Wednesday, January 7, 2015
IN THE FLESH: PART TWENTY SIX
Genre: Horror (Zombies)
Carson Ryder: Former marine/Former police officer/Suffers from retrograde amnesia/ Searching for clues to his past/Lost his wife and daughter
Eli Burton/Carver: Survivor found in Cherrywood Mall/Parents were rich and left him a large inheritance when they died/Unbeknownst to the group, he is partially responsible for the zombie apocalypse
Taryn Mills: Survivor found outside the Starlight Hotel/Lost her boyfriend, George Verdi, to the Biters/Not afraid to use a gun/No known family
Nikki Fox: Former registered nurse/Never married/Lost contact with her family during the first initial weeks of the outbreak
Reggie White: Born and raised in Arkansas/Has never left the state before
Scotty Loomis: Originally from Utah/Friends with Reggie/A perpetual fountain of random facts and useless information
IN THE FLESH
By Daniel Skye
PART TWENTY SIX
Day Two Hundred and Forty Two.
They stuck to the back roads. The scenic route, as Reggie White called it.
And though the back roads were not nearly as cluttered with abandoned vehicles as the highways or interstates, that didn’t make the surrounding scenery any more pleasant.
There had been no memorial for Damien Albright. They hadn’t given him a proper burial. They just left his body for the Biters to feast upon, figuring they’d clean up the mess for them.
Scotty Loomis volunteered to drive the rest of the way. They didn’t even stop to rest the previous evening. Loomis just kept on driving through to the morning. When the sun peeked out and they passed a sign that said Maumelle–10 Miles, Loomis knew they were close.
Carson Ryder had explained what happened and nobody asked any questions after that. The group remained silent, though they were obviously curious to know how Ryder was feeling, how he was holding up.
The drive offered him time to think, to rest his raw and swollen knuckles. Nikki Fox had done the honors of resetting his broken nose before she examined his ribs, confirming that several of them were cracked.
She bandaged him up and told him it’d take a few weeks to heal. But Ryder wasn’t listening. He was off in his own little world and no outside noise could disturb his train of thought.
Kenny Sudrow. Valentina Jackson. Damien Albright. All gone. The events that had transpired left him exhausted. Not to mention the dreadful news about his wife and daughter. He felt like his circuits were overloading. His eyelids fluttered as he struggled to keep them open, refusing to rest. Refusing to let his guard down.
Carson Ryder had forgotten a lot of things when his memory up and took a walk on him. But trust had not been one of them.
But now, after the loss of his friend, Kenny. After Valentina’s meltdown. After Damien’s confession that he had killed Kenny. After all this, he had forgotten how to trust people.
Even Nikki, as kind and sweet and gentle as she was, seemed to have ulterior motives under Ryder’s distrustful eyes. Fear. Suspicion. Paranoia. It was gnawing away at him.
There was evidence of chaos, destruction, devastation everywhere that Scotty looked. A pool of blood had collected along the side of the road. A few feet from the puddle, a stretch of intestines that Scotty kind of thought looked like spoiled sausage links. And where the intestines cut off were a pair of arms, severed. The fat and muscle chewed away from the forearms, the fingers gnawed down to the bones.
And just as Loomis had thought he’d seen the worse, the RV zipped past the torso. The neck was torn open, the head fixed at a permanent downward angle like a Pez dispenser in the process of dispensing. A murder of crows were having their fill of the torso, jabbing and pecking away at the exposed flesh.
Once that awful mess was out of sight, Scotty breathed a sigh of relief. “Did you know early French explorers were the ones that named Arkansas? It was derived from the word Arkansea, which is translated from–”
Scotty trailed off when he saw the temperature gage shoot up. The engine sputtered as steam poured out from under the hood.
“Fuck,” Scotty muttered. “I think our radiator hose is busted.”
“Can you fix it?” Taryn asked.
“I’m not a mechanic,” Scotty said.
“Where’s Tyler Reese when you need him?” Eli wondered.
The RV came to a full stop and everyone but Carson piled out to stretch their limbs and assess the damage.
“Yeah, the radiator hose is shot,” Scotty said, lifting the hood.
“We could probably patch it with duct tape,” Taryn said. “And fill the radiator with water to keep it from overheating. I know a thing or two about cars.”
“Don’t bother,” Reggie said, taking a closer look. “It looks like the engine block had a crack in it and someone welded it. See that fluid dripping from the block? That’s a mix of oil and coolant. The whole thing is shot. It won’t make it another five feet.”
The crows swarmed above, cawing and screeching. And their eyes were as red as blood. They swooped down and one tried to peck at Reggie’s eye, but he swatted it away, the crow retreating and then swooping down again.
“The body…” Scotty said. “They must be infected. Don’t let them peck you. Not even a tiny scratch.”
“Everyone back in the RV!” Reggie shouted, shielding his face as one crow swooped down and tried to claw at his cheeks. It nested in his hair, its beak arched, ready to peck at his skull.
A gunshot echoed and the crow toppled over, falling dead to the ground. The velocity of the slug ruffled Reggie’s hair, but left him otherwise unscathed. For a second, he thought he was on stage and unwillingly performing the old William Tell, shoot-an-apple-off-someone’s-head routine.
The birds uttered their final caws as one by one, they fell from the sky and exploded across the pavement.
Ryder emerged from the RV as the group all turned and saw the silver pickup truck, saw the young man with the long Elvis sideburns who was still peering up at the sky through his rifle scope, checking for more infected birds.
Finding none, he lowered his rifle and turned his attention to the group. “Ha, zombie birds,” the man said, brushing his long hair back. “Who would’ve thunk it?”
“Just who are you exactly?” Ryder asked, arms crossed over his chest.
“Corey Smith, doomsday prepper and zombie hunter, at your service.” He took a sarcastic bow and walked towards them. “Looks like you’ve got some car troubles.”
“Wait, Corey, is that you?” Scotty said in disbelief.
“Scotty?” Corey said, squinting as if he were staring at a mirage. “Fuck, man. I never thought I’d see you ago.”
“I didn’t recognize you with the sideburns.”
“Yeah, one of the downsides of the zombie apocalypse is that there are no more barbershops. But I kind of dig the Elvis look.”
“We were on our way to your place,” Scotty explained. “Guys, this is the one I was telling you about.”
“That was sweet of you to think of me,” Corey laughed.
“Actually we were coming for your guns,” Scotty confessed. “No disrespect. I didn’t even know if you were still alive or not.”
“Well, I’m alive, and there are plenty of guns to go around. People thought I was crazy for stocking up on food and water and flashlights and candles and batteries. They thought I was nuts for stockpiling weapons and ammunition. They said I was a loon for thinking Doomsday would ever happen. Do you see any of those people around now?”
“Nope,” Scotty nodded, getting the gist of his speech.
“Wait, you were actually preparing for this?” Taryn asked.
“Damn straight, little missy,” Corey said. “I tried to warn people that D-Day was coming. Tried to tell them that zombies weren’t confined to fiction. I told them it would happen one day. That the dead would rise from the ashes and the zombies would rule the earth.”
“Zombies?” Ryder asked. “We’ve been calling them Biters.”
“Well that’s a stupid name,” Corey laughed again. “Scotty, hop in the front. The rest of you will have to ride in the bed. Sorry but I’ve only got room for one inside.”
“The bed will do just fine,” Ryder assured him, never once taking his eyes off of Smith. They all crammed into the bed and Scotty hopped in the shotgun seat. But before they did, they piled their guns, bags, and whatever food and water they could fit with them in the bed. By the time they got in, they couldn’t even move an inch.
As Corey started the engine of the pickup, Scotty asked, “So if you have so many supplies back home, what are you doing out here anyways?”
“Looking for Jones,” Corey said.
“A thorn in my ass,” Corey said. “Don’t worry about it. Mr. Jones is not your problem. He’s mine.”
* * *
The property was just over twelve acres. A large, white painted manor stood erected in the center of the compound, surrounded by several smaller outhouses and a steel Quonset hut with corrugated sides. A black wrought iron fence surrounded the estate, keeping the Biters at bay so long as the gates were kept locked at all times.
“Some place you’ve got here,” Taryn said, marveling outside the gate.
“It’s not mine,” Corey said. “But I knew the people who owned it. My parents. They didn’t make it past the first week. I warned them not to go out, not to venture past these fences. But they just couldn’t listen…”
Once they were past the gate and safe on the property, Corey gave them the grand tour.
“Did you know Bill Clinton was born in Arkansas?” Scotty asked Taryn as they all walked across the compound. “Born and raised here.”
“I’ll file that factoid under LIGF,” Taryn said. “For ‘Like I Give a Fuck’.”
“The big one is mine,” Corey said, guiding them past the manor and towards the first outhouse. “This has three bedrooms, but one’s already taken. So if you ladies don’t mind a roommate, the other two rooms are yours.”
“I don’t mind a bit,” Taryn shrugged.
Nikki didn’t say anything, but she had no problems with the arrangements. Corey banged on the door and shouted, “Amy, come on out and meet your two new roommates.”
The door opened and Amy Greene, a young woman with a light complexion and slim, hourglass shaped figure, stepped out to greet Taryn and Nikki.
“Pleased to meet you,” Amy said to both of them.
“Amy’s been with us for about eight months now,” Corey said.
“Us?” Ryder asked.
“I took in a couple of Doomsday survivors after the first two weeks,” Corey said. “They came banging at the gates and I couldn’t leave them out there to die.”
“That’s what he calls it,” Amy said. “The day out of the outbreak.”
“It sounds cooler than zombie apocalypse,” Corey said.
“I disagree,” Scotty said.
“Anyway, while the girls get settled in, let me show you the rest of the property. The second outhouse is also occupied. But the third is empty. And it has three spare bedrooms.”
“But there’s four of us,” Reggie pointed out.
“There’s also a couch,” Corey mentioned. “You guys can work it out as far as who gets the beds.”
“I’ll take the couch,” Ryder said. “Doesn’t matter to me. I’m just grateful to have a roof over my head.”
“Only a zombie apocalypse can make you realize how much you took life for granted,” Scotty laughed.
Corey had distributed his supplies wisely. Every room in the outhouse had several candles and one flashlight handy. And every flashlight had a spare change of batteries next to it. And every room had a pump action shotgun mounted to the wall.
“I assume all the guns are loaded,” Scotty said.
“You know me well,” Corey nodded.
“Are these all the guns you have?” Ryder asked.
Corey just laughed at first. “Follow me outside to the Quonset hut,” he said.
Inside the hut, Corey switched on a pair of battery operated floodlights and Ryder gazed upon his arsenal.
There were automatics, semiautomatics, rifles, shotguns, M16s and AK-47s. He had grenades, rocket launchers, and bazookas.
“Damn,” Reggie said. “You don’t fuck around.”
“No I certainly don’t fuck around,” Corey said.
“Impressive,” Ryder nodded with approval. “Do you have any shells for a twelve gage Remington?”
“More than you can imagine,” Corey said.
Eli got a little too close to the bazooka and Corey had to tell him, “Don’t touch the merchandise.”
“Sorry,” Eli said, taking a few steps back. A sudden itch shot up his arm and he rolled up his sleeve to scratch at it.
“Nice ink,” Corey said, glancing at his tat. “Looks familiar.”
“Thanks,” he said, rolling his sleeve down quickly, forgetting all about the itch. “Got it off the wall of some tattoo parlor years ago in Jersey.” The tattoo was of the planet Earth, with a skull and crossbones painted over it. The insignia of the Black Lodgers.
It took a few seconds for the tattoo to jog Corey’s memory. “Wait a minute,” he said. “I’ve definitely seen that tat before. And it’s not something you’d get off the wall. It’s not even something you’d find surfing the web, unless you know exactly what you’re surfing for.”
“What are you saying?” Eli asked.
“That tattoo is a marking,” Corey said. “It’s a design associated with a group of bioterrorists. What do they call themselves?”
“The Black Lodgers,” Reggie uttered. “I’ve heard of them before too. Just from internet rumors and speculation and conspiracy theory blogs. Supposedly they were this big international group of bioterrorists hell-bent on world destruction.”
“Well, it looks like they got what they wanted,” Corey said. “All right, spill it. What do you know, kid?”
“Look, guys, this is some big misunderstanding,” Eli stammered. “I’m no bad guy. No terrorist. I just thought the tattoo was cool. Ok, maybe I didn’t get it off the wall. Maybe I saw it online somewhere. Maybe I got the idea from a friend. I don’t really remember. But I’m not some fucking terrorist. I swear. This is all a big mistake. I’m telling you.”
“I should’ve known from the start,” Ryder said. “Kenny always said there was something off about you. He always had his suspicions. I just never wanted to believe him.”
“Carson, please, you know me. You taught me how to shoot. You’ve saved my life on more than one occasion. You can trust me. I’m good people.”
“Then why was Chase Crawford so afraid of you?” Ryder asked. “Why was Kenny Sudrow always so doubtful of you? What the fuck are you hiding from us?”
“I’m not hiding anything,” Eli insisted. But Ryder could see he was lying through his teeth.
“I can tell you for a fact that tattoo’s no coincidence,” Corey said. “You need to be a member to get one of those. It’s how they can identify one another.”
“Would you shut the fuck up?” Eli shouted. “This is fucking ridiculous. I’m no fucking terrorist. I’ve helped you every step of the way.”
“No, you’ve been using us as pawns in your sick games and it ends now,” Ryder said. “Just who the fuck are you.”
“I’m Eli Burton. You know me. You knew my sister, Ally. I told you about my parents, about my inheritance, about my childhood.”
“Yeah, your inheritance,” Ryder said. “Your parents were loaded, right? I bet that money could’ve helped you pull a lot of strings? Did you orchestrate this whole catastrophe? You and your buddies?”
“Whoa,” Eli said, still trying to play innocent. “This is going way too far. I’m on your side, believe me. What do I have to do to prove myself?”
“Can I just kill this motherfucker now?” Scotty asked.
“Not yet,” Ryder said, cornering Eli. “I want to know just who we’re dealing with.”
“Scotty, go to the second outhouse and knock on the door,” Corey said. “Get Paul, Luke, and Dominic.”
“Who?” Scotty asked.
“Just get them and bring them back here,” Corey said. As Scotty wandered off to find Corey’s acquaintances, Corey had tossed a bundle of rope to Ryder and Reggie and Scotty held Eli as Ryder bound his wrists together.
“Should we tell the girls?” Reggie asked.
“No,” Ryder said. “They don’t need to see this.”
Scotty returned with three other men just in time to see the first strike. Ryder’s fist collided with Eli’s jaw and he sunk to the floor, wrists still bound.
“Who the fuck are you?” Ryder asked. “And don’t make me ask twice.”
“I’m Eli Burton. You know who I am.” Ryder decked him again, drawing blood from his upper and lower lip.
As Ryder was wailing away on Eli, Corey made his comrades aware of the developing situation. “Langstrom here’s a cop,” Corey explained to Reggie and Scott. “At least he was a cop. He’s heard of the Lodgers before too.”
“So was Ryder,” Reggie said.
“No kidding,” Langstrom said, giving him a second look as he continued to work Eli over. Blood dribbled down Eli’s chin and his left eye was already starting to swell shut.
Paul walked over and tapped Ryder on the shoulder. He pulled him away for a moment and whispered in his ear, “Back off for a few minutes. Give him a reprieve. Let’s try the good cop, bad cop routine. I’ll talk to him for a few minutes and if that doesn’t work, you can keep beating the crap out of him.”
“Sure, give it a try,” Ryder said. “My knuckles could use a rest anyway."
Ryder walked off, rubbing his swollen knuckles and wondering why Paul’s gruff voice sounded so familiar.
Langstrom rested one hand gently on Eli’s shoulder and said, “Look, kid, I don’t know who you are or what you’ve done. But if you’ve done something, now’s the time to come clean. Corey and I have done everything in power to ensure this little community we have here is a peaceful one. And we intend to keep it that way. That means no killing under any circumstances. Whatever you’ve done, this isn’t a trial. We’re not your executioners. We just want to make sure we’re safe here. I swear that nobody is going to harm you from this moment on.”
“That’s a crock of shit,” Eli said and spat blood. “But none of it really matters anymore. You want to know who I am. My name is Eli Carver and I’m your worst fucking nightmare. I’m the one who found that mutilated body in Dennis Pinkle’s shed and I didn’t say a word. I let you all eat human flesh. I had Chase Crawford’s pills and pinned it on Terry Watts. And I was going to kill Nikki Fox and pin it on Diego Garcia. But I had a lot more fun convincing Garcia to kill Vern Sheldon for me instead.”
“You son of a bitch,” Ryder said, ready to lunge at his throat, but Langstrom held him back.
“I’m not done yet,” Eli said. “I have more confessions to make. The SCT-3 pathogen that Willard Pickman described, it was in fact a project engineered by the secretary of defense. I paid him to do it. You see, my father started the organization known as the Black Lodgers before I was born. All I did was pick up where he left off. I turned it into an international phenomenon. Hundreds of followers became thousands, thousands became millions. How do you think I pulled this off? I had the pathogen shipped all across the world. The release of the virus was synchronized. I orchestrated the whole damn thing. Just to watch the world burn.
Have I blown your mind yet? Should I keep going? I wasn’t planning on having the Black Lodgers release the virus so soon. The discovery of Raymond Clark and the events that transpired on Long Island forced me to push my plan ahead of schedule.
And Willard wasn’t blowing smoke up your asses about a cure either. There really is some underground lab in Texas. The CDC engineered the cure as backup. I was going to have it destroyed, but I changed my mind last second. Too bad you’ll never find it. Pickman was right about that.”
“I’ve heard enough,” Ryder said. “Corey, where are those shotgun shells you were talking about?”
“No,” Corey said. “We’re not going to do it that way. You heard what Paul said. We’ve built a safe, peaceful community here and we intend to keep it that way. I’m not going to let you kill him. Not on my property. If you want to do it, go somewhere else. But if you do, don’t bother coming back.”
“Are you serious?” Ryder screamed. “After all this prick has done?”
“What he claims he’s done,” Corey said. “For all we know he could be bluffing. Maybe he wants us to put him out of his misery. But I’ve seen enough blood spilt already. The guns, the weapons, they’re strictly for the zombies. They’re not for killing humans.”
“So you just want to let this bastard live? You think we can trust him? He’ll kill us the first chance he gets.”
“I never said he was staying,” Corey said. “There’s one other option besides death. Exile.”
“You just want to cut him loose, so he’s someone else’s problem?”
“He won’t survive more than a week on his own. Not without a gun. Can I trust you to do this, or should I take it from here?”
“No, I’ll do it,” Ryder assured him. “I owe my friends that at least.”
They walked Eli to the gates, his wrists still bound firmly behind his back. Ryder had loaded eight shells into the Remington and Corey had given him another eight shells as backup, plus a flashlight for if he didn’t make it by sunset.
“Try and make it back before dark,” Corey said. “If you’re not back by morning, we’ll come and look for you.”
“I’ll make it back,” Ryder said. “Trust me.”
By then, the girls had caught wind of what was going on and they gathered outside the first outhouse to watch the banishment proceedings.
Corey unlocked the gates and Ryder gave Eli a hard shove and he stumbled forward. As Ryder step beyond the gate, Corey closed it back up and snapped the lock back on.
The men, and women, watched until they were out of sight. Then they went about their business, pretending they and Eli had never even met before. They didn’t know him, they didn’t want to know him. And once Ryder cut him loose, they’d never have to see, hear, or even think of him again.
Ryder knew this was letting Eli off easy. This was nothing more than a slap on the wrist. Even if the Biters did tear Eli limb from limb, he deserved far worse than that. As far as Ryder was concerned, he deserved to be beaten within an inch of his life. He deserved to have every bone broken and his body thrown in a ditch to rot. He deserved anything but exile.
With the Remington slung over his shoulder, Ryder marched along, a few steps behind Eli at all times. At any time, he could’ve pumped that shotgun, aimed it steady at the back of Eli’s head, and pulled the trigger.
Corey wouldn’t have to know. But then Ryder would have to live with that broken promise. He’d have to live knowing he wasn’t a man of his word. And he wanted to start things off on the right foot, especially if he and the group were settling in for a while. As long as they were on his property, they’d respect his wishes. And that meant no killing. Period.
“Look at all the irreparable damage you’ve caused,” Ryder said. Sprawled along the trail were two backpackers, their bodies rotted, petrified. They hadn’t turned. They hadn’t even been given the chance.
The male–well, what Carson assumed was male from the flat chest–had had his face eaten off. The girl had been badly maimed, her leg torn off at the thigh, left eye gouged from the socket, throat ripped open. In her hand was the Colt .45 she had used to finally end her suffering, and to ensure she never ended up like the things that ripped her to shreds.
“Sorry,” Eli muttered insincerely. “I wish I could take it all back. I really do.”
“Sure, I’ll bet you do,” Ryder scoffed.
“So you’re just going to leave me out here to freeze?”
“It’s spring. You won’t freeze in the day. At night, you can make a fire if it gets cold.”
“And what about the Biters? How am I supposed to defend myself?”
“Were you thinking about all those innocent people and how they were going to defend themselves when you and your buddies unleashed this plague on the world? I didn’t think so.”
Ryder stopped and pumped his shotgun. “This is just in case you try anything funny. You can stop here. We’ve gone far enough.”
He pulled the pocket knife from his boot and cut the ropes, setting Eli free. He tucked the knife back into his boot and raised the shotgun. “Get going. I don’t ever want to see your fucking face around here again. Come near the compound, you’re dead. Bump into me in town or in the woods or on the highway, you’re dead. Got it?”
“Got it,” Eli droned. “Before I go though, I feel compelled to point out the two Biters that are behind you.”
Ryder turned quickly and saw them. One was so rotten, so decayed, its flesh was starting to go from black to gray. The second one wasn’t nearly as bad as the first one, but its ankle had been snapped at one point and the sharp bone now jutted out through the discolored flesh. It walked awkwardly, dragging its wounded leg along at an angle the way a person might try to walk in a full leg cast.
Ryder pulled the trigger and took the gray skinned Biter down with one blast. But the second one advanced on him much faster than Ryder was expecting. He went to take a few steps back and tripped over a rock that was protruding from the dirt.
The Biter toppled over, falling on his chest, knocking the wind out of him. This had afforded Eli enough time to run back, pry the Colt .45 from the dead girl’s fingers, and take off with the gun in hand.
The Biter was snapping its browned teeth, biting at the air around Ryder’s windpipe. He had one forearm pressed against its sternum, holding it at bay while his other arm was reaching back, desperately trying to grasp the shotgun.
He used his knees to push the Biter off and as it came charging again, he raised the shotgun, pumped the mechanism, and fired.
Its gray matter splattered across the trail and Ryder breathed a heavy sigh of relief. He glanced around, but Eli was gone. Out of sight. And Ryder only hoped he was gone permanently, forever.
But something told him they hadn’t seen the last of Eli Carver.
* * *
Ryder returned to the compound just before dark and Corey was there to unlock the gate and let him in. “He got a gun,” Ryder said.
“How’d he do that?”
“On the trail. Somebody decided to check themselves out. Used a Colt .45 to do it. Two Biters appeared out of nowhere. I got distracted and Eli grabbed the gun and took off.”
“Don’t sweat it,” Corey said. “He won’t be able to get over or past the fences. And those bullets won’t last forever. Not while he’s alone out there. Now come on. I want to properly introduce you to the guys. Dominic’s got a case of imported beer and it’s just eight months past the expiration date. You know, I got a feeling you and your group are going to like it here.”
“I think so too,” Ryder said. He was finally ready to start trusting people again. With Eli and Damien gone, no threats remained. Only hope.
To Be Continued With Part Twenty Seven: MR. JONES