The corpse crouched in the shallow mud-water along the lake, shirtless and saggy chested, grabbing at minnows that darted between the green rocks. Marco studied it through his binoculars. Sometimes the dead surprised him–so quick with their hands, but so uncoordinated. Like toddlers. He watched the corpse strike and come up empty, then again, gawking at its palm while its reptilian brain groped to understand the failure. Failing at that, too, it splashed after the next silver flash of fish.
There. On the dead man’s left hand.
A wedding ring.
He zoomed in on the ring. Jewellery was a godsend for making the ID. Skin fell off, hair fell out; fat men rotted themselves thin, and thin men ballooned with gas and bacteria. But if you were lucky enough to find the corpse with original jewellery, some identifiable piece that hadn’t been torn or bitten off, then you had your proof. Bring the jewellery back, and nobody disputed you’d done the job.
Down below, the corpse shoved its hand again beneath the water, stirring up the mud.
‘Come on,’ Marco muttered. ‘Come on, show me.’
The corpse splayed its fingers out for inspection, as if it had heard.
Which, of course, it couldn’t have. The tree blind where Marco had camped for three days now was a cautious two hundred yards up the mountain–tucked high into a young lodgepole pine, plenty of coverage, long green needles to disguise the canvas assembly. The platform was only five feet wide, five feet long; with all his gear there wasn’t enough space to stretch his legs while sleeping, but cramped muscles in the morning were a fair trade for the safety of altitude. The perch was accessible only by the iron spikes he’d driven into the trunk at intervals–impossible for a corpse to climb.
He’d learned to build the blind from a hunting magazine scrounged out of a dark Barnes & Noble a few months back, with parts from a ransacked Sports Authority. His Cornell education was officially useless; hunting magazines and topographical maps were the new required reading. Back before civilisation tanked, he hadn’t known an ounce of shit about outdoor survival. Now he went nowhere without a yellow, dog-eared copy of Camping for Dummies in his backpack.
A sharp, tiny pain speared his neck. He slapped a biting gnat, crushed it into his skin.
Christ. He felt dirty and ripe. He’d been tracking this same corpse for almost a month. And the hike to the lake had been especially draining. He’d had to ditch the Jeep twenty miles south, where the mountain road had been blocked by the wreck of a thirty-foot Ryder truck. The trailer had wedged sideways between the trees–years ago, judging by the corrosion along the torn bed. Mildewed furniture, smashed electronics, scraps of orange-rusted metal strewn everywhere. In the cab sat the driver, skeletonised, arms eaten. Some idiot taking all his toys with him during the Evacuation. Flying hell’s bells down the twisty road, losing what control he had left.
The wreckage was impossible to clear, and the forest too dense for off-roading. On the map, Marco had measured an alternate drive to the lake–three hours of circumnavigation that would burn a dangerous amount of gas, which was already in short supply. And so he’d decided to risk the remaining distance on foot, backpacking for a day with his gun drawn.
Compared to that, the tree here was a safe haven. From a height he enjoyed a clear view down over the forest, to the water, to the shore–past the man-made beach, the docks, the rustic vacation cabins clustered at the western inlet of sparkling Lake Onahoe. All calm.
Still, he now felt a twitch of unease, as if something weren’t right. He exhaled and studied the ring on the corpse.
Grimy, but the thick gold band was visible enough. Twelve millimetre or so. Square diamonds in a milled linear pattern, a fit for the description Joan Roark had given. Wives were good like that, he’d found. Men struggled for details–funny how they always remembered the price–but the women? They’d draw a ring from memory if you gave them pen and paper.
With his thumb, Marco idly played with the platinum band on his own left hand. It wobbled on his underweight finger. Only a matter of time, he knew, before it slipped past his knuckle in the middle of some craziness and plunked to the ground, unnoticed, gone. He had to start eating more, stop wasting away. Until then he should just take the ring off, store it back at base when he was on a job–or maybe get a chain, wear it around his neck like a dog tag.
Perfect, right? A reminder why he fought this war.
He didn’t allow the thought to finish. He tucked the binoculars into the mesh side pocket of his pack and refocused his mind.
Yes, there was a good chance Marco had found Andrew Roark.
He glanced at the printout tacked to the canvas beside him, a colour photo Joan had scanned and sent from her home in the East, in the Safe States. Roark when he was alive.
The photo was a headshot –headshot, Marco thought wryly, always aim for the head, the only way to kill a corpse for good–taken from the annual report of Roark’s company, Tylex, some big Fortune 500 number. Andrew J. Roark, CFO, an executive in his fifties. Sharp suit, double chin, a chubby neck squeezed into a starched white collar.
Roark’s cheeks were tinged red, his nose big with a round bridge that made him look like a large goofy bird. But friendly, Marco had decided, a guy who laughed a lot. A good-sounding, unguarded laugh–a guy who didn’t feel comfortable being boss, a guy who wore a baseball cap at the company picnic and wanted the lunchroom people to call him Andy. His eyes were a bright, insightful blue; his short hair glistened silver on the sides and dark across the top.
The corpse below Marco had blind white sacs for eyes, a few strands of hair on a rotten scalp. But the rest is right, Marco thought. If you used your imagination. If you ignored the toll of two postmortem years, the skin mottled like bad cheese now, the ears shrivelled, the tip of the nose missing where something had gnawed the cartilage. Ignore all that, and what do you see?
Marco nodded. He was almost certain the thing down there was Roark. And yet…
He couldn’t know for a fact.
Not until he saw that ring up close.
Moving slowly to minimise noise, Marco reached down next to himself in the blind and retrieved his rifle–a sleek Ruger 1-A he’d been lucky to find last year beside the mutilated body of a hunter in Utah. A good weapon. Long-barrelled but not too heavy, built for mountain killing, accurate at three hundred yards. Serious punch.
He trained the scope on the corpse. Miraculously, it had caught something. A frog hiding in the mud. One flipper, crooked and green, popped from the corpse’s fist, kicking at the air. The dead man flattened its hand against its mouth, shoving mud and frog inside, and bit down with a vicious jerk of the head. Brown sludge oozed from its teeth.
Marco shuddered. Bad luck for Kermit there. That was the problem with hiding places–down in the mud, up in a tree.
You think you’re safe, until you’re not.
The joints in Marco’s neck cracked as he scanned the forest below him and to the sides, searching for irregular shadows between the straight charcoal trunks. He listened for the crackle of feet dragging through dead leaves. But everything sounded right, looked right. Even the air smelled like the drizzly rain that morning, like clean pine. No trace of the giveaway stink that permeated an area when corpses gathered together.
But it worried him that the dead were good hiders, too. Sometimes they seemed to come from nowhere. And from experience he knew that one rifle shot could draw a crowd.
As remote as the forest seemed, the town of Wilson was just over the mountain, five miles down Route 78. Wilson, population five thousand–former population five thousand–an oasis in the Montana wild, catering to the summer lake vacationers who once flocked here.
The four-aisle grocery store, the lone movie theatre, the video store still packed with titles on VHS. Marco had resisted the temptation to pass through town for a supply boost on his hike. Instead he’d cut a wide path around. Places like Wilson were trouble. God forbid he stir up five thousand corpses. Christ, as far as he knew, they were out here already, enjoying a nice walk in the woods. Any careless sound could attract a pack, clamouring like dogs around the bottom of his tree, and he’d have to waste bullets–or worse, they might keep coming, outnumbering his ammo. He’d be stuck where he was, while Wilson held a goddamn town meeting below him.
Damn it. He hated taking a shot unless he knew.
He concentrated his memory on the photo album Joan Roark had shown him. The trajectory of a man’s life. Andrew Roark, younger, thinner–even his nose looked smaller–in a white tux on his wedding day, black hair combed tight to his scalp, cigarette tucked in his grin. Roark through the years, turning older, heavier, better dressed, in a better house. Birthdays, Christmases, trick-or-treating in a scarecrow costume with the kids. Roark again in his fifties, at a banquet table, beaming, arm around Joan, champagne flutes before them on a white tablecloth. His hand held up three fingers for the camera. ‘Our thirtieth anniversary,’ Joan had said.
And their last.
But it was the vacation snapshots Marco remembered most. Decades of them. Andrew and Joan at the lake. The first photos were just the two of them, newlyweds. In a canoe, on the beach, cuddling in a hammock on a cabin porch. Then joined by an infant, then another. The kids aged, and then it was grandkids on rafts, rolling on the lawn, fishing on the dock with Roark. In one of the last pictures, Joan and Andrew in the canoe again, waving back at the camera.
Lake Onahoe was their place. Every July for thirty summers. ‘He loved it so much,’ Joan had said. ‘Couldn’t wait to get through June, just to get up to the lake again.’
Which was the reason Marco had made the trip to Montana. He’d already wasted three weeks on two failed stakeouts. First Roark’s home town, then his office in Seattle.
But this place seemed like the jackpot.
Roark’s corpse had migrated three hundred miles, just to rot here.
All the dead did it. Picked their own place to haunt. No thought behind the decision; the corpses couldn’t think but were herded instead by an impulse they couldn’t understand. Not that Marco understood, either. But as a neurologist–ex-neurologist, he reminded himself, you’re nothing now–he could guess. Their brains had gone dark, whittled down to the stems. Functional operations took place in the primitive reptilian complex, ruled by rage, fear, survival, hunger. Yet up in the neural pathways, something else remained, the weakest electricity from the amygdala into the prefrontal cortex. A drip of emotional memory from the higher brain.
He doubted the dead drew comfort from it. They didn’t seem to care. It simply acted like a gravitational pull, drawing their cold bodies to wherever the warmth of their lives still lingered.
For Roark, this lake was where it would end.
Marco swept his Ruger up and down the shore, checking one last time through the scope for signs of trouble before he took the shot. Through the crosshairs the lakefront seemed quiet. Nothing new, nothing he’d missed. No sign of any hiders.
Focus, he thought. Caution was good–but too much and the corpse might wander back into the trees, and he’d lose the easy shot. And no damn way did Marco want to track the dead man through thick forest and mountainous terrain. Swinging the rifle back, he fitted his outside arm into the leather sling to stabilise the shot from his seated position.
He fixed his sights. Two hundred yards, into the black hole of the corpse’s shrivelled ear. The walnut stock pressed cold against Marco’s cheek.
He could see the mandibular muscles on the side of Roark’s head flexing, the jaws still working the chewy cartilage of the frog. The corpse gazed across the lake, emotionless.
Marco waited for its head to still.
There. The crosshairs met in the middle of its ear.
The crack of the Ruger tore through the trees, the pine needles quaking a million ways around him. He glimpsed a fragment of skull explode from the corpse and spin sideways into the water, like a rock skipping, twice. The echoes of the shot rocketed back towards Marco from the mountains on the other side of the lake, and he watched, his head ringing, as the corpse flopped face-first into the shallow water, staining it with that obscene fluid the things bled–not blood, but black and liquid like diarrhoea. It lay there without a twitch.
Whatever remained of Andrew Roark in that reanimated flesh–gone now.
All parts equally dead.
Marco watched the corpse bob a few feet from shore. The lake and forest sat in utter silence, stunned by the rifle-shot. He imagined the insects, the birds, the animals holding their breath, hearts jackhammering in their chests.
He ejected the spent shell and set the rifle on the platform. Then he closed his eyes and listened, his head tilted back. He inhaled the scent of pine, let it tingle through his body before breathing out through his mouth. He waited. Minutes passed. The quiet overwhelmed him.
Lately, after the kill, he’d felt this odd emotion–like a sadness that he’d lost someone he knew, someone important to him. It shouldn’t feel personal, Marco knew. And yet it was personal. It had to be. For the past two months, Roark had been a companion of sorts, in all Marco’s thoughts and incessant planning. Pathetic, but true. And now it was over.
Roark had been returned.
And so Marco sat, waiting for the sadness, the silence, to lift.
Gradually the hum of wildlife resumed. Squirrels chirped. Chickadees and dark-eyed juncos resettled in their trees and conversed shrilly. Cicadas started again like motors. Marco allowed another ten minutes to pass, just to be careful, sifting through the forest noise–no sound of trouble. He fetched his binoculars again and checked on the corpse.
Roark’s splayed body bobbed a few feet beyond where Marco had dropped it, bumping against rocks in the shallows. The cloudy lake water rippled underneath the corpse, discreet waves caused by winds coming off the mountain and crossing the lake. Shit, thought Marco. The body was buoyant, bloated with gas and decay. If the rolling water nudged it from the rocks, just a bit to the right, the carcass could float out to the deep.
It wouldn’t sink–but Marco was in no mood for a swim to retrieve it.
Enough meditation. Move your ass.
In confident motions he removed two handguns–a police-issue Glock .40 and a Kimber he’d found in an abandoned Phoenix SWAT truck–from the side compartment of his backpack and holstered them to his chest. From another bag he pulled his hunting knife and slung the sheath from his belt, then slipped another three ammo clips into his vest. He grabbed a coil of nylon rope in case he had to lasso the corpse back to land, and then, moving to the rear of the blind, he turned himself around and stepped onto the first spike down…
… when he heard it.
That noise that always made his eyes water, his spine contract.
The cry. Strangled, wet, gurgling… not a low moan, but a high, sickening squall that seemed to churn unnaturally in the throat, choked off for ever from dark dead lungs.
Somewhere to the east. Still distant, thank Jesus, a long wail rising from the trees, and Marco saw nothing but forest. He swung back atop the platform, his breath quick. Moments later a second cry echoed the first. More than one corpse. Then a third cry, then a fourth. And then too many to count.
Marco shuddered. God, he hated that sound.
He hated it, because this was when they seemed their most human. The miserable noise was the touch-point between his existence and theirs, the awful joke played on them all. They suffered. He suffered. Listening to them now, he heard the pain. The frustration, the dread that beat in his own chest every night as he tried to sleep, suffocating in his room at base, wanting to scream but afraid to make a sound. Too careful to release his anguish out loud.
In that small way he envied them.
He scanned the eastern horizon. A small cluster of black specks bustled above the treeline, about two miles away, swooping in and out of each other. Turkey vultures. The birds were a great early warning system, Marco had discovered, like canaries in a mine. The stench of death attracted them, and once they’d locked onto a corpse, they might follow for days, launching attacks on the walking carrion, swinging down to tear at a leg or a neck. Two or three birds could devour a corpse alive. It was justice of sorts, if justice still existed.
With larger crowds of the dead, the birds tended to keep high in the sky, on the lookout for stragglers. Their presence had tipped Marco off in the past, saved his ass more than once, and he’d come to think of them as allies. Says a lot, he thought sourly sometimes. My only friends are vultures. Back at base in the mornings, he had a habit of peering out through his bedroom window the moment he awoke, scanning the sky for vultures like people used to check for rain.
Seeing what kind of day it would be. A lot of vultures meant a bad day.
Now the ghastly wailing continued, louder. Marco judged it would take the horde–from the chorus he guessed there might be as many as fifty–maybe half an hour to cover the ground, figuring the terrain was uneven and choked with roots and rocks. And, besides, they might not even be heading in his direction. With luck, they’d wander away.
He frowned. There was no real reason for the shiver in his stomach. He himself had a short walk to the lake, a quick errand: check the body, get the ring, return to the blind. Fifteen minutes, tops. Up here with the canvas drawn tight, he’d never be detected. Not the perfect situation, but workable. Better than letting the corpse float to the middle of the lake.
Deliberating, he absently pinched his left earlobe between his thumb and index finger–a habit of his while thinking, ever since childhood. His knuckle pressed into a small triangular notch in his lobe, a missing piece of cartilage the size of a tooth. Dog bite when he was seven. The injury had occurred on a summer morning, thirty-five years ago, as Marco crawled between the hedges in his yard to dislodge a rubber ball. Without warning, Frankie, the yellow-eyed mongrel next door, had crashed through the branches, teeth snapping. The utter terror of that one single moment remained vivid to Marco even now. The roar of animal anger, the black head exploding from the leaves, the hot, reeking weight of fur crushing him into the garden mulch.
I’m getting eaten, he’d thought, dazed, as claws tore his shirt, raked his back.
His first lesson that monsters weren’t pretend. Things could get you in real life.
To this day, dogs scared the shit out of him.
‘Oh hell,’ he decided. ‘Let’s go already.’
Feeling the press of time, he lowered himself again onto the top spike, then dipped his right foot until he felt the spike below. In swift increments he descended the tree, keeping close to the trunk, listening to his holster knock a hurried rhythm against the evergreen wood.
At the bottom, he surveyed the immediate area. The tall ferns carpeting the forest floor were green, bright with life. Globules of dew glistened in spider webs between the fronds, and sunlight pierced the treetops like white javelins. The only sign of disturbance was a corridor of partly crushed stalks heading south–a trail he’d made himself yesterday on his hike to the lake. He drew the Glock, just to be prudent, and started off down the path.
Stretching his legs felt good, to uncramp and get moving again.
The air grew noticeably warmer a hundred feet lower and, when he looked back, he saw a light mist above him. He’d been sitting in a mountain cloud without realising it. The mist obscured the bent vegetation. Could be an advantage, he thought.
Or not. He doubted the corpses were smart enough to track him. Instead he realised he’d better pay attention to his surroundings, take note of landmarks. Like a giant grey flat-sided boulder, and a half-toppled tree growing sideways from a mound of intricate roots. Marco added them to his mental map. He couldn’t afford to get lost on the way back to the blind.
Especially if monsters were after him.
Closer to the lake, as the trees thinned and the air began to smell like a damp basement, he came across a mash-up of footprints–some barefoot, others not–in the soft earth.
The area had recently been hot.
He wasn’t too concerned. He’d seen these tracks already, inspected them a few days ago on his first morning at the lake. He’d ventured down to the cabins to check if he was alone out here. The row of eight identical houses had greeted him–impressive structures chiselled from ruddy brown logs, two storeys high, flanked by stone chimneys, windows ominously dark.
The doors were all locked, which he found reassuring. The former residents had likely left on their own, still alive and ahead of the violence, probably back when the evacuation orders first came down from the state. He doubted he’d find any squatters, but of course he had to check. In each front door he shattered the glass pane, using his bedroll to muffle the sound, then crept through the shadowy hallways with his gun pointed ahead of him. His heart knocked heavily, his pulse flared every time a squirrel ran along the roof outside.
Empty, all of them. Safe. Cleaned out, too, the pantries and closets bare. On the dinner table in Cabin Seven–next door to the Roarks’–he’d found a handwritten note:
Jay, hope you didn’t come here, but if you did, we had to go to Kim and Robert’s in Connecticut. Please call. Sorry. We didn’t know where you were, and the army won’t let us stay longer. We’re okay and went with the escort. Hope you are, too. Dad said to leave you the Remington in case you came. It’s in the hall closet.
Marco had checked the closet. Nothing but a few wire coat hangers and sawdust on a plywood shelf. He’d slipped the note into his vest. A phone number was scribbled there, too, and he thought maybe he’d try ringing Connecticut when he returned to base. See if Jay had ever shown.
At any rate, these footprints were fainter now, the mud resculpted by the morning drizzle. Except in one spot–a fresh, sharp set of prints, pressed into the rust-coloured pine needles.
His hand tightened on the Glock. He eyed the new prints, following them with a studied gaze in both directions. To the north they moved out of sight, away from his own path, back into the woods; southward they angled through the last remaining trees and down into the sandy pit of the shoreline. Exactly where Marco himself was heading.
Roark, he thought, relaxing. This was where Marco had first spotted the corpse, shambling out of the treeline towards the water.
Bolstered, Marco hiked along the tracks the last fifty yards to the beach. Emerging from the forest, the prints disappeared where the sand loosened. No problem. He cut straight to the water, then followed the lake shore towards the dock and cabins at the far end of the beach. Half a minute later he recognised the rocks, slimy with algae, where he’d dropped the corpse.
‘Shit,’ he declared.
The body wasn’t there.
‘Shit,’ Marco said again, angrier this time.
He scanned the lake surface, out towards the deeper water. Floating there was the corpse, just as he’d worried, thirty feet into the lake–the sopping dark green of Roark’s pants, limbs splayed, the blasted-out side of its head turned up, carrying water like a cup. Streamers of brain and broken skull trailed alongside the body as it drifted farther away by the second.
Immediately Marco knew the rope he’d brought wouldn’t do any good. His little cowboy fantasy of lassoing the corpse seemed far-fetched now as he squinted at the diminishing target.
He rubbed his forehead. He supposed there were two options. Swim out there–which meant leaving the guns ashore and stripping down to avoid waterlogged clothes all night, since he couldn’t risk a fire with so many corpses in the area–or just turn around, return to the blind, and chalk this one up to a bad day. Joan Roark would have to take his word, without physical evidence to prove he’d done the job. Unfortunate, but permitted by the contract.
Neither option appealed to him.
He glanced hopefully towards the dock. In the sand next to a piling lay a faded red canoe, belly up. But even from here he could see a hole in the bottom where the wood had simply imploded from winters of neglect. Not seaworthy.
Aware that his indecision was costing him time, he glanced back over his shoulder. The mountain blocked the sky to the east, and he was unable to see how far the vultures had advanced, but the clock in his head told him that he’d better choose fast.
Cursing, he bent and unlaced his boots, kicked them off, then tugged down his pants.
He removed the pants along with his vest and ClimaCool long shirt, but the holster with the Kimber he shortened to a small loop and placed around his neck, unwilling to disarm completely. With some overdue luck, he might be able to wade the whole way out. He placed the Glock atop his folded clothing, then pulled his knife to take along, too.
The water was colder then he expected in September, even for Montana. Clenching his teeth, he splashed deeper as fast as possible, ignoring the shock in his balls as they went under. The lake bottom alternated between rocks and squishy mud. As a kid, he’d hated the sensation of mud squeezing through his toes; he’d been scared of bloodsucking leeches hiding in the ooze. Now he couldn’t resist a smirk. He’d been a timid boy, afraid of everything.
And yet look at me now. If leeches are all that eat me today, I’ll be happy.
Two dozen steps later, the water had climbed to the middle of his chest but then levelled, and he went twice as far without getting any wetter. From down here in the water, it was harder to see the corpse; he wasted some effort moving towards what he soon realised was a floating tree branch before noticing a greasy trail like an oil spill on the water surface.
Discharge from the head wound. Guided by it, Marco spotted Roark moments later, floating just a few yards ahead.
He pushed his way over to the body. Roark’s bare back rose like a hump from the water, the skin purple and white, marbled with countless bruises and lesions–almost beautiful, like the markings on butterfly wings. Marco reached his free hand towards the body, eager to grab hold before it drifted farther, then thought better. With his knife, he jabbed the corpse’s back, springing a fresh rivulet of black fluid that trickled between two emaciated ribs and dripped into the lake. Marco watched.
The corpse didn’t even twitch.
Satisfied, Marco grabbed hold of its shoulders and spun it. Roark’s dead face goggled at the sun, mouth open, two rows of worn brown teeth exposed. God, the thing stank.
Marco studied the pale eyes, the jaw frozen wide. Seeing a kill up close was often an anticlimax. A let-down. He sometimes wished they’d look peaceful, or relieved, or maybe even grateful. He’d read a story by Poe once–‘The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar’–where an old man had been kept alive unnaturally by hypnosis, only to crumble to dust as the trance broke. Now that would be satisfying. A puff of smoke, a hissing noise. A bright flash. Something significant. Instead, this: a poor dead bastard who never knew what hit him.
Normally Marco snapped a picture or two, but he’d left his digital Nikon at base. Joan Roark had emphatically refused photos, which was fine with Marco; the prize souvenir was the ring, anyway. He pulled Roark’s left arm from underwater, the skin tough like rawhide as Marco took a firm hold of the wrist. The ring glittered gold, polished by the lake.
Just then the hair follicles on Marco’s neck shot up straight.
He’d had this feeling before. A subconscious awareness of background noise. Sometimes, joking, he called it his ‘zombie sense’. He wheeled and faced the nearby shore.
And there they were. Twenty corpses, maybe more.
His veins chilled, as if the cold lake pumped through him.
They were a dishevelled group on the sand. Grey-skinned males and females, eyes vacant, decked in tattered, worm-eaten clothes like some grim portrait from the Great Depression. Hair thick and knotted, matted with blood and god knows what else.
They stood facing him, arms limp, bodies swaying in place–that eerie slow dance they did at times while waiting for another instinct to kick in. He stood frozen himself, afraid to trigger the attack, but he knew it was inevitable. They were hungry. Their dead eyes locked on him with emotionless interest, their necks craned forward. Evenly he drew the Kimber.
Nice and slow, he thought. And then the fun begins.
This couldn’t be the pack he’d heard earlier, the one from the east–no way could they be so fast. His forehead burned, angry at himself; he’d been so damn obsessed with one threat, he’d ignored a dozen other dangers. Probably these things had been waiting nearby, dormant in the woods behind the cabins, emerging as soon as they’d heard him splash into the lake.
Any second now, they’d charge. He ignored the voice in his head whispering, You’re fucked. Roark’s body bumped against his hip. He steadied himself and raised the Kimber towards a corpse at the water line, a narrow-bodied male with no shirt, only a bolero tie circling its torn-out neck. Marco aimed carefully. This shot was the only one he wouldn’t need to rush.
So make it count.
The scene in front of him was silent; he heard a horsefly buzz past his ear.
The gun exploded.
And all hell broke loose.
The thin corpse’s cranium slammed backwards as the bullet hammered it, dumping wet white brains down its spine; the dead man’s eyes crossed and it sat down hard on its ass before toppling over. The other corpses roared–a furious, unified sound, like a cry to battle, and Marco’s heart shrank as the dead pack charged, crashing and swarming into the lake.
Go. He took fast aim and fired off three more shots in a five-second blur, sweeping bullets from left to right across the front line of attackers. You. You. And you.
He scored just a single headshot, dropping a blubbery-breasted male corpse with a long wet beard, and saw one of his other shots blast through the bony shoulder of a wild-eyed old female with no ears. His shot at a teenage girl in a pink Hello Kitty T-shirt disappeared into nowhere. Incensed, wailing, the things continued to splash in from shore, lurching towards him.
They weren’t fast–the footing underwater was even more treacherous for them than it had been for Marco–but they were spread dangerously, so that he couldn’t direct his gunshots in any single direction. Then again, he’d never intended to keep shooting. Knocking a few corpses out from a pack was smart, to thin their numbers and improve your odds of escape. But a full-out killing spree? That was just stupid asshole bravado. He’d seen too many soldiers go down, guns blazing during the Evacuation, realising too late that the enemy had advanced from unworkable angles. Men and their useless weapons swallowed beneath a ravenous mass of corpses.
Retreat. Always the best option. Remember–you can’t kill ’em all.
The corpses crashed closer, arms wild and flailing.
Too many to dash between, especially in water. He’d be grabbed, tackled, torn apart.
Thinking furiously, he calculated his best route. Deeper into the lake? The dead couldn’t swim… but they didn’t need to breathe, either. They’d pick their way along the bottom, out of sight, reach up, pull him under by the ankles. Shit, there could be corpses down there already, sloshing towards him; he’d seen men pulled from rowboats, ambushed by underwater attacks…
Something else. They’d closed to within twenty feet.
He had to choose. Now.
The shore by the cabins–fifty yards to his left, away from the onrush. Perfect. He’d race there, slip between the houses, lose them in the confusion. He blasted another round at the nearest corpse, a young male in army fatigues; the bullet punched through the soldier’s drippy right eye. Satisfied, Marco splashed a full two steps towards the cabins before he remembered.
Roark. The ring.
Shit. He spun and splashed in reverse, back to the floating body, seconds ahead of the attack. Already he knew this was a mistake, turning around, but now the stubborn son-of-a-bitch in him had to see it through. His head buzzed, eyes pinned to the horde almost on him as he grabbed for Roark’s hand, felt their fingers entwine. Find it, fucking find it.
There. Cold hard metal. He yanked in a panic, and with a pop and a squish the ring slid off, pulling Roark’s ripe flesh with it, like meat from a greasy turkey bone. Marco jammed the ring onto his thumb–even dead, Roark had beefier fingers than his own–then stumbled backwards to avoid a pasty-white black male lunging at him from across Roark’s body. Three more corpses charged from the left, snarling. Time was up.
Off balance, still back-pedalling, Marco raised his gun.
His foot caught on something hidden, a chunk of rock or wood buried in the silt, and he yelled out as the lake closed over his head. Darkness cut him off. The silence underwater was terrifying. He kicked, trying to right himself, felt his leg make contact with another leg–they’re on top of me, his mind screamed, expecting to feel cold hands clamp down all over his body–and then he pushed away and broke surface a few feet from where he’d gone down, desperate for air to breathe and light to see.
The dead were everywhere now, the lake slick with black feculent blood lapping at his bare chest. The Resurrection couldn’t be absorbed through the skin, thank god; he’d been doused in enough corpse slime over the years to be sure of that. Brazenly he broke towards the cabins, slipping between two corpses in quilted hunting vests, and as he ran he wiped a stinging gob of mud from his eye. It was then he realised with shock that his right hand was—empty.
The Kimber was gone.
Stupid fucking asshole. He’d dropped it underwater. Gone for good.
‘Fuck!’ he screamed, and it actually felt good to be as loud as he wanted for once. Discretion didn’t matter now.
He tightened his grip on his knife and pressed on towards the cabins. Picking up speed as the lake grew shallow and his knees cleared the water, he reached the shore with a good lead on the corpses still struggling in the deep. They’d been baited away from the beach, and now all he had to do was circle back to retrieve his clothes, the Glock and…
… and there came the fuckers from the east.
Pouring out of the woods all along the lake, from the cabins to his escape route through the trees. More than the fifty he’d predicted. A hundred, maybe more. Maybe way the fuck more.
Suddenly the attack had opened from another side, and as he stumbled to a stop, the army of corpses sensed him–swivelled to face him all at once, so perfectly synchronised that he wondered if the fucking things were able to communicate in a way he’d never detected.
We have you surrounded.
There was no way to reach the forest.
Give yourself up.
As a boy, he’d always been the kid who panicked during games of tag, who froze in the middle of pursuit and let himself be grabbed, simply because the resolution of being caught felt better than the terror of the chase. That same sensation returned to him now. His legs buckled, and for a moment he actually considered sitting down in the wet sand. Sitting there cross-legged like some kind of Buddhist monk, blissful and transcendent, merging his mind with the serene blue sky, the cool water and happy green trees on the opposite shore; taking one last look, closing his eyes and waiting, and the end wouldn’t even hurt.
Except that he knew it would hurt.
So instead he forced his legs straight, opened his eyes wider, looked for options. Options, goddamn it, he repeated, like an affirmation of life. To his left, the cabins had been sealed off behind a wall of corpses, collapsing on him fast; to the far right sat the old dock. Lopsided, falling apart, it led back out into the lake, a pointless dead end. But the beaten canoe next to it…
For the second time that day he seized on the thought of the canoe.
And this time he had an idea.
Gasping, he dashed back across the beach, racing along the precarious seam between the two packs of undead, those staggering from the woods and those pursuing him from the water.
The opportunity would be gone in seconds–the corpses were converging fast. He focused on the canoe ahead, but in his peripheral vision the dead faces were impossible to ignore. Dark and savage, teeth snapping at the air as he ran past.
He covered the final yards to the dock in a sprint, awestruck by the gamble he was taking.
His mind reeled.
Am I crazy? Will this work?
The canoe had long ago been flipped and laid lengthwise on the shore beside the dock, like a long wooden bowl turned upside down. It leaned slightly in the sand, inviting Marco beneath; at full speed, he launched himself towards it and belly-flopped hard to the shore. The impact knocked him airless; with a grunt he wriggled below the overturned boat, as if he were entering a tight and narrow cave, his elbows scraped raw by pebbles and his navel full of wet grit.
Here in this dusky, hollow shelter, the air was rank with mildew and an oily smell of fish, and invisible cobwebs stuck to his face and arms. Sunlight punched through the gaping hole in the canoe hull overhead. He felt like a small animal cowering in its den. He lowered his cheek to the sand and peered back out at the beach through the crevice he’d entered. Dozens of grotesque feet, naked and swollen purple, shuffled towards the canoe.
So far, so good.
Sweating, he jammed his knife into the wooden hull, inches from his face, all the way to the hilt so it wouldn’t fall out. Now both hands were free. Hurry, he thought; if the corpses outside piled their weight onto the boat, he was lunchmeat. He contorted himself into a crouch and shoved his shoulders up into the hull, ready to lift the canoe onto his back…
… except the goddamn boat didn’t budge.
Bitch! The canoe was heavier than he’d guessed. It sat atop him, immovable as he strained, and the blood in his head felt primed to squirt from his eyes. But although Marco was thin, what he did have was muscle–a body whittled to its core by endless angry workouts in his basement gym, two or three hours on days he really hated the world. Now, enraged, he screamed… and felt the canoe shift. It lifted off the ground, dripping sand, the yoke digging at his neck.
And away we go!
He stumbled to his feet, half bent, the upside-down canoe cupped over his spine like the shell of some ridiculous turtle. The bow pointed straight and long ahead of him, ready to launch, but he hadn’t yet taken a step before a loud boom sounded on the exterior, next to his ear; the entire boat quaked, and aftershocks rumbled down into his vertebrae.
The canoe’s weight shifted sharply as the first corpses dove against it, and he fought to keep it balanced overhead. The physics were simple: If it tips, I’m dead.
The pounding on the boat doubled, merged with the pounding pulse in his ears. His legs shook, and then more corpses arrived from the left, counterbalancing the attack from the right, so that he had an easier time keeping himself upright. He couldn’t see in any direction but down to his bare white toes, and a bit to the left and right. Outside the canoe, a hundred corpses crowded the rims from both sides; he saw only their crooked legs and rotten feet.
Seconds later the corpses mobbed the hull, an all-out attack.
Blows rained onto the canoe, the crack of the wood terrifyingly loud, and he prayed the boat wouldn’t simply fall apart around him. Angry cries joined the violence; the corpses were confused by his improvised defence, but the confusion wouldn’t last.
Sure enough, the canoe began to pull upwards as they tried to tear it off him. Alarmed, he held it down with all his strength. Time to go. He drove hard with his legs, relieved as the boat slipped easily through their grasp–he heard them scrabbling for grip, but the wood was worn smooth–and stumbled forwards along the sand, wearing his canoe armour.
The point of the bow parted the crowd, dealing hard punches to those in its path. He gained momentum, whooping aloud as if each hollow clunk, each speared skull off the metal bow-ball, were another block of coal thrown into his internal boiler.
Pop. Pop. Pop.
He surged ahead like a locomotive knocking cows from the rails, barely checked by the impacts. A white-eyed male corpse fell, rolled under the canoe. It hissed and grabbed at his ankles, but he high-stepped over it, resisting the urge to kick its forehead.
If only he’d had his boots on.
The canoe grew heavier by the moment, but Marco’s legs kept churning despite the pain. He had no idea where he was going. Looking down, he followed the foamy dark sand along the shore, concentrating on the wet impressions of his feet, confident he was at least headed back to his starting point, where Roark’s body had first hit the water.
As he cleared the initial mob, a jolt from the side nearly sent him sprawling. He recovered in time to see a pair of obese legs, enormous and pickled and veiny, below the left rim of the canoe. A fat corpse had broadsided him and now hung on, pressing against the boat with all its weight, driving Marco sideways a step into the lake, then two steps, three. The water rose to his shins.
Any deeper and he was fucked.
Desperate, he threw his shoulders up into the boat, freeing one hand to grab the knife still embedded in the hull; he retrieved it with a furious yank and in the same motion drove the blade into the bulbous rotted belly outside the canoe. He jerked hard…
… disembowelling the dead man; the knife cut up into the ribcage and popped from Marco’s grip, gone. The corpse bellowed as its guts cascaded onto the shore. Surprised, it released the boat and flopped forward, chasing its own entrails. Marco splashed back to the sand.
The sounds of awful wailing fell farther behind as he maintained a quick-footed trot, grimacing but afraid to slow down. A hundred yards later he was rewarded for his work. His folded stack of clothing and the Glock appeared at his feet.
‘I’m back,’ he announced, his voice raw.
Panting, he tilted his body and managed to dump the canoe without collapsing. The boat crashed into the shallows, startling the same minnows he’d watched Roark hunt an hour before.
He glanced around in haste. As he’d guessed, the corpses were a good distance back, still labouring towards him, but their slow, singular advance wasn’t half the threat of being surrounded. He’d survived. He would continue to survive. Trembling, he grabbed his Glock and clothes, jammed his sore feet into his boots, then turned and bolted north to the trees.
He found his earlier path without trouble. At the edge of the forest he paused and turned.
The beach crawled with dead men and women, arms and legs jerking like ugly puppet limbs as they staggered up the shore. Men and women, Marco repeated to himself. Easy to forget sometimes. He wondered how many had wives, kids, lovers in the Safe States, mourning for them, sick with grief and wondering where they were now.
Christ, how fucked up the world had turned. How it made the dead so alive and the living feel so dead. He doubted there was any fixing it, any way to turn it back.
But, shit, he could at least help make things better.
Grim-faced, he jogged up the mountain, past the tree that grew crooked and the flat-sided boulder, into the mist and the walkway of broken fern. Up in the blind, he shut the canvas curtain and sat undetected, unafraid, listening to the groans of the dead pass through the forest and fade as the mob lost his trail. And as he waited for them to leave, to wander off to wherever their tortured minds beckoned them, he held Roark’s ring–yes, he was certain now, he had found Roark–and read again the words etched inside the band.
Together we make a circle, one life without end. Always, Joan.
‘One more thing,’ Joan Roark said. Her grainy image transmitted from the Safe States, materialising on the computer screen atop Marco’s desk. He sat in his study, in the dark, an hour before dawn. At midnight he’d arrived back at base–the house he’d owned with Danielle for a year before the Resurrection–his legs and arms heavy with a fever he’d picked up on the trip. Months of undereating and poor sleep had left his immune system for shit.
The flu, that’s all. He didn’t dare wonder if the Resurrection had gotten to him somehow.
He’d unchained the iron gate and rolled the Jeep up his long cobblestone driveway, while in the hills the keening of coyotes welcomed him back to Arizona; inside he’d squirmed in bed for a few hours with stomach cramps and a sore throat before getting up to contact Joan. He’d left the lights off in the study. But on Joan’s end of the transmission, the room was bright; the sun was up in Baltimore. The Safe States were all east of the Mississippi River–a natural, easily defended border behind which America still functioned. The government had pulled back as the Resurrection spawned and spiralled out of control in the West. Now the Safe States were in lockdown–nobody in, nobody out. The Evacuated States had been surrendered to the dead.
Here in Marco’s study, the image of Joan’s face was a luminous window in the darkness, seeming supernatural. He’d been about to power the computer down. Instead he nodded at her on the screen. It was his sly way of avoiding eye contact; the webcam mounted on his desk captured him in partial profile, denying her an easy read of his face, his thoughts. He was glad he never had to debrief in person. God, how he’d hated those awkward moments during his residency at Cedars-Sinai–explaining EEG results to the patients and distraught families. Often he’d catch himself tapping the page erratically with his pen, as if he had a neurological problem of his own.
He watched Joan shift in her seat. Her gaze sank low. Perhaps she sensed her husband’s wedding ring sitting on his desk. Marco pocketed it discreetly. No need to show her again.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said, her voice shaking. ‘I don’t mean to be… it’s just… it’s just that I want to ask you. I mean, you’ve done so many of these. You must know.’
She looked awful. He hadn’t seen her in weeks, and the difference in her appearance alarmed him. She wasn’t wearing make-up as she always had before, and he felt a sting of guilt for even noticing this. Her eyes were veined red, the lower lids grey and puffy. A meniscus of clear snot bulged from her right nostril; she sniffled it up, but it re-emerged at once. Her shoulders slumped forward, arms straight down, her hands pinned between her knees. She was dressed in a dull green sweatshirt with an obvious bleach spot on the shoulder–the first time he’d seen her in anything but ritzy designer labels–and he had a hunch she’d slept in it. The sweatshirt was snug around her breasts, the nice figure she still had in her fifties, but her face looked older than that, coarse, as if widowhood had dragged her through a few phantom years.
He waited. ‘Know?’
‘Yes,’ she said. She looked at him, determined. ‘Did I do the right thing?’
He sucked in his breath.
She continued, stumbling again. ‘Please, I just want the truth–honestly, Mr Marco, like you would tell a friend. You can tell me now. I’ve already paid, and you’ve made the sale, either way. So, please.’ Her bottom lip quavered. She bent towards the camera, her face expanding on his screen.
‘Did I?’ she asked.
He deliberated for a moment, which surprised him–not that she asked, but that he actually gave thought to his answer. He’d heard the question before. Sometimes before the job, sometimes after. His clients were like children, inexperienced and uncertain; the whole world had started over on them, trashing what they knew, handing out new rules to learn.
Horrible new rules.
Nobody knew what to do, how to feel, how to adapt to life after the Resurrection. The Evacuated States were a silent wasteland; the Safe States, meanwhile, raged and roiled–overcrowded by fifty million refugees from the West, the economy shot to shit, not enough jobs or food to go around. The loss of contaminated farmland across the Midwest and California had been devastating. Half the populace was on welfare, either Food Relief or Property Reimbursement or Survival Assistance; in the months after the border shut, the Garrett administration had authorised multi-billion-dollar relief packages. But Garrett was ousted now; the New Republicans had been voted into power, and relief programmes were being scaled back.
It was overwhelming… and belittling. And often Marco’s clients looked to him for advice, as if he must have some secret insight into the Resurrection–why it had done this, what it wanted from them–just because he was the guy out here, out where it first began, face to face with it on his own. And, at the end of the miserable day, he was supposed to tuck these poor people into bed, kiss them on the head and tell them that everything would be all right.
Me, a father figure. Now there’s a big fuck-you from the universe.
‘Did I do the right thing?’ Joan Roark had asked.
He sighed and then almost told her the truth–that he wasn’t sure whether any of it really mattered or did a damn bit of good. But he liked Joan. So he settled instead on what she needed to hear, and then he nodded slowly. Slow meant serious. Like he would never lie.
‘I believe you did,’ he said. ‘Yes.’
At that she began to cry again, covering her mouth with one hand, cheeks puffing. A carat of diamond glittered from her ring finger.
‘You didn’t do the easy thing,’ he admitted. ‘But you gave your husband peace. If it were me–I mean, if I were the one out there–I would’ve wanted you to do the same.’
She shook her head. He wasn’t sure whether she disagreed with what he’d just said, or perhaps was just horrified at how easily she accepted it.
‘Joan,’ he said in a softer voice. ‘Listen to me.’
She stopped and regarded him, and he wondered what he looked like on her screen in the Safe States–if he were anything more than a shadow projected from his dark office. Could she see the fever on his face, the lumps of cold sweat? ‘You saved his soul,’ he said. ‘He’s returned now, wherever we’re supposed to go in the end. When it was done, he looked… peaceful.’
Maybe she believed him. Maybe it didn’t matter if she did, just that she heard somebody say those words. She laughed, and the snot from her nose dripped down to her lip.
‘Okay,’ she said, nodding back at him.
‘I mean it.’ His tongue stuck to his teeth as he spoke. I did mean some of it.
‘Okay,’ she said again. ‘Thank you.’ She pulled a tissue from off screen and dried her nose. ‘I’m sorry. I cry at every movie, too, even bad ones. Even comedies. It used to drive Andy crazy.’ She shrugged. ‘Anyway. What’s done is done.’
He swallowed, the spit like acid in his sore throat. The few seconds of silence seemed to satisfy them both as a goodbye. ‘Good luck,’ was all he added.
She managed a weak smile. ‘Good luck to you, Mr Marco.’
He waited another moment. His instincts told him it was important for Joan Roark to take the final action, that she should reach across and shut off her computer, then stand up from her chair in Baltimore and start over. A second later the screen went black. For Joan, life could now begin again in the Safe States. For her, this was done. She’d said it herself.
What’s done is done.
‘Not for me,’ he commented, his eyes adjusting to the pure darkness. Silently he added, Is it wrong that I’m jealous?
An unpleasant grin pulled at his lips.
See, Joan? he thought. Everybody’s got their doubts.
Marco shut down the computer and plodded along the hall to the bathroom. His head throbbed, and each lungful of air antagonised the dry passages in his nose. In the cabinet he dug out a bottle of Sudafed gelcaps. Expires Oct 2016, the label read. Two years ago.
He swallowed three caps anyway, just in case there was still any life to them. He’d stop by the Walgreens in Apache Junction on his next trip for supplies, but most likely all the pharmaceuticals there had expired, too. Everything was going bad in the drugstores and the supermarkets, even the dried goods. He was outstaying his welcome.
He felt exhausted, but the idea of returning to bed and sleeping the next twenty-four hours wasn’t smart. He’d come home in half a coma last night and hadn’t checked the property for break-ins. Neglecting it again would be reckless. The barricade he’d erected was nearly corpse-proof, but not a hundred per cent. Plus he had to check the trap.
To his annoyance, his hopes rose, a pathetic optimism that today might be the day. The end of his hunt. Maybe…
Stop it, he thought crossly and returned to his office.
He’d wait for a lighter sky. Another thirty minutes. He pulled an afghan blanket from the leather couch and slid open the glass door to the balcony. The morning still held the chill of the desert night, sharp on his skin. He clutched the blanket around him and leaned his forearms on the balcony rail, surveying the land. At the base of the eastern sky, a light blue band divided the earth from the deeper universe, while, somewhere below, a dawn of pink and orange waited to emerge. The Superstition Mountains towered on the horizon, gnawing the stars like monolithic black molars in a jawbone of dry earth. Beneath them lay the bajadas, a mile of gentle hills and dried scrub, scattered with saguaro and creosote bush, populated by spiny lizards and owls.
Before the Resurrection, he’d often found peace out here in the evenings, after hard shifts at the hospital. A glass of red wine and Danielle’s hands massaging his neck, the tension leaving him like heat escaping the desert dirt. Everything cooling. Now he could never relax–not with a hundred wild cactuses staring back at him from the bajadas, man-sized silhouettes that could easily mask a corpse advancing towards the property.
Shivering despite the blanket, he thought about Joan Roark. She’d asked a difficult question, and he’d answered. He tried to recall his exact words. He couldn’t remember precisely, but one word had lodged in his mind like a briar. Soul.
Had he really told her that? You saved his soul. His ears warmed with guilt. He felt like some sleazy televangelist, peddling bullshit, whatever it took to make himself rich. But no–that wasn’t fair. He didn’t say it because of the pay cheque. He just wanted her to be okay.
He hadn’t believed in souls since high school, when he was a good Catholic kid. But medical school had erased that notion with a rag of empirical common sense.
‘There’s only one life force,’ he’d remarked once to Danielle, on their way home from a dinner with her California friends in which the talk had centred earnestly on chakras and energy healing–notions so absurd he might have laughed out loud if it wouldn’t have hurt her feelings. Danielle’s spiritual beliefs were part of her charm, one of many reasons he loved her. And she’d always seemed to find him just as charming–just as out of touch with reality–whenever he articulated his own beliefs. ‘The electrophysiological current of a hundred billion neurons,’ he’d said. ‘That’s the voodoo of human life.’
‘Yes, Doctor,’ she’d patronised him from the passenger seat, leaning across to tease his ear with her finger. She knew how to both love and annoy him with a single gesture. ‘But that’s your problem, babe. You need to know how everything works. Can’t anything be magic?’
He’d answered her with a sardonic smile. ‘Sorry. All the magic courses at Cornell were full. I had to take pre-med instead.’
‘You’re a jerk,’ she’d laughed, and playfully bitten his hand.
But while Marco didn’t buy into souls, he did believe in identity. The sum of individual experience, everything you ever did or thought–memories stored magnetically in brain cells. Identity remained even when life did not, locked away like a closed wing of a library, where the books smelled yellow and musty. Identity was physical, anatomical. Not a spirit.
Andrew Roark had died. And yet he was still Andrew Roark, always would be, until he crumbled to zero on a cellular level. His identity had simply been buried inside his corpse.
So what was the right thing to do? Marco remembered a woman in Florida, years before the Resurrection–a car-crash victim, comatose for years in her hospital bed, and yet her eyes were open and she sometimes moved. The courts had exploded into an uproar over living wills; loud debates raged about whether her damaged brain was still aware or wasn’t. In the end her life support had been discontinued. Watching CNN that morning, Marco had sipped his coffee, feeling only relief that the mess hadn’t happened at Cedars-Sinai. Danielle sat across the breakfast table, carving out a melon slice, watching an interview with the woman’s distraught husband.
‘I hope that’s never you,’ Danielle had said, her eyes glistening. For a moment he’d wondered who she meant–the husband or the wife. But Danielle had finished her melon and left for an audition, and he’d never asked.
At least he knew now which tragic figure he’d turned out to be. And only now that it was his decision–pull the plug, or no?–did he realise what he really believed.
Sometimes euthanasia was the correct choice.
Joan Roark came to mind again. Her face, chalky without make-up, skin flaking at the top of her nose between her eyebrows. He hoped she’d be all right. He hoped she had enough money to set herself up properly; too many people’s finances were held hostage out West, stagnating in dark local banks and credit unions. Proxy banks had been created in the Safe States to transfer funds, but the process was slow and rife with bureaucracy. Hopefully Joan had gotten hers.
Goddamn it. Why was he still thinking about Joan Roark? Usually when he powered down the computer, after the job was done and closed, the client’s life disappeared from his with the same abruptness as the screen image. Case closed, and he could think only of the next contract, the next life he would share. The next corpse to return.
Perhaps his problem now was that the next scheduled job was an entire three months away. Before setting out to Montana, he’d told Benjamin that he’d needed a good long break. Benjamin was his business partner in the Safe States, and his former brother-in-law.
No more for a while, Marco had said. I’m worn out, Ben.
Although Benjamin had grumbled at first–Marco never pried, but he did wonder occasionally what financial obligations Ben had in the Safe States–in the end he’d agreed. No new contracts. Shop closed, October, November, December, open again for business in January. Ben had booked the next contract for a corpse named Thomas Flynn, a twenty-six-year-old logger last seen somewhere in a million muddy square miles of Oregon forest.
Fun, Marco had said to Ben. Should be eight feet of snow by then. Are you punishing me?
You know it, Ben answered. Besides, you’ll be nice and rested after your vacation.
The truth was, Ben could gripe all he wanted about the loss of business, but really, what choice did he have? Marco was the whole operation–the one out here risking his ass in a corpse wasteland. If he wanted a break, goddamn it, then he was getting one.
The talent. That’s what Danielle would have called him. Keep the talent happy.
He winced. Sometimes he caught himself writing lines for her like a playwright, and then her voice was really there, performing in his head. Sly, sensual alto, and with it the suggestion of her mouth, that funny half-smile she sported when she teased, and her breath on his cheek, and that hurt him, too, the invocation of her physical presence.
He’d been remembering her too much lately. He did better when she remained an abstraction, a formless fog with a name.
He coughed, and she was gone again. From the roof, a brown bat zigzagged low over the balcony, scooping up a final bug on its way home to roost in the mountains. Dawn had arrived without fanfare, not the candy colours he’d hoped for, instead a gradual lifting of the light to reveal a cloudless sky to the east. The details of his balcony sharpened, and he saw the leftovers of his last dinner here, the night before he’d ventured to Montana to find Roark.
He’d been in a grim mood that night, like a soldier shipping out the next day. A wine bottle lay tossed in the ashes of the adobe fire pit; on the bench was his wine glass, tipped over in a dried stain of red. He’d left it full. Some squirrel must have helped itself to a good buzz.
The congestion in his ears made clicking sounds as he stretched his jaw. He leaned out over the balcony rail. With one finger he pressed against his nose and blew a missile of snot to the patio below, then repeated with the other nostril, a habit he’d developed while trail-running the Arizona mountains. Uncouth, but nowadays he had only himself to offend.
Jesus, he hadn’t even showered in weeks. How long before he stopped wiping his ass?
Disturbed by his own joke, he went back inside, intent on completing the security check on the grounds. He closed the balcony door and had nearly crossed the room when he remembered the wedding ring in his pocket. He fished it out and returned to his desk. From the side drawer he pulled out a manila folder labelled ‘ROARK’–thick with contents wrapped in a red rubber band, everything from scans of photos and bank receipts to transcripts of his interviews with Joan–and a box of Ziploc sandwich bags. He placed Roark’s ring in a bag and tucked it into the folder, then returned the folder to the desk and closed the drawer. Someday he’d bring it back to Joan. Someday he’d bring back all the other rings he kept stored in there, too, trinkets from past jobs. Bring them back to the mourning families of the dead.
If the Quarantine ever lifted, and if he was ever allowed back in the Safe States.
If the living could forgive him.
On his way downstairs, Marco stopped by the gun room, formerly a large linen closet off the master bedroom, and equipped himself with the fully loaded Glock.
The wistful idea of rejoining the Safe States still played in his mind. Fat chance, he thought, sobering. Not with Hoff in the White House, not with the New Republicans keeping everything in lockdown, guarded against the slightest sign of trouble.
New Republicans. Power-hungry bastards, a bunch of zealots morphed from the old right wing. After the Resurrection, their ideals had spread like a fresh infection, exploiting the weak tissues of wounded America. The Safe States were afraid, everyone’s breath held waiting for another outbreak, wondering when the Resurrection would come back to finish them off. Hospitals remained on alert; posters on trains advised What to Look For, with colourful illustrations of alpha-stage Resurrection patients–sallow white cheeks, parched lips, pink weepy eyes–peering constantly over the shoulders of nervous morning commuters.
The New Republicans had promised to cure the fear, but at the same time they strived to preserve it. Hoff’s campaign in 2016 emphasised the danger still lurking: President Garrett had been neglectful and weak, Hoff criticised; not proactive enough to stop a virus–a terrorist attack, perhaps?–from annihilating the West. The next time Garrett fails, we’ll all be dead, warned the ads on television, on billboards, on radios. Hoff won in a landslide.
Marco had observed from his laptop in Arizona, disappointed, an expatriate without a vote. Crap, he’d thought. These guys know the formula for power. Stoke the fear, encourage alarm. Frightened citizens were willing to trade freedom for safety.
And sure enough, stricter laws passed; the Patriot Act sharpened its teeth, bit down harder on private life. Mandatory blood tests. Court-ordered hospital visits. Gasoline rations, based on mileage applications approved by the Resource Office. Army trucks patrolled low-income neighbourhoods. The controversial Survivor Tax–forced charity, critics cried–squeezed money from every man and woman to fund the ongoing recovery.
The laws kept coming. Capitol Hill was a mess; votes from the ‘Ghost Congress’–senators and representatives from the now-empty states–were ruled unconstitutional and then voided. Within a year President Hoff had more power over twenty-eight Safe States than he ever would have held over all fifty. The New Republicans controlled the floor.
The Quarantine wasn’t going to be lifted, not anytime soon.
The Quarantine kept people afraid.
Standing in his hallway, Marco shook his head. You think they’d let you back? he asked himself. Sure, just walk up to the border, wave your arms and say, ‘Hey guys! I’ve been out here four years with the corpses! But I promise I don’t have the Resurrection cooties on me!’
Yeah, right. You’d be shot dead before you opened your stupid mouth.
He shrugged. Screw it. No use worrying about that right now.
Right now he had to check the trap.
From the back of the closet, he grabbed an aluminium softball bat with duct tape wound in strips around the handle. Bringing the bat always made him feel silly, but there was no sense in wasting bullets when a good Willie Mays swing could bring down a single corpse.
He descended the back staircase into the kitchen. The room had once been bright and airy, with its breakfast nook built especially for a stunning view of the Superstitions, but since then he’d drilled thick sheets of pool siding across all the ground-floor windows. Now the only light was a rectangular shaft beaming through a skylight on the angled ceiling, spotlighting an island countertop of red and orange-brown mosaic tile. The kitchen was the only room in the house where Danielle had insisted on a desert decor. Ironic, considering she didn’t like southwestern cuisine. But coloured kitchen tiles? She’d loved those like candy.
He poured himself a glass of orange juice from the fridge–not real oranges, of course, just the same powdered Tang he’d been mixing himself for years, but at least it had 100 per cent of daily Vitamin C to battle the flu. He hadn’t noticed any improvement from the expired Sudafed. The drink burned his hurting throat.
He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and picked up the bat, feeling like a parody of a kid going out to play ball on a Saturday. All that was missing was Mom, telling him to be home for lunch. He exited the kitchen into the garage stairwell; even through his congestion the garage smelled like oil and grease. The Jeep was in its stall, overworked, resting from the long drive home, its tank almost empty. He’d fill it from the reserves out back later.
Unlocking the side door, he emerged onto the yard.
On the ground the shadow was a crisp rendering of the gabled roof behind him. The house was Spanish revival, a contemporary mix of varying rooflines and pilasters carved from white plaster, curving around a wide slated courtyard. A ‘drug lord house’, he’d teased Danielle once, just to embarrass her in front of the realtor, when secretly he couldn’t help admiring it.
For several tense seconds he stood and listened, assuring himself that all was quiet, then walked outwards from cover. At this early hour, the sun already felt like a stinging insect on his neck as he crossed the desert property to the barricade on the western end.
The barricade. His masterpiece. The first year after the Evacuation he’d slaved out here, obsessed with the waist-high wall of brick that ran the property line, the need to build it higher with huge sheets of plywood and corrugated aluminium he’d looted from Home Depot. And then he’d piled whatever else he could find in the neighbourhood along the inside for support–stones, cinder blocks, lumber, wheelbarrows, barbecue grills, patio tables, umbrellas, watering cans, anything at all to add strength and weight–until the structure measured from the left of the driveway gate, all the way around the house, and back to the right.
For weeks that summer he worked in a sadistic heat, afraid to stop despite the sunburn, the blisters, the salty nicks on his arms as he hoisted tons of clutter and spooled a mile of barbed wire along the top; at any moment he expected to turn and see the dead pouring from a weak point he hadn’t yet addressed. At night he suffocated himself to sleep in the house’s hot attic, insane with sweat, certain the property was not secure.
And then, gradually, things had gotten better. Stepping outside in the mornings, he began to notice a feeling of satisfaction. Calm. Control–the first hint of it in a long, long time.
The barricade stood higher than his head, too tall for the things to climb but low enough so that he could see over the top when he stood on the house porch. Every inch of it allowed survey of the desert and the abandoned houses in the Gold Canyon below.
He recalled one of Danielle’s friends, that hippie Janis with all the beads who lived up in Sedona and made sculpture from random junk. If only Janis could see this–his barricade with its odd arrangements. The chaotic yet purposeful placement, the juxtaposed earth-colour rust and bright plastics. It was as artistically pleasing to him as anything he’d done in his life. All it needed was a name. Materialism as Defence Mechanism.
Not bad. Or how about A Lot of Crap That Doesn’t Mean Shit Any More.
Yeah. Second one was better.
Now he followed the barricade, alert for any sign of a breach. Nothing. In the back yard, he could hear the generator chugging in the shed, activated by the timer he’d rigged to save gasoline. He paused to admire the Superstitions to the north, the blue sky clear of clouds and vultures. No aircraft, either. He’d long stopped bothering to be on guard for military planes or Blackhawks; that first summer, he’d dash back into the house at the first drone of a distant engine, but the Air Force had discontinued flyovers three years ago. Jet fuel shortages had pretty much grounded the fleet. And besides, there weren’t any more survivors to rescue, anyway.
Satisfied that the yard was safe, he continued to the other side of the house, crossing behind the empty concrete pit that had been the pool. At the back corner of the property was Danielle’s unofficial garden–nothing she’d planted herself, just a fenced-off section of wild flowers. Yellow evening primrose and purple vervain sprouted there on their own. He’d always appreciated them for the fact that they thrived no matter how he neglected them.
He stopped as he turned the corner.
Something had sprung the trap.
Twenty feet ahead, the white signal cloth waved to him from where the fibreglass snare pole bent over the barricade, pulled by an unseen weight on the other side. The pole was still. Whatever was caught in the snare wasn’t putting up much fight.
Marco took a deep breath and set down the baseball bat, switching the Glock to his damp right palm.
Another coyote. A bobcat.
Jesus Christ. Did he want it to be her, or not?
Near the base of the snare pole rested a worn wooden ladder. He set it against the barricade, then hesitated. No noise from the other side. He gripped the pole and tugged. It swayed towards him and then away, a natural momentum, nothing forced. But still the end dipped towards the ground outside the wall, the cable taut. Definitely something there. He continued up the first few rungs, sweat chilling his armpits, his crotch.
He held his breath and stuck his head over.
… was not there, not smiling up at him with a putrid face and black crusted lips, the way she did in his awful nightmares.
He laughed once, not amused, feeling the pressure rush from his lungs.
At the end of the cable was an arm. A man’s arm, hairy, torn from the body at the humerus above the bicep. Flies swarmed around the fresh exposed meat and the knob of bone. The jackrabbit carcass Marco had left as bait was gone. Around the wrist, the wire loop cut a bloodless purple trench–the more you pulled, the tighter a snare got–and Marco guessed that the corpse had simply yanked hard enough to escape, minus one limb.
He glanced around. Wherever the thing had wandered next, he saw no sign of it.
He set his Glock on the wall ledge, needing both hands free, and hoisted himself forward. His abdomen rested atop the barricade as he reached for the wire, his body stretched flat, an awkward distribution of his weight. Immediately he realised his mistake–almost a premonition, ‘zombie sense’ again–and with a startled reflex he hooked his foot around a rusted metal pole poking from the barricade rubble, an old red stop sign…
… or else he would have toppled when the corpse attacked, striking from the shadows outside the wall.
The dead thing had been hugging the blind spot along the base, hidden from view–yes, Marco should have checked there, he always did, but this goddamn time he hadn’t, because he was distracted, and sick, and exhausted, and heartbroken–so that when Marco leaned out, the thing hissed and leaped straight up at him. Its rough fingers clamped his wrist and yanked him a foot over the wall. He yelled out in surprise–heard his jeans rip against the concrete, felt his ankle twist painfully under the stop sign. His free hand slapped at the wall, seeking the Glock.
Couldn’t find it. Couldn’t turn to look.
He shouted, cursed, his face burning with frustration.
The corpse tightened its grip on his wrist. And pulled.
Marco hung at the waist over the barricade, looking down into the eyes of a tall male corpse with thick grizzled eyebrows and a small knobby chin. Its corneas were red and disgusting, pooled with blood, and its gaping mouth had no tongue–but sure as hell the teeth were all there, gnashing and slicing at the short distance between itself and Marco.
The left arm was gone, a ragged stump. It didn’t care. With its remaining hand it raged against Marco, thrashing, hanging its weight on him, and Marco watched in horror as his own forearm inched lower and lower towards those wild snapping teeth. A bite would be fatal; the Resurrection transmitted through large wounds. A scratch might not kill you–but if the teeth broke deep into the skin’s hypodermis, the bottom layer where fat blood vessels crisscrossed the body and your red stuff really pumped… well, if that happened, you were fucked. Big-time.
Christ–the thing was strong. Fingers like a handcuff.
Marco resisted, pulling back as if curling weights in the gym. The tendons in his neck bulged, and his bicep shook. With his free arm he grabbed hold of his elbow for extra leverage but, as he did, he felt himself slide farther out across the wall, his balance thrown even more out of whack. He arched his back desperately, keeping himself as high as he could, terrified the thing might jump and bite his face.
The muscle in his arm boiled. He fought back a growing panic, an excruciating need to release. If his strength gave out, his arm would be hamburger–and so he twisted his torso, trying to summon power from all points of his body and direct it to his wrist.
His arm dipped lower. Lower.
The corpse dug its heels into the desert, grunting like a boar. Brown spittle from the thing’s rotten mouth peppered Marco’s hand. Marco squeezed his eyes shut and concentrated. He continued to slip forward, losing an inch at a time to the dead man pulling him.
Behind Marco the stop sign had pulled loose from the barricade–no good now, unable to moor him in place. The sign’s broad metal face clattered against the concrete, then cut into the bend of Marco’s knee as he teetered at the brink of the wall. Only his upper legs supported him. His waist, his chest, his face dangled out into nothing.
The congestion in his head drained to a spot behind his eyes, an intense pressure that dizzied him, almost emerged as vomit. Feverish sweat squeezed from his pores.
Fight this, he thought. The fire in his arm, his spine, unbearable.
He was going down.
‘Fight this,’ he gasped.
He would die today, finally.
No. Not today.
He opened his eyes and stared at the corpse. It watched him in return, its pasty face too close to his own, close enough to touch if Marco unarched his back; the dead man’s right eye had burst from exertion, and blood oozed like tears down its cheek, along its broken nose, into the gaps between its jagged teeth.
For a moment Marco pitied it, even understood it–a creature fighting to survive, not really so different from himself. And then he aimed and swung his upper body down like a mallet, pounding his forehead square into the dead man’s skull.
A bright flash blinded him, sharp pain, but it cleared quickly and he saw the corpse sit hard on its ass, releasing his wrist, its mouth rounded into a shape of surprise. Marco’s chest whipped downwards, slamming the wall, knocking his breath away. He hung there, suspended, his left leg caught around the stop sign that extended into the blue sky above him.
Shit. He needed that sign.
He jerked his leg, hard as he could, wincing at the bite of metal into his skin. He heard the corpse grunt, and so he swung his arms blindly to ward off the attack he couldn’t see coming. And then the sign popped free from the wall and crashed atop him as he fell to the solid earth.
He scrambled to his feet and turned just as the corpse rushed him. He dodged and delivered a rough kick to the thing’s back, sending it face first to the ground again. Its half-arm flailed as it rolled, kicking up dirt and a bad, shitlike stench. Marco wheeled to find the stop sign.
There–in a bed of brittlebrush. He bent and grasped the green metal pole with both hands. The corpse righted itself into a crouch, tensing, now up and staggering towards him.
Hurry, Marco thought. He swung his shoulders and drove with his legs; the sign’s weight snapped his arms taut, popped his elbows as it grated forward, dragging on the ground.
He wrung himself in a frantic circle, gaining speed; the sign scrabbled along the rocky soil then lifted off into space–slicing sideways like the blade of a giant octagonal axe, sailing across a panorama of red hills and plump cactus, the majestic Superstitions in the distance.
As his body spun he lost sight momentarily of the corpse, heard nothing but the hollow whistle of the swinging blade, heavy in his hands, and then his line of vision wheeled forward again, and there was the corpse, lunging at him, crazed.
The sharp edge of the stop sign caught it at the neck…
… slashed upward under the jaw…
… burst out the other side. Marco didn’t even feel a check on the pole.
In one fluid motion, the head tumbled into the air, cut free, and Marco continued his swing around again, another complete circle, arriving back just in time to see the headless, one-armed body topple. A spasm of black goo spurted from the neck-hole.
Marco relaxed his arms and let go. The stop sign skidded along the dirt and crashed back into the brittlebrush. He stumbled a few steps, letting his momentum subside, then stood shaking in place. His breath rattled through the congestion in his throat. His hands hurt. The rusted pole had sawed two bloody lines across his palms, the kind that would sting for days. He wiped his arm across his forehead, feeling the fever.
Should’ve gone to bed an hour ago.
He walked to where the decapitated corpse lay, a foul pile of brown clothes, its legs and single arm splayed out in three different directions like a broken, soiled doll. The head rested on its side a few feet further–face turned away from Marco, as if insolent.
‘Hey, come on,’ Marco said. ‘Nobody likes a poor loser.’
He almost smiled. And then, just as abruptly, his eyes singed, tears hot on his lower lashes.
Quit screwing around, he thought, blinking. Get back in. Another twenty corpses probably heard the racket, and they’ll be sniffing around.
He crossed to the shadow of the barricade, passing the sign where it had settled. The white letters flashed at him from the red octagon.
‘I’m trying,’ he answered. ‘I really am.’
Dripping sweat, Marco circled the property outside the barricade and unlocked the main gate. He let himself back into his yard and returned to the snare pole, where the ladder remained propped in position. Climbing to the top, he reeled in the cable and removed the arm.
It was an eerie weight, still floppy at the elbow. Touching it seemed to release a reserve of foul odour. He crinkled his nose and flipped it over the wall. It landed near the headless corpse.
Returning to the backyard, he entered the shed and pulled a plastic bin from a shelf next to the generator. He lifted the lid, and the stink of dead rabbits assailed him. Their matted bodies lay in stacked rows, about twelve that he’d poisoned out in the scrub before the Montana trip. He pulled one carcass off the top and brought it back to the snare to reset for another night.
Sometimes he grew impatient, considered setting up traps all around the barricade. But the fear of filling the air for miles around with the smell of meat, attracting more corpses than he could handle, always convinced him otherwise. The last thing he wanted was a feeding frenzy.
One lucky winner per day. That was the limit.
Except he hadn’t gotten lucky yet. No Danielle.
With a mixture of disappointment and relief, he finished his security check and headed back to the house. In the kitchen he scrubbed his hands, his wrists, his forearms all the way up to his raw elbows, scrubbing sadistically with soap and peroxide until there was no trace of the sticky feeling the corpse had left where it grabbed him.
His head felt clearer now, his throat less tender, so perhaps the Sudafed had done some good after all. He rubbed his eyes, and the bloodshot veins scratched against the eyelids. No monsters in the yard, which meant he could put sleep back on the agenda.
Upstairs, he replaced the Glock and bat in the closet. He wondered what the rest of Joan Roark’s day would be like while he slept. He imagined her, too, crashing in bed, perhaps with a nice dose of Valium.
With a pang of conscience, he realised that he hadn’t reported back to Benjamin.
Marco looked longingly down the hall towards the bedroom. The doorway beckoned, dark inside, the shades drawn, and he could almost feel the foam mattress conforming to his exhausted body. But he also knew that his friend was probably desperate for his call. The Montana trip had been longer than most others, and by now poor Ben might be thinking the worst–that Marco’s stripped bones were lying somewhere on a nameless mountain.
A quick check-in, that’s all, Marco decided. Hello, my guts weren’t eaten, goodbye.
In the office he booted up the computer and waited for the satellite to locate a signal. Sometimes it took long minutes before the dish on the roof found a signal still reachable from the West, but today he got lucky; by the time he’d settled in his chair, the webcam window had opened and Benjamin’s phone line was ringing on the speaker.
Marco waited. The phone continued to ring. One minute, then two. He checked the time. Almost nine–he’d never had trouble calling this early before. Benjamin usually picked up fast, or, when he wasn’t home, the calls forwarded to his cell. Ben lived alone in Pittsburgh. His wife Trish–Danielle’s sister–had died during the Resurrection. Badly. Corpses had wrestled Trish from an Evac truck fleeing Scottsdale as Ben watched, screaming, restrained by Evac soldiers. He’d been relocated to Pennsylvania and languished for three years in Survivor Housing–state-subsidised tenements built by the Garrett administration to handle the influx of jobless evacuees. Finally, last spring, Ben had been able to afford his own house on the city outskirts. Bought and paid for with ‘Corpse Cash’, as Ben called it. Income from twenty-six contracts.
Actually, Andrew Roark made twenty-seven.
The phone rang again. Fidgeting, Marco longed for the days before the Resurrection when an unanswered phone didn’t seem sinister. Now you never knew what the hell to think.
Could be Benjamin was just in the shower, or the can.
Sure. Or maybe there’s been a new outbreak of the Resurrection, Marco thought, tensing. And now the other half of America is fucked, too.
The phone rang another fourteen times. Marco counted.
Each ring shook his nerves a little harder, and he began to feel his flu symptoms battling back. The sweat, the pressure behind his eyes. Come on, Ben.
Then a jarring click, and Benjamin picked up.
His face popped immediately on screen, close, soft-skinned and red, wearing the black wire-rimmed glasses that made him look like a beatnik poet. Ben was an artist, a painter. He’d shaved his head since Marco saw him last; he ran a hand over his scalp of blond stubble.
‘Jesus, Marco,’ he said, shaking his head.
‘You had me worried,’ Marco scolded. Absurd, but true. The instant he said it, he realised how easily frazzled he was becoming. He definitely needed the upcoming hiatus.
Excerpted from The Return Man by Zito, V. M. Copyright © 2012 by Zito, V. M.. Excerpted by permission.
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