Book 1: Zone Defense
By Derwin Gonzalez
Chapter 3: NO MAN'S LAND
In the corridor of the underground command center I punched the elevator bank button a third time; the elevator to take me to ground level couldn't come fast enough for me. Max, I thought what would Connie think? It was her death that sent him on his downward spiral into madness. Before the city opened its gates to us our pack spent years surviving in the zombie feeding grounds the tri-state area had become. During that entire time of living day to day surrounded by unimaginable horror Connie remained the eternal optimist. She held steadfast in her belief that there was a light at the end of the tunnel. The only thing that kept Max going, back then was protecting Connie and keeping the hope she carried alive for all of us. When we were asked to rejoin civilization because the city belonged to the living again it proved that Connie had been right all along. Finally Max and Connie could continue the life that had been interrupted on that bus ride so many years before. Max joined the militia where he felt he was most needed. Connie returned to the medical field working in the city's first functioning hospital. They found a home together in a converted midtown office building. Having been married during our years "out there" in a ceremony I had been proud to officiate, they set a date to now make it official in the eyes of God at St. Patrick's Cathedral. So eager to start a family was Max that he spent his spare time renovating area playgrounds that had fallen into disrepair. One morning two weeks before their wedding while shopping for fresh produce at the local farmer's market an argument between patrons broke out over the last of the avocados. It quickly escalated and when gunfire erupted one of the stray bullets found its way into Connie's heart, stopping it instantly and all hope in Max's life was finally lost. As Max held her lifeless form against him the call immediately went out for a disposal team. Just as the Zombie population had been greatly diminished the power of the solar effect that spawned them had also waned. Now only about ten percent of deaths resulted in a zombie reanimation and it was no longer an instantaneous transformation, usually it took over an hour to go into effect. So the city maintained a Remains Disposal Department that sped around Manhattan collecting any reported deaths and taking them to disposal centers where the corpses were quickly cremated. Max was so distraught at first he refused to let them touch her but out of respect for his status as a militia officer the disposal team allowed him aboard the truck to accompany Connie's body to the cremation center. The staff there respected his wishes and let him personally operate the cremation machinery. Max took a leave of absence afterwards and when he resurfaced weeks later he had relocated downtown. He was a changed man. His drinking escalated and his recklessness and aggression during search and destroy missions alarmed us all but it was my duty as his friend and leader to keep him in check and get him the help he needed. I failed him so now it was up to me to deal with the consequences.
Outside I ran across the street back to the motor pool. Because of the scarcity of gas the only cars allowed to operate in the city were vehicles needed to perform official city business. I needed a squad car; I had to get to Max before anybody else did. In front of command I tried to downplay the incident hoping Fuentes would just sweep it under the rug as usual but I knew he couldn't allow a madman with that kind of firepower to escape unchallenged. He probably had a swarm of drones flying over downtown looking for that cargo van. If they found it and tried to move in on Max there's no telling how many people could get hurt. Unfortunately Lenny was the motor pool manager on duty now and he was a stingy bastard.
"I need a squad car Lenny, something big just popped off downtown." I tried to steamroll him.
"No shit Hollywood I just released 11 vehicles five minutes ago and they're all headed to West St. Jesus, why didn't you hitch a ride with those guys?" Lenny looked down at his clipboard. "You aint even on tonight's duty roster, I can't spare you no squad car! You're going to need to pedal it down there man."
"That's not happening." Fuck this shit, I gripped the firearm strapped to my hip. "What else you got for me?"
I jumped on the motorcycle for the first time in years; its power nearly throwing me before I settled in. I took the FDR downtown to avoid pedestrians. Bicyclists usually preferred the streets especially this late when traffic was light so except for a few city vehicles the highway was clear. But all along the Drive's walkway dozens of fishermen had a go at the East River's surprisingly plentiful marine life. I got off the highway just under the Manhattan Bridge. I passed through the barren streets of New York's Chinatown an area once teeming with color and vitality. Max had left the city center for the outskirts of the Lower East Side soon after Connie died. He took over an abandoned artist's studio. I visited him just once after he moved in. I helped him install a shooting range in the basement. I remember we used the cargo van to collect the building materials. Afterwards we popped off a few hundred rounds that night with some of the guys from the unit. We turned a friendly shooting competition into a drinking game and went literally shot for shot. We each emptied a clip from Max's .45 into a target but every time we pulled the trigger we downed a shot of tequila. The shooter with the best scores took home a thousand bucks. Of course Max won the night; he used to be the best of us, best shooter, best drinker, best soldier and best friend.
His home was in a mostly unsettled area avoided by new arrivals due to its isolation from the rest of the city. He didn't have many neighbors just a few eccentric types who preferred living off the grid away from the uptown masses. I myself hated these abandoned areas; they brought back unwelcome wartime memories of scavenging small town Main Streets where zombies could lurk around every corner.
I parked the bike a few blocks from Max's crib. In this desolate area the roar of its engine would have sounded like a fighter jet swooping in for an airstrike and the last thing I wanted to do was announce myself. Strapped across my shoulder I carried a silenced machine pistol still unsure what I planned to do with it. If Max had truly gone mad dog would I have it in me to put him down? I crept along the storefronts at a steady jog hoping not to attract any attention from the local nutcases. Knowing Max there was a good chance he had the perimeter under surveillance, maybe even booby traps on the building structure itself.
He lived in a three story building above a shuttered store front. Years before a successful downtown artist bought the tenement building and converted the top two floors into a vast loft-style living space, the store front became his gallery and the basement his studio. The gallery's grand opening was scheduled for the night of August 25th, about 10 years ago; a date which is now universally known as Zombie Dawn. That morning the down town area was an early hot spot for zee activity due to it's proximity to the city morgue; needless to say the opening never happened. Ironically his exhibition was titled Dead Meat and it featured photographs of nude models posing as murdered corpses in public places. Max learned all this from press clippings he found announcing the show and we all had a good laugh over it the night of the shooting contest. He actually used some pieces from the collection as targets; he got a big kick out of it. I realized the only time Max ever laughed or enjoyed himself anymore was over something ghastly.
I spotted the van under some tarp in an alley across the street. I pulled the tarp loose; the van was bullet riddled and there was fresh blood on it's rear floor. Before I could deduce whether the blood was Max's or some guy he snatched I noticed the piano wire at the end of the tarp. I had mere moments to act before the IED was triggered; I dove into the dumpster against the wall pulling the heavy tarp over me. I landed in a pile of trash and I was trying my best to burrow underneath it when the first blast rocked the dumpster, smashing it into the brick wall. Three more blasts followed in rapid succession, tossing the dumpster on its side. I spilled out of it, my ears ringing mercilessly, on my knees I looked up at the van's smoking husk. There went the element of surprise. I wasn't exactly in a stealthy mood anymore anyway. I staggered out of the alley, gripping my weapon so tight my knuckles whitened. I stood in the middle of the street directly in front of Max's building. I saw a shadow move in the loft's windows, I raised the sub-gun and emptied the clip; systematically shooting out every window in one long burst. Even with the silencer muffling the multiple shots crashing through the glass panes, in the stillness of the Lower East Side night they rang out loud enough to raise the dead again.
"Maaaaxxx!!!" I yelled out hard enough to fly out the tooth I loosened in the blast. Something stirred above, I ejected the empty clip and slapped in a fresh one. Through one of the shattered windows a white towel was waved.
"Take it easy killer, I wasn't planning on shooting it out with you." Max said with a cold chuckle. He stood up exposed in the glassless window frame. The .45 was tucked in his waistband; the towel in one hand, a bottle of bourbon in the other. He looked me over and winced. "Ouch buddy your melon's leaking."
I reached for my head and my hair was thick with my blood. He tossed the towel at me. I let it drop at my feet.
"What the fuck have you been doing Max?" I said through clenched teeth. Max took a long swig from the bottle.
"Door's open, meet me in the basement. Don't worry I disabled the rest of the IEDs." He stepped away from the window and disappeared inside.
I approached the door and I could see the trip wire along the door frame. I pushed the door open gingerly with the muzzle of my weapon. Nothing happened so I stepped inside.
I entered the short corridor leading into the storefront gallery and immediately I spotted a half dozen anti-personnel mines on the ceiling rigged to blow down onto the heads of whoever stepped through the doorway. Although Max had assured me he disabled the booby traps it was still very unnerving walking through that. Moving forward I remembered the steps to the basement were at the rear of the storefront.
The instant I entered the dimly lit main gallery room I nearly emptied my sub-gun and my bowels when I saw the entire space packed with zombies. Experience saved me some bullets and my pants when I realized the zee stink would have been overpowering even before entering the room if these figures were real. Also they were motionless which was impossible because like sharks those other famous man-eaters, zombies never stopped moving. There had to be at least fifty of them throughout the big space and as I approached the nearest one I realized they were mannequins sporting some pretty authentic zombie make-up jobs. Their faces had been painted that deathly grey-greenish shade of the real things. Their wigs were unkempt and dirty; their clothes shabby, torn and filthy. There was what I assumed was fake blood dripping from their mouths and fingers and soaking their clothes. It was actually pretty stunning work. All over the floor were the paints, wigs and other materials Max used and the empty bottles of booze that fueled him. As I walked through the mannequins I was overwhelmed with a powerful sense of deja vu. How many times in all those years "out there" had I been in this situation, surrounded and just out of reach of their grasping fingers and chomping teeth; fighting to stay alive, to stay human while all around me countless others fell and were overcome. In the midst of all the mannequins, I felt my emotions well up inside me and I wondered not just how did I survive but how did any of us? Well whoever lived through it, didn't live through it intact; Max was a prime example of that. Now as the zombies were being wiped off the face of the planet we were the walking dead.
I wondered what it was that had motivated Max to do this, was it boredom, his sick sense of humor or was it nostalgia? Maybe that's why he loved killing zees so much it brought him back to a simpler time when he could control the world around him with his guns, his knives and his fists; back to a time when he could protect Connie. Whatever his motivation was, if he was looking for some sort of therapeutic release it obviously hadn't worked. I reached the door to the basement.
"It wasn't enough was it Max?" I said without realizing I was speaking aloud. I pulled open the door and I was at the top of the steps. I saw Max at the bottom holding his ever present bottle; smirking at me.
"Talking to yourself Boss?" He said.
"It wasn't enough, the zombies; you had to move on to the next best thing."
"Well I finally realized killing a dead thing wasn't really killing. It's like shooting your lawn mower, they're just as mindless and it's just as meaningless. Now killing a man… taking a life, that's something." Max took a swig. "Especially when a life's been taken from you, you take enough back until you make it even." I saw him move his free hand.
"Put your hands up Max or I'll shoot you where you stand and drop the bottle too because if you intend to drink yourself to death it's taking too long." I aimed my weapon on him and took a few steps down. He put down the bottle.
"Easy there, I'm just a little drunk, just trying to steady myself…" He gripped the handrail, leaning on it. "…sucker."
I heard the clicking of gears in motion and then the steps collapsed inwardly beneath me and I fell the full 15 feet below. I cried out in pain as my knee slammed into the hard floor, the machine pistol flew from my hands. I reached for my sidearm but stopped myself when I saw Max had his .45 on me.
"No, no, no…" He said waving a finger at me. "Nice, right? I got the whole joint tricked out like that. I was ready for a siege of 100 men. But I just knew when I saw that drone tonight it'd be you and you'd be coming alone."
"So why snatch the boys Max, too cheap to pay for it?" I gripped my knee and I felt it swelling up.
"You got a dirty mind Hollywood nope it's nothing that tawdry. They fulfilled a need a lot more basic than getting my rocks off. Unfortunately for them, whores are throwaway people. Nobody really makes much of a stink when they go missing. You know I tried a couple of times to grab a chick hooker but chivalry wouldn't allow it. Now dudes blowing dudes for canned goods? That's a different story; shit I figured I was putting them out of their misery. " Max put the gun to my head and pulled me up roughly by my collar. "On your feet soldier; let me show you what I've done with the place. "
He pushed me forward, his gun steady on the back of my head. I tried my best to keep most of my weight off my bad knee.
"So what did you think of my form of artistic expression upstairs? I bet you never took me for the artsy type. I like to think of it as the sequel to the opening night that never was. I call it Meet Dead, catchy right?"
"What did you mean by basic need Max?" He pushed me towards the supply closet.
"You're about to find out, just step through those doors."
"You're going to shoot me in a storage closet?" I took a step back, if that was how it was going to be I didn't intend to make it easy for him.
"Relax Hollywood I aint gonna kill you. I need you alive, to do what I couldn't." He pulled the doors open, revealing nothing but an empty closet. He stepped inside and pushed on the rear wall; it gave way and swung open. "I knocked the wall down into the basement next door; in a sec you'll understand why I needed the privacy. Well what are you waiting for an engraved invitation?" He grabbed the front of my shirt and pulled me in the closet and he shoved me into the darkened space next door. He slammed the wall shut again behind us; the smell of something horribly familiar engulfed me.
To be continued in;
Chapter 4: TWO MEN ENTER, ONE MAN LEAVES… TWO MEN ENTER, ONE MAN LEAVES…