and comforting smell of Hoppe’s #9 gun oil filled the air. The grimace returning, he knelt next to the box and, working on a sort of autopilot mode, grabbed his gear and weapons from the box and started in on the time-consuming process of getting each piece of kit ready for his upcoming mission.

 

 

Chapter 3

 

Cade quickly stripped down his pair of Glocks—one a full-sized 17, the other a compact 19—and laid out the pieces neatly on the table. After meticulously cleaning and oiling each individual part, he reassembled the polymer semi-automatic pistols, snugged them in their respective holsters, and placed them on the freshly made bunk beside his trusty M4 carbine.

Next, he unfolded a pair of black pants and blouse—both identical in cut and fit to his MultiCam fatigues—and laid them on the bed by the weapons. Both articles of clothing were fashioned from heavy mil-spec ripstop fabric and had rubberized pads affixed to the knees and elbows.

Drawing a deep breath, he sat back down on the folding chair and, while gently massaging his swollen ankle, quickly went through his mental pre-op to-do list. Gerber sharpened? Check. Fresh batteries in the EOTech holographic optic atop his cleaned and oiled M4? Check. Suppressor threads cleaned and inspected and can replaced hand-tight onto the barrel? Check. Night vision goggles tested and stowed away, powered down? Check. Ankle one hundred percent? Not even close. However, he figured after the long helo ride east, a little shuteye along the way with a thousand-plus more milligrams of ibuprofen hard at work on the swelling, once they were wheels down he’d be able to stow any residual pain in the same compartment his emotions went in every time he was pulled away from family and friends. Besides, he mused, this wouldn’t be the first time getting into the shit with the same chronically bum ankle. To be precise, it’d be the third time, and once the dead came into play—or, more likely in this case, the bullets began to fly—the adrenaline would kick in and, as always, pain would be secondary to completing the mission and coming home in one uninfected piece to his little family.

His routine was battle-tested and had worked before. Why wouldn’t it this time? After a millisecond’s reflection, the details of the mission started piling on all akimbo, like a game of Tetris lost on the first misplayed game tile. So he willed his own inner voice to forget the question. Ordered it to not even go there. Because if the number of enemy he had seen on the videos beamed by Nash to his laptop the day before were any indication as to what he and the team could be facing downrange, he didn’t want to ponder the big picture. Better to take small bites from the enemy. Hit them head on with extreme violence of action, spit them out destroyed and mangled, and move on to the next obstacle. Best to keep it all compartmentalized; like his emotions had to remain.

A woman’s voice calling his name loudly enough to be heard through the closed metal door ripped him from the battle being waged in his head.

“Cade!”

Heidi?

“Hear you loud and clear,” he bellowed back. “Be there in a moment.”

Eschewing the crutches, and risking an ass-chewing from Brook if she saw him in the corridors without them, he rose and made his way to the security pod, again testing his bad wheel’s load-bearing ability.

Upon turning the corner, he was confronted with the blonde who had hollered his name. Heidi’s arm was outstretched, a thin black sat-phone clutched in her small hand. On her face was a smile Cade guessed to be derived entirely from the satisfaction she must be feeling from having not missed the incoming call—regardless of who might be waiting on the other end.

Making slow progress toward the offered phone, Cade lifted his brows and whispered, “Who is it?”

Can’t be good.

“A woman,” Heidi replied, making no effort to lower her voice, thusly completely destroying any chance of Cade buying a few minutes to think by having Heidi tell the caller a little white lie.

Waving Heidi off, Cade mouthed, “Tell her I will call her back,” and began a slow backpedal toward his quarters.

“It’s Nash, I think,” Heidi said, a little louder this time, all the while flashing a careful what you wish for smile and pumping the hand holding the phone at Cade—universal semaphore for take the damn call!

Hell!

“Nash … oh, good,” Cade replied loudly, laying it on thick while at the same time giving Heidi a mild case of stink eye. “Can’t wait to hear what she has to say.” Definitely a white lie.

Smile fading fast, Heidi relinquished the phone and turned back to the flat-panel. One ear cocked, she feigned intense scrutiny on the feed showing Brook and Duncan in the motor pool conversing with Daymon and Oliver. Someone—probably Jimmy Foley—was working under the Chevy’s hood, only his backside showing.

Cade’s fingers curled around the phone much tighter than he’d meant them to. Before putting the handset to his ear, he stole a look at the monitor and saw the same scene Heidi was presented with: a good old-fashioned jawing session with Duncan occupying center stage. And that meant good money was on Brook not coming back anytime soon.

“Cade here,” he said, turning his back to Heidi.

There was a short delay during which he heard only the usual electronic hiss as his words were bounced up into the stratosphere, relayed through one of the few remaining military satellites and returned to Earth, presumably, at Schriever Air Force Base four hundred and twenty-five miles south by east as the crow flies.

Finally, a female voice said, “Wyatt … you avoiding me?”

Effin Jedi mind reader.

“No, Major,” Cade lied. “Just collecting my thoughts, that’s all. What’s up?”

Right to the point. Nash said, “Change of plans.”

Cade said nothing. Sweeping his gaze back to the flat-panel monitor, he slid a folding chair out and took a seat.

“We underestimated the enemy’s speed of advance. When I finally got real-time satellite reconnaissance back on station, finding them took some time. When we reacquired, we found that they had split in two.”

“I watched the drone footage,” Cade replied. “Even if it split … it’d be impossible to miss a column of that size. Especially from orbit considering the Key Hole’s advanced optics.”

“You know we’re stretched thin in the recon-sat department. I’ve got one parked over the California/Nevada border watching the Mountain Warfare Training Center—”

Cade interrupted. “Speaking of Pickel Meadows … how are the Marines there holding up?”

“Like they should be. Captain Swarr and his boys are kicking ass and taking names. They’ve got the Chinese battalion fractured and on the run. Scattered to the wind like a dried-out dandelion.”

“Squirters?” he asked.

“Just the advance element that got by their northern FOB days ago,” Nash replied, and went quiet.

On the other end of the line Cade heard his favorite Air Force officer draw in a deep breath. Simultaneously, on the screen in front of Heidi, he picked up movement on the lower right partition.

Nash picked up after a long beat. She said, “I’m guessing your undead PLA recon scouts were some of the first wave. Hell, there were so many beachheads up and down the West Coast, California and Oregon, that we’re just now getting a handle on how many troops they were able to land. A battalion or two is our best estimate. No doubt the Zs chewed up a good number of them the moment their landing craft hit land.”

“But?” Cade said.

“Half to three-quarters of them likely made it inland.” Nash went quiet for a few seconds then said, “We are facing an invasion force on American soil. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The East Coast will be seeing landings in the coming days and we don’t have enough active subs or surface ships to interdict all of the PLA Navy vessels in transit. I’m afraid the West Coast is nothing compared to what is coming.”

Now Cade went silent as he watched on the screen the woods surrounding the feeder road disgorge an eighteen-wheeler, its squared-off snout and wide cab making the surrounding tree limbs and ground-hugging bushes dance and send airborne the few colorful leaves still clinging to their skeletal branches. As the sun glinted off the gleaming chrome tank riding out back, Cade posed his next question—one that he had been eager to ask for some time.

“What about the Pacific Northwest?”

“You mean Portland, specifically?”

“Saw right through me,” Cade admitted. “Yeah … I’m curious to know how Portland is faring. And to a lesser extent Seattle and the coastline from Coos Bay on up to Puget Sound.”

“That all?” Nash said, her voice carrying a hint of incredulity. “I thought I sent you footage of Portland prior to you going off to Los Angeles. I did thank you for rescuing my girl … didn’t I?”

“The footage of Portland was eye-opening,” Cade said. And it worked at getting me back in, he thought. “But that was all captured before the PLA Navy broke through your pickets. About the mission to L.A. Are the FEMA hard drives producing the intel you hoped they would?”

“And then some,” she said. “Using the individual logs of the rescue birds coming and going from the Long Beach facility we were able to locate and rescue dozens of surviving HVTs (High Value Targets) before the Chinese Navy made landfall. Consequently, they’ve been instrumental in getting Springs up and running.”

“You knew about the PLA fleet before L.A.?”

“It was need-to-know, Wyatt. President’s orders. Besides, you, Ari … the team. None of you were in any danger. All of us watching from the op center had zero confidence that the lead destroyer’s active phased-array radar could pick up Jedi One. If, and I mean a helluva longshot if, that Ghost Hawk somehow was painted, the PLA seaman watching the scope would have thought the blip was a flock of seagulls.”

“Flock of seagulls … so says the chair force Major sitting in her air-conditioned office behind the wire and separated from said destroyer and escorts by eight hundred miles and a formidable mountain range.” Instantly Cade regretted his words. And as a result of his not employing his usual filter between brain and mouth, there was a long uncomfortable silence, during which he heard that awful eighties new-wave synth-heavy A Flock of Seagulls song, I Ran, fire up in his head. Meanwhile, on the security monitor, whoever was behind the wheel of the semi-truck had backed it up expertly and left it parked alongside a similar rig containing a full load of LNG—liquefied natural gas—compliments of Alexander Dregan, who had undoubtedly sent this rig and the precious fuel contained within the massive chrome-plated tank.

After a long five-count Nash responded to the criticism in an even voice. “I’m with you and the men every time you go down range. In fact, I lose a chunk of my soul when one of you fall. I’d hoped you knew that by now, Cade.”

“I’m sorry. That was a low blow to your upstanding character.”

“And if you believe the rumors,” Nash quipped, “that was also a direct hit to my family jewels.”

If only she knew the true extent of the good-natured ribbing she suffered from the shooters her satellites watched over. Suppressing a chuckle, Cade rose from the chair, phone still pressed to his ear.

Nash went on, “I don’t want to say more than I have to over this unsecure line, so I’ll have a brief for you when the bird arrives to pick you up.”

“And what time will that be?”

Cade looked at Heidi, who was looking at him while he concentrated hard on what Nash had to say.

Seeing Cade glance at his Suunto and his usual stoic expression morph to one revealing a hint of exasperation, Heidi wisely turned her attention back to the action topside. On one partition she saw that the mid-point gate on the feeder road was closed, as it should be. On the two adjacent panels the video feed picked up nothing moving near the camouflaged main gate nor on the length of state route in both directions. No zombies. Which was strange, because something as noisy as a fuel-laden semi barreling down the state route usually drew in rotting monsters like moths to a flame. As she scrutinized the video on the middle panes the camera covering the grassy meadow and runway picked up a new development. One that might put her in the middle of whatever the call was about. So, hoping to avoid even a hint of confrontation, she tugged on Cade’s tee shirt and stabbed a finger at the monitor.

In the center pane Cade saw that the pow-wow had broken up and people were boarding a trio of pickup trucks—the newly arrived tanker driver among them. He also saw Brook walking towards the camera, which just so happened to be positioned outside the compound entrance twenty feet to his left. Seeing this, he hurriedly finished the call with Nash, thumbed the sat-phone off and put it back up on the shelf—the entire time shooting Heidi a harried look that could only be construed as: Let’s keep this between us. He hustled back to his quarters.

Heidi began to say something, but was interrupted by a grating of metal on metal that drew her attention to the inky gloom of the nearby foyer. There was a clomping of boots on wood and suddenly Brook’s petite frame was filling up one end of the cramped space.

Breathing hard from exertion, Brook locked eyes with Heidi for a half-beat before regarding the trio of sat-phones on the top shelf. She let her gaze linger there briefly, then regarded Heidi.

Wearing a startled look, Heidi blurted, “What?”

“Something you want to tell me?”

A dead giveaway, Heidi’s gaze inched up to the satellite phones.

“Who called?” Brook demanded, her hands going to her hips, the left inadvertently settling on her holstered Glock.

Busted. Heidi sighed as she scooped up the phone Cade had just replaced on the shelf. Handing it over her shoulder, she said, “Best if you go into the call log and see for yourself.”

“You’re a quick study, Heidi.” Brook took the phone and thumbed it on. “Plausible deniability. Straight out of Cade’s playbook.”

Heidi didn’t respond. The hole she’d dug herself was already deep enough. And this little attempted cover-up had come just as she seemed to be getting back on the intense woman’s good side. Returning her attention to the monitor, she watched the trio of trucks motor away from the center gate. In the ensuing seconds between the three-vehicle convoy slipping from view of the mid-road camera and reappearing on the one trained on the run-up to the main gate, out of the corner of her eye she saw Brook scroll to the call log. There was a second of silence, then Brook was cursing under her breath.

As the convoy pulled close to the main gate, Heidi took her eyes off the monitor and regarded Brook. “Everything good?”

Clearly in need of help staying on her feet, Brook put her left hand on Heidi’s shoulder and leaned against the low desk to her right.

Heidi placed her hand atop Brook’s. “Still getting the dizzy spells from the antiserum … or is this a result of Nash calling your man again?” She continued to watch the monitor as her new fiancé hopped from the lead vehicle and stalked to the gate, leaving the driver’s door wide open.

“A little of both,” Brook conceded. “More from the latter, though. It’s not like Nash to deliver good news over the phone.”

Heidi said, “If it’s any consolation, my man is leaving the wire, too.”

Brook turned her hand over. She clutched Heidi’s hand and looked her in the eye. “Glad we’re in the same boat.” Forcing a half-smile, she released her grip, turned, and set off for her quarters.

Heidi watched until Brook had disappeared around the corner. Then, when she turned her previously divided attention back to the monitor, she saw dead things congregating outside the gate in twos and threes. In the next beat Daymon was luring the monsters away from the gate, the fence paralleling the road the only thing keeping them at bay.

“Be careful,” she said aloud, watching Daymon cull the monsters with swift chops to the head from his trusty green-handled machete.

 

Outside the door to the Grayson Quarters, Brook paused to collect her thoughts. What was the worst news Nash could have added to the already shitty prospect of having Cade go down range? Have him do so undermanned and without proper air support and terrible rules of engagement? Oh wait, she mused bitterly, that’s what he’d been doing those last couple of months on the teams before opting to cycle out and come home to her for good. And, unfortunately, some of that crap had resumed after he’d been drawn back into Desantos’ and Nash’s orbit. Only this time, she couldn’t blame Cade coming home in a body bag on the feckless actions of lawyered-up politicians trying to run a hot war by proxy from walnut-paneled offices thousands of miles away. If something should happen to Cade this time around, she would have nobody to blame but herself. And that was acceptable. Because, Lord knows, the only child was doing what he loved. Moreover, unlike that final year running ops with the teams, he was doing it now for all the right reasons.

Cade’s voice carried through the door, reaching Brook’s ears in the hall. “You going to come in, or just stand out there and block the light under the door?”

“I’m coming in,” Brook called. “Are you decent?”

Still talking through the door, he responded, “Not for long, if I have anything to say about it.”

Chuckling, Brook pushed the door open with her left hand. In the light of the sixty-watt bulb she saw her husband. The gray woolen blanket was covering him from his shins to his waist. His left leg was propped up on the near end of the bunk. Brown liquid eyes tracked her as she closed the door.

“Which news do you want to hear first,” he asked. “The bad or the good?”

“The bad,” Brook answered.

“Better sit.”

She moved to the bunk and sat next to him. “But I want to hear the bad after I’ve had my way with you.”

Cade sat up and removed his shirt, exposing chiseled abs and an apocalypse-honed upper body. Reclining, he watched his wife reciprocate, grimacing as the cotton tee shirt cleared her high ponytail.

Right arm hung up in the sleeve, she said, “A little help here?”

“First things first,” Cade said. Sitting up, he snagged the string to the light and tugged. As the room was plunged into total darkness, he wrapped Brook in a bear hug and dragged her into bed with him.

 

Chapter 4

 

“Come on,” Daymon called from the fence. “I’m going to need some help getting the bodies moved before more of the flesh-bags arrive.”

Wilson was already out of the Raptor and edging past Daymon’s Chevy. He paused at the passenger door, looked in at Oliver and saw fear in the man’s eyes. Disregarding it as a part of their new normal, he shook his head subtly and pushed past the undergrowth crowding the road.

Lev jumped from the borrowed F-650 and turned back toward the open door. “Stay, Max,” he said to the brindle Australian Shepherd that had adopted Raven and Brook back at Schriever weeks ago. Since coming along with the Graysons on their cross-country trek from Forward Operating Base Bastion on the Colorado border to the Eden compound in rural Utah, the inquisitive canine had taken to every member of the small band of survivors.

Regarding the veteran of the 2004 Iraq invasion with his dual-colored eyes, Max yawned and stayed put, his stub tail thumping a steady cadence on Jamie’s thigh.

“He’s no dummy, Lev,” Jamie said, scratching the dog behind his cropped ears. “Close the door … it’s not summer.”

After complying fully without acknowledging the brunette’s quip, Lev turned his back to the idling F-650 and scanned the road behind the super-sized pickup.

Clear.

Checking your six” is what Cade called the practice that came naturally to Lev, a former 11 Bravo infantryman in the Big Green Machine, as Duncan was fond of calling the United States Army—past and present. Easy to remember, the lexicon well-known among combat veterans had become popular with the younger Eden survivors. Which was a good thing for a generation brought up with all manner of handheld electronic devices constantly vying for their attention. And save for a couple of recent slip-ups, the handful of civilian members in their rag tag little band seemed to be adopting the practice.

Head on a swivel. No better way to stay alive, that was for sure, Lev reflected. It was standard operating procedure that had seen him come home from the sandbox in one piece, and, so far, a routine that had kept him walking on the right side of the dirt even after a worldwide virus had decimated humanity’s ranks.

Arriving at the gate last, Dregan’s man, a ruddy-faced fella calling himself Cleo, exited the 4Runner given to him for the return trip to Bear River. Without a word of complaint, he strode past the lined-up vehicles to the state route and pitched in by helping Wilson and Daymon drag the leaking bodies off the road. A half-dozen black trails leading from the front of the open gate to the far ditch told him the men had been making quick work of the grisly task.

Lev bent over and grabbed a female cadaver by the ankles, the skin sloughing off in his hands as he pulled the body across the two-lane. “Where the hell is Oliver?” he said to nobody in particular.

Hitching a thumb over his shoulder, Daymon said, “He pussed out.”

After rolling the corpse of a young boy into the ditch with a nudge of his combat boot, Wilson scanned the road in both directions. “Still clear,” he observed. “Someone going to tell Oliver he needs to start pulling his weight … or do I have to do it?”

Daymon encircled two thin wrists in one gloved hand and trudged across the road, the dead Z’s skull producing a hollow keening as it grated along the asphalt. Unceremoniously, as if he were bucking a bale of hay into a truck, he heaved the shell of a former human atop the others. “Let it go,” Daymon said. “I’ll get to the bottom of it.”

“Straighten him out,” Wilson said, glancing toward the vehicles clogging the feeder road. “Or I will.”

Lev paused, one hand gripping the wrist of another dead thing, the other, out of habit, resting on the butt of the Beretta riding on his hip. Eyebrows hitching in the middle, he regarded the redhead in the floppy camouflage boonie hat. “I see that someone watered his balls this morning.”

“From this point on I’m not letting anything slide,” Wilson shot. “Not Sasha’s bullshit. Not Oliver’s staying in the truck while we do the dirty work. Nothing. Fuck sake, even Cleo is getting his hands dirty.” Breathing hard, he leaned forward and began dragging a portly corpse toward the ditch where the others were being deposited. Boots scraping the roadway, he fumed inside. Inwardly, in a roundabout way, he was still blaming himself for not keeping his sister in line. While he was away during the recent freak snowstorm, the petulant fourteen-year-old’s actions had jeopardized the lives of every person who called the compound home. Never again was he going to worry about hurting anyone’s feelings. Pupa into a pissed-off butterfly, if you will.

Daymon walked over to the last of the twice-dead Zs. “Uh, oh,” he said, ignoring the leaking body at his feet. “Looks like we missed one.” In the ditch, partially obscured by the out of control weeds growing there, was a near skeletal specimen. “First Turn” was what survivors had taken to calling the ones that showed evidence of lots of wear and tear. “Crawler” was what Daymon called the thing he was staring down on.

Meeting Daymon’s gaze, the thing hissed and raked its fingernails across the toes of his boots. How the deflating tire sound made it out of the hole passing for a throat escaped him. The noise, however, made the hairs on his arms prick up.

“I’ll take care of it,” Wilson spat. “You take care of Oliver.” The man’s name rolled off the redhead’s tongue dripping with venom.

Daymon shrugged and stepped aside. As he cleaned his machete, aptly nicknamed Kindness, on the long grass, he watched Wilson jam a folding knife to the hilt in the crawler’s eye socket. Then, after slipping the machete into its scabbard, he rose and regarded Wilson with a hard stare. “I’ll figure out what Oliver’s deal is,” he promised, then turned and stalked off towards the awaiting Chevy, the specter of the looming interrogation already troubling him.

 

Chapter 5

 

Daymon waited until they were several miles east on State Route 39 and nearing the quarry feeder road before broaching the subject of Oliver’s strange new behavior. Slowing the Chevy a bit on a long straightaway, he drew a deep breath and cast a sidelong glance at the man next to him.

Sensing the change in speed, Oliver shifted in his seat and met Daymon’s chilly one-eyed glare. “What?” he asked, straining against the shoulder belt as he squared up with the dreadlocked driver.

Not one to mince words, Daymon said, “What the fuck was that back there?”

“What was what?”

Facing forward now, Daymon sighed. “The inaction on your part back there at the gate. You stayed in the truck like a little—.” Reining in his rising anger, Daymon went silent, tightened his grip on the wheel and steered the nearly new four-by-four pickup through a gentle left-hand sweeper. Trees growing up from the sodden bank on the right side partially shielded the turbid Ogden River from view. To their left, the small mountain the abandoned rock quarry was perched upon rose several hundred feet from the road, partially blocking the watery early morning sun.

“Bitch. That’s the word you swallowed, right? Newsflash, Daymon. I’m guilty as charged.” His green eyes darkened. “Oliver frickin Gladson is a goddamn fraud who is deathly afraid of living corpses. Have been since the first time I left the Pacific Crest Trail to resupply and saw the dead grocery clerk with his throat torn out walking the aisles and bloodying up his store. So there. You have it straight out of the horse’s mouth. I’m a frickin coward.”

Daymon’s shoulders slumped subtly as the quarry entrance blipped by on the left. Shortly after, on their right, the rectangular sign announcing the feeder road to the long-abandoned Smith mining operation loomed. It had been shot up from behind. Big holes blown right through it that left twisted triangles of sharp metal jutting forward and the words on its face barely recognizable. Daymon made a mental note to himself to ask the others in the trailing vehicles if they remembered the sign being bullet-pocked.

Uncomfortable in the silence permeating the cab, Oliver removed his black stocking cap and ran his hand through the unruly ring of graying hair.

Finally, Daymon said, “What about the early legs of the Pacific Crest Trail in California? With all of those people in Cali surely you had some run-ins with the dead.”

“I didn’t see anything for days after the outbreak. I had no radio. Wouldn’t have gotten good reception where I was anyway. So everything I heard about the dead coming back to life came from trail angels and other through hikers. Needless to say, I was skeptical. So I took it all with a grain of salt and forged ahead.”

Seeing something lying across the road a good distance ahead—basically just a horizontal shadow at this point—Daymon flicked his eyes to the mirror to see what kind of following distance Taryn was observing.

As always, the former dirt track racer had her white pickup tucked in tight to his bumper. In fact, she was so close—Nascar drafting close—that he couldn’t see the prominent FORD logo on the matte-black grill. Worried that if he stood on the brakes the white Raptor and its young occupants would become the frosting center in a big metal Oreo consisting of the black Chevy up front, and the massive F-650 behind, he tapped his brakes three times to back her off, then slowed to the posted thirty-five. Keeping his eyes glued to the distant roadway obstruction, he said, “All that distance you covered on the roads from Oregon to Utah, how did you go about avoiding the dead?”

“I holed up during the day and travelled at night. Simple as that.”

Daymon grunted.

“I had the night vision goggles I took off a dead Oregon National Guardsman. Their roadblock near Mount Hood was a mess. The vehicles were all shot to hell. The bodies, too. Ones that hadn’t reanimated and walked away were nearly picked clean by the mountain birds. Hell, Daymon, the guy I took ‘em off didn’t need ‘em anymore.”

“I’m not judging you on that,” Daymon replied.

Reining the pickup back to a walking speed, he leaned over the wheel to scan both sides of the road for evidence of an ambush: a light glinting from glass or metal. Fresh tire tracks on the shoulder. Out of place bodies. Pools of spent brass or debris that looked as if it had been purposefully placed on the road. Seeing nothing of the sort, he sped up a little and asked, “What about the Ogden pass? And Huntsville? You put down dozens of rotters there. That’s not the work of a coward.”

Oliver snugged his cap down over his ears. Then, in a flat monotone, said, “Why couldn’t the snow have stuck around? I can handle those things if they’re not moving. If those hungry, dead eyes aren’t flicking around … searching. In Huntsville I was pretending to be Charlton Heston. You know … the Omega Man … fucking with mannequins. That’s not courage, though. That’s just borderline crazy.”

Daymon said nothing. He was focusing on the newly fallen tree. It was resting on the right guardrail and stretched shoulder to shoulder across the road. It was nothing like the monster old-growth numbers he had felled to block 39 west of the compound. This alder was about as big around as a man’s thigh, devoid of leaves, and had patches of white bark curling up. It looked diseased, its affected roots likely compromised by the weight of the recent snow and further weakened by the rains that followed.

Voice cracking, Oliver went on. “I was cleaning up Huntsville for my mom. After finding my dad like I did, guts all ripped out; bite marks and all … I figured she was dead for sure. Had become one of them things.”

On the console between the two men, the two-way radio began to vibrate.

Ignoring the buzzing, Daymon threw the truck into Park. “And Duncan? Are you two cool yet?”

With no hesitation, Oliver spat, “Fuck Duncan. He’ll never replace my dad.”

Daymon shot Oliver a sidelong glare as Wilson’s voice emanated from the Motorola’s tiny speaker. He scooped up the handset and keyed the Talk button. “Keep your pants on, kid,” he growled. “And yes … I did see the shot-up sign back there.”

“I was wondering about that,” Wilson said. “I didn’t see any signs of an ambush. You think this tree was cut down on purpose?”

“Roots are showing,” Daymon answered. “It was ready to go. All it took was that heavy snow and then all that rain softening the soil. Good thing it didn’t fall on the rig Cleo drove over. Would have been a fireball for sure.”

Following a short burst of squelch, Jamie entered the conversation. “Our six is clear,” she said. “We saw the sign, too. Lev seems to think the holes in the sign are new. No signs of rust, he says.” There was a short pause. In the background the F-650’s engine rumble could still be heard. “Lev wants to know what you want to do with the tree? You going to take it out with the Stihl? Or should we pull forward and use the winch to drag it off the guardrail?”

“The latter,” Daymon acknowledged. “Come around on my left.” He released the Talk key and turned to Oliver. “Wilson used to be the skittish one around the dead. A little razzing by his sister led to him trying to force the issue on the way here from Colorado. Nearly got him killed. But it went a long way toward loosening him up around the things.”

Oliver scanned the road on his right. He shifted his gaze to the bushes crowding the road on the left. “I’m not going to lie to you,” he conceded. “I’m scared as shit out here in the open … in broad daylight.”

“A little fear is necessary. Keeps us sharp,” Daymon said as the F-650 pulled alongside, casting its shadow on the Chevy. “’Frosty’ is what Captain America likes to call the razor’s edge he tries to ride. Heard him describe it as the perfect blending of fear and confidence.”

“But he’s a trained soldier,” Oliver noted. “I’m nothing of the sort.”

“That trained soldier had to get used to dealing with the living dead just like me and Wilson and the others. Hell, your mom did it. Means you can, too. So just watch. Sponge it up. And learn from your mistakes.”

The sounds of multiple doors opening and closing entered the cab through Oliver’s partially rolled-down window. He wiped away a stray tear with the back of his hand.

“Baby steps, my man. Baby steps,” Daymon said, shouldering open his door. “Be right back. Lock up if you feel the need.” Leaving the truck idling, he closed the door and hustled to join Wilson and Jamie, who were already stretching the winch toward the far shoulder where the tree’s top had come to rest.

 

 

Chapter 6

 

After attaching the F-650’s winch to the fallen snag, Daymon moved out of the way and stood with Lev, Oliver, and the Kids while Jamie reversed the big truck. There was a puff of gray exhaust that hung low to the road as horsepower and torque combined to get the sixty-foot length of timber moving off of the dented guardrails.

The Ford crouched down on its suspension and the tires chirped as Jamie mashed the pedal.

Finally a ripple went through the timber and the staccato crack of limbs shearing off filled the air. The old equal and opposite reaction came into play and the tree tore free from the rail and rolled a few feet toward the assembled group.

One last toe stab to the pedal by Jamie jerked the cable taut and brought the tree parallel with the guard rail on the river side of 39.

As soon as the tree had stopped moving, its bare branches done quivering, Dregan’s courier, Cleo, pulled the 4Runner next to the F-650, flashed a mostly toothless grin at Jamie, then motored off down 39 alone.

Seeing this, Daymon merely shrugged and sent Oliver, Wilson, and Taryn off to help Jamie untangle the cable. Once the trio were out of earshot, he turned to Lev and told him all he had just learned about their new friend, Oliver, and how he planned to bring the newest member of the Eden group up to speed.

When Daymon was done saying his piece, Lev shook his head then looked away and watched Taryn help guide the winch cable back into its bumper-mounted housing. Wilson was policing the shattered branches from the road. Meanwhile, Oliver was leaning against the bowed-in guardrail, watching the others work.

Daymon craned his head to get Lev’s attention. “What?” he said, palms up, exasperation evident by the tone of his voice. “Look at him. You don’t think he needs a fire lit under him?”

Lev fixed his gaze on Daymon. “Not what I was thinking,” he said. “It’s all coming together. The other day I was wondering why a guy who humped hundreds of miles of countryside to get home didn’t look like he’d just ridden a boat across the River Styx. What you just told me also explains the night vision goggles and all of the spare batteries he was carrying. But what you’ve got planned … it’s kind of harsh, don’t you think?”

Tucking a dread behind his ear, Daymon said, “Not more so than the alternative. Raven had the last of the antiserum and it’s gone now. No telling if Captain America …”

“Remember your new leaf?” Lev interrupted.

“Er, yeah,” Daymon said rather sheepishly. “As I was saying, there’s no telling if Cade is going to return from his next excursion with more of those vials. So … I think an evaluation by fire of our new weakest link isn’t too harsh. Especially if it ends up saving lives down the road.”

Lev hung his head. “Wilson didn’t get that kind of treatment. And he’s finally turned the corner.”

“That transformation has been months in the making.”

“Yeah,” Lev agreed.

The Raptor suddenly came to life, its 6.2-liter engine rumbling low and steady.

“Well?” Daymon pressed. “It’s only every one of our lives at stake. And, as always”—he paused and took a deep breath—“I’ll be the bad guy.”

“I guess,” Lev conceded. “Hell of a baptism, though.”

“I won’t let it get out of hand. Think of it as a blanket party. That’s what you Army guys call that thing you do to initiate the noob privates … right?”

Lev smiled conspiratorially. “Only in the movies.” Spinning a finger in the air, he addressed the others. “We’re oscar mike. Thirty seconds. Mount ‘em up.”

A minute later they were in fact oscar mike—military speak meaning on the move—and the trees lining 39 were scrolling by, their gnarled reflections creating a hypnotic effect as they juddered bottom-to-top across the three vehicles’ bug-spattered windshields.

***

Twenty minutes after clearing the tree from the road, the three pickups were parked side-by-side, Chevy on the left, Raptor in the middle, and the big Ford F-650 taking up the exact spot on the right shoulder where the overturned school bus used to reside. All three vehicles were facing the asphalt confluence where 39 met 16, the state route connecting Bear River in the south with Laketown and scenic Bear Lake near the Utah/Idaho border some thirty miles north by west.

Daymon and Lev had purposefully maneuvered their trucks close enough to the Raptor so that the entire group could chat without broadcasting their intentions to the world on an open radio channel.

Daymon spoke up first. “Seeing as how our friends down south haven’t seen hide nor hair of the horde since yesterday, I figure in order to cover as much ground as possible before dark, splitting up is our best bet.”

Taryn and Wilson both nodded their approval.

Speaking from a much higher perch, Lev craned his head to make eye contact with the others. “As long as the horde is still down south and we keep the radios on … I don’t see why not.”

“Me and Oliver will skirt Woodruff on the east side, come around counterclockwise, south to north. Lev, you and Jamie start at the rehab place and work towards the center of town.”

“We’ll drive to the north edge of Woodruff and start moving back this direction,” Taryn said. “Meet you all in the middle near the post office.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Lev agreed.

Hand tightening on his AR-15’s grip, Oliver looked to Daymon. “You sure of this?”

Before Daymon had a chance to answer, the long range handheld CB belched static. A tick later Heidi was asking for Daymon.

“Daymon here. What’s up?”

Voice wavering, Oliver said, “The horde is coming. I knew it.”

Daymon looked sidelong at Oliver and adjusted the volume up a notch.

“Change of plans here at the compound,” Heidi said. “Chances are you’ll soon be hearing or seeing military aircraft in the vicinity.”

Glaring at Oliver, his index finger now held vertical to his lips, Daymon said, “Cade’s ride is inbound already?”

“You got it,” she replied. “Could be that quiet black helicopter or the noisy as hell tilt-rotor thingy. Cade didn’t say either way. I didn’t ask. He just looked at his big soldier watch and said he’s being picked up in the coming hours … whatever that means.”

“Shit,” Daymon exclaimed. “I was hoping to get something to him before he left.” He slapped a palm on the steering wheel, causing Oliver to visibly tense. He glanced to his right and saw Taryn in the driver’s seat in the Raptor looking a question his way.

Daymon glanced at his wrist. Realizing he wasn’t wearing a watch, he flicked his eyes to the clock on the instrument cluster. Then, after a quick mental calculation, he thumbed the Talk key. “Have someone meet me at the gate in ninety minutes.”

Trepidation creeping into her tone, Heidi said, “Will do.”

Daymon’s gaze landed on the trip computer where he saw the outside temperature indicated in small digital numbers. Fifty-eight degrees … effin pineapple express. Shaking his head, he dialed the volume down and handed the CB to Oliver.

“What do you want me to do with this?”

Nodding toward the Raptor, Daymon said, “Have the Kids pass it through to Lev.”

Taryn took the radio from Oliver without saying a word.

The CB continued its journey through the Raptor and Wilson deposited it in Lev’s outstretched hand. Then, bowing his head to see past Taryn, Wilson whistled to get Daymon’s attention. “What’s this extra special item on your shopping list?” he asked.

Jaw taking on a granite set, Daymon locked eyes with Wilson. “An amends,” he said through clenched teeth. Truth be told, acting on Duncan’s advice, swallowing his pride and admitting he was wrong did feel a bit liberating. However, the only child in him was kicking and screaming all the way.

In the F-650, Lev passed the CB to Jamie then turned back to address Wilson. “You think I ought to convince him we should stick together? We can always come back out this way tomorrow.”

Wilson shook his head vehemently side-to-side causing the boonie hat strap under his chin to swing like a pendulum. “I want no part of this one. Both Cade and Duncan agreed to Daymon calling the shots on this little excursion.”

Lev smiled. Thumbing the Motorola two-way he said, “We’re good to go.” To his left the black Chevy made a slow sweeping turn onto 16. Taryn moved out next, quickly bringing the race-tuned Raptor up to speed. Lev pulled out last, taking up rear guard on the three-vehicle train.

 

As agreed upon ahead of time, Daymon took the first right at Back In The Saddle Rehab and drove east on Center Street. Soon, the narrow two-lane entered a shallow depression and the upper story and wood-shingled roof of the rehab place disappeared from view. After a long steady climb out of the dip, the farmhouses near to town gave way to rolling countryside rife with green fields of chest-high alfalfa.

Standing out smack dab in the middle of one of the fields were a pair of prefab homes. A pair of long gravel drives roughly a quarter of a mile apart led up to identical cement parking pads fronting each house.

“Cade’s already been through those two,” Daymon said, slowing and pointing out the white Xs scrawled on the doors. “He never mentioned marking them up like that, though.”

Shrugging off the practice that seemed to make sense in a natural disaster, but not so much in the zombie apocalypse, Daymon pinned the accelerator to make up for lost time.

Soon the two-lane was flanked by trees and the red-brown foothills of the Bear mountains were filling up the windshield.

“Five minutes gone,” Oliver noted. “Where are we going?”

“Don’t worry,” Daymon replied. “I’ve been here before. Whether or not someone else has since is the make or break.”

Oliver fidgeted with the strap on his custom rifle. “When were you there last?”

Letting up on the pedal and steering around a doddering zombie, Daymon said, “Two or three weeks ago.”

“By yourself?”

“Yep.”

Oliver stared out over the shiny hood at the peaks where residual pockets of snow high up on their flanks reflected the low-hanging sun. “There’s no skiing up there,” he stated matter-of-factly.

“No shit.”

“What are you planning, then?”

Abruptly, Daymon pulled the Chevy to the right. He rattled the transmission into Park and dragged the keys from the ignition. Looking at Oliver, he said in a pleading voice, “Just humor me … please.”

Semiautomatic pistol in one hand, keys in the other, Daymon stepped to the road and closed the door at his back.

Oliver actuated the power door locks and then looked on as Daymon approached a weed-choked gate on the opposite side of the road. Interest mounting, Oliver craned and watched the lanky man crouch on the shoulder for a tick before rising and venturing into the knee-high grass growing up through the soft dirt fronting the gate. After a few seconds spent standing before the gate, Daymon pushed it inward and returned to the pickup with a substantial length of chain in hand.

Back behind the wheel and ignoring the quizzical look on Oliver’s face, Daymon pulled the pickup across the road and nosed it through the yawning gate.

Taking the chain with him, Daymon hustled back to the gate and secured it with the Schlage padlock—just as he’d left it weeks ago. After looking both directions up and down the road, he returned to the truck displaying the same sense of urgency as when he’d initially approached the gate.

Not a second had passed between the time Daymon’s door slammed shut and Oliver’s interrogation began. “What the hell are we doing here?”

“You’ll see,” Daymon answered cryptically as they barreled north on a smooth, paved road flanked by nicely manicured trees and once sculpted hedges clearly in need of a gardener’s attention.

 

Chapter 7

 

 

They followed the winding drive in silence until a lone zombie came into view on Oliver’s side of the truck. Upon hearing the engine noise, the male first turn instantly snapped its head in their direction and raised its pustule-riddled arms. Head bobbing and seemingly restrained by an invisible hand, the thing marched in place, its bare feet churning the muddy shoulder as it struggled mightily to set foot on the pavement.

“Was that here before?”

Daymon snorted. “He’s right where I left him. You could say he’s on a stake out.”

“You made him your fuckin’ pet?”

“Early warning system is more like it. The simple fact that he’s still standing likely means nobody’s driven this road since I did last.”

Oliver recoiled from his window as the wing mirror came into contact with the zombie’s left hand. The solid thud was still resonating through the door when the keen of fingernails raking sheet metal started up. Disgusted, he asked, “What’d you do, stake its foot to the ground?”

“Not quite,” Daymon answered with a soft chuckle. “I tethered the Z to a stake. Rope’s around his waist. Reaaaall tight. He isn’t going anywhere without help.”

Warily eyeing the rotting cadaver’s shrinking reflection in the side mirror, Oliver said, “You’re one sick individual.”

“Sick is in the mind of the beholder, my friend.”

After a short right-hand bend, a basketball standard and garishly painted basketball court came into view. As the sports court slid by on Daymon’s side, a three-story house filled up the entire windshield. It was all wood and stone and framed by the naked boughs of a picket of mature trees planted long ago. Where the drive spilled to a large circular parking pad, the Bear Mountain Range was visible rising up behind the house.

Oliver whistled. “Looks like this McMansion missed the left turn to Aspen.”

“Exactly,” Daymon said, smiling. “Reminds me of the houses back in Jackson Hole. And that pad there”—he wheeled the truck right and pointed left at a long rectangular area of poured concrete. It was newer, stark white, and stood out from the rest—“is where I found the Winnebago me and Heidi call home. Believe it or not, it was gassed up and ready to go.”

“Judging by that cow pasture gate at the road, you’d never know the drive would lead to a house of this caliber.”

“Or any house for that matter,” Daymon proffered. “And I want to keep it looking that way.” He steered the pickup in a big counterclockwise loop and parked it on the herringbone pavers underneath the covered entry adjacent to the front door. “Because one day when the effin dead actually start dying off this will be mine and Heidi’s retirement home.”

Oliver walked his gaze over the home. It was constructed of wood beams secured with rugged-looking rubbed-bronze iron bands. The roof and gutters were black steel and contrasted nicely with the pale gray stonework running up both sides of the huge wood and iron front door. Numerous gables jutted up through the multi-faceted roof. The windows on each floor were flanked by legitimate storm shutters. Constructed from what looked like louvered steel and mounted to the home on sturdy-looking hinges, the black slabs made the mini mansion look damn formidable from any angle.

After a pregnant pause, Oliver asked, “Whose place is it and where are they? I never heard any of the usual rumors that hit the wire when new money comes putting roots down around here. At least my mom didn’t mention it. Which is not like her at all.”

“There was nobody home when I was here last,” Daymon said. “Looks like it has been shut up since before the shit hit the fan. The junk mail in the recycling bin inside was postmarked well before summer.”

“Maybe this was their winter retreat.”

“Couldn’t think of a better place to store the RV. It’s a pretty easy drive to Yellowstone and Grand Teton from here. Both are very beautiful year round. Plus, there’s a trailer and four new snowmobiles in the garage.”

Oliver craned around. “Where is the garage?”

“That’s the best part of the place. It’s out back and full to the brim with toys. Hell, I felt bad leaving the spare 4Runner parked in there with all those big dollar rides.” Daymon killed the motor. Grabbing his AR from the backseat, he asked, “Coming or staying?”

Oliver hesitated.

“Because we’ve got to get back to the compound before hooking up with the others, It’ll just be a quick in and out. No sightseeing.”

“I’d just slow you down,” Oliver replied, looking over his shoulder. “What makes you sure there’s nobody already squatting inside?”

“I have a few tricks up my sleeve,” Daymon said. “Learned my lesson the hard way in Hannah waking up with a Glock stuck in my face.”

“Cade?”

Daymon nodded. “I was slippin’ … won’t happen again.”

Grinning, Oliver said, “And that’s why you tea-bagged him at Mom’s place.”

“Bingo,” Daymon said. “And that’s why we’re here. Be right back. Don’t forget to lock ‘er up.”

Oliver nodded. In fact, the door locks were thunking home before Daymon’s boot hit the front stairs. Oliver looked on from the truck as the former BLM firefighter ran his hand around the door jamb and fiddled with the lock and brass handle. After the cursory inspection, Daymon flashed a thumbs-up and set off for the corner of the house closest to the RV parking pad, black AR carbine held at a low ready.

And a poor tea-bagging at that, thought Oliver, walking his gaze in a full three-sixty around the truck. He didn’t even drop his trousers.

 

Two miles west of the McMansion, Lev and Jamie were already exiting Back In The Saddle Rehab emptyhanded. The pair of first turns that had been locked inside and wandering freely about the downstairs area were sprawled out on the cement ramp where Jamie had felled them. Just as she’d been conditioned to do since the dead things started walking, the old knock and listen had proven effective.

Once inside, however, everything of use in treating an injury or instrumental to someone on the road to recovery from one had been stripped from the place. Downstairs, papers with pictures of models performing therapeutic exercises littered the floor. They’d found the floor-to-ceiling cabinets all thrown open, the plastic bins once containing the exercise handouts on the floor, some of them in shards as if they had been kicked and then stomped on. Staggered boot prints of varying sizes and with different tread patterns marked up the scattered papers with a reddish-brown mud.

Only office furniture, file cabinets, and the festering corpses of a young mother and her little one occupied the second floor.

In short, humans had picked the place as clean as the birds had the bones of the dozens of corpses sprawled in silent repose in the parking lot and sidewalk alongside the ransacked business.

From the rehab place’s elevated back entry, Jamie surveyed the gravel parking lot. “Well that was a bust,” she said, throwing the empty day pack over a shoulder.

Standing beside the F-650, Lev cocked his head and looked to his left. A tick later, engine sounds could be heard riding the wind somewhere well north of them.

“Whoever tore up the place,” he said, his attention still on the familiar engine growl approaching from the north, “there must have been a whole bunch of ‘em.”

“Half a dozen, at least,” Jamie said. “I counted that many unique shoe prints in there.” She nudged the corpse at her feet. “What’s really bugging me is how these two got shut inside after the breathers left.”

“Let’s hope they aren’t evolving,” Lev said, brow cocked. “They learn to turn handles and work keys in locks, we are toast.”

Jamie fixed Lev with a concerned look.

“Cade and Duncan believe they go through some of the motions they used to. Just not consciously. And that’s a theory I can get behind.”

Jamie shuddered at the thought of a pistol-wielding corpse. Or worse, a handful of them thwarting a door by a means other than brute force and entering the Eden compound employing stealth and cunning. “You’re right. We’d be done so quick if they did evolve.”

“I bet the owners of those boots left the door cracked when they left,” Lev theorized. “Then the two that were in there barged in and accidently bumped it closed behind them.”

Cocking her head toward the engine noise and recognizing it as the throaty growl of the Kids’ Raptor, Jamie asked, “You think maybe Dregan and the Bear River folks are responsible for this?”

Lev shook his head. “They agreed to leave the north to us. Besides, those tire tracks in the lot run deep and were definitely made by something much larger than anything of theirs we’ve seen so far. The wheelbase looks to be a good deal wider than a military Hummer.”

“Wider than the Graysons’ Ford, too,” she observed, glancing away from the chevron-patterned indentations and settling her gaze on the mud-spattered black pickup parked beside the tire tracks in question.

Lev’s face tightened. “Yep,” he said, exhaling. “Could be a threat to Eden if they get lucky and follow us home like Dregan did Cade.”

“Speaking in Cade’s defense,” Jamie said, “Dregan followed his tire tracks in the snow to Eden.”

“Whatever the case,” Lev said agreeably. “We still better keep our eyes peeled. And it would be wise for us to stop every once in a while, kill the engines, and listen. The motor stuffed under the hood of the thing that made these tracks is probably diesel and makes a hell of a racket. And that’ll carry real well considering this autumn quiet.”

After scanning the area one last time from the elevated perch for any rotters backing the F-650 into the lot may have attracted, the pair closed the door and made their way to the vehicle, heads on a swivel and weapons sweeping the lot.

 

Chapter 8

 

Head panning side-to-side, Daymon padded around the southwest corner of the multi-story home and struck off north in its shadow. All along the walk the bushes growing up beside the house brushed his right side as he made his way to the red paver drive he knew looped around back between the house and massive garage.

Thirty paces from the front of the house, he found himself facing a structure nearly half the size of the one at his back. Finished in the same stone and exposed timber style as the main residence, the garage rose up two stories and partially eclipsed the Bear Range to the east.

The roll-up doors all passed inspection, as did the dead-bolted door on the garage’s far northeast corner.

So far so good, he thought, turning his attention to the main home’s covered back porch and half-dozen stairs leading up to it.

The thick welcome mat on the decking in front of the sturdy wood door was just as he had left it: lined up perfectly with the marks he’d scribed with his knife on the deck next to each of its outside corners.

After banging on the door with a closed fist, Daymon waited the requisite half-minute listening for the telltale sounds of the dead: low-in-timbre moaning of the recently turned. Dry hisses of the first turned. Numb knees and shins inadvertently moving furniture around inside. Or, lastly, as Daymon ticked off the seconds in his head, cold dead flesh slamming headlong into the closed door he was about to enter.

Thankfully, none of the above happened. A minute removed from his last words with Oliver, Daymon was working the key in the lock and holding his breath. There was a soft click. Simultaneously, he pushed the door inward and took a wide step to his left, carbine trained on the ever-widening slice in which the home’s well-lit mudroom was presented.

He saw the washer and dryer first. Expensive items on pedestals with seemingly a thousand settings and something called “steam finishing.” There were a number of high-dollar jackets on pegs. Below the jackets were four different sets of new-looking boots still lined up smallest to largest just as he had arranged them.

Daymon closed the door at his back and ventured into the kitchen, stunted dreads bobbing with each footfall.

With its stainless steel Viking appliances, black granite counters, and bright white woodwork, the modern kitchen could have graced the pages of Architectural Digest. Maybe it had, Daymon mused as he made his way past the jumbo island to the formal dining room where a live-edge plank table in dark wood was arranged horizontally between the kitchen and wide-open family room.

After a quick glance to the grand staircase left of the front entry, Daymon padded across the room to the massive plate glass window looking out over the porch, red brick parking round and black pickup with Oliver still in the passenger seat, head on a swivel, the same as when Daymon had left him there.

***

After making a quick trip upstairs, Daymon returned the way he’d come and was outside the back door with a bulging gym bag in hand, carbine slung over his shoulder, and locking the door with his key.

Still on the porch, he stood still for a moment and looked over both shoulders. Nothing moved. The garage sat quiet, its windows darkened. The picket of trees encircling the rear of the property sighed and shimmied as a light east wind coursed through their upper boughs.

Satisfied he was still alone, he turned back to face his casa, squared the mat’s corners back up as he’d found them, and took the stairs down two at a time.

***

The quick in and out of Daymon’s future home coupled with the sprint back to the truck had burned all of two minutes. Thirty additional seconds went by as he slid behind the wheel, turned the engine over, and nosed the truck south down the winding drive.

In total three minutes were history and Oliver’s questions were filling the cab when the gate came into view.

After bringing the truck to a grinding halt a dozen feet from the gate, like a policeman directing traffic, Daymon silenced the yammering by holding his heavily calloused palm in front of Oliver’s pasty face.

“Give it a rest until I get us through the gate safely, will ya?”

Still feeling the last vestiges of the cold chill brought on by the keen of the staked-down Z’s fingernails raking the driver’s side door as they had wheeled past, Daymon shouldered open his door.

From his seat, Oliver shot a sour look at Daymon’s back as he stepped from the truck. Stewing internally from the perceived insult, he watched the dreadlocked man crawl up onto the fence’s middle rung and give the road ten seconds of scrutiny in either direction before throwing the latch and swinging the gate open.

“Clear?” Oliver asked once Daymon was back behind the wheel and had closed the door.

“For now,” Daymon answered. “But there’s a rotter a few hundred feet down the road. Must have seen or heard us coming in. And the squeaky gate just got its undivided attention.” He rattled the transmission into Drive and wheeled them out onto the road and stopped the Chevy straddling the centerline, its chromed grill aimed at the ambling ghoul. “You want to earn your man card?”

Oliver remained tightlipped.

“C’mon … water your balls. Get out there and kill it face to face.”

Still Oliver sat in silence, staring at the approaching corpse.

“This ain’t no different than bombing down a double black for the first time, OG. Sure you’ve got the butterflies. We all still get them now and again. But once you get the tips over the precipice and commit … survival instinct takes over and edges the fear out. Same as doing a rotter up close and personal. You stab it in the brain. It falls. It’s all over. Plus, you’ll find there’s a certain sense of satisfaction you get from giving it sweet release.” He tucked his longest dreads behind his ears and fixed a no-nonsense stare on Oliver.

“Sure it’s different, Daymon. Way different. You fuck up on the ski hill and ski patrol’ll strap you in the basket and take you to the med hut. Best case scenario you’ve only sprained something and they give you a pain killer or two. Next thing you know you’re in the bar chasing them down with a shot of Rumple Minze.”

“Jägermeister …” Daymon interrupted. “Hell yes. Those were the days.”

Oliver made a face then went on, “Worst case scenario: a concussion and broken bones gets you aboard a life flight heading to Ogden or Salt Lake. If I freeze up out there and get bit my mom will kill me. Then, after she kills me, she will kill you. Probably with your own blade.”

Clucking his tongue, Daymon took his foot off the brake and let the truck roll forward until the creature was broadside with Oliver’s door.

Instantly, the thing rushed the door, mashing its face against the window. The clicking noise of its teeth impacting the glass reverberated in the cab, setting Oliver’s arm hair standing to attention. Its face was marred by circular bite marks oozing a viscous yellow liquid. One eye was missing, and the optic nerve—or at least what looked like one to Oliver—snaked from the puckered opening and rested limply on one sunken cheek.

Casting his gaze downward, he saw that the female creature’s flaccid breasts bore punctures and scratches, likely from encountering brambles and branches while traipsing the countryside in search of prey.

“No water is getting near these balls,” Oliver stated, inching away from the window, the seatbelt crossing his body suddenly going taut.

Renewing its efforts at trying to eat the meat through the rapidly clouding passenger side glass, the thing opened its maw wider and planted its maggot-riddled tongue where Oliver’s face had been.

“Look at that thing,” Daymon said. “You want her to slip you some of that? I could punch the window down and let you touch it.”

The monster was palming the window now, bony fingers splayed out like gnarled tree roots. It tilted its head and, almost as if it could sense the fear radiating off of the fresh meat, shot a confused dog’s look straight at Oliver.

“You better go now if you want to make it to the compound and back within the hour,” Oliver said, throwing a visible shudder.

“Don’t worry,” Daymon said. “We’ll make it.”

Turning away from the persistent abomination, Oliver showed Daymon his watch. “That’s only forty some-odd minutes. How are you going to make that happen?”

“Like this,” Daymon shot, simultaneously releasing the brake, matting the pedal, and steering into the rotter. “I’m going to drive it like I stole it.”

 

Chapter 9

 

Taryn was holding the creature at bay—barely. Still, the thing had been able to snake one arm through the four-inch-wide gap between door and jamb and had gotten hold of a fistful of the nineteen-year-old’s fleece jacket.

“Hurry up, Wilson!” she hollered across the parking lot. “Damn thing got the jump on me!”

Unable to see the true gravity of his fiancée’s situation, he tucked his carbine to his shoulder and called back, “Why don’t you just step away from the door and I’ll pop it when it comes on out?”

Taryn was straining mightily, her shoulder mashed against the door, all hundred-and-five pounds of her small frame invested fully in the life-and-death struggle. “I can’t. It’s got ahold of me,” she said. “If you’re going to be my husband, Wilson … you have to jump when I say jump!”

And he did. Not literally, though. However, even before he had followed through on the first powerful stride towards the fix-it shop’s front door, he had spun the carbine out of the way, letting it hang on its sling at his back. The easier to handle Beretta semi-auto pistol had cleared its holster and was in his fist as he halved the distance to the short, unkempt hedges fronting the combination stairs/wheelchair ramp.

To Wilson, as he ran headlong for the stairs with the carbine thumping steadily against his backside, time seemed to slow down, allowing him to see that the looming, vertical rectangle of white Taryn was crouched before was stickered over with certificates promising A+ Customer Satisfaction, ensuring AAA Accreditation, and trumpeting Chamber of Commerce Membership Since 1982. All minutiae to the twenty-year-old considering the first and only true love of his life was in imminent danger. And as his adrenaline-affected vision began to narrow, he shifted focus from the big picture to the gnarled fingers beginning to find purchase on the tightly braided shock of hair hanging down the back of Taryn’s camouflage jacket.

He cleared the trio of cement stairs in one bound and added all hundred-and-seventy-some-odd pounds of mostly wiry muscle to the effort. But it was too late, for the thing had quickly transitioned its grip from Taryn’s jacket to her long ponytail and was reeling her head toward the shadowy opening which, inexplicably, was beginning to widen instead of narrow as it should given the added weight.

Reacting to the sudden sight of his girl’s head snapping back, Wilson disengaged the Beretta’s safety and, without thought of the consequences, thrust his right arm into the narrow opening. After twisting his wrist and bending his elbow to get the muzzle pointed to where he envisioned the thing’s head to be behind the windowless steel-door, he squeezed off half a dozen rounds to no good effect.

Slumping backward, her knees beginning to buckle, Taryn slipped her knife from its sheath and motioned with her eyes to the arm dragging her down.

Instantly getting her message, Wilson accepted the offered knife with his free hand while loosing the remaining four rounds from the Beretta at the shadowy shapes inside the darkened store.

Seeing Wilson going for her twisted hair with the black Tanto-style blade, Taryn drew a breath and in a choked voice blurted, “The wrist. Cut the tendons. That’ll make it let go of me.”

Having been in a nearly identical predicament himself, albeit with the offending appendage sans the attached reanimated corpse, Wilson had every reason to sympathize. So he hacked away with the razor-sharp blade, slicing a trio of inch-deep furrows across the pallid swath of skin on the Z’s upturned forearm.

On the third pass of the Cold Steel blade the Z’s fingers snapped open and a thin tendril of sticky black fluid painted a crazy pattern on the cement all around Wilson’s boots.

Freed from the cold hand’s grip, Taryn drew her pistol and crabbed sideways from the door. “Let it come,” she hissed at Wilson, her eyes never leaving the ever-widening crack between door and jamb.

Ears still ringing from his own weapon discharging so near to his head, Wilson relied on his minimal lip-reading skills, complying only when he realized what Taryn had in mind.

“Let ‘em come,” she urged, eyes dark with anger.

Wilson eased his weight from the door and backpedaled to his left, taking up station partway down the wheelchair ramp.

Naturally, with the weight of the monster—or monsters—still pressing out on it, the door flung wide open, hitting the outside wall with a bang.

Painted by the intruding slice of white sunlight, the sneering creature looked more ghost than living dead. Eyes panning left and right, it remained rooted, seemingly stuck making a decision as to which morsel looked the most appetizing. Then, as quickly as the rotten male cadaver had filled up the door, several pale arms snaked around both sides of his body.

The Beretta in Taryn’s small fist bucked twice. The first 9mm slug cut the air just to the right of the zombie’s left ear and hit a wire rack containing pamphlets, sending it spinning slowly clockwise and a spritz of shredded glossy paper airborne. The natural rise of the discharging pistol combined with a slight flinch brought on by the first sharp report sent the second bullet high and left of the first. Which was a welcome yet unintended consequence that saw the speeding missile careen sidelong off the bridge of the thing’s nose and embark on an exploratory mission of the inside of its cranium. There was no explosion of brain, bone, and hair as Taryn had expected. Instead, the strangely silent first turn’s head snapped back and its body instantly followed that same trajectory to the floor.

Already having slapped a fresh magazine into the Beretta, Wilson was pleading for Taryn to get off the landing when a pair of first turns suddenly spilled through the doorway, clambering over the twice-dead corpse. Numb fingers swiped the air a yard in front of Taryn, but, inexplicably, the long- dead duo stopped their forward surge just one footstep beyond the door’s threshold.

“What the eff?” Wilson exclaimed, lowering his weapon.

“You’ve got to see this to believe it,” Taryn said, massaging her scalp and slowly distancing herself from the curled fingers kneading the airspace to her fore.

 

Chapter 10

 

The familiar abandoned school bus in the roadside ditch was a yellow blur as the new Chevy fishtailed through the slight S turn where Center crossed 16 and became State Route 39.

In the passenger seat, Oliver was beginning to think he was about to live out a scene from Bullitt or Gone In 60 Seconds. And as the realization settled in that the man driving the pickup was not a trained driver, let alone a stuntman, he began to wonder if live out was the proper way of framing the upcoming experience. The prospect of Daymon taking a corner too fast and leaving them alive and trapped in the crushed hulk and easy prey for the walking dead was almost too much for him.

Glancing sidelong at his passenger, whose right hand was curled around the grab bar, Daymon snickered and applied more gas, throwing the truck hard through a left-hand sweeper. “You need to barf, Oliver?” he asked. “’Cause if you do, it better not be in the gym bag.”

“What’s in the bag that’s so damn important?” Oliver queried through tightly clenched teeth.

Daymon began, “A couple of things for Cade, a couple of things for Duncan, and a couple or twenty things for Raven and Sasha.”

“What?” Oliver pressed.

Tongue firmly planted in cheek, he said, “If I told you what’s inside the bag, I’d have to kill you.”

“It better not be full of effin Snickers bars and six packs of Diet Coke. ‘Cause if it is …” Oliver made a play of grabbing for his carbine. “I just might kill you.”

Near simultaneously—or so it seemed on account of how fast Daymon was driving—the lower mine and upper quarry entrances both flashed by. The former had come into view first off the left-hand side. Then, a tick later, the brush-covered road snaking up the mountainside was in the rearview and growing smaller by the second.

Woodruff

 

The fix-it shop was a handful of blocks east of Main Street and only two long country blocks south of Woodruff’s northern boundary. Set back from the two-lane and fronted by a large gravel lot, the once-white cinderblock garage was now mottled gray from what Taryn guessed to be several decades’ worth of seasonal change. Rain, wind, and no doubt an inordinate amount of the white stuff that had just recently come and gone had taken its toll on the swaybacked structure. From the ground to roughly waist-level on Taryn, furry green moss clung tenaciously to the red brick foundation.

She was leaning against the Raptor’s fender and looking in the general direction of Main when she first heard the engine sounds approaching from the south. That Wilson had just hailed the others to come and offer their opinion on what they had found inside the shop led her to believe it could only be the Graysons’ F-650. And that initial assumption moved closer to one hundred percent in her mind when the vehicle was near enough for her to discern the unique exhaust note. Still, trained ear or not, and the times being what they were, she shouldered her carbine and aimed the business end at the nearest intersection where the vehicle in question was sure to emerge.

Across the lot, Wilson was standing behind the rusted-out shell of an old Studebaker pickup and aiming his carbine at the intersection. Should their assumption be false, from where he and Taryn had positioned themselves, any evasive maneuver the vehicle should undertake would expose both the driver and passenger to a shallow crossfire from the pair of AR-15s.

Better to be safe than sorry was what the older folks were always preaching. And after the ambush in Huntsville, the Kids had been more than happy to take that advice to heart.

North and southbound traffic was regulated at the intersection by a pair of stop signs. To the left, a late-model import sitting on four flat tires and a waist-high white picket fence fronting a two-story house partially blocked the vehicle’s approach on Main from view. However, once the matte-black bumper and massive grill broke the plane, there was no mistaking the vehicle for anything but the towering Ford.

Peering through the 3x magnifier atop his carbine, Wilson confirmed the two in the truck were indeed Jamie and Lev. “Clear,” he called out, still training the muzzle on the passenger door.

“Copy,” Taryn said, setting the rotters in the doorway off on a new round of try-to-climb-over-each-other which sent the rest of the automotive brochures spilling onto the ground outside the entry.

Lowering his carbine, Wilson smiled and approached the Ford with one hand raised in greeting.

Once her window had powered down completely, Jamie asked, “Whatcha got?”

“Follow me,” Wilson said, setting off for the short stack of stairs to his right.

Jamie exited the idling truck, one hand holding a boxy pistol, the other resting on the handle of her sheathed flat-black war tomahawk.

Wilson and Lev formed up behind the women and followed them up the wheelchair ramp fronting the building.

Disregarding the unruly pair of zombies stalled out in the doorway, Taryn stopped and knelt next to the gaunt first turn. “I walked right into a trap,” she said, turning the twice-dead corpse over so that its neck faced the others. With the angled tip of her Tanto, she pointed to the gaping wound where an Adam’s Apple should have been. “All three of these have been … for lack of a better word, silenced. It’s as if someone took out their voice boxes … or damaged their vocal cords so badly they’ve been rendered mute.”

“That’s why we bang on doors first,” Lev said.

Coming to Taryn’s aid, Wilson said, “She did. Three or four times.” He moved closer to her and squared up to Lev.

“I waited the full ten-count before trying the door, too,” Taryn added, her eyes flicking from Jamie to Lev. “Look here.” She probed the creature’s left ear with the knife. Where there should have been the usual canal and raised cartilage inside, there was now just a hole roughly the circumference of a dime. It had well-defined edges and was partially filled in with crusted blood black as marrow.

Jamie asked, “Is it the same on the other side?”

Grimacing, Taryn grabbed the shock of dirty hair atop the corpse’s head and turned it over. Same thing. A neatly bored hole crusted over with some kind of dried fluid.

The other two monsters continued battering themselves against the doorframe, teeth bared in silent snarls. Both had puckered bullet wounds peppering their torsos.

“Those holes aren’t the work of hungry larvae,” Lev said. “Someone’s used them for target practice.” He took a step toward the doorway and craned to see the handiwork up close. Quickly determined that the bullet wounds looked new. And like the rotter at his feet, these two had had their ears drilled out and their throats operated on.

“So what’s keeping them in check?” Jamie asked.

“Let’s find out.” Lev drew a knife from a scabbard on his hip. He set his right foot forward and leaned in like a fencer, jabbing the dagger hilt deep into the eye of the corpse on his right. Instantly an awful-smelling liquid seeped from the punctured orb and the shirtless Z collapsed vertically into a heap, bony knees twisted Indian-style, sharp elbows and knobby vertebra straining against pale, parchment-thin skin.

After dispatching the other Omega-infected monster in the same manner as the last, Lev stepped over the tangled corpses and into the inky gloom.

A handful of seconds after entering the bowels of the auto garage, Lev emerged with the knife sheathed on his hip and a long, silver length of what looked to be a plastic jump rope coiled around one fist.

“Did these two get tangled up in that?” Wilson asked, crunching his boonie hat down over his red mane.

Lev shook his head. “Nope … same story inside there as the rehab place. Someone picked the place clean. They didn’t stop there, however. They left these two tethered to a four-by-four support beam with this plastic-coated wire.” He deposited the end he’d been holding atop the corpses. “These two were left with just enough leash to allow them to almost reach the door … but not enough for them to wander too far away from it.”

Jamie said, “Whoever did this wanted them to be close enough to react to the light when the door opened. Fuckers wanted us to get our faces chewed off the second we set foot inside.”

“Precisely,” Lev agreed. “This old boy,” he pointed to the one that had reached the door first. “He slipped his tether when the skin and flesh sloughed off his ankle and foot.”

“First turns,” Wilson said, covering his mouth and nose against the stench. “I don’t think I’ll ever get used to looking at ‘em.”

“Why booby trap this place? And how’d they do it without getting bit themselves?” Obviously annoyed, Taryn hitched her camouflage coat sleeves up, exposing the scaly dragons and sneering skulls inked in black on her forearms. “I almost bought the farm,” she said, voice wavering subtly.

“They plucked them out of the wild when it was still snowing … or at least still below freezing,” Jamie theorized. “Pretty easy to do whatever it took to silence them and then run a power drill into their ears when they’re not squirming and trying to take a bite out of you.” She moved closer to Taryn, went up to her tiptoes and gently inspected the young woman’s scalp.

“How bad is it?” Taryn asked in a near whisper.

“Not so bad. It could stand a little splash of hydrogen peroxide, though.” Jamie looked the younger woman in the eye and her voice took on a motherly tone. “First that crispy thing at the Shell station the other day. Now this? Girl … you have got to be more careful. Especially when entering automotive garages.” Flashing a smile of relief, Jamie turned to face the guys.

Lev suddenly went still and met the others’ eyes one at a time. Body rigid, he rose from his haunches and swept his gaze over their surroundings. After a quick glance at his watch, he stated, “I don’t like this one bit. Too much organization went into preparing this. I’m going to call this in to the compound.” He cast a glance up the street. Panned his gaze left to an expanse of overgrown yard seemingly split by the shadow cast by the steeple atop a nearby church. “Then I think we should head back to the post office a little early. Clear it of dead and wait for Daymon and Oliver to get back. Once they return we can all decide where we go from there.”

Heads nodded all around as Lev retrieved the CB from the F-650 and placed the call. Then, once he had finished filling Cade in on their findings, he used the two-way to hail Daymon and did the same. Finished, Lev followed Jamie and the Kids to their waiting vehicles. Finally, less than ten minutes after the Kids arrived in the Raptor, the pair of engines roared to life, and the two-truck convoy wheeled from the gravel lot at a slow roll heading west toward Main Street, the F-650 in the lead.

***

The watcher took a final drag on the unfiltered cigarette and grimaced at the stale aftertaste it left in her mouth. Blowing the pungent smoke out through her nose, she blindly stubbed the butt out on the windowsill and shifted in her chair to get the blood flowing back into her numb backside. The binoculars pressed to her eyes were trained on the group of four standing beside a pair of vehicles parked on the gravel lot three blocks to the west.

The redheaded guy in the camouflage hat and the fresh-faced girl with the ponytail who had arrived alone minutes earlier were doing most of the talking. Judging by the group’s fairly relaxed body language as they stood in a ragged circle conversing amongst themselves, the girl with the ponytail who had initially entered the auto body shop alone had inexplicably avoided becoming lunch for the purged. The less-than-urgent response her friends in the big black truck had displayed while responding to the scene, and that nobody down there was breaking out a first aid kit, all but confirmed to the watcher that she wouldn’t be collecting anything as a result.

Part of her was happy the girl had survived her brush with death. But the fleeting emotion wasn’t fueled by any kind of empathy she harbored for the brunette. It was selfish and self-centered and born from the knowledge that the long wait for the victim or victims to finalize their purge and eventually stagger off in search of prey was not going to happen. But more so than that, the fact that the brunette and her redhead friend were still pure and not scavenging claimed territory alone as the watcher had initially reported, spared her momentarily from going through their personal effects—a necessary task that always dredged up painful memories from the time before the purged had risen to usurp the unbelievers.

Shuddering at the prospect of eventually having to again relive that old-life moment when all she had held dear had been violently stripped from her, the watcher panned the binoculars left of the group and scrutinized their vehicles. Sure they were probably full of supplies, their tanks holding precious fuel, but the mere thought of siphoning them instantly turned her stomach. Smacking her lips, she screwed up her face as a Pavlovian response reminded her how awful it would taste in her mouth. Though the cigarettes left behind after the purge were barely palatable, and what she was required to do sexually to Mom and others in order to acquire them even worse, she lit up another and inhaled deeply.

Down the street the small group of uncleansed —the term Mom had bestowed upon those not like them who had survived the purge—entered their vehicles two-by-two, closed their doors in unison, and motored off the way they had come.

Two-by-two, thought the watcher, smiling as the figure of speech brought back yesterday’s lesson of Noah and Mom’s mention of the space ark being constructed for the Enlightened.

Still smiling dumbly and in her mind already light years from a slowly dying Earth, she set the binoculars aside, scooped up the CB radio, and called in to report what she had just witnessed.

After listening to the soothing, slightly robotic voice on the other end instruct her exactly what to do next, the watcher lowered the volume on the handheld CB and then wiggled her knife from the sill where she had stabbed it when the white truck had so rudely interrupted her work.

She set the radio down on the wood floor, leaving a garnet trace of her own blood on the light ash surface. Then, picking up where she had left off, she finished the final flourish on the descending serif of the ornate capital R that she’d already spent the better part of an hour carving into the painted windowsill.

She drew in a deep breath and exhaled slowly while moving her head left-to-right along the length of the dirty windowsill.

Even before the fine wood shavings had floated all the way to the floor to be absorbed into the blood spattered around her crossed legs, she was attacking the next letter in the chosen one’s name with the quiet vigor and precision of a Buddhist monk laboring over a sand mandala.

 

Chapter 11

 

“Drive it like I stole it” was still cycling through Oliver’s mind when Daymon came upon a straightaway, sped up exponentially, and inexplicably took one hand off the wheel in order to answer the warbling two-way radio.

“Daymon,” he answered, matter-of-factly, as if the fallen leaves from the skeletal trees weren’t blazing by in spurts of red and orange and brown.

The speaker hissed white noise for a second then a voice said, “Lev here. We have an issue.”

Daymon was about to ask “What kind of issue?” but before he could get a word in Lev was spilling all about the zombie booby trap and the feelings of being watched he’d experienced outside the fix-it place.

Preparing to brake for a corner rushing at them, Daymon said, “You sure?” and passed the radio off to a near hyperventilating Oliver.

“Near a hundred percent sure,” Lev answered. “By the way … Cade was none too happy we split up.”

Silence on the other end.

Surprised that Daymon wasn’t pissed because of the disclosure, Lev said, “We’ll be waiting at the post office. What’s your ETA?”

Daymon took his eyes from the road for a second. “Tell him we’ll be turning onto 16 in twenty-five minutes … give or take.”

Hands trembling, Oliver keyed Talk, passed on the message, and signed off.

Once again matting the pedal on the next to last straightaway before the curving arc of 39 fronting the compound feeder, Daymon looked sidelong at his passenger and said, “Hail the compound and ask whoever is watching the road for a SITREP.”

Oliver drew a deep cleansing breath, raised Seth on the radio and, without fanfare, relayed the message.

Another burst of static emanated from the tiny speaker. With a trace of levity in the delivery, Seth said, “You’re clear at the road. A special welcoming party will be waiting to receive your secret delivery.”

Still in the dark about what the oversized gym bag on the floor contained, Oliver handed the radio back to the crazy driver.

***

Listening in on the conversation through the ear bud stuck in his right ear, Cade shouldered his M4 and aimed the barrel east down the road at the distant corner. Through the EOTech 3X magnifier, he saw the Chevy round the bend and slow a bit. Tucking the collapsible stock tighter to his shoulder, drawing a deep breath, and exhaling slowly brought the front windshield and cab into sharp focus.

Willing himself back into mission mode, Cade catalogued in his mind what he was seeing through the optics. Two bodies. One passenger: Caucasian male. Driver: African American male. Confidence is high these are the principals. He thumbed the switch on the foregrip and flashed the oncoming truck three times with the high-lumen weapon-mounted tactical light.

Seeing the signal, Daymon hailed Seth. “Who’s waiting at the gate?”

“Cade,” Seth replied at once.

“Oh shit,” Daymon replied. “This could get weird.”

One of Cade’s eyebrows hitched up as he lowered the M4’s muzzle toward the ground. Wondering what the Eden compound’s mercurial former firefighter had up his sleeve, he stepped from behind the blind and raised a gloved hand in greeting.

“I see him,” came Daymon’s voice over the open channel.

The Chevy came to a stop a yard from Cade’s knees, lurched a bit as the transmission was disengaged, and then the body rolled a bit on the chassis when Daymon stepped to the road. In the dreadlocked man’s hand was the black gym bag with the words WEST HIGH PANTHERSSALT LAKE CITY, UTAH silkscreened in red on its sides.

Cade hefted the bag. “Heavy.” He set it on the road and tugged the zipper. Peering at the contents, he said, “You came all this way to give me these before I left?”

“Hell, you’ve been known to wear armor fashioned from magazines. Those are no different. Besides, I might need to borrow your muscle and your truck before winter really gets a-poppin’.”

Cade zippered the bag and shot Daymon a look that implored the man to elaborate.

“I found a place. Not far from the crossroads. Real secluded and secure.”

“Aboveground, I assume.”

Daymon smiled. “Oh, is it ever.”

“What exactly do you need me and the truck for? You can’t have much that needs moving.”

“I was pulling your leg.” Daymon glanced at the Chevy. The window was down now and Oliver was waving to get his attention.

Daymon regarded Cade and added, “In the old world. Before all this dead people walking around bullshit … didn’t you effin hate it when people asked you to help ‘em move?”

“Not if it was a friend who was asking.”

“What am I to you?”

“I would help you move, Daymon”

“I’m going to get all misty-eyed here,” Daymon said. “Hope I don’t break down and bawl.”

“Better not,” Cade said, motioning in the direction of the black domes. “Foley fixed the audio on those things. Seth probably hears everything we’re saying.”

In his ear Cade heard Seth chuckle and confirm that he could hear what was being said, but wasn’t really retaining any of it.

Though the volume on the radio in Daymon’s pocket was dialed down to 5, he still heard Seth’s admission. Flipping the black dome the bird, he said, “Be safe out there, Cade. Wherever there is this time.” He nodded and winked conspiratorially. “Can you give me a hint?”

Cade smiled. “If I did I’d have to kill you.”

“Can you at least bring me back a half-shirt or a shot glass or something?”

“Copy that,” Cade said offering a fist bump. “I have to get back. My ride’s due here any minute.”

“And I gotta see what OG wants.”

Cade shouldered the bulging bag. Looking Daymon in the eye, he asked, “Is Oliver as advertised out there?”

“He’s about average,” Daymon lied. “Still got a lot to learn, though.”

“Don’t we all,” Cade replied.

“Oh, I almost forgot.” Daymon’s lips curled into a half-smile. He fished the pair of aviator-style glasses from an inside pocket where they’d been since he plucked them off the dresser inside Casa De Daymon twenty-five minutes ago. “Along with the other stuff, give these to Old Man.”

Cade took them in hand, inspected the thickness of the lenses, and noted the fine bi-focal lines. Shifting his gaze to Daymon, he said, “These just might do the trick. I have to admit I’ll miss the Elton John look.”

“The others are waiting at the post office,” Oliver called from the truck.

Daymon looked at his watch. “He’s right. We gotta go.”

“Be careful,” Cade repeated. “You all better stick together. Strength in numbers … and all that. Whoever is responsible for that trap means business.”

“You know me,” Daymon replied, as he turned to the truck. “I’m always frosty.”

Cade patted the bag. “Thanks again for these.”

“My pleasure,” said Daymon.

Cade slung his rifle, then retreated behind the camouflage gate and was lost from view.

***

Back inside the truck, Daymon clicked on his seatbelt and squared up to Oliver. Stared at him for a long five-count.

Oliver shifted nervously in his seat. Finally he asked, “What?”

“You’re watering your balls right now. First deadhead we come upon you’re getting out and doing it up close and personal. Ask me why.”

“What?”

“No, why,” Daymon hissed.

“Why?”

Daymon rolled the Chevy into the first leg of a three-point turn. Once he was finished reversing across both lanes and had the truck pointing east, he said, “Because I just lied for you and I don’t know why.”

Oliver was speechless and still gawking at Daymon when his head was whipped into the seatback from the brisk and sudden acceleration.

***

Fifteen minutes after leaving the compound feeder road behind, Oliver was staring off into the forest and spotted a slow-moving matte-black object. He watched it quickly grow larger as it moved south to north, skimming a copse of alders far off in the distance before being blocked from view by the pickup’s B-pillar. By the time he craned around and peered out the back window to reacquire the mysterious craft, there was nothing in the sky save for scattered clouds pierced with stray bars of golden sunlight.

Facing back forward, Oliver said, “You see that?”

Eyes never leaving the road, Daymon said, “What … Bigfoot?”

Oliver frowned. “No, dickhead.” Gesturing in the direction of the truck’s right rear wheel, he said, “I saw something big and black flying real low over those treetops.”

“Like a stealth fighter jet or something?” Daymon replied, chuckling at the visual Oliver’s words conjured.

“No. There was more to it than just fuselage. There was lots of movement going on.”

“Are you just trying to distract me from finding you a rotter to dispatch?”

“No. I saw what I saw.”

Just then two things happened. First, still locked on Channel 10-1, the radio crackled to life and Cade was alerting Seth that his ride to Springs was inbound to the clearing. Then, as the Chevy rounded a sweeping left-hander, Daymon said, “Speak of the Devil,” and standing there in the center of 39 adjacent to the quarry entrance was a male walker. It looked fresh. Full of face and carrying about a buck eighty, the thing looked like a lost hunter. Only Daymon knew better. Hunters had rifles. This guy did not. And hunters wore either safety orange or some type of camo. This guy was stripped down to just his skivvies and had about a hundred red welts crisscrossing his pallid chest and extremities.

***

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District: Surviving the Zombie Apocalypse

"A gut-wrenching, hard hitting series that will leave you breathless." John O'Brien – Best-selling author of the New World series "Shawn Chesser is a master of the zombie genre." Mark Tufo – Best-selling author of the Zombie Fallout series "Through a combination of tight, well-structured plots and fully realized characters, Chesser has emerged as one of the top indie writers in the business." Joe McKinney – Two-time Bram Stoker Award winner and best-selling author of the Dead World series District: Surviving the Zombie Apocalypse Edited by Monique Happy Editorial Services 140,000 words Outbreak - Day 1 Presidents, premiers, entire governments disappeared instantly, like a fragile house of cards in a hurricane. Some hid deep underground or holed up in fortified strongholds, but most were swallowed up by the dead, never to be heard from again. Cade Grayson—husband, father, patriot—discovered two undead enemy soldiers on American soil, and soon the official call to duty came directly from the President herself in a transmission beamed by military satellite to Cade's refuge in rural Utah: It was time to take up arms in defense of his country once again. Valerie Clay’s hard-to-fathom video footage, showing thousands of enemy soldiers establishing beachheads all along the West Coast, made it impossible to resist. He was a former U.S. Army Delta Operator and he had to come to the aid of his dying country. If he and his team failed, it would leave America more vulnerable than ever – not only to the zombie scourge roaming the countryside, but to her enemies both foreign and domestic. While Cade is away, the Eden survivors learn a devastating secret: The dead have recovered from the effects of an early season snowstorm. They are everywhere. Worse, someone capable of unspeakable violence has been systematically stripping nearby towns of everything worth taking. Will Cade and his team survive their mission to halt the enemy’s push inland? Will the Eden survivors find the supplies they need for the upcoming long and brutal winter? And will they survive (are they prepared to survive) an encounter with those responsible for the grisly crimes against humanity? Discover who has what it takes to survive the Zombie Apocalypse ... and who doesn’t.

  • ISBN: 9780998068305
  • Author: Shawn Chesser
  • Published: 2016-08-28 23:20:27
  • Words: 141415
District: Surviving the Zombie Apocalypse District: Surviving the Zombie Apocalypse