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The Red King

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WYRD BOOK 1.0

By

Nick Cole

Copyright © 2015 by Nick Cole

Part One

‘Winds in the east, mist coming in.

Like somethin’ is brewin’ and bout to begin.

Can’t put my finger on what lies in store,

But I fear what’s to happen…

…all happened before.’

-Bert, Mary Poppins

How does it begin? It begins with a game. A game for the end of the world is how it will begin. Past, present and future tense all knotted together, but still there, somehow.

Together.

The Raggedy Man arrived before dawn but he hadn’t always been there. He was wiry and gangly, like some almost movie star from the age of Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda. His hair, slate gray and dirty. His face tan and lined. He wore a collection of jewelry chains and battered dog tags looped about his neck like ancient talismans. His jean jacket was faded and adorned with buttons from concerts past and other arcane symbols now made meaningless. He wore a pair of jeans that hung off him loosely, finishing in faded boots; expensive when bygone days of high-end boots were the currency of the realm.

If you’d been out that cool, misty late spring morning when Laguna Beach wasn’t overrun by the crowds, when the morning mist and gloom mix with the golden sunshine and the salt in the air, you would have tagged him as a member of the tribe known as homeless. Maybe a chieftain. Not a pawn, most definitely not a pawn. A headman. A war leader. A street judge. One who carried weight, though he was invisible to the likes of you and me, passing by that misty morning.

He set his shamanic staff down beside the stone picnic table and laid out the board and pieces, whistling a tune. The tune was on pitch. “Perfect pitch,” one with an ear for such things would have barely commented as they passed the old men and the homeless who set up their boards on the stone tables in the early morning mist and salt, waiting for the heat of the day and an opponent to distract them from the inevitable march toward death. Once the pieces were arranged and each had been touched the proper amount of times by placing one long and dirty index finger on the very top of each Black piece, The Raggedy Man sat down at the stone bench on his side of the board. The side that faced the seaside town. He liked to watch the people and suggest things as they passed by. A pleasant distraction while he’d wait for his opponent to make his move.

“It’s important to be distracted,” he said to himself. He had that kind of voice that was world weary, a bit of a grate to it, but mesmerizing nonetheless. The kind any casting director would always be looking for to pitch high-end luxury automobiles. The knowing voice of the urban insider who’s just a step ahead of everyone else in ‘the latest thing’ department. The kind of voice people listen to and don’t question.

The Raggedy Man folded his hands and waited.

An hour later his opponent crossed the street, leaving the small seaside town proper of coastal Laguna Beach. His opponent was big. A construction worker type. Wide shoulders and a broad chest. Like that of a knight, or maybe a Viking, a warrior of some type. His opponent wore jeans and big timberlands that made his already looming height even taller. The Opponent crossed the grass verge and the Raggedy Man could see the close shaved sides of his head, the soft blondish-red goatee. The piercing blue eyes. The face of a character actor from the nineteen fifties. The big good natured sunshine smile of the simple everyman, beaming and determined to do the right thing all at once. No matter what.

The Raggedy Man shook his head slightly and smirked.

The big man approached, standing over the stone table. The Opponent studied the board for a moment, his blue eyes noting all the pieces, and then in the smoothest of motions, slid onto the stone bench and placed his large feet and massive legs under the table.

The Raggedy Man held out both hands, just above the chess pieces, fluttering his fingers like a child greedy for chocolate. A prodigy at the piano. Like Liszt must have done to have played that instrument so damned well.

The Opponent looked up and nodded once at the Raggedy Man.

“I suppose you want Black.”

The Raggedy Man rolled his eyes. “I’m always Black.”

The big man, the Opponent, frowned good naturedly and shrugged slightly, really only to himself but because his features were so large the motions were telegraphed to everyone nearby and anyone watching afar.

“May I move first?” asked the Raggedy Man.

“It’s why I’m here,” said the Opponent, not lifting his eyes from the board.

The Raggedy Man placed a dirty thumb and forefinger on the piece he intended to move. It was a pawn. All the pawns were different. As though each was from a different set. Or a different world. He took the gray, green dead-eyed pawn between his thumb and forefinger and moved it into play. In the distance, the doomsday horn down at San Onofré Nuclear power plant began to wind up into its end of the world wail.

Chapter One

He’d known all that day he was going to drink again that night. Holiday saw it coming from a long way off. Like an afternoon storm or a strange town out in the middle of nowhere, off on the horizon, coming at you along the interstate as you speed toward it. Inevitable. But, when things end, reasoned Holiday, there’s nothing left but to get real drunk.

Some pot clattered to the floor of the coffeehouse, ringing and dinging, hollow and empty, like the sound of some bell greater than itself struck once and now slowly fading.

He finished the rest of his shift on autopilot. Barely there. The steam from the espresso machine washed over him, leaving him with a feeling that he could just disappear inside all of it. As if that brief cloud was a moment between worlds. A place he could just hide out in for a while and be someone else. But there was a line of order tickets thirty-six mochas deep. Thirty-six mochas real.

“Are you listening to me?” asked Stephen. His boss. The manager of Ground Zero. “This is what I need…”

And then he said a bunch of other stuff.

Holiday couldn’t think.

I don’t want to think, was what he told himself. Heard himself say to no one inside his head.

Because to think… was to think about her.

And she was gone now.

Had been gone for two weeks.

Gone for good.

That’s what she said on the phone that morning. Two weeks ago. He’d gone to an acting class at the community college. He’d called her. She’d sounded tired. Out late the night before.

When he asked why, why she was tired, she just sighed and said, “It’s over, Holiday.”

And he’d known then.

Known he’d drink too much.

He finished his shift in steam and late afternoon, last of summer, golden, almost orange sunlight, surrounded by the heavy aroma of brewing coffee as Gordon Lightfoot, the coffeehouse guitarist they’d, she and he, had named such, strummed his guitar. She and him when they were together, her and he, their lovers’ secret joke. As Gordon Lightfoot started to play on that last Saturday afternoon of August, Holiday finished his shift.

Everyone else on the afternoon crew knew it was over between them. She’d worked there also before she’d left for college.

He took off his apron and made for the exit. The night crew already taking their places. Cash register. Brewer. Pastries. Bar. Milk. Bussing. It was a large coffee house in a high end entertainment complex. It was Saturday night and life was moving on quickly. First dates. Date night. Dinner with friends. Movies. Hanging out. The last mochas at midnight, the bar still thirty-six orders deep as customers raced in before the night crew got all the doors closed and locked. Outside, Holiday turned one last time in the early twilight of late summer to look back at the store.

They were all just kids. The ones who worked there. His co-workers.

He was no longer one of them.

Had never really been one of them.

He was almost thirty.

He was finished.

They were just starting.

Like she was. Away at a four year college. A new romance with a new someone, just starting to discover the new and beginning to forget the old.

I’m that guy, he thought to himself. The guy who gets left behind. The guy who gets forgotten.

And then he walked away into the crowd, passing through all of it and its life as he forgot that some distant bell was struck.

Chapter Two

Holiday pulled into the grocery store parking lot, feeling fuzzy and dull. The last of the day was disappearing into the near west, behind Santa Catalina Island down in the ocean beyond the coast. From the heights of Viejo Verde, the small suburban enclave where he lived, you could see the long island riding out in the middle of the ocean, even though the coast alone was over ten miles away, and then there were another twenty-eight miles, as the song goes, out to Catalina across the sea. Day was over.

It’s over, thought Holiday as he entered the large grocery store still thinking of the girl he loved. It was quiet. It was Saturday night. The families who populated the large McMansions on the hill above his condo had done their shopping, and now the grocery store would ride out the night until just before two, when the late night crowd would make their last beer runs after partying down in Newport. Even buying food to cook and soak up the booze.

And then what?

It was an all-night mega-chain grocery store. The Market Faire. It would go on until dawn. Until the late night crew came in to re-stock what had been purchased and taken away, and to wash down the sidewalk outside in the pre-dawn night. As though the night before had never been. Never was. Never more. He’d gone in to the mega-chain, giant box grocery store every night since she’d gone.

And even before, when they’d still been an item. Holiday and Taylor. After she’d left his house late. She was only eighteen. She couldn’t stay out past midnight. Her mother’s rule. Hard and fast. But then she’d gone off to college and who knew how late she was out now. But he knew she was out now. With the new whomever. Creating new secrets for just the two of them.

Holiday stood in front of the beer in the liquor aisle.

All the beers seemed so fun and inviting. Each bottle a picture of snowcapped mountains or monster truck special advertising. Or ripped dudes jet skiing with hot babes laughing. The last of the summer marketing campaign beers.

He had a memory. Brief and fleeting. He’d bought one of those special marketing cases of beer at the beginning of summer. A camping trip a bunch of the kids from the coffee house, her age, his co-workers, took for the night, out in a local park backed up to the Cleveland national forest. He remembered hoisting that case, looking at that perfect jet skiing couple and thinking life was good right now. He had a beautiful girl and although they weren’t Jet Ski people, they were having fun in their own way. Life had looked pretty good, then.

“But that was then,” Holiday muttered to himself and left the rest unsaid.

On the speakers Rick Astley was crooning about never giving up, never letting someone down. Never running around.

The one hit wonder burned within Holiday’s soul.

Holiday moved along to the hard liquors.

He selected a bottle of store-label vodka. The big plastic liter size.

Don’t want to have to come back. Don’t want to drive drunk, he thought. No, I don’t want to do that at all.

Then he was holding a same-sized bottle of store label bourbon.

“I’ll need cokes. Gotta have some cokes for the bourbon.”

Juggling cases of beer and liter bottles of liquor, he went in search of a case of coke and then finally made it up to the register.

Terri the cashier smiled and said, “Hey, Holiday.” She cast a quick glance at his supplies and Holiday knew, even though she was trying to hide it, he knew exactly what she thinking. It wasn’t bad. What she thought wasn’t bad. She didn’t condemn him. She was dating a firefighter. He drank a lot when he had time off too. Times were mostly good, then sometimes the firefighter drank too much. Then, not so good. He blamed it, the firefighter did, when he sobbed, shaking and convulsing in Terri’s arms after he’d drunk all the booze, he blamed it on the job.

And she just held him.

Because what else was she gonna do? Who else would have her and her kids? Or at least that’s what she thought. She didn’t see herself as pretty as she was.

What she did see as she looked at an overloaded Holiday, as some country western gal crooned about being just a shotgun girl devoted to her man, over the blaring speakers of the Market Faire, what she saw in Holiday was a decently good looking guy who was funny and sad at the same time. She knew he had another life besides just working in a coffee house. She knew the pretty little girl he’d run around with for the summer was gone now. Until recently she had had her hunches about the girl being tied to Holiday’s nightly liquor run, but now looking at the two liters of hard liquor and the thirty pack of beer, she knew the girl was indeed gone and that Holiday would be back into the store, alone, again and again, night after night. He’d been like that before the girl, back when he’d had a broken arm and he’d bought a jug of the cheapest wine every night along with a pack of smokes. But he’d been funny, joking about how he’d broken his arm. He’d made them all laugh around the registers and some of the bagger girls thought he was cute, but they all wondered how he drank an entire jug of cheap wine every night.

He liked to paint, he’d told them.

“Pack of smokes, please,” he asked Terri. Terri gave her keys to some high school kid who opened the cigarette case and got Holiday’s brand. “Better make it two,” he mumbled.

He knew this binge would go deep. Long and deep.

 

With Terri’s goodbye lost somewhere behind him, he stepped out into the hot summer night and the buzzing sodium lights that loomed over the parking lot. An American flag undulated in a small breeze that would often come up in the first of the night, following the bottoms of the land and the rising hills that led up from the coast along the train tracks. But now, it was still hot. Holiday loaded the supplies into the back of his teal colored MG, and knew that as soon as he went home he’d be alone.

Maybe forever. Maybe that was it. Maybe he would never have anyone like her again.

He cut the thought off and opened the case of beer and pulled out a can. Being in the parking lot was like being next to people. Being part of something. If he didn’t leave just yet, he could stay and listen to them as they went into the store. He was still a part of the human race. He popped the beer and took a long gusty swallow. The sudden buzz that followed after a hard Saturday of making endless mochas, steaming milk and clearing tables, was instant.

He didn’t feel so bad.

He put the beer down inside the trunk and lit a cigarette after tapping the pack briefly. He took another long pull of the beer, almost finishing it. Then he smoked and watched the parking lot and felt alone and not so bad about it.

I’ll have to go on now.

I’ll have to find a way now. On my own.

He drank, finishing the beer. He had a good buzz.

A mile later he was home. He pulled into the garage and drank another beer standing under the florescent light inside, fighting the night. He could hear a few of the neighbors, but it was mostly a quiet neighborhood and so he smoked and watched the stars reveal themselves in the blue of deep space above.

I should find someone new.

I should find someone now.

I should find someone for right now.

Once he got inside the townhome, he put the beer away and mixed a bourbon and coke, laid out the ash tray on the coffee table and both packs of cigarettes. The jazz station was still on as he’d left it that morning before work, playing softly from the paint spattered boombox he kept in the kitchen.

He turned it down low. He’d want to hear it later when he woke up. There was something comforting about listening to jazz all through the night. When he woke up drunk, he’d hear it and feel less alone.

He opened all the windows and he could smell the night coming on as the fog rose up through the gullies and valleys down toward the coast. He could smell the perfectly manicured and fresh cut landscape right outside his window. A perk of having a homeowners association that paid for community gardeners.

I should call her, he thought.

And he thought about that, and all he could hear was her saying to him again, tiredly, “It’s over, Holiday.” He knew that girl who’d so expectantly seduced him last year was gone now. She was expectant for someone else.

He turned on Forrest Gump. He always kept it saved on the DVR.

He smoked and drank too much.

Later, after midnight, he woke up on the couch and caught the last of Saturday Night Live. It was a rerun and the singer of last years ‘it’ band barely warbled his way through last year’s hit.

No wonder they’d cancelled the tour halfway through the summer.

He’d passed out somewhere after Vietnam during Forrest Gump. The battle had been especially interesting to him that night. He’d dreamt about it. About being there in ‘nam with Tom Hanks. About organizing a counter attack from the left flank. About overrunning the VC ambush. In his beer soaked dreams he’d been in battle. He’d felt alive. Like it was fun to be in battle even though everyone else was very frightened and dying. It had been fun to him. A game.

In the deep of the night, on toward 2am, he watched late night cable until he finally turned it off and just drank in the dark listening to jazz and the intermittent musings of the lonely DJ.

Chapter Three

The three days that follow are lost.

Moments float and surface on the memory-sea of those lost days like escaped flotsam from some recent wreck now lying in the seaweed and sandy bottoms of the ocean.

The wreck of himself.

There is a moment sitting on the kitchen floor. Sprawled and hitting the vodka straight from the big plastic bottle.

There is a moment when he sits in the garage all day with the garage door closed listening to the car radio because the boombox is getting really bad reception. When he walks back into the house, he’s sure it’s four o’clock in the afternoon but it’s actually six in the morning of some other day. He drinks until nine, watching the morning golden, listening to old cassette tapes of Garrison Keilor’s Lake Woebegone. The stories are beautiful and they make him cry for the people in them. And he drinks more and wonders what it would be like to leave this place and drive to Minnesota. To look for that lake town and find someplace like it. To just live there, knowing all that they knew about themselves and how they thought and lived because Garrison Keillor had already explained everything Holiday would ever need to know to live among them.

In the afternoon, the late afternoon, he goes to the store for more supplies. He’s shaking and nervous and he’s waiting for Terri or whichever cashier it was who refuses to sell him more booze. He doesn’t get any but he pulls it all off and says nothing. When he gets back he can’t even remember which cashier he’d been shut down by. He watches Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and passes out at questions and awakens during the bath scene.

Rosencrantz?

Guildenstern?

Gary Oldman?

Tim Roth?

Both go on to have huge careers.

Who am I? he thinks later, during a quiet moment, sitting in his big chair. He smells smoke and looks around for his cigarettes, making sure he hasn’t left one lit between the cushions.

You’re Hamlet.

It’s later, when he’s staring in the massive mirror that covers one wall, drinking a beer and smoking, when he arrives at that conclusion.

Someone somewhere is screaming outside.

At first it sounds like it’s outside, but when he turns the TV back on, it’s Oldman and Roth who are screaming for Hamlet on the television, during the final battle.

And then the end. Tim Roth and Gary Oldman waiting to be hanged at dawn’s first light.

Tim Roth says, “It could have been something more, y’know.”

True.

True.

True.

He hits play again and starts the movie from the beginning.

When he wakes up it’s three am. It’s dark and cold and even the jazz station is silent.

KLF is gonna rock you.

“When was the last time you ate?” he asks himself.

He gets in the car and drives through a thick fog to Del Taco, feeling distant and achy as mist swirls and clutches at the beams of his headlights.

He buys tacos, a burrito, and a big giant diet coke from the one manager running the place. It takes the manager a long time to get the order together and he apologizes, telling Holiday that no one decided to show up for work that day.

Holiday drives off into the foggy night.

I’m finished, he thinks. I can’t drink anymore. Time to stop now.

As he’s driving along the quiet street leading back to his neighborhood, surrounded by the dead of night and a thick fog, a man wanders out of the swirling mist and onto the road as Holiday speeds toward him. The man had stumbled out from the trees alongside the road, noticed Holiday, almost careening now toward the MG.

Holiday narrowly misses him and spills his taco in his lap.

“Drunk!” screams Holiday above the roar of the engine, feeling strange and out of place. The fog swallows him and he wonders if the incident, the man on the road, actually ever happened.

Back at the house, he pops another beer and watches an old version of Julius Caesar in black and white until dawn.

Drinking.

Chapter Four

At dawn there was smoke in the air and Holiday rose smelling it, his head pounding. Wan light filtered through the venetian blinds in his bedroom. There were beer cans everywhere.

“I’m done,” he groaned.

He reached over and tried to shake a cigarette out of a pack on the nightstand. Empty.

In a teacup nearby he found some butts, selected a longish one, straightened it out and lit it again. It smelled ashy and old. Somewhere far off someone was honking a horn insistently. Then someone leaned on the horn and it stayed that way for a while. In fact it didn’t stop. Holiday got up, feeling dull, achy and tired. Far away from himself.

He tried to remember what it felt like to be with her. To be the man she thought he might be.

But that guy felt gone. Long gone. Whoever he was then is as gone as she is now. This is who he is.

Tired, dry and sick he stumbled toward the bedroom window.

He peered through the blinds and he could see a few people out on the narrow street that ran though the townhomes, wandering up toward the sound of the still blaring horn farther up the street. He took one more drag down to the filter, then went back to the ashtray teacup and selected the runner up. He sat down on the edge of the bed, temporarily forgetting and then remembering all at once the sound of the still blaring, distant horn. It continued without seeming end.

He searched the tangled sheets for the channel changer to his bedroom TV and when he couldn’t find it, he stood up and manually switched the old set on and then turned it off because there was no picture. He turned it on again, then raised the sound which he didn’t mean to do, then found the channel button and went the wrong direction, or so he thought, because all of the channels were showing the same blue screen. When he finally got the unseen mastery of the buttons down, he scrolled down into the primary stations.

All three showed the emergency broadcast message.

Except there was no, THIS IS A TEST message. In its place were two sentences. STAY INSIDE. And, LOCK YOUR DOORS. All three stations encouraged viewers to stay tuned to this station for further information and updates. He went through all the channels once again finding nothing but static and blue screen stations and other repeats of the Emergency Broadcast message.

This is weird, was his first thought.

He finished the runner up butt and found the bronze medalist. He lit that one and looked for his smartphone. He found it in his jeans along the stairwell. At some point during the bender he’d taken them off and left them there on the stairs as he climbed toward bed. He put the jeans on and pulled out his smartphone, finishing the third place finalist far too quickly. There wasn’t a pack of cigarettes in the pockets.

Bringing up the apps on his smartphone, he opened his news feed and found one Breaking News alert. It simply said, “President Orders Evacuation!”

Holiday went back upstairs and looked out through the blinds in the bedroom window. Still more people moved up the street toward the sound of the ongoing and annoying horn.

His mind dully grasped at straws that weren’t there.

What do I know? he asked himself.

Nothing.

He put on a found shirt and went downstairs. He was just reaching for the front door when the gunfire went off. Two shotgun blasts. They echoed off the close walls of the tight condo complex, reverberating along the walkways between the buildings. Instinctively Holiday was down, crouched on all fours. Waiting, listening near the front door. His vision was star bursting from the sudden effort of dropping down in the prone position. He could feel blood pounding in his ears.

The horn was still blaring.

He stood up and tried to look through the two little windows at the top of the front door. Outside he could see the small terracotta pavestone walkway and steps that led to his tiny front gate. The narrow street, a few cars. An identical version of his condo, but in reverse, on the other side of the street. A man wandered across his view for a brief moment, then swiftly disappeared behind the high hedges that ran along the low wall ringing Holiday’s portion of the condo. His garden.

Something about the wandering-swiftly aspect of the man bothered Holiday. Like the man was moving with a purpose, but haphazardly, like a drunk.

Something is not right, thought Holiday.

He flung the door wide open, marched down the steps and leaned over the gate, looking down the street at the backside of several people moving toward the sound of the horn. He could see a car up there. An SUV in the middle of the road, surrounded by Tuscan villa-inspired townhomes that rose up along both sides of the street. The SUV’s doors were open.

It’s a car accident, was Holiday’s first thought. That’s what this is all about. And then he turned, looking in the opposite direction. More of them. People. People? They came up the street toward the wreck. Fixated on the sound of the horn. Neighbors? Mostly not. Some he barely recognized from his minimal existence in the neighborhood. This was a neighborhood full of actual adults, newly married and single up-and-comers with jobs, real jobs, not coffee house jobs and some dead end acting career. People who went to work in the morning and came home in the evening. Normal people. He barely knew any of them.

Then one of his neighbors turned toward him as she lunged awkwardly up the street. He knew her. He’d seen her jogging many times before. She was good looking. A young hot mom type. He’d seen her pregnant last year. This year she was jogging every late morning. Getting her body back in shape. On weekends he’d seen her and her very fit husband, a male model type, jogging together. Pushing a jogging stroller. Normal people.

She looked at him, her face pale, her hair wild. Her eyes rolling, then beady and ferocious as she noticed him. She was wearing her super-hero jogging outfit. Tight and curvy with a colorful stripe. Now ripped in a few places. A black crust of blood ringed her perfect heart-shaped mouth. She looked at him and…

…hissed.

Then she came stumbling diagonally across the street at him. Holiday backed up the steps, retreating to the door as she lurched up to the tiny gate that defined his dwelling, waving claws, not hands, at him, crusted also, nails chipped, a giant wedding ring still on one badly broken finger. Swiping at him as he backed away behind the open door into his townhome and gently shut it. He crouched down feeling sick to his stomach. He waited to hear her beating on the door.

She’d looked angry.

She’d looked insane.

He crawled on all fours to the fridge and found a lone can of beer. He popped it, still hearing the distant horn.

Any second now I’ll hear her raking her fingers across my door. I know it.

Instead the horn went on with its unyielding bleat.

He popped the can and drank thickly.

She did not attack his front door.

He sat there on the floor of the kitchen, finishing the beer.

He found a butt and lit it.

When both beer and butt were done, he stood, telling himself that he felt a little better, and glanced from the kitchen to the front door. A short distance that seemed to telescope the longer he stared at the door, waiting for her inevitable attack to begin.

It didn’t.

He crept up to the door and a moment later chanced a look into the two tiny windows at the top.

She was gone.

Holiday raced up the stairs, staying low at the top so that no one from the street could see him in the big window that looked out into the neighborhood. From his bedroom window, through the slats of the blinds, he could see jogging suit hot mom limping off down toward the still blaring car horn and the wreck at the end of the road.

“What’s going on?” His mind scrambled for an answer and kept landing on the fact that he was vaguely in some kind of trouble.

The people on the street were piling up around the bleating car, some falling to their hands and knees as they struggled to get inside. He heard a sharp series of distant pops that ended almost as soon as they’d started.

A small gun, thought Holiday. Someone had fired a small gun.

He turned on the bedroom TV and scanned the stations again.

Nothing.

The horn stopped.

Outside, through the slats, he could no longer see the wreck. People were crawling all over it. It reminded him of a pile of rats he’d once seen in the garbage dumpster of a restaurant he’d worked at for a little while. The wreck on the street was like a rat pile.

“Something’s not right,” he told himself again.

What do I know?

He found a small butt on the nightstand and lit it, sitting on the edge of his bed.

There’s an emergency.

He took a drag and exhaled stale smoke out into the room, watching as it filtered the morning light coming in through the blinds.

People are…

… acting weird?

… sick?

… insane?

He took a drag, finishing the butt and sat there turning the filter over and over. His index finger was nicotine stained. He felt dry and hollow from all the booze.

He took out his smartphone and started to dial…

But who do I call?

I could call her?

Are you okay? Something weird is happening. Are you okay wherever you’re at…

And…

…whoever you’re with.

He thought about the chances of her saying she was wrong. That he should come get her.

He dialed her number.

It didn’t even go to voice.

“All communications are unavailable at this time due to Executive Order 19. We apologize for the inconvenience,” said the pleasant robot lady.

He tried the number of the coffee house.

Same.

He tried a few others.

Same.

Nothing.

He found another butt. The last serviceable one that might hold even the smallest amount of tobacco. He lit it.

What do you know?

There’s an emergency and people are dangerous. No one can come and help me. I’ll need to protect myself.

He exhaled the last of the smoke in a tight thin stream with a sigh that seemed to sum up everything unspoken, as if everything was just too overwhelming…

And, I’m out of smokes.

Chapter Five

The shooting started an hour later. Far away and distant. Up the hill, in the nicer section of Viejo Verde where the McMansions and the dotcom-ers had purchased their starter homes. Gunshots rang out and cavitated through the gated communities like sudden thunder rolling along the ridgeline. There were wide swathes of manicured park up there where feathery willows, sculpted hedges, stunning lawns and dramatic commons nestled among stately homes inspired by someone’s idea of the hacienda and the belle époque. Three car garages. Pools. Marble floors. Man caves. Home theaters. Designer kitchens. That’s where the shooting that afternoon started.

The pop, pop, pop of a pistol.

The Bang Bang Bang of an AR-15 on semi auto.

The occasional loud Ka-Boom of a shotgun.

It went on for an hour.

And in that hour the rat pile around the wreck ceased. It ceased as the people-rats lurched away from the pile in the center of the tiny street and headed down a sidewalk between two buildings of attached townhomes. A sidewalk that Holiday knew led to the far edge of his townhome complex, The Vineyards. If those people continued that way they would crawl up a hill, cross a wide dead-end four lane street bisected by a median filled with cut hedges and palms and other flowering tropical plants. On the other side of that wide street and dead end they would find a hill leading up into the expensive neighborhoods.

The McMansions.

Later, from the high windows in the bedroom of his townhome, as the day reached its hot, smoky orange peak, he could see those people from the wreck, from the rat pile, crawling up that landscaped slope, lumbering off across the wide road and into the expensive neighborhoods on the hill above. After that he couldn’t see them anymore.

The gunfire continued. At times its intensity rose in pitch and urgency only to drop off and then seem altogether gone. Then, suddenly it awakened once more with renewed vigor, only to again fade. As he listened, Holiday could hear the level of gunshots getting weaker and weaker with each fresh restart.

By three o’clock, Holiday was crawling the walls for a smoke. He’d seriously considered driving to the store. A quick, mad dash through whatever was going on out there. But the MG was a convertible, he’d reasoned. If there were more of those crazy people out there on the way to the store, the canvas top wouldn’t be much of a defense against them. So he let the plan go and waited, watching out the windows and making occasional forays into drawers and the small walk-in closet and other hiding places, in search of forgotten cigarettes.

Then he saw the smoke. Black and thick, rising up like a blistering pillar in the hot, still air of that end of summer day. It rose up into the hazy blue sky, rising in front of the high, billowy, white thunder-bumper cumulus that built up in the afternoons during late August and early September, out over the desert and the mountains.

There was no one on the street below his townhome. All the rat-pilers had gone up into the expensive neighborhood, toward the place of diminishing gunshots. Wherever that was.

“Go for it,” he heard himself say. “Now.”

He wasn’t thinking clearly.

Or maybe I’m thinking about it too much, he told himself as he found his keys under the couch and entered the dark garage. Maybe that’s all I can think about right now. Cigarettes. Maybe I’m not seeing things clearly. Maybe whatever’s happening is localized. Maybe just up the street there’s a cordon of fire trucks and cop cars and help. And cigarettes…

LOCK YOUR DOORS. And, STAY INSIDE.

He opened the garage door and backed the little MG out into the courtyard where all the other townhomes attached to his had their garages. The garages all looked out into the same enclosed space, reminding Holiday of a courtyard in a castle. Or at least it reminded him of movies, he told himself, in which there had been castle courtyards. He couldn’t actually remember ever being in one. Just seeing them on TV.

He drove out onto the street that ran the entire North-South length of the Vineyards. Another street on the opposite side of the complex ran the same length. Two smaller connecting streets at each end created a large rectangle. The entire complex was ringed by an inner and outer perimeter of attached townhomes. He headed toward the palm-lined entrance up near the community pool, beyond the wreck and the Rat Pile.

He slowed the MG, its engine sputtering and growling temperamentally as he passed the wreck. There was blood everywhere along the smashed and shattered SUV.

Bullet holes in the windows.

Blood everywhere.

Stunned, Holiday stopped next to the bright metallic orange new model SUV. It looked like something straight out of the dirt streets of some war-torn third world country.

All that blood…

And…

Where did it come from?

Closing his mouth he put the MG in gear, listening to it grind as he’d missed the exact finesse one needs to perform the shift the difficult little British sport car required. He drove up toward the main road of the complex and doglegged right and then left toward the palm lined entrance to the community.

He turned left at the entrance and drove up the hill toward the intersection and the main road that led back to the big box chain grocery store. The Market Faire.

At the top of the small hill where the wide main road led to a dead end, below the McMansions on the hill above, there was a body in the intersection.

Maybe.

There wasn’t much left of it. Bloody drag marks made a trail that led away from it. Like it’d been hit by a car and the blood trail had gone on for ten or more feet across the two white stripes marking the crosswalk. But there was little left of the body that was still body-like. What was left looked as though a bomb had exploded inside and blown the person off in one direction. A moment later he saw a dog’s head nearby and followed the trail to where the dog’s body had also exploded.

This is bad, thought Holiday and gunned the engine. Real bad.

Driving fast to the Market Faire, the bi-plane sound of the MG’s rattling engine drowned out all those images of blood and blown out bodies he’d seen on the street. For a brief moment of speed, he let the MG blow away everything as the wind and the noise felt cleansing and momentarily good. As though there was nothing other than speed and noise.

Like I could drive down to the beach today and forget everything, he thought. Like I could buy a six pack… a twelve pack, and just drink at the beach and listen to nothing but the waves. I could smell the salt down there and feel the sand beneath my feet as I scrunched my toes.

The grocery store parking lot was mostly empty. There was a flatbed truck parked far out in the lot. There were cans of food and bottles of water in a few piles next to empty parking spaces. He pulled into the middle of the lot, marveling at the wide expanse of the black top’s total lunar-like emptiness. He turned off the engine and heard a new wave of gunfire echoing off the hills surrounding Viejo Verde. It careened through the small canyon of a wilderness park that bisected the planned community. A place where mountain bikers came on the weekends to ride the trails and push themselves to the limits of recreational exertion.

He climbed out of the MG, literally, and stretched. His bones felt tight, his neck muscles thick, his stomach churned acid.

He got his wallet out of the glove compartment and checked that there was at least some money left over from the binge of previous days. There wasn’t, but he had room on his credit card.

He walked slowly across the parking lot.

Inside, the air conditioner hit him like a fresh wave of cool mountain air. Aerosmith screeched across the store about living on an edge. Repeating it over and over about not being able to help yourself. There was no one else in the store.

He went to the checkout stand and stood there for a moment.

“Hello…” he called out to the empty store. “I’d like to buy a pack of cigarettes.”

No one answered.

Aerosmith died.

Paula Cole sang about cowboys.

Holiday noticed that the cash register at his station had been opened. Pried open with violence. All the money was gone.

So…

He walked to the plastic display case that contained all the cigarettes, pulled on it as it opened easily. Someone had cleaned out his brand. So he cleaned out another brand he’d smoked before he’d switched.

“Adapt and overcome,” he whispered to himself.

He had twenty packs of cigarettes.

Might be awhile before…

He heard a crash at the back of the store.

… things return to normal, he finished.

So…

A few minutes later, he pushed a shopping cart from the beer aisle to the hard liquor aisle. He had a few cases of beer and he didn’t take as much hard liquor as he could have because he was afraid of drinking himself to death. But it was a lot. He finished off the trip with a quick detour through the canned goods aisle, taking chili and tuna fish because he didn’t think the power would stay on much longer. In fact, he was surprised it had stayed on this long if things were this bad.

Outside the store, he loaded his groceries into the tiny trunk of the MG as a hot dry wind swept the parking lot, sending ash and smoke along the blacktop. Nearby palm trees rustled, making their white noise as dry brown fronds shook neurotically in the hot breeze.

It’s the Santa Ana winds, thought Holiday. Bad time for those right now.

He drove down the street back to the edge of Viejo Verde, arriving at the intersection where the bodies of the dog and its owner, he guessed, lay exposed to drifting ash and smoke on the street above his townhome complex. The day was both dark and orange as the last of the hot afternoon claimed it. He could see out across the valley and down to the coast. He could see Irvine and Newport and Long Beach and even Palos Verdes. He saw black columns of smoke rising along the coast in different locations. He watched the city lights coming on down near the coast as small fires burned out of control in various places. He tried to see details amongst the buildings and highways down there. Occasionally he saw the flashing lights of emergency vehicles dashing from place to place. But those lights were always moving, never stopping.

And there were so few of them.

He couldn’t hear the gunfire from the top of the hill now, up in the expensive neighborhoods. He couldn’t hear it above the sound of the loud engine of the MG. But the black columns of smoke were growing up there along the ridgeline, somewhere among the McMansions, becoming an evil black anvil over the top of Holiday’s head. He could see flames flicking upwards from the crimson terracotta roof tiles of some of the larger houses at the top of the hill.

He drove back down the small hill to the Vineyards and into his garage, closing the automatic door behind him before he turned off the car. He unloaded the car, putting the beer in the fridge, the liquor in the cupboard. He had a beer but only finished half of it while he smoked and tried to get a handle on the situation.

Now there’s a fire. Fires.

I don’t hear the fire department, and if the Santa Anas continue to blow it might get real bad, so I might need to leave.

And don’t forget the people. The Rat Pile. That Rat Pile is somewhere out there, rat-piling someone.

How could I forget that?

He bolted the garage door that led into the house, and drew the blinds across the windows. He put the safety pins in the sliding glass doors. He sealed the house as best he could.

“There,” he mumbled to himself with a cigarette clenched between his teeth.

He sat down in the large purple chair he’d bought from a rent-a-center outlet and popped a fresh beer, dragged the ash tray toward him and decided to be quiet and just listen and…

“…things will sort themselves out,” he told himself and blew smoke out across the quiet room.

Let’s just wait and see.

Chapter Six

By nightfall, the flames had fully engulfed the neighborhoods up on the hill above the Vineyards. Homes burned all the way to the top of the hill, as hot gusty blasts of superheated air roared down through a stand of lithe eucalyptus trees that stood guard between the two neighborhoods, the Vineyards and the McMansions above. The Santa Anas were blasting out of the desert to the east, driving the flames west toward the coast. Holiday knew that if the wind didn’t change direction soon, the fire would leap the road and come down into the townhomes.

An hour later, watching and smoking from the small back balcony off the guest room of his townhome, Holiday could see hot ash and glowing sparks streaming through the sky above the Vineyards and the now crazed palm trees. He got out the garden hose from the backyard and threw it onto the terracotta tiled roof above the garage, below the balcony.

There, he thought to himself. I can at least… do something if my house catches on fire.

The sound of the flames and the wind had turned into a great roaring gush above him. He turned and stared up the hill into the McMansions, seeing a great wall of flames like waves down at the beach rising up as roof tiles exploded along with gas barbecues and glass and cars parked in the streets laden with gasoline.

Holiday tried to estimate how many homes dotted the quiet streets of that planned and once perfect enclave of high-end hill dwellers.

Over a hundred maybe?

Now he knew it would be madness to stay in the townhome complex. There was no way a tiny garden hose was going to stand up against that firestorm. He climbed out onto the garage roof and then hoisted himself up onto the second story roof that ran the length of all the townhomes connected to his unit. There were ten homes in each building.

To the north, he could see the avocado orchard that began at the end of the property. Irvine Company land as most of the area had once been. To the west, he could see down into the coastlands beyond. There were fires everywhere down there. But nothing as huge as what was out of control above him on the hills to the east. He couldn’t see anything to the south because the Vineyards lay in a depression at the end of Viejo Verde. The rest of Viejo Verde, the markets, the stores, a few big box chain outlets and restaurants, along with some commercial nurseries, lay that way at a slightly higher elevation.

“Hey!”

Someone was shouting at him from down on the street. Lights in many of the houses were still on, as were the street lights and subdued unit lighting along the buildings and walkways between them. Standing under an orange street light was a man.

“Hey,” Holiday called back.

“You’re not one of ‘em,” stated the man.

Holiday had no idea what the stranger meant. But he suspected it had something to do with the rat pile that had begun the day.

“No, I’m not,” Holiday shouted back.

They stood there looking at each other. The other man was older. Middle aged. Gray hair at the temples, robust and brawny, but big bellied. He was wearing tan slacks and a robe. Holiday recognized him as one of his neighbors. He’d only seen him a few times down at the pool or leaving the neighborhood, passing Holiday’s house in the late morning when Holiday liked to stand on the front steps in his little yard behind the high bushes and have a smoke while he drank his first cup of coffee. He’d seen the stranger then, passing, leaving the neighborhood in a red corvette. His license plate read YEAH. Holiday had called him the Groovy Man. A relic from the seventies who still had it, or so Holiday assumed in his mind that the man thought such.

“How does it look from up there?” asked Groovy Man, who had some kind of tool in his hand.

Holiday scanned the world ending all around him once more.

“It looks bad. Real bad.”

“If we don’t do something… that fire’s coming this way,” shouted Groovy Man. Holiday could not imagine anything that could be done against the wall of flames roaring down on them. Up there, a McMansion a moment was collapsing and disappearing into the greedy flames that seemed unsatisfied with even that much luxurious destruction.

“I think…” Holiday paused. The line of tall eucalyptus trees was now on fire. “I don’t think there’s much we can do. Might be time to get out of here.”

“Come down here,” said Groovy Man. “I think we can still do something.”

Holiday looked at the man on the street, and then the massive wall of flames heading down toward them.

“Alright,” said Holiday and climbed down from the roof and went back into the house. He grabbed two cold beers from the fridge, amazed that the power was still on.

Out on the street, Groovy Man waited in front of the little gate that led to Holiday’s townhome. He was holding a big pipe wrench.

“Beer?” asked Holiday.

Groovy Man checked Holiday briefly with a quick glance that said something, then replaced it with a smile and a, “thank you”.

They popped the beers and drank. The beer was cold and tasted good in the face of the driving hot winds and floating ash.

“Something’s not right,” said Groovy Man. “Which is saying a lot for the past three days. It’s still way too early for the Santa Anas. They don’t show up for another month or so. If these winds don’t change direction soon, we’re cooked.”

Holiday gulped his beer. “Like I said, might be about time to pack up and go.”

Groovy Man turned and looked at Holiday. His dark bushy eyebrows arching. “Where have you been?”

Where have I been?

Not waiting for an answer, Groovy Man continued. “There’s nowhere to go. There’ve been riots all throughout the country and no one can explain why, or at least they couldn’t while the news was still broadcasting. Believe me, if there was some place to go, I would’ve already gone there. I tried to get down to the freeway two days ago but it was…” Groovy Man took a small sip of his beer. “It was a nightmare, and I don’t mean that in the usual LA traffic way.”

“You mean like…” and Holiday pointed toward the wreck up the street. The place of the rat pile.

“Yeah,” whispered a gravel-voiced Groovy Man. “But worse. Much worse.”

The tops of the eucalyptus trees were now fully engulfed, like candles on a candelabra. They waved madly in the howling firestorm, aflame and insane.

“I’m Frank,” said Groovy Man sticking out his hand. Holiday shook it.

“Holiday.”

“Glad to meet you,” said Frank. “Now, if we can find the sprinkler system control for the common areas, we can turn that on. That might give us some protection. Then we can try to get on top of any fires that start on the structures before they really get going. Are you game?”

Holiday nodded.

 

It took some time, but they found the sprinkler control system for the community. It was automated and the display was LED. Old School. State of the art twenty years ago. It took time to switch off the timers and then to get the system to recognize manual input. A moment later they heard the sprinklers going full tilt nearby. They circled the entire community, walking along the narrow streets. Everywhere, every sprinkler gushed a shower of water. The mist from the sprays of water felt good against the rushing waves of heat and ash that blasted down on them like hot, burning sleet, racing through the narrow streets of The Vineyards.

“There should be more sprinklers that run along the outside of the community and those should be on too,” said Frank. “It ain’t a lot, and if the winds keep up I don’t know how much good it’ll do, but it’s worth a try. Like I said, there’s no place to go. We’re outta options.”

Until midnight they watched from the rooftops, waiting for hotspots to leap up, but none did and the wind shifted. It shifted and drove the flames out into the avocado orchard to the north. By three o’clock in the morning, the entire orchard and the hill above it were a wall of fire, as all the dry late summer brush turned to fuel. The fire became even more violent and fast moving, looming over everything, heaving like the bellows of some mad demon rushing off in another direction, and before dawn it drove itself off toward the toll road that cut from Irvine over to Santa Margarita.

At dawn there was silence and fog.

Holiday met Frank in the middle of the street after they’d climbed down from their roofs on opposite sides of the complex.

After they’d shut off the sprinklers they walked up toward the entrance to the complex and up the hill to the intersection that guarded the streets leading up into the McMansions.

Their side of the street was untouched.

The exploded body of the walker and its dog remained. The grass and landscaping, still vibrant in that Southern California oasis way, lay untouched along the western side of the street. The white stucco walls of a nearby neighborhood on this side of the street were only slightly soot-stained. Their neighborhood, the Vineyards, remained quiet and seemingly untouched. Looking up the hill from the intersection, on the far side of the street above them, to the east of The Vineyards, they saw the aftermath of the fire on the hill where the McMansions were.

It may as well have been a photograph of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The matchstick skeletons of once-buildings still smoked in the early morning fog of steam and heat. All the ground on that side of the street; the lawns, the roads, the commons, the insides of the skeletons of the once-mansions rising up the scorched hill was blackened. Ash and soot was all that remained. The destruction climbed the hill, its heights lost in the strange morning fog. Every manner of thing; luxury car, speedboat, grand fireplace, whatever had been there had melted into unrecognizable post-modern piles of slag. The mind could not help but try to figure out what each twisted pile had once been.

Some were evident. Others impossible.

Chapter Seven

“So, what happened?”

Frank the Groovy Man looked up tiredly at Holiday, almost too tired to answer the question put to him.

“Another beer?” asked Holiday when Frank didn’t reply.

Frank looked down at his ash covered hands, the lines there dark and sooty.

“No. I’m done.” They sat in front of Holiday’s townhome on the little tiled steps listening to the birds, watching the sun burn off the last of the night’s strange fog. After the intersection, they’d wandered back down the hill and started looking at the car wreck at the end of the street. It really wasn’t much of a wreck. There was no damage to the metallic orange SUV other than some superficial battering and a lot of bloody handprints left behind on the orange metallic paint job. The vehicle had simply turned askance to the direction of traffic in the middle of the narrow road, its doors still wide open. In the back they found the body of a man.

He was armless, legless and mostly torso-less.

His mouth still moved, even though his lips and throat were torn away. He made a growling, gnashing whisper-rasp. Turning toward them as they opened the rear door, the man’s eyes rolled wildly, then suddenly focused with an inner hate as he stared at Holiday and Frank.

“You’ve got to be kidding,” said Holiday stepping back.

Frank just stood there holding the big pipe wrench he’d carried throughout the night.

“How’s he still…”

“Alive?” asked Frank after the long pause of Holiday’s unfinished sentence hung for a moment in the morning air between them and what was left of the man in the back of the car. “Three days ago someone on the news jokingly called it zombies,” Frank spoke tiredly, never taking his eyes off the still living corpse. “Riots were just being reported in all the major cities. People were acting like wild animals.”

The thing growled, crowing gutturally, enraged and helpless to do more than merely whisper at them.

“Two days ago it was a joke. The networks were bringing in zombie “experts” almost as a laugh. Some guy who wrote a scifi book that got turned into a movie with Brad Pitt. He seemed serious. He said we should take what was happening as proof and start preparing. The news people just laughed and cut to the next segment. Imagine that.”

Frank grabbed the thing that was once a man and pulled it out through the rear hatch of the metallic orange SUV, letting it flop down onto the street, its entrails following in a greasy black trail. It flopped around on the road as Frank raised the pipe wrench over his shoulder and heaved it downward onto the skull of the once-man. He merely grunted with the effort.

The thing stopped moving. Its dislocated jaw agape. Its eyes now vacant.

“Imagine that,” said Frank.

Holiday lit a cigarette.

They’d walked away from that place, the place of the wreck and the rat pile and the once-man that still lived even though it had been ripped mostly to shreds.

Now, sitting on the steps amid the thick heavy scent of Holiday’s garden and the late summer morning, too tired to do the next thing, whatever that was, they listened to the overwhelming silence all around them. The sound of nothing else alive for miles and miles.

“I don’t believe it,” said Holiday and swallowed some beer.

“I don’t either. But…” Frank nodded toward the wreck at the end of the street. “We might not have much of a choice about what we do and don’t want to believe anymore.”

A crow called from a nearby light post. Calling to other crows. Distant crows. Crows were still alive.

“What happened to all the other people that were on the street yesterday morning?”

Frank stood up. Stretched. Holiday could hear bones cracking in his thick neck. Frank said, “I noticed they got interested in the noise. The gunfire up the hill where someone was probably making their last stand drew them toward whatever was going on up there. Until then, they just kinda wandered the streets. People down near the freeway at the bottom of Bake Parkway were doing the same thing, except there was a sea of them. Sometimes they’d swarm cars where people, other people, were still trapped. I just thought…” Frank sighed. Then, “I told myself it was because of the politics. That people had finally had enough of this lousy government and this was our little French Revolution. I saw some things I ignored because I didn’t want to see them. When I got back up here I thought the few people I’d passed were on drugs. I got back to my house… after a few minutes I heard them pounding on my garage door. Later, when whoever that guy was…” He nodded toward the metallic orange SUV. “When whoever that was tried to make a run for it… somehow he got trapped and ended up leaning on the horn. Maybe he thought someone would come and help him. That’s when I noticed all of them heading up the street.”

“Yeah. I noticed that too,” said Holiday.

“And did you hear all that shooting before the fire? Up there in…”

“Yeah.”

“Well, soon as that started they all headed that way. So, noise seems to attract them. They don’t seem quick or agile. Just mean. My guess is it has something to do with that superflu they’ve been talking about on the news. The one that’s got China quarantined. Somehow it got out over here and… well, the emergency rooms were filling up but they said it was a different virus. Maybe they lied, know what I mean, buddy?”

Buddy.

I’ve never been called anyone’s “buddy” before, Groovy Man, thought Holiday. Still he liked it. He liked the old guy.

“So what do we do now?” asked Holiday. His beer can was empty. He was already thinking about getting another.

“I need a shower and some rest. I’m going home. I live in number 17 at the end of the street. The one down there on the corner that looks out on the orchard. Well, where the orchard used to be. Let me sleep for a few hours and then we’ll make some dinner and figure out what to do next. In the meantime I’d keep quiet and if you’ve got a gun or a weapon, you might want to keep that handy. Otherwise find some weapons.”

“Okay,” replied Holiday and watched Frank, still in his bathrobe and slacks, gold chain around his thick neck, walk back down the street. When he was gone Holiday got a beer out of the fridge. It was cold. The power was still on.

He tried the TV again. All the stations still showed the same STANDBY message. He couldn’t connect to the internet. He thought about watching a movie but he couldn’t access the ones he’d saved on his DVR. He went through his disks and landed on Top Gun but he couldn’t get into it. He poured some bourbon and mixed it with coke, wishing he had a lime. He went into his garage and before he could check himself raised the loud automatic garage door. It grated noisily as it worked its way up the tracks. He stood there listening. There was no noise anywhere.

There were no cars.

No radios.

No neighborhood kids riding bikes and skateboards.

Just the occasional unseen crow barking its “caw” at something or nothing.

He walked outside, standing in the blaze of noon as it reflected off the garages and the houses all around his parking court. The heat felt warm and heavy in the silence. He drank his drink and lit a cigarette.

So who’s gone now?

He thought about that. His parents had been gone a long time. He’d never known his mother. His dad had died a few years back. He had relatives, but he only barely remembered them.

Is that why you drink?

He drank.

I don’t think so.

He thought of any weapons he might have lying around. He had a big kitchen knife. He’d bought it after watching the Food Network show with the crazy blond spiky-haired guy. Guy Fieri. It was a kitchen knife with flames on the handle. He’d gotten a fat check that week from a stand-in gig on a police show that had gone into overtime, so he’d bought the knife on Amazon. He liked to cook late at night. When he had a date, after going out he’d come home and make her a late night snack. Or he would whip something up for all his drinking buddies when they’d finished a night of carousing down at the Spectrum. He’d whip up some street tacos or a big bowl of pasta. He often thought that if the acting thing didn’t work out he might just go to cooking school.

So, I have the knife.

With flames on the handle.

What else?

Not much. Some garden tools. A good walking stick solid enough that he could trust it to actually…

Trust it to do what?

Defend yourself.

You mean bash someone’s head in like Frank did?

I guess so. If I had to.

He looked at the wreck down the street.

“I guess I might have to,” he whispered.

He finished the drink, went back inside, and washed out the glass.

I know where there’s a gun.

He walked back down the street. Back to the scene of the Rat Pile. The scene of the crime they’d called it in all those police detective shows he’d worked on. Done background in.

Scene of the crime.

And what exactly was the crime at the scene of the crime? Was it Frank bashing in that guy’s skull? Or was it Frank bashing in the monster’s skull? Another man, now a monster, his skull. Or was the crime somewhere in the Rat Pile? What the Rat-Piling had been all about. The scene of the crime.

Who had been leaning on that horn? Begging for someone to come and help them while you watched through the venetian blinds like some film noir detective. Watched while murder was being done in broad daylight.

At the scene of the crime.

I think too much, Holiday told himself.

But I heard a gun being fired.

He replayed the three pop, pop, pops in his memory.

He looked in through the open doors of the metallic orange SUV still waiting at an odd angle in the middle of the road. He checked the floorboard without actually getting in. There was congealed blood everywhere. Flies rested and then suddenly hopped up, darting off like circus performers to other viscous pools. There were bullet holes in the smashed windows. They were small. Very small. But there was no gun.

Then what happened, he asked himself. What happened here?

Think.

The gunfire at the top of the hill. Up there at someone’s palatial gang-star home. They’d all… those people… the Rat-Pilers…

He walked over to the edge of the road to the small walkway leading between the two townhome unit buildings. There was blood along the small landscaped path between the homes. Drops of it. Ahead he could see where the Rat-Pilers had climbed a low concrete wall and started up the hill through the landscaping. The people in the street yesterday morning. The monsters. Homing in on all that gunfire from the Gang-Star’s house on top of the hill.

You don’t know that it was a gang-star, he heard himself think.

I don’t.

But you know the type. Worked hard in school. Studied computers while I wasted my time with acting. Six figure salary at some game start-up down in Irvine. Cool, hipster clothes. Glasses. Model girlfriend. High end SUV. Table parties in Vegas. And all day writing code for video games. The most boring job in the world. But when he gets home he returns to a mansion straight out of some show on MTV. Luxury pool. Movie room with obligatory SCARFACE poster. Designer kitchen that no one knows how to use half the stuff in it.

Jealous?

Sometimes.

He found an arm in the grass on the hill. It was still holding the small automatic pistol. After a moment, Holiday pried the fingers away from the grip.

I have no idea how to use a gun, he told himself.

He knew other actors who took classes in Hollywood on how to use guns just so they’d look like they knew what they were doing when they got cast to actually hold a gun. He’d never been asked to hold a gun in any of the movies or shows he’d done background in. He’d always figured that if he got a role that required him to hold a gun, he’d take a class then. He knew a guy who taught classes.

Everyone knows a guy.

Is it loaded?

He remembered someone once saying to always treat a gun, even a prop gun, as though it were loaded. He carried it gingerly back to the garage. It was two o’clock now. He got a rag and wiped off the blood while pointing the end of the barrel away from himself.

Berretta .25 was stamped into the gun metal.

He set it on the kitchen counter.

He got out his flame knife.

I know where there might be other guns.

Could they have survived the fire? He asked himself.

I don’t know. I’ll have to go look.

At the top of the hill, standing in the wide flat intersection underneath the skeletal remains of the still smoking neighborhood, he realized the immensity of the task. The task of looking for guns in all that hot, ashy ruin. Or rather the impossibility of looking for still usable guns in all that burnt and blackened pile of once-somethings. The ashes were too hot to even set foot in on that side of the street. The ground burned beneath the soles of his Docs when he tried to go five steps into it. He had no idea where, in all that melted, blackened rubble, he would even begin to look for the weapons used in the last firefight at the Gang-Star’s house.

If all those surrealist twisting bathtubs and melted cars he could see had not survived, how could some guns? Guns that were probably empty now.

He lit a cigarette.

I’ll wait. In a few days it’ll cool off. Then I can go up in there and see if anything survived.

In his heart he knew it would be more than just that.

It would be like a graveyard up there.

It would be like… a lonely place.

He was thinking about it when he heard her shouting, running at him, waving her hands. “Hey!” she shouted at him from far down the wide road that led to the big box stores.

Behind her, shambling figures stumbled up the long curving road that led back to the commercial center of Viejo Verde.

“Hey!” she shouted again as she ran toward him. “Are you one of them?”

Chapter Eight

Winter sleet screamed across the bullet-riddled parapets of the burning Schloss, high among the purple shadows of the Bavarian mountains. Down in the courtyard, the burning wreckage of the Hind MI-24 Helicopter belched black smoke as the last sniper, charged with guarding the wounded pilot, slapped a half-loaded magazine back into the M-16 he’d picked up off the deck of the downed bird. The weapon had jammed. He’d cleared it. He was surrounded. Spetsnaz paratroopers were shooting at him from every direction. The castle walls. The castle. The high windows. The pilot was dead. The helicopter was on fire.

A Soviet F-1 pineapple-shaped grenade flew through the open door the sniper had been firing from. It bounced off the engine compartment of the chopper and rolled under a canvas seat out of easy reach.

A second later it exploded, killing the sniper.

 

Deep in the bowels of the ancient German castle, she stood over the dying man.

The dying Nazi, she reminded herself as she pulled back the charging handle on the Ak-74U, sliding the first bullet into the firing chamber.

In the center of the lab, the amazing machine whined as a pulsing howl crooned through the shifting blue colors between the impossibly infinite collapsing rings at its center.

“Bitte…” he gasped. “Bitte, meine frau…” he gasped again and coughed. “Ich bin freund.” Then desperately as she raised the assault rifle and pointed it at him, “ICH BIN FREUND!” he shouted at her, pointing one long bony finger toward the red hammer and sickle on her beret.

“ICH BIN…”

She unloaded the entire clip into his chest, the compact assault rifle making a long staccato burp. His body jumped from the floor as the wicked machine gun marred and mutilated the lanky frame of the old man.

The old Nazi.

Her face, a few freckles, normally peaches and cream, was pale. Bloodless. She was lithe, even with all the bulky Soviet arctic pattern field dress. Her curly hair spilled out the back of the paratrooper’s beret.

She started to turn back. Started to turn back to the halls that led back… back and up and out of this accursed place.

“Don’t ever go back,” she whispered, catching herself. But those words weren’t her words.

No, not at all.

She bent and picked up the canvas bag. She walked toward the machine, letting the assault rifle dangle on its strap across her chest.

The machine was beginning to howl. No, it had been howling, now it was keening. As though it were in pain. As though it were tearing reality in two with its screamingly urgent pain.

She bent down near the master control panel and opened the bag. She placed all three explosive charges on the ground.

The machine’s cry split the very fabric of noise but she blocked it out. Still, it managed to make her feel nauseated.

She wanted to cry.

She wanted to stop.

She wanted to…

“I don’t do that anymore,” she whispered and picked up the first charge.

That was when the machine imploded. Because it had to. Because it couldn’t possibly ever, that was impossible, turn any faster.

It had to implode.

And when it did… it took her away from there.

Chapter Nine

She was lithe. Long curly dark hair flying behind her as she ran. She wore cut-off jeans, a tank top and combat boots. She had a green canvas bag flung over one shoulder.

Holiday turned toward her, his mind refusing to say or do anything as it struggled to pull itself away from that half-remembered thought brought on by the desolation of the hill.

She stopped and just stared at him from far down the road. Then she darted across the street and into another neighborhood on the side of the street that had survived the fire.

“Wait!” shouted Holiday. But she was gone. The shamblers came on toward him. He could hear their groaning, panting moans rising in the still, hot afternoon air.

Holiday dashed back down the street toward the Vineyards, running alongside the wall surrounding the adjacent neighborhood that lay on the other side of the street leading between the neighborhood she’d disappeared into and the Vineyards. Halfway down the block, he climbed up on the wall, then looked back toward the intersection at the top of the hill. The first shamblers were already awkwardly loping around the corner and coming down the hill after him. They looked like normal people until Holiday looked too long. Then he saw the caked blood, the pale faces, the large dead eyes like lumps of coal, mouths open, claws out and reaching.

Holiday looked down from the top of the wall into that other neighborhood the strange girl who’d yelled at him had disappeared into.

Large houses on small lots. The new Americana. Cars in the street. Windows smashed. Doors ripped from their hinges. A few people… zombies, staring vacantly at nothing, still standing in the middle of the street near wide pools of drying blood. He saw the girl who’d shouted at him running toward him from the far end of the street. A man who’d been crawling along the sidewalk reached out and swiped at her. She did a short dance step and kicked out at his head, then dodged out into the middle of the street.

Holiday dropped to the other side of the wall, down into someone’s backyard, and ran for the fence that separated the front yard from the back. Halfway across the yard, a crowd of people came spilling out through a shattered sliding glass door that led into the darkened house. Their faces were pale, eyes wide with anger, gore-crusted teeth gnashing. They pushed through and over patio furniture, knocking things every which way to get at him. They wobbled away from these tumbling collapsing odds and ends after him as he hit the side yard at a run and vaulted the wooden fence, not wasting time on a flimsy latch he’d spotted. He ran across the front yard and into the street. The girl saw him, her face determined, set on escape, her eyes wide and worried that she might not.

She cut sharply toward the other side of the street, heading for a house with its contents spewed out like the guts of a road kill.

“I’m not one of them!” he shouted at her. “I’m not crazy!”

She turned sharply back toward him and halted, unsure what to do next.

The wooden fence behind Holiday was already taking a beating from the group in the backyard, as the unseen people-monsters behind it growled and smashed at it with their fists and bodies. Up the street, another large group pushed their way hungrily toward them, still following the girl. The crawling man she’d dodged on the sidewalk, the man with no legs, crawled toward her, leaving bloody tracks as he went.

“Follow me,” said Holiday.

She turned to run and saw a fat man, shirtless and bloody, lumbering out the front door of a gutted home that lay between them. There was fresh red blood all over his chest.

Holiday was already pounding down the sidewalk toward the wide front entrance that led out into the main street and toward another housing tract across the way.

If we turn right, reasoned Holiday in his head as his feet struck the pavement one after the other as fast as they could, we can get back to my place.

But they’ll follow us back there.

Across the street, another low end townhome development, the Villa Toscanos, sprawled away toward the toll road and the commercial nurseries and rolling lowlands beyond.

He turned to her as they ran. She had peaches and cream skin turned brown, a light dusting of freckles and curly hair that seemed more auburn than dark in the full blaze of noon. She was sweating.

“We can’t go where it’s safe just now,” he yelled back to her. “We’ll have to lose them first, okay?”

She nodded, gasping for air.

“This way,” said Holiday and crossed the street into that other development, the Villa Toscanos. There was little obvious damage here. Or the damage was hidden due to the design of the homes. Here there were only tall clustered townhomes, bright and burning pastel colors, closed front doors, sparse greenery, and tinted windows reflecting the afternoon glare of the sun, all stacked tightly side by side. Behind Holiday and the strange girl, the monster mob flooded out the wide entrance of that other neighborhood, following them.

Holiday ran down the street toward a T intersection, passing silent front doors, buzzing bees and the lush eruptions of red bougainvillea. He heard the girl’s boots on the sidewalk close at his heels. He heard her green canvas bag whispering against her body as she ran. He heard her short panting breaths as she gasped for more air in the hot end of summer heat. Behind them he heard the distant groans, the raspy papery roars and the uneven padding of shambling, lurching feet as their pursuers crossed the wide main street between neighborhoods, following them.

They turned left.

A short block.

The big box shape of the Walmart rose distantly in the background above the uppermost roofs of the tightly packed townhomes. At the end of the block they could only turn left again, and ten steps down the street they saw the dead-end cul-de-sac.

The townhomes lay tight together at the end of the cul-de-sac, one right up against another. There were no entrances into side yards or spaces to slip into between the houses. Only garages and doors fronted the dead-end street, forming a kind of arena of blacktop and townhome. In the middle of the street a brand new, midnight blue Dodge Challenger idled shakily. The windows were darkly tinted. Music bumped and thundered behind the closed doors and windows of the shuddering muscle car.

The girl went to the nearest garage door and tried to open it. Holiday watched as she tried to find a handle at the bottom of the door so she could pull it up. When she couldn’t, she reached down to its bottom and heaved. It didn’t budge, and Holiday was amazed she’d even tried to open a garage door that way. Automatic garage doors wouldn’t budge unless the remote was used or the track disengaged. Even he knew that. Also he hadn’t seen a handle on a garage door in years.

Holiday approached the tinted windows of the blue Challenger. Most of a face, jaw missing, appeared pressed against the glass, eyes rolling, tongue working spasmodically on the window leaving a greasy trail.

He could hear the mob down the street now. He ran to a townhome door and tried it.

Locked.

Another.

Locked.

Another.

Locked.

“What do we do now?” asked the girl, her voice high-pitched and serious. She wasn’t hysterical. She wasn’t afraid. She asked as though she’d been here before. This place. Surrounded. Outnumbered. Trapped.

Holiday cast his eyes about.

On the second floor of each of the townhomes surrounding the dead-end street, there was a small roof-like ledge, tiled in terracotta. The wide bay windows up there either looked into a stairwell or a master bedroom, guessed Holiday.

“I’ll give you a boost up,” he said, looking at the ledge above their heads.

The corpse mob rounded the corner at the end of the street. One man, a shrieking pant-er, roared with hunger as he lunge-loped toward them, a shredded and bloody pant leg dragging along behind.

Holiday boosted the girl up and she scrambled onto the narrow ledge. She turned to try and help him up, but Holiday knew her slight frame wouldn’t be enough for him. He was over six feet.

“Go through the window!” he shouted up to her. “Come down the stairs and unlock the front door.”

She nodded at him, stood, grabbed onto the side of the building and kicked her combat boots through the window. Holiday looked down, eyes closed, just in time to avoid a shower of shattered glass.

The lunge-loper was halfway down the block and entering the cul-de-sac. Behind him, a woman who looked like a crack addict with knobby yellow teeth and a missing eye, screeched as she ran forward, her pink dress almost a pristine counterpoint to her ragged hair, taut skin, and gore-crusted fingernails.

I hope there’s no one inside there with her, thought Holiday as he picked up a decorative rock and sent it square into the chest of the lunge-loper who wasn’t even fazed by its impact for a second.

Holiday heard the distant thud of footsteps behind the pink stucco wall at his back, as though someone was running down stairs making a hollow gallop, a pause and then it resumed again. He thought about a cigarette and maybe even a beer. The mob coming at him was a horde of raving lunatics turned into monsters that were once people. Cannibals was the word that suddenly occurred to Holiday. The rushing mob filled the entire street as it came on, stumbling and reaching out for him all at once.

He heard the lock of the door being worked at his back.

He heard someone jerk on the door without success.

The loper made the driveway, his jaw wide and twisting in a ferocious snarl. Holiday could see the loper still carried someone’s severed arm in one hand. He could see the bite marks in its tattooed biceps and forearms.

Holiday readied himself, his legs wide, his fingers splayed.

Distantly he heard the sound of the lock rattling back and forth, then the soft whoosh of an opened door as a blast of cold air conditioning suddenly erupted at his back, cooling the streaming sweat he’d been drenched in. He felt a delicate, slender hand pulling his shoulder backward and he felt himself going with it, stumbling back into cool darkness as the girl pushed off his falling body and lunged for the door, slamming it shut.

The impacts that followed almost threw her off of it as the loper and others, many others, ran smack into the door. But she dug in, her slender, muscled legs straining to find purchase on the slick tiled entryway, her combat boots slipping as she pushed back against their heavings. Holiday scrambled upright and shot the lock as the jarring impacts cascaded into it with growing force.

They remained, intertwined, leaning against the shuddering door. Breathing heavily. Panting.

“I’m Holiday,” he introduced himself, sticking out a sweaty hand.

“Ash,” she whispered breathily.

And then she smiled at him.

Holiday looked at her and felt time, a mere moment in the universe, stand still. As though it had stopped its crazy turn for something important. Something to be remembered. Always.

Then time cranked into overdrive as the battering at the door renewed with vigor and growling. The door began to shake within its frame.

“I don’t know how long this door’s gonna hold,” whispered Holiday. As if to confirm this, a groaning sound shrieked from the frame around the door.

Ash shouldered her bag and made her way down a small hall and into a narrow living room. On the far side of the room, a sliding glass door opened onto a tiny unfinished patio where a lone rusty barbeque rested on cinder blocks.

“We can go this way,” she called back to Holiday.

She opened the sliding glass door and peeked out into the small concrete-finished yard. A spindly fence of thin, red wood bordered the yard.

Holiday left the shuddering door and followed her out into the small yard.

On the other side of the red wood fence they saw a nature preserve. Downslope from that, a wide main road and then beyond that, a three story apartment complex with open stairwells. Past the apartment complex, the big box of the Walmart rose above the highest roof of the apartment complex.

“There’re zombies everywhere,” she whispered matter of factly.

Zombies, thought Holiday. That’s what they are. They’re zombies.

He heard the door separating from the frame back inside the house.

All through the nature preserve, lone zombies wandered and stumbled in the high brush. Over in the apartment complex Holiday and Ash watched crowds in the stairwells, pounding furiously on random doors.

My trip to the store yesterday probably almost got me killed, thought Holiday.

Behind them, the front door to the townhome splintered, and suddenly a distant chorus of raspy groans and murmur yells was real and suddenly present.

“Over the fence, soldier boy,” shouted Ash, and grabbed the top of it, swinging her legs up and over. Holiday leveraged himself up, felt the flimsiness in the red wood slats, experienced a brief vision of the fence shattering and goring him, then vaulted down into the tall grass on the other side.

Chapter Ten

They could hear the zombies in the field laboring through the brush to reach them. One shrieked insanely as if it was being torn apart from the inside. Holiday and Ash crouched and crawled through a stand of low hanging wild oak that hadn’t been pruned all that summer. At the bottom of the preserve, they passed through a dry stream bed and entered a cluster of wisteria, pushing through its dustiness to reach the sidewalk beyond. A few of the zombies on the nearest stairwell of the apartment complex across the street saw them and fell over the railings at them, plummeting and arms waving as they tried to take the most direct route to their new prey.

Holiday led Ash downhill along the road that separated the two developments, the townhomes and the apartment complex, until they came to the entrance of a business park that lay alongside the toll road. Zombies crossed the wide field they’d left, or streamed down the stairs of the apartment complex, crashing into the wrought iron fence at the bottom of the property and beginning to build up along its length.

Each turn takes us farther away from my house, thought Holiday. A place that felt much more safe than where he found himself now, dashing up the street to the business park, surrounded by these things with no place to run to. He was feeling tired, exhausted and thirsty. How much farther can we go, he wondered bleakly.

The road up to the business park was lined with white barked spruce and a manicured lawn on each side. They jogged up the road, each of them feeling as though they should move faster, but unable to bring themselves to push harder in the thick heat of noon.

Holiday turned and tried to take the canvas duffel but Ash shook her head and managed a whispery, “No, I can carry my own gear.”

The business park was silent. There were no cars in the parking lot and all the large tinted windows in the low office buildings were dark. Only one of the suites was occupied by an actual business. The rest still had leasing signs posted in their windows.

Holiday tried some of the doors but all of them were locked.

Ash ran back to the small road that led up into the complex and came back just as Holiday was picking up the cement cover from a water meter to smash out a window.

“It’s no good,” she said. “There’re a lot of them coming up the road. Going uphill seems to slow them down. But this place isn’t any good to make a stand. There are too many windows. We go in there, we’ll be trapped for sure. We’ve got to get to a better place. Something more secure.”

Holiday dropped the concrete water meter cover.

“How far away is this safe place of yours?” she asked, panting.

Holiday shook out a cigarette from his pack and lit it, taking a quick raspy drag.

“Not far, but if we lead this bunch back there it won’t be safe anymore. We’ve got to lose them first.”

“What’s that over there?” she said pointing toward the tall corner of the Walmart.

“That’s the Walmart.”

She looked confused.

“You’re not from here are you?” asked Holiday.

Ash shook her head and smiled quickly.

“Yeah,” said Holiday sucking down a lungful of smoke. “What other choice do we have right now?” He flicked the cigarette away.

“None that I can see,” whispered Ash.

“Okay then,” said Holiday after a moment of thinking through their route to the big box store. “Follow me.”

They climbed a set of steps that led up onto the main street and then crossed the road, climbing a grassy embankment to get up onto the wide blacktop football field that was the parking lot of the Walmart. There were no zombies up there.

Ash and Holiday lay in the grass gasping at the heat, still for a moment.

Holiday checked his smartphone.

Why did you do that, he thought. I don’t know, he answered himself. Maybe time is important right now.

But it isn’t, he heard a voice answer.

Behind them, all through the apartment complex, zombies were streaming over the low wall of the business park Ash and Holiday had come through. Heading straight for them.

“If we can get inside the Walmart we might be able to sneak out the back and then make our way over to my place. But we’ve got to lose them first.”

They pushed away from the grass, its smell fragrant and deep in their lungs as they ran across the hot parking lot where only a lone RV waited in its direct epicenter. Now they could smell the hot tar of the parking lot coming up at them in waves as the soles of their shoes burned. Ahead, the entrance to the massive store loomed above them and when Holiday turned over his shoulder to look back, he could see the first of the zombies coming up onto the grassy slope from the parkway and into the parking lot. There were more, many more of them than he’d expected to see. It seemed all the ones from the apartment complex and the nature preserve had joined with the mob that had been following them through the housing development.

“Don’t look back!” yelled Ash over her shoulder as she ran on ahead of him.

At the entrance to the store, the mechanical doors slid open and they could smell the heavy yeasty-stale scent of the place. Music played but there was no one to greet them.

Holiday turned and found the control for the metal security shutters. A moment later he had them activated as the gate descended down over the front doors, blocking out the sun.

They turned. Above them, brightly lit rows of empty shelving stretched off into the unseen distance. Everything had been taken. Looted.

The first of their pursuers smacked into the steel roll down door a few minutes later. The metal groaned pitifully. Then one of them smacked into it again, as though it was slapping the door with its bare bloody hands. Soon the smacks were beyond counting and the din echoed throughout the humongous and empty store.

They backed away from the reverberating door.

“Thirsty?” asked Holiday.

Ash nodded, her eyes still on the door.

“Should be something left to drink somewhere.”

They passed a water fountain and each drank deeply from the cool trickle that came out of the spout. They crossed empty aisles under fluorescent lights, occasionally passing some forgotten or unneeded merchandise carelessly dumped on the floor. In the food section most everything was gone. They found a case of mango juice and opened it. Each of them took a bottle and drank. It was warm and sugary. The pounding at the front door continued.

Holiday lit a smoke.

“You smoke?”

Ash shook her head.

“Good. It’s a bad habit.”

She nodded.

“Where are you from?” asked Holiday.

Looking around she said, “A long way from here, that’s totally for sure.”

“Zombies,” mumbled Holiday to himself. “Hard to believe.”

“Among other things,” whispered Ash and Holiday wasn’t sure exactly what she’d meant. He was about to ask when the lights went out.

There was a sudden popping and buzzing as the store’s public address system crackled to life.

“I see you,” said the tinny voice over the store intercom a moment later. “I see you real good.”

The lights went on.

Then off again.

“You in my kingdom now, children.”

Holiday flicked his lighter to life. Ash was crouched behind an empty shelving unit, eyes wide and searching. He hadn’t even heard her move.

“I got everything you need back here in the warehouse,” said the voice. The voice was cruel and taunting, made even more so by the mechanical nature of the PA system. “I gots liquor and weed and food even. I’ma live back here in style ‘till things sort themselves out.”

Holiday stood and grabbed her arm. Using his lighter, they made their way along the darkened aisle looking for one of the main walls of the store.

“Only one thing I don’t gots me…” said the voice with a chuckle as the PA system popped and squealed. “And thas a real live guurl. A real pretty woman like the one ya gots there, boyfriend.”

The lights came on again.

“I see you.”

The lights went off.

“I see you real good.”

Holiday stopped, kneeling down.

“He’s probably bluffing,” Holiday whispered breathily in the dark.

Ash thought about this for a moment.

“Or he might have some NVG’s.”

Holiday looked at Ash, puzzled.

“Y’know, Night Vision Goggles,” she said.

“Yeah,” continued the scratchy whine of the voice over the intercom. “I needs me a real fine woman ‘bout now. So ‘whatcha say, boyfriend? You trade me that pretty little filly and I’ll let you walk right on outta here.”

Silence.

Lights on.

“Whatchu say!” demanded the voice over the intercom.

The lights went off. Over the loudspeakers, the opening riff of Smoke on the Water began to play. The lights began to go on and off rapidly. Holiday and Ash banged into shelving that suddenly disappeared and reappeared in the blinking lights as they continued to cautiously make their way across the store.

The song ended.

Tired laughter flowed out from the intercom. The lights were on now. Holiday and Ash were next to a long wall that seemed to run toward the back of the store. Ahead they could see a small sign on the wall that pointed toward an emergency exit.

“Ah!” shouted the voice over the intercom. “Dontchu go that way. You won’t like what you find outside that door, boyfriend. Won’t like that at all.”

The lights went out again as they continued to feel their way along the wall. When Holiday’s hand fell into open space, he knew they’d found the hallway that would lead to an exit. They turned the corner and a short distance ahead they could see the brightly lit outline of a door and the Emergency Exit sign glowing in soft red.

Holiday slammed through the door and out into the brightly lit sun-flooded dry concrete alleyway between the massive buildings.

People were everywhere.

Not people, zombies.

Missing fingers. Bloody gouges. Open wounds. Pale skin. Wild hair. Eyes like vacant spaces in the universe.

They turned as one, then stumbled toward Ash and Holiday, arms reaching, teeth bared like rabid dogs.

“Back! Back! Back!” screamed Holiday as Ash lunged for the closing fire door, catching the handle just before the door would have closed and locked them out, on the wrong side, for the short remaining moments that would have been the rest of their lives. She flung it open with a heave and a grunt and they rushed inside, pulling it tightly closed behind them as the zombies began to assault it.

Laughter echoed across the store, coming from the PA system. It bounced off shelving and the walls. It rang out above the pounding of the zombies at the fire door and the distant roll-down security door.

“I told ya so, boyfriend. I told ya not to go out there,” crowed the voice. “I told you… I told you you wouldn’t like it out there. Not one bit!”

“We’re trapped,” whispered Ash, and it was the first time since meeting her that Holiday could tell she was truly worried. She’d seemed calm and businesslike for most of their short flight together. Now he could tell she was afraid they might not survive.

The store descended into darkness once more.

“Whatchu gonna…”

The voice was drowned out as a distant thunder tore through everything, roaring from far away, seeming to cross over their heads above the store’s roof and then gone, streaking off and away.

“What was that?” asked Holiday.

It returned a moment later, but it seemed as if it came from another direction this time. Another sound erupted from the thunder. The sound rose up and away from the source, as if it were being pushed or ground out from the deafening roar. It was like a hollow electronic whirring Hummmmmm and it was deafening and menacing all at once. It stopped and the thunder seemed to disappear off into the distance.

Then the thunder returned. The store shook. Lighting fixtures fell and crashed to the floor. The whooshing-hum erupted again, and for a moment it sounded as though a sudden hailstorm was striking the roof and walls. Then it was gone again.

Silence.

The voice on the PA system said nothing.

The lights were still off.

The thunder whoosh groaned again, immediate and loud as the store shook once more, shelves falling over, the ceiling creaking as if it was going to fall down through the darkness right on top of them and that great whoosh-hum erupting, burping its way into existence.

Holiday scanned the darkness and saw small ball-sized shafts of light appearing along the wall and ceiling over at the far end of the store, back near the roll down gate. And then the thunder was distant and receding. They could hear it racing far off and away. Then a big Hummmmm now as the thunder rushed toward them again. A big deep HUMMMMM winding up. Winding up as though this time it would fall straight down upon them. They dropped to the floor, smelling the dusty linoleum and sickly sweet floral disinfectant that had been used by all the night cleaning crews of the past. Just when it felt like that HUMMMMMM would bring the ceiling down on top of them, it suddenly changed pitch and raced away…

…a moment later there was an explosion at the front of the store. Shelves collapsed or fell over on each other. They felt a shockwave of force and heat race through the darkness of the store. A metallic bang reverberated, and a moment later the heavy scent of burning fuel raced up and into their noses.

“C’mon,” grunted Holiday and they were up and moving. Shafts of daylight sprinkled the darkness and they could see that a large hole had been torn in the roll down metal gate back at the front of the store. As they neared the shuttered entrance they could see out into the massive parking lot. Bodies lay shredded into thousands of different parts, ripped to pieces. Flaming corpses wandered directionless, first one way then another, only to fall over as the flames consumed them. Small fires remained on most of the body parts, devouring them also. The mass of zombies had been turned into a field of flaming body parts and smoldering torsos.

“Now’s our chance!” said Holiday. “We can get back to my place.”

“It’s not safe out there,” protested Ash.

“It’s not safe in here. Trust me on this.”

After a moment’s consideration, Ash nodded.

They stepped through the wicked rip in the roll down metal security door. The area near the front entrance was churned up by thousands of tiny craters in the pavement. Various parts of corpses still burned, still moved, still gnashed their teeth as they stepped with care through a parking lot full of charred and burning corpse remains.

Once they’d crossed through most of the body parts, they turned back at the parking lot’s edge, watching as the last straggling corpse fell to its knees, still burning, then onto its face, surrendering to the flames that consumed it.

That was once someone, thought Holiday.

Chapter Eleven

The sun burned itself out in the west as the afternoon turned into an orange backdrop for the gauzy smoke that seemed to hang in the air. The heat clung to the last of the day as Holiday and Ash made their way back to the Vineyards. The only zombies they saw were distant and locked in some meaninglessly repetitive task like bashing into a door, or staring off into space at nothing.

“Maybe we drew the ones in the surrounding area to the front door of the Walmart. Then whatever that thing was that killed them, sort of cleaned out the immediate area,” said Holiday as they made their way down a slope of ice plants.

“They were already killed,” replied Ash, slipping on the landscaping still wet from the automated sprinklers. “They’re dead. They just still move around.”

Holiday turned to Ash, started to say something, and then whatever it was felt too crazy to say out loud. When Ash saw the look on his face she nodded and mumbled, “Yeah, I know. Crazy.”

“What I’m saying is, we were what drew them there,” continued Holiday as they navigated downslope toward the wide main road they needed to cross to get back to the Vineyards.

Later, at the top of the road between the two housing developments they’d fled through when the first mob had begun to chase them, they could see the tiled roofs of the townhome blocks back at the edge of the Vineyards.

“My place is inside there.” Holiday paused. “I met another survivor this morning, last night, yesterday… it’s all kind of a blur now, but we managed to keep the fire back. Did you see the fire last night?”

Ash nodded.

“If you don’t mind my asking, where were you going when you saw me?”

“I wasn’t going anywhere,” she said. “I was just running for my life.

She stopped.

Holiday turned toward her in the middle of the road.

She was smaller than him, but everything about her stance said she was used to not being looked down upon. That she was ready to take on the world no matter how big it might be.

“I don’t want…” she began.

“It’s cool,” interrupted Holiday, sensing her unease. “It’s okay. It’s really none of my business. I just thought… well who cares.”

“It’s a long story,” she said simply.

They walked on in silence, entering the Vineyards, following a short, palm-lined street that led into the community, seeing the shimmering gated community pool ahead of them. Each of them could feel an awkwardness surface between them. Like they’d gotten too close too fast or needed each other too much before really knowing anything about the other.

Something.

“Listen, I don’t know you all that well,” began Ash. “But, before I say anything else… I want to tell you thank you. I was running out of options back there. I couldn’t seem to make the right choice and I needed someone to take over and get me to safety.”

Holiday thought about that as they approached the orange metallic SUV, still sitting there with its doors open.

“I don’t know that I did that for you. I was just trying to help.”

“Well, you did,” said Ash and nodded her head. “Thank you for that.”

Holiday smiled at her.

“We did it together,” he said and couldn’t understand why he’d suddenly thought of saying that.

“Well okay. If you say so.” Then Ash laughed and the awkwardness that had tried to nest between them was driven off

“Yes. We did,” she said almost to herself. As if to hear something she didn’t totally believe just yet, but needed anyway.

Frank was waiting outside Holiday’s house when they arrived.

“Thought you’d run off, buddy,” he said to Holiday.

“I took a walk and found a friend. This is Ash.”

Ash and Frank shook hands as Frank said, “Good to meet you.”

“I also found something else, but first we need some beers.” Holiday went inside his house and came back with three cold beers. They opened the cans. Ash drank hers after studying the can for a moment. She’d watched the men open theirs and then did the same, drinking as they did. The bubbles almost seemed to take her by surprise. She giggled as the foam ran over the can’s lip and down onto her hands. It wasn’t a silly giggle. It was just delight at something unexpected. Soft feminine delight in some new thing. Like she’d never had a beer before.

“Found this,” said Holiday pulling out the gun from his pocket. “Got it out of the wreck.”

Frank took it and looked at it.

“That’s a nice little Beretta,” said Frank inspecting the gun. He worked the slide and checked for a bullet. He ejected the magazine. “Empty, though. 25 caliber. It’s a girl gun,” then he turned to Ash. “No offense. That’s just what we called it back in Chicago. Friend of mine got shot with one in the head. The bullet didn’t even penetrate the skull, and the doc just popped out the bullet from under the skin with some tweezers. Probably not much good against these…” Frank paused and each of them knew who he’d meant to name. The crazy people. The Rat-Pilers. The zombies. “Even if it had any bullets,” he finished.

The three of them stood there as twilight consumed the east above them.

“She says the crazy people we saw yesterday morning… she says they’re zombies.”

Frank finished his beer. “Yeah,” he said, looking into the can and then off to the dry brown hills and the scorched earth of the fires from the night before. “As crazy as that sounds… it sounds about right.”

“We got trapped over in the Walmart. There’s some weirdo in there, probably in the manager’s office. He’s pretty messed up. We barely got out of there with our lives,” said Holiday.

“Did you see that A-10?” asked Frank.

Ash slapped her hand to her head. “Yes. Stupid! I should’ve known that. It’s been years since I’ve heard one…” She was going to say more and then stopped herself. She was definitely going to say something more. Or at least that was the impression both Frank and Holiday had. But she stopped herself and covered her mouth with the beer and drank as though she’d never intended to say anything more.

“We didn’t know what it was but it must’ve been what… killed all the people… I mean zombies… the zombies at the front of the the…” Holiday trailed off and finished his beer in an extended long gulp. He let out an, “ahh” when he’d finished. Then, “Thirsty.”

“That’s a military close air-support aircraft,” said Frank. “That means the government is still in operation. It means they’re trying to do something. So, that’s good news. Hey, why don’t we have some steaks and celebrate! We might just get out of this thing yet.”

“What about the zombies?” asked Ash. “How do we know there aren’t more of them around?”

“All of them seemed to have cleared out of here, at least as far as the immediate vicinity is concerned,” replied Frank. “I haven’t seen any more around. The fires last night and the A-10 must have killed a lot of them. I’m sure there are some still around, but if we keep a low profile, they probably won’t come looking for us. We can move the BBQ out into the garage courtyard. The surrounding townhomes will give us cover. I’ve got three nice T-Bone steaks we’ve got to eat before the power goes out. We’ll have those tonight and figure out our next move. Whaddaya say, kids?”

They agreed, and an hour later Frank had the grill lit in his parking court. The courtyards were almost completely enclosed by townhomes and thus cut off from view by the surrounding hills and burnt out neighborhoods. Potatoes wrapped in tinfoil baked down in the orange and ashy coals. The steaks were thick and Frank waited for them to come to room temperature before putting them on the grill.

“Better that way,” he told Holiday while Ash showered upstairs in his guest bathroom. Frank had offered Ash his guest room to stay in and Ash had quickly accepted.

Play it cool, thought Holiday to himself when he heard the invitation exchange between Frank and Ash. Then he wondered why he felt he suddenly needed to “play it cool”. They’d just met.

Holiday had brought over half a case of beer. Over the course of the previous hour, he’d taken a shower and had a few bourbon and cokes, trying to forget most of the day and especially the field of burning corpses in the Walmart parking lot.

Almost time for another supply run, he thought to himself as he fixed himself another bourbon and coke.

Now, standing around the grill in the evening dark watching the steaks begin to sizzle, Frank, Ash and Holiday watched the night as each in their own way wondered what the shape of the world was now.

“I don’t know how hungry I’ll be after seeing everything I’ve seen in the last few days, but we gotta eat, right kids?” said Frank to break the silence that seemed like a blanket, made even more so by the almost total absence of human life in the immediate vicinity.

“I’m always hungry,” mumbled Ash.

“Then that’s good,” said Frank. “So while we wait for the steaks to finish, we should begin to talk about what to do next.”

Frank waited for them to respond.

No one spoke.

“The way I see it,” he began after a moment, “is that we could try to make it to wherever it’s safe. There’s got to be somewhere secure because whoever’s flying that A-10, they’re probably somewhere safe right now. Problem is, we don’t know where that’s at. So we could take our chances out there, and as evidenced by your escapades today, we could go a block in any direction and get in way over our heads. So here’s what I’m thinking.” He paused and flipped the steaks once.

“As I was saying, I think what we need to do is dig in. Like we did back in ‘Nam. We build us a firebase right here. Then we wait and see what happens. We try to find out where it’s safe to go. If the government pops its head back up, we get in touch and see what we’re supposed to do. Whaddya guys think?”

Holiday killed his beer and grabbed another from the ice chest.

“I don’t see why not. But…” He stopped.

“But what?” asked Frank.

“I don’t think this place can stand up to those… things.”

Frank thought about that.

“I like mine rare,” interrupted Ash, clutching her plate, watching the steak on the grill. Then, “Sorry, I’m just really starving. It’s been days since I’ve had a decent meal.”

“Me too,” said Frank and moved the steaks around as the flames jumped up and charred the meat and sizzling fat.

“I’m not all that hungry,” said Holiday, taking another long drink of his beer.

“Ya gotta eat, buddy,” said Frank. “Got to.”

Holiday nodded and grabbed a paper plate, sitting down at the picnic table they’d dragged out from someone’s yard.

Ash and Holiday cut into their steaks as Frank laid out some butter, sour cream, and salt and pepper for the potatoes.

“You’re right,” said Frank through a mouthful of red meat. “This place won’t stand up without defenses. But we couldn’t ask for a better place to defend. The whole neighborhood is already shaped like one of those medieval castles. It’s a giant rectangle with the outer ring of unit buildings making up the outer walls. We’ve got two main streets running the length and two little side streets connecting the north and south ends. If we fortify those gaps between the buildings, then board up the windows and lock the doors along the outside perimeter, we should be able to keep them out.”

They ate. Chewing silently. Drinking.

“What about a gate at the main entrance?” asked Ash as she swallowed a thick piece of meat she’d stabbed with her fork.

“We can use a bus… or a big RV, like they did in the Road Warrior. You ever seen that movie?” asked Frank.

Neither had.

“Well, I guess it was before your time. But that was how they made the gate. A few other touches and we should get a nice fit, and here’s the beauty of it all. If we can make a run over to the Home Depot and make sure it’s all clear of zombies, we can have all the building material we’d ever want. We can string fencing between the gaps. They’ve got rolls and rolls of the stuff over there.”

“Why here?” asked Holiday putting down his knife and fork, reaching for a fresh beer though only half his steak was finished.

“I’ve been thinking about that,” said Frank. “Like I said, we couldn’t ask for a better place. We’re backed up to the edge of Viejo Verde. North of us is the orchard and the Irvine Company lands. All unincorporated wilderness. Foothills we could escape into if we need to. The fact that it’s burned up makes it even better. Anything comin’ out across that blackened wasteland will be crossing through our kill zone. We’ll see ‘em a long way off. To the east is the hill above us and what’s left of the ritzy houses that burned down there last night. On the other side of that hill is the Cleveland National Forest all the way out to Riverside. If these things… okay got to start callin’ ‘em zombies. Do you think these things are your classic, George Romero Zombies, Night of the Living Dead? You guys see that one…? No, I didn’t think so. Well, if these things are your classic zombie, then they’re looking for people. Out that way, toward the east in the Cleveland National Forest, there’s no one, so in all likelihood we’re safe from that direction. To the south and west are other neighborhoods that should provide some cover from those things. Finally, we’re at a higher elevation than the rest of Orange County. Those zombies seem like… like water… like children. I bet they’re more likely to go downhill than up, unless they’ve got a reason. So, once we clear out this area and hunker down, we shouldn’t get too much traffic.”

“Sounds good to me,” said Ash through a mouthful of meat. “You gonna finish that?” she said looking at Holiday’s steak. Holiday pushed his plate over to her. Without hesitation she started to work on what remained of his steak. Holiday grabbed another beer, sat back down and said, “Okay, I think you’ve got a good plan, Frank. Just tell me what to do next.”

“I’ll have to make an actual plan, have to think about it. Make some drawings, y’know,” said Frank rubbing his chin.

They sat for a while and enjoyed the night.

“It seems odd doesn’t it,” whispered Frank as the embers in the barbecue turned to a soft ashy red. Their faces were shadows in the night.

“What seems odd?” asked Ash.

“The world ends and here we are having a great time. I mean, this is a great time to me. Steaks, beer, friends. Don’t you think? I was in ‘Nam for thirteen months. I used to dream about cool nights and barbecue, beer and good people. Cool breeze we used to say.”

“How do you know we’re good?” asked Ash quietly.

Frank was silent for a moment. Finishing the last of his beer, he set the can down on the bleached wood of the picnic table.

They could see Holiday’s cigarette tip moving in the dark.

“I just do,” said Frank.

Chapter Twelve

For the rest of the night, Holiday cleaned his house. It was a good thing, he reasoned, that Ash was staying with Frank. If she’d walked into my house, she’d have known exactly what kind of monster I am, he thought. A monster who drinks a lot.

Around midnight he finished.

Why do you care? Holiday asked himself.

She’s cute, was the only answer that came to him in the silence. But he knew there was more to it than just that.

Then he thought about the end of the world. That the world was ending, had ended, and that he was looking for someone to love. Standing at the refrigerator door, basking in its solitary light, he thought aloud, “Even I realize my priorities might need adjusting.”

He closed the door, cracked the beer he’d taken from the fridge and sat in the dark, smoking.

 

At dawn he heard a quiet knocking downstairs. He threw on jeans, stumbled down the stairs and answered the door.

Ash was standing there, washed, clean, scrubbed, hair up, work gloves on her hands, resting on her hips.

“Frank’s walking the perimeter, trying to sketch out what we should build. He said you and I might go find a truck so we can start hauling back materials. You know where there might be a truck we can borrow?” She smiled.

“Perimeter?” asked Holiday, fumbling for a cigarette from the pack in his pocket. The pack was empty.

Supply run, he thought to himself, thinking of the grocery store.

“Yeah,” replied Ash not missing the sarcasm. “You’re in the army now, soldier boy.” Then, “Were you ever in?”

Holiday laughed. Then snorted out a, “No. I don’t think they’d have me.”

Ash made a quick face, as though she was reconciling a set of numbers. Re-evaluating some long held position. “Huh,” she said. “I don’t know why… but I had the feeling you had been in the military.”

Holiday turned back to the morning darkness inside his townhome.

“Well, I wasn’t.”

She followed him in as he found his maroon Doc’s and a t-shirt.

She scanned the décor. Nothing matched. But it worked in an odd eclectic sort of way. Like the library of some late British Empire explorer with all its odds and ends from around the world.

“Nice place,” she called out, hearing him bang around upstairs.

“I like to check out the consignment stores every time I get a nice paycheck. I like furniture,” he shouted down from the landing above.

“So d’ya know where we can find a truck?”

“Yeah. I saw one up at the grocery store in the parking lot. If we can find the keys, it’ll probably do the trick.”

Outside, Frank was coming down the street with a clipboard in hand.

“Hey, buddy. Not too early for you, is it?”

“A little,” mumbled Holiday.

“Well you’ll be fine. Listen, we’ve got sixteen walkways we’ve got to barricade. I need to make a count of the windows that look out on the perimeter, but I’ll do that while you guys find a truck and see if the Home Depot’s clear of zombies. If it is, grab a bunch of mesh fencing material. It should come in big rolls. We’ll need metal poles and the wire twist fasteners, which should be somewhere nearby wherever you find the mesh fencing rolls. That should get us started. Oh, and don’t forget to pick up some bags of dry cement.”

“You think a mesh fence will keep them out?” asked Ash.

“I think it’ll do for now. I’d hate to actually have to build a wall between each walkway but… if it means our survival then I guess we’ll have to.”

“Have you seen any of them around this morning?” asked Holiday.

“No, and I like it that way. So be as quiet as possible and whatever you do, don’t lead them back here.”

 

Holiday and Ash arrived at the supermarket parking lot and pulled up next to the flatbed truck far out in the parking lot. There were two dead bodies on the other side of the truck that Holiday hadn’t seen on his last supply run. A flock of crows picked at the corpses.

“If there are keys,” started Holiday, then paused. “We might find them in…” he pointed toward the bloody and shredded rags that had once been clothing and someone. Where the crows cawed and feasted.

Ash picked up a large dry palm frond that lay on the hot blacktop. She waved it back and forth as she approached the cantankerous crows, shouting, ‘Hyaah, Hyaah.” Only at the last second did the crows reluctantly scatter, crying angrily and circling, before flying off to a nearby palm tree to glare down on them sullenly. Ash turned to Holiday. “Well, I did my part. Now it’s your turn.”

Holiday looked at the bloody clothing.

He opened the cab of the truck first. He checked the ignition. No keys.

“I guess I’m not getting out of this that easily.”

“Doesn’t look like it,” laughed Ash.

Holiday got down on all fours. He picked up a pair of bloody pants. The blood was still warm and thick. The pants were stiff.

No keys.

Then he went through the remains of a shirt. He found some unidentifiable organ inside its crusty bloody folds. He threw it aside, not wanting to be honest with himself as his eyes and mind screamed the news that it had been half eaten.

No keys. He crawled over to the other…

What, he thought. The other what?

Remains.

No keys there either.

“I don’t want to put any pressure on you Holiday, but I think either I or the crows managed to attract some attention.”

Holiday looked up. He was sweating. He could smell the alcohol coming out of his pores. He looked up and saw that Ash was looking toward the far end of the parking lot.

A woman stumbled forward from the shadows of a fast food restaurant that occupied that corner of the center.

“You think it’s one of them?” But he didn’t need to ask. Even at this distance he knew she was one of them. Her mouth was crusted in black gore. Her hair wild. Dress torn. She wore flats, and they could hear their slow uneven slap against the blacktop as she wobbled toward them.

Holiday stood up.

“C’mon. We’ll lead her into the store and get rid of her. Then we’ll wait and see if there’re any more.”

They retreated into the supermarket and were instantly greeted by cold air-conditioning and more Aerosmith from the market’s never-ending playlist. Holiday heard Ash whisper a silent, “Wow!” as she stared at the massive store still filled with pristine products and goods.

Holiday watched the woman outside as she changed course and followed after them, her stick-like arms hanging limp at her sides as she stumbled across the burning parking lot.

“Hey, keep an eye on her,” said Holiday as they stood near the gumball machines and newspaper racks. “I’ll see if I can find something to get rid of her with.”

Holiday left Ash and immediately went to the beer aisle. He grabbed a Sapporo and drank thirstily as he scanned the store for something to use.

To use for what, Holiday? He heard himself ask inside his own head.

Well, you know…

His eyes kept going up as he finished another thirsty drink of the Japanese beer. As though on top of the shelves he might find an axe or some other appropriate zombie-killing weapon. But there were only barbecues and Styrofoam ice chests. On sale now that summer was over. Gone.

He finished the last of the import beer and thought of Taylor and all those days of salt and sun and sea by the beach.

“Summer’s over,” he whispered to himself.

“She’s almost here,” yelled Ash over the last of the fading Aerosmith blare.

There’s nothing here I can use, thought Holiday.

Ash came running up as he stood in front of the meat case.

“She’s inside the store now,” whispered Ash. “Probably coming up that aisle back over there.”

There’s something I’m missing, thought Holiday desperately. Then, maybe she’ll want some meat. And just as he was dismissing that for a stupid idea, he remembered the butcher.

And butcher knives.

He led Ash behind the meat counter and through the plastic divider curtain that separated the store from the cutting room.

It was cold. Spotless. Clean and freezing.

Holiday scanned the polished metal cutting tables and counters for a knife. He’d forgotten his Guy Fieri flame knife back at home.

Nothing.

Ash grabbed a long pole with a hook that leaned against the corner.

“Good,” said Holiday. “We can use that to pin her.”

Through the glass partition they saw the bedraggled woman stumble into view. Her head turned slowly, her eyes malevolent. She ground her teeth and snarled soundlessly.

Just as Holiday put his hand on the freezer door handle and flung it open, he had a fleeting thought. Maybe one of these… one of them… a zombie is inside the freezer. Someone else might have locked one in there.

But it was too late.

Holiday flung the door wide open, charged through and came face to face with the butcher. He wore a long white coat with a bloody hole that opened up into his abdomen. He had gray hair. A pencil mustache. Clear blue eyes. Gray skin. His snarl must have once been an easy smile.

“Holiday, do something!” shouted Ash. He could hear the rasp of the bedraggled woman entering the cutting room.

The butcher was frozen solid.

Probably happened when everything started, thought Holiday as he watched the immobile meat man and his once lifelike face for any sign of movement. He was frozen in undeath. Still angry at the living, a timeless snarl carved into his frosty face. At his belt hung a sheathed meat cleaver.

Holiday pulled the cleaver from its sheath, feeling the numbing cold on his palms as he grasped the hilt. And just as he turned away from the frozen butcher, he watched one blue eye move just a tick. Following him as he left the walk-in ice cave.

“Holiday, now would be a good time to…” he heard Ash yell at him as he flung the freezer door closed behind him. “Do something!”

Ash had hooked the bedraggled lady in the throat with the meat hook. The thing gurgled and waved its arms wildly at Ash from the other end of the pole. The hook was tearing through the flesh of the thing’s neck. In a moment, if it kept wriggling violently, it would be free.

“Go for the head!” screamed Ash. “Do it Holiday!”

Really, he thought to himself. Am I really about to do what I think I’m about to do?

He swung in a wide arc and buried the meat cleaver in the side of the bedraggled woman’s skull. It stuck and she jerked away wildly and suddenly, tearing herself from the hook, stumbling back into a metal cutting table, knocking over stainless steel trays with a loud clatter.

Ash backed away, breathing heavily.

They both looked at each other as the thing, the bedraggled woman stood up with the cleaver still stuck in her skull. She was blocking their exit. She groaned tiredly, her head hanging oddly off her neck.

Holiday could see in Ash’s eyes what he himself was thinking. They were both out of ideas.

The thing stood, raised its maimed hands and lunged across the room, grabbing for them.

Holiday grabbed the pole hook from off the tiled floor.

“Open the meat locker and get behind the door when you do!” he shouted at Ash.

The bedraggled woman came at him, her scream a gurgling whisper. Holiday drove the pole hook into her stomach and then thrust upward, feeling the hook catch her ribs.

Really, he thought to himself again. Really?

Ash had the door open and he shoved the lady, hook and all into the butcher who fell over as she stumbled awkwardly toward the back of the locker.

Ash slammed the door shut.

They leaned on it.

They could hear the pole distantly clattering against the side of the locker and the metal floor as the bedraggled zombie woman struggled to stand up in the frozen room.

Chapter Thirteen

It was Ash who got the truck started with a little bit of hot wiring that wasn’t smooth but did the trick nonetheless. The old flatbed belched thick black smoke, idled roughly, then settled into a somewhat odd rhythm that included a worrisome ticking sound. But it was running.

“I’m not gonna ask where you learned to hotwire a truck,” said Holiday with a chuckle.

Ash wiped grease from her delicate nose.

“Probably for the best,” she replied, and laughed as she slammed the heavy steel hood shut.

Holiday knew the laugh was a polite way of saying, “don’t go any further into my life,” so he didn’t.

They drove out of the parking lot, slowly, as if that might keep the noise down. One block south, they turned at a large intersection where a Target dominated a large strip mall on one corner. There were still cars in the parking lot. And there were unmoving bodies among the cars and leading all the way to the entrance of the store. The front windows of the Target were smashed, and for a moment they saw movement inside the store as they crept down the street past the big box building. They coasted down the grade, Holiday’s foot barely resting on the accelerator, and crossed under the sweeping, low overpass of the wide toll road above. They turned left at the next intersection, past a gym and a gas station, which caused Holiday to throw a quick look at the gas gauge.

Half a tank.

One more block and they came to another immense parking lot that lay in front of the Home Depot building supply store. There were no cars in the parking lot. No bodies. It was quiet.

They parked in front of the do-it-yourself super store, near a cavernous opening that darkly hid the depths of the warehouse beyond and shut off the engine.

“If anyone…” Holiday paused. You keep doing that, he told himself. Every time you think about them. Whatever they were… you avoid calling them what they are now.

Zombies.

Are you sure about that? he asked himself, scanning the rear view and side mirrors.

“Not anyone,” he said, taking a deep breath in the hot and heavy silence. Feeling the tension in bands around his chest. Letting it go as he always did. Not remembering ever actually learning to do that, but sure that he had at some point. “I mean… zombies. If they’re here, they’d be all over us by now,” he finished. “They’d have come out after us.”

Ash watched the far end of the parking lot.

“Give it a few minutes,” whispered Holiday. “Let’s see if any… zombies… turn up.”

It was quiet. It was only nine o’clock in the morning.

Holiday thought about the woman in the meat locker. The one with a meat cleaver stuck in her head. And now the pole with the hook stuck in her rib cage. But the cleaver… thinking about it now… he’d put that there. He could still feel what it had felt like through the handle of the blade. He rubbed sweaty palms on his T-shirt and opened a fresh pack of cigarettes from a carton he’d taken from the grocery store.

“Weird huh?” he said once the cigarette was lit and he’d taken the first drag. He expelled white smoke out the side window. Watching the inside of the store.

“What do you mean?” asked Ash. Her voice soft. Almost distant. As though she too was somewhere else.

“Zombies.”

After a long moment she said, “Yeah. I guess it is.” Then, “How long have you known Frank?”

“Just met him. Why?”

Ash opened the glove compartment box. Rifled through some papers, put her hand toward the back, feeling around.

You’re searching for a gun, thought Holiday.

She closed the glove box without finding anything of value.

“No reason,” she said. “C’mon. Let’s roll.”

They got out of the truck, hearing its doors screech loudly in the silence. Then a too-loud thunk as they shut them, and both Ash and Holiday knew they’d have be quieter next time. Every time. From now on until further notice.

They walked into the cool dark of the store, their steps soft and cautious. The lights were off, but massive opaque skylights in the ceiling high above and the burning blaze of the day showed them what was there to be seen.

Rows of building materials, plumbing supplies, and home improvement tools spread away in all directions from the front of the store.

Somewhere a phone rang. It startled them, its suddenness erupting once and then again in the overwhelming absence of anything living.

And again.

And again.

And again.

Holiday walked toward the sound of the phone. His mind tried to conceive of who, in the middle of this global disaster, would be calling Home Depot and why. And then he had a thought as he crossed the wide concrete floor to a long counter beneath a sign that read Contractors Desk, where a phone continued to ring. Maybe this whole thing was only local. Maybe it wasn’t like this everywhere. In fact, maybe it was like this only here, in Viejo Verde. Maybe there was a cordon or a security border where things returned to normal on the other side of some yellow police tape. And whoever it was on the line, right now, was calling, trying to reach someone. Anyone. Trying to get a hold of anyone and tell them, tell me, thought Holiday, how to get to safety.

He quickened his step on the last ring. Sure that it was the last ring. That it must be the last ring. Because that’s how it is in nightmares, he told himself as he reached for the cradled phone. He would never know where safety was. Is.

The phone rang again as his hand landed on the receiver.

What if this is like Walmart? What if it’s another lunatic enjoying the end of the world via closed circuit television? Playing games while everything goes to hell.

“Hello,” said Holiday. “Hello?”

Dull fuzz on the line. As if the connection was from overseas. Then a dull click.

“Don’t hang up!” It was a woman’s voice. A girl’s voice.

“Don’t hang up please!” She began to cry. “Please… just… don’t hang up!”

“I won’t. I’m here,” said Holiday. “I’m here.”

“Good.” She was out of control. Sobbing hysterically. But she kept repeating the word “good”.

“I’m here,” said Holiday again. “What do you want me to do… I mean… where are you?”

Silence.

The line went fuzzy again.

“You’re not Ronny,” the woman said flatly. There was no sobbing. No hysterics. Her voice was flat. Dull, emotionless. Almost accusatory.

“No,” replied Holiday. “I’m not.”

Silence.

The dull hum of the line. A pop and then a quiet hiss.

“No, you’re not. Not at all.” Her voice was cold now. Like it came from the depths of a frozen pond.

“What’re you trying to pull?” she spat out with anger and icy vindictiveness.

“Nothing. Listen, are you okay?”

“Am I okay? Am I okay?” she shrieked and then laughed. “Am I okay? Oh, I’m just fine, mister. Real fine. What’d you do with Ronny?”

Holiday held the phone away from his ear.

She’s crazy, he thought. Crazy.

“I don’t know any Ronny,” he said, putting the phone back to his ear.

“You’re gonna die! You’re gonna die! You’re gonna die!” she repeated over and over and then, “You’re gonna die and that ain’t no lie. You’re gonna die and no one’s gonna cry. You’re gonna die and your brains’ll taste like cherry pie…”

“Listen,” Holiday tried to interrupt. “Listen…”

But she wouldn’t listen.

And finally, silence.

Then, “Ain’t that right, Holiday?”

He felt like he’d been suddenly pulled into that ice cold pond the voice had come from. That’s what it felt like when she said his name.

“Ain’t that right, Holiday!” she repeated.

“How do you know my name?”

“You’re gonna die and that’s no lie. Holiday gon’ be Holi-dead!” And then she cackled.

Cackled.

Like a witch.

Holiday took the phone away from his ear and just before he hung up, he heard her distant, tinny voice sing, “It’s coming for you!”

He hung up the phone.

“You’re sweating,” said Ash.

Holiday remained staring at a nearby advertisement for an aboveground pool. A tan, smiling woman, a smiling, muscular man and two kids laughing frolicked in crystal clear water.

Holiday fumbled for a cigarette.

“What’s wrong?” asked Ash. “Who was it?”

“Some crazy person,” he said numbly, flicked his lighter and inhaled. “Someone who’s… just lost it.”

“C’mon,” said Ash, pulling him away from the phone. “C’mon. Forget about it.”

Holiday tried to push the whole episode back. But he couldn’t. She’d been more than just crazy, he thought to himself. There was something… something evil about the voice.

Evil, he sounded like some… rube. Like someone who believed in evil spirits and bad moons. Or, someone who believed in good and evil.

But he couldn’t. He couldn’t get the woman’s voice out of his head as Ash pulled him deeper and deeper into the store in search of the things they needed.

They found the fencing supplies after walking the entire length of the store, hearing only the rubbery thump of their boots against the polished concrete floor. The only sound in the silence. There was no one else in the massive store. No zombies either.

They drove the truck around to the nursery and loaded the metal poles and wire fencing rolls onto the truck’s open flatbed. Holiday’s hands were soon bleeding.

“Get some gloves,” said Ash. “There’s an entire store full.”

Holiday walked back into the store and found some heavy duty work gloves.

“You’re waiting for that phone to ring,” he said to himself, sure that it would as he stood there trying on work gloves. Then, “Great, and now I’m talking to myself.”

He walked back out through the nursery.

The phone didn’t ring.

 

They drove to the Vineyards, slowly. Along the way they passed one.

A zombie.

They both looked at each other as they drove by the thing.

“Maybe we’ll lose him by the time we get back,” said Holiday. They drove on, watching the zombie in the dirty side mirrors as he lumbered after them. Soon, he fell away out of sight and the curve of the road hid him from them.

Or maybe it’s the other way around, thought Holiday. Maybe we need to be hidden from him.

Back at the Vineyards they met Frank coming out of his condo.

“We’ll start up near the front of the complex once we’ve had a little lunch. Do you kids like tunafish sandwiches?”

Inside Frank’s condo they found dark hardwood floors, two deep cigar leather chairs and a large matching ‘L’ shaped couch. The walls were a dusty pink accented with maroon paint on the mantle and a ledge where a large mirrored wall seemed to double the size of the room. A beautiful impressionist watercolor occupied the only wall space.

The sandwiches were piled on a plate, an artistic ziggurat of half-sandwiches, each with a tooth-picked sweet pickle stuck in it. There was also a bowl of salty potato chips and large pitcher of iced tea.

“Got any beer?” asked Holiday.

There was a look on Frank’s face. Then it was gone.

“Sure, buddy. Unless you want to save it for after work. Got some more steaks we’d better barbecue tonight. I don’t think there’ll be much store-bought meat in our immediate future.”

Holiday poured himself some iced tea.

They ate.

Halfway through the meal, Frank cleared his throat. “I never caught where you were from, Ash. Is that short for Ashley?”

“No, it’s always just been Ash.” They were all aware she’d neglected to answer the part about where she was from, but Frank let it go. He nodded and picked up the sandwich plate, holding it out in front of Holiday. “Eat more. You’re too thin.”

“I’ve eaten three already. They’re great. Where’d you learn to make such great sandwiches? Are you like a chef or something?”

“A cook. I was a cook for a little while. Worked in a few diners. That sort of thing.”

“Where was that at?” asked Ash, taking a big drink of the perfectly made sweet tea.

Frank smiled. “Chicago and a few other places.”

Then, “How about you?”

Ash took a bite of her sandwich, looked out the window, then smiled as she chewed.

“Europe. I was in Europe.”

“Europe’s nice,” said Frank.

Ash finished chewing.

She looked out the window again.

She’s somewhere else, thought Holiday. She does that a lot.

“Not where I was,” she said, and continued to stare out the window at the hazy summer day and perfect garden just beyond the window.

 

That afternoon they worked hard. They managed to do three walkways before it got completely dark. It wasn’t the best job but Frank was convinced it would keep the zombies out. At least for now. He put down the shovel he’d been using and said, “It’s a start. We’ll get better as we go.”

They parted ways in the twilight to shower and clean up.

An hour later as Holiday walked down the street in his cleanest shirt and jeans, shaved and showered, with a bourbon in his belly, he could smell Frank’s grill in the garage courtyard.

Frank was staring into the flames above the glowing coals, oblivious to Holiday’s quiet arrival. The older man’s face was sad. Tired. Deeply lined.

Holiday cleared his throat. “I’ll take that beer now.”

Frank’s face immediately changed, illuminating from within. A broad instant smile. “Sure thing, buddy. Kept some on ice just for you. These steaks tonight are Porterhouses. Best of both worlds. You get a filet and a New York strip. Dry aged and prime. I get ‘em from a friend who has a restaurant up in the valley.”

“Meat,” said Holiday and cracked his beer.

They both drank.

“We’re gonna need some more things from the Home Depot before we get started tomorrow. We need a post hole digger, some more concrete, and a bunch of axes and crowbars.”

Holiday took a drink. He watched the coals.

“Axes and crowbars?”

Frank reached down into the ice chest. Holiday could hear that sudden crash of ice being disturbed. Ice that had gone slushy with water. He heard cans connect with each other. Frank came out with another beer.

“You drink pretty fast. Here’s another.”

Holiday killed the last of the one he was holding and took the wet ice-cold can from Frank’s hand.

“Yeah. I do,” said Holiday.

“Listen, I’m not gonna be the old man. That’s not my job anymore. But this is a crisis situation. You understand that, right?”

Holiday nodded.

“So drink as much as you want. But just keep this in mind… okay, buddy?”

Holiday drank and watched the coals.

“Whatever this is, we’re in it together,” said Frank as he looked directly into Holiday’s eyes. “I’ll watch your back as best I can and I’m counting on you to watch mine.”

Holiday nodded.

“Do my best. I won’t let you down, Frank.”

Frank smiled.

“I’ll get the steaks.”

A few minutes later, Ash came out from the garage. She was wearing a light cotton skirt and a tank top.

Holiday offered her a beer from the fridge. She took it, pulling the tab awkwardly.

“Long day,” she said after the first breathy drink.

Frank came out through the garage holding a tray of steaks.

He stopped when he saw Ash.

“I hope you don’t mind,” she said. “I’m outta of clothes. I found these in the closet.”

Frank smiled.

He moved forward, his back toward them, taking up tongs, placing the steaks on the grill and busying himself with the meat. A moment later, the steaks began to sizzle.

“No,” said Frank. “It’s fine. You look very beautiful.”

The steaks came off the grill, and while Ash and Holiday sat at the picnic table watching the steaks on their paper plates, Frank went back into the condo to get a potato gratin and a tomato salad. He came out with a nice bottle of cabernet tucked under one arm. Three glasses later they sat under the stars, satiated.

“I wonder if the steaks tasted better knowing there won’t be any more for some time. I mean, the meat in the store’s got about a week left. After that, it’s canned food, frozen for however long the power stays on, and whatever we can hunt.”

Around and above them, the air grew thick and quiet as the fog started to roll in from down along the coast.

“That’s weird,” said Frank.

“What?” asked Ash.

“This fog usually shows up around May and June. We call it the June Gloom. This is the time of year where we’re almost into the Santa Anas. Then the weather’s too dry for fog.

“It feels good on the skin after a hard day of unrolling all that fencing,” whispered Ash.

“And digging holes,” mumbled Holiday.

No one said anything after that as the fog seemed to rise, becoming thicker, enveloping them. Soon, swirling arms of mist were creeping along the street.

“It kinda feels warm,” said Ash.

And that’s when they heard it. One distant Thuuump. As if some gigantic weight had suddenly fallen to the earth on some distant place.

There was a moment in which each of them looked at the other, checking to make sure the other had heard the same Thuuump they’d heard. Holiday watched the wine in his glass. It had moved. Now it was still.

Thuuump.

The wine in Holiday’s glass, in all of their glasses, concussed outward, creating small, brief concentric shockwaves of cabernet within the stemware.

“What…”

Thuuump.

The sound was closer now. With the next Thuuump it was clear that whatever it was, whatever was making the sound, it was coming closer.

“Cover the barbecue,” said Holiday, downing his wine.

They got up, carrying what they could. Frank slammed the lid down on the Weber grill and they retreated inside the garage. Frank pushed the button to lower the garage door as another Thuuump made everything in the garage begin to rattle. The Thuuumps were growing louder and the interval between them, though far apart, was decreasing.

“I’ll kill the lights,” said Frank, and no one disagreed.

Inside Frank’s house Ash sat down on the couch, hovering over her knees. She poured a glass of wine quickly and drank.

“What could… what is it?” whispered Frank, going from window to window, craning his head upwards to see something.

The next Thuuump was so loud the house shook.

Holiday put one finger to his lips, his eyes watching the ceiling.

The Thuuump that followed sounded as far away as the Walmart, but the next one that followed quickly on the heels of the last one, sounded too near, too close. Within, or near the neighborhood. Frank’s framed watercolor fell off the wall, glasses within some of the cupboards rattled. The walls of the house reverberated from the last strike.

And before the next one, each of them was absolutely convinced, whatever it was that made the gigantic Thuuumps, would land on them… was that right?… Something was making the sound? Whatever it was, it would land right on top of them with the next strike. Even though it was dark inside the house and the fog swirled close to the windows, turned orange by the streetlights outside, the shadow of some immense thing seemed to pass above them. Seemed to hover over them from some great height. They felt the weight of the shadow as if it fell over everything, even their hammering hearts.

The shadow of some giant thing was walking out there in the fog and the dark. Some huge alien thing that walked and had come with the fog. Some monster not of this world.

The next Thuuump went off like a bomb had landed out in the orchard that backed up to Frank’s townhome. The windows rattled in their casings. Ash shrieked and then held her breath. Frank and Holiday moved to the venetian blinds and peered through them. They could see nothing but the thick, swirling fog.

And now the Thuuumps, though massive, though tremendous, though slow and ponderous, faded. Receded into the north, heading out into the Cleveland National Forest. Heading out into nothing.

In time they were gone.

By then, each of them was sitting on Frank’s L-shaped leather couch. It smelled of smoky cigars, leather and allspice.

“I don’t think our fence is gonna keep whatever that thing is, out,” said Holiday, breaking the silence. In the dark, they heard him pick up the wine bottle and pour.

“What in the world could it have been?” asked Frank. No one answered.

“Whatever it was,” said Holiday after a moment. “It’s gone now.”

“We don’t know that for sure,” whispered Ash.

Holiday said nothing.

For a long time they sat in the dark, each of them trying to wrap their heads around what had just happened. Eventually Holiday stood up and stretched.

“Well, I guess I’d better head back to my place.”

The fog swirled and clutched at the windows.

Frank stood, moved to a window, watched for a moment, then said, “Buddy, I’d feel better if you just stayed here tonight.”

“It’s only down the block, Frank,” sighed Holiday. “I’ll be okay.”

“If it’s all the same, buddy, just stay here tonight. I’ll get you some blankets and a pillow for the couch.”

Holiday considered it for a moment. He’d been planning to have a few more drinks and maybe watch a movie when he got home. But, there was something about the fog. Watching it, one felt two things. One, that it wasn’t totally fog, not like normal fog. And two, that it wanted in. It wanted into the house where you were.

Holiday flopped down. “Well, if you insist.”

Frank got some blankets and laid them out for Holiday. Ash remained on the couch.

“Maybe it’ll be a little tough for all of us to get some sleep tonight. But I think I’ve got something to take the edge off.” Frank disappeared into the kitchen and they heard glasses being gathered and a bottle being uncorked, the delicate sound of liquid softly burbling.

He came back with a bamboo serving tray and three snifters filled with a dark amber liquid.

“This is a nice port I get sometimes. I serve it in the snifters because I like to smell it. Smells better in the snifter.” Each of them took a glass.

Frank set his down next to his overstuffed cigar chair and turned to the stereo. In the dark, they heard the distinct click of an opened CD jewel case and the sound a loading tray makes when it opens and then closes a moment later. Then the dull hum of an active high quality sound system just moments before the music starts. The blue light from the stereo display felt soft and somehow soothing.

“How about a little Sinatra while we enjoy our nightcap?”

They could hear Frank easing back into his leather cigar chair by the sound good leather makes when it’s being comfortably settled into. Then Sinatra quietly sang Fly me to the Moon and there was something about Frank Sinatra’s carefree singing that made them forget the night and the fog and the giant thing that moved through the outer dark.

They listened to the whole Reprise album with Frank inserting bits of trivia that he knew about Sinatra here and there, and when it was time to go to bed, Ash and Frank went upstairs to their rooms and Holiday settled into the thick, comfortable scents of the couch in the dark and slept.

 

Upstairs, she could hear Frank rattling around in his room for a while. She knew he’d never open her door but she waited anyways. She was dressed for bed. Some pajamas she’d borrowed from the clothing in the drawers. Her face washed and scrubbed. She waited. She heard Frank’s light go out. She heard the house settle and minutes later, she heard him snoring softly.

She got up, moving lightly. She moved to her green canvas bag and slowly unzipped it. Once it was open, she shoved the other things that were in there aside and found the gun wrapped in a heavy, winter-issue, camouflage patterned jacket. It was an AK-74U. She knew the clip in it was full. She felt the oil on the gun. She ejected the clip and blew on the top bullet, something she was used to with an M-16, but which wasn’t needed for the AK’s. They were much more dependable. She seated the clip into the bottom of the small Russian Spetznaz commando assault rifle. She checked the other two clips that were in the pockets of the heavy jacket. Each felt full. They’d been full when she’d checked them last. They still felt full. They’re full, she told herself again.

She put everything back in her bag, slowly re-zipped it and then slipped back into bed.

She could hear Frank snoring.

She wondered if Holiday was asleep.

She watched the orange-colored fog swirl thickly beyond the blinds of the room’s only window.

Chapter Fourteen

The day civilization ended in Downtown LA, things were going from bad to worse for everyone. Even Jackson Braddock, who everyone used to just call “Jack”, was this close to being sucked down the global whirlpool of crazy to the power of ten.

Twelve months ago he’d been a special operator in Afghanistan, again. Now, he was a special operator running through the streets of downtown, working for a private contractor, chasing a high value target. Weapons were live and the situation was on fire as the FEMA barriers began to collapse from skid row and along the 101 as the uncountable dead swarmed into the sweltering streets of Downtown LA.

Jack Braddock pounded down Grand, passing the burnt-out wreckage of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, engaging infected tangos on the fly with his silenced MP5 as they came, moaning and bloody, for him. His ruck was overloaded with spare ammo and three breach charges. His smart glasses were identifying Infected, based on a new software install they’d just received that graded and categorized target body heat. “Less civilian casualties that way,” Snowe the CO and contractor for Wyvern Security Forces International had told them that morning.

“Does it matter now?” Braddock had whispered in the stillness of oh-dark-thirty, as a sleeping world began its last day. “Does it really matter now? Everyone’s a casualty.”

Snowe just glared at him and the rest of the operators sitting underneath the hot white fluorescent hangar lights back within LAX Safe Zone. “Just do your job ‘till the checks stop cashing.”

They were all wearing the new washed-out gray digital camo fatigues that somehow messed with the Infected’s ability to track live targets. Or, at least that’s what they’d been told. Over each shoulder a subdued U.S. Flag had been added. So the government was writing the checks for this one, thought Braddock and probably a few of the others as they slipped into their new gear. Most didn’t care one way or the other who paid for the work as long as someone did.

Back on Grand, three Infected stood around a bus stop bench, ravaging a still-twitching body. One of them looked up from the feast and growled as Braddock approached. Ten minutes ago he’d been part of a six man team. Now he was alone and surrounded.

“Alpha Six this is Doghouse, Target acquired,” said a net operator for Downtown LA Tactical Command. “3rd Street and moving north toward the tower. Be advised, Target has switched to a black Escalade. Intercept and terminate still in effect.”

The Infected who’d noticed him first alerted his two friends. Monsters who’d been people just hours ago, thought Braddock and then pushed that somewhere else because that line of thinking wasn’t needed anymore. The other five who’d been Alpha Team, they were monsters now, too.

“Everyone’s a casualty,” he’d told Snowe back in the hangar. He pushed on and remembered something someone had once said to him long ago.

“You’ll just go all the way to the end of the world, Jack, won’tcha? ‘Cause you’re too stupid to quit.”

Puff, Puff and Puff whispered from the long-barreled silencer at the front of the MP5 on that hot, cacophonic street as people screamed and raced to get clear of the downtown collapse. A safe area that was no longer safe. A confined defensible position, just like the LAX Safe Zone, that had been holding out for the past week as what had first been reported as mere riots turned into something much, much worse. Now the barriers surrounding downtown, surrounding the hilltop, were breached, and Infected were inside the perimeter. Puff, Puff and Puff. Head shots all around. Tangos down.

They’d stopped calling out “tango down” days ago. The sheer number of times it would have been used would have taken up the net for minutes at a time.

The failed rescue of the Vice President in Beverly Hills. The rescue of the CDC analysis team at the Galleria Primary Infection Hot Zone site. The nuke convoy pinned down on the 405 at Hawthorne.

All of those had been heavy weapons in use and no silencers. Braddock had melted down the Sixty he’d used for the Nuke Convoy op. So many tangos, Infected, monsters who were once people, had come at them in endless waves that the barrel on his M-60 had melted and then warped, becoming unusable. He’d picked up a dead operator’s weapon and gone back to work as another wave came at them and a nearby team leader finished his airstrike request with a “Danger Close”.

Shoulda used a 249, he thought now as he checked the street known as Grand back in Downtown LA. There were less Infected here at the top of the hill, but in some way, they were still everywhere. Coming out of gaping dark doors, crawling from the smashed windows of cars, stumbling up the hot street in the blaze of noon, all of them blood-crusted and wounded in some way.

“On the move and heading down Grand to intercept,” replied Braddock over the net.

After a moment the net operator came back. “Be advised Six, you’re in this one alone.”

Braddock didn’t alter his pace a second. The three other teams of six operators were down. This morning there had been fifty operators in that hangar back at the LAX Safe Zone. Seals, Delta, Rangers, mostly. Guys with real world time. They’d been promised a long day with ops falling on the heels of ops. He wondered now, just after noon, how many of them were still active six hours later.

Two Blackhawks had dropped twenty four off on the roof of Parker Center at the bottom of Downtown LA. Inside, LA County Sheriff’s deputies were firing out slotted windows, point blank, into the mob at the collapsing CDC barriers on the street below. A few deputies had killed themselves already. Braddock had watched as one guy stepped away from the window, put his service revolver to his head, and blew his brains out in a quick spray all across the institutional white walls. The operators, led by a Sheriff’s Department Deputy Sergeant made their way down to the sub-basement and then took the tunnel exit to get out onto the streets.

“You sure you wanna go out there, boys?” she’d said. A bloodied L.A. Sheriff’s Department Sergeant. A blonde with a pony tail. Pregnant. “Have to, Ma’am,” said one of the others. Alpha Three. The senior man in their squad. He’d been with Wyvern before everybody. Maybe a year at the most.

They’d gone out into the hot hell that was Downtown LA by eight that summer morning, looking for the HVT. High Value Target. They’d spread out, each team on an east-west running street, clearing small observation posts with silencers. Braddock’s team had taken a cramped apartment over a liquor store at the edge of Japan Town. They’d had drone coverage. All they’d needed next were eyes-on-target and they’d already been OK’d from U.S. CENTCOM for a kill shot.

Back on Grand now and racing toward 3rd, Braddock felt his smartphone vibrate in his chest pocket. Incoming message. He tagged an Infected who’d cross his path in ten seconds. The thing was aiming for a woman and two little girls who’d just run out of the Museum of Contemporary Art. Behind them lumbered a man with a bloody mouth and bloody hands. One of the little girls was screaming, “Daddy!” The thing Braddock had dropped twirled away against an abandoned cab where the once-cabby now-monster clawed at blood-smeared windows from the inside. The woman and girls ran on and the monster man chased them. Braddock tapped his earpiece and switched channels.

“Go,” he grunted, and continued at a trot toward 3rd Street.

“Mr. Braddock, this is Mr. Steele.” The voice was flat. A monotone that didn’t waver in greeting with surprise or apology like most people did when they started phone calls. There was only information and nothing more in the voice. Maybe, command. “We have you as in position to accomplish a task of importance for us. If you’re still interested in work with our firm, then we’d like to make you an offer of employment right now.”

Braddock ducked into a large spreading stairway that dropped below street level. Farther up the street, a large mob surged around the bottom of an apartment tower. He leaned against the red brick of the wall along the stairwell and slapped in a fresh magazine.

“All ears, Mr. Steele.”

An Infected lurched out from behind a corner farther down the stairs and Braddock drew his 9mm and put one bullet right in the thing’s head. It tumbled back down the stairs into the darkness.

“I need you to take possession of the suitcase the target you are currently pursuing has possession of,” announced Mr. Steele in Braddock’s ear. “Once you have the suitcase in possession and you’ve taken it to the US Bank building that is currently in use by the government as the West Coast Emergency Management Headquarters, I’ll have further instructions for you.”

Braddock could hear himself breathing sharp and short over the connection. Gasping at the hot and heavy air. Things were getting real. More real than they’d ever been. He just hadn’t thought it would go down now, in the middle of everything going bad. The thing he and every other operator working for the CIA’s most off the grid office had been waiting for had finally happened, at the worst possible moment.

He thumbed the laser sight on the MP5 and followed it down the stairs into the subterranean walkway that ran alongside Grand.

“Do this Mr. Braddock, and you’re in.”

The call ended.

Down below street level, a lone Infected careened in and out of a darkened arcade of shopfronts along the tunneled walkway. Shattered glass and the remains of bodies were everywhere.

Halfway down the tunnel, Braddock saw some remains that looked promising inside the blood-smeared glass of the Omni Hotel’s second story entrance. He stopped, watching his surroundings, waiting for Infected to come from wherever they were hiding. Hunched shadows leaned over other remains farther down the concourse, oblivious to Braddock’s observation. He checked the corners, the dark places, and everything he could. His breathing was still quick and sharp and he didn’t care. He needed to be wired, fully oxygenated. Not fatigued like seven straight days of operations and endless killing might do to anyone. He was thirsty, but there was no time and no safe place to take a drink. His fatigues were soaked with sweat.

He sidestepped over to the door, craned his neck above the blood smear along the glass and checked the space beyond. A small walkway ran around the length of an opulent marble-covered lobby. One floor below that opened onto another street farther down the hill that was Downtown LA. Raw human remains, torn and bloody, lay soaking into the hotel carpet on just the other side of the glass door.

Braddock entered and followed his MP5 through. He waited for only a second, listening. Listening for screaming, gunshots, groans, rasps, shuffling feet… Large carpeted hallways led off the main walkway surrounding the lobby below. The air-conditioning was at full blast. Bending down to inspect the remains, he conducted a quick one-handed search through the torn shreds of what had once been a well-dressed businessman. He found the smartphone he knew that type of man wouldn’t be caught dead without.

It was out of power.

He took off his ruck and set it down next to the cream white wall dotted with strange, gold-colored art installations. He slung the assault rifle across his neck and quickly searched along the wall for an outlet. Once he located one, he pulled out a small clamshell plastic case from one of his cargo pockets and opened it. He tried a few of the adaptors inside, found the one that would fit the dead man’s phone, and had it charging a moment later.

While he waited for the minimum required charge for the phone to work, he drank some water from the camel system contained in the ruck and inhaled a chocolate and peanut butter power bar. A little more water and he bent to the phone.

“C’mon,” he muttered as he waited for the thing to find a connection. When it did, he called up the search engine and typed in dept19.net/doormouse/ which quickly bounced him into the Dark Net, landing at an anonymous site that showed only a blank screen.

THUD

One of the Infected slammed into the glass and blood-smeared door, its eyes glaring hate as it moaned at Braddock. In one swift motion Braddock grabbed the MP5 with one hand, pulled the sling over his head, aimed and put a bullet through the thing’s skull. It fell over, dead again, beyond the glass door.

Braddock returned to the phone.

He tapped the keys and entered his identity even though no characters appeared on the screen.

Sam Adams.

Then he typed a password.

A moment later a live chat icon appeared.

“Darling, are you okay? I’ve been so worried about you.” It was a woman’s voice. A sandy, husky, familiar purr.

“I’m fine, baby,” said Braddock emotionlessly. “I’ve managed to get help…” He hesitated. Help was the keyword. They’d know what he meant. But how to say the next part?

“And?” came the woman’s voice.

Friendly and foreign meta-data algorithms would be scanning every conversation. The words used had to seem harmless and as innocuous as possible. Natural to the situation. “Normal,” had been the emphasis during the SOP Commo section brief back when this Op began twelve months ago.

Except, thought Braddock, the world was ending now. Everyone with a cell phone was freaking out trying to get help or telling their loved ones goodbye. That’s the new normal, right now.

“They want me to go with them, baby,” said Braddock. “And I’m not sure where we’re going.”

Pause.

“Darling,” said the husky purr, with real concern in her voice. “This will probably be our last conversation.”

Silence.

Was she just acting? Was she just giving it the emotion needed to trick the meta-data crawlers? Or was it real? “Our family… we’re not going to make it.”

Braddock knew he wasn’t watching everything he needed to watch at that moment inside a downtown being rapidly overrun by Infected. Beyond deep inside enemy territory.

“We’re not going to make it,” she said again. And Braddock knew what that meant.

The United States was gone.

Then…

“You’re our only hope now.” Silence. A pause. “So go with them.” She halted. Then, cold as ice, vengeance cold, she said the four last words that would define how Braddock, the last operator, the last weapon in the arsenal of a government that no longer existed, was to execute the mission without further instructions. The last orders he’d receive.

“Do whatever it takes.”

“I understand,” said Braddock after a moment, but she was already gone.

He smashed the cellphone, then threw it down into the marble lobby below where it disintegrated. He shouldered the ruck, ejected the magazine from the MP5, tapped the bullets rearward to cut down on jams, then reinserted it into the bottom of the compact assault rifle.

Do whatever it takes.

“Alpha Six, be advised, the target just blew the roadblock at 3rd and Broadway.” It was Downtown LA Tactical Command coming through on his earpiece. “Multiple hostiles in the vehicle. Proceeding north on 3rd toward HQ.”

“This is Alpha Six, on the move to intercept.”

“Six, you’ve got a large mob of Infected on the street to your west.”

“Roger that, Six out.”

Braddock was running. As fast as he could.

For twelve months they’d been trying to find out who was behind this bio attack. Nothing. Operators died or disappeared. That someone was recruiting ex-SF was clear. But who that someone was, no one had a clue. The only thing Intel knew was that there was a lot of chatter about something big going down, soon. Not just a nation ender, everything pointed toward something much bigger.

Ahead, the silhouettes of three Infected blocked the exit escalator back out onto the streets and downtown.

Puff, puff, puff.

Tangos down.

He flew down the still working escalator and hit the streets at a run. Outside, high above, helicopters were circling the roof of the tallest downtown building. The US Bank tower. A rising cylindrical column of a building that towered over the downtown skyscape. The West Coast emergency headquarters for Homeland.

The street was filled with the undead surging up toward the barricades at the entrance of the tower. There was no gunfire.

Downhill, Braddock saw the black SUV, bullet holes in its windows and paint, speeding up the street, clipping stray Infected as it went.

“This is Alpha Six, Target acquired. Engaging.”

There was no brilliant tactical plan. No trick device designed to stop a speeding executive high-end, and most likely armored, SUV transport. That it was armored and bulletproof was assumed. But bulletproof implied singular. A bullet. Not an entire magazine. Thirty .40 caliber hollow points.

With short bursts, Braddock put an entire magazine into the glass on the driver’s side windshield of the speeding black SUV. The hunk of metal swerved to the left and slammed into a storefront that was once an electronics outlet before it got looted a week ago. A burglar alarm began to blare.

Braddock crossed the street, drew his sidearm and drilled the goon he knew would be coming out of the passenger door, guns blazing. The guy was bleeding from a smashed face, but that didn’t stop him from trying to draw on Braddock who’d already pulled his 9mm. Braddock emptied the rest of the clip as he crossed the street. The bleeding-faced guy didn’t seem to want to go down until the last bullet, then he slithered out from the door and collapsed into a pile on the street.

Braddock ejected the empty clip, letting it fall to the street, aware that every Infected had just turned away from lumbering toward the US Bank tower and was now looking at him and the smashed store with its bleating security alarm and the SUV with its blaring horn.

A new clip in, he thumbed the release and sent the slide forward. He pulled the passenger door wide and fired at the driver who was already covered in blood and peppered with bullet holes. From the passenger door he could see someone, a woman in a black hijab in back. Braddock took two steps to the side and opened the rear passenger door. She had a large metallic security suitcase open.

“Dirty bomb,” he thought, and blew her brains all over the tinted glass of the other passenger door window.

All around him, the moaning chorus of the Infected was rising above the bleating and the blaring next to him. He spun the case around and saw that all the arming circuits were in the green. It was a simple trigger. He’d seen it on IEDs back in the field. It wasn’t complex.

But it wasn’t just a homemade dirty bomb. He could see the Russian markings underneath all the new wiring. Old soviet military garbage.

Suitcase bomb. Maximum six kiloton yield.

He could smell the Infected closing in all about him as the sun beat down on the street and the smoking SUV.

He gently shut the case, leaving the arming circuits in the green. That was a trick insurgents liked to play. Braddock knew that once those circuits were armed there was no going back. Killing the switches now would just set it off.

He spent the last three bullets in his clip on three Infected front runners. Then he slipped a new clip in, holstered the 9mm, and grabbed a fresh mag for the MP5. Reloaded, he drew the pistol and grabbed the case with the other hand.

“Minimum three-hundred,” he mumbled to himself, mentally calculating the undead now shambling toward the wreck.

“Doghouse, this is Alpha Six. Target eliminated, package in hand.”

A moment later the net operator came back at him. “Proceed west at the bottom of the hill. Front entrance inaccessible at this time.”

Without hesitation Braddock jogged down the hill, saving his ammo for only the Infected that absolutely had to be taken out for him to move forward. The mob behind stumbled downhill after him. At the bottom of the hill, at the street corner, he turned right and headed west on Olive.

Olive was a warzone.

Tall buildings clustered along the street while hundreds of the recently dead beat at various doors or clustered around wrecked vehicles and shops. Black smoke poured from a few open windows where bed linens and curtains trailed away like barely moving sea grass beneath a hazy ocean.

“Doghouse, this is Alpha Six, where next?”

Already the undead were surging toward him. He aimed his 9mm and downed a bystander that was too close. The MP5 was useless as long as he had to carry the suitcase bomb.

“Doghouse, I’m surrounded…”

“This is Doghouse Actual,” said an older voice in Braddock’s earpiece. “Proceed west on Olive to the intersection of Olive and 5th.”

“Doghouse, this street is overrun and the package is a priority.”

Static.

Braddock started up Olive, veering to the far left of the street, crossing through forever frozen traffic jams as the Infected followed and moved to intercept him. He took another shot, and this time put the bullet in some guy’s chest. The thing continued on, clutching at him as it came.

No go, thought Braddock as the Infected thing-man got close. Sweat poured into Braddock’s eyes. His muscles were aching. He knew he was nearing a limit. But he shook that thought off as quickly as it appeared. He aimed again. Ranger School had taught him that limits were things just to be waved at in your rearview mirror as you blew past them. This time, the bullet smashed through the dead thing-man’s skull.

Static on the comm.

He climbed on top of a taxi and leaped off the other side, the large metallic suitcase trailing after him. A short distance of sidewalk opened up and Braddock sprinted forward, leaving the stumbling dead behind. Ahead, more of them gathered to close in on him.

“Alpha Six, be advised this is Doghouse Actual, we are sending in gunship support to assist your exfil. Putting you in contact with the air boss now.”

Static. Click.

“Alpha Six, this is Overlord,” said the air boss. The tactical air traffic controller who was probably organizing the evacuation flights off the US Bank tower and all the other air operations in the downtown area, thought Braddock. “Do you copy?”

“Five by five, Overlord,” said Braddock as he pushed an undead woman back from him, smashed her in the face with the butt of his pistol and dashed between two cars. The suitcase, the dirty nuclear bomb, banged on the trunk of one of the cars as he barely pulled past it.

Be careful, he growled at himself, you’re carrying a nuclear weapon.

“Understand we need to get you off that street, son?” said Overlord calmly. His voice wry and smoky.

The roof of a car exploded as one of the Infected, falling from a nearby rooftop, smashed into it. Windows exploded, showering one of Braddock’s arms with broken glass.

He stopped to gather his bearings, put three bullets into two Infected that were getting too close, and watched as zombies began to throw themselves at him off the rooftops above.

Braddock set the case down, ejected the clip, reached into his pack for a handful more and shoved them into his cargo pocket. Then he slapped a new one in and sent the slide forward.

“Little bird on station in thirty seconds, Alpha Six. Borrowed from the U.S.S. Reagan down at the Marina Del Rey evacuation point just for you. Standby for close air support.”

Braddock pushed himself up and over a sprawled silver Mercedes that had slammed into a blood-soaked Humvee, dragging the suitcase as he went. He landed, steadied himself, and kicked an Infected in the chest. It went tumbling backward, and he shot another one right through the bottom of its chin as it lunged forward at him. Rotting brains volcanoed out the top of its disintegrated skull. Now the undead were hitting the street all around him like wet sacks of cement as Braddock ran toward another mob that seemed to fill the entire street in front of him.

He was only halfway down Olive.

“Overlord, this is Gunfighter.” It was the AH-6 Little Bird pilot. “We have Alpha Six in sight, beginning attack run just beyond his position.”

Braddock turned and saw the agile black helicopter flying two stories up. He could see the mini-guns already spooling. He could see the pilot as the bird raced down the street above him. Her face was set and determined. That’s when he ducked.

The mini-guns whirred to life, chewing up the street and the massing undead further up Olive. Thousands of tiny lead balls slammed into everything and everyone. Sudden galvanized milk bucket notes joined wet pulpy slaps as undead and machines were riddled with thousands of hits at once. Braddock watched the chopper pass overhead and continue on up the narrow street. At a wide intersection farther up, he watched as the pilot pivoted the chopper on a dime, barely missing a traffic signal, and started back toward Braddock. Two door gunners hanging over the sides began to take out the remaining undead that were still mobile.

A body slammed into the sidewalk nearby.

Braddock looked up.

More of the Infected were throwing themselves off the rooftops and even out windows now.

“Gunfighter, watch your…” But that was all he got out. One of the Infected fell right into the rotating blades of the Little Bird, hitting it off center. The dead thing turned into sudden blood spray as most of it was sent off onto the side of a nearby building. A moment later, the bird slammed into the same building and burst into flames as it fell to the street. A second after that, it exploded, igniting the undead all around.

Braddock ran up the street, passing the burning helo on his left, legs pumping to make as much gain as possible while the bullet-riddled street was still wide open. Already, at the doors and side alleys, more undead were flooding back out onto the street as though there were an unending supply of them.

“Overlord, Gunfighter is down. Repeat, Gunfighter is down and the crew is dead. Do not send Search and Rescue.”

Braddock turned back to the downed chopper for one last look and watched as one of the crew members crawled from the wreck, on fire, while the undead mobbed him or her.

Chapter Fifteen

“Be advised Alpha Six, drone recon indicates you have multiple hostiles converging on your AO.”

Braddock ignored the inane status report of a drone-collected image observed on a computer monitor in a room somewhere safe. He could see for himself that he was surrounded. The intersection at Olive and 5th was swollen with the undead. Gunshots were coming from the second floor of an old building on the southwest corner.

Braddock climbed on top of an SUV, hauled the metallic suitcase up with him and set it down on the roof. He gasped at the hot air and its dead body putrescence. He wasn’t sweating and he knew that was bad. Behind him, the undead were filling the street again. The burning fuel from the smashed helo ignited them as they passed near it or even just walked through the flames to get to Braddock.

“Overlord, this is Alpha Six… I’m at the intersection of… 5th and Olive. Which way do I proceed?”

“We have you on drone recon, standby Alpha Six.”

Infected shambled, stumbled and lurched toward him, filling in the open spaces ahead, around and behind him like locusts. Braddock swapped clips for the 9mm.

“Overlord, I’m running out of options here.”

No answer.

Near the US Bank Tower, choppers were circling and making landings on the roof. Braddock had seen evacuations before and he knew he was watching one. They were leaving Downtown LA.

“Overlord,” he tried one last time. There was a small alley back down the street that headed north toward the tower. He was just about to go for it when Overlord came back.

“Alpha Six, we have your access point. The New China Bank on the northeast corner of Olive and 5th. Next to the Starbucks… do you have eyes on objective?”

“Confirmed Overlord. What do I do?”

A few Infected began to bash into the side of the SUV below him. Braddock put bullets in their heads.

“… enter the bank with extreme prejudice. Expect armed resistance. Enter the vault and we’ll be waiting for you inside.”

Great, thought Braddock and didn’t bother to articulate the insanity of pulling a bank job in the middle of the end of the world.

He grabbed the nuclear weapon and jumped down onto the hot street, heading toward the bank on the northeast corner of the wide intersection. The mob of Infected on the opposite corner beneath the second story window was more interested in the gunshots coming from inside the building there.

As he approached, Braddock could see that security screens had been rolled down across the windows and doors of the bank. He holstered the 9mm, set the case down ten feet away from the door, and ran up to the nearest shutter as he fished around in the wide pocket of his ruck for one of the three breach charges he was carrying.

More and more Infected were filling the large intersection. One of them rounded the corner. Its eyes widened then blazed hate and murder as it reached for Braddock who tucked the charge into his chest and spun into a roundhouse that landed on the dead woman’s jaw and ear. The thing rag-dolled off the shutter and fell to the ground. It struggled to right itself, but Braddock knew its eardrum was smashed. It wasn’t getting up any time soon. He returned to the door and placed the charge on the roll down door, activating the magnetic clamps. He adjusted the explosive cone to its widest spread and then activated the timer. Fifteen seconds.

Ten seconds later he was standing around the corner, gripping the case carrying the nuclear bomb. Three Infected came at him, and he tried to remember how many bullets were left in the magazine.

He struggled for a moment. Everything was beginning to haze over. The past week, ops, tango down, uncountable undead, it was all becoming one big long day. He raised the matte black 9mm and aimed at the nearest Infected. An old man, bloody and drooling. He was cut and torn and bitten all over. His eyes were rolling white as his toothy mouth opened for Braddock.

How many bullets have you fired? He asked himself again, as two more Infected joined the undead old man.

“You’re too stupid to quit.”

Bang.

Bang.

Bang.

Three undead and the slide popped back. Empty.

The breach charge went off like rolling thunder as it ripped the metal shutter and the door to the bank inward. Braddock holstered the empty 9mm and readied the silenced MP5 with his free hand, leaving the strap around his neck.

Feels loaded, he told himself when he wondered how many bullets were in the mag.

He walked up to the smoking gash and pulled a frag grenade from his LCE vest. Zombies swarmed from all four corners of the intersection, closing in on him.

They’d said, “Extreme Prejudice”.

And…

She’d said, “Whatever it takes.”

He tossed the grenade in, pulled another and aimed for a different section of the room beyond the torn seam in the door. Then he pulled his only CS Grenade from the other side of his harness.

Knew I shoulda brought a mask, he thought, as all the zombie groups in the intersection came together and formed a wall surging toward him like a tsunami. I knew it! He popped the CS grenade and tossed it in. Gunfire was coming from inside the bank, punching holes in the flimsy metal roll down door. Braddock pulled the MP5 sling over his head, drew in a lungful of air and held it. He pointed the weapon in front of him and entered the smoking tear in the shutter.

I can hold my breath, he calculated, engaged in a firefight, for at least one minute. If it went hand to hand, he knew he’d have to breathe. So conserve your ammo, he told himself. He knew that once the CS started on his tear ducts, he’d be blind. That was when he’d freak out and want air, badly.

Inside the bank, within the billowing tear gas, the smart glasses showed him three Asian men bent over and retching from the tear gas as they struggled to breathe. One looked up at Braddock, his eyes bulging, snot running like a river from his nose and pleaded silently with Braddock to let him take a breath. Braddock knew how the guy felt. He felt like his lungs were filled with cement and that he’d never breathe again. Braddock shot him in the chest and the man pitched backward against the dusty marble floor. The others had dropped to their knees as they struggled for even the tiniest bit of air.

Behind Braddock, the undead were crawling through the gaping hole, pushing over each other to get inside. Their collective rasps seemed like a distant roar inside Braddock’s blood-thundering ears.

Ahead lay the counter and beyond that, the open vault. At the corners of his vision, darkness began to swirl into a mist. From some desk on the other side of the room, maybe the place where people asked for a loan or opened a new checking account, a woman began to fire an AK-47 at him. Braddock watched as the tellers’ counter in front of him and the stations along its face began to erupt in disintegrating wood splinters. Braddock ran. It cost him, but he took three large strides and slid over the counter and onto the carpet behind.

He almost took a breath as he lay on the floor wanting to pant. His lungs were screaming. There wasn’t an ounce of air left in them. His heart felt like it was going to explode. He struggled to his feet, still holding the MP5 and the old Soviet nuclear weapon with the new wiring. His vision was slowly surrendering down into a tiny circle. The woman with the AK-47 fired her last few rounds into the chests and stomachs of the more than twenty undead that had crawled inside the bank. More, many more, were still flooding through the smoking tear gas like wrong way rats surging onto a sinking ship. The zombies already inside overran the woman in a wave of rotting human flesh and drove her into the rich mahogany wood of the back wall as she collapsed beneath their onslaught. Braddock sprayed the crowd with what bullets remained in the MP5 as they crossed the marble floor, dropping some, causing others to stumble over the dying dead. Then he heaved himself into the vault, shoved the case carrying the nuclear weapon further inside, and turned back with the last of his strength to grab the massive door, its shiny locking mechanism displayed proudly beneath polished glass.

As he began to black out, every cell in his body begged for him to take a breath of the swirling yellow poison that filled the bank. He hoped the door would just swing shut. He didn’t have any other way to go. Too many of the Infected had entered the building, too many more were pressing forward to get in. To get at him.

He heard the woman screaming. Someone else too. He reached forward with his massive arm, bicep flexing, and pulled on the vault door.

It closed swiftly, sealing Braddock inside the vault.

An automatic ventilation system whirred to life, and Braddock could feel fresh cold air rushing down on his hot, dusty arms and neck. He pulled at the fresh air and began to immediately cough as some of the CS still clinging to his clothes got to him. A moment later, he reached into his pack and drank the last of the warm, chlorinated water from his collapsible water system. Water he’d topped off back in the hangar, in the dark that morning when the wind was hot, and the air smelled like jet fuel and helo exhaust and fires burning out of control out in Malibu Canyon.

“Alpha Six, this is Overlord, get down and stay away from the back wall of the vault. We’re coming in.”

Braddock didn’t have time to reply before the entire vault began to shake. Distantly he heard what sounded like some massive drill, chewing and then grinding through concrete, as a moment later, the lock boxes on the far wall began to twist and turn, and then fly off the wall and crash to the floor. Money, jewelry and documents landed in piles or ricocheted off the other three walls.

A massive circular drill, six feet wide, first poked its tip through the rubble and then bored its way through the wall. Armed Marines entered the vault, laser sights cutting the debris-made dusk and smoke of the drill’s damage.

A moment later, the sergeant in charge gave the “All Clear” order as he stood before Braddock with three other heavily armed Marines, weapons aimed at Braddock, lasers dancing across his forehead.

“You injured?” shouted the Marine in the typical affected Basso Profundo they used for commands.

“Good to go,” muttered Braddock, and picked up the metallic case carrying the nuclear weapon he was about to take into what was probably the last remaining bastion of the U.S. Government.

Do whatever it takes.

That’s what she’d said, Darling, that’s what she’d said. The last thing she’d said to him.

“Follow us!” ordered the Marine. They withdrew through the still-smoking drill hole, one Marine bringing up the rear. Beyond the hole, they entered a shadowy network of tunnels and maintenance walkways beneath Downtown LA, all part of the under-funded, over-promised new rail system that would never be completed.

“We’ve lost the streets,” noted the sergeant without rancor, or animosity, or even responsibility. “But we still control the tunnels beneath most of downtown. Doesn’t matter though, we’re evacuating by dark.”

“Yeah, we goin’ to Hawaii,” whispered another Marine in the darkness. No one said anything, but Braddock knew they were hoping that was real. That Hawaii, a safe place, was something that could happen for them.

Smaller side tunnels led to a main tunnel where some kind of rail system was under construction. Massive lights illuminated everything. Constant patrols moved up and down its length, each one in sight of at least two others. At intervals, they passed fortified positions where long fifty caliber machine guns pointed off into the darkness amidst stacks of linked brass and more ammo in boxes nearby.

No one offered to carry the case for Braddock.

A few minutes later, they entered a wide underground sprawl of a space under construction. It was a future subway platform, and Braddock read the construction notice pointing out that this was Stop Nine, US Bank Tower.

As they climbed up rickety wooden slap-job stairs onto the high platform, Marines began running from the far entrance of the tunnel. The sergeant leading Braddock stopped, raised his right arm and made a fist as he listened to incoming radio traffic. At the same time, machine gun teams were breaking down the emplacements and falling back to the main platform.

“Alright, we gotta get you up to the lobby,” said the sergeant. “We just lost the Sheriff’s station at Parker Center, bottom of the hill. Tunnels are wide open now.” He said the last part more for his men than Braddock.

They took a massive cargo elevator up to the main floor and entered a grand marble columned business lobby through a maintenance door. Slatted steel shutters shrieked and cackled as fists showered the groaning metal that covered every window and entrance where multitudes of the Infected raged beyond these barriers.

An “incoming call” tone whispered in Braddock’s earpiece as the phone itself vibrated in his chest pocket. The Marines walked forward to the large group of more Marines, a quick reaction force guarding the lobby. Every Marine was armed to the teeth. An escalator led up onto an upper level where snipers ringed the chrome and glass railings, watching the lobby, the shutters and the mob outside. Braddock had no doubt that their orders were to take out any Marine that managed to get infected if the undead broke through.

Braddock reached up with one hand, rubbed at his grimy neck and discreetly touched the channel select button on the earpiece to accept the call. He heard the dull tone change and a pleasant beep indicating a new channel. “Go ahead,” whispered Braddock under his breath as the sergeant reported to a nearby Marine officer who threw a quick, emotionless glance over at Braddock.

“Go with Ramirez.” The call ended. It had been the same voice. The man known only as Mr. Steele.

Braddock scanned the chaos and watched a lithe young olive-skinned Marine come down the escalator two steps at a time. When he reached the main lobby floor, he made straight for Braddock’s cluster, briefly looking Braddock in the eye. “Ramirez” was printed on the stitched name tag of his digital camo BDU’s.

“Follow me, Captain,” said Ramirez, indicating Braddock loud enough so the Marine officer could hear. The officer, still conferring with the sergeant, threw another quick look at both of them and watched as Ramirez led Braddock off toward the escalators. It wasn’t his business. He had to hold the lobby or else… If the Infected broke through, the Marine officer estimated everyone in the lobby had about fifteen seconds of life left. Drone Recon put the strength of the living corpses just beyond the shuddering security doors at ten thousand and rising. He was keeping a grenade for himself, just in case.

Ramirez led Braddock up the escalator and straight to another executive elevator. He said nothing until the doors were shut. On the twenty-ninth floor, they exited and walked straight into an ad hoc command center. Two homeland security goons greeted them at the elevator, guns drawn, but not pointing.

“General Hirsch wants to see him, now!” ordered goon one who looked more like a defensive tackle on ‘roids rather than a soldier or a marine.

“S’posed to get him on a bird A-S-A-P, Warren,” protested Ramirez.

“Shut it Ramirez,” ordered the Homeland goon named Warren.

A minute later they were in the heart of the command center with computers scrolling status updates, monitors showing live feeds of everything from the chaos on the beach at Marina Del Rey to The U.S.S. Ronald Reagan Super Carrier looming close to shore with an army of helicopters like insects hovering over a flotilla of sport cruisers ferrying survivors. Braddock, Ramirez and the two goons found themselves standing in front of a short man who looked more like an accountant than a three star general. Braddock noted the general was Ranger tabbed.

“That’s the package, I take it,” murmured the general, his gray eyes flicking toward the metallic case Braddock was still carrying.

“Yes sir.” Braddock kicked himself again. He didn’t have to say “sir” anymore. He was a private contractor now. Oh well, he thought, old habits die hard.

“All we had was a heads-up from some outfit working for DOD called Tarragon,” said the general. “Said we had to terminate that vehicle on the street before it reached the tower or it was lights out for the whole operation. Who were the carriers?”

“Jihadis. Probably a homegrown terror cell.” Braddock remembered the woman in the black hijab and her brains all over the tinted window inside the SUV.

“Hell.” The general shook his head and turned back to a sheaf of papers he was still holding. “World’s going to hell in a handbasket and they decide it’s time for another 9-11. What is it?”

Braddock didn’t hesitate.

“It’s a nuke. I think it’s dirty, made from old soviet hardware.”

The general’s eyes widened.

“Seriously, son?”

“Seriously,” said Braddock.

He felt the tension in the room. It was sudden and charged. Behind him, he felt the two goons take a step backward. As if two steps or ten miles would make a difference if the thing went off.

“And you didn’t think you should tell somebody before you brought it into the command center?”

“No sir. Couldn’t leave it out on the street. And the Marines downstairs are ready to piss their pants. I didn’t think letting them know there was a low-yield nuclear weapon inside the perimeter would’ve helped matters much.”

The general thought about that for a sec.

“You’re Delta. Or at least you were… at one time, weren’t you?”

Braddock said nothing.

“Aaronson, Crenshaw, get this man to a chopper and get him airborne. He is the only one to touch that case and you are to watch him at all times. We will give you a destination once you’re in the air.”

There was a pause as no one, especially the two goons known as Aaronson and Crenshaw, knew what the protocol for escorting a man carrying a nuclear weapon was. You can’t just grab him by the arm and say, “come with me, buddy.” After all, he’s carrying a real, live, end of the world weapon. Braddock knew beyond the shadow of a doubt each of them was thinking something to that effect.

Ramirez stepped in. “I’ll get them on the next bird, sir.”

“Good, see that you do.” The general turned back to his paperwork. Ramirez nodded toward Braddock, and the two goons fell in behind as he led them back to the elevator.

Ramirez entered the elevator first, standing near the back, then Braddock who leaned against the wall and set the case down, if only just to bother the two goons who entered next. Eyes wide, they turned their backs as the elevator doors closed. One of them reached over to touch the button that would take them to the top floor. Braddock could see Ramirez pull a pistol, a small twenty-two, from behind his back. Then faster than Braddock had ever seen any other man move, Ramirez shot both goons in the back of the head. Each hit the elevator door, landing in their own brain matter and blood spatter as Ramirez slid in front of one of them and punched the thirty-fifth floor. Just shy of the top.

“It’s cool,” said Ramirez as he held the weapon up and away from Braddock who was waiting the one second Ramirez would need to explain himself. Otherwise, his massive arm would have shot forth like a piston and pushed Ramirez’s nose into the back of his skull. “I’m with Mr. Steele. We gotta stop on thirty-five, but don’t worry, it’s empty. We need to do a little surgery on that bomb, first.”

The doors opened on a sprawling cubicle farm of empty desks and dark monitors. Ramirez blocked the door with one of the dead goons and led the way to a nearby desk and swept a monitor, keyboard and cat mug off onto the floor.

“Set it here, man,” ordered Ramirez. “Okay, let’s get those bodies out of the elevator now.”

They dragged the two large men out into the darkened office and over behind another cubicle a few feet away.

“If it helps,” grunted Ramirez as he strained with the one known as Warren, “I saw these two rape a girl three nights ago and then shoot her in the head.”

Braddock said nothing.

Whatever it takes. That’s what Darling had said.

“Things gettin’ crazy and these two are running amok. Way I see it, they got what they deserved.”

Braddock knew guys like Ramirez. Guys who were almost cold-blooded killers. Almost. Guys like Ramirez needed to justify the terrible things they did.

“Alright,” said Ramirez with a breathy sigh. “Let’s get that bomb open.”

The sound of helicopters a couple floors above rose and fell as their blades beat at the hot air, creating sudden thunderous whump whump whumps as they lifted off from the rooftop helipad.

Ramirez opened the case and stared the dirty nuclear bomb right in the face. Then he smiled.

“Lemme see your knife.”

Braddock pulled his tactical knife from its hip sheath, flipped it and offered the hilt. Ramirez took it and held out both hands like he was hovering over a Thanksgiving Day turkey. As though he couldn’t decide whether he wanted white meat or dark.

Then he went to the side, well clear of the arming mechanism, all lights still in the green, over and through some wiring he moved aside with his free hand, and right down into the actual old soviet bomb. A suitcase bomb. A bomb for spies. A bomb built back when Reagan had gone to Iceland and the SR-71 still photographed parking spots down at the Kremlin to decide who was in and who was out that week. The bomb, the last of the old, cold warriors, thought Braddock.

Ramirez slipped the combat knife under the main housing, took a breath, held it, and lifted. Gently. When the bomb was raised to barely half an inch, he slithered the knife over against the side of the case and used it as a wedge to keep the bomb up off the bottom of the case.

Then he took one long finger and slipped it down underneath the bomb, his head looking up and seeing nothing, his finger doing all the finding.

“Got it,” he muttered.

Braddock was perplexed, but he said nothing. He’d never seen a bomb disarmed like this before. In fact, he was convinced the kid wasn’t even disarming the bomb. He had to restrain himself from shooting the kid in the head. But then he remembered what Darling had told him. Do whatever it takes.

The kid worked for a moment longer and then teased an envelope out from beneath the bomb. It was a wide envelope. The paper was old. Brown. There was even a wax seal.

“What is it?” asked Braddock.

“No idea,” replied Ramirez, holding it up to the orange light coming from the windows. “But this is what the whole op was about.” The envelope was old. It was thin. The wax seal had melted, even chipped away in one corner of the impression. But it was there, still sealing the envelope. “I only know that Mr. Steele wants it.”

Ramirez tucked the envelope in his cargo pocket and pulled out a device from another pocket. It looked like a cheap cell phone. It was purple.

“Tracker,” he mumbled to Braddock. “We don’t need the bomb anymore.”

“Then why track it?”

“He wants to know where the bomb is, I guess. I don’t know and… I don’t ask.” Then Ramirez looked up and Braddock knew that “asking” wasn’t a good thing when it came to Mr. Steele.

Once the tracker was installed, Ramirez closed the metal case and hefted it off the desk with a grunt. He walked over to another cubicle and hid it under the desk.

“Now comes the hard part.” Ramirez smiled, dark eyes flashing. “We gotta get off this tower.”

Chapter Sixteen

When the elevator stopped at the top floor, Braddock knew what he’d find. People. Lots of people, waiting in line. Angry people, frightened people, people waiting to get a priceless seat on the last ride out of the end of the world. And the armed Marines you always find in such places.

The elevator opened on an enclosed atrium with massive windows that looked out into the haze, smog and black smoke of a burning Los Angeles withering under the assault of the afternoon heat. Helicopters circled above the helipad or hovered nearby, waiting for the helipad on the roof to open up so the pilots could make their approach and take on more survivors. Ramirez led the way to the outside doors as a massive twin rotor Chinook lifted off from the roof and turned west for Marina Del Rey.

“This guy gets on the next bird, alone,” announced Ramirez as they approached the two Marines guarding the door that led outside to the helipad.

“Like hell…”

“General Hirsh. Right now,” ordered Ramirez.

The sergeant made a face, rolled his eyes and tapped the two way radio on his chest above his ammo pouches. “Hey LT, this is Watts down at the gate… we got a priority transport from General Hirsh.” The LT said something that got lost in the beating blades of the next incoming rescue chopper approaching the roof. But Watts understood. “Checking,” he muttered at Ramirez, then turned to watch the survivors queued up along the railed walkway leading to the helipad above.

A moment later they were cleared for the roof, and they walked through the glass doors leading out into the sky above Downtown LA. The smell of smoke hung heavy in the air. Survivors watched them, their faces haunted, even tear-stained as Ramirez pushed through them with Braddock following, up onto one of the two ladders leading to the helipad. Twenty Marines surrounded the helipad along with a ground crew and an air traffic control team busy directing the landings. A news helicopter was on the pad, and Marines were helping women and children into the passenger compartment beneath the whirling blades. Other Marines were carrying camera equipment and throwing it over the side of the tallest downtown building and onto the waiting zombies below.

The lieutenant in charge, bent low, crossed the pad and signaled for Ramirez to come forward.

“What’s this all about?” he shouted, as the pilot of the news helicopter put in the collective throttle, and the chopper struggled off the landing pad. A moment later it was gone and heading west.

“General Hirsh says you got the next bird…” shouted the officer. “Three of you. I only count two.”

Ramirez leaned in close to the LT and Braddock couldn’t hear what was said as a Marine Blackhawk approached the helipad. All around them, LA seemed like a dead thing, bleached and bloating. The sun beat down on the washed-out city below as a yellow and gray haze hung just above the streets. Distant lone columns of black smoke rose throughout the undisturbed, still air. Braddock could see mobs of Infected down below in the city moving like ants, closing in on some unseen prize. Moving like locusts, in waves that seemed to draw the eye and blacken out the details of a city once full of life.

Braddock watched Ramirez come back down the ladder and knew that everything wasn’t going according to plan by the dark cloud he saw on the kid’s face.

“No good!” shouted the LT down at Ramirez, standing up near the top of the ladder. Then the officer turned back to check the Blackhawk idling on the pad. He signaled the Marines guarding the survivors’ queue at the other ladder to let the next bunch through. The Marines began to tap the next twenty survivors as they rushed though in a single line, heads down, toward the waiting chopper. The LT turned back and glared down at Ramirez. “I don’t have to like it. General says you got three, fine. You only got two. It’s a waste to give up one chopper for two men. You get the General to come up here now and clear this, or you can wait like the rest.” Then he turned back to the helipad, shouting more unheard orders above the whine of the Blackhawk’s rising turbines.

“Stand by, we’re going with plan B,” said Ramirez and took a cell phone similar to the one he’d used as a tracker from one of his cargo pockets and texted a quick message. Braddock could see the text. It read, “Plan B. Standing by.”

Ramirez turned away from the landing crew, facing the wall and drew the small .22 automatic. Braddock watched as Ramirez pulled the slide back and put a bullet in the chamber.

So that’s how it is, thought Braddock.

Whatever it takes.

He checked the MP5, unscrewed the silencer and stuffed it back in a pocket on his ruck. No need for silence now, he thought. He knew the pistol strapped to his leg was loaded. He’d made sure in the elevator. The safety was off and a round was waiting in the chamber.

Now the Blackhawk lifted off from the helipad and climbed toward the west through smoke and into the milky sun that was beginning its fall toward the horizon.

A slate-gray Huey transport, Vietnam era, subdued black lettering that read Tarragon 26, dived out of the holding pattern and crabbed sideways toward the landing pad. The cargo door slid back and a large man began to fire a mounted machine gun at the Marines on the helipad as the helicopter came in fast for a landing. Some Marines scattered, while others went down under a bright hail of steady heavy machine gunfire.

“Move,” said Ramirez as he scrambled up the ladder with the pistol in his hand. The LT was sprinting toward the ladder, running for cover when Ramirez put two in the Marine’s chest as he reached the top. Braddock followed close behind Ramirez. An alarm klaxon was going off. Marines scrambled for cover.

Ramirez and Braddock made the helipad as the chopper flared and slammed down onto the structure, causing the metal support girders to briefly groan. Survivors were screaming and running for the inside of the tower. Dead Marines lay along the landing pad as Braddock and Ramirez bent low and raced for the chopper.

The large man working the gun had a buzz cut and a face chiseled from a granite slab. He wore mirrored aviator shades and there was little emotion on his face as he cut down the few Marines trying to fire back from the roof of the tower. Ramirez climbed into the helicopter first, as Braddock stepped onto the skids and turned back to provide cover. A Marine from the air traffic control crew took aim with a pistol and unloaded an entire clip. Braddock heard a metallic Clang as one of the bullets managed to hit something nearby. He aimed and cut down the Marine with a short burst from the MP5, as he reached back and grabbed a cargo strap inside the bird.

“Go!” he shouted at the pilot.

The chopper rose immediately from the pad and pivoted, knocking a Marine who was rushing and firing at them off the building and into the mass of infected zombies below. Braddock felt himself pulled backward by the sudden change in inertia as the chopper dove for the streets below. The big man at the gun was still firing at the rooftop helipad, still dropping Marines with an uncanny ability to target and put rounds into Marines from a wildly moving helicopter.

The chopper pilot yanked the bird toward the left and followed a downtown street for a few blocks to put other buildings between the aircraft and the Marines still firing from the top of the tower. South of the city, the chopper climbed a few hundred feet and leveled out over the car-jammed 10 freeway, heading east. By that time, Braddock was strapped in and facing the rear of the cargo deck. Ramirez and another man, a sniper who’d been at the other cargo door were seated next to the big man who handed a pair of headphones across to Braddock. Braddock put them on and plugged into a jack in the ceiling. The sniper stared out the window at the cityscape rushing by, watching as mobs of zombies surrounded liquor stores or trapped cars or just seemed like frozen statues, alone and everywhere at once. Ramirez was busy reloading his pistol.

“…Ten minutes to LZ Firestorm, boss,” the pilot was busy saying over the dull hum of the onboard intercom. “Bravo team reports fires set and in full effect.”

The big man was holding his hand up to his cheek. Blood seeped through his massive fingers. “Roger,” he replied to the pilot flatly. “Tell Captain Andrews to return to base.”

Then the big man pulled away a section of his cheek with his hands, exposing more blood. Braddock watched with fascination as the man refused to flinch while pulling away torn skin. When he finished, he tossed the scrap of flesh out into the rushing wind beyond the cargo door and pressed his hand to his cheek once more.

“Ramirez,” said the big man in his flat monotone. “Give me the package and the tracker.” He held out his other hand. Ramirez dove into his cargo pockets, produced both cell phone and the envelope they’d found underneath the suitcase dirty bomb, then handed them over. The big man stuffed both into one of his jungle camo fatigue chest pockets with one hand while he continued to press on the wound to his cheek with the other.

“Captain Braddock,” began the big man. “I’m Mr. Steele. Your mission is complete. You will accompany me back to base where you will take charge of Echo Team.”

After a moment, Braddock nodded.

Whatever it takes.

Twelve months ago, the CIA had brought Braddock and a dozen other operators in for an eyes-only briefing. Someone was recruiting out of the private contractor community for something domestic. Something big. That someone needed to be put down.

Twelve months ago Jack Braddock and the other operators were discharged from active service and sent out to find that someone. Their mission was to join one of the many private contractor security firms and find out who was recruiting for the big project. There would be only sporadic contact with their handlers and once they got close, they were to identify the target. But in the twelve months since the operation had started, no one had managed to get close to finding out who the target was. Instead, there were only disappearances and dead operators.

But one thing kept coming up, a name, over and over again.

Mr. Steele.

In the twelve months of Operation Castle, every operator knew only one thing. Had only one objective. No matter what, even if the United States government was no more, or even the United States itself for that matter was gone, no matter what, find out who Mr. Steele was and terminate him.

With Extreme Prejudice.

The chopper dove over a hill and descended into the smoke filled valley, aiming for the San Gabriels and Pasadena.

Jack Braddock faced three men in the speeding chopper. A sniper. An assassin. And what his handler at the CIA’s most unknown arm, an office everyone simply called the Boons, had once told Braddock was probably the most dangerous man in the world.

“LZ in sight, boss,” said the chopper pilot over the intercom.

The foothills above Pasadena were on fire as tract homes and long streets lined with sprawling houses burned to the ground while flaming palm trees danced in sudden hot gusts. Braddock looked out the cargo door and watched as the chopper circled a small cul-de-sac nestled behind some hills. There were a few dead bodies on the lawns and one in the middle of the street below.

“LZ clear just like Captain Andrews said it would be,” announced the pilot.

“Take us down,” said the big man.

The pilot circled low over the post-modern single story houses in the cul-de-sac, built back after World War 2. Sprawling, blocky, glass and flat roofed structures on large lots that would start as homes for the parents of baby boomers and go on to be fixer-uppers in the valley to those same babies once they became up and coming film directors and power player industry execs. None of the houses in the cul-de-sac were on fire.

The helicopter settled into the middle of the circular dead end street and the pilot shut down the engines, the electronics, and finally the APU. The rotor blades slowly spun to a stop. Still holding his cheek, Mr. Steele exited the bird and Braddock followed.

“We’re good to go,” shouted the pilot from the open side window in the overwhelming silence caused by the absence of helicopter engine noise.

Mr. Steele walked out to the entrance of the cul-de-sac. Houses leading down the hill, all along the streets and down onto the valley floor were on fire. Downtown LA was hidden behind a low row of foothills.

Terminate, remembered Braddock. With extreme prejudice.

That was the mission.

But Darling… she’d said, see where it goes. And then, “Whatever it takes.”

Braddock’s hands remained exactly where they were as he stood ten paces behind Mr. Steele. He knew he could put an entire clip in the big man’s back in under five seconds.

He listened to Ramirez utter a soft groan behind him as the kid stepped out on to the silent street, the Whoosh and roar of the firestorm all around and somehow distant from this once perfectly planned community of the future. Conceived back when an Atom bomb was the scariest thing man could scare other men with. Braddock thought about the twelve frustrating months of chasing the most dangerous figment of the intelligence community’s imagination. And now that figment was standing right in front of him. His back to Braddock. Braddock felt his mind getting ready to send the impulse to his muscles that would cause him to draw and shoot so fast that both actions would seem simultaneous. Braddock knew he’d make Ramirez’s speed look like old syrup sliding down a half empty bottle.

Except… the target had taken a bullet straight to the face.

And it hadn’t bothered him one bit.

Braddock watched as the big man, Mr. Steele, let the hand that had been holding the wound to his cheek fall to his side. Then there was a moment…

A moment when the world could still go on.

A moment Braddock knew he’d never see the other side of.

Braddock would think of this moment in all the days that remained to him. As if…

…as if what was, wasn’t supposed to have ever happened.

“You’ll just go all the way to the end of the world, Jack, won’tcha? ‘Cause you’re too stupid to quit.”

Someone said that, once.

Mr. Steele reached his bloody hand into his chest pocket and came out with the metallic purple cell phone. Braddock watched as the big man rapidly entered a series of numbers on the touch screen.

A moment later, there was a flash.

Off to the southwest.

Over Downtown LA.

Mr. Steele turned back to Braddock. The lined and tanned face chiseled and hard like iron. No emotion. Where the wound was, where the blood had seeped through massive fingers as Braddock had watched the big man tear torn flesh from his cheek, now there was only gleaming, shining metal, underneath and exposed all the way up the cheek and down onto the jawline, making half the face like the rictus grin of the dead… or the twisted whiplash smile of a man gone recently insane.

A distant mushroom cloud began to pile and rise up over those low hills in Pasadena above the little postmodern cul-de-sac, the hills that blocked the view of where Downtown LA used to be.

  • Part Two*

“I’ve seen things down there. Dark stuff at the bottom of the well.”

-Doctor Midnite

Chapter Seventeen

Holiday smelled coffee.

He heard Frank rattling in the kitchen. Eggs were cracked. A toaster pressed into action. A few minutes later, as the symphony of breakfast prepared neared its crescendo, silence once again began to fill in the gaps. Where once there had been neighbors starting cars, heading off to work, there was silence. Kids and their constant kid noise as they were dragged into those cars and squired off to school, someone always complaining, someone always crying, now they too were missing. Or the sound on the distant toll road of a soft-tailed Harley winding up, speeding along its length in the morning light as it wove through the other still sleepy commuters, now there was only nothing. Now an overwhelming absence replaced all those people-made noises, filling in the gaps as though the silence was an ocean and the occasional noise a mere tiny island lost in its vastness.

Holiday sat up on the couch, clutched at by a tangled blanket. He felt strangely clean. Dry almost. More clear headed than he usually felt, waking up after a night of drinking alone.

Frank was sitting at a small dining table. He smiled at Holiday.

“Breakfast is ready, buddy.”

At the table, Holiday buttered toast and spread jam, watching the steam rise from his black coffee. It was sunny outside. Birds scampered from tree to nearby tree and quickly told all the other birds about it.

“Fog’s gone,” said Holiday through a mouthful of toast.

“Burned off this morning about an hour ago.”

In the silence that followed, Holiday waited to hear that distant Thuuump again. Knowing he would. Knowing he must again someday.

Ash came down. Shorts, tank top, curly long hair in a ponytail. Freshly scrubbed. Ready for work.

“Mmmm, I’m starved,” she said as she began to attack her fried eggs while buttering toast between bites. Both Holiday and Frank had noticed she possessed a ravenous appetite.

“Typical,” Frank expressed, patting his own gut. “And she doesn’t gain a pound. Me, I even look at butter and the scale’s five pounds heavier.”

“So what do we work on today?” asked Holiday.

“More of the same. I need that post-holer and a few other things. I’ve got a list. It’s important we at least get the fence up and keep any strays out. We don’t want to be surprised, and it’s too easy to think we’re safe here when none of them are around. We haven’t searched every townhome, so we don’t know who’s inside the perimeter until we get the perimeter up. Then we can do a house to house search.”

“Other than one we passed down near the stores yesterday, I haven’t seen any more of them,” said Holiday, staring at what was left of his breakfast.

“For now,” sighed Frank. “But who knows what’s coming our way? If this thing is local, maybe that’s it. Maybe we won’t see any more of ‘em. But, if it’s global… How much of the population has been infected? If we use this neighborhood for an example, out of close to two hundred units, you and I are the only survivors. If we apply those numbers to the rest of America, the rest of the world, that could mean less than one percent of the population survived. We’re going to want some defenses and soon. We’ve got to fortify this place and then we’ve got to get our hands on some weapons. The next few days are crucial. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”

Ash burped and then offered a whispered, “Sorry. That was really great.”

“Thanks, kid,” said Frank, then, “Even with all my plans, I haven’t figured out how to block the main entrance. We’ve got to find a bus of some sort. Until then, we’ll string some fencing across it and attach a prefab gate from Home Depot. Make sure to pick up a combination lock and chain we can use to secure the gate.”

“I don’t want to be the duck of doom,” began Ash. “But what was that all about last night? Do either of you have any idea what that was?”

No one said anything until Holiday spoke up. “Whatever it was, I don’t think a mesh fence is keeping it out. It sounded really big.”

A moment followed in which they all exchanged glances. A moment as they each shared the same thought.

How could anyone have any idea what that thing was?

Ash scooped up the last of Holiday’s fried eggs, she’d eaten four total, and said through a mouthful, “Our little fence isn’t going to keep that thing out, is it?”

“C’mon,” said Frank, standing up. “I guess I’d better show you what I found this morning.”

They followed him out through the door into the little tiled yard that was his front patio. They went through a small gate and stood on the sidewalk looking out into the blackened remains of the avocado orchard. A three-strand barbed wire fence guarded it. The fire-blasted low rolling hills where the orchard once was receded off into the distance. The trees had been consumed in the fire, leaving the occasional small, spindly burnt matchstick outline of one against the sky. Ashy piles gathered in other places. On the first hill facing them, from the bottom of the slope to the top of the rise, a large depression lay imprinted into the side of the hill. Blackened avocado trees lay crushed and mangled within its borders.

Frank walked up to the barbed wire fence as Holiday and Ash remained on the patio. They all saw it.

“It looks like a…”

But Ash didn’t finish. She didn’t need to. They all saw what it looked like. A large footprint. A footprint with claws where there should have been the impressions of toes.

“Well that’s just great!” said Holiday. He was already thinking about a beer. The day was getting hot. Now this.

“I know what you’re thinking,” said Frank, turning back to them.

“Yeah?” asked Holiday. “Do you?”

It was the first moment of hostility between any of them.

“I have a pretty good idea.” Frank paused. “You’re thinking we should run. That we should find someplace safe and hide from whatever that thing was. I know you’re thinking that because I’m thinking it too. I’ve been thinking about it since I saw this.”

Silence.

Holiday walked toward the fence, walking closer toward the immense claw-foot print.

“Okay,” said Ash. “I’ll admit it. That thing scares the hell out of me. Holiday’s right, what fence is gonna keep that out?”

Frank paused. A slight breeze blew a forelock of his gray hair across his forehead.

“There’s no place to run to, kids.”

“How do you know that?” shot back Holiday over his shoulder as he began to walk away. In his mind he was already opening that first beer.

“Because I’ve looked. I’ve got binoculars. You go up to the road behind us and you can see down into the whole valley all the way to the coast. There’s no one down there. Nothing living anyway. There’s nowhere else to go, and any place is just as likely as the next place for us to get killed. But here’s what I think. I think we’ve been given a little break here. Those zombies don’t seem too interested in climbing hills. They’re like children. Children when they’re lost don’t climb up hills, they always go downhill. Ask any search and rescue team. So right now, we’re close to the top of a hill. One of the higher occupied places in Orange County. For now, we’re all alone up here in the foothills. We use this time to fortify, and we’ll be safe from them up here. We run for it, and might I add, where exactly would we be running to? Well… we’ll be down in there with them and nothing but our backs to the wall. Here we can build something. Here we can defend ourselves.”

“With what, Frank!” shouted Holiday. “A tiny gun that’s got no bullets and some axes and crowbars you want me to pick up at the store?”

Silence.

“Guys…” said Ash.

Holiday turned back to them. His face was set in stone. Frank knew the look. Knew Holiday had drinking on his mind. Knew he’d walk right past them and into a days-long binge. He couldn’t let him do that. He needed him. They all needed each other.

“Until we can find safety, we’ve got to fortify this place. It’s all we’ve got.”

Silence.

“And we can’t do it without you, buddy,” said Frank.

Holiday stared at them.

“I’m serious. We need you right now.”

There was a moment. A moment when Holiday could have walked away from the two of them forever. A moment in which he knew what it would be like to simply shut the door on the world, even if it was ending, and drink himself blind. Maybe once he did that, everything would get better. All problems solved, no thanks to him. There was a moment in which all that seemed possible.

He felt a cold shudder run through his body. A cold shudder no one else saw.

“Alright then,” he said, staring off down the street toward his condo. “Let’s get to work.”

 

It was dark by the time they’d gotten the last walkway fenced in. They worked by flashlight, Frank and Holiday sweating as they heaved the last roll of fencing over their shoulders and carried it to the lush walkway at the edge of the complex. They’d already set the steel poles in concrete. Now they strung the fence and secured it with tight wire ties that never failed to rip through their sturdy gloves and cut their hands. Ash held the flashlight as they worked, their breathing heavy from exhaustion. It had been a very long day. They secured the ends of the fence to the buildings with an industrial-grade, high-powered staple gun that had cost upwards of a thousand dollars. Or at least, that’s what the price tag behind the security glass inside the expensive tools case at the store had said it should cost. Holiday had liberated it from the case. The staples were massive thick metal bands that easily rammed into the wood and wire structure of the townhomes, disintegrating the tan stucco with a small explosion. Several dozen of them at each end of the fence kept it securely anchored to the adjoining townhome units. The work had gone much faster with the high-powered staple gun. They’d even managed to get the fencing strung across the front entrance and attached to the prefab gate they’d installed. Now they stacked their tools at the front entrance as Frank chained the gate.

“I could use a swim,” said Holiday. He was covered in sweat, dirt, and concrete dust. Frank snapped the combination lock shut at the fence.

“Me too,” said Ash, who had done more than her fair share of mixing concrete and keeping it wet and ready to use. “What do you say, Frank?”

“I’ve got a nice pasta Bolognese I need to defrost and get ready for us. You guys swim and I’ll bring it up to the pool with some Chianti and maybe even a candle if I can find one.”

Ash and Frank went back to his house. Holiday went home to get his bathing suit. Once he had that on, he fetched the pool keys and stopped in the kitchen. He had only a little bit of vodka left. All the beers and other liquors were gone.

“Should’ve stopped by the Market Faire today on the way back from Home Depot,” he told the empty house. He held the vodka bottle up and considered swallowing what was left. “Nah, might want it for tonight. It’s not like I’m gonna run up there in the dark.”

He heard himself say that.

He heard his voice echo off the walls of his home. It sounded empty and lonely. He’d spent so much time around Frank and Ash, he’d almost forgotten the previous weeks of melancholic loneliness in the wake of the break-up.

He put the bottle back in the cupboard.

A few minutes later, he met Ash coming up the street. She was wearing a towel.

“Don’t laugh, Frank’s daughter, or whoever those clothes belong to, and I don’t wear the same size in bikinis.”

“Why, too big?” Then he realized how that might have sounded. “I mean…”

“No. I just never had a swimsuit like this. They didn’t make them this small back in…” then she stopped. “Back where I come from.”

“Where’s that?”

“When I was a kid?” she said and sighed. “Kansas.”

“Wow, that’s the most you’ve given away yet.”

They reached the gate to the pool.

“I feel like I know everything about you now,” joked Holiday. “Bikinis aren’t small in Kansas. What next?” He laughed. “Are you going to tell me people in Kansas drink some special drink only they have and that it’s called Coca-Cola?”

“Funny,” mumbled Ash.

The waters of the pool were placid. The light from beneath its surface turned the water a warm and inviting blue. Overhead, an unseen bat flapped its leathery wings in the twilight. Holiday jumped in, diving smoothly beneath the water with barely a splash, skimming the pristine white bottom of the pool, feeling the dirt and sweat and concrete fall away from him. When he came up, Ash was still standing at the edge of the pool. It was the first time Holiday had seen her body. She was slight and athletic. And for all she ate, there seemed to be no excess body fat. The tiny black bikini couldn’t have hid it if there had been.

She stared into the depths of the pool seeing something, lost in some-when, until Holiday said, “C’mon, what are you waiting for?”

Then she was back. She smiled, almost seemed to laugh at herself, then jumped in the pool awkwardly, sending up a huge spray of water.

Holiday splashed her when she came up for air.

Then he turned, kicked and began to swim laps. He swam and swam, feeling his muscles lengthen and relax. Beneath the water, he watched Ash’s shapely legs as she stood on her tiptoes to keep her head above the water. Eventually she leaned back against the edge of the pool, and long after Holiday thought he might stop swimming, he continued to, as though each lap was putting distance between himself and something he could not name, but wanted to be away from. Far away from.

When he finally stopped, he surfaced, keeping his head just out of the water. He felt cleansed. He felt new.

It was full dark now. The moon rode low over the burnt remains of the houses on the hill. The light in the pool shifted and wavered, throwing patterns across the townhomes that surrounded it. Scattered ground lights illuminated the manicured walkways between the units. The silence was less oppressive, maybe even kept at bay by the soft murmur of the lapping water in the pool and the night.

“Hmmmm, this is nice,” Ash purred.

Holiday said nothing.

He was thinking of Taylor. He tried to remember what she had looked like in this same moment. But she was gone now. Gone from his head. Probably gone from this world.

He thought of Ash’s tight tiny body. He thought… the end of the world might not be so bad. He didn’t think of all the human misery and tragedy and the walking corpses and the horrors and suffering that had been played out in a million different tableaus across the world. Some of those tragedies were probably still going on. Closing in on the last act. Holiday only thought of the here and the now. The her and the him.

A distant voice told him to be better than that. That there were great things that needed doing and that what he thought about mostly, almost exclusively, was drink, women, and himself, and not always in that order. Or any order. Just whichever was most pressing at the time.

But that other voice had said there was something else. Something great to be done.

“So play it cool,” he whispered to himself.

“Huh?” asked Ash. Broken from her own reverie.

“I told myself to play it cool.”

Ash pushed away from the wall, slowly caressing the water as she came toward him. Her hair was wet and slick, falling down along her back. It made her large eyes even larger.

“You’re a pretty cool customer, Holiday.”

Holiday said nothing. He’d found in these situations, seducing women, sometimes it was better to just say nothing.

“Where are you from?” she asked.

“Mostly here.”

“Musta been nice.”

Holiday was silent. He tried to remember if it was actually nice. It was all he’d ever known. Which was odd. It felt like he should have known something else. But growing up in SoCal was all… all there was.

That didn’t seem right.

But it was.

“It was… what it was.”

“Mom? Dad?”

“My Mom died when I was young. My Dad… I don’t think he cared much about anything.”

The water lapped against the sides of the pool.

“Is that why you drink a lot?”

When people asked Holiday about his drinking it usually bothered him. Or to be more specific, when people made a big deal, or any kind of deal, about his drinking, it irritated him. Like Frank had done.

But this time it didn’t.

He felt empty. Cleaned out by the pool and the laps. He should swim every day, he told himself.

“No. I don’t think it’s like that.”

Holiday fell silent.

“I didn’t mean to make you feel awkward,” began Ash. “I just noticed you like to drink. I mean, you seem fine with it. I’ve known guys, and women, who couldn’t handle it.”

Holiday was silent. Thinking about what’d she’d said. What he knew about himself. The days-long binges. Then, “I just like to have a good time.”

“Me too.” Ash swam closer to him. Close. Very close now. “I like tequila. Had it once. Liked it a lot,” she said softly.

Holiday wished he had some tequila back at the house.

“You’ve only had it once?”

She said “yes,” softly.

Who’s seducing who, thought Holiday.

“I’ll have to get some, sometime.”

“You do that,” she said, her voice a throaty whisper, barely audible above the water in the pool gently slapping at the edges.

“Hey, let me in!” Frank whispered loudly from the pool gate.

 

They ate dinner, Frank talking, all of them eating Frank’s amazing Bolognese which was closer to a meat sauce than a true Bolognese. It was more tomato-y than creamy, which is what Frank was expounding upon. Over sips of Chianti, Ash and Holiday occasionally caught each other’s gaze and the slight smile they found on the face that went with it.

“So Jimmy B,” continues Frank, “who’s this guy from the neighborhood, he tells me one night that his mama used to make the best Bolognese in the world. She was from the old country, Siena I think. And we were crazy back then. We’d be out at the clubs all night and we’d always get real hungry. There were a few diners y’know, that served some good chow. But if you really wanted to eat, you always went to someone’s mama’s house. There was always something there, no matter what time of night, for you to eat. So that night, I’d been singing at the Silver Spike down on Morgan Street and me and Jimmy B and a few of the show girls, we head back to Jimmy B’s mama’s house. Jimmy wakes her up, and thirty minutes later we’re eating the best Bolognese I’ve ever had. I had to have her secret recipe and I’ll tell it to you right now, ‘cause who’re you gonna tell? The secret was less milk and more fresh tomatoes at the end. Not even cooked. Just let the heat of the sauce and noodles cook them once you’re ready to plate. It really makes it much better, don’t you agree?”

“I thought it was just spaghetti and meatballs,” said Ash. Frank roared with laughter, then remembered their surroundings. He continued to chuckle quietly. “Sweetheart, there’s places in this world, you could get killed for saying that.” Frank took a nice long drink of his Chianti. “But I forgive you, ‘cause you’re so pretty.”

Holiday put down his fork, leaned back in his chair, one arm over the backrest, one leg tucked under the chair, the other kicked out in front of him. Frank remembered at that moment, seeing a sculpture once, in Italy, that looked just like that. Some young ruler, sitting on a throne. Some world conqueror, surveying his empire.

“I think the part that fascinates me,” said Holiday taking a gulp from the glass dangling in his hand, “is that you said, am I correct here, that you ‘were singing’? At a place called the Silver Spike?”

Frank looked down. Smiled to himself and then chuckled again.

“I guess I haven’t told you what my day job is. Or rather, what my night job is. I’m a singer. I sing in piano bars and at a few occasions here and there around town. People today call it a lounge singer, like it means something different than what it used to. Like it’s a bad thing. But I don’t care. I just love to sing.”

Silence.

“Are you any good?” asked Holiday.

“I made a record. Toured Europe back in the day. Had a few acts in Vegas.”

“Wow,” said Ash into her glass of Chianti. “You were big time.”

Frank smiled. Took a drink from his own glass. “Nah. I was never that. It was just a living.”

Chapter Eighteen

It was later, after they’d cleaned up the remains of dinner done to satisfying death, the pool shimmering, its light wavy beneath the water, a warm bright spot in the dark and uncertain night, when they headed back to their condos that Holiday casually asked Ash, “Wanna come over to my place and watch a movie? Get it while there’s still power.” He said it as though he was inviting everyone and all. In reality, all and everyone knew he meant Ash and Ash only.

The awkwardness that followed ended badly when Ash declined. “I’d better turn in, otherwise I’ll drag tomorrow.” If she gave Holiday some kind of look in the darkness that said she really did want to go over to his place, then it remained in the darkness.

“Goodnight, buddy,” said Frank as he and Ash walked off down the street, murmuring in the night underneath the streetlights.

Holiday watched them go from his gate. He saw the lights come on in Frank’s townhome. A few minutes later, the lights went out and the night settled into its heavy quiet. Holiday went inside and thought about going to bed. That’s what I should do, he told himself. But he wasn’t tired yet.

He got out the bottle with the eighth of vodka still sloshing around in it.

It’s not enough, he heard his mind whisper.

He put it back inside the cupboard, then sat in his big, comfy chair and smoked.

He didn’t feel like watching a movie.

He thought about Ash. Thought about how close they’d come in the pool. How almost perfect a moment that had been. Then Frank had shown up.

It occurred to him that he could walk down the street and knock on her window. Or even throw a couple of pebbles at it.

On the other hand, what if all the signals he thought she’d given him were just in his head? What if he’d assumed too much? What if?

Then… he’d ruin everything. Forever. Ruin everything with what might be his only chance with the last girl left in the entire world.

Still, the cigarette turning into a long ashy finger in the dark, he couldn’t turn off his mind. He couldn’t stop thinking about her.

He got up again, still holding the burning cigarette and flicked on the kitchen lights. He took out the vodka bottle.

“I’ll just finish it, then head up to bed.” That’s what he told himself with a straight face. He even believed it in the moment before the bottle reached his lips.

He held it and studied the plain label on the face of the bottle. As though some answer to all his questions could be found within its markings and symbols.

He knew it wasn’t enough. The sloshy clear liquid fire that ran to one side of the bottle and then the other, made hollow notes as he turned the bottle this way and that. He knew what was in it wouldn’t be enough.

“Don’t lie to yourself.”

“And you know,” he heard the whisper whispering inside him. “You know where there’s more. All you want.”

That’s insane.

Is it?

Yeah…

You haven’t seen any more zombies, he reasoned. Since the other day.

Zombies, really?

Yeah. Those guys. There haven’t been any out there in the last few trips back and forth to Home Depot. Just that one yesterday near Del Taco.

The one they’d told Frank about. The one they’d seen in the rearview mirror.

Maybe they’re all downslope in Newport, ravaging the rich along the coast with nowhere to run unless you’re really, really good at swimming. A quick trip to the store and you’ve got all you can drink, Holiday.

Is that really important, he asked himself. Right now. At this time. Is getting drunk important enough to risk your life?

He unscrewed the top of the plain label bottle, and a second later felt its hot splash at the back of his mouth. He finished it and threw the bottle away on autopilot. Lighting another cigarette, he realized he was holding two and smoked the first one down, ashed it in the sink, ran some water, and put on his boots with the new cigarette between his lips.

Just a quick trip, up and back. No one will even notice I’ve gone if I don’t take the car. I’ll just walk up there and get enough, more than enough and then I’ll have all I want. But, not too much tonight. Lotsa work tomorrow, he told himself.

He turned off the lights and stepped out into the quiet streets.

Still no fog. If there had been, I wouldn’t have gone, so at least I have some kind of sense.

He congratulated himself.

At a quickish pace, he headed up past where the accident had been. They’d moved the orange metallic SUV and parked it in a nearby space. He followed the sidewalk, doglegging up and out of the complex. He came to the gate and dialed in the combination Frank had made them all memorize.

He thought about relocking it, but, he reasoned, if he was being chased, he’d want it open so he could get through it quicker. So he left it unlocked. He passed the tall columns of ground-lit palm trees that stood guard at the entrance. There was no breeze, and the fronds sprung away motionless from the trunks high above.

The quiet of the night felt almost suffocating and Holiday felt a strange giddiness well up within him. He felt alone and free now. The moon was high, it was warm and there wasn’t a living soul out there for miles.

He thought of the undead, and he wasn’t as afraid of them as he knew he should have been. “I’m faster,” he said softly. If I need to get away, I’ll just run, and as long as I don’t get surprised I should be fine.

At the intersection where the walker and the dog, or at least the remains thereof still waited in the night, he turned right and headed down the road, back to the stores and the center of Viejo Verde’s planned community of the future. He could smell the cloying gruesomeness of other dead bodies in a slight breeze drifting down the fire ravaged hill, and wondered when he’d ever smelled a dead body before. He couldn’t think of a memory in which he had. He approached sodium-lit islands of white hot streetlights, spaced at long intervals between the darkness along the road. The light felt as heavy as the depthless night it fought against. He followed the wide curving road that led into the Market Faire shopping center.

Above him, the charred-bone remains of the development that had burned to the ground watched him from the hill above. Those once-mansions in Viejo Verde. Gone now.

Holiday walked slowly, watching the shadows at the sides of the road. Watching the bushy landscaping and the dark places where the light didn’t reach. Ahead he could see the bright insides of the Market Faire.

“Any trouble and I’ll just take off,” he told himself. “I’ll go back to my place and go to sleep.”

He walked in the center of the southbound lanes, keeping a good distance between himself and the landscaped median that separated the two directions of the roadway.

He passed another intersection where a darkened gas station and car wash hunkered down on the southwest corner. The strip malls on both sides of the road started another block up, and while some stores seemed ready for business, their lights proclaiming them in the night, other businesses were dark. In some, windows had even been smashed. He passed a darkened McDonald’s that looked out into a parking lot fronting a large chain drugstore. Burning white fluorescent lamps threw cones of illumination across the gigantic parking lot there, creating tall teepees of light.

He saw one of them. A zombie.

It was standing under a light in the parking lot, looking up at nothing. Maybe the light itself. The falling photons, the entrancing buzz that hummed from above. It had been a young man, once. Long shorts. Oversized t-shirt. Shaved head. No obvious injury from this distance. Swaying slightly now.

Holiday crouched low and continued up the road past it. Ahead, he could hear the dull hum of more of the powerful parking lot lights harmonizing in some weird end of the world night chorus.

Maybe that’s what’s got his attention, he reasoned. The humming lights.

Holiday crossed the road and walked into the parking lot of a wilderness park. He crossed the common greens under young well-pruned spruces that threw their shadows across the grass and gray sidewalk. On the other side of the greenbelt lay the Market Faire and the strip mall parking lot.

A question occurred to Holiday. It was startling and clear in the silence made by no other living thing for miles. How was he going to get everything home, because he was planning on getting a lot?

Enough for awhile.

Then…

Is enough ever enough?

“Maybe I’ll just take a shopping cart,” he mumbled to himself.

He watched the parking lot. Nothing. No one moved. No things moved. The store was still brightly lit. Just as it had been in the daytime.

When you go in, check the entire store first. Check everything before you grab a beer from the cooler. Sound advice, he told himself. Have a plan.

He crossed into the parking lot and made his way up to the front doors of the store which opened for him automatically.

It wasn’t Aerosmith this time. Some band from the eighties. A band that people had thought, at the time, played punk rock. Until they’d actually heard real punk rock. Girl singer. Holiday didn’t know the tune very well.

He went to the beer cooler and grabbed a Sapporo. He popped it and took a thirsty drink, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. He put the cold beer on his forehead. He was sweating. He’d been tense.

Well, it was a little freaky out there, he reasoned. He finished the beer, grabbed another, then remembered to check the store first. That had been the plan he’d made as he walked through the suffocating darkness between home and here.

A new song started.

Dave Mathews. Crash into Me. He walked along the main aisle between the cash registers and the rows of shelving. He could hear the soft thump of his boots on the glossy floor. The aisles were devoid of bodies living, undead and finally dead. He definitely wasn’t going back into the storage rooms or the warehouse or whatever was in the back of the store. And he was most definitely not going to check out the meat locker. On the other side of the store, he found some lawn furniture on sale at the end of summer. He sat down, it wasn’t comfortable.

Probably why it’s on sale, he told himself. Still, it kind of rocked back and forth. It had a nice bounce in it. He rocked and finished the Sapporo, listening to Dave Mathews and thinking of Ash.

She was really beautiful.

And…

There was more to her than just that. She was good. She was the kind of person you could tell that about without her saying a word. “Yeah,” he said out loud, sipping his beer, “sure she has secrets. Birds fly, women have secrets.” It would be odd if she didn’t have any. That would be cause for suspicion. But lately, more and more, the women he met didn’t always have secrets. Or at least it didn’t seem that way. There were no secrets anymore. Everything was blunt, brazen, open. Out there. And if you didn’t like it, you could just go to hell.

He remembered thinking, a long time ago, that women had secrets. And that… he liked that about them when he passed them in the bazaar. He’d liked puzzles. Mysteries. Women.

But when he forced himself to think of an example of a woman he could name recently who had been mysterious, he couldn’t think of one.

“Your mother was,” he heard himself say.

He finished the beer and flung it behind a deli case.

The sliced deli meats and potato salads already weren’t looking too good. He walked over to the shopping carts at the front of the store and got one.

Your mother is the ultimate mysterious woman, he told himself. The woman of secrets. Maybe, that’s why you like secrets.

Makes sense, he thought, and put a bunch of six packs of Sapporos in the cart. There weren’t any cases.

He pushed the cart over to the liquor aisle.

Be careful here, he heard himself say. You could hurt yourself here.

He picked up three bottles of Maker’s Mark Bourbon, a whiskey called Clevinger’s, and some port that he had to pry open the fancy and very expensive liquors locked glass cabinet for. He broke the glass as he did. He told himself the port was a gift for Frank.

It’s not as much as I could take. I could take more, he told himself. So in a sense, I’m being responsible.

In a sense. He laughed at that. At himself.

He pushed the cart back over to the lawn furniture and took out a pack of cigarettes from a carton he’d liberated from the cigarette case. He sat down, thought about a beer, but instead peeled off the wax seal protecting the Maker’s Mark.

He sat back in the lawn chair and listened to the music coming over the PA system. Maybe it was the last music the world would ever record. He drank.

He was thinking about Ash, about her moving in with him. Him quitting drinking. Them building a life together. Whatever the world was going through… they could… they could make it together.

He jerked suddenly and realized he’d been asleep.

He heard the automatic door at the front of the store slide open. He heard the sudden void in sound reflection as Sugar Ray sang about something or other, the voice and horns and drums escaping into the night silence outside… or maybe… as the silent night rushed in.

Holiday had a sudden fear that the fog was back. That it was creeping into the store and had somehow triggered the sliding automatic door. That it knew he was in here and it was coming for him.

Then he heard the soft thump and drag of a foot followed by a low, papery groan. He saw an old man, wrinkled, shriveled, thin and bloody, make his way past the floral arrangements and into the main aisle of the store. He watched the thing… the once-old man… the zombie drag-thump its way across the main aisle and then disappear into an aisle farther down.

Time to go, thought Holiday.

He checked his cell phone for the time. The no service message still blinked back at him. It was 1:27 am.

Crud, he thought.

He capped the Maker’s Mark, put it back into the shopping cart with all his other swag, and slowly pushed the cart toward the front entrance.

One of the wheels squeaked louder than he remembered it had.

As he neared the automatic doors at the front entrance to the store, he heard the drag-thumper making his way, rasping heavily, toward him back down the aisle. Holiday pushed the cart through the electric door, blood rushing into his bourbon-soaked skull. The bottle had been half empty when he put it back in the cart.

Did I drink that much?

He rushed out into the night, pushing the cart with all his strength, and emerged into a parking lot full of the living dead.

It was like walking into a garden of statues. All of them softly swayed in the night under the white, hot sodium cones of light, their faces made pale and washed out, bloodless. Their clothing ragged, torn, bloody. Men, women, young and old. Children even.

Children, thought Holiday.

And they all looked at him.

Blackened teeth slowly baring. Foaming grins. Hands reaching. Stumbling like some grotesque and untrained dance troupe toward him all at once, from every direction.

Chapter Nineteen

They were everywhere.

But they moved slow.

He dodged them, abandoning the shopping cart. He almost got cut off by a clutch of three of them, three hoary-haired teenage girls, their eyes milky and vacant, one missing an arm. All of them were riddled with deep bite marks and dark dried blood. He was on his toes and literally back pedaling, swiveling and darting toward a darkened Arby’s across the parking lot. Its storefront windows were smashed.

He ran across a grassy median. He could hear all of them moaning, panting, whispering behind him. Ahead of him a maimed and bloodless worker, formerly of Arby’s, now of the living dead, crawled out through the drive-through window almost shrieking with exertion. The zombie fast food employee flopped down, face first into the drive-through, and clutched wildly at him a moment later as Holiday ran past the flailing thing.

All around him, in the shadows, in the dark, stumbling through the cones of bright sodium light falling down from atop tall light poles in the upper darkness, the zombies seemed to double in number as they stepped from the shadows into the light. He could hear their grunts, their mutterings, their sudden eruptions of pained torment as they lusted after his living flesh. In the dark, they were not people. No, not at all. They were monsters just like that nameless giant walking out in the fog.

He could hear the quick slap of his Doc Martins against the still-hot pavement of the warm night. He felt drunk.

He ran out of the parking lot and into the deserted main road that bisected Viejo Verde. Across the street, he could see the darkened Target and the other stores lined up along its flank.

Holiday knew he had to lead them away from Frank and Ash.

I at least have to do that, he thought to himself. Then, “before I die,” he rasped aloud.

He set off to the south at a trot. Sweating, he could hear his breath coming in soft dry gasps. Just like them. He wondered if somehow he had become one of them. Or was becoming one of them even now. Or, if this was a nightmare and he was still asleep back in the store holding the Maker’s Mark. He threw a glance behind him and saw the numberless mass still coming for him. Two blocks later, he looked back again. They stumbled forward, chasing him. They were mere dark shapes now, falling behind him, each a spindly shadow set against the hot white island of light that was the Market Faire. He kept running. He was heading into a corporate warehouse district, high hills where slick uber-corporation headquarters for extreme gear manufacturers lay side by side with immense football field-sized warehouses and sprawling parking lots. Ahead of him on the street, two or three dark figures struggled awkwardly out of the landscaping and shrubbery, their arms waving stiffly, awkwardly, their movements herky-jerky and sudden.

Holiday knew they also were zombies.

He continued on, slowing to a trot, passing a well-lit gas station, a smaller strip mall centered around a Starbucks he never went to and then ahead, he could see the wide curve of the toll road as it spanned two hills above him.

He checked his phone. It was almost 2 am.

“I don’t feel all that bad,” he croaked, his skin oily and slick with viscous sweat. I feel like I haven’t exercised in years and yet, it’s as if I never stopped.

I can’t remember ever exercising.

He ran on, crossing under the darkness of the toll road overpass.

An abandoned yellow Volkswagen Beetle suddenly rocked back and forth violently, as a mangled thing surged up against the side window as he ran past the car. Ahead, he could see nothing but the orange light of the toll road falling down onto the road below and turning everything hellish. Ahead, there were more residential developments and a high school less than a mile off. After that would be the next big shopping center, almost identical to the Market Faire.

Behind him, the shadowy mass surged down the road after him.

Holiday’s quickly forming plan was to run down to the next shopping center, then turn downhill toward the 5 freeway. If he could lose this mob somewhere down the hill, he reasoned, they might be less prone to come back up after him if he suddenly turned that way.

He set his mind on sprinting for a bit, but thirty feet later, took a bad step and felt his ankle turn. “Stupid!” he yelled at himself as he hobbled into the next major intersection.

Silent traffic lights switched from green to red in the overwhelmingly empty space where once cars surged and careened to get to the next place just a little faster than the other guy. Then the lights switched back again.

The mob came on from the darkness, raggedly, toward the intersection.

Holiday bent down, spit and tried to catch his breath. His head was starting to pound. He took a step and felt the ankle warn him with a jolt of pain.

So, I just lost my one advantage, thought Holiday. Speed.

Again he kicked himself.

As the first lurching undead of the mob crossed into the lights of the intersection, emerging from the darkness between the tall street lights like sudden phantoms, Holiday limped off toward the high school.

Beneath the embankment leading up to the high school football field, Holiday stopped again. He had a brief desire to light a cigarette but they were too close.

If I don’t lose them soon, they’ll wear me out, he told himself.

He left the road and climbed up the embankment, pulling himself through islands of manicured thorny hedges. He could smell the heavy scent of magnolia in the night. At the top of the embankment he found a chain link fence surrounding the wide athletic field. He climbed the fence with difficulty, landed on his bad ankle, groaned, and set out limping across the red dirt of the track that circled the football field. He crossed underneath some bleachers, watching the shadows for any of the things that weren’t just shadows. On the other side he came to a stretch of blacktop and the windowless school beyond.

He tried the first door.

It didn’t even budge.

It was locked tight. Security door tight.

He tried several other doors, feeling himself grow frantic with each one that refused to budge, telling himself to slow down and think of something. He knew he was merely reacting and not acting.

“Always make the enemy react to what you’re doing.”

Where’d that come from, he wondered at the voice in his head and forgot as a quick glance back toward the field told him that the… the freaks, the zombies, the dead people were stacking up along the fence he’d climbed over. Watching him. He moved clockwise around the darkened building as zombies stumbled in his direction along the fence, knocking each other over in the night as they panted and groaned, following him.

Maybe Frank’s fence will work, he thought and continued on to the next door, feeling a creeping fear bloom inside him like some unwanted flower or cancer. He came to a wide walkway with a wrought iron gate that was still open. It led into the interior breezeways of the school.

He tried to close the gate but it was chained open.

“What the…” He heard distant drum cymbals resound and crash on sudden tinkling notes as he turned back and saw the mesh fence collapse in places along the football field. The zombies spilled across its folded lengths, coming for him now.

The breezeway was his only option, but the moment he entered it, he knew he was trapped. It only took a few turns down long cinderblock-faced passages to realize this was the case. It was dark and shadowy back in the recesses of the school. Already he could hear the sandy scrape of many, many feet entering the breezeway.

It’s only a matter of time before they work their way down to me, he thought, as he ran deeper and deeper into the maze-like school.

He looked up. He could see the open night sky and early morning stars twinkling in the blueness of deep night. He could see the outline of a tree near the horizon farther down the breezeway. It reached up toward the flat roof of the school. Holiday made his way down to the planter it erupted from and climbed into it, starting up the tree.

There was a moment. A moment of hanging as far out on a slender limb as he dared. A moment beyond that moment where he passed the threshold of safety and grasped for the edge of the roof of the school. One-handed, he caught it, and suddenly felt his grip pull him off the limb. His feet scrambled for purchase on ancient dry shingles along the steep walls under the flat roof and found nothing. He threw his other hand up, caught the edge of the roof, making a shingle erupt with an echo-y crack that must have been well heard. With what little strength was left in him, knowing there wouldn’t be another attempt, he began to swing his feet. He could feel himself gaining momentum, swinging side to side, knowing that shortly he would fling himself too far in one direction to maintain his grip on the lip of the roof. The momentum would carry him back down into the breezeway and reward him with a broken arm or fractured skull. There was no time. Sweating, panting, gasping for air at the top of the next swing, he heaved his legs up over the edge, while pulling himself up with his arms. He felt himself almost black out at the top of his pull. He rolled over onto the hard gravel of the wide flat roof littered with air conditioning units and the occasional basketball.

Chapter Twenty

He listened to them moaning down in the breezeway below him for the rest of the night. It didn’t matter, whichever side of the building he checked, they were down there. Waiting. He could hear them beneath the overhanging roof. He saw them straggling across the football field in the predawn dark. He could hear them in the breezeway that ran like a dark slash beneath him. It reminded Holiday of a pit. A pit with dead things in it. Dead things that still moved.

He walked around for a bit but when he almost tumbled off the loose-gravel roof, either from fatigue or because it was too dark to see now that the moon had gone down, he sat down in the dark and smoked. He could still hear them down there. Occasional gurgling. A low moan. But the feet. The dragging scrape of many, many feet. That was the constant, even as the other noises seemed to fade and rise in waves.

They know I’m up here, he thought. But how…? He shuddered. They’re dead, how can they know anything?

At dawn he heard a few birds. Just a few. The sun rose behind a milky haze, turning the morning a tepid yellow. Low-lying mist clung beneath tall trees in a distant housing tract on the far side of the shopping center beyond the school. In the shopping center, there were two overturned police cars in the parking lot. Something, he was too distant to make out details, seemed to be spilled away from the two patrol cars in every direction. The windows of the large grocery store were smashed and he could see glass glittering in the morning light along the sidewalk outside. A few zombies wandered out from the store into the soupy morning light.

Everywhere he looked he could see the undead. Sometimes in groups, like herds, moving in one direction. Or in pairs, close together but seemingly oblivious to each other. Or alone, zigging and zagging slowly across a parking lot, or into some building. Wherever he looked, they were there. And beneath him were an uncountable number, milling about in the shadowy dark. Still waiting for him down in the dark slash of the breezeway that still seemed a pit to Holiday even though it was morning now.

And he was out of cigarettes.

 

It was Ash who heard them first. Sleeping, half-asleep, some-when else, she heard the sound made by human hands dragged across a mesh fence. That soft, almost slightly musical, scale. She’d been hearing it for some time within an unremembered dream. Hearing it in the dark before dawn. She got up from the tiny bed and looked out the window.

The streets of the complex were empty. She could see the soft light of first morning in the eastern sky beyond the burned out remains of the ruins on the hill.

She heard that sound again.

There was a soft knock at the guest room door.

“You up, sweetie?”

Frank had taken to calling her sweetie. She didn’t mind.

She opened the door. Frank stood there in his robe, his tan silk slacks, slippers.

“I heard you get up.”

She resisted the urge to look at her bag. Had he heard her checking it the other night?

“You hear that sound?” he asked her.

She nodded.

“I think they’re at one of the fences.”

Distantly, they heard a metallic ring. A note, sudden and soft, in the lightening dark. They each knew what had made that sound. They’d heard the same sound when Holiday had dropped one of the metal anchor poles on a sidewalk the day before.

“That’s not good,” said Frank.

“No. It isn’t,” replied Ash.

They went to a door that led out onto a small balcony. Frank gently opened the door and they stepped out into the misty dawn.

At the far end of the street, walking corpses stumbled this way and that, meandering from side to side, shuffling down the sidewalk. They spilled out into the neighborhood in slow motion. Frank and Ash backed, quietly, inside Ash’s bedroom.

“That is most definitely not good.”

“What do we do?” she said.

Frank went to the window once more.

“How’d they get through?” he whispered to himself.

An hour later, the streets were filled with even more zombies. They wandered across the small children’s play area, one of them tripping over the slide only to flail in the sand. They seemed to circle the block, unable to leave the pen they’d forced themselves into.

“I think there’s less than a hundred,” said Frank.

They were both watching the street. They could see Holiday’s condo. Each of them was waiting for Holiday to open the door. Hopefully he’d check the street before he walked outside.

Ash found herself worrying about him. Then she whispered, “I don’t do that anymore.”

“What?” asked Frank.

“Nothing,” Ash replied. “So… what do we do?”

Frank nodded to himself, watching the street, his eyes cold and blue.

“We’re going to get dressed for work.”

 

Thirty minutes later, Frank came downstairs. Ash had put on her same work clothes, scrubbed her face and put her long curly hair back into a ponytail. She was finishing a glass of juice when her eyes widened over the rim as she watched Frank enter the kitchen.

He wore silk slacks and a light blue silk shirt. He had on mirrored sunglasses. He wore Italian loafers. The clothing was nice, expensive. And so were the mirrored aviator shades. But none of those things were what had made Ash’s eyes go wide over the rim of her juice.

Frank wore two chest holsters, one underneath each arm. A nickel-plated, pearl-handled .45 poked its butt out of each holster.

Frank bent down beneath the kitchen sink, reached back into the dark, and took out a matte black plastic case. He clicked open the case, nodded to himself, and then went off to another part of the condo. She heard him rummaging around in a closet. She peered into the matte black plastic case. Two long tubes. Silencers. She knew what those looked like. But she’d never seen any made out of a polished silver alloy like the matching .45’s Frank was strapping.

She heard the unmistakable rattle of bullets in a cardboard box, rattling in their plastic trays. She knew that sound also.

Frank returned, set three boxes of bullets on the counter. Then he drew one of his .45’s, picked up one of the long cylinders and screwed the silencer onto the barrel, tightening it firmly. He lay the .45 down and repeated the process with the other. Once both were so, he took out two spare clips from his pocket.

“You ever load a gun?”

Ash nodded.

“Good, load those,” Frank ordered. Genial, nice, “let me make you dinner,” and, “sweetie,” Frank was gone. His order had almost been a challenge to her. As though he was calling her a liar.

Ash picked up the clip, opened a box of ammo, and began to thumb shells down into the slotted opening. She kept her eyes on Frank the whole time.

When she finished, she set them down next to the guns.

“Okay,” said Frank. “You think you can keep it that cool while we’re out there?”

Ash hesitated. Could she, she wondered?

That had always been a question for her.

Could she?

She nodded.

“Cause I’m going to need loaded guns the whole time. You screw that up and drop our bullets… we’re both dead, sweetie. You got that?”

She didn’t like this Frank. It was a Frank she’d never met. But she didn’t like not being able to hold her own even more.

“Yeah,” she said, picking up her juice and finishing it. “Don’t worry, I got your back.”

Frank took a deep breath.

There was a look that crossed his face. A look that said, I don’t like this guy either. But this guy has to be here right now. He didn’t know if she got that message. There was a part of him, a part of who’d he tried to become, that hoped she did.

“Here’s how this is going to work. You will stay right behind me. I mean hand on my shoulder behind me. I’ll use one of these at a time. The other you’ll hold and reload. That means you eject the clip, here, push this button. The clip will slide down into the palm of your hand. You’ll tuck the gun butt under your left armpit, watch the barrel, it’ll be hot. Then you’ll reach down into your cargo pocket and pull out the bullets you’ve stowed there. You will then reload the clip with seven bullets. Then you’ll slide the clip back into the pistol, pull this slide back and let it snap forward. By that time, I should be out of bullets. I’ll hold the gun I’m using by the trigger guard, you’ll take the butt of the gun like so,” he showed her. “Then you’ll hand me the loaded gun and we’ll do it again and again until these things are all cleared out. You think you can handle that, sweetie?”

Ash’s eyes narrowed.

Sweetie. She didn’t like the way this Frank said it.

“Yeah. And don’t call me sweetie, ever again.”

 

Five minutes later, they exited the front door. Frank moved forward using a weaver stance in which he lined up the gun sight of his pistol with his eye and shoulder. Ash was close behind, the first gun already loaded. With a clean puff of air, Frank put a bullet through the first zombie’s head, dead center. The thing wobbled, gurgled, and fell over in the green strip of grass that ran between the orchard and the walkway to Frank’s house. It had been a man in a dirty blood-covered business suit. His filthy shirt was untucked.

Three more bullets, three more kills, got them out onto the main street. The day was already getting hot. Ash could feel sweat running down her back.

Frank put bullets in three more who wobbled away from a car they’d been butting up against. Their grey, blank faces became sudden masks of anger as they turned and snarled. Each one got a bullet in the skull. Usually dead center forehead. Occasionally an eye. Frank handed the gun over his shoulder to Ash as he maintained his focus on the next closest target. Ash swapped out the gun for the one she was holding, and set to reloading. The gun barrel burned the soft flesh under her arm. But she’d been burned before. She’d been under fire before. She’d been to the land of life and death before. She thumbed bullets into the clip as Frank’s other pistol whispered death in short whistling puffs above the gurgling moans that seemed to be coming closer. She ignored those sounds, as best she could, and kept reloading.

They moved silently, working their way through the random groups of zombie clusters that loitered throughout the complex. The silencers masked their lethal intent as they dispensed with each group of clustering zombies.

Monsters that were once people.

Chapter Twenty One

The morning became hot and muggy, the air thick, the sky indeterminate, all of it backlit by diffused sunlight that must have come from somewhere. Somewhere high overhead the sun burned away, glaring down on the zombies surrounding Holiday.

He could see them going in and out of the distant grocery store, another Market Faire like the one back in Viejo Verde. They were like customers who’d taken too many drugs and now seemed intent-less, purposeless. He watched them cross the sprawling parking lots only to stand in the middle of the street near abandoned and wrecked cars, careless, as if aware that no car would ever again come and run them down. He watched them suddenly emerge from the dense foliage that separated the wide sprawl of an upscale neighborhood from the spreading strip malls on either side of the main road. Nearer, he could see them wandering the football field and school walkways just below him, like students and returned alumni that just couldn’t bring themselves to leave ever again. And yes, some even seemed that young. A bloodstained and torn backpack. A shredded, gore-crusted logoed t-shirt from some arcane band. Blood-caked mouths, pale gray skin. Holiday crouched down as he walked the length of the roof. None of them seemed to notice him.

Distant layers of fog and morning mist began to burn away from among the houses and lush landscaping, and Holiday felt thirsty.

How long has it been since I’ve had a drink, he wondered. Of water, he added, when his mind thought of the liquor from the store the night before. He knew Ash and Frank would be wondering what had happened to him.

“Stupid,” he muttered. Below him the undead moved about, seemingly everywhere now, filling in the empty spaces, in no particular hurry to be anywhere other than the place he wanted to leave.

An hour later, he spotted the helicopter a few minutes after hearing its blades slicing the air, creating a staccato whump whump whump that bounced off the hills and walls of the nearby grocery megastore and the surrounding multi-pastels of California-Mediterranean houses. The sound bounced from place to place, and when Holiday was sure it might be coming from a particular direction, a moment later the sound felt confused, overlapping itself, throwing itself away. Even gone.

For a brief moment he wondered if he would even see the actual helicopter. Maybe it was too low to the ground, passing behind some of the nearby hills. Then it appeared over red-tiled housetops to the south and east.

It was low.

Holiday started waving.

Its engine didn’t sound right. He could hear a metallic clank as it passed quickly overhead, ignoring him, black smoke erupting from the turbines below the blade. The helicopter was painted gray. Like a navy helicopter, thought Holiday who’d seen them coming up from Camp Pendelton sometimes.

The helicopter crossed off to his left, losing more altitude, heading for the wide intersection he’d crossed the night before. Then it began to spin to the right. Still moving forward, it completed a circle and continued to spin as more and more black smoke billowed out from underneath the turbines. The side door slid back as it completed one slow revolution, far too near to the ground, its forward motion slowing, and Holiday watched as more black smoke pumped out from the inside of the chopper. A moment later, just before it descended behind a line of tall Eucalyptus trees back toward Viejo Verde, he saw a body spin wildly away from the gyrating helicopter.

Then the chopper went down behind the tree line.

Silence now.

Even the sound of its engine was absent.

He could hear the zombies below him, groaning in that brief space when the badly clanking engine noise ceased and the helicopter disappeared.

Then he heard the metal rending groan of a crash.

He watched. Waiting for smoke. Waiting for fire.

Nothing.

Below him, the zombies were already lurching across the high school blacktop toward the football field’s edge, heading for the collapsed fence and the downed chopper.

In time, Holiday knew, they’d be all over that crash site.

Some part of his brain screamed that what he was already thinking was madness, as Holiday lowered himself down off the roof. He dropped down onto the top of a metal gate post and climbed down onto the blacktop. The zombies were streaming toward the fence that surrounded the football field.

That fence will slow them down a little, he thought. He ran toward the side parking lot. A place he’d seen fewer zombies and a couple of school buses.

A muddy-faced cheerleader missing a hand lurched toward him as he broke into a run across the hot blacktop. His ankle throbbed but he ignored it. He briefly considered checking the big yellow school buses for keys, but he knew any one of the zombies could trap him inside one of those buses.

This is a race, Holiday thought as he sprinted hard across the brilliant green grass leading out of the parking lot.

No, it’s a marathon. The winner gets the laurel crown…

No, the winner gets to make it to the helicopter crash to see if there’s someone who needs help, or can help. Maybe even someone with the government who knows what’s really going on, or even better, where there’s someplace safe to run to.

He ran. His ankle hurt but he ran anyway. He ran hard.

He pounded across the parking lot, turned alongside the fence that would eventually block the zombies crossing the football field until their sheer numbers would collapse the rest of it. He guessed there must be a thousand of them in the nearby area. Maybe more. He could hear his boots on the sidewalk, slapping in quick cadence as he ran toward the overgrown fields beyond the school. Off to his left, a neighborhood, single story rancheros purchased because of their nearness to the school, waited forlornly, their shattered windows like gouged out eyes. Front doors torn from their hinges, the darkness beyond, a gaping mouth making a silent, forever horrified, scream.

He made the overgrown field and ran down the dirt trails one finds in such places. Dirt trails the high school track team must have run on days they were being punished. Or used by kids ditching, making good their escape to a liquor store down the road where a clerk was known to sell cigarettes and not ask for ID.

The scent of sagebrush rose heavy and thick in the morning heat. Holiday was hot, but he wasn’t sweating. He stumbled and fell forward into chalky white dirt. His only thought, as he went down in a dusty plume, centered on not breaking anything. If he did, he was dead for sure.

He stood up.

Nothing seemed broken.

He continued at a jog, watching for gopher holes, as he crossed the overgrown field heading in the direction of the downed chopper.

He knew to watch for gopher holes. They were sure to break a horse’s leg in a moment. And he knew that meant death for the horse. But how he knew that, he didn’t know. He’d never ridden a horse.

He pushed through tall razor grass and red feathery bushes that smelled medicinal. When he was out of their clutch, and onto a cracked and broken sidewalk, he gasped for air in the thick heat.

Behind him, he could see the dark shapes of the clustering dead piling up along the fence on the hill. It collapsed in sections as he watched, spilling zombies out onto the wild field he’d just crossed. He turned away from them and started across the big road called El Toro that led up from the 5 freeway. He crossed a perfectly manicured center divider of soft green grass and feathery willows planted at calculated intervals. The grass felt spongy and wet.

The sprinklers are still running, thought Holiday, and crossed into the westbound lanes of the wide road. Across another field and up a small hill of wild sagebrush, he could see the tall stand of eucalyptus trees where the helicopter had disappeared.

He entered the field, jogging now, watching the ground, weaving through the razor grass, climbing the hill, hearing his breath catch in wheezy, ragged gasps as he pulled at the hot, heavy morning air for more oxygen.

There should be a fire, he thought in the back of his mind. If the thing, he said to himself referencing the helicopter, had crashed, it should have exploded. All that fuel would have caused an explosion.

Except, he countered. What if they were out of fuel?

He reached the crest of the small ridge, smelling the thick scent of eucalyptus in the brown carpet of slender curved leaves he churned up as he stumbled for one of the massive peeling trunks to rest against.

Slimy sweat reluctantly crawled from his pores. It smelled of bourbon.

I’m not sweating much, he thought. That’s because there’s nothing left for me to sweat, he answered.

He thought of water. Of the sprinklers. Of anything wet to drink.

Below him, in a little dip amongst the rolling hills of wild sagebrush and cacti that separated Viejo Verde from the older community of Forest Lake, lay the downed chopper. It was on its side. Wispy black smoke crawled away from the turbine where a small fire burned in the engine housing. Two bodies lay in four places a short distance from the helicopter. Each of the bodies was connected to its other half by trails of blood and gore soaking darkly into the white chalk of the hills.

Chapter Twenty Two

“Hello,” Holiday called out, in case there was any other passengers who’d made it out alive.

The helicopter hummed, as though some power generator was still running inside the wreck. Debris lay scattered about. A narrow backpack, a dusty gray and green digital camouflage pattern, stitched Red Cross medical symbol in muted tones, lay in the dust near one of the bodies. Holiday picked it up. It was stuffed with bandages and supplies. As he zipped it back up he noticed the stitched bold letters across the top of the pack reading TARRAGON CORPORATION.

“Hello,” he called out again.

The sun was at its zenith, bleaching color out of the dry and dusty landscape. Inside the downed helicopter the generator wound down, dying slowly into a thick silence.

How much longer do I have, thought Holiday. How much longer before they cross the road and start up the hill?

Who?

The zombies.

He climbed up onto the side of the downed chopper and looked down into the open side door.

“Hello,” he said again, hearing his voice fall flatly against the metallic insides of the aircraft. He smelled burning rubber, burnt ozone and dry canvas. There was a pilot, but he was dead too. His body was crushed by the collapsed front of the chopper as it had slammed into the ground.

There were weapons. A large machine gun hung from a strap in the roof, resting against the other side of the chopper that had now become the floor. Three more rifles lay down there against the door panel, two assault rifles and one oversized, camouflaged hunting rifle. Holiday lowered himself down inside the chopper and retrieved each of the rifles, reaching up and placing them on the side of the chopper that was now the top. He looked around for anything else that might be of value. But there was nothing. No water bottles. No canteens. Nothing. He was moving fast, but without being able to see what the zombies were up to, it didn’t feel fast enough.

I need some water, he thought, feeling dry and hot as he hoisted himself back up onto the side of the chopper, feeling the metal turning to hot as the day beat down on its side. Written in dark subdued letters, barely readable against the digital gray camouflage paint of the chopper, he saw the word TARRAGON again, followed by two numbers, 2 and 6.

He scanned the line of Eucalyptus trees. Three zombies stumbled through the cool shadows, arms already reaching for him. One looked like a ragged bum. Like he’d been a dirt- covered bum before all this had started. Now, he was a blood-covered zombie, still wandering the streets just looking to cadge a free meal. The other two were men. Normal men. Men with jobs. Men who wore their phone on their belt. Slacks, loafers, button down shirts. The go-getter types that Holiday had seen inside the coffee house, always on their phones or meeting some new client for coffee. Adults, Holiday always thought of them. Now the slacks were shredded. Bloody even. The loafers were gone. The button down shirts untucked and bloodstained. The business cut hair, wild. The eyes also wild. They lunged down the small slope toward the crash site.

Holiday reeled the heavy machine gun up and out of the chopper by its thick canvas strap. He’d seen this kind in movies. Linked ammo, a belt of large, slender bullets fell away. There seemed to be a lot of bullets.

Holiday grasped the front of the long barrel with his left hand and shouldered the butt of the gun on his right shoulder. His right hand found the trigger and he pointed it at the bum, who scrambled, moaning all the while, toward one of the eviscerated helicopter crewmen.

Holiday pulled the trigger.

Nothing happened.

The two businessman zombies shambled forward, glazed vacant eyes somehow intent on Holiday.

I have no idea what to do, thought Holiday. He lowered the large gun and looked at it. There was a small lever on the right side. He remembered some action hero pulling that back. Pulling it back just before he’d said something cold and clever, and then shot a bunch of bad guys. Holiday sat the butt of the gun in his lap and pulled the lever back. He felt the ammo belt advance ever so slightly.

He shouldered the gun and aimed at one of the businessmen.

“Let’s rock,” he mumbled, feeling stupid and cool all at once. Then he pulled the trigger.

The light machine gun jumped sharply, and Holiday watched the chest and arm of a zombie businessman explode. Then he was firing wildly into the dry blue sky above their heads.

He stopped.

The zombie businessman had fallen down, sat down really, will a dull thud. Its mouth opened silently. And then it began to rise.

Holiday tightened his grip on the gun and fired again. This time, the ground around the zombie erupted in chalk white explosions as Holiday fought to drag the aim of the gun, as it jumped wildly, back onto the rising zombie.

A moment later, he heard a dry metallic chunk and the gun stopped firing. All the bullets in the belt were gone.

The business zombie rose, its arm missing, a gaping bloody hole in its chest, one of its bare feet disintegrated by one of the three bullets Holiday had managed to put into the thing. It took a step forward and fell over into the dust. It looked up and began to crawl toward Holiday, its face caked in dusty chalk. The other businessman careened downslope the last few feet and slammed into the upright belly of the chopper. More zombies were appearing in the tree line now. Soon they would fall downslope and arrive at the crash site.

Holiday looped the strap of the sniper rifle across his back. Bending to pick up one of the assault rifles, he felt himself begin to black out. The assault rifle dropped down inside the chopper where it clanged against the cargo door at the bottom.

Forget it, he thought, his mind feeling distant and unconnected.

Other zombies were joining the bum at his meal, while others seemed intent only on Holiday. He grabbed the other assault rifle and leapt down from the chopper on its far side, away from the zombies. He felt his ankle threaten to shriek when he did so, even as he cushioned the impact with a roll through the soft chalky dirt.

“Move!” he gasped to no one, his voice a croak in the hot dry air, and set off upslope, out of the dip in the ridge line, off toward the northwest.

On the other side of these hills, he told himself, is Forest Lake Avenue. There’s a 7-11 over there.

He thought of cool water from the beverage case in the 7-11.

A big bottle of it.

At the top of the hill, he looked back. The crash site was overrun by zombies now. They surged in and around the wreck like ants in syrup. Groups clustered around the two dead crew members who’d been thrown from the wreck, while others climbed on top of each other, only to fall face down inside the wreck as they tried to get at the pilot, no doubt, thought Holiday.

He kept moving across the overgrown landscape of dusty brown scrub, cut and intersected by trails of white chalk patterned with the outlines of wide mountain bike tires. Only the occasional wild cactus patch or eruption of stray red fern dotted the lonely hill. He spotted two large, circular water reservoirs at the top of the hill and climbed toward them to get his bearings. He could see the whole Saddleback Valley spread out beneath him. To the north was Viejo Verde. To the south, Rancho and to the west, Forest Lake. He could see the small parking lot of the 7-11 down at the edge of Forest Lake. There was also a fast food restaurant, a dry cleaners, and a few other businesses down there. He couldn’t see anyone moving around. Just a few abandoned cars in the parking lot.

Behind him, to the east, he could see only the dry and barren hills he’d crossed. Land the developers had yet to rake away and build another planned community of the future on. The zombies seemed to have lost track of him, what with all the bodies at the crash site.

He made his way down the cactus strewn slope, pushing his way through some tall bushes before he dropped down over a cinder block retaining wall and into the parking lot of the strip mall where the 7-11 and cool water, or so Holiday hoped, waited for him at its other end.

He waited for a second, listening.

It was very quiet. Normally, Forest Lake Drive would have been inundated with lunchtime traffic, racing to get to the fast food restaurant or back to work. Normally.

He changed his grip on the assault rifle. His fingers had been wrapped around the scope. Now he cradled it in his arms, his finger resting near the trigger.

He had no idea if it was ready to fire or not.

He thought about test firing it, but the noise would surely draw any zombies out that might be hiding nearby.

“It’ll just have to fire when I need it to,” he murmured, hearing the dryness of his voice. It sounded raspy. A croak. He licked his lips. They were dry and cracked. Peeling already.

The parking lot looked completely normal. There were a few cars parked in stalls. The grass medians and islands where tiny trees provided cool shade looked well kept. Still watered. The grass was getting a bit long though.

“But,” murmured Holiday to himself. “The end of the world has been going on for a week.” He chuckled drily. The assault rifle felt good. It felt like the opposite of the terror and fear he’d felt as he merely ran for his life from… those… dead people last night and early this morning.

Water.

He walked forward, hearing the sandy scrape of his boots on the hot pavement of the parking lot. That was the only sound.

He checked a few of the cars. All of them were locked.

In front of the 7-11, there was a small car. A butterscotch Japanese import. A Corolla maybe. The windshield was cracked. The antenna bent. Holiday tried the door. It was unlocked. There was blood on the windshield. Empty inside.

Holiday looked toward the 7-11. He couldn’t see anyone inside. He could barely see anything at all. The windows were tinted, and the glare of the sun reflected off them. He could only see newspaper racks lined up against the glass.

He stepped onto the sidewalk and the doors slid open. He felt a blast of cold air. He smelled stale hot dogs and bread. He walked inside, looked about, saw no one. He turned right and walked down a short aisle until he was standing in front of the upright cold cases where chilled bottled water waited inside.

He thought about all the beer in the coolers along the side wall.

He opened the glass door and pulled out a hefty bottle of water. He leaned the assault rifle against a nearby rack of potato chips, and uncapped the drink, raised it to his cracked and dry lips, and began to gulp. Then he heard the click. The sound the hammer of a pistol makes when it’s thumbed backward. He’d heard that sound in movies. Sometimes the punctuation that followed a snappy line of dialog. Sometimes the cleared throat that prefaced important dialog.

In this case, it was the clearing the throat variety.

Then…

“Hold it right there, Loc’.”

Then…

“No sudden moves or I’ll bust a cap in ya head, as they say back on the block.” The voice was dry. Almost sarcastic.

Then, “Everybody be real cool.”

Part Three

Down the Rabbit Hole we go.

-Doctor Midnite

Chapter Twenty Three

Three days earlier.

“Everybody be real cool,” says Ritter. Then, “Right now, everybody needs to be real cool.”

They stood on the second floor of the sprawling office complex. State of the art business furniture, and halls replete with motivational posters of the beach or eagles soaring, surrounded the survivors that remained. They stared out at the parking lot full of cars.

A parking lot also full of zombies.

It’s been that way for a week now.

A week since everything went… well, it just went.

The survivors were on the second floor of an office building, looking out at the last of the day. The sun faded to orange in the west, made even more so behind the darkly tinted glass of the long conference room.

Skully stood against one wall, near a corner. Baggy pants. T shirt. Hoodie. Pale. Gaunt. Small. A drug addict. A food delivery guy who got caught there on the wrong day.

Or the right day, thinks Ritter to himself.

Then there’s Candace. Candace Martin-Miller. Project lead. Degree from some state school. Probably paid for every penny of it waiting tables. She was in over her head when she got this job. She’s still in over her head now that the world’s ended. Somehow she still wants to be in charge of all that, thought Ritter, watching the zombies shift and stumble out in the parking lot beyond the tinted glass. Good luck, girlfriend.

Then there was Dante Calderon. Played for Nebraska State. Heisman contender. Two years with the Seahawks ten years ago, thinks Ritter.

What have you done for me lately, quipped Ritter, again to himself.

It’s better that way.

Dante’s got his sports coat off. Still muscle bound. But thicker now. No longer the running back of the moment. Instead he’s been working on “used to be pro-gone to fat”.

“Everybody be real cool,” whispered Ritter again. They all turned to watch him. They’d stopped listening and waiting to see if Dave made it out the front door down below. That had been the plan.

At least that was Dave’s plan, thought Ritter.

There was nothing to listen to now.

Unless you go out into the hall and put your ear against the stairwell door, Ritter ruminates. Then you could probably hear the zombies down there finishing Dave off.

They couldn’t have eaten Dave that fast. Dave was a big meal. Ritter again. That boy was super-sized.

Ritter checked his smartphone.

Still no message.

“So,” began Ritter and cleared his throat. “Dave’s plan didn’t work. As we can all clearly see.”

Ritter was tall. Thin to the point of anorexia. Pale. A white brother with a thin mustache. Fuzz really. Sunken cheeks. Deep dark brown eyes. Pools almost. Brown hair, maybe blond when he was a kid. Maybe red. He wore designer jeans. A t-shirt that cost $500 at DKNY in New York City. A thigh-length butterscotch leather coat. Very 70’s. Very Shaft. Yes there was even a thin gold chain around his neck. Yeah, he’s that guy. A white brother who thinks he’s got street cred to burn.

Ritter caught a glimpse of himself, a reflection in the tinted window as the last of the dying sun was swallowed by a dark landscape beyond the lights in the parking lot. Somewhere beyond that dark silhouette of rising hills in the distant west lay the Pacific Ocean.

Yeah, I’m that guy, Ritter thought to himself. The white brother. That’s what they see. That’s all they want to see.

Then…

It’s all good.

“They can’t get up to this floor, y’all,” said Ritter.

Dante glared at Ritter.

Incredulity? Terror? Ritter wondered. Fine line between both right about now.

“So we’re safe up here,” continued Ritter, using calming tones and the deeper aspects of his voice. The Barry White zone, or so he liked to think of it.

He stepped close to the wide, tinted window of the conference room and tapped on it like he was tapping on some goldfish bowl. “See, those chumps don’t even see us up here,” he said to himself. “Even with the lights on.”

This was really all for them, the other survivors, thought Ritter. If he was cool, they’d get cool. Now that Dave was out of the picture they’d be easier to manipulate.

Dave was a problem, Ritter reminded himself. Dave was a troublemaker. Dave’s not here, man. Dave’s gone now. Y’know.

“You jes kiddin’ yourself,” Dante spat out. “They know we’re here, white boy. They can smell us or somethin’. But they know we’re here,” he shouted. “They know that for damn sure!”

“No they don’t,” replied Ritter, not moving. “They don’t know nuthin’ no more.”

Ritter continued to watch the zombies below. Milling around. There were more, many more, unseen and down in the corridor that led to the fire exit. The one that Dave had tried to use. It was most likely full of them now. The ones that were in there with Dave, or what was left of Dave, they’re down there, in that fire exit, thought Ritter. In front of the corporate headquarters, out on the sidewalk, spilling into the parking lot like looters at a riot. Like shoppers on the last Black Friday.

Probably the last one ever, thought Ritter.

The zombies were down there and in all the places between Ritter and Ritter’s destination. Ritter’s rented Lexus was down there in the parking lot, too. The one Dave thought he had the keys to when he made his mad dash for the fire exit. The real keys to the Lexus… Ritter had dropped those in some anonymous desk drawer back in the main office.

It was the only way to get rid of him, thought Ritter. Dave was going to get everyone killed. Better he just got himself kilt’ instead.

“They can’t smell,” said Ritter softly. Everything Ritter gave them must be soft right now. It’s all they can take, thought Ritter. Things had been wound too tightly for more than a week. They had no idea what all this was really about. For now, they just needed to calm down so Ritter could get out of there alive and make his appointment.

“They can’t smell and they can’t climb. And if they don’t pile up all the way to the second floor, which is unlikely if we stay hidden, then in time they’ll just go away.” Ritter turned away from the window having said what they most desperately needed to hear right now. For now, they were safe.

“How do…” began Skully, his voice shaky. Tremulous. The voice of one who doesn’t talk much. “How do you know that, man?”

Ritter dropped his gaze on Skully. He gave the kid that, “c’mon, man, for real?” look.

Then, “Cuz I do, homeslice. Sure as I know you’re holding weed.” Ritter tilted his head to the side, questioning Skully. “Am I right, little man?” Friendly-like.

Skully, like that deer we’ve all heard about in the proverbial headlights, took a step back.

First move of the guilty, thought Ritter. Surest sign. Takin’ a step back. Straight up guilty as sin.

“I ain’t…” but he let it trail off. The denial. Because it was a lie. And because no one cared anymore. No one here was a cop. No one was going to call the cops because they’d tried that a week ago. They’d all been picking up random phones and dialing 9-1-1 and other numbers. No one had answered.

They’d called the cops.

Apparently the cops were busy.

Ritter pulled out a pack of cigarettes. Stuffed at the back of the pack was a joint. He picked that out between two fingers and held it under his nose. He smelled it. Then he looked at Skully, who was pale and scared and sweating. Skully laughed stupidly.

“It’s cool, little man,” said Ritter and lit up. He inhaled deeply, held it, then spilled the smoke out through his nostrils and into the room.

“They can’t get in here,” his voice deep from the smoke. Deep and cracked. “Ain’t that right, Candy?”

Candace’s hand fell to her keycard, dangling from a lanyard around her wrist. She saw Ritter watch it and she adjusted her belt. As though that was what she was actually doing instead of making sure the keycard that unlocked everything, except one thing in the office, was still around her wrist for the umpteenth time.

Ritter guessed, no, knew, that the belt had set her back an entire week’s paycheck. And she made good money for someone with her background.

“Gimme some a that!” Dante stalked across the room and held out two thick fingers. Ritter moved the joint ever so slightly in Dante’s direction. Dante snatched it, and inhaled deeply, and started coughing immediately.

“Take it easy my man,” laughed Ritter, as Dante coughed himself to death. When he came up for air, it looked as though he had actually just swum up from the bottom of a deep pool. As though he’d gone down deep in some half remembered lagoon, too deep, too far down, and the kick back to the surface was almost too much. Almost. The whites of his eyes stood out against his chocolate skin. They were veined and red. Yellow at one corner.

“Want some?” said Ritter to Skully once he’d taken the joint and another hit.

Skully shook his head. Not immediately. There was a detectable pause. Ritter was sure of it. Drug dealer skills. Mad drug dealer skills.

Candace did and said nothing. She’d never been high. Drunk yes, a little, but never drunker than anyone she was with. They were always drunker. And maybe, maybe thought Ritter, she hadn’t really been drunk at all. Ever.

“So what are we gonna do now?” asked Ritter, his eyes at half mast. He wasn’t stoned, but they thought he was. Dante wandered to the window. He stared down at the dark shapes moving down in the parking lot. Sometimes they’d wander into the white cones of light, then you could see them somewhat. The light cast long shadows across their darkened faces. You saw the color of shirts faded by the light into washed out pastels. The darker stains. The blood. The pale skin. In the cones of light they looked like statues.

No one answered Ritter.

You see, thought Ritter, they were all hoping Big Dave would’ve made it like he said he would. They wanted out that bad. They believed Big Dave when he said he was coming back. Advanced Psych would’ve told everyone he was an ESTJ with a narcissist complex. Totally out for himself. If he could’ve got that Lexus started, which would have been a real trick since Ritter hadn’t even given him the right set of keys, Big Dave would’ve headed straight out of there as fast as he could’ve punched the accelerator. He’d had no intention of getting help for anyone but Big Dave.

Plus, Ritter reminded himself. There really wasn’t any help to get. He would’ve died out there. Whether it was a few blocks away trying to get into some gun store, or on a beach in Hawaii. There really ain’t no safe place left now. Not one that just anyone can find. You got to be in the know.

“We’re gonna sit and be cool,” said Ritter in the quiet of the conference room. “Help’s on the way.”

No one said anything.

Skully slid down the wall, his head in his hands. Candace walked off. They could hear her moving papers around on a desk back in the main part of the office.

“It’s a damn lie,” muttered Dante to the window. To himself. To what was left of the world as he knew it.

Chapter Twenty Four

The next morning showed the parking lot still crowded with the undead.

“Why ain’t they going anywhere?” Dante asked Skully. The two of them were in the conference room. Skully was just waking up. He’d curled up into a ball after he’d slid down the wall the night before. Then he’d passed out and slept the whole night through, not moving once.

Crashed was more like it.

Skully could actually say it was one of the best nights of sleep he’d had in a long time. Now that the tweak was starting to leave his system through forced withdrawal, he was actually starting to feel better. Normal again. Whatever that was.

Candace had slept on Dave’s couch.

Ritter suspected it wasn’t the first time she’d been there.

Dante had moved from place to place. Stalking. Like a caged panther moving about in the night. He’d moved through the halls all night long, checking the doors, never landing in any one place too long.

Ritter had found a nice chair in the upstairs lobby and stretched out his long legs. He’d plugged his smartphone into the wall to charge, and checked for the message he’d been waiting for one last time before he’d faded for the night.

There was no message.

Then he’d slept. Slightly buzzed. Listening to Dante stalk the halls.

Now it was morning. He could hear Dante in the conference room through the thin wall next to his head, mumbling a question he would never find the answer to. He heard Skully rise from the floor with a groan and a yawn.

“Don’t know, man,” was all the kid said.

There was no third floor. This was it. There was only the roof above them. But they didn’t need that yet. All these doors were locked by keycards. The zombies hadn’t even figured out how to climb the main stairs or the fire stairs. But they were still down there, anyone could hear them if they pressed their ear to the main door of the Green Front suite of offices. They could hear the recently dead still milling about in two nondescript corporations that occupied the rest of the small two story building. Ritter thought they’d both been medical technology companies.

Ritter listened for a while. Listened to the two of them, Dante and Skully, saying nothing to each other. He knew they couldn’t stop watching. He’d felt that way too, at first. The first time he’d seen them.

The zekes.

Candace came in and sat across from him in one of the other Restoration Hardware overstuffed cigar leather chairs that made up the expensively decorated reception area. Her makeup had been reapplied. She’d done the best she could for someone who’d been living in the same clothes for a week now. At least there was a shower in Dave’s executive office.

A week ago, there had been thirty employees working for Green Front Technologies, now there was just Candace and Dante. Skully had just happened by when it all went down. Someone’s lunch order. Ritter had come to pick up something from Big Dave, but once it all went south, Big Dave had held on to the package, a bargaining chip in case Ritter got rescued. Big Dave wanted in if that happened.

“We need a plan… a way out,” Candace said tiredly. Like she’d been trained to do in some weekend seminar on business leadership at the Ramada out by the airport. Something like… Executive Leadership in Crisis Situations Success Skills Seminar, or so Ritter guessed.

Something like that.

Ritter knew a way out, he just needed them to figure it out.

He threw up his hands weakly.

“Yo no se, mi amiga. I just got caught here.”

That was the cover, and Ritter had been working it. When everything started going down that morning a week ago, when he knew the infection had reached the U.S., he didn’t even bother to check out of his hotel down at the beach. He’d taken an overnight bag, still out there in the Lexus, and driven up to Green Front for the pick up. By then it had been too late. He had been too late. The virus or whatever the hell it really was, was already massively out of control. The roads leading to Green Front’s doorstep, the twelve miles between the ludicrously luxurious Montage Resort in Laguna Beach, and Green Front up in Viejo Verde, had been a traffic nightmare rapidly turning into a global pandemic freak out.

Traffic accidents.

Fights in the middle of the street that weren’t really fights. People just assumed it was two men fighting. Or a group of people beating the hell out of someone. People just didn’t want to see all the blood.

Then the cops had gotten involved and snarled everything.

He’d crawled into Viejo Verde late that first night.

The zombies were already out.

They’d been gathering in the industrial business complex and Ritter thought he’d have enough time to get into Green Front, lay a trip on Dave, and pick up the package.

But Dave was in full General mode. He’d organized a defense of the lobby. Barricades on the first floor that came down two days later under the sheer weight of the massive zombie onslaught. Zombies that had been drawn by Dave’s high-powered Ruger hunting rifle as he fired at them from the roof.

Like he was going to scare them off.

He’d only had two boxes of shells.

Each one he’d taken out, and there hadn’t been many ‘cause headshots are hard, “cuz”, lamented Ritter of Dave’s poor targeting ability, had drawn ten more. Maybe a hundred more.

Ritter had suggested in the following days that they just lay low. He knew something they hadn’t figured out yet. He knew the zombies would lose interest if something better came along. But in the days that followed, two things happened. One, someone always managed to remind the zombies they were still up there, still inside the building.

Hysterical claustrophobia-induced screaming.

One guy got stir crazy and ran down the main lobby stairs like he was a running back. Like he was OJ or something. Dante coulda told him he wasn’t low enough to the ground. He made it to the bottom of the stairs. Then they watched on Dave’s secretary’s closed circuit app at her workstation what happened next. Well, most of them watched for as long as they could stomach it.

Ritter didn’t. He’d seen that happen ad nauseam.

And the second thing that happened, was that nothing better came along. So the hundreds of zombies, zekes Ritter liked to call them, the hundreds of zekes just kept milling around, convinced there was more to be had inside the building. And they were right. After the first floor debacle of General Dave’s great lobby defense, there’d been fifteen. After the running back, fourteen. After the two suicides, twelve. After the breakout at the back of the building, there’d been five. Maybe some of the seven who’d tried to make a run for it in every direction had made it. But most hadn’t, and Ritter suspected none of them actually did.

See, their plan was just to run once there was an opening. That was stupid, thought Ritter.

Run where, exactly?

You can run, but you’ll just die tired. A spook sniper had told Ritter that, once. It seemed an apropos epitaph to Ritter, for the seven that had died trying.

Then there were just five.

Dave had started to freak out at that point, and convinced everyone to attract the zombies to the backside of the building so he could take off and “go get help”. Everybody thought it was a great plan only because it was a plan and there weren’t really any plans left. Ritter had even told Dave to take his ride. Handed him the keys and everything. Told him it was all filled up. It wasn’t, and the keys were to some other car. Even had Toyota printed on them.

Chump didn’t even bother to check, thought Ritter. Didn’t even bother to check because he was so excited he was going to get to sleaze his way out of another situation gone south and leave everybody to pay the bar tab. Classic Dave.

But Dave was out of the way now.

Dave’s gone, man.

Ritter chuckled.

Now Ritter could search his office. Or more importantly, search the safe room Dave hadn’t told anyone about. Except maybe Candace. Ritter bet the package was inside the safe room. Had to be, straight up.

“There isn’t any food left,” said Candace.

She rubbed her forehead with her thumb and forefinger. She was older, late thirties. She was pretty. She could have gotten by on her looks, but she didn’t, unless she was forced to. Ritter could tell. It was hard, when you were pretty, to stop gettin’ by on pretty. Y’know, like once you start, it’s hard to stop, girl.

Ritter smiled wanly at her.

“Have we searched everywhere?” he asked, throwing it away even as he said it. Giving her the impression he was just going through the motions.

She hesitated.

Then…

“Yes. Everything… I mean everywhere.”

Ritter opened his eyes, staring at her. His look said, really?

“What?” asked Candace.

“I don’t know,” Ritter said and leaned back. He tilted his head against the creamy coolness of the expensive leather chair. He closed his eyes.

Quiet.

It was already getting hot outside. The building’s AC had kicked on, but it would only move warm air around because it was green compliant. By the middle of the day, it would be hot again. Not a good thing with a week’s worth of dead bodies surrounding the place.

The green-friendly AC hummed into existence, vibrating the building and barely stirring the stale office air.

“It seemed like, when I asked you just now,” began Ritter, “like you weren’t absolutely sure we’d searched everywhere.” Emphasis on the word ‘everywhere.’

Candace closed her eyes. Ritter watched her forehead doing the math. The math that added up Dave’s death and subtracted him from her decision making tree. Subtracted him from making good on all those promises he’d promised. Loyalty for sex. Advancement for lies told on his behalf. A raise for missing monies unnoticed. Whatever.

She opened her eyes and said, “There is one more place we can search now.”

Chapter Twenty Five

Candace led Ritter into Dave’s private office.

Dave also has, had, Ritter corrected himself, a public office. Really, it was just an over-sized private conference room where all attention was to be focused on Dave as he met with investors and government types who could make sure he got a place at the stimulus table. He’d even had a special track light installed to illuminate his face perfectly. A spotlight. Candace remembered he’d taken the better part of that work day just to get the lighting perfect for the effect he’d wanted.

An innocuous door lay beyond, behind Dave’s “throne”. “Throne” being an off-hand joke Dave had once started on purpose at the end of a meeting. Candace related the story as they passed by. A joke Ritter quickly identified as not really being a joke at all, as Candace gave the expensive state-of-the-art office chair a spin.

Candace pulled out her keycard and held it tightly between her manicured thumb and forefinger for a moment. Her jaw was set, lips pursed.

“C’mon Candy, he ain’t coming back,” Ritter said drily from behind her.

Candace finished some internal argument and nodded to herself. “No, I guess he isn’t.”

She slid her key card through the slot in the security lock, and they entered Dave’s private suite. It was a clear homage to the masculine art of hunting. It was everything opposite of the public image of Green Front Technologies and its upbeat Save-the-Planet agenda. Green Front Technologies had been a green economy start-up captained by Dave “Big Dave” Ratkowski, former owner of a failing car dealership franchise down in San Diego. The dealership had gone belly up after the sports figure who fronted the operation spent all his money on court-ordered child support for his baby mamas and the brand new car-a-week habit he’d acquired in the league, which didn’t pair too well with his reduced, now-retired, income. Green Front had been an enthusiastic player in the early gold rush of marrying state of the art green jobs with newly-trained technicians in the flagging economy. Wind Turbine Techs. Solar Panel Techs. Electric Car Battery Techs. All the “techs” one might ever need for the promised Green Economy Boom that was sure to arrive any day. Dave and Co. were ready to fill the ranks of all those promised jobs.

Except the boom never happened. But that didn’t matter, because there was lots and lots of stimulus flooding forth from the green energy true believers in government. Dave was a master at making sure Green Front had a healthy infusion, from time to time, of tax-payer supplied government pork. So, Dave did a lot of hunting trips with state legislators far and wide to make sure those representatives of democracy were having all the fun they could handle. Thus, the money kept rolling in so the world could be saved from the evils of whatever the New York Times was labeling capitalism’s next great evil.

Dave had used the word “Global” a lot.

He even had a big globe he’d unconsciously nod at every time he said the word in some meeting held in the conference room. There was a small bar inside the globe. All you had to do was lift the world by its equator, and there was the top shelf scotch, Dave’s fave, and a few cut crystal bucket glasses, all nestled snuggly in blue velvet.

Class.

The inner office looked like an advertising executive’s concept of a well-appointed library of some Supreme Court Justice back in the 1950’s. There were dark book shelves carved from oak. Comfy leather chairs that made the very nice ones in the lobby seem cheap and somehow discount. The massive desk wasn’t really a desk. It was a campaign table that Dave had picked up for a mere $25,000 from a Sotheby’s auction. It had belonged to some English General back in World War II. There were several stuffed big game heads, all of which Dave had proudly shot while in the company of various senators and congressmen, both state and federal, from either side of the aisle, as they discussed how Dave might play a bigger role in the coming global effort to save the planet from mankind. There was even a well-polished, shiny but with depth and layers revealed in the richness of the wood, teak gun rack where Dave’s very high-powered, scoped big game rifle had once rested. That very expensive weapon was most likely now down in the zombie-infested stairwell. Ritter guessed Dave had probably used it as a club in those final few seconds when he realized he wasn’t going to get bailed out of this one. But that didn’t matter, it had been out of bullets since Dave’s rooftop mission to “clear the perimeter”.

Maybe that was why Dave hadn’t been able to pull off any headshots on the advancing horde of undead on that particular mission, thought Candace to herself in a rare moment of cold appraisal of the once dynamic Dave. You didn’t shoot big game in the head, see, because you wanted the heads for later. So you could put them on your wall. You shot them in the heart and lungs. Things zombies didn’t require anymore.

“Me big hunter,” joked Ritter as he reached up and touched the horns of an African gazelle.

Candace turned and rolled her eyes.

And yes, believe it or not, there was a hidden passage behind one of the book shelves. When Candace pulled a book away from its place on the shelf, Heart of Darkness, observed Ritter and noted the near-perfect irony, the book case swung outward without sound. Beyond lay Dave’s panic room.

Candace slid her card into another small security lock to one side of the steel reinforced door, and watched as a small LED turned green. Then she turned the polished steel handle and opened the door. Inside they found a wide leather couch, designer oak cabinetry with locks, and a computer. Ritter went to the computer immediately. He could feel Candace’s tension as he squeezed by her. Like she still wasn’t completely on board with the whole “rifling through her dead boss’s office” plan.

She hasn’t come to terms with this yet, thought Ritter. She doesn’t realize this is the way the world is now. She still thinks everything might turn out alright. Like maybe this will blow over by the weekend and we’ll all be back to work Monday next.

Well, girlfriend… ain’t gonna happen.

“I guess we should search these cabinets,” she said nervously. “But I don’t have the keys… oh… you don’t think they’re still in his pocket…”

“No, they’re not.” Ritter said as he tapped the keyboard. It seemed to be solely dedicated to spyware that monitored a security feed on several hidden cameras. Most of the employees had no idea Dave was watching them. “There’s a key ring near the door,” said Ritter.

“Oh,” said Candace to herself in the thick silence of the tiny room. Ritter waited until she’d gotten the first cabinet open. Down on all fours, she started to call out the inventory she’d found. When Ritter was sure she was engrossed in the busy work he’d left her no choice but to engage in, he chanced a quick look around. The sides of the couch. In back of it. Under the desk. Quick, casual, but still thorough.

No package.

“Sales trophies in this one,” shouted Candace, her head buried in a cabinet near the floor.

“Files in this one,” from another.

“We can’t eat those, Candy,” said Ritter, hoping to make her think this whole expedition was merely about food and survival.

“Don’t ever call me that again.” Her voice was muffled by the deep interior of the next cabinet.

Then she erupted in a sudden gush of excitement. “Get out!” she demanded. “Get out of here!” she repeated again.

“What is it, Candy?”

“There’s money! Stacks and stacks of it.”

“Unless it’s chocolate gold coins like the kind you got from your “moms” at Christmas, it’s no good to us now.”

Guy like Dave, thought Ritter, I’da been surprised if we hadn’t found money.

“Here’s a briefcase, but it’s locked. Here, you try it. See if you can break the lock or something.” She pushed it out behind her. Ritter saw it and knew he’d found the package he’d initially come to Green Front for in the first place.

TARRAGON, in neat gold letters, lay stamped above the lock.

“You know if Dave had a favorite code word… or number maybe even?” Ritter asked, going through the motions. As if he’d actually even try and open it now.

“Try 007. He used that one a lot,” said Candace from inside the cabinet

Ritter waited while he did nothing. “Nah, don’t work.”

Candace backed out of the second to last cabinet. Her hair was disheveled. She blew a dark lock from across her forehead. Again, Ritter was reminded that she was actually very pretty.

Girl coulda made a nice cougar in a few years if she’d married rich, he told himself.

In the last cabinet they found pop tarts, a bottle of scotch and a six pack of bottled soda water.

“Some panic room,” mumbled Ritter. “I guess he thought he wouldn’t need to be in there for more than a few hours.”

“Dave…” Candace sighed, putting her hands on her hips. “Dave just wasn’t very smart. He was good at talking, but… he wasn’t all that smart. What do you suppose is in that thing?” she said, motioning toward the briefcase Ritter was holding.

“He was smart enough to hire you,” said Ritter, fixing her with his most intense of casual stares from beneath lowered eyelids. A move he practiced often. He called it the “Switched-On Brother look”.

Before she could restrain herself, she smiled. When she realized she had done so, she looked away.

Ritter thought he’d almost distracted her enough to get her to lay off the briefcase. To forget about it. But he knew she wasn’t that dumb. He knew she was greedy. That’s how she’d made it as far as she did.

“Money, I bet,” she said with a sigh of disgust that barely masked what she really felt. “Or maybe jewelry… or even gold. Things we can’t eat, right?” She stared at it as she talked and Ritter could see she was somewhere else.

All that money in bundles was everything she’d ever worked for. More than, really. Ritter imagined that the dream of a pile of money like that was what kept her going when the going got rough. Not because she really was greedy. Now that Ritter really thought about it, probably because she actually knew what a pile of money like that really meant. What you didn’t have to do or put up with anymore. What kind of space that much money would buy you from wherever it was you came from.

Except it wasn’t worth anything now. Ritter threw the briefcase on the couch. Like it meant nothing to him. Just like that.

Oh that thing? Just forget about that, Candy, he was telling her without saying a word.

“Nah, ain’t heavy enough. And I know jewelry. Nah,” he said again. “Probably just incriminating evidence he was holding onto.”

“You tried 007?” asked Candace.

“Yeah. Nothin’.”

“That’s odd.”

Silence.

They were very close.

Ritter moved ever so slightly, imperceptibly toward her.

“I didn’t mean any disrespect when I called you Candy,” he said in his best pillow talk voice. “I’m jes sayin’…” He stumbled. On purpose. Like it was awkward and like something might happen in the next moment if she allowed it to.

She watched him, but her eyes were still distant.

For a second, Ritter wasn’t sure if maybe it might go there. Which was fine by him. That hadn’t been his intention. But, if he needed to do it to get the package, then… it’s a tough job but someone’s got to do it, he joked to himself.

“Well, we’d better get these pop tarts back to the others. Breakfast.” She gathered up the boxes, turned and left.

“Mission accomplished,” whispered Ritter. Then, “Don’t forget the booze,” he said and laughed. He grabbed the bottle and then the briefcase, which he left under a chair as they crossed the large conference room. Candace raced ahead of him to the door that led back into the main office.

Chapter Twenty Six

They watched the day turn to oatmeal as the heat and the haze of distant burnings, uncontrolled fires un-responded to, turned the sky cream-sicle orange and apocalypse gray.

Ritter checked his cell.

“Gots me some service,” he mumbled to himself as he sat near a window alone.

He eyed the Olds Cutlass Sierra in the back of the parking lot again.

Why had that kid, Skully, parked all the way out there if he was just delivering pizzas when it all went down, Ritter wondered to himself. His own rented Lexus was parked in front of the building, surrounded by zekes.

“Boy jes’ wanted to get his’self high ‘fore makin’ the delivery.”

He’d seen Skully holding up a wall in one of the long Navajo-white hallways where motivational art was on display, gallery style.

“He looks all shell and no creamy center,” mumbled Ritter.

Dante was still stalking about from window to window, watching the zekes stack up at the front door. They writhed like a mass of gray sun-tired snakes in the afternoon heat. Sluggish, slow, nowhere else to go.

Last time he’d seen Candace, she’d been at her desk, trying to find some way around the disabled internet.

Everybody was doing their thing.

Ritter pulled out his smartphone from the side pocket of his thigh-length butterscotch leather coat. The phone was picking up some sort of WiFi from somewhere. He brought up a http://weirdmap.link from within his favorites and saw the one word message hidden within the clutter. Then he sent the text he’d already written.

It read, “Package in hand. Ready for pick-up.”

He watched the screen.

Maybe things had gone too far south… everywhere. If they had, there wouldn’t be a reply.

The reply bubble appeared.

“Pick up tomorrow.” GPS coordinates followed.

Ritter tapped the highlighted coordinates and his map app took over. A moment later, the little blue dot landed in a vacant area to the east. Uphill from Green Front. Between someplace called Viejo Verde and Forest Lake. Strip mall nearby. He scrolled in, looking at the almost real-time image of the parking lot. It was fairly clear. There weren’t any zekes, or at least there hadn’t been on the last satellite pass.

So, within the last hour or so, thought Ritter, no zekes to speak of in the A to the O.

He could pick out the obligatory fast food restaurant. The other stores. Probably a dry cleaner, a karate dojo, a nail salon if he were to guess. Places he knew all too well from his misspent youth. At the end of the strip mall, near the main road, he recognized a 7-11.

“Might have to get me a cherry Slurpee on the way.” He dropped the smartphone back into his coat pocket.

 

The rest of day passed.

“What’re we gonna do, man,” Skully had asked when Ritter walked past him later. Still in the hallway, near the framed poster with the word TEAM written in bold letters. A boat full of ripped young men pulled hard into the churning foam of a massive wave rising above them in heavy surf.

“Hang in there, little man,” said Ritter. “We’ll get out of here.”

That night they sat in the break room, eating pop tarts again, and drinking scotch from red plastic cups. No one said much.

Ritter took a bite off his pop tart and placed it back down on the table. He leaned back in his chair, his long legs like twin sticks stretching away under the table. Then he said, “I don’t think help’s coming to help ourselves outta this here mess. Know whatta I mean?”

After a moment, Dante swallowed the rest of his pop tart. He’d only chewed a few times, then swallowed thickly. He looked at Ritter, disgust and rage registering on his face. Almost a snarl, thought everyone at the table. Then, “Don’t look that way, does it?” replied the hulking black man. It wasn’t a question. He was making a statement.

Or an epitaph, thought Ritter.

He knew Candy… Candace would come through eventually. He’d been waiting all day for her to finally start leading. He knew her type. Knew she’d found a way out of wherever she’d come from and all the tough spots since. She was the type who’d figured out long ago that no one came to rescue you. You rescued yourself.

He’d simply watched her, showing her he had nothing valuable to contribute. If anything was going to happen, she’d need to be the one that started the ball rolling.

His look said, “It’s all you, girlfriend.”

The kid, Skully, watched everyone, his eyes darting from person to person.

Dark’s coming on, and he likes to be high ‘bout this time every night. So he gets a little nervous ‘bout now, thinks Ritter. Everything’s cool, Ritter tells himself. It’s gonna happen homeslice. Just wait. Be patient.

“We’ve got to get out of here,” said Candace plainly. No emotion. No fear. Maybe just plain old tired. But finally, thought Ritter, finally she was ready to help him get out of here. Now he had to play his part.

“You look out the front door, girl? Ain’t no one gettin’ outta here alive as Jim Morrison used to say. Not by a long shot.” Then he snorted and rolled his eyes for punctuation.

He saw a brief fire flare up in her eyes.

Yeah, that’s right, Ritter said to himself. I’m just like your daddy or that stepdaddy or any one of yer mom’s trailer park boyfriends who slapped you down when you told ‘em you wanted to go somewhere else and be somethin’ better than them.

“All we need is a plan,” she said after a moment. After the fire had disappeared. She smiled at Ritter. Not warmly. Not at all.

“We gotta do a jailbreak, thas all,” mumbled Dante to himself.

Silence.

“You ever break outta jail?” asked Ritter, leaning forward and down into Dante’s personal space. A no-fly zone the rest of the world had seen and avoided. Except Ritter had to go there. Dante needed to be angry enough to prove something to someone. Ritter knew Dante. Knew the type. Knew guys just like him back on the block. It was the only way to get them to act. Guys like Dante had to be angry enough about something to actually get up and make a change.

Anger is a big old empty cheeseburger full of sauce and greasy goodness, Ritter told himself. Only it’s got no nutritional value.

Listen to yourself, boy. Who do you think you are, Yoda?

“Huh?” Ritter whispered to Dante, challenging him. “You evah, evah break outta da slam, savage?”

Dante looked up, his eyes bloodshot. A stare straight from the back of the icebox. Resolution cold. Cold enough to make everyone know he was heart attack serious. Dante whispered, “I mean football.”

Ritter leaned back, secretly glad to be out of Dante’s no-fly zone. Things were coming together. Finally.

“You wanna run some plays?” cackled Ritter in the silence of the break room. “You think that’s gonnna work, coach? Like what…?”

Dante looked at Ritter with hatred and murder.

“You gonna run a post and I’ll just throw this kid.” Ritter thumped Skully in his concave chest. Skully jerked. “Out to ya?” finished Ritter.

Ritter raised both hands up like twin goalposts, then whispered, “Touchdown.”

“Nah,” said Ritter, leaning back and folding his arms across his spindly torso. “Ain’t gonna happen, coach.”

The air was thick. Tension thick. Dante jumping out of his seat and laying a beat-down on Ritter thick.

“Ain’t nothin’ like that,” said Dante. “Jailbreak was a play we used to run. Bait and switch. Make those crazy people think we’re goin’ one way while we jes’ go the other.”

“And how we gonna do that?” fired Ritter.

“Don’t know,” said Dante. Pause. “Yet. But we figure a way to do it, and we might just get out of here. There’s some gaps out there. I could get through if I had to.”

“And where do we go after that?”

“I don’t know fool! But here ain’t workin’” screamed Dante in Ritter’s face, slamming his ham-sized fist on the flimsy break room table.

Silence.

Ritter and Dante watched each other. Waiting for the other to make his move. Watching for the moment to make theirs.

“Let’s all take a step back,” intervened Candace.

“Yeah, that’s a good idea,” Skully added. “Take a break.”

Dante leaned back in his tiny plastic chair, causing it to issue a long and tired creak.

“That ain’t a plan,” said Ritter, knowing the next moment might be incredibly dangerous to his own self-appraised good looks.

Thankfully, Candace had taken over like Ritter knew she would.

Like a good mid-level manager was s’posed to, Ritter reminded himself. Stand in the middle between the grand ambition of the Daves of the world, and the foot soldiers who had to make his half-thought through ideas and schemes a reality. “I think Dante’s plan might work,” said Candace.

“Can’t,” mumbled Ritter.

Candace ignored Ritter. She turned to Dante. “Tell me more about how a jailbreak works.”

 

That night they worked until late, assembling a collection of desks near the twin double doors that led into the Green Front Technology lobby. They worked as quietly as possible. They didn’t want the “crazy people” as Dante kept calling them, or “zekes” Ritter thought to himself when he didn’t want to think about what they really were, or “zombies” as Skully had mentioned once to no one in particular, to come up the two flights of stairs and start banging on the lobby doors just yet.

“When they do come for us,” said Ritter as he stacked a desk on top of another desk near the door, “we won’t have long. Them doors ain’t made of oak or pine. That’s just wood-looking plastic or some kinda joke. They’re gonna come through that like…” Ritter trailed off. Even though he kept his mouth running, all part of the act, his eyes were always watching everyone else. That’s when he saw it in their eyes… even he realized he’d gone too far. Because they, the crazy people, the zekes, the zombies, call ‘em what you want, they were going to come through that door. That was the part of the plan that nobody really wanted to think about. And when the zekes did, when they came bursting through that flimsy faux-wood door, it was about to get as real as it ever gets.

So Ritter stopped and let it go with a dead pan, “nuff said.”

They took apart some of the other desks at the back of the main office. In time, they had a nice collection of clubs.

Dante walked them through the plan again. The plan they would try in the morning after a night’s rest. The word “good” conspicuously absent. In the morning, once it was light, and if they escaped, they’d have an entire day to try and find help or get somewhere safe before the next evening.

If they escaped.

In the dark down below, the zombies, a small college football game crowd size of them, ironic in regards to the “Jailbreak Play” as Dante liked to call it, milled in and out of the orange-colored parking lot lights. Beyond the light a mass of shadows milled and throbbed in the outer dark, illuminated by the cones of hellish orange, where every horror show detail was revealed in their slack-jawed, vacant-eyed blood and worse covered faces.

The plan. Dante’s rough sketch, Candace’s refinements, and a few well-crafted suggestions from Ritter, was walked through step by step again by Dante, who was as intent as one could possibly be. Focused. Sweating. A true believer preaching salvation to the damned.

“We three,” he indicated Skully and Candace and finally himself, thumping his chest. “We start here. Ritter, you’re back by the fire exit over there in accounting. That exit leads down two short flights of stairs, and then out into that end of the parking lot. He pointed toward the unseen south.

“There are…” he looked at Skully and sighed. “There are zombies in that stairwell, but it’s propped open, we can see that on camera.” He left out whose body was propping it open. A guy named Kevin they’d worked with. “But we’re gonna pull them outta the stairwell with the racket we’re making, so you’ve got to be real quiet back there as you make your way down and into the parking lot. Don’t agitate ‘em, or they won’t leave the stairwell to come check out what we’re doin’ up in the lobby.”

“You got it, big man,” said Ritter.

“We’re going out the lobby doors and onto the landing. We gonna try and draw them up and get ‘em real mad. Might even try to take out a few with this.” He shook the desk leg club he’d been using as a pointer. “That seems to make ‘em even angrier, right?”

“Yeah, they go into a frenzy or somethin’,” mumbled Skully, seeing something not seen. Some recent past horror show all his own. “A frenzy.” A memory for the rest of days.

“Yeah,” agreed Dante. “A frenzy. Then it’s go time. We get back behind the lobby doors with you,” he pointed toward Candace. “Which you are holding open.”

She nodded, hands folded in front of her pencil skirt.

“Then we got to push that barricade in place real fast, ‘cause they’re comin’ through like a runaway freight train, right up the stairs and onto the second floor. Meanwhile, Candace you’ve moved to your second position, right?”

“Right.” She nodded and moved to the receptionist’s desk, where she bent to the keyboard and entered the commands that would bring up the stairwell cameras. She didn’t want to, because she couldn’t stand looking at them much longer, mainly because she occasionally recognized a Green Front employee or some other seemingly familiar face. Probably from the Starbucks she always stopped at down the road before work. How many of them, she thought to herself as she scanned the camera feeds, making sure they were still operational, used to visit that Starbucks every morning?

Not anymore. It was a grim thought. A cold thought. An honest thought. But she’d always been like that. Even though she didn’t like to. She’d had to.

“Once Candace tells you they’re outta the stairwell…” continued Dante. “Skully, you move to position three, right?”

“Check,” He says.

“So you’re off back through the offices,” he pointed toward Skully who looked pale and dry in the bright white office light. “Move fast, but not too fast. You don’t want to trip and break something, or even twist an ankle. ‘Cause we’ll need to run once we get outta here, and I don’t want to have to leave you behind.”

No one, thinks Ritter, would leave Skully or anyone else behind. But then again, would we? It’s not like we really know each other. We’ve just been forced together into this awful life and death situation. Who really knows anyone? Who knows who’s capable of what? Leaving someone behind seems a safer bet than counting on them to carry you out of the jaws of the ravening undead.

Each of them, in their own way, thought something to that effect in the moment after Dante had raised the “having to leave you behind” statement and all its unspoken philosophical implications.

“Got it,” said Skully.

“Ritter, once he shows up at the stairwell and tells you it’s clear, it’s show time. You up for it with them skinny legs? I mean, you got to move, boy. Fast. Real fast.”

“Ran the four-forty in track, coach. No worries here, Big Man.”

“Alright,” said Dante. “Countin’ on you.”

“I’m all good. No worries.”

“You get down that stairwell and out to that Cutlass. Don’t stop and get in a fight with any of them things. They’ll slow you down, so you jes’ keep movin’, got it?”

“Yeah. Got it already.”

“Good. ‘Cuz you got to, or you ain’t gonna make it, and if you don’t make it then we outta luck.”

“So once we hear him honking the horn on Skully’s Cutlass,” interrupts Candace, sensing another showdown between the two alpha males, “we retreat to position three, lock the stairwell door behind us, and make sure the door at the bottom of the stair is closed also.”

“Right,” agreed Dante, back on track. “And once he’s got the mob in the parking lot headed toward the sound of his horn, he circles the building away from us and comes back up the side road on the other side of the complex. Drive fast, but don’t wipe out. Then two beeps on the horn once you’re right outside the emergency exit.”

“I’m your man, brother. I’m like Steve McQueen in Bullit,” said Ritter, knowing Dante has to, and wants to, act now. He doesn’t need to challenge him anymore.

“Good. Then you pick us up and we outta Dodge.”

 

That night, they found their own places along the halls and conference rooms of Green Front Technology. Places they could wait out the last hours of another night. Maybe the last night, if any part of the plan didn’t go exactly as planned.

They couldn’t help thinking that way.

Every hour or so, Ritter could hear Dante getting up from the leather couch in Dave’s private office. The leather creaked. Then, thumping footsteps along the halls meant the big man was going to check the windows once more. As if all the undead, the zombies, the crazy people, might have just decided to go away and not come up the stairs after him tomorrow morning.

But they hadn’t.

Ritter knew it each time Dante grunted and returned to the couch with a sigh that seemed more an exasperated groan.

Later, when Ritter was sure everyone was asleep, at least for a little while, he moved the briefcase from the private conference room where he’d left it, and placed it behind a desk near the stairwell door.

Chapter Twenty Seven

“Everybody be real cool.”

Then.

“No sudden moves,” said Ritter. “Or I’ll bust a cap in ya head, as they say, back on the block.”

Holiday listened to the dry and sarcastic voice as he stood in front of the cooler inside the 7-11 still holding the cold bottle of water he’d been drinking from.

“Turn around nice and slow.”

Holiday did.

“You got some nice rifles there, Pancho Villa. Where’d ya get ‘em?” Ritter already had a pretty good idea where the stranger in the 7-11 had gotten the rifles.

Ritter had been in the back room. Using the restroom. He’d already poured himself an ice-cold cherry Slurpee from the machine. He’d set it on a rack of snacks he was planning to get into, before going in back to find the restroom. Then he’d heard the “ding” as the electric eye trigged the sliding door. He’d waited, then eased out into the store, below sight line, and spotted the newcomer.

Actin’ the chump, thought Ritter. Quenching his thirst before he checked his environment. Like some o’ Gideon’s men. The ones God had made ol’ Gideon get rid of.

Ritter drew a small nickel-plated pistol from his belt, on his back behind his coat. Then, cool as ice, he grabbed his Slurpee and slipped up behind the thirsty newcomer.

Now, facing Holiday, Ritter saw a thirsty everyman who tended toward athletic good looks. But thirsty man was dirty and sweaty. Large sweat stains soaked the front of a dirt-covered shirt.

“So why dontcha’ ease them rifles off ya back one at a time, and then I’ll let you finish ya drink.”

Holiday lowered his head.

“No. I can’t do that,” he said almost to himself.

Ritter smirked. “I don’t think you appreciate the nuances of the situation, thirsty man. See,” Ritter thumbed back the hammer on the pistol, a nickel-plated, snub-nosed .357. “I have a gun pointed at your face.” Ritter leaned forward. “Even the slightest bit of pressure on this trigger, homes, at this very moment, and it will, I repeat will, go off in that face of yours.”

Holiday shook his head.

“Can’t.”

“This is a snub-nosed .357. I use cop-killers. Hollow points, my man. It can go through three large-city sized telephone books. There won’t be much of your head left when I pull the trigger. Are we clear about that?”

“We are,” agreed Holiday.

“Then tell me why you can’t give up them guns right here and now?”

“Me and some others need them. We’ve got a safe place… but no guns. They… we’re, gonna need these guns.”

Ritter cocked his head off toward the large circular mirror that showed the entire store. He watched the front door. It would be bad if one of the infected showed up right now.

That’s how it happened in the movies, thought Ritter. Then me and Mr. Thirsty Man, we’d have to be buddies and fight ‘em off.

But the coast was clear, and what he could see of the parking lot in front of the store seemed clear too. Clear of shadows that might be the lumbering undead.

“How safe?” asked Ritter, keeping an eye on Holiday.

The Slurpee machine continued to whirl and whir.

“Seems safe enough so far,” said Holiday finally. “These… whatever they are, they seem not to go out that way. From what we can see of the whole valley, it seems the safest place so far.”

“You got room for more?”

Holiday looked at the gun Ritter was pointing at him. Then up at Ritter’s eyes.

“We ain’t there yet, thirsty man. You got to give me a reason to trust you. A reason why I’m not s’posed to think you’re just a menace to society.”

“I can’t think of one right now that would mean anything to you,” said Holiday after a moment. “I don’t even know you,”

Ritter took a step back, his gun still on Holiday, and took a long pull from his cherry Slurpee.

“Nah, I guess you don’t,” said Ritter as he watched Holiday.

Holiday saw a white guy who thought he was street. A guy who listened to rap, maybe even thought he was a major league drug dealer, when at best he smoked weed too much and dealt on the side to pay for his habit, often at the expense of his friends. Holiday saw a guy who was probably raised by a single mother in a bad neighborhood. In short, he saw the President of the White Guys chapter for the Snoop Dogg fan club.

“I got three others,” said Ritter, taking another long pull from his Slurpee. “They’re probably in a real bad situation right about now. Ain’t no way to get ‘em out on my own. But we work together… we might save ‘em.”

“And…” said Holiday.

“Well, you help me and I guess that tells me you’re not a menace to society, in general. We rescue those people, and a cursory use of logic tells you I’m a decent guy despite appearances. Afterward, we drive off in my new ride back to the safest place on earth, that we know of at this present time. Strength in numbers. Agreed?”

Holiday nodded toward the nickel plated pistol pointed at his throat. “It’s hard to trust someone who’s pointing a gun at you.”

The Slurpee machine continued to whirl.

“Then I guess that’s my buy in,” said Ritter.

Holiday remained silent.

“Ah-aight.” Ritter thumbed the hammer down gently, then let the gun fall to his side. “Git ya’self some more cold water, thirsty man.”

 

A few minutes later, Holiday returned to the front counter. Ritter stood behind it, eating from a bag of chili cheese Fritos. The nickel-plated pistol was tucked in his waistband, clearly visible, clearly ready.

“So, what do we do next?” asked Holiday.

“We ride down there and figure out a way to get them outta there.”

“Where are they at?” asked Holiday.

“About a mile away inside a corporate park. More precisely, in the stairwell of a building within said corporate park. Most likely surrounded by the zombies that broke through the barricade on the second floor, and the ones that stayed out in the parking lot.”

“How’d you manage to get out?”

“Well, that was the part of the plan that worked. I got out and made it to my ride. I was s’posed to circle the corporate park, honking the horn, and lead ‘em away from the back door stair well.”

“So what happened?”

“Plan didn’t work as planned,” lied Ritter. “When I got to the other side of the lot I ran into a whole bunch more in a back alley I was planning to use to cut back to the stairwell exit where my friends were s’posed to be waiting, or at least, they were waiting there as of an hour ago.”

“And how do you know they’re still there?”

“I don’t. But the fire doors at both ends of the stairwell are strong enough to keep the zombies out. They stay in there, they should be fine for a while.”

“So you decided to come get a Slurpee while they waited it out?”

“Nothin’ I could do. I barely got turned around and outta that alley before the zekes were throwin’ themselves on top of the hood of my car. Had to hit a few who came up from behind. The main entrance back into the parking lot was clogged with the ones that followed me.”

“So how are we going to get them out of there, if the entrance is blocked and the back way is overrun?”

“I have no idea,” said Ritter. “But there’s a hill nearby and we can drive up there and take a look. Maybe things have changed. With your guns, we might blast our way in and get ‘em out before too many can surround us.”

 

A few minutes later, they drove out of the empty sun-baked parking lot in the blood covered butterscotch Olds Cutlass Sierra, after Ritter had moved a briefcase from the passenger seat to the trunk.

They drove west on Forest Lake Drive, then turned right at a still-working red light and headed toward the business park. Shortly, Ritter pulled over to the left side of the street beneath a hill covered in tall dry brown grass.

“It’s on the other side of that hill,” said Ritter as he popped out of the driver’s seat. Holiday stepped outside, shouldering the sniper rifle and holding the assault rifle cradled in his arms. A dense quiet lay across the road and the silent uniformly box-like gray buildings along the street. Warehouses with small front offices. Holiday didn’t see anyone else. No zombies either.

“C’mon,” said Ritter, and stepped off the clean white sidewalk into the sea of still dead grass and weeds that lay beneath and along the hill. At the top of the hill, Holiday looked back and saw how their passage had disturbed the dying, brown grass. He crouched down and crossed the top of the small hill, lying alongside Ritter who was already looking down on their target. The office park.

Holiday could see six large box-like pastel-brown buildings. Each had a subtle sign, off-white with bronze lettering, denoting the name of the company doing business within. There were cars in the parking lot. All of them were dust and ash covered. Some were even covered in dried blood. Most of the zombies were gone from the central parking area that lay in front of all six buildings. Along the backside of the buildings, in two distinct clusters, enough zombies lingered to fill a small concert venue. One group seemed to be pushing their way in toward a door in the side of a building. Their forest of fists hammered at the top of the door. They could hear the thumping sound repeated over and over, discordant even at this distance. The other cluster of undead was farther down the back road that ran along the rear of the buildings. That mob was blocking one end of the alley completely. They seemed intent on something inside that building.

“That’s the group that cut me off,” said Ritter pointing toward the farther group, the one that filled the alley. All of them, once different in life, you could tell by what remained of their clothing, now made the same in death. Gray, bloody, gore-crusted.

“That bunch huffin’ and puffin’ on that door…” said Ritter, pointing toward the sea of fists. “That’s where my friends are.

Holiday watched the two groups. He scanned the surrounding buildings. He could see dark shapes moving behind the tinted glass on the second floor.

“Yeah, I see ‘em too. Means they must’ve gotten through the barricade we put up on the second floor. That was the plan anyway. Lure ‘em up there, then barricade the doors. We thought they’d all try to get in that way, and then we could slip out the back door. I didn’t count on that group in the alley.”

“So what do you want to do?” asked Holiday.

Ritter was silent.

Then, “Frankly, I got nuthin’ better than to pull a drive by and take out the ones at the door. Then hope those three are still in there. If they can get to the car before that other bunch comes up the alley, then we can get outta there in time. Noise attracts ‘em, you know that right, thirsty man?”

Taking a deep breath, Holiday studied the field. He saw everything.

“Or we could jack ourselves another car,” Ritter continued. “A big truck and like, ram through the group at the door. Crush ‘em against the building. Then back up, and I’ll roll on up in the Cutlass and we beat feet in my car. Take your pick, either has about as much chance as the other.”

Holiday was silent. Thinking.

That water back at the 7-11 had been good. Like the first drink of water he’d had in years. It was cold and clean. After an entire night of running in terror with nothing but liquor in his stomach, he’d been close to the end of himself. Closer than he’d realized, now that he thought about it. But the ice cold water from the cold case in the 7-11 had cleared his head. Woken him up.

“This is what we’re gonna do,” said Holiday. He didn’t notice Ritter raise his eyes. “You get back down to your car. I’ll start shooting from here. Like you said, noise attracts them. Once I’ve gotten their attention, once they start heading up this hill after me, you drive back in there. But don’t go in until I signal you. I’ll give you the signal when most of ‘em are down near the bottom of this hill and trying to climb up. I don’t think they can climb very well, but you never know. Once I give you the signal, then you hit it hard and get in there.”

“Alright,” said Ritter. “What about you?”

“See that road down there?” said Holiday, pointing off toward a small back road that ran alongside Forest Lake Drive in front of a few apartment complexes off in the distance. “I’ll meet you along that road near that curve down there.”

“And what makes you think I’ll come back for you, thirsty man?” asked Ritter.

Holiday watched the buildings and zombies below.

“Because you don’t know where it’s safe. I do.”

Ritter nodded, pushed off from the ground, and called over his shoulder. “Alright, waitin’ on your signal.” He made his way back down the hill, kicking up small puffs of dust in the afternoon breeze that had come up. Once he got back in the car, Holiday could see him light a cigarette, lean back in his seat, and watch the side and rearview mirrors. Waiting for the signal.

“Alright,” Holiday muttered to himself, setting the rifles down. He picked up the sniper rifle. I should use this one. I can pick off any strays that try to cut them off, he told himself. He’d seen a lot of movies, and he knew that sniper rifles were invariably fired from buildings or construction sites by trained assassins from far away. All one did, in the movies, was look through the scope, land the crosshairs on the upper chest and pull the trigger.

But if I want to get their attention, he thought, as he picked up the compact assault rifle with all kinds of high tech attachments including a small scope, this’ll make a lot of noise.

He shouldered the rifle, aimed as he’d seen in the movies, and pulled the trigger. A burst of rounds spat from the barrel as the gun jerked upward. The sound of each individual report echoed across the concrete buildings and alleyway below.

How many rounds did I just fire, wondered a bewildered, almost stunned Holiday. He’d intended just to fire one at a time until he’d obtained their collective attention. He knew the only bullets he had were those still in the rifles. He knew rifles required clips or magazines to reload. He’d seen that happen in many, many action movies. Usually a break in the non-stop violence, as witty and defiant dialog was exchanged between hero and villain. He turned the rifle on its side and found a selector switch near the trigger guard on the left side. OFF, SEMI and FULL were stamped into the metal. The selector switch was set to FULL. He moved it to SEMI. He shouldered the rifle and looked through the scope. Below, the zombies were crossing the small field between the buildings and the hill. The other cluster, the one the man who’d introduced himself as Ritter claimed he was cutoff by, swarmed slowly up the alley toward him. But they didn’t seem as intent as the crowd at the fire door.

Maybe the sound echoed down in between the buildings and it’s confusing them, thought Holiday. Holiday landed the crosshairs inside the scope of the assault rifle on a front runner, a man in running shorts with a terribly torn and gaping flesh wound in his pale chest, and fired. An instant later, Holiday saw nothing happen. He had no idea where the bullet had gone. He moved his eye off the scope and fired again, this time seeing the bullet ricochet in front of the jogger and smash into one of the man’s knees. The jogger dropped and continued to crawl awkwardly forward without pause, laboring and clearly intent on Holiday now.

The group from the fire door had reached the base of the hill and were beginning to struggle up slope. The door where Ritter’s friends were was clear. Holiday waited a moment longer, waiting until the alley group had cleared the buildings and were headed toward the base of the hill. He fired again, and was again unsure of what his bullets were actually hitting. He didn’t see any more of them go down, much less take a hit.

For a brief, fearful moment, he knew the zombies were unstoppable. He shook off the sudden fear that tried to close about him and fired a few more times, his ears ringing with each blast. Then he felt, more than heard, a dry “click”. The assault rifle was out of bullets. He slung the empty, useless rifle across his back, after squeezing the trigger a few more times and hearing nothing but that underwhelming dry “click”. He picked up the sniper rifle. He was preparing to fire it when he remembered Ritter. He loped across the small hilltop and pumped his arm at Ritter, waving his knife-edged hand toward the business park. Ritter peeled away from the curb.

Now I just need to keep them busy and focused on me, thought Holiday. He brought the scope up to his eyes. Both groups had merged at the bottom of the hill. They were struggling up it en masse. He lowered the rifle into them, the powerful scope making them seem freakishly close and jerky. He aimed into the broken-toothed grin of one of the climbers and fired.

Click.

He checked the rifle, found the SAFTEY and pushed it forward. He aimed again into the bobbing, working mouth of another zombie, pulled the trigger, and felt a powerful blast of recoil in his shoulder. He had no idea if he’d hit the zombie he’d intended. He peered over the scope, his shoulder bone already aching. He could see a downed zombie being trampled underneath the feet of its surging comrades.

But that’s not what I’m really doing here, he reminded himself. I’m not here to take them out. I’m here to get their attention.

He aimed again and fired, this time striking a zombie in the shoulder, who tumbled back onto another climbing the lower slope. A moment later, its shoulder missing as jagged white bone surrounded by black gore leaped out in the scope, it began to climb upward again.

Aim for the head, Holiday told himself. Distantly he heard a car engine down below. He raised his scope and scanned the roads. Nothing.

He took aim at a zombie that had suddenly stood up mid-slope. It waved its arms frantically as though it were threatening, reaching for, grabbing at Holiday, and at the same time trying to keep itself from falling backwards. It was a young woman, twenty something, ponytail bobbing listlessly in the sunlight, pale scabbed skin wretchedly revealed in the closeness of the scope, as her teeth and jaw worked in black-crusted anger, the gore between the spaces creating the effect of bad oral hygiene. Holiday aimed for her still perfectly shaped head, the desired shape of every twenty something college coed, rising off a slender sculpted neck, and fired. The bang of the rifle had carried the scope off her, and when he centered it on her again, he could see a gaping hole in her stomach as her snakelike intestines spilled out onto the dry brown grass of the hill. She continued to wheel her hands about until she fell forward. Then she too began to crawl with the rest of them up the hill toward Holiday.

Ritter’s car raced through the parking lot, jumped a curb, landed on a still-vibrant green belt between the buildings and skidded, almost smacking into the side of the corporate headquarters of Lolli-Quick Industries. Ritter gunned the engine, churning up grass until the wheels caught, and pulled the Cutlass forward.

Some of the zombies on the hill were reacting to the sound of the Cutlass’s surging engine. As they turned to its noise they fell face forward, downslope, in their first step back toward Ritter and the still-closed door.

“What…” wondered Holiday, was Ritter doing making all that noise. It’d ruin the whole plan. Then he saw. At the entrance to the parking lot a new crowd of zombies, un-countable, surged up the driveway and into the business park.

Ritter skidded to a halt in front of the door. He honked the horn twice. Loud, too loud. Urgently.

Nothing happened.

Ritter honked again. Leaning on it.

Suddenly the door banged open and three figures, a large black man, a skinny kid, and a woman in heels and navy blue power suit came running out.

The crowd of zombies surged across the parking lot. Lunging forward. Holiday checked the zombies climbing the hill. Some were stumbling back toward Ritter and company, but the rest were still fixed on him. They could see Holiday standing at the top of the hill, banging away at them with the massive rifle. They gnashed and growled at him as they drew closer, crawling on hands and knees, nearing the top, their collective roar the whispering hiss of the surf withdrawing back across the sand. The nearest of them was a mere twenty feet away and struggling furiously to get up the last of the slope.

Promachœ

The word leapt out in Holiday’s mind, its meaning hidden. But he knew it had something to do with being brave. Brave enough to… what, he asked himself. The zombies in front of him were a closing wall of horror.

Now he knew exactly what the strange word meant.

Brave enough to stand in the front rank of the battle.

Just as he was doing now, instead of running.

Holiday pushed the word from his mind and checked the Ritter situation below. Zombies surged across the parking lot, pushing others down as they crossed onto the sidewalk and then into the green swatch of daily overwatered grass between the buildings.

Windows inside the building the three had just run from shattered as zombies hurled themselves mindlessly through the glass, only to fall to the grass and sidewalk in sickening thuds as they lunged for the three survivors racing for Ritter’s Cutlass. One of the zombies even managed to stand after falling from the second floor. A skinny kid with long hair and blood-crusted jeans, a t-shirt ripped to tatters.

Car doors were flung open and closed in almost the same instant, as the three slid into the waiting Cutlass. Ritter gunned the engine and the wheels spun mud and grass into the oncoming zombies loping up from the parking lot.

The car refused to move, and instead continued to churn landscape into the faces of the clustering undead mob.

Ritter threw the Cutlass in reverse as the first of the parking lot zombies neared the rear bumper. The car lurched backward and knocked a few zombies into others throwing themselves forward onto the stuck car as it rocked backward. One seemed trapped beneath the rear bumper.

More and more zombies swarmed the main entrance, pouring through it like an unending flood. Holiday knew that if they didn’t move soon they’d be cut off.

“Get out of there!” Holiday screamed down at them. Then he saw the hill crawlers were closer than he’d ever anticipated them to be, back when he’d hatched the plan.

The zombie kid who’d fallen through the Green Front second-story window crossed in front of Ritter’s car and smashed his hands through the side passenger window, grabbing at whoever was in that seat, as even more zombies clutched and crawled up onto the rear of the rocking car. Holiday knew that if he didn’t do something, the car would be rat-piled in a few more seconds.

But what could he do from here?

He raised the sniper rifle and landed the cross hairs of the scope on the zombie kid with the long hair flailing away at the broken glass on the passenger side of the Cutlass.

Nearby, the hill crawlers grunted raspy murder.

Focus, he screamed inside himself.

Holiday fired, sending the bullet right through the front windshield. Ritter’s car gave one final heave forward, after rebounding from the mob at the rear bumper and then pulled forward, leaping suddenly away and into a few hill crawlers who’d turned back toward the car. Ritter sideswiped another one as he drove back toward the alley.

Holiday knew Ritter had seen that the mob at the front entrance had cut them off and that it would be impossible to leave that way. Halfway down the alley, Ritter stomped on the brakes, sending white smoke up from the rear tires.

The rear entrance was blocked by a solid steel arm that had been lowered across the narrow exit road on one of the last days of civilization. There would be no way out for them other than through the lowered gate, and Holiday doubted anyone would get out of the car to raise it as zombies swarmed into the alley behind them.

Holiday lowered the rifle and ran without thinking as zombies crawled, bloody hand over mangled hand, onto the top of the hill. He slung the sniper rifle across his back and dodged through the first rank of zombies. His hands felt empty as they pulled at the air, willing himself forward and down the hill into the surging mass of undead.

He didn’t know if the zombies were tumbling down the hill behind him, landing pell-mell, relentlessly continuing on. Had they become suddenly faster, more agile? Inside Holiday’s head, his fears showed him pumping gray legs and necrotic hands reaching out, just steps behind him.

Holiday knew if he stepped in a gopher hole now, or tumbled down the steep hill his legs could barely keep beneath him, a broken leg or a turned ankle, and there would be no escape. He would be rat-piled almost instantly. He didn’t expect much out of the stranger who’d introduced himself as Ritter. He didn’t seem the type of punk to come get him if he was down. And maybe that was beyond the point. Would Ritter even be able to help if the Rat-Pile got him?

Holiday didn’t care, he only knew he needed to get them out of the alley.

And that’s when he heard the voice in his head as he charged downhill toward the alley.

“Move yer butt, maggot. You’re dead, you’re worthless!”

Chapter Twenty Eight

Ritter swerved in reverse, trying hard to miss the shufflers who stumbled into the alley, trying to intercept him before he could make it back out to the parking lot.

He hadn’t seen the swarming mass at the main entrance. Instead he’d merely gone for the alley because it was right in front of him and looked like a good way out of the living cemetery he’d been in for a week. He’d quickly realized his mistake once he saw the steel arm guarding the narrow exit road and backed out of there. He smashed through a line of corpses then careened across the grassy landscape, a gaggle of gray-fleshed lurchers waving and clutching as he fishtailed the butterscotch and blood-spattered Cutlass. Another group flooded out of the Green Front Technology headquarters, streaming into the parking lot as Ritter veered left, going wide.

That’s when he saw that they were cut off. That they were trapped. Dante yelled at him as a corpse smashed into the windshield. Ritter mashed the accelerator and circled the entire parking lot, looking for another way out of the crawling, writhing, end of the world hellhole that was once an office park, kicking himself for ever coming back.

There wasn’t one. They were cut off.

In back, someone was screaming. Skully, he thought. Candace was telling the kid to calm down, as Skully repeatedly screamed, “Is it bad?”

The windshield now had a large bullet hole and concussive spider webs circling outward from the epicenter of the impact. Skully had been shot.

“What the hell happened to you?” Dante barked in Ritter’s face from the passenger seat, his voice hoarse and ragged, his hands covered in bloody gore as he slammed them onto the dashboard. He was holding the fractured stub of a Green Front, ergonomic, state of the art desk leg. It was badly dented and covered in blood.

“Got cut off…” Ritter mumbled and spun the wheel hard to avoid a cluster coming at them from the left, “… back in the alley, Loc. Over there,” he said, grunting as he mashed the accelerator, indicating the far side of the building they were just passing. The exact spot where he hadn’t run into the swarm of zombies.

One of them came racing out of a nearby office building. It was faster than any of the zombies he had seen so far. A woman, disheveled and screaming. Behind her a few others lumbered out the open door, following her.

Ritter clipped her with the side of the car, just as she screamed, “Wait!”

“That’s another survivor!” shouted Dante, his voice ragged and croaking.

In the side mirror, Ritter could already see the zombies who’d followed the woman out the door of whatever that corporate headquarters had once been, falling onto her prone body.

That’s why they’d been clustered in the alley, thought Ritter. She’d been in there, surviving, the whole time.

“Too late now,” muttered Ritter, as he yanked the car to the right again at the end of the parking lot, braked hard, then mashed the accelerator to the floor, pushing away other darker thoughts of responsibility.

 

Holiday made the landscaping at the bottom of the hill when the voice inside his head yelled at him again. He knew it was the voice of an older man. A tough man. A man made of iron.

“You’re gonna need a weapon, maggot!”

Even Holiday had to admit, after completely missing both zombies with the machine gun back at the downed chopper and his shooting on the hill, he was not the best person to be using firearms.

“A real weapon, maggot.”

Holiday thought of the Guy Fieri knife tucked in his belt. He knew it wouldn’t do.

Ahead of him, a gardener, a young Hispanic man, bloodstained and dirty, stood up from the tall grass along the slope. A pole had pierced his mid-section. The pole had a long serrated knife with a wicked tip at the end. Holiday had seen gardeners use this to prune tall trees. Someone, one of the other gardeners, must have used it on the guy when he turned.

Holiday stopped, his breath coming in halting gasps. He was quickly being surrounded. The mass at the entrance was swarming into the mob coming from the building. The hill climbers were tumbling down the hill, landing with rough thuds behind him, then getting up. In a moment, Holiday knew he’d be completely cut off too.

He watched as Ritter careened through the parking lot.

The gardener lumbered for Holiday, the pole sticking into the ground and bouncing the gardener away from him.

Zombies began to fill the alley from the far end. Now they were heading toward him. The rear exit lay halfway down the narrow space behind the buildings.

Holiday waved his arms frantically at the speeding car. On the next pass Ritter saw him and mashed the brakes, his face incredulous. Worried too.

“Follow me!” roared Holiday and turned back to the dead gardener. He pulled the pole from out of the gaping stomach wound of the dead man and raced toward the alley. He could hear Ritter behind him, gunning the car in reverse.

Holiday ran hard for the gate. Ahead of him a rank of zombies filled the alley, reaching out for him, stumbling to meet him somewhere near the middle.

Holiday blocked out the sound of Ritter’s racing engine. He had to concentrate now on getting the gate open. He’d only get one chance to save them.

“Where’s your shield, maggot? How ya gonna protect the man on yer left, you worthless idiot?”

Holiday loped forward, his right hand held the gardener’s pruning hook naturally, his left hand felt naked. He drew the Guy Fieri knife and held it out high and above.

The first zombie met him before the gate.

“AIM FOR THE HEAD!” roared the grizzled voice.

Without thinking, Holiday shot the pruning hook forward and smashed it into the pulpy skull of the flailing dead man. It went down with a gurgled strangle.

Another one of the dead things was on him. Holiday swiped high with his knife and slashed the thing’s throat. It backed away from the sheer force of the cut, stumbling backwards. Holiday shifted his feet, raised his spear back over his shoulder and drove it into the thing’s unprotected and already mauled face.

The butterscotch Cutlass raced down the alley with all the zombies in the world, or at least that’s what it looked like to Holiday as he turned and saw what was behind the oncoming car.

Another three zombies came at him. He gave ground while jabbing hard at the leader. He felt the iron bar at his back.

Ritter screeched to a halt steps away from the gate.

Holiday dropped the leader with the next strike, reared back and struck the one behind it right in the throat. The pruning hook went straight through the column of gray flabby flesh and struck bone. Holiday heard a Craack as the head flopped backward. The thing went down almost on top of the other.

The last one grabbed onto Holiday’s chest and bent Holiday backward over the gate.

The thing’s foul breath whisper-rasped in his face. Up close it was a hoary young woman. Ragged, wispy, eyes milk-white. Her skin was gray.

“If the enemy wants it so bad, then let him have his way!”

The voice again. The roaring, tough bark that sounded like nails tumbling in a rusty oil drum filled with Drano gone bad. But Holiday knew what the voice meant, so he let himself fall backward over the bar as the thing on his chest flipped up and above him and landed on its back on the other side of the gate. Holiday scrambled to his feet, righted the spear and jabbed it quickly into the back of the once-woman’s skull.

Ritter leaned hard on the horn.

Holiday turned, fumbled with the release latch and then heaved on the gate. It flew skyward of its own accord and banged hard on some other surface with a metallic clang. Ritter pulled forward as the rear door opened, zombies surging down the alley, nearing the back of the blood-spattered car. Holiday flung the spear at the nearest oncoming zombie and landed it in the thing’s concave chest. It fell backwards into the surging mass and disappeared.

Inside the car, a raven-haired woman in a business suit shot Holiday an angry look over her shoulder as she turned back to a bleeding kid in the back seat. She moved over, causing the kid to scream as she suddenly crushed into him.

“Told you I’d come get ya, thirsty man” said Ritter. “Oh, and you shot Skully, nice move, Wyatt Earp.”

Holiday climbed in awkwardly, leaning forward with the rifle strapped to his back. He turned toward Skully and said, “Sorry.”

Skully looked at him, eyes wide and rolling. His face was bloodless, his skin thick with sweat.

A large black man in the front passenger seat gave Holiday a look filled with instant disgust, then turned away. Already the acceleration of Ritter’s driving was pressing them backwards as they fled down the rear entrance road, leaving the undead crowd far behind. Skully groaned.

“Where to next, thirsty man?”

Holiday led them in an indirect route back up into Viejo Verde. They passed strip malls and shopping centers that were quiet and deserted. There were very few zombies up here now. Maybe most of them had begun making their way downhill, following the natural contour of the land. Holiday directed Ritter to cross under the toll road and turn near the Target, then Holiday told Ritter to slow down.

“Less engine noise that way.”

Ritter slowed.

Candace said, “I don’t think he’s doing so hot.” The ‘he’ being obvious to everyone.

“Looks like he’s bleeding out,” rumbled Dante.

“We don’t want to draw any more of ‘em that might still be around,” said Holiday. “We can’t have them follow us back to my house. Go slow for just the next mile. We’re almost there.”

Ritter drove slowly up Portola Parkway, then turned at the top of the hill alongside the Vineyards. In front of the entrance, they could see Frank and Ash dragging a body out to an already sizeable pile of bodies.

“Stop,” said Holiday when they pulled close. Holiday jumped out and ran toward Frank and Ash. “I found some others! One of them has been shot.”

Ash ran toward the car. Frank remained holding his end of the body. Ash ducked her head inside the car. She popped out a second later. “Drive him down to Frank’s house, but take it slow!” Then she turned and ran like a track star into the complex, ahead of the already moving Cutlass with its door still open. Frank dropped the body as he and Holiday followed the slow-moving Cutlass into the complex. Along the street, they passed the motionless bodies of the dead. Ahead, they could see Ash running full tilt for Frank’s house.

When they arrived at Frank’s garage, Ash was just coming out, carrying a small green canvas bag. She set it down inside the dark of the garage and went to organize the removal of Skully from the car.

Skully began to scream as someone jerked him too hard into a sitting position. It was Dante.

“Don’t touch him. We need to do it together,” Ash lectured the big man from the other side of the car.

“Do you know what in the hell you’re doing, lady?” asked Dante.

She stood up, looked Dante straight in the eye over the roof of the car, then very calmly said, “Trust me. I’m a surgeon.”

A moment later, everyone was doing everything exactly as she wanted it done.

 

Later.

Twilight fell across the roofs and small streets of the townhomes.

Later.

The grass, freshly watered from the automatic sprinklers, felt cool on the bare feet of those who just needed to sit in the kiddie park.

Later.

Holiday opened his front door. He’d showered and put on fresh jeans and a clean t-shirt. They’d spent the rest of the day helping Ash perform rough surgery on Frank’s dining room table, Ash cutting and sewing, all the while telling everyone the things she needed from her bag, or things they’d need to find nearby.

They’d even donated blood.

Skully had the most common blood type. Several people had the same.

What if they hadn’t? What if Skully’s blood had been rare?

What if?

Later.

They found everyone a place to stay, Frank picking the locks to a few homes along the street.

One for Candace.

Dante.

Ritter.

Later in the twilight.

Holiday walked down the street to Frank’s house. He hadn’t had a drink. Didn’t want to. He could still taste that cold water at the 7-11. He felt cleaned out and more alive than he could ever remember feeling.

He found Ash in Frank’s garage. Beyond the open door, he could see light coming from the kitchen.

Ash was sitting against the side of the garage. She looked exhausted. Holiday smiled.

She stood.

“You saved…” began Holiday.

She slapped him hard.

Tears formed in her eyes. She clenched her jaw, turned and walked into the house, slamming the door to the garage behind her.

Later.

In the dark of early night, Holiday sat on the front steps of his house. Lights were on in all the new houses of the survivors. The front gate was locked. The perimeter secure for now.

He saw a figure leave Frank’s garage.

Walking up the street. Crossing onto the sidewalk on Holiday’s side of the street. He saw the soft red glow of the tip of a cigar.

A few minutes later Frank was standing in front of Holiday, the little gate to the front yard between them.

“I guess she’s mad,” mumbled Holiday.

Frank drew on his cigar.

Smoke curled off into the night.

“She is, kid.”

“About what?”

Frank regarded his cigar. Smelling it in the dark. He was just a shadow. When the glowing tip came close to his face, then you could make out the immobile features.

“See, that’s your problem,” said Frank. “Right there.”

Silence.

Frank continued.

“I like you. You’re a fun guy, Holiday. I should know. I’ve known a lot of fun guys in my time. Guys who liked to drink and have a good time. They’re usually not so bad. But I’ve also known worse. Guys whose sense of fun is warped for instance. Guys who enjoy the suffering and the misery of others. I’ve known those guys too. So if you were to ask me, I’d tell you I prefer guys like you. Guys who like to drink and laugh and talk and chase the ladies. Fun guys on a Saturday night.”

Frank drew deeply on his cigar. Holiday had the feeling Frank was gathering his thoughts. Like what had come so far was the bread of the compliment sandwich. Next was the meat, and it probably wasn’t going to taste good. Holiday had gotten a lot of compliment sandwiches in his time as a low-pay service employee. Especially after he’d skipped a shift or two to party.

Drink really.

Of course.

Next came the meat. It always went like that.

“Fun guys are for Saturday night,” began Frank anew. “But you see, all this end of the world jazz… this ain’t Saturday night anymore. This is survival now. End of the world type stuff. Back in ‘Nam we didn’t have room for fun. That was for the college kids burning their draft cards and smoking marijuana. Calling us baby-killers so they could make their professors proud of ‘em. In ‘Nam it was serious. Every day for thirteen months and sixteen days. I knew guys that got it early and guys that got it at the end. Taking it seriously made a difference. At least sometimes.”

A bat flapped overhead in the dark, its leathery wings beating at the stillness and heat of the night.

“Other times,” continued Frank after drawing on his cigar. “Someone else got it because another guy didn’t do his part. Usually because he was too busy goofing off. All because he just wanted to have some fun. And that’s where we are now, kid.”

Frank brought the cigar to his mouth again. The tip burned a hellish red for a long moment. The aroma of the cigar spilled across the garden and the night.

“See, when you went on your little liquor run last night, you left the front gate open. We woke up to a street full of those things this morning.”

Holiday’s mouth hung open.

He was going to protest.

“Later, we found a cart full of booze up at the store when we went looking for you. Figured it was you.”

“Figured you’d gotten in over your head. We were pretty sure you were dead, one of em’ now. So we cleaned up and counted you out.”

“I didn’t…”

“What you didn’t do… is take it serious. Real serious. We know you didn’t. You know you didn’t.”

Pause.

“But that’s okay, you probably didn’t mean to. You probably didn’t mean to get us killed. Except, that you almost did, kid.”

Another draw from the cigar. Holiday heard the distinct sound a bottle of booze makes when it’s moved. The bass note glug glug as it’s jostled in a pocket. The sound was in his head.

“So tomorrow we, Ash and I and these new people, we’re going to fortify this place. We’re gonna do better than we did before. We’re gonna take every advantage we can get. We’re gonna seal every entrance, board up every window. Even make a new gate. We’re gonna turn this place into a modern-day castle, ‘cause there ain’t no place else to go. We’re gonna make weapons. We’re gonna learn to work together as a team, and we’re going to survive and make it through whatever the hell this is, alive. Tomorrow, we’re gonna take it seriously.”

Frank leaned over the gate and set a liter bottle of some indistinguishable dark liquor in front of Holiday.

“You. We’re counting you out, kid.”

Then Frank turned and walked down the dark street, passing in and out of the shadows and streetlights until he was gone.

The Red King

There was a blinding flash. Off, over the horizon. The Raggedy Man stared at the board, oblivious to the sudden flash. He glanced at the pawns he’d deployed across the board.

A gray mushroom cloud began to rise and bloom.

The white horse his opponent had moved taunted him.

“Who are you?” he asked again for the sixth time.

His dark eyes darted up to watch his opponent.

“Who are you?” the Raggedy Man asked again, this time pointing his question across the board.

The Opponent said nothing.

Flakes of ash began to drift down across the sky. Blackened gray scraps of once-something floated down onto the board.

Only three pieces had been moved. The two black pawns. The white knight.

The Opponent studied the board. Then he moved the other knight. His thick thumb and forefinger deftly picked up the piece and raised it over the front line, landing it out on the board. Beyond the front rank of white pawns.

The Raggedy Man straightened for a brief moment and flicked a stray piece of ash from the board with one long and dirty finger, then remarked, “They’ve gone nuclear.”

Silence resumed as each studied the board.

“Why do you hate them so much?” asked the Opponent, knowing the Raggedy Man would never give him, or anyone, an answer. He watched as once more the Raggedy Man bent to the board. Intent on his next move.

THE END

The Next Book will be

The Dark Knight, Wyrd 2.0

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-Nick Cole

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About The Author

Nick Cole is a former soldier and working actor living in Southern California. When he is not auditioning for commercials, going out for sitcoms or being shot, kicked, stabbed or beaten by the students of various film schools for their projects, he can be found writing books for Harper Collins.

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Table of Contents

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty One

Chapter Twenty Two

Chapter Twenty Three

Chapter Twenty Four

Chapter Twenty Five

Chapter Twenty Six

Chapter Twenty Seven

Chapter Twenty Eight

The Red King

About The Author


The Red King

For a drunk named Holiday the End of the World might just be the worst hangover he's ever had. Or, the beginning of one last post-apocalyptic binge. The end of the civilization is only the beginning as an odd band of survivors pull together to construct a modern-day castle amid the burning ruins of suburbia lost. As undead hordes and strange otherworldly monsters ravage what’s left of civilization, things begin to go from worse to weird as each survivor’s dark past unfolds, revealing that reality might be more than anyone ever thought, and that an ancient force from the outer dark has finally arrived to conquer. Stephen King’s The Stand meets Lost in an epic confrontation between good and evil that spans history, time, and space.

  • Author: Nick Cole
  • Published: 2016-07-15 22:35:12
  • Words: 68487
The Red King The Red King