Book 1: Zone Defense
Chapter 4: TWO MEN ENTER, ONE MAN LEAVES… TWO MEN ENTER, ONE MAN LEAVES…
I tensed and back pedaled from the zee stench of the dark room. I felt Max's gun press into my back.
"Don't let the odor scare you, as long as you stay where you are, you're in no danger. So take it easy while I get the light, you know what that smell is so don't fucking move." He took the gun off me and stepped inside.
There was something else in the air mixed in with the obvious zee stink of old death, the more urgent scent of a fresh kill. Just as my sight began to adjust to the darkness the lights came on blinding me.
"I couldn't do it man I just couldn't do it… I swore I'd protect her no matter what… no matter what!" Max cried with anguish. I was blinking as my vision cleared but even before it did I already knew what I would be looking at.
In the six years of pack life I experienced "out there" I learned that there is no stronger bond than the one formed between humans fighting to survive together. I've lived through the deaths of countless pack members and often it felt as unbearable as losing a limb. With the possibility of death ever-present there was one solemn rule every pack around the world lived by; it's better to lose your life than to lose your humanity. I've put more bullets through loved ones than I care to think about; whether they were buried under a half dozen zombies feasting on their living flesh or they suffered from a minor scratch that festered into the zee infection with their last dying breath nearly every single one cried out for a true death. I gave it to them without hesitation because there is no horror worse than witnessing the soul departing from a loved one's eyes only to watch them rise again as a monster against you.
When my vision returned, the monster's eyes I found myself looking into were void of anything familiar or human but it's form was still recognizably Connie's. At her feet lay the carcass of her recent kill, the young male prostitute Max snatched off West St. She had feasted right through his pectoral muscles until she chewed on his pumping heart. The big bullet hole through his forehead told me Max had granted his young victim the true death he had denied the woman he loved.
Around her throat Connie wore an iron collar fastened to a thick length of chain anchored into the brick wall. It was stretched to capacity as she strained against it to reach me. Her arms were shackled around her back. She was wearing a yellow sun dress and it was caked with blood and muscle tissue. Her eyes were so wide at the sight of me they were practically popping out of her head. Her tongue poking out of the thick red mess around her hungry mouth pointed at me like an accusing finger. As usual for a zee after a fresh kill a bit of the color of the living returned to Connie's face.
"Isn't she beautiful Hollywood! She almost looks like her old self right after she feeds. I mean you don't want to see her like I did, with the life pumping out of her chest wound, laying there dead on the sidewalk." Max said sobbing as he grabbed the nearest bottle off the floor and took a long guzzle.
"How could you do it, Max you selfish bastard; how could you let her turn!" I was livid. "She deserved to rest in peace man; how could you do this to her?"
"What do you know about it Hollywood? I'm the one who loved her, was I supposed to prove it by putting a bullet through her head?" He demanded of me.
"That's exactly what you were supposed to do damn it, better that then to allow this fucking thing to happen!" I pointed over at Connie as she struggled against the chains to get at me. "How the hell did this happen anyway, why wasn't she cremated at the disposal center?"
"You see that's how I know I did the right thing, it was meant to be. The night before Connie was killed there was a building collapse on West 38th Street dozens of residents were buried underneath it, most of them crushed to death. I know you remember that shit."
"Yeah I do. I was patrolling just over the Ed Koch Bridge, a drone had picked up what command thought might be zees but under all those elevated tracks at Queens Plaza it was impossible to tell for sure. So they had us check it out up close and personal. It turned out to be just a stray pack of humans so feral and vicious we were forced to put them down anyway. That's when we got the call about the collapse; we rushed back immediately. All night and into the morning rescue crews dug through the rubble looking for any survivors. It was a race against time, not only to save the living but with that many dead we knew the odds were we'd have a few turn on us." I hadn't thought of that awful night in a long time.
"That had to be some hairy shit, digging through all that with nothing but flashlights to see with, never knowing for sure if the body you were pulling loose was a survivor or a fresh zee waking up with an appetite." Max chuckled derisively." But that's your Boy Scout ass in a nutshell aint it Hollywood? Always up for the call of duty, above and beyond and all that crap."
"I didn't get home until after sun up." I ignored Max lost in the memory of that day. "I was so exhausted I collapsed filthy and stinking on my clean sheets… until Reek woke me a couple of hours later and told me… about Connie".
"You got here too soon man. You didn't give me the chance to clean her up." Max stuck the gun in his waist while he walked to a corner and picked up a long and heavy looking iron bar; I tensed up and prepared for his attack. "You know what this is? The literal ten foot pole."
Instead of coming at me he approached Connie from the side holding the pole in front of him. Immediately she flung herself at him but the chain held her back. At the end of the bar was some sort of locking device, he jabbed the end onto a latch on her collar, it locked in place. He flicked a switch on the bar's handle and the chain unlocked from the collar and fell to the ground. "I know I got my hands full right now but don't even think about trying anything slick. I've gotten pretty handy with this thing; I can fling her on you so fast you'll wish I shot you instead."
He pulled her forward towards us and I backed up as far as the wall would allow. But he wasn't guiding her to me; he pulled her low and dragged her towards him. I noticed a machine-cut hole in the floor in front of his feet; it was about as wide as the circumference of the iron bar's tip. Max turned the bar on it's end, pulling her face so close enough to his he could kiss her. Then he lowered the bar into the hole until it locked loudly in place. Bent over at the waist with her collar attached to the unyielding iron bar Connie was allowed no room for movement but still her legs pushed forward in a futile effort to reach Max. He walked over to the mop sink; he picked up a garden hose and attached an end to the faucet and turned it on.
"You know where I got all these cool restraints from? Ward Island, they got about a hundred zees over there at any given time, doing God knows what kind of experiments on them. But I bet you already knew that didn't you boss?
"This is horrible Max can't you see it?" I pleaded with him.
"I'll tell you what's horrible fighting for years through hell on earth to give the woman you love the life she deserves only to have it all end because of two assholes fighting over produce."
"This isn't making it any better!"
"Do you know she was dead before she hit the ground? I heard the shot, then I heard her gasp, it was her last breath. I turned to her and she was on the floor, gone. She got cold so fast it didn't seem real." Max stood in front of Connie again. He stroked the hair from in front of her face while she strained her head to tear into him but the collar held her in place. I couldn't believe what I was watching. Max adjusted the hose's nozzle and sprayed a light stream in Connie's face rinsing the bloody gore off her.
"Why wasn't she cremated?" I asked him for the second time.
"When the disposal team came I was a mess. I wouldn't let her go, I held her so tight… like I was trying to squeeze the life back into her. They finally just let me come along on the truck with her. When we got to the cremation center it was a mad house. The casualties from the collapse were on stretchers all along every corridor. The staff was in a panic after four of the dead had turned and infected two of their workers. The ovens were working overtime but the disposal of the bodies was so backed up they were starting to pack them in there three at a time. They were so scared of any more dead rising they were shooting corpses through the head to prevent it. When one of their security guys came up to us and put his gun to Connie's temple I nearly murdered him. I pistol whipped him stupid with his own gun and when I showed them my militia special ops badge they backed off quick." Max had moved on to her hair, gently holding it up while he ran the water through it. "The Center Director showed up and told me Connie needed to be dealt with soon, it was always possible she could be that 1 in 10 that still turned after death, he assured me I didn't want to see that happen. I told him nobody was going to be shooting her corpse and I wasn't going to let them cook her along with any other bodies. I wanted it done right and I wanted to keep the ashes. They took me to the basement where they kept one of the older manual ovens nobody liked using because it didn't contain the fumes well. They showed me how to operate it and left me to it."
"So what happened?"
"When I picked her up to lay her in that oven, to erase her from all existence… I could feel her getting warm again. Something was happening to her, I knew what it was but I wasn't afraid. She was coming back to me Hollywood and I had to protect her! I took her ID and I put it in the pocket of a dead girl upstairs whose face security had blown off. There was a back staircase in the basement that led to the garage. I found a disposal truck with the keys in it and put her in the back. I was about to jump behind the wheel when this mechanic grabbed me, I put him a choke hold until he knocked out. I couldn't let them find him so I put him in the back too and then I lit out of there. I knew the only place to hide her was downtown. I was on the FDR when I heard him screaming. I looked in the rearview past the protective glass behind me and watched Connie climbing the mechanic's back, chomping into his shoulder. He threw her off him and ran to the glass banging with his fists, begging me to save him. She jumped him again and hard as he tried to fight her off she finished her meal. It was the first time I ever fed her. By the time I found that parking garage on East Broadway they were both pawing at the glass trying to get at me." Max put the hose to her feet washing off the grime.
"So that's how it's going to be, you're just going to keep feeding Connie innocents just to keep her with you?"
"Ha, don't make me laugh nobody's innocent anymore. There isn't one person alive who didn't make it through the war without stepping over somebody else. Come on Hollywood we seen it all, mothers tossing their babies at zees just to buy themselves a few more seconds, the fucking military dropping bombs on populated towns just to keep the hordes from reaching them and spreading the virus. The only innocent among us is this little lady." Max smacked Connie's backside roughly.
"That's disgusting Max. End this now and let her rest; you know that's what she would have wanted." I told him. Max pulled out the .45 and pointed it at me.
"Haven't you been listening Holly? I couldn't do it then and I can't do it now. If you leave it up to me I'll keep feeding her whores until there aint no more ass for sale in all of Manhattan. That's what I need from you brother, to do us both." He held out the gun to me, I didn't reach for it. "Go on Hollywood do the world a favor, don't punk out like I did. I'm not ashamed to admit it's not just killing Connie I'm having a hard time with. I've put a gun to my head a dozen times but I've never been able to pull the trigger home because when you've done as much evil as I have you start to worry about what's waiting for you on the other side."
"Max I'll take care of Connie, I can do that for her but don't ask me to… I can't kill you. There's no need, the things you've done you can't be held responsible for, you've lost touch with reality. There are people who can help you deal with what you've been through and with what you've done. It may take a while but you might be able to live with yourself one day." I held out my hand for his gun. Max fast as ever back-handed me with the muzzle. I fell down hard, I grabbed my jaw, it felt sore but intact.
"You dumb fuck, you must be the only bitch-ass bleeding heart liberal who didn't end up zombie meat. You think you can save me? You gonna put me in some psycho ward for ten years until I'm feeling like my old self again? You can't save a rabid dog Hollywood you can only put him down. You had your chance and you blew it cause now I'm thinking maybe I'm not done yet, maybe I'm just getting started. Maybe everything had to happen this way for me to become what I was always meant to be."
"This isn't you Max. This isn't the man Connie fell in love with…" I tried once more but Max laughed at that. He grabbed her by the hair and turned her face to me.
"You wanna ask her who I am, you wanna know what she would tell you if she could?" Max pushed her head down, she snapped at him with her teeth just missing him. He reached behind her, gripping her dress and pulled it clean off her; leaving her naked and exposed, her belly bloated with her recent meal. "She would say kill him Holly, kill that murdering, psychotic rapist!" He raged as I just looked at him stunned as his words sunk in.
"What the fuck happened to you man, what the fuck happened!" I was losing it.
"God happened, the universe happened, karma happened, whatever it is that deals the cards, finally decided we were a bunch of greedy fat pigs devouring everything around us and they thought it'd be funny if we started devouring each other too. Come on Hollywood after that shit what do you expect?"
"So that's your excuse? It's a weak one the war is over, humanity won and most of us are ready to move on." I stood up and shook my head clear. "I'll take that gun now Max because Jesus Christ I really wanna kill you, you sick son of a bitch!"
"That's the spirit." Max said smiling. "But first let me set you straight, aint shit over. The zombies weren't the apocalypse, they were just the catalyst for the big show and the one billion humanoids mean and ugly enough to survive the zee war aren't the solution they're the problem. You safe zone assholes living in your midtown towers like you're in fucking Camelot have no idea what's going on downtown or in the settlements all around us where you got a million starving savages who would love to tear this city apart. Because there aint nothing safe about these zones anyway, with their masses of humanity suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and packing heat; I know that first hand. But the worst is yet to come Hollywood. When the last zombie gets his brains pushed out and the conquering armies come home from the abandoned states and overseas, after all those years of slaughtering and killing on automatic pilot what do you think will happen? How do you think they'll fit into your new society? How do you think they'll feel about the 4 to 1 male to female ratio? I'm telling you man the apocalypse is now, these are the end of days and it's about fucking time."
"All right enough of your bullshit, what are we doing here?" I demanded.
"Well me, I'm off to fight the good fight. I got my bags packed and a plane to catch, it's a 15 fucking hour flight to the Indian sub-continent. My recruiter says South Asia is the land of the last of the great hordes. There are 10 million humans living in the Mumbai Safe Zone surrounded by just as many zombies in the outlying areas. In a day's time I'll be knee deep in dead meat."
"You taking Connie along on this grand adventure?"
"I wish but that's where you come in. You fucked up though you should have smoked us both when you had the chance. Now I'm thinking instead of making it so easy for you by leaving the .45 maybe I oughta level the playing field." Max said as he pulled out a small remote control unit from his pocket.
"What are you talking about?" I didn't like where this was going. "What is that thing?"
"You know the expression mano a mano, everybody thinks it means man to man but what it actually means is hand to hand." He took a few steps away from Connie and pressed a button on the remote. The manacles dropped off her wrists to the ground. She grabbed for Max but he was just out of reach.
"What the fuck are you doing Max?!?!"
"I'm taking my leave. As soon as I step through that door I'm locking the wall behind me and releasing her collar. Then you two can get reacquainted; wish I could stay for the reunion." Max raised the gun on me and took a step towards the exit. I limped his way.
"Then you're going to have to shoot me because there's no way I'm letting you leave me here with that thing."
"Oh yeah, what if I just put one in your good knee? Back up boss, don't make it so easy for her; you're in bad enough shape as it is." He lowered his aim to my good leg. I backed off.
"We were more than family Max we were pack and leaving me here to get turned goes against everything we believed in! When we were "out there" we wouldn't do this to our worst enemy!"
"Jesus Christ Hollywood enough with the melodrama; I've seen you get out of worst scraps. Anyway you won't be entirely at her mercy, I've got something stashed nearby that'll even the odds. The trick is getting to it before she gets to you. Remember she aint one of those starving zees that can barely lift one foot in front of the other. She's been feeding regularly so she's faster and stronger than you're used to."
I looked around the mostly bare basement space; I didn't see anything that might help me fight Connie.
"Stop playing games just tell me where the weapon is."
"Come on Holly I gotta give my girl a fighting chance too." He took a long look at Connie as she clawed desperately to reach him and locked eyes with her. "We had us some times didn't we baby? We were supposed to have us a real life together but look at us now, monsters both." While they shared a moment I noticed a can of paint in the corner heavy enough to bash Connie's head in. As I bent to grab it I saw it was nearly empty and useless to me but across the basement by the mop sink something caught my eye. Sticking out, tucked behind the sink was a handle. It was long with countless notches carved into it, I recognized it immediately as the handle of Max's machete.
"It's too bad Hollywood showed up so soon it would have been nice to have you one last time." I heard Max tell her under his breath. He took a hard mournful swallow and then he walked out, He stopped halfway out the door. "I'm out of here Boss but don't go missing me too much because I promise I won't be a stranger; first things first though. I'm gonna hit South Asia like a tsunami, zee heads are gonna fly by the thousands and after we wipe out every single zombie on that continent were coming home to the stateside safe zones. I'm gonna talk Manhattan up so big to those marines who aint got shit left to come back to, it's gonna sound like paradise. Then I'm gonna march nothing less than an army of them over the George Washington Bridge and right up to the Harlem Wall. Then were gonna tear Camelot down brick by motherfucking brick." With that Max made his exit and the wall swung shut behind him.
A few seconds later I heard the electronic lock on Connie's collar click open, releasing her from the Iron bar; she stumbled forward free.
To be continued in;
Chapter 5: Code Of The Pack