The Bug Builder

Jeb Petersen discovers an inexplicable talent. Give him a few dried maple leaves, a bit of walnut shell, twigs and blades of grass and he can create a butterfly. But what gives his creations life?

When ten-year-old Katie trespasses on his farm her presence threatens his creations and the tie they give him with his son.

A story of love, loss, miracles and healing.

1

Jeb Petersen watched his property from Peter’s room on the second floor of his old, weathered gray farm house. He wasn’t watching the apples rotting on the trees in the orchard. Or the chickens scratching in their yard.

He was watching for the bald girl that had trespassed on his property. Twice!

Shaking his head, Jeb looked down at the desk. The same worn desk where Peter had done his school work, put right beneath the window so he could look outside. Sometimes Jeb had threatened to put the desk over in the corner if Peter couldn’t focus on his work. That boy loved being outside.

One finger stroked down the smooth spine of a dried apple leaf, carefully pressed so that it lay flat and brown beneath his finger. Each rib stood out. Beside it, another brown and pressed leaf. A matched set for the apple bug he was building.

Jeb pulled over a dried brown cigar-shaped piece of apple. It looked just about perfect. It took practice to carve the shape you wanted out of a fresh apple and know how it would look when the apple dried in the sun on the window sill. It felt tough and leathery beneath his finger.

Working carefully, Jeb picked up one of the leaves and studied the stem at the end. Out came his pocket knife and he carved off a couple woody slivers, leaving a sharp point at the end. He poked the end of his finger. Just about perfect, or as perfect as you got this side of the rainbow.

Jeb pressed the pointy end of the leaf stem into the flesh of the dried apple. It stuck nicely out at an angle. He picked up the next and carefully trimmed its stem down to a point, then stuck it into the apple as well. Two wings for the apple bug and they looked real good too.

He picked it up and gave it a good eyeballing. Even unfinished it looked like a bug, especially the way some bugs could mimic leaves or other parts of plants. But there was still work to get done.

Jeb put the unfinished apple bug down and picked up two apple seeds. They had to be small, not too big or they looked wrong. He shoved the pointy end into the apple bug’s head, first one than the other. Two black eyes glimmered up at him. All the other parts were laid out and ready, but they were delicate and easy to break.

A couple antenna from dandelion puffs.

Legs selected from tiny delicate twigs on the apple tree.

He was sticking on the fourth leg when he glanced up, looked out the window and there was the bald girl, just running behind the old oak tree out by the chicken coop! Jeb shook his head, but the hand holding the apple bug was steady.

Jeb had to work quickly now and sweat beaded on his brow. The last thing he wanted to do was mess up this bug. He got the fourth leg stuck on fine. The fifth was harder because he didn’t have much to hold on to and for the sixth he pinched the body of the apple bug with a pair of tweezers. That worked and he got the sixth leg stuck into the dried apple body.

His breath blew out and the wings rustled with the faint sound of falling leaves.

The bald girl was out there, getting into who knows what. Jeb put the apple bug down, gently, gently! It stood proudly on its six legs, one front leg raised as if caught taking a step.

He clutched the desk and waited. Come on!

Then the apple bug reached up and ran first one front leg, then the other across its antenna. The wings flexed, swung forward and back, then vibrated so fast that they made a faint humming sound. Its twiggy legs creaked as it crouched and then it sprang up into the air. The apple leaf wings beat rapidly, carrying it on up into the space above the room’s rafters.

Jeb jumped up and ran out of the room. He stopped in the doorway and looked back at the apple bug, now walking upside down along one of the rafters. His throat tightened.

“I’ll be right back. I’ve got to chase that trespassing girl off before she causes more trouble.”

The apple bug fluttered its wings. Jeb left.

Downstairs he banged out the screen door onto the wide wrap-around porch. His boots crunched on dried maple and oak leaves blown up on the porch during the storms. He kept meaning to get out with a broom. Ophelia wouldn’t like it, the place looking like this, but he thought that maybe she understood.

Jeb stomped out to the top of the steps. “Hey! I saw you! I’m going to call the police if you don’t get off my property!”

She popped out from behind the oak tree like a jack-in-the-box. A tiny wisp of a thing, not more than a couple turkey’s weight on her bones. She wore glasses with dark cat-eye frames. Not a bit of hair on her head. She had on a pair of worn blue jeans, frayed and holes in the knees, and a white t-shirt. A man’s t-shirt, much too large for her that it hung off one bony shoulder, and hung so low it almost reached her knees.

“Will not!”

Jeb took a step down onto the middle of the three steps off the porch. He dug into his pocket and pulled out the cell phone. Damn thing wasn’t even charged but she didn’t have any way of knowing that. He waggled it in the air at her.

“I will. I’ve got my phone right here. I’ll call ‘em and press charges of trespassing. They’ll toss you in jail, child, so you’d better high-tail it on home before I stop being nice!”

The bald girl planted her hands on her hips. “Will not, ‘cause I’ll tell them about those bugs you’ve got.”

Jeb felt a knot in his stomach like he was going to be sick, but he knew kids. He had to stay firm. Make her go home and stay there before she ruined everything.

“And you know what else will happen then? CPS, you know what that is? Child protective services. You’ll get locked up as a trespasser and then they’ll come in with their social workers and their rules asking if your parents are really good parents or not. They might just decide that you have to be taken out of your house and given to a different family. One that will teach you manners, teach you to listen to your elders and not trespass on other people’s property!” That left Jeb feeling a bit dizzy and breathless but he held the phone up, flipped it open. “So what’s it going to be? You gonna get out of here and leave me alone or am I going to make that call?”

She crossed her arms and shook her head. “I’m not going anywhere. Call who you want, but they aren’t gonna do any of that to me.”

“No?”

“No.” She said it so confidently Jeb felt like the time he had played poker in Las Vegas, only to realize that the other players at the table were taking him for everything that he had in his pockets.

“Why’s that?”

“‘Cause I’m dying.” She said it so matter-of-factly, with a hint of regret, that Jeb believed her instantly.

All the wind went out of his sails. He sank down, reaching back as he sat on the edge of the porch, his hands draped over his knees holding the useless cell phone. “Oh child.”

Jeb heard a scratching noise and saw one of his spiders, made from dried melon rinds for the body and long willow twigs for the legs, crawling along the porch railing. It stopped for a minute and then crawled onward. Out in the yard the girl lowered her arms and took a few steps forward.

“So? Are you gonna tell on me? I just wanted to know about the bugs.”

Jeb rubbed his upper lip. His tongue felt thick, useless and he could taste a bit of the chicken that he had for lunch stuck to his teeth. A flutter of wings and a maple butterfly, its bright yellow wings made from pressed maple leaves, fluttered past his head as it flew around the porch. He watched it fly in a circle, then flutter off around the corner of the house. When he looked back into the yard the girl was closer, her eyes big as she watched the maple butterfly disappear around the corner.

“What’s your name, girl?”

Her name was Katie. Ten years old and bald because of the cancer treatments that didn’t work. She didn’t come closer than ten feet from the porch at first, as skittish as a feral cat, but that was okay with Jeb.

Just thinking about how Katie was going to get buried beneath the black earth made his head hurt so bad that all he wanted was to curl up on the couch and sleep with the afghan Ophelia had knitted. After Peter’s passing he had done a lot of that.

Jeb cleared his throat. “How —” His voice broke. He tried again. “How long?”

Katie shrugged her bare shoulder. “Any time, I guess. They don’t know. I have seizures. They say that one of these times my heart will just stop and I’ll go to heaven.”

Words escaped him. What did you say to a ten-year-old after that?

The girl edged a couple steps closer and he saw her watching one of his egg shell beetles trundle along through the leaf cover. Dry leaves tumbled out of its path as it clambered up and over obstacles. She reached out with her hands as if she could catch it, grab it —

“Don’t!”

Katie jerked, jumping in place.

I have seizures. Jeb heard her say it again and felt badly for barking at her. He forced himself to take a breath.

“They’re very fragile. It might break if you touch it.” Or worse, like the last time.

“I’m not going to try to break it. I just want to see.”

“You broke the last one.” The words came out harsher than Jeb intended. He didn’t shout, but the shout was buried there in his tone, ready to erupt again.

One of these times my heart will just stop. He knew how that felt. He still couldn’t understand why his heart hadn’t stopped yet.

“I didn’t!” Katie crossed her arms tightly, hugging her thin ribs. “I didn’t do anything to it, but it did something to me.”

“What’re you talking about?”

Her fingers brushed across her forearm. That’s right where he’d seen the hazelnut ant, three days ago when she’d first come onto his property. He’d come out back to check for the eggs and found her sitting on the porch with the hazelnut ant on her arm. She jumped up and the ant tumbled onto the porch and had broken apart, nothing but nuts and grass and twigs. She left him there staring at the pieces while she ran off.

“I had a bruise. I bruise easily. But I didn’t do anything to it, I just held out my hand and it crawled onto my arm. I just wanted to see it, I wasn’t trying to break it or anything. It got to my bruise and just stopped. Then you came out and scared me!”

“I wasn’t trying to scare you.”

“Well you did!” Katie rubbed her arm again. “I didn’t notice until I got home, but the bruise was gone. Just like magic. I kept coming back because I thought the ant might help me more, because I’m sick.”

Jeb saw that Katie was about to cry but he steeled himself against that. It wouldn’t work. Not with him. “Maybe you didn’t mean too, but you killed it. It fell down and just fell apart. And it was a piece of my son, a piece of Peter. That’s what they are, pieces of his soul. He makes them live and you took that away.”

“I didn’t take anything. It crawled onto me. I didn’t pick it up or anything!”

“It was still broken.” He’d taken the pieces and tried putting them back together again but it hadn’t worked. The hazelnut ant hadn’t moved again. It was still on top of his dresser. “That piece of his soul, it’s gone thanks to you.”

Tears glimmered in Katie’s eyes like drew drops on the grass. “It isn’t my fault.”

She jumped up and dragged an arm across her nose. Jeb couldn’t keep looking at her. He looked down at his hands. On the ground the egg shell beetle kept going on its way, exploring whatever there was to see down among the leaves.

It was Peter. He had loved being outside, and that love of the outdoors, that’s part of what kept the bugs going. Jeb knew it, he felt it down in his bones. Watching the bugs was like hearing Peter’s laughter on the wind or catching a glimpse of his reflection in the pond. He was gone but as long as the bugs were here part of him was still here, too.

The words stuck in his throat. He wanted to explain, make Katie understand but he heard leaves crunch underfoot and when he looked up she was running away.

Poor child. Any time, I guess.

“It isn’t my fault,” Jeb said. The egg shell beetle stopped. Two chicken feather antenna waved at him.

“It isn’t my fault,” Jeb whispered again. “And what am I supposed to do? I can’t lose you again.”

The beetle trundled on, pushing under the next leaf as Jeb lowered his head onto his arms. What could he do? The bugs were all he had left of Peter. He had to keep them safe. If she thought they could make her better, she might come back.

Jeb slid down off the porch, watching his feet, and crouched in front of the eggshell beetle. It crawled out from under the leaves. Ever so gently, as carefully as the first time he had held Peter after his birth, Jeb scooped up the eggshell beetle. He held it in his hands, twig legs scratching at his skin as it tried crawling up over his thumbs.

“I’ll keep you safe. Shhh. Don’t worry.” Jeb turned and carried the beetle back up into the house.

2

Gathering up the bugs took the rest of the afternoon ‘cause they kept finding ways to hide and then each time he tried bringing in another one into the house he had to watch out because the others kept trying to escape. The maple butterfly, oak-leaf moth and the new apple bug fluttered against the windows like a fall storm. The spiders and beetles and stick bugs crawled around the room scritching and scratching.

Jeb sat on the couch with his face in his hands.

This was as bad as the times he had to send Peter to his room for something or another. All that boy wanted to do was run and play out in the fields and woods. To be outside breathing fresh air. Locking him up was the worst punishment Jeb ever inflicted. He never raised a hand to the boy, never had to because mostly Peter was a good boy.

Wings and legs scrambled, seeking a way out.

Jeb rubbed his face, wiped his eyes and looked up where the bugs battered themselves against the windows. If they kept it up they’d break something. The egg shell beetle had tipped over and was kicking its legs in the air.

Peter couldn’t understand being punished now. The bugs held pieces of his soul. His laughter. His love of sunlight on fresh green leaves. The fun of twisting dried grass into new shapes. The joy of walking through dry leaves in the fall. The delight he had of snow on tree limbs. Everything that Peter had loved about being outside, that was in the bugs and here Jeb was, punishing him for it.

Outside the sun hadn’t quite set yet, in fact the sky was turning a lovely shade of red with the setting sun. It was going to be a real fine sunset. Jeb let out a breath he didn’t even know he was holding and choked back a sob that threatened to overwhelm him. He sniffled, rubbed his eyes again and stood up.

“Shhh.” He took a couple steps toward the door. The bugs kept trying to get out. “Shhh. It’s okay. Let’s go back out. I’m sorry. I didn’t —”

Jeb took a deep breath. “Let’s go see the sunset, okay?”

On the way to the door he righted the eggshell beetle and moved it aside so he could open the door. The apple bug, the newest one of the bugs, flew past his head. The others followed and Jeb stepped outside as they all flew and hopped and crawled out with him. The butterflies and moths flew in circles around him and the sound of their wings reminded him of Peter’s laughter.

He wasn’t even surprised to see Katie back. She came out from behind the oak tree. He saw her look at him, look at the bugs flying around him and she laughed and her laughter was clear and lively, the pure joy of a child. It made his heart feel good to hear.

Then the bugs left him. They flew and hopped and crawled toward Katie. The eggshell beetle stopped next to Jeb’s foot.

“It’s okay,” Jeb said, though the words threatened to stick in his throat. “You go on now.”

The eggshell beetle waved its feathers and then crawled off down from the porch.

Katie saw the bugs coming and she took a step back and raised her hands as if to ward them off.

“Don’t be afraid, child. They aren’t gonna hurt you,” Jeb called. “I think Peter wants to help you. I’m sorry I tried to stop him. I shouldn’t of done that.”

Katie lowered her arms, clasped her frail fingers together and watched the bugs with wide-eyed wonderment. The apple bug reached her first, fluttering around her head and then it settled gently on her bare shoulder where it stuck out of the too-large t-shirt.

The other bugs reached her and Katie carefully sat down on the ground and reached out her arms to them. She laughed when the melon-rind spider crawled up onto her hand. She giggled when the maple-leaf butterfly landed on her head. They all came, pushing through the leaves to reach her, crawling up on her faded jeans to settle on spots where she had worn holes in the knees.

Each one found a place of bare skin. The eggshell beetle reached her last and she cupped it gently in her hands while the others balanced on her arms.

She sat like that for a couple minutes and Jeb thought his heart would break from the beauty of it as she sat with the bugs beneath the oak tree and the brilliant red sky above. Then the sun slipped over the horizon. A wind came up, stirring the leaves in the yard and when it reached Katie the bugs just drifted apart. They floated away into all of the other leaves.

The wind died and the bugs were gone. Katie looked up at him and he could see her tears catching the fading light. She stood up and brushed off her pants.

“Thank you,” she said.

Jeb shook his head. “No need to thank me, child. That was Peter. I believe he wanted to help you. I don’t know if he did or not, but that was my son. He was the sweetest boy.”

Katie smiled a brilliant smile like a sunrise. “I know he helped me. I can tell.”

“That’s good, then.” Jeb’s throat tightened. “You’d best get home before your parents worry.”

“Okay.” She waved and then she was gone, sprinting off with the grace of a deer.

Jeb sat back down on the porch. He watched the wind blow the leaves and heard Peter’s laughter. He saw the stars come out and saw Peter’s bright smile.

3,405 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 35th weekly short story release, written in November 2011, originally published under my pen name “Michael Burges.”

Eventually I’ll do a new e-book and print releases when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the stories. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book and print versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. I’m also serializing novels now on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is the Halloween story Trick or Treat.

The Witch on Floor Six

All Gran Maggie wanted was a good book, a cup of tea and a quiet retirement.

But between a headache, the screaming baby upstairs, and the young paras that come to her apartment with a demon-tainted boy it doesn’t look like she’s going to get what she wants.

Paranormal powers don’t protect anyone from getting older.

If you enjoy urban fantasy, paranormal stories, check out “The Witch on Floor Six.”

1

The baby in the apartment upstairs was crying again and the sound of it put me in mind of dentist drills, flashes of things that I don’t like to think about anymore, things that made my vision swim until I shoved the heels of my hands against my eyeballs. My nails scratched against my scalp as I bent over on my worn leather couch, trying as hard as I can to swallow the red rage boiling up inside. I daren’t let it out, knowing what sort of forces might notice. I’ve retired.

I don’t hunt monsters anymore, by daylight or moonlight.

Regardless of all that, the baby on the seventh floor isn’t a monster, although there are times when I’m sure the neighbors on either side of the apartment would disagree. At least I’m beneath the apartment, which muffled the sound most of the time. Given the lack of insulation in the walls of this old tenement I’m sure that the neighbors heard the baby’s cries with the same clarity that I’m privileged to get from the neighbor’s wife’s passionate and enthusiastic cries whenever she has over a visitor. If the sound had me bent over clutching my head, I can’t imagine how the neighbors upstairs suffered.

Usually the baby stops crying quickly, but this time there was a knock on my door before he stopped. I didn’t hesitate. I shoved the pain of the headache and the noise of the baby aside, and rose on my bare feet. Two strides across the room, silent on the hardwood floor, to pick up my Glock loaded with blessed silver safety rounds. I popped the magazine, checked the load and slapped it back into place. I kept the gun pointed at floor. The safety rounds should deform and stop in a wall or floor but in this place I didn’t count on it.

More knocks on the door, fast and sharp, but light too, like someone panicked but not wanting to draw attention to themselves. I didn’t trust it. I don’t trust anyone. In my business — even retired — that meant the difference between living longer, dying or worse.

I padded silently across the room to stand beside the door. “Who is it?”

“Gran Maggie, it’s us! Please, let us in!” A girl’s voice, sweet and high. Starling, and us must mean her friends. It didn’t sound like they’d come for stories this time.

Why can’t they just damn well leave me alone! I gritted my teeth and forced myself to take a breath. It isn’t their fault, and not even surprising given who their parents are, but I’m retired. I should be able to sit on a sunny beach reading instead of sitting here turning into a cobweb.

I flipped the little knob switch, turned the knob for the deadbolt, and pulled the chain back out of the way, but I left my wards in place. The door could open without removing the wards. It didn’t make any sense to blindly trust the voice.

“Go ahead and open the door, I’m not stopping you.”

That was true. I didn’t lie. They wouldn’t have any problem opening the door, but coming inside could be something else.

The door knob turned and the door swung open. I turned sideways, bringing up the gun to point at whoever was outside.

Starling stood in the hallway with fear on her pale face. She looked down the hallway and back, her dozens of beaded braids swung around her head. She still wore the charm I’d carved for her around her neck on the leather string. Starling wore a thin black dress that left her bare arms free and a long rainbow-colored silk scarf looped twice around her neck. She was wearing bright red sneakers on her feet. A pretty girl, she took after her mother, the most powerful necromancer in the city.

With Starling were two other kids. Ricky, with the broad shoulders of a linebacker and the height of a basketball player, and the attitude that so many kids of privilege held, as if the world was created solely for his use. Or he had that attitude but lately I think he had started to figure out that nothing in the world was so simple. The second boy I didn’t recognize and that worried me.

What was Starling playing at, bringing another kid here with her? He was about the same age and height as Starling, thin sinewy muscles and short blond hair. No shirt on that one and angry red welts were raised across his shoulders and what I could see of his chest. He clutched his arms around himself tightly and looked withdrawn into himself. Through it all I got a sense of him. It felt like a power line humming in my head beneath the baby’s cries. In fact, seeing him, it made it sound like the baby was crying in response to him. He breathed in time with the baby’s screams.

I took it all in within a second. The fear in Starling’s eyes didn’t come from my gun. She walked through the wards without a problem, rushing past me in a swirl of black cloth and Kiwi scent. The muscles in my trigger finger fought to fire but I held them in check. She never even realized that her action could have precipitated her own death.

Not Gran Maggie. Starling never imagined that I’d shoot her.

And she was right. She was past me, safe inside my wards, and my attention was still mostly on the stranger boy that she had brought to my door. Ricky eased himself toward the door, palms facing me at his side, showing a lot more sense and respect than I’d expected. I didn’t look away from the other boy and that was enough for Ricky to slip through the wards too.

That just left the other one. He didn’t show any inclination to approach the doorway. It wasn’t good sense. He’d withdrawn somewhere else.

“Gran Maggie,” Starling said urgently, from behind me. “You have to invite him in.”

Invite him? My breathing slowed. The gun held steady right at his heart. I’d take it with the first two shots and then the next two would go for his head. Assuming that I had a chance to get off that many, probably a big assumption.

Then Starling was right there beside my arms. She didn’t touch me, smart enough for that at least.

“Gran Maggie, Justin isn’t any danger to you but we need to get him inside your wards. Please, trust me.”

Trust me. Trust a girl her age? If I hadn’t had my gun trained on Justin I might have laughed.

“What is he?”

“My friend,” she said softly. “Please.”

If I had to invite him that suggested something demonic. Possibly a vampire but it was daytime. No matter what he was tainted, and something had caused those welts. You don’t invite the demonic into your lives. I’ve been down that road before when I was younger and imagined that I was somehow in control.

Starling didn’t understand what it took. I knew that if I lowered the gun and invited her friend in that we might all die. And for that risk I was supposed to trust this girl?

Fuck it all. I lowered the gun. Screw me if I made the wrong decision, I didn’t get this old making wrong decisions or without taking risks.

“Come in, Justin.”

He still didn’t look at me. His closed in posture didn’t change. He came in through the doors and the wards flared as he entered like a line of fire through my chest that stole my breath away. I snapped the gun up, knowing I was too slow. He’d be on me before I could get the gun up in position and there wasn’t time to do any spooky stuff either.

Then I had the gun up and pointed at the back of his head. He kept walking, past me, past Ricky and I rotated to keep the gun pointed at his head. He went to the couch, turned and sat down. He bent forward holding himself in an echo of my posture when they knocked. Starling went behind me to the door, closed it and I heard the snick of the locks sliding into place. Ricky stood off to my right, hands still visible, but looking more relaxed. Starling showed up on my left and I took a step back. Justin still hadn’t moved.

Ah Hells, he was already inside and he hadn’t killed anyone yet. Maybe I’d have to listen to what they wanted.

I took two more steps back and lowered the gun. In the small apartment the distance probably didn’t give me enough room to get off a shot, but it was the best I could do at the moment.

“Someone better start talking.”

“My mother’s after him,” Starling said.

“Ah Hells, girl!”

Claire Byrd, called a zombie queen by those reckless enough to use the term, was the most powerful necromancer in the city right now. She started out like so many paras did, with the best of intentions, but over time I think she had spent so much time with monsters that she was in danger of becoming one. It wasn’t like when I was young and paras remained secretive about their abilities and the Fog kept people from noticing. The last thing I needed was someone like Byrd coming after me. I looked at Justin.

“Someone had better tell me what he is and why I’ve got someone demon tainted in my apartment.”

Starling pressed her hands together. “You created the Council —”

“Don’t remind me.”

“You ended the Fog —”

“Something else that probably wasn’t a good idea.”

“Not a good idea!” Ricky blurted.

I raised an eyebrow and he blushed. Then he shrugged. “I mean, paras lived in secret and people didn’t know about the dangers out there. Isn’t it better now that people know?”

“Better? Better now that everyone is trying to find their own paranormal abilities? People who can’t be trusted to drive without drinking are out there right now trying to unlock their hidden potential for causing all sorts of crap! Hells! Haven’t you kids learned anything coming here, bothering me? Asking to hear stories? You think I did that to entertain you? Shit! Fuck! This is the crap that you’re picking up, I’ve been trying to teach you about my mistakes and you think those were good times I was telling you about?”

“Sorry,” Ricky muttered.

Justin hadn’t so much as twitched during my rant. Starling took a deep breath.

“Gran Maggie, I’m sorry. That’s not what we meant. It’s just that we didn’t think anyone would look for Justin here. He didn’t do anything. The taint that you’re sensing, that’s just because of his grandmother.”

I knew the name on her lips. I heard the name in my nightmares.

“Renate Colburn.”

Demonologist. Not a story I wanted to relive right now. I looked at Justin and my stomach hurt all the more. Upstairs that baby kept crying and my head hurt. I wanted nothing more than quiet, a glass of hot chocolate and a soft pillow. Instead I had a gun in my hand and Renate Colburn’s grandson sitting on my couch.

“What is it that you think I can do here?”

“Help him. Mom’s sent a wraith after to find him, I need you to protect him until I can talk to her. He hasn’t done anything wrong. It isn’t his fault that the demon came.”

It just got better and better. “So there’s a demon out there?”

Starling shook her head. “No. Justin banished it, but not before the Council detected its presence. They think he’s a new demonologist experimenting in the demonic arts.”

I lifted the gun and pointed it right at Justin. My wards had flared when he came in, he was tainted. “Are they right, Justin?”

“Gran —”

“No. You want to help, Starling girl? Go get your mother. Tell them that Justin is here.”

“But they’ll kill him! It isn’t his fault that he’s tainted. You know what Renate did! The taint was passed on down to his mother and she killed herself!”

“Go,” I told her. I glanced at Ricky. “You go with her. Make sure she doesn’t do anything except go get her mother. Understand me?”

“Wait.” Justin’s voice came out soft but it rang as clear as a bell and sent shivers into my soul. He looked up at me then and on one level his eyes were nothing special, normal hazel eyes, but on another level I saw embers glowing dully in the dark inside. Justin straightened up on the couch. “There’s no need to send them anywhere. She’s already here.”

I knew this building. I mostly counted on my wards to shield me from the racket of the humanity around me as well as protect me from the things that go bump in the night. That didn’t mean I couldn’t reach out now, and I did. A deathly cold blew across my skin and my breath frosted for a second.

“He’s right, Starling girl. Your mother is already here.”

Starling’s eyes flared. “We have to get him out of here. Is there a way out?”

Of course there was, did she really think that I’d live some place without any escape routes. These young paras had a lot to learn if they were going to survive. As bad as things were in my days, in some ways it was worse today.

I didn’t tell them about any of the routes away. Justin stayed on the couch. Smart boy.

“Starling, you and Ricky still need to go. Your mother’s more likely to talk if she knows you aren’t in danger of becoming a hostage.”

Starling looked to Justin. I snapped my fingers and the candles in the room flared. She jumped a bit. I gave her a grin. “Do as I say.”

“She won’t listen to me.”

“Fine. Don’t worry about it. You brought him to me. If he’s worth saving I’ll talk to your mother.”

“Go,” Justin said in that soft, but commanding voice. It wasn’t magic, he had the gift that some leaders had, to command without shouting.

Starling bit her lip but she and Ricky went to the door without any more arguing. They opened the locks and passed through the wards into the hall. I didn’t reach out for Byrd. She’d get up to us sooner rather than later. I also didn’t bother locking the door again. The things around Byrd mostly didn’t care about locks and those that did could batter the door down. I dug a finger into a pouch hanging at my waist and took out a pinch of salt. Salt’s good for so many things. I cast it at the door with a word of undoing on my lips. The wards around the apartment melted away like a salted slug. I felt the energy of all of the humanity around us pound against my headache. From another pouch I took out an ibuprofen and dry swallowed it. Hey, willow bark has its uses but that doesn’t mean science is useless either.

Justin hadn’t moved but he was watching me. I looked straight back at him and raised the gun. I felt the inner stillness that came with shooting. One twitch of my finger and he’d die. This young man with welts across his bare chest and a demon taint on his soul.

“Okay, Justin. What makes a smart girl like Starling try to protect you from her own mother?”

“She’s a friend.” Justin’s gaze fell down to his hands. “I didn’t even know about my grandmother. Not until the demon showed up and explained it all to me. She offered to unlock my paranormal abilities.”

“And you agreed?” Sold his soul that easily? My finger tightened on the trigger.

“No.” Justin shook his head hard. “She decided to show me what I could do anyway. I guess she figured that I couldn’t resist her. “

Upstairs the baby’s cries cut off as if someone had turned it off. I heard whispering and caught glimpses of dark shapes moving in the corners of my eyes. My breath frosted again. Justin noticed our visitors too and kept looking quickly around.

“You won’t see them that way. Hold still and look without looking. Then you’ll see them.”

As I saw them now. I kept my eyes locked on Justin. I still had the gun ready, but at the edges of my vision I saw the dark forms of the ghosts like vaguely human-shaped patches of darkness. Goosebumps rose on my arms. I heard the door open behind me and I felt her presence.

“Hello, Byrd.” I didn’t look away from Justin.

“Gran Maggie, it looks like you’ve caught our young man for us.”

Byrd walked around me, giving me space and stopped when she stood equal distance between Justin and I, but not in my line of fire. The three of us formed a triangle and around the edges skittered Byrd’s ghosts. Since she had come into her power I’d never seen her without the ghosts.

“I wouldn’t say that,” I told her. “Starling brought him to me. Seems she thinks that he is innocent.”

“Yes,” Byrd said, her voice tightening. “I know. My daughter told me the same.”

I dared a glance at her. Still straight and tall, with long white hair falling neatly down her back over what had to be an expensive black coat. She looked very stylish, I don’t follow fashion, but even I could see that her outfit must have cost more than I pay in rent for the year. Her face looked like porcelain, too pale if anyone asked me. But then she rarely came out during the day like this anymore.

“What are you planning to do with the boy?” So far Justin just stood there hugging his bare chest.

“That’s a concern of the council.”

“Starling said that you sent a wraith after the boy. Sounds like you’ve already judged him and found him guilty.”

“We know he consorted with a demon. Are your senses failing you, that you don’t recognize the taint he bears? This is Renate Colburn’s grandson.”

“I know that. He claims a demon came and unlocked his abilities to tempt him. I’d like to hear the rest of the story.” I looked hard at Justin. “Well?”

Justin looked right back at me with eyes I recognized. I hadn’t noticed it before but he did have his grandmother’s eyes. Except there was something sad in his eyes, as if he was feeling guilty —

I fired first and then dove to the side. Too slow. I couldn’t possibly move fast enough. That first shot clipped his shoulder and spun him partway around but he wasn’t the real threat. I’d dropped my wards to make Byrd feel better. Stupid. Stupid.

So stupid!

The demon had materialized behind where I had been and only my sudden action had saved me from having my throat ripped out. I saw her going for Byrd as I fell. Byrd never moved but smoothly drew two pistols, hands inhumanly fast but not quick enough. The demon was on her before she got off a shot. They fell together, the demon held Byrd’s arms and tried to bite out her throat.

Justin recovered from the gunshot enough to come for me with a silver knife in his hands. I didn’t know where he had hidden that, I didn’t see him draw it. I hit the floor on my side.

I still had the gun pointed at him and as fast as he was I managed to pull the trigger. The shot took him in the throat, blew out his spine and stopped him in his tracks. He dropped heavily onto his knees. His head fell forward onto his chest. I brought up my arm and fired again into the top of his head. He toppled as my ears rang from the shot.

The demon exploded into a cloud of flies and then faded away like rain on sunny sidewalk.

Byrd picked herself up, one arm scored by the demon’s claws. The blood glistened against the dark fabric of her coat while scarlet drops dripped and ran slowly down her hand.

I got up too. All my bones ached. My head still hurt but at least the baby upstairs wasn’t crying.

Byrd looked at me with narrowed eyes as she put away her weapons. “How did you know?”

I still didn’t put away my gun. Supposedly we’re on the same side. I wasn’t sure of that. “That he was lying?”

She nodded.

“It was too convenient. Why would Starling bring him here? How could I protect him against the council? It had to be about something else.”

“Revenge.”

“Yes.” I shook my head. “Now, if you don’t mind? Take him and your ghosts and go. I’ve got to put my wards back up and I could use a nap. You’ll want to go easy on Starling.”

“Why?” Byrd cocked her head. “She needs to learn from her mistakes.”

“Do what you want.”

I felt Byrd’s power, that cold wind that filled the apartment. If I didn’t look too closely I could see the ghosts gathering around Justin’s body. Then he jerked, his feet kicked against the floor and he rose to his feet again. A low moan escaped from his bloodied lips. Byrd’s power swirled around him like a wind that didn’t disturb anything in the apartment except Justin’s blood rose up in a fine mist that swirled around him and then flowed back into his wounds. His flesh knitted itself back together and I heard the snapping sounds of his vertebrae moving into place again. Justin’s head came up but his eyes were empty. He wasn’t anything more than a quality zombie. Byrd couldn’t bring the dead back to life. At least not yet.

After she left, trailed by her new zombie and ghosts, I restored my wards and made some tea. I sank down into my favorite chair and pulled the afghan I had knitted last summer across my lap. Outside there are all kinds of paras struggling for positions and power. Not me.

I’m retired.

3,735 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 31st weekly short story release, finished in January 2011. I originally released this in May 2011 as an e-book under my “Tennessee Hicks” pen name. I loved this idea of exploring what happens to these paranormal folks as they age. I read a lot of urban fantasy with tough, young protagonists who often acquire more power as the series progresses. What happens when that power is lost? If they survive, what happens as they age. Yet another world I plan to return to one day.

Eventually I’ll do standard e-book releases when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the stories. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book and print versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. I’m also serializing novels now on Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is a science fiction story, Future Wasn’t.

Oswald Hamilton, Invader

Not your typical 11-year-old, Oswald Hamilton dreams world-shaking dreams and the smarts to make his dreams reality.
Other kids spent their days skating through life while Oswald plots to take over the world.
Not Earth. Not yet, anyway. Practice makes perfect.
For the mad scientist in our 11-year-old hearts, check out “Oswald Hamilton, Invader”

In late summer when the leaves on the trees look old, but haven’t yet started changing colors, when one day acts like summer with a hot sun that drives people to the Deschutes river to swim, and the next turns out drizzling and cool like fall has sudden tumbled out of the sky, that’s when Oswald Hamilton turned his thoughts to invading an alien world.

The flip-floppy weather patterns of the Early Global Warming Era, or E.G.W.E. as Oswald liked to call it, didn’t bother other kids his age. He saw them traipsing past his big blue multi-story, mostly wasted space, house with their backpacks and pre-paid, parental lock-broken cell phones and their department-store clothing. They didn’t care about the effects of the E.G.W.E. because unlike him they went to school. He watched two boys speed past on bikes, backpacks bouncing, helmet-less hair flying, laughter snatched from their lips as they jumped the sidewalk, swerving close to traffic, sending the traffic guard into a flurry of panicked flag waving. Brake lights lit up red and clueless sixth graders soared untouched across state highway 507 where it cut through town.

That could have been him down there, all brainless and having fun, heading off to start the sixth grade, not caring about anything except what he was wearing, what the other kids were wearing, whether or not the cafeteria had mini hot dogs or pizza on the menu, and what he and his friends were going to do after school.

It could have been him down there if he was a complete and total idiot like those kids.

Not Oswald Hamilton, soon to be conqueror of a whole other planet.

Oswald Hamilton, eleven years old, sitting by himself near one of the large windows that looked out toward highway 507 on the fourth floor of his house, technically his parents’ house, but they’d given him the entire fourth floor. He needed the space for all of his work. Homeschooling, they called it. He called it learning to conquer the world. Not this world, not the Earth, that’d just call unwanted attention to himself. He was only eleven years old after all and smart enough to know that you didn’t just jump into something like that. No, first you had to practice.

Eleven years old and given how smart he was and the fact that he was homeschooled, some might think that there was something physically wrong with him. A deformity that kept him locked up on the fourth floor of a bloated Victorianesque monstrosity built with his father’s riches from his software companies, but Oswald had no deformities.

 

No physical limitations. In fact, quite the opposite. His parents had always encouraged a vibrant exercise plan, one that kept him fit and healthy, a lean, muscular, happy-looking red-headed kid with a dimple on one cheek. Too cute to be handsome, but not too rounded in the face to really be called baby-faced. No, Oswald knew he could pass mostly unnoticed out in public, doing nothing to draw attention to himself, so long as he left his custom-made and tailored clothing behind and wore ill-fitting department store clothing that hid the fact that he wasn’t pudgy and weak like many kids.

Oswald turned away from the window. It was getting late and he had a world to conquer. He wanted to get that done before lunch, because his parents would expect him to join them downstairs. They always ate every meal together, unless either his mother who worked as a medical consultant for pharmacological companies or his father who was always creating some new computer startup to build up and sell off to the highest bidder, were on a trip.

He had already finished his assignments for the week. His parents knew that he was bright, brilliant even, but he hadn’t let on yet just how smart he was and he hadn’t shown them his inventions. Not the major ones.

Oswald knew better. Given the fact that his parents were both exceptionally smart themselves, compared to pretty much anyone, he thought they might actually have ideas about what to do with the technology. And he’d listen, really, he would, but after he got a chance to try it out himself.

Two years ago he had convinced his parents to give him the entire fourth floor of the house. Most of the walls had come down, giving it a large open studio feeling. He’d turned the couple supporting walls into bookcases and set up the rest for his experiments.

The machine that would let him take over the alien world filled the northwest corner of the room. Oswald walked across the cool hardwood floors, barefoot because he always went barefoot when he could since shoes were the culprits of a variety of muscle and skeletal ills. A gleaming trilobite crawled across the floor, mouth-brushes sucking up every little speck of dust. Two others scattered and scurried away from him. Oswald’s dad wanted to market the floor-cleaning trilobites but so far Oswald had put him off without telling him that the trilobites weren’t exactly trustworthy when it came to family pets. It wasn’t his fault, what happened to Snowball, the trilobites’ emergent behavior just wasn’t something he felt right about excising.

His world-conquering machine didn’t look that threatening. A large hi-def LCD monitor hung on the wall beside the window, a metallic tube two meters long pointed at the window, a variety of smaller monitors flashed data on the sub-components. The heart of the machine was a custom-built chair facing the hi-def screen. He loved that bit, his parents thought he had asked for it for his birthday because he loved watching old science fiction shows and wanted a captain’s chair to sit in while he played video games and watched movies. They actually thought that the tube pointed at the window was a homemade telescope and all the rest of this was his entertainment section.

It was entertainment, not the way that they meant, but he had hooked in a couple game consoles just to act as a camouflage for the machine’s true purpose.

Oswald dropped into his chair and swiveled around to face the screen. He tapped a couple buttons on the arm of the chair. “Activate view screen.”

A planet appeared on the screen, slightly to one side. At first glance the world might be mistaken as the Earth with its white clouds, blue oceans and obscured landmasses. Not by him, of course, but someone might if they didn’t pay any attention to the data or look at it for more than two seconds.

Circumference 1.23384 that of the Earth. Axial tilt at 19 degrees, .85 A.U. from its somewhat cooler G-type star. Neither the planet or the star had ever been the focus of any Earth-based study since they were located clear on the other side of the galaxy from the Earth. Oswald had already named it Planet X.

The image on his television was a real-time view of Planet X brought to him courtesy of his omniscope. That’s what he called it. Everything in the universe was information. When he was six he started wondering about quantum entanglement and the whole question of the underlying mechanism. He got obsessed about it the way other kids obsessed on collecting Pokémon.

Finding the answer was only a matter of time. The result? The omniscope, capable of seeing anything, anywhere in time or space. Actually seeing was too simplistic. Using the omniscope he could access information, any information. Any spectrum of energy, the state of individual atoms, the spin of quarks, or the sound of a lark perched on a branch. Even the thoughts of the kids he had watched outside his window. Whatever he wanted, he could dip in and check it out.

And Oswald Hamilton planned to use the omniscope to invade the world on his screen. The omniscope wasn’t read-only, after all. He could also write information.

Right now he had the omniscope locked in what he considered his fly-on-the-wall mode, an undetectable field in space-time that he could fly around like the ultimate remote controlled camera. He tapped a couple buttons on the arms of his chair and two flat screen panels the size of a cell phone slid up out of the ends of the arms. He touched the screens and they lit up with his touch controls.

It was time.

“Make it so!” Oswald cried. His fingers danced across the controls.

On the television the camera shot forward, zooming straight down at the planet without any regard to orbital mechanics. Nothing mattered to the field. It only weakly interacted at all with the surroundings, relaying back the information which was assembled by his software into the view on the screen.

In two point five seconds the planet went from an obvious sphere on the screen to a straight-down view of clouds far below. If the field was a spacecraft it would be interacting with the air molecules, heating up, burning up at the rate he was descending. With a tap on his screen Oswald activated the microphone functions and picked up the faint ambient sound of the atmosphere. It was quiet. Without any physical form the omniscope field simply didn’t interact with the air. Down lower he’d hear more.

The view dropped. White clouds dominated the screen, nothing below was visible. Then there was nothing but the clouds, a blinding whiteness on the screen. Oswald tapped the screen, freezing the descent. With no inertia to deal with the view came to an instant relative stop. He pinched and zoomed in until fine droplets appeared on the screen, magnified until each drop looked like a fist-sized ball of water with a bit of dissolved grit. Oswald gestured and the view zoomed in on one drop, swelling until it filled the screen. The omniscope focused in, swimming deep into the droplet until tiny wriggling single-celled organisms appeared on his television. Oswald flicked off several images for later study then double-tapped his view back to standard.

The descent continued. He ripped through the clouds at speeds that would have torn any aircraft to shreds. He burst out of the bottom of the clouds and at last could see the ground not far below at all.

A great city spread out beneath him, all gleaming towers and green parks. It could have been New York or Paris, London or Shanghai. Except the air was full of vehicles flying around like angry bees in a rainbow assortment of colors. On this world flying cars had become the norm, except they weren’t cars at all and clearly used some form of quantum shifting to move about. It was a storm of traffic that he would have ordinarily worried about navigating. Not with the omniscope.

Laughing, Oswald flew his viewpoint down into the city. A building filled the screen, too big to keep it all in view. A blue vehicle, shiny and iridescent, shot past and with a few gestures Oswald sent his viewpoint speeding after the pod. Software locked onto the vehicle and he relaxed, stretching out his arms, then he leaned forward to watch.

The city was beautiful, sparkling and wet from the recent rain but the clouds he had passed through were blowing away. Sunlight caught the steel and glass buildings, making them shine. The flying vehicles moved like schools of fish or flocks of birds, turning in mass. Not individually driven, Oswald hypothesized, more likely than not controlled by some sort of artificial intelligence with flocking behavioral routines. He had programmed similar routines into his marble bots when he was five. Or it was possible that the natives had evolved similar flocking behaviors during their ascent to intelligence and had retained those abilities in this technological society.

Invading a world was a lot of work, Oswald decided. He grinned. Fortunately he had recently finished his latest invention, the key piece that would make this world his.

He pressed a button and a hidden compartment slid open on the side of his chair. Oswald reached down and took out a smooth silvery band, a crown fit for the ruler of a world. Simple, without unnecessary jewels or ornamentation, it was the symbol of his rule and the instrument all in one. Oswald lifted it above his head, his eyes fixed on the bright blue vehicle that dove down between two narrow buildings.

“I crown myself ruler of this world!” Oswald settled the crown on his head.

He settled back in his chair. A couple taps and the view caught up to the vehicle, passed through the shell and into the compartment inside where Oswald saw the aliens.

It was a family. Three of them sitting on benches around the oval perimeter of the vehicle. The interior material was white, spotless and plastic-looking, lit by recessed panels. There wasn’t any view of the city outside but surely they must be able to display an exterior view if they wanted. As he had hypothesized the aliens were not driving the vehicle, merely riding in it.

Bilaterally symmetrical humanoids, that much was familiar, and the rest didn’t really seem all that strange after the various science fiction shows he’d watched over the years. Bright clothes, made of light, flowing, semi-translucent materials in layers that gave them an almost fluffy, feathered appearance. The adults were both large, bigger than a human and a quick calibration measure confirmed that they’d each stand about seven feet tall. They had big dark, canine-looking eyes, and beak-like mouths. Their skin was rough and leathery, tan-colored, like Dad’s favorite belt. Between the adults he couldn’t see anything to suggest a difference in gender but the one on the right did have a couple small backward-facing horns on its head that could potentially have a gender-based origin.

Oswald spun the omniscope view around and focused instead on the smaller alien in the cabin. It was dressed somewhat like the adults but only in one color, blue, and one layer of cloths. That made it easier to see how they were held together, it looked like they simply stuck together. A quick zoom and he could see the tiny hooks in the fabric. Each piece was octagonal in shape, and evidently wrapped and applied, sticking together at the connection points. He zoomed back out and focused in on the child’s head.

This was it. The test. The moment that he had worked for all these months. If everything worked, he could conquer this entire world. If it didn’t? Well, he could end up frying his brain.

Oswald’s heart rate increased.

He could run more tests. Reevaluate the safety protocols. Check the redundancies again.

Oswald licked his lips and leaned forward, studying the alien child’s face. The kid was looking at a screen, a tablet held in his four-fingered hand. The tablet could have been manufactured on Earth, it looked like a iPad mini playing a video of more aliens. A television show? Oswald chuckled. Here he was watching an alien watching television.

No. He’d worked for this moment. Now it was time.

He activated the crown and shoved the omniscope controls forward, taping the interfacing commands.

The omniscope had a read-only mode and it had another mode, one that could write information. In this case the crown scanned his head, interfaced with the scope, which locked onto the electrical activity in the alien child’s brain and established the connection.

One of the querlings squirming around his tongue flicked across the back of his throat, tasting of sweet ash. Oswald swallowed reflectively and clacked his beak in appreciation of the querling’s sacrifice.

“Honey, don’t swallow your querlings,” Mother-Mine scolded. “How are you going to keep your beak clean if you keep swallowing them?”

Okay, Oswald thought. That was worse than swallowing his toothpaste.

Toothpaste? Teeth? Revulsion made his gut shake.

Oswald bobbed his head respectfully. The merger had worked, the crown worked. His thoughts and those of the alien kid were now linked, shared together.

He knew that Mother-Mine and Father-Mine were on their way to work, the flit would drop him off at the crèche for the day where he’d have to fend off the battering of bigger kids. A quick recollection showed that the adults at the crèche didn’t intervene. Toughness and survival were considered essential lessons of growing up. Learning was self-taught, Oswald liked that part at least, but the rest of the memories he skated across showed him a kid that was weaker than the others, who survived by avoiding trouble. Even this kid’s parents had few expectations for him.

Oswald started to draw back. This kid didn’t matter, he was only a test case. There were bigger fish to fry on this world. He hardly thought about it and he knew who he needed. Trask, Leader Trask, governed the people. The kid wasn’t clear on the details, if Trask was the leader of the city, a country, state or whatever, but it was enough. All Oswald had to do was locate Trask, merge with him and then he’d be in charge. If there was someone above Trask then he could jump to that person. Eventually he’d locate the top alien, the biggest boss or the closest thing to one. Then the real fun would begin. He could direct the world the way he wanted.

The flit slowed. This was it. The crèche stop. Father-Mine opened his eyes. “Fight well, Child-Mine. Earn your name.”

Earn your name? Oswald suddenly understood. The kid didn’t have a name. Wouldn’t have a name until he left the crèche. If he survived and learned. Only the best kids survived. Oswald concentrated and realized that the kid felt a deep respect, tinged with a touch of fear, for his parents but no affection. And he didn’t expect any in return. Adults guided children, taught them if they proved themselves, but children were replaceable. After all, only the strongest should survive.

“I will, Father-Mine.” Oswald bobbed his head and jumped down when the flit door opened.

His parents didn’t even say anything as the flit took off into the flock. More flits descended and there was a crowd of kids moving along the landing platform into the gleaming building ahead. Oswald moved automatically with other children along the platform. There wasn’t any overt pushing or violence but he felt pressured by the body language of larger kids around him to move away from the center of the platform to the riskier edge.

No way Oswald was doing that. There wasn’t any railing and it was a long way down.

A kid nearly adult sized with three colors of cloth pressed close. “Move, youngling.”

Oswald stopped. He looked up at the bigger alien. He felt the agitation and shock in those around as they parted around the confrontation, none wanting anything to do with an odd youngling foolishly staring at the older kid. It was a great offense, that sort of eye-contact, Oswald realized. The sort of thing that would get the kid he was merged with killed.

He couldn’t let that happen.

“Go stuff yourself,” he said.

The older kid took a deep breath, his cloths fluttering in a display meant to intimidate.

Oswald reached out and grabbed a double handful of the older kid’s cloths. He ripped them free, basically stripping the older kid of any coverings on his front. Oswald threw them away across the platform, other kids scrambled to avoid being hit by the clothes.

“Now get out of my face,” Oswald said. “Before I make you move.”

They thought he was crazy. They all thought he had gone dangerously mad. There were rules and conventions, he knew all of that, but this kid wasn’t going to get anywhere by sticking with what was normal or expected. No, the only way this kid was going to survive was if he acted, well, alien.

The bigger kid scrambled after his discarded clothing, trying to catch it before the winds took it off the platform. Oswald turned and walked down the center of the platform toward the crèche doors.

Maybe being the absolute ruler of the world could wait. No way this kid could pull this off on his own. He was still there, Oswald could feel the kid’s panic and terror over what he’d just done. He didn’t understand, but already his brain was trying to rationalize, to come up with explanations and reasons. Given time the kid might learn something.

Heck, maybe they’d even get to be friends or something, Oswald thought privately. That might prove interesting. Running a world would cut into his other activities. If he worked with this kid, earned him his name, maybe this kid would end up running the place.

Oswald pulled back, separating their thoughts. The connection fell away. On the screen the alien kid paused on the platform. When he saw how the others moved away from him he puffed up, his single layer of cloths fluttering, and strutted on into the crèche.

Oswald Hamilton, invader, sat back in his captain’s chair and put his hands together. This was going to be fun!

3,536 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 25th weekly short story release, written in October 2011. I never really know if a story works or not — I think that’s true for most writers. Even if we think a story works, it may not. You be the judge of that, either way I still have a fondness for Oswald.

I’m releasing each of these stories, one per week, here on my website. Eventually I’ll do standard e-book releases when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the books. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Check back next week for another story. Next up is a science fiction story with more aliens, It Takes a Crèche.

Alley Cat

Catherine ‘Cat’ Eagle, petite bike messenger with a pixie nose, red hair, freckles and a perpetual tan, loved nothing better than the freedom of riding. Just her, her bike, the city streets and her uncanny sense of direction.

That sense led her to discover the Goblin Alley, the magical connections that connected every city in the world to Goblinus — home of the goblins and other faerie creatures. That secret world called to Cat, and she had to follow, only this time she wasn’t alone.

Lounging on one of the threadbare, ass-eating chairs in the front lobby of Mercury Messengers, Catherine ‘Cat’ Eagle watched the rain run down the outside of the office’s single-pane windows and the condensation running down the inside. Two drops on opposite sides of the glass were in a neck-and-neck race. Who would win the Tour de France? Outside? Inside? Outside merged with a larger drop and surged into the lead. Cat let the weight of her bicycle helmet pull her head back on the chair, groaning.

“Come on Bert, what’s the point in keeping me on the clock this afternoon? It’s dead.”

Behind the orange counter Bert Downing, her boss, chuckled hard enough to make his thick jowls jiggle. Sometimes she thought that Bert was entirely made of Jell-O, given how much of it he ate. Even now he had a cup of strawberry banana and was spooning it into his mouth. “Someone might call for a pick-up. No one wants to go out in the weather like this.”

Cat closed her eyes. He actually could be right, except the phone hadn’t rung once. Not like last month before Valentine’s day. Something about the most nauseating holiday of the year compelled people to have their flowers and chocolates and stuffed bears and who knew what else delivered via bike messenger. At least she got out riding. But March? She ended up sitting around too much. Some of the other guys loved nothing better to loaf around but for her the best thing about the job was being out on her bike cruising the streets and, when she got the chance, ducking back into the goblin alleys. She could spend a lifetime exploring the goblin city of Goblinus, connected to – she was told – all of the cities of the world by the alleys. If Bert would only give her the afternoon off she could slip out and find an alley leading to the other world. Maybe there it wouldn’t be raining. Even if it was it’d still be more interesting than watching the Seventies era orange and brown stripped wallpaper peeling from the walls, or listening to Bert slurp down yet another cup of Jell-O.

The bell of the back door jangled. One of the other riders stuck with working today must have returned. Probably Erik Powell. Cat sat up, swinging her bare calves off the arm of the chair. Her cleats on the bike sandals clunked against the tile. “Bert, look, that’s probably Erik. Let him sit around here in case anyone wants a pickup.”

Bert put down his empty Jell-O cup. He pointed his plastic spoon, still decorated with gory bits of strawberry-banana Jell-O, at her. “You sound like you’re not too interested in a job, young lady. Don’t I pay you for this? What other job lets you sit around so much? You should consider yourself fortunate.”

“If I sit here any longer my ass is going to melt into that chair. You’ll have to hire professional cleaners just to scrape me out.”

 

Bert grinned. Right then Erik came through the swinging doors to the back room where the messengers had their locker rooms and Bert kept the packages waiting to go out. An empty room right now. Erik was alright, cocky, dark hair and five years younger than her. So far he hadn’t given up on asking her out, obviously deluding himself into thinking that he could wear her down. Erik looked between the two of them and opened his mouth. Cat held up a hand.

“Well, Bert?”

He chuckled, jiggling again on his chair like his favorite desert. He waved his spoon around in a circle. “Fine. Don’t want to get paid? Just saving me money.” He jabbed the spoon in Erik’s direction. “You sit down where I can see you. I’m not sending everyone home yet.”

Cat bounced up and out of the chair. “Thanks Bert.”

Erik took two stiff steps toward the chair. His tight blue jersey glistened with water, more drops ran off his helmet and down his legs, bare beneath his knee. “Don’t I get a say in this?”

“No.” Bert and Cat said together.

Cat touched Erik’s arm as she went past. “Tough luck.”

She grimaced before she even hit the door. Why did she do something like that? Touch his arm? It was only going to encourage him. Simple answer. Get the hell out of there before Erik found some excuse to follow her into the back. She hit the door moving fast and picked up speed as she shoved through. In the back she ran to her locker. Her fingers felt like lead as she spun the dial for the combination lock. For a second her mind went blank. She didn’t have any idea what the numbers were, but her fingers stopped it on the first number. 13. Lucky 13. All the rest came back. She got the locker open, snagged her bag, making sure that she had her u-lock inside because she had forgotten it before, and locked back up. In the lobby the phone rang and she faintly heard Bert answering. Slinging the bag strap over her head onto her shoulder she headed toward the rack to get her bike. The bells on her bag jingled with each step. She copied that from the pedicabs over in Goblinus. Those guys, mostly goblins, all had bells on their cabs to alert pedestrians to their presence. Now it sounded loud and annoying.

Cat pulled her bike out of the rack just as the lobby door swung open, with Erik hurrying into the back. His face lit up when he saw her.

“Great! You haven’t left yet. Hold up a sec, I’ve got a pickup run to make but I have loads of time, we can ride together for bit.”

Cat pushed her bike toward the exit. She never should have touched his arm. “Sorry, can’t wait. I’ll see you later.”

“Hey!”

She didn’t stop. Erik ran for the bike rack and she shoved her bike outside into the wet and rain. One, two steps and she swung her leg up over the seat and dropped onto the pedals. She pushed hard and shot down the back alleyway behind the building. Her attention turned inward, looking for that feeling in her chest that signaled the alignment of an alley with Goblinus. She felt it, but not here, not right now. The alleys shifted and moved over time. She had an unerring sense of direction and it was telling her that she needed to head North.

Cat rolled out to the street, turning smartly into the lane when she saw it was clear, and stood up to tackle the hill. As she rode she looked over the top of a battered Geo parked on the street and saw Erik come out of the alley behind her. She pushed harder. No way he’d be able to keep up and soon enough she’d ditch him when she found an open alley.

At the top of the hill her gut told her to head left and she did, climbing slightly again but heading towards a development along the ridge. Lots of office buildings with a view rising up above the trees, expensive places for people with expensive tastes. And wherever there were people with expensive tastes they’d have alleys to hide their dumpsters and let their menial workers come and go through back entrances. That had to be the place. Traffic increased on the road but she kept the lane, pushing to the pedals and easily cruising along at almost thirty. She didn’t see Erik anywhere when she checked her helmet mirror. He might have given up on the charge up the hill, but she doubted it. She started looking around, sure that he had to be somewhere, but she didn’t see him.

The feeling that she was on the right track grew stronger as she reached the conflict. She raced around a roundabout planted with young Douglas fir trees and on into the main drive for the first complex. Movement out the corner of her eye caught her attention and she saw Erik coming up the sidewalk! She shot past, cursing because he had to have seen her. Now she had to get to the alley before he caught up or he’d see her cross over.

Her bike carried her on past all of the V.I.P. parking, around the back of the nearest building. A metal bar gate crossed the road ahead, but there was space to the side. She curved smoothly around it and kept going, pedaling hard as the pull grew stronger. It was almost time for the alley to change. She had to hurry!

There. Just ahead a narrow alley opened onto the roadway. She knew that was the spot. She raced toward the opening and heard gears grinding and the growl of something large. Cat braked hard, her tires sliding on the road, and she stopped just before a large garbage truck squeezed out of the alley with the concrete buildings rising on either side. It barely fit at all, maybe a foot to spare on either side. Cat clenched her handlebar grips and waited for her chance.

As soon as the truck cleared the alley she shoved forward, pedaling hard into the narrow space. Her tires splashed through the thin ribbon of water running down the center of the concrete alley. Recessed yellow lights gleamed in reinforced pockets on the walls. As exultant as if she were crossing a finishing line Cat rode the change from this alley to another only to realize with shock that there was someone coming up hard on her left elbow. Too late to stop, too late to do anything except cross.

Bright sunshine hit her eyes as if the clouds had been ripped away. The smooth gliding ride across concrete gave way to a teeth-rattling cobblestone. Cat hit her brakes and came to a stop. She heard swearing and saw Erik lose control of his bike, as he wobbled and then toppled over on the uneven surface.

The buildings rising around them were made of light yellow bricks but the alleyway was paved with cobblestones. Balconies hung over the alley, overgrown with plants that dangled down the sides of the buildings. Clotheslines strung with colorful garments crisscrossed the alley above there heard. She heard voices, some raised in song and others laughing, and smelled something eye-watering-hot cooking. Even more striking was the absence of any traffic sounds. Further down the alley, at least a hundred yards past where Erik was slowing picking himself up, a couple people in bright tunics were walking this way. Only not human people, she could tell even from this distance. Both of them what she thought of as classic goblins, standing about shoulder-high with green skin, pointy ears and large yellowish eyes. The one on her left wore a blue tunic stretched tight by his bulk and had a shaven head. His companion wore a bright pink tunic and had long dark hair pulled back into a top-knot. Neither goblin looked alarmed to see two humans on bikes suddenly show up in the alley. The trick, Cat had learned, was to look like you belonged and had a purpose. Then most folks left you alone. In both worlds.

She rolled forward to join Erik as he picked up his bike, but his attention was on everything else. She leaned closer. “You look like a tourist. Close your trap and follow me.”

“But—”

“Do it!” She pedaled toward the approaching goblins, hoping that he’d be smart enough to follow. She checked her helmet mirror. He was on his bike, riding after her, his fingers holding tight to his handlebars as they bounced along the alley. It wasn’t that bad once you got used to it, but rougher than most city riding. Some sections of the city had better streets but vehicle traffic was limited to a few radial streets and designated roads around the center of the city. She didn’t recognize this section of the city but that was hardly surprising considering the vastness of Goblinus. She knew that the Goblin King’s city was a huge amorphous blight on the landscape and stretched miles out from the dark spires at the heart which housed the Goblin King himself. So far she’d stayed out of the inner districts, always coming into the city in places like this. And so far her luck had held for her to find her way back out again, thanks to her keen sense of direction.

It only took moments to reach the goblins. She didn’t say anything to them, just focused on steering around them, her bells jingling the whole time. Erik stayed right behind her as if he was trying to draft off her. As they passed the goblins she heard one of them sneer, “Othersiders.”

Cat didn’t respond. She kept riding, but slowed slightly now that the alley was clear. Erik rolled up alongside us. His face looked pale.

“What was that?”

Cat glanced back, but they were far enough away. “Goblins. This is their city. Not just goblins, of course, there are other types of people here including humans. Don’t act like a tourist and you won’t stand out.”

“This is impossible. You went into that alley between the offices –”

“And came out here. Tell me something I don’t know.” Cat softened slightly. “It surprised me too the first time.”

“You’ve done this before?”

“Yes.” Cat brought her bike to a stop. Erik stopped with her. “You shouldn’t have followed me. I didn’t think you could follow me, honestly.”

“You mean you brought me here?”

Cat shrugged. “It’s not like I meant to. I was trying to ditch you.”

Now Erik got some of his color back and grinned at her. “Not that easy to ditch me.”

“I guess not, but now we’ve got a bit of a problem.”

“What?”

“I’ve got to get you back safely but I don’t know if I can. Even if I find the route back what if you just stay stuck on this side?”

“That could happen?”

“I don’t know! Maybe? It isn’t like I’ve brought people over here before.”

“I followed you this way, why wouldn’t it work going back?”

“Maybe it will.” Cat pushed off on her bike. “I just wish I knew if it would or not.”

Erik caught up with her and they rode down the alley to a wider cross-street. There was a lot more pedestrian traffic on the street. Mostly goblins of the green variety but Cat saw some of the leather-clad yellow goblins that looked like some sort of police from a nightmare bondage fantasy, and even a couple of the bigger gray goblins stomping along with their over-sized feet and protruding lips. Here and there in the crowds she saw other types. A thin, fine-featured man with long white hair, no idea what he could be, as well as the occasional humans. No one looked like they were giving her any second looks as she wove among the crowd, trying to project the image of a bike messenger with a purpose. Erik wisely kept up and didn’t say anything. So long as they kept moving Cat felt better. She concentrated on her sense of direction. Which way home?

Her gut told her to keep going down this street so she kept pushing on the pedals. Now and then she checked on Erik with her helmet mirror but he doggedly stayed right behind her on her left. Everything considered he was handling himself well. Her gut feeling didn’t get stronger but she remained convinced that she was going the right way. As she rode she kept an eye and ear out for any trouble. Goblins mostly gave way at the sound of her bells. She caught a few scowls but also passed a pedicab being pedaled by a big gray goblin with his own bell jangling from the canopy over his empty passenger seat. She smelled fresh-baked bread riding past one building, and right at the next something with a strong garlic odor started her stomach growling. A short distance on she passed a cart with row after row of dried fish hanging on strings. Other merchants hawked their wares along the street from carts and tables, boxes and discreet samples in pockets. A constant babble of overlapping voices came at her from all sides. Riding past a group of yellow goblins they burst into raucous laughter, which she thought was directed at her and Erik at first, but then she saw one of the goblins flick a pebble at one of the light posts. The rock pinged off the glass globe at the top and inside one of the captive fairies kicked and hit at the glass, making rude gestures at the goblins. The others lay about in their day-time stupor, too tired or too apathetic to care. Another rock hit the glass and triggered another tantrum which set the goblins off laughing once more.

Cat looked away and kept peddling. She’d been shocked the first time she saw the fairies in the lamp posts, now she tried not to look at them. Erik rode up beside her.

“Did you see that?”

“Yes, but there’s nothing we can do about it. Get behind me.”

“Are those fairies?”

“Yes, Erik watch out!”

Her warning came too late. He didn’t see the big pink goblin in his path until he was just about to collide with the unfortunate pedestrian. Erik swerved wildly, somehow missing the goblin but his only option was to head into a narrow alley. The goblin shouted and took a swing at Erik, but missed. Cat braked and swung her bike around. The goblin turned his attention to her.

She smiled widely. “Sorry about that.”

In the alley Erik shouted in alarm. Cat stood up on the pedals and shot toward the alley, swerving around the goblin’s grasping hands. More shouts rose up behind her but she didn’t look back. She shot into the alley and saw Erik pedaling away from her, deeper into the alley. At first she didn’t see what he was fleeing from but then a section of the red brick wall moved. It bulged out and jumped down into an alley, landing on all fours. It wasn’t a section of the wall at all but a geist, a sort of chameleon-like goblin she had encountered before. Its skin matched the bricks as it loped after Erik. And it wasn’t alone. Several other geists chased after him, some leaping from balcony to balcony above, or racing along the roof top. Cat hesitated only a second before she raced after the geists and Erik, the whole while her gut telling her that she was going in the wrong direction. Erik was standing up, pedaling as fast as he could, but it looked like the geists were gaining on him.

They raced down the alley, the geists hot after Erik and Cat speeding along behind, but gaining. The rough cobblestone of the alley rattled her teeth and bike until her arms and wrists ached. As she closed the gap between her and the geists she caught a strong urine scent from them. Then she rode up alongside the trailing geist, a creature of knotted muscles beneath the lumpish cobblestone appearance of its skin. It snarled at her with teeth of splintered stone. Cat reached back with one hand, and pulled her u-lock from her messenger bag. The geist lunged at her calf and she swung the metal u-lock down at its head hard. The blow sent tremors up her arm and the geist crumpled to the ground. Just then her bike’s front tire hit a protruding rock and bounced. She almost lost control of the bike but managed to recover and pedaled harder to catch up with Erik.

Geists on each side came at her but she swung the lock and knocked them back. One leaped from a balcony, attempting to land on her but she ducked down and it missed. All around she heard the harsh panting of their breath and that urine scent stung her eyes. Then she passed the leading geist and pulled up alongside Erik. His face was pale and intent on navigating the alley. It was so narrow that there wasn’t much more room than the two of them side-by-side. Cat thought about home and felt the tug in her gut that indicated a crossing, but it wasn’t home. She didn’t know where it would go. She was still debating it in her mind when a large geist with skin colored like stone and nails like wrought iron dropped from the rooftops three floors above and landed directly in their path. It rose up baring teeth of broken glass and roared.

“Oh shit!” Erik cried.

Before he could brake Cat reached over and grabbed his arm. Inside she reached for that sense of the crossing and –

They rolled together into an equally narrow brick-lined alley that came to an end right before them. There wasn’t any time to stop before they rolled out, startling a woman, and into a street in front of a small blue car. The car braked and the bearded man inside swore at them. Erik lost control of his bike and toppled into the street. Cat swung off her bike and knelt beside him.

“Are you okay?”

The man in the car yelled at them again, in French. Cat recognized a word or two. She raised a hand. “Pardon!”

Erick picked himself up. “I’m okay.”

He grabbed his bike and she went to her bike. Together they pushed their bikes on across the street. Erik was looking at her but Cat’s eyes were drawn to the end of the road. There, rising above the trees, was the Eiffel tower. The man in the blue car drove on past.

“What is it?” Erik asked. “Not more monsters.”

“No.” Cat laughed. She pointed down the street. “Take a look.”

Erick looked. “No way! How?”

Cat tore her eyes from the tower and looked at Erik. He was sort of cute in a kind of goofy way with his curls poking out from beneath his bike helmet. “The goblin alleys connect Goblinus to cities everywhere. It looks like we ended up in Paris.”

“That’s crazy. How do we get home?”

Cat grinned again. “Well, since we don’t have passports I think our best bet is to go back through the goblin alley. I’ve got a great sense of direction.”

“You brought us here!”

“That was only to get away from the geists. We’ll be more careful the next time. Are you up for it?”

“On one condition.”

“What?”

“Okay, two conditions.”

Cat raised an eyebrow.

“Look,” Erik said quickly. “Just two things. When we get back you explain everything, and we go out to dinner together. Like a date.”

“If you do what I tell you too this time,” Cat said.

“Of course.”

Cat turned her bike away before he could see her smile and swung her leg up over the seat. First, find the way back to Goblinus and then home. After that, a date might be nice. And it’d be cool to have someone to share all this with. She pedaled slowly down the street, Erik falling in behind her, savoring the view of the tower. Her gut told her it might take a while to find another crossing. Or maybe she just wanted to check out the sights a bit before they left.

3,942 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 23rd weekly short story release. I originally put this story out under my pen name “Michael Burges.” I wrote this back in early 2011. It was a tie-in to the Goblin Alley series that, at the time, was only one novel. Cat would eventually show up again in a guest appearance in The Eleven Lords.

I’m releasing each of these stories, one per week, here on my website. Eventually I’ll do standard e-book releases when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the books. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Check back next week for another story. Next up is another Goblin Alley tie-in, The Forest Path.

Trailer Park of the Dead Things

The call on Stefan Roland’s supernatural tip line describes the Willow Lane trailer park as haunted and terrifying.

It’s possibly the only opportunity for Stefan to revitalize his Dead Things series of films.

The whole gang comes back for one more shot at filming dead things before the Inquisition sweeps in to cover it all up.

Assuming they can get out alive!

1

The call on Stefan Roland’s supernatural tip line described the Willow Lane trailer park as haunted and terrifying. Leaning forward to look out the van window, Stefan agreed, but probably not for the same reasons as the caller.

Out of habit he pulled back and checked himself in the side mirror. At fifty-three he still managed to look good for the camera. Or good enough. He had that sort of Peter Jenkins look these days with his hair mostly gray, but he stayed in shape. When you had a reputation for filming zombies the last thing you wanted was to be huffing and wheezing on camera when you tried to get away. He straightened his bright red tie and straightened up in time to see his driver and cameraman, Craig Marshal grinning at him.

“What?” Stefan asked. “I have to look good when we shoot this.”

Behind his sunglasses Craig raised an eyebrow but remained silent as he steered the van around a child’s bike abandoned in the road. Roan Collins stuck her head up between the seats, still sporting the same spiky blond hair she had back in the days when they’d gone to Afghanistan to film War of the Dead Things. She looked more or less the same, actually more tanned with a few lines around her eyes but he wouldn’t dare mess with the petite sound wizard.

“Shoot what?” she asked. “This place is a dump. I can’t even believe that we’re doing this.”

Stefan shrugged. “I thought we all agreed that we needed another film. We can’t ride on the royalties from the first three forever. People want something new.”

“But this?” Roan grabbed the seat backs as Craig stopped the van in front of one of the trailers. A hand-painted sign out front read ‘Manager’. “We haven’t gotten anything better from the tip line?”

“No. These days the Inquisition swoops in too fast. They’ve usually got the witch in custody before we ever hear about it.” Which was part of the reason he hadn’t put out a new documentary in twenty years. That and after Afghanistan he had needed years of therapy. Not to mention the book deals, talk circuit and merchandising.

Craig spoke in his deep voice. “Then why aren’t they here? If there’s anything to this, shouldn’t they be all over it?”

“When I talked to the manager he said that they did send out a team and nothing happened while they were around, but he said it has started up again since then.” Stefan popped open his door. “Come on, grab your gear and let’s go talk to him.”

Craig and Roan exchanged a look before she disappeared into the back. Craig climbed out of the driver’s seat to follow. Stefan got out of the van and shut the door behind him. It felt good to have the team back together, out in the field. A cool breeze blew dry leaves around his feet that sounded like whispers and smelled like rain. He looked up at dark clouds massing overhead. Hopefully it’d hold off on the rain until they got set up, but it would make for some good atmospheric shots later.

The Willow Lane trailer park looked run down and worn out, but not really haunted. None of the trailers looked new and some looked dangerous. The one to the right of the manager’s had cardboard duct taped up over a broken window with big pointy shards of glass still dangling from the frame. More glass reflected light up from the weeds around the trailer. Moss and branches from the willow trees littered the roofs of the trailers. Garbage bags, boxes, kids toys and cars crowded around the trailers. He heard the van door open and walked around the front of the van, barely missing a pile of dog crap on the tiny patch of weedy grass around the manager’s sign. At least he hoped the crap was from a dog, it was fresh enough to smell, but he couldn’t shake the disturbing thought of some dirty child crouching to dump beside the sign as a prank.

 

Craig and Roan had their gear sorted when he reached the other side. These days Craig still had his height but he had put on more weight over the years. Like Stefan his hair was mostly gray now, but he wore it longer.

“Let’s do a quick intro,” Stefan suggested. “Do we have the wireless recording set up?”

Roan gave him that look that said he had dared to question her abilities. “Everything is transmitted back to the van and recorded. The system checks out.”

“Okay.” Stefan grinned. “You know me and new technology. Ready?”

Craig adjusted the camera. “Sure, any time you’re ready.”

Stefan glanced back and positioned himself in front of the willow tree leaning over the manager’s trailer. “How does it look?”

Craig gave him a thumbs up.

“Roan?”

“Ready.”

“Okay, on three, two, one.” He smiled for the camera. “Welcome to Willow Lane, a simple trailer park home to hard-working people just trying to get by, and just possibly, a witch. I’m Stefan Roland and I’ve made it my life’s work to document instances of witches waking dead things. From our rural countryside, to our malls, all the way to the deserts of Afghanistan, my team and I have traveled the globe to bring you the true stories of the behind these horrible events that the Inquisition doesn’t want you to see.”

Stefan walked a few steps closer to the trailer’s front door. “We’ve received tips that this seemingly peaceful trailer park is haunted by a dark force unlike any we’ve seen before. We’re here to uncover the truth.”

The front door opened and a man stepped out. At least he thought it was a man. There was enough white hairs on his chin to suggest a beard, but he was also fat and wore bright purple sweat pants and a stained pink sweat shirt. White hair stuck out in all directions on his head like pictures of Einstein. Stefan couldn’t have timed it better. He walked quickly toward the small porch.

“Hello? I’m Stefan Roland. Are you Pete Larson, the manager?”

“Yep, that’s me.” Pete grinned and pointed a finger at Craig and Roan. “Are you filming this?”

“Don’t worry about the camera,” Stefan said smoothly. “We film everything. Most of it never ends up in the actual movie. When we’re done we have to go back and edit it all together to make the documentary. Do you mind if we come inside, so you can tell us what’s been happening?”

“Sure, sure.” Pete turned back to the door and pulled it open, hinges creaking. “Come on in.”

Stefan looked back at the camera. “Let’s go find out about the haunting of Willow Lane.”

The porch steps sagged beneath Stefan’s feet when he stepped up to join Pete on the small porch. When Stefan got up close to the manager he smelled like dirty gym socks and fried chicken. It wasn’t only stains on the front of Pete’s sweat shirt but also bits of breading. Stefan breathed through his mouth and stepped on into the trailer. Given Pete’s appearance he expected a mess but it wasn’t all that bad. He went right into the small living room, which held furniture that would have looked at home on the curb with a cardboard ‘free’ sign. A kitchenette occupied one corner of the room but there weren’t even dishes piled in the sink. A small mini-fridge was tucked away beneath the counter. A big bucket of KFC sat on the battered and stained coffee table and the smell of fried chicken was even stronger. Stefan’s stomach growled, but the thought of eating held little appeal at the moment. Still, the place wasn’t actually messy. The lack of some sort of disarray made Stefan wonder if Pete hadn’t cleaned up specially for their visit. He turned back around as Craig came in with the camera, followed by Roan.

Pete let the door bang shut and shuffled in behind Roan. Stefan noticed Pete watching Roan’s backside and hoped, for the manager’s sake, that she didn’t catch him checking her out.

“Thank you so much for talking to us,” Stefan said. “How about we sit on the couch?”

“Sure, sure.” Pete brushed the front of his sweat shirt. “Should I change? Sorry, everything was dirty. Today’s laundry day but I haven’t had a chance yet.”

“It’s fine,” Stefan said. “We want to capture real life, here. I want you to feel comfortable.”

Pete beamed and dropped down onto one end of the couch. Stefan went over and sat on the other side, his arm along the back, and tried to project an air of relaxed interest. “Okay, Pete, whenever you’re ready, can you tell us about what has been happening in Willow Lane?”

Stefan heard a low groan. At first he thought it came from Pete, but the manager’s head turned and looked toward the hallway. Stefan leaned forward. “What was that? Is there someone back there?”

Pete wrung his hands in front of his chest. “No. I live alone.”

The moan came again, low and drawn out, like someone in pain. Or possibly pleasure. Stefan motioned for Craig to turn the camera. Craig did, filming Roan as she moved into the hallway entrance. She held up her mic, her head turned slightly to the right. Her left hand adjusted the controls on the equipment.

“What have you got?” Stefan asked.

“Someone’s in the bedroom,” she said flatly.

“Not ‘un,” Pete said. “See, that’s what’s going on! Stuff like that!”

Stefan stood up motioning for Pete to stay on the couch. He went around the coffee table to stand behind Roan so he could see down the hallway. With the light off it was dim, the room at the end darkened with closed curtains.

Another moan. The hairs on his arms and neck rose up. His mouth seemed dry. He swallowed. “Well, let’s take a look. That’s why we’re here.” He held his hand out to Craig. “Flashlight?”

Craig pulled a small Maglite out of his pocket and handed it over. Stefan twisted it on. The tiny dot of light danced along the walls.

Roan reached over and flicked a light switch. The light in the hall above the front door came on. “You get to go first.”

“Thanks.” Stefan turned the flashlight off and slipped past Roan.

“Don’t mention it. You’re the on-screen personality.”

He took a step forward and another moan rose out of the bedroom. It sounded like someone in pain. He made himself walk down the short hall, past a bathroom, to the bedroom.

“What is it?” Pete called out.

Stefan didn’t answer. From the hall light he couldn’t see anything. He slid his hand in along the wall and found the bedroom light switch. He flicked it up. Nobody there. A queen-sized bed with a dark blue bedspread covered the mattress. Other than a dark wood dresser beside a closet with mirrored doors, there wasn’t anything in the room. He turned back around to face the hallway and the camera.

“I don’t see anything in the room. Pete, do you mind if we look around?”

“That’s fine!”

Stefan went in and walked over to the closet. He really didn’t want to pull that open and see what was inside, but the camera was watching. He slid the door open. No zombies jumped out. Mostly the closet held empty clothes hangers, and a closet organizer with multiple pairs of shoes ranging from worn out sneakers to black dress shoes. Nothing that could have created the moaning noise.

“There’s nothing here.” Stefan closed the closet and moved over to the dresser. It felt wrong to dig through Pete’s stuff, but if the manager wasn’t going to complain, he wanted to rule out a prank.

It didn’t take long to pull out each drawer. Socks, underwear that Stefan wasn’t going to touch, some sweaters and in the bottom drawer stacks of Penthouse magazines. Stefan looked up at Craig after he closed that drawer. “Cut that when we edit.”

He went over to the bed and got down on his hands and knees. He grabbed the bedspread and suddenly froze. He really didn’t want to lift it up and find someone staring back at him from beneath the bed. What if Pete had tied up someone and hid them under the bed?

Stefan chuckled. “I hope there’s nothing under here.”

“Wait, let me shoot it,” Craig said.

Stefan waited until Craig got the camera down in position and gave him the nod, then he lifted the bedspread. Nothing. Not unless dust bunnies had started moaning. Stefan saw Roan’s sneakers over on the other side of the bed. As he dropped the bedspread she started walking back around the bed. He climbed up.

“What were you doing over ther—”

“What?” Roan asked behind him.

“Holy fuck!” Stefan jerked back from the petite sound technician. She was standing over by the closet. “No way.”

Craig brought the camera up. “What?”

There wasn’t anyone else in the room.

“We’ve got to play that back,” Stefan said. “Did you see the feet on the other side of the bed?”

“Yeah, I thought it was Roan.”

Roan grinned. “I haven’t been over on the other side of the bed, guys.”

“What’s going on?” Pete called from the other room.

Stefan shook his head. “Okay, I’m convinced there’s something going on. Let’s go finish talking to Pete, he’s got a vacant trailer for us. I want to play back that footage and see if we caught anything on tape.”

They all went back out the living room. Pete looked up from the bucket of KFC he cradled on his lap. “Want some chicken?”

“No thanks.” Stefan went back to the couch and sat back down.

“What’d you see?” Pete asked. “Was there something there?”

“We don’t know. We’ll have to review the footage. Pete, tell us what’s been happening in Willow Lane.”

Pete’s big shoulders rolled. “Weird stuff like that, noises, things happening. One time last week I heard my trailer door open. I always lock it. I’m like compulsive about it, you know? But I heard the door open and someone went into the bathroom. I heard that door close. I got up and asked who was there, but they didn’t answer. When I turned on the lights I went into the hall and I was so scared I thought I might pee my pants, but there wasn’t anyone there. Then I really had to pee but I didn’t want to go into the bathroom but I didn’t have any choice.”

“Is it only here, in your trailer?”

“No! I’m getting pestered all the time by people with weird shit happening. I don’t know what they think I can do about it, but I’m the manager so they think I have to do something. People tell me that stuff has moved around. Pets have disappeared. Things have gotten broken. I think it’s because of the cemetery.”

“Cemetery?”

“Yeah, it’s on the other side of the trailer park, been there for a long time. I think that’s why we’re getting haunted. Some of the dead folks are restless, coming over here and making trouble. That’s what I told the inquisitors that came. They said they’d look into it but nothing strange happened while they were here.” Pete looked back at the hallway. “I don’t know if I want to sleep back there with something strange going on.”

“Whatever it was, it seems to have stopped,” Stefan said. “On the phone you said that you had a trailer that we could use during our investigation?”

“Yeah, old Mrs. Kunkle’s trailer. They carted her off to hospice two months ago but no family showed up to take care of the place. I cleared out the fridge, just so things didn’t spoil in there, but all the furniture and stuff is still there. There’s soups and stuff in the cupboards. I don’t know who is going to take care of it, so I don’t think anyone would mind if you use it. Plus she was a real nice lady so I don’t think she would haunt it or anything.”

“Okay.” Stefan turned and smiled for the camera. “It looks like we have a haunting to investigate. Thank you Pete Larson, manager of Willow Lane trailer park.”

“You’re welcome,” Pete said.

2

Mrs. Kunkle’s trailer smelled of lilac, medicine and dust with just a hint of mold. She obviously enjoyed collecting dog figurines since the dusty ceramic figures filled shelves in each room of the single-wide trailer. Her trailer was larger than Pete Larson’s with a full kitchen, larger living room and a much bigger bathroom. Craig moved from room to room working on setting up cameras, just in case whatever was going on came back to this trailer too.

Stefan and Roan sat in the living room. Looking around at Mrs. Kunkle’s living room, the dozens of ceramic dogs, and the dried up spider planet on the window sill, it made him sad that no family had come forward to take care of the place. Who would turn out if he died? Would Craig and Roan clear out his studio apartment? They were the closest he had to family. He had the die-hard fans, of course, but that wasn’t the same thing.

“When did we become ghost hunters?” Roan asked.

Stefan shrugged. “Ghosts, zombies, what’s the difference? They’re all dead things.”

“Yeah, but ghosts don’t do us any good if we can’t catch them on film.”

That still bothered him. The first thing Craig did when they got back to the van was use the portable player to take a look at the bedroom recording. The video they’d shot under the bed didn’t show any sneakers on the other side of the bed. But both he and Craig had seen it, he was sure of that. Without it on camera he looked like an idiot reacting to something that wasn’t there. Likewise Roan’s playback of the audio didn’t show any of the moaning that they had all heard. She thought she might have more luck when she got the recording back to the studio and could really take a look at it, but playing it straight back they only heard their own voices. Once again making it look like they were trying to stage the whole thing.

“Maybe we’ll get lucky and the witch will wake the zombies in the graveyard next door.”

Roan swatted at his arm. “Don’t even joke.”

Stefan laughed. “Who said I was joking? If we can’t record ghosts, we need something else.”

Craig came back into the room. “Cameras are set up. If anything moves during the night it’ll trigger the motion sensors and turn on the cameras.”

“Good job.” Stefan gestured to the recliner at the end of Mrs. Kunkle’s glass-topped coffee table. “Have a seat. I’ve ordered a pizza.”

Craig dropped into the chair. “Excellent. Better than Afghanistan, at least.”

“Yeah,” Roan said dryly. “I haven’t gotten shot yet.”

“What’s the plan?” Craig asked.

“We see if anything happens tonight, and tomorrow we start interviewing the residents. I want as many stories as we can get. Let’s keep our eyes out for anyone that might turn out to be the witch behind this.”

“You think there is a witch behind this?” Roan asked.

There was a knock at the door. Stefan glanced at his watch. “Under thirty minutes. Not bad.” He got up and looked down at Roan. “And yes, I do think there’s a witch involved.”

He went to get the food.

3

A loud crash woke Stefan. He sat up in the dark, his heart hammering in his chest. Had he —

Crash!

It sounded like something hit a wall and shattered. He threw aside the covers and sat up. On the other side of the bed Roan stirred.

Crash! Crash!

“What the hell?” She sat up too.

“I don’t know.” Stefan reached over for the lamp and felt rather than saw something fly past his head. He flinched as whatever it was smashed into the wall right in front of him. Tiny sharp fragments peppered his face as he dove back onto the bed.

Roan yelled in alarm.

From the other room Stefan heard Craig call out. More crashes, in rapid fire. Something hit his shoulder! He grabbed the object, recognizing by feel one of Mrs. Kunkle’s ceramic dogs. “Under the covers!”

He lifted the blankets and dived beneath. On the other side Roan copied him and from somewhere produced a small Maglite which she turned on. They looked at each other in the light while above the blankets more ceramic dogs shattered on the walls. Roan started giggling. A second later Stefan joined her. He held out the ceramic dog that had hit his shoulder. An English bulldog about the size of a baseball. His shoulder still throbbed.

“Not hardly a bullet it, but it still hurt,” he complained.

Roan laughed harder.

Stefan reached out and took her hand. “Thanks for coming.”

She grinned. “Wouldn’t miss it.”

The barrage slowed. A few more crashes and then nothing. Roan sat up more beneath the blanket. The flashlight pointed up at her face like she was about to tell a spooky story. Except they were in the middle of a ghost story right now.

“Do you think it’s over?” she asked.

“Only one way to find out.” Stefan pulled back the blanket, ready to duck back beneath. Nothing flew out of the dark at him.

Roan shown the flashlight around. “Holy shit!”

Even though he expected it, there was something horrible about the dozens of ceramic dogs lying shattered to pieces on the floor. Pieces marred the walls where they had been hit. No wall was left unmarked and the entire floor was covered in sharp shards of broken canines.

There was movement and a shape in the doorway. Stefan’s breath caught in his throat and Roan let out a little squeak as she pointed the flashlight at the shape.

Craig shielded his eyes. He was wearing nothing but boxer shorts and sneakers. A few scratches on his chest beaded with blood. “Are you guys okay?”

“I think so.” Stefan moved his arm. “One of them hit me.”

Craig looked at the bedroom. “I guess she didn’t like sharing her trailer after all.”

Stefan reached over the side of the bed to find his shoes. He shook out pieces of the dogs and pulled them on. “Let’s check the cameras. I hope it caught this!”

It did. Fortunately the cameras survived the incident, although one had gotten knocked over by a flying poodle. The three of them sat around the portable monitor watching the replay from the camera facing the bedroom. Stefan bit his knuckle watching the scene. Even unedited the night vision footage was chilling. The dogs shot across the room as if shot from a gun to explode on impact.

Roan made a disgusted snort and flopped back on the couch. He couldn’t believe it.

“What’s wrong?”

“That!” She shook her hand at the screen. “Who is going to believe that? With the night vision and everything they’re going to say it was all rigged.”

“We can prove the video wasn’t tampered with,” Craig said.

She shook her head. “Anyone with a brain watching that will assume you used filaments to pull the figurines across the room!”

Stefan shook his head. “There are dozens of figurines in that shot, plus the ones out here. It wouldn’t be easy to rig that.”

“I’m telling you it won’t matter.”

It was a sobering thought. Craig stopped the playback. “I think you’ll change your mind when we get this back to the studio. It’ll look better.”

“Not good enough.”

Craig’s jaw tightened. “I’m not offering you advice on sound recording.”

Roan got up. “I’m going to find a broom and get some of this mess cleaned up. Unless you want to take more pictures?”

“No, I’ve already got it.”

She left and Stefan looked over at his cameraman. He trusted Craig’s opinion, but he couldn’t discount what Roan said. “You could both turn out right.”

Craig surprised him by nodding. “Yep.”

“It’ll work out,” Stefan said. “We just move ahead with the plan. Get the interviews, see what else we can record. When we have enough footage then we call the Inquisition and turn over copies. We film them in action and then we’ve got another movie. Everything documented and verified.”

It had to work. They all needed another successful documentary in the series. This was his retirement plan.

Craig stood up. “Sounds good to me, man. I’ll give Roan a hand.”

While Craig went into the other room, bits of ceramic dogs crunching under his sneakers, Stefan hit the play button on the camera. There wasn’t any sound on the playback. He watched the blankets moved as he and Roan took shelter. She’d been scared, that’s why she was acting all pissed. The ghost or whatever force was here scared her. He rubbed his jaw, feeling the rough beginnings of a beard. He was already up, might as well get started figuring out what he was going to ask the residents today.

4

Willow Lane held twenty trailers and so far Stefan hadn’t found any really credible witness. They had great footage of half-literate types saying that they’d seen stuff move around in their trailer. A window or door opened or closed. One lady had a boxer that kept barking at a particular corner in her trailer, but he wouldn’t do it on camera.

Trailer eighteen, a double-wide trailer with flowered curtains and rose bushes growing in a small flower bed beside the porch. It almost looked out of place among the other trailers in Willow Lane. Stefan consulted the list that Pete Larson gave them this morning of resident names.

“Helen Richardson, lives alone. Pete said she gets lots of guests.”

“You know what she does,” Roan said, grinning. She was in a better mood since breakfast.

Stefan got the nod from Craig and walked up the three steps to the porch. He rang the doorbell and heard it ding dong inside. A dog barked somewhere inside, its voice deep and raspy. There were footsteps and then a woman opened the door, leaning out to look at him. She was something. Long legs that ended in a small blue jeans miniskirt, and a fuzzy white tube top that showed off her bare midriff. She wore way too much blue eye-shadow and her hair rose up in sculpted waves. Stefan’s eyes stung from the cloying scent she wore. Big red lips parted into a man-eating smile.

“Hey handsome, what’re you doing here?” She looked at Craig and Roan standing at the bottom of the porch with her equipment. “Hey! Are you like from publisher’s clearinghouse or something? Did I win a ton of money or something?”

“Helen Richardson?” Stefan asked.

She looked him up and down then reached out and ran one hideously purple fingernail down his tie. He resisted the urge to swat her hand away. “That’s me, honey. So what’s the story?”

“I’m Stefan Roland, the filmmaker? Farm of the Dead Things?”

Helen laughed and clapped her hands together. “So you are! Shit, I’ve seen that movie! That was really good. I’ve watched them all! I didn’t know you were still making movies!”

Stefan tried not to wince. “I’m here because of reports of strange things happening here in Willow Lane. Have you noticed anything odd happening? Things moving on their own? Doors or cupboards opening and closing? Anything like that?”

“Honey, are you going to put me in a movie?”

“It’s possible,” Stefan said, although at the moment that was the last thing he wanted to do.

Helen pressed closer to him and it was a struggle not to hold his breath. “Heck, if you’re going to put me in one of your movies then we’d better get a lot better acquainted. Why don’t you all come inside and I’ll tell you all about it.”

“Really? So you have seen things?”

Helen winked at him then tugged on his tie. “Honey, I’ve seen everything. You can’t surprise me, and heck yeah, I’ve seen some weird shit around here.” She covered her mouth. “Oops. Can you say shit in your movie?”

“Don’t worry about it,” Stefan said. “We’ll take care of all of that sort of thing.”

She laughed. “I’ll bet you will. Probably put in a beep or something, am I right?”

“It’s possible.”

“Come on.” Helen held the door open. “Inside with you.”

Stefan walked into the trailer. Craig and Roan followed him up the steps and inside. They came into a linoleum section between a living room on the left and a dining room on the right off the kitchen. An arched entry on one side of the living room must lead on down to the bedrooms and a bathroom. Beneath the over-powering scent of Helen’s perfume he smelled something else that stunk, a hint of rot or decay. The whole place was a disaster area. Clothes were scattered around the room, draped over furniture and piles of newspapers. Everywhere he looked there were more newspapers in stacks. Half of the dining room table was covered with more papers, and just trashed all piled up on the table. From where he stood he could see dirty dishes in stacks on the counter, and piled high in the sink. This was what he had expected when he first went into Pete’s place, but that was spotless compared to this trailer. And it had looked so nice on the outside.

Helen headed back to the kitchen, her red pumps clicking against the floor.

“Can I get you anything?” She called over her shoulder. “I’ve got beer or wine, if you want.”

“No thanks,” Stefan said. “We only have a few quick questions.”

“I’ll get you a beer.”

Roan handed the equipment over to Stefan. He took it as her hand went to her mouth. Her eyes watered. “Sorry, got to go. I’ll, uh, check the equipment in the van.”

She bolted before Helen came back. As the door banged shut behind her Stefan heard retching noises outside. He slung the strap over his shoulder as Helen walked back holding a couple beers in her hands.

“Did someone leave? Or was that just the door banging on its own again?” She held out a beer to Stefan.

“Thanks.” He took it, and set it immediately down in a tiny clear patch on the coffee table. A fly buzzed up away. “She needed to check on our gear.”

Helen shrugged and smiled at him. She raised her beer can and took a drink without ever taking her eyes off his. “So you came all this way about some little noises out here?”

“We thought we’d check it out. Do you think the place is haunted?”

She laughed. “Honey, what place isn’t haunted? Plus we got that big ‘ole cemetery out back. Seems to me there’s bound to be a few things going bump in the night.” She grinned. “If you know what I mean.”

That wasn’t a thought he even wanted in his brain. “What can you tell us about the —”

The dog started barking again, its voice scratchy and harsh, somewhere back in one of the other rooms. Stefan heard nails scratching and then the clear sound of a door opening. Claws rattled on the hard floor of the hall and the dog ran out right at him. Craig moved smoothly out of the way, still filming the whole thing.

The dog skidded to stop a few feet away and lowered its head. Stefan’s gut tightened up at the sight of the dog. Some sort of mutt, maybe a Rottweiler mix. It was mostly black with brown on the paws and muzzle, but its fur looked greasy and unkempt. It barred yellowed teeth at him. Worse of all was the look in its flat eyes, almost like it had cataracts and couldn’t quite see him. A deep growl rumbled out of its throat.

Helen came to his rescue, stepping in front of it. She stamped a foot down and pointed. “Get back there! Get! How dare you fucking come out here and growl at my guests! Go on! Get!”

The dog’s heavy head turned her direction and its lips raised higher. The dog’s tongue vibrated in front of its teeth.

Helen cocked her head to the side and stared back at the dog. Stefan couldn’t believe it. He felt frozen, expecting the monster to leap on her any second. And what was he going to do?

The dog staggered, its growl cut off. A whimper crawled out of its throat. Just like that the tail dropped and it turned quickly around, feet slipping on the floor, and ran back into the hallway. Helen looked over at Stefan and smiled.

“Just a sec, honey. I’ll lock him back up. I swear sometimes I think he stands up and turns the knob himself. That door never wants to stay shut!”

Her heels tapped on the floor as she went back to the other room.

“Stay the fuck in there!” She yelled.

Stefan heard a door slam. Craig looked at him, eyebrow raised. The stink in the place was giving him a headache. He started thinking of an excuse to leave when Helen came back, taking a swig from her beer.

“Okay, sorry about that. I think Chuckles is upset today.”

“Do you need to take him to a vet or something? We could come back another time.”

Helen waved her hand. “No, hon. Don’t worry about that dog. He hasn’t been himself lately, that’s all. It’ll pass.”

Not himself? Stefan decided to try again. “Let’s start at the beginning. We’re talking to folks in the park about strange things that some people have noticed. How about you? Anything happen here?”

“Honey, I specialize in strange. Just ask my daughter!” Helen laughed. “I need a cigarette. Why don’t we go in the dining room? We can have a seat and I’ll tell you what’s going on.”

The idea of sitting around that filthy table disgusted him but Stefan forced a smile onto his face. It couldn’t get any worse than it already was. Actually, if she started smoking the cigarette smoke might help cover up some of the other stink. He could already feel the headache coming on.

“Okay.” Stefan motioned to Craig to follow. “Let’s go sit down.”

Helen didn’t move until he got gloss and then she pressed herself up against him, intertwining her arm around his. She leaned close. “You’re even better looking in person.”

He smelled the beer on her breath, even through her perfume. He was totally going to shower after this interview. No way he was going through the rest of the day smelling like this woman. In the dining room he pulled out the chair at the less cluttered end of the table for her.

“Such a gentleman,” she said and laughed. She picked up a pack of cigarettes and tapped one out. She extended it to him. “Want one?”

He raised a hand. “No thanks.”

Helen shrugged and pulled one out. She slid it slowly between her red lips and used a lighter on the table to light up.

Craig moved around by the kitchen counter to get them both in the shot. Helen blew out a cloud of smoke at Stefan. He struggled not to cough. She pointed the cigarette at Craig. “Do we have to have that camera on? I thought maybe you and I could have a private chat, off the record, you know?”

That was interesting. Stefan looked at Craig. They’d worked together long enough that Craig understood what he wanted when he said, “No problem. Why don’t you put that down and take a break?”

“Sure, boss,” Craig said. He put the camera on the counter, shoving some glasses out of the way.

The shot wouldn’t be quite as good, but it’d work.

Stefan leaned forward. “Okay, Helen, whenever you’re ready?”

“That’s off?”

“Yes,” Stefan lied.

Craig pointed his thumb at the door. “I’m going to go check on Roan, make sure she’s okay.”

“Sure,” Roland said, keeping his eyes Helen.

Her smiled widened, a predatory, chilling grin. He smiled back. Craig left quickly. When the door banged shut the dog started barking again back in the bedroom.

“We’re alone now,” Helen said. “I like that. It gives us a chance to get better acquainted.”

“How about we start with what’s going on? I get the feeling that you’ve been avoiding the question, you know what’s happening don’t you?”

Helen took a long drag from her cigarette and glanced into the kitchen. She looked back at him. “Sure I know. I know all about it. Seems to me we can help each other out.”

“How’s that?”

“You’ve got connections. Seems to me that if you make a movie about me, I should get something out of it. That’s only fair isn’t it?”

Stefan interlaced his fingers. “Is this movie about you? Are you saying that you’re behind what’s been happening here?”

A fly landed on the table near his elbow, a big fat black fly. It jerked and toppled over. The legs twitched one and stopped. Helen lowered her cigarette and pressed the ash and glowing tip into the fly’s fat body. Stefan smelled a sharp stink and a thin column of smoke rose into the air. She lifted her cigarette off the charred body and took another drag.

“I don’t mind flies,” she said, smoke pouring from her mouth. “A lot of people don’t like them, but they’re just doing their thing, you know?”

The fly twitched. Its wings buzzed against the table. Stefan jerked away in surprise. After a couple attempts the fly righted itself and took off buzzing into the air. It circled his head. He swatted at it and missed.

More flies rose up from the dishes in the sink and took to the air.

Stefan looked at Helen watching him coolly. “You’re doing that? You brought that fly back to life?”

“That’s right honey, I can wake dead things. Sometimes it happens all on its own. It’s like I’m full of static electricity or something and they just start doing their thing again like someone put new batteries in them.”

He heard a glass move in the kitchen, sliding across the counter, but when he looked he didn’t see which of the dirty glasses had moved. “Was that you too?”

“Nope.”

He let that go for the moment, but he was glad that Craig and Roan could watch what was happening from the van. “So what are you going to do with this ability? Aren’t you afraid of the Inquisition?”

Helen shook her head. “That’s where you come in, honey. I’m gonna raise me a whole big flock of dead things. More than anyone, more than that big woman you filmed. And I’m not gonna be stupid about it either. I’ll raise ‘em up and people are going to have to start paying attention to me. The Inquisition won’t do nothing.”

“They’re pretty effective at what they do. I don’t know if you’d want them showing up.” Stefan didn’t dare look at the camera but he hoped that Craig and Roan were paying attention. “At least not until we have everything ready.”

Helen’s smile broadened. “See, that’s what I’m talking about!”

More dishes clinked together in the kitchen. The dog barked back in the bedroom. The air felt charged and the flies flew in faster circles around the table.

Helen leaned forward. “Honey, we’re going to make a fortune together! Just wait and see. Once I get started they aren’t ever gonna stop me. You can put me on TV, can’t you? Get me on the news?”

“Yes.”

A dish fell off the counter and shattered on the floor. Stefan tried not to looked startled. He forced a chuckle. “But maybe we’d better dial back until we’re ready?”

Helen took another long drag on her cigarette and blew out the smoke. “What’s wrong? You’re scared?”

“I’m just wondering what’s going on?”

“Nothing but some itty bitty little ghost in a tizzy.” Helen glared at the kitchen. She caught him looking too and laughed. “You’re not gonna see him. Not unless you’ve got the gift too.”

“I don’t see anyone.”

She waved the cigarette, tracing smoke circles in the air. “There you go. That’s why you need me. See, what I figure is we stir things up around here. I know some people that have been a pain in my ass, I wouldn’t mind scaring them in the process, and then we bargain with the Inquisition.”

“Bargain about what?”

“Whatever I want! It’s about time that people like me got the respect we deserve. Instead we’ve got the Inquisition running around burning out people’s brains! It isn’t right.”

He wasn’t going to argue the relative merits of the Inquisition. As far as he was concerned, since it shed its religious affiliation a long time ago to become a secular, international police force designed to protect people from those with paranormal abilities, he didn’t have a problem with it.

She wouldn’t want to hear that. “I don’t think they’ll listen me.”

“What choice do they have? If we’ve got hostages they won’t have any option.”

“Hostages? Helen, maybe you should rethink that plan.”

She waved her hand. “I know what you’re thinking, but don’t worry about it. You put us on TV and they aren’t going to do anything that might get the poor people of Willow Lane killed. That’s all you have to do. Then we’ll be the ones in control.”

Stefan decided to try again to convince her to cooperate before this thing blew up. “Helen, don’t you think that taking hostages and making demands just reinforces the Inquisitions’ mandate? People aren’t going to cheer for you if I put it on TV, they’re going to be cheering for the inquisitors to put a bullet in your brain!”

Helen took a long drag on the cigarette. Her hand shook. She just sat there looking at him. The combined odors from her kitchen, her perfume and the cigarette smoke was making his head pound. Back in the bedroom the dog started barking again. Helen turned her head and looked at something he couldn’t see, then her eyes slid back and fixed on him. It was the same look he’d seen in the dog.

“You lied to me.” Her words came out flat and cold.

Stefan stood up fast enough that the chair tumbled back with a crash to the floor. The dog’s barking took on a new level of ferocity. Then he heard it chewing on the wood of the door. The camera moved and Stefan lunged without thinking. He grabbed it and hung on. It felt very cold to the touch. Some unseen force pulled it but he clung to it and when whatever had a grip on it let go he stumbled back. He tried to keep it turned toward Helen. Flies buzzed around his head but he ignored them.

She started panting.

Stefan hoisted the camera up, but backed up. He tried to distract her. “What are you talking about?”

Helen grinned and at him, her face taking on a skull-like appearance. With her eyes open wide she lowered the cigarette to the pale underside of her arm and pressed it to her skin.

She screamed at him. Stefan nearly jumped backward but held his ground. The smell of her singed flesh mingled with the rest of the odors in the place. She clawed at her own arms, her purple nails leaving long welts of bloodied flesh as she panted and screamed. There was a loud thud in the bed room, and the crack of wood breaking.

Stefan backed quickly to the front door. Helen screamed over and over in quick succession, clawing at her neck, and ripping at her hair. There was another thud from the bedroom and a louder crack of wood followed by the sound of teeth ripping and cracking the wood further. He turned the camera down the hall and saw the dog’s head burst through the door. It looked at him with maddened eyes and struggled to pull itself free.

He moved faster, getting the hell out of there, but unwilling to stop filming. Helen reached down and clawed at her inner thighs, screaming all the while, but her cries were changing, turning to deep moans.

Stefan grabbed the door and yanked it open. He almost tripped stepping out and the strap of the recording equipment slid down his arm. He caught it and hurried down the steps. His heart pounded so hard in his chest that he worried about a heart attack. Wouldn’t that be perfect? Dying right outside of the witches’ trailer?

A long yowl of protest on his right made him jump. It came from a trailer beside Helen’s where a decaying leg pushed through a hole in the siding around the base of the trailer. Claws extended from the bony paw.

She was waking dead things. The air seemed thick with flying specks. Bugs, he realized. All of the dead flies, bees, moths, mosquitoes, gnats and nits were up and moving again. The air was filled with their buzzing as they flew around him. He ran through the park to their van outside Mrs. Kunkle’s’ trailer. Craig and Roan jumped out as he got close and ran out to meet him.

“Holy shit!” Roan reached him first and took the recording equipment. “That was intense! You’ve got a way of pissing people off, you know that?”

Craig accepted the camera back. “Thanks for grabbing it.”

Stefan tried to catch his breath and looked back the way he’d come. Beside all of the bugs flying around the place he saw bigger things too. Dead birds had joined the party. The whole mass of them swirled around the trailer park in a sort of funnel that reached into the sky.

“I think she’s a bit upset. Did you call the Inquisition?”

“Hell yes,” Craig said. “She’s as crazy as they come.”

Stefan heard a motor revving and a small four-door Volvo sped into the parking lot. It blasted past their van and went on around the loop away from Helen’s trailer.

“They’re in a hurry,” Craig said. “I wonder why?”

Roan swatted at bugs flying around her face. “Can we take this inside? I don’t like bugs, and I really don’t like dead bugs still moving around.”

“Good idea,” Stefan said.

They all piled into the van. Stefan got into the driver’s seat so he could keep an eye on what was happening outside. Craig went around and got into the passenger’s side with the camera while Roan got in the back and shut the door. A few bugs managed to get inside. Roan pulled out a fly swatter.

“I’ll get ‘em,” she said grimly.

“I already got the gear out of the trailer,” Craig said. “We’re good to go if we need to get out of here.”

Thwack! Stefan glanced in the back. Roan grinned. “Got one.”

A fly buzzed past Stefan and landed on the dash. It sat there cleaning its head for a second until Roan lunged forward between the seats and smacked it with the fly swatter. Another one gone. She flicked it off to the floor.

“Don’t worry, I’ll clean them up later.”

“We need to warn these people,” Stefan said. “If she wakes the cemetery this place is going to turn into ground zero with zombies.”

“It sounds like that’s her plan,” Craig said.

“So we’d better move.” Stefan dug the keys out of his pocket. “Stay alert. If you see anything zombies, shoot them.”

“Too bad we don’t have guns,” Roan said in the back.

“Funny.” He looked in the back. “You still got that loud speaker back there? Can you give the warnings?”

Roan grabbed a box of equipment and started pulling out components. “Sure. Go, I’ll have it patched in a second.”

Stefan started the van and pulled out, moving slowly forward to the next trailer. “Roan?”

“I’m good, keep going.” He heard a noise and glanced back and saw her wedging the loud speaker in the side window. She grabbed a mic and thumbed it on. “Evacuate. Attention, please evacuate the trailer park.”

Stefan kept the speed down under ten miles per hour while Roan repeated her warning. He saw people coming out of their trailers. Then he saw something that chilled him to the core. Past the trailers, through a broken and falling down fence, a crowd of people staggered toward the trailer park. Even from here he could see that they weren’t really people but zombies, dead things woken by Helen. Even after all these years he recognized the dead and they were coming. Now the people coming out of the trailers saw them too. A muscled guy with tattoos and a shaved head jumped on a Harley and gunned it out into the road right in front of the van, swerved and kept going.

“Evacuate now! The dead are coming. Attention, evacuate the trailer park!”

More cars pulled out ahead of them. A woman in a blue bathrobe came out of her trailer rubbing her eyes and holding a coffee cup. She squinted at the van.

“Yes you!” Roan shouted. “Look the fuck behind you! Get out now!”

The woman turned around in time to see several zombies crash through the fence not ten feet from her trailer. The coffee cup tumbled from her fingers and shattered on the porch. Then she darted back inside, slamming the door behind her. Stefan braked.

“What are you doing?” Roan asked.

Craig had the camera out the passenger window, filming the dead things converging on the trailer. Stefan heard their moans again and felt ill. More zombies followed the first three and soon there were at least seven dead things dressed in their funeral finery pounding on the side of the trailer. A window in the side of the trailer slid open and a shotgun barrel poked out.

Blam! The head of one of the zombies exploded in a spray of gore. The others continued pounding on the wall. The gun shifted to the side and with another loud crack a second zombie toppled to the ground.

“Yeah! You go girl!” Roan shouted in the loud speaker.

Several pairs of dead eyes turned to look at the van. Roan clicked off the loud speaker. “Uh, boss, maybe we’d better move.”

She got back on the loud speaker. “Evacuate! The dead are coming! Evacuate the trailer park!”

Blam! A third zombie fell.

Stefan gave the van gas and picked up speed around the driveway. Around the next corner was Helen’s trailer and he tensed up approaching it. Other cars were moving now. People were running away from the cemetery end of the trailer park. He saw Helen’s trailer and she was actually standing right there on the porch with her arms spread and her head thrown back. She’d ripped off her top and stood bare-chested, with more welts crisscrossing her front. Her tits sagged without support but she had what looked like teeth marks on both. Self-inflicted? Stefan gave the van more gas and it picked up speed.

The idea of ramming her with it flitted through his mind. No more witch, no more dead things walking around.

He rejected the idea. Let the Inquisition deal with her. They’d do what they could for the people in the park. Zombies gathered near Helen’s trailer, looking up at her with dead gazes. The whole time Craig filmed the scene.

Stefan drove the rest of the way around Willow Lane and joined the stream of cars, pedestrians and cyclists getting the hell out of the park. It looked like most of the residents had opted to flee. He hit the street and drove north a half-mile before pulling over when he saw sirens and lights approaching.

“We’ve got to go back and get this on film,” he said. “Or we don’t have an ending.”

Craig grinned. “Just like old times.”

“You’re both crazy.” Roan grinned. “Count me in.”

Police cars blasted past them, heading to the trailer park. And right behind the police came several black SUVs with the red pin stripe that identified them as Inquisition vehicles. Stefan got out and hurried around the van to the sidewalk. The others joined him.

His mouth felt dry as he started back. Inside he felt sick, like it was all his fault. Was it? Had he goaded her into doing this? He pushed the thought away. Helen was crazy. Whether her ability made her that way, or she became crazy after it he didn’t know. Sooner or later she would have lost it, if not today than some other time.

Down the road was chaos, but the police and the Inquisitors were already getting the situation under control. Stefan waved to the others and picked up his pace. They made it back as the police started putting up barricades. Zombies staggered out of the trailer park into the street.

One of the zombies, who looked like a forty-something guy in a suit, stepped right out in front of an old green Volkswagen Beetle pulling over to the side of the road in between the police vehicles. The driver obviously didn’t see the zombie in time and hit it. The dead thing tumbled down to the road.

The passenger side opened and a young man got out. He looked back at the police cars and then down at the fallen zombie. Cries rang out from the trailer park evacuees watching but he didn’t listen.

Stefan willed the man to stop. He could see the confusion on the guy’s face. They’re driving along and suddenly there’s all these people and police and they’ve hit someone. He tried to do the right thing and ran over to the fallen zombie.

It felt like time stopped. People were crying out, no! Sirens still rang out. Over by the barricades Stefan saw men in deep red suits with black ties, inquisitors, moving past the barricades with weapons in their hands.

No one could reach the guy in time.

The passenger bent down over the zombie, not realizing that the zombie was already dead.

The zombie grabbed the passenger and yanked him down, going for his throat. Stefan was too far away, there was nothing he can do to help. He couldn’t hear the sounds but in his head he imagined the meaty tear as the zombie tore skin and flesh, chewing and eating its way into the guy’s throat in a spray of hot blood.

A crowd of zombies shuffled out of the trailer park. Stefan heard screams. There was movement in the Beetle as the driver leaned across the car and yanked the passenger door closed.

Stefan looked at Craig and Roan. Their faces were set as they recorded the scene. Right now there wasn’t anything he could do. Later there’d be things for him to say, interviews to record. For the moment he couldn’t do anything except watch.

The inquisitors moved forward, eight of them, shooting zombies in the head with deadly accuracy.

5

Stefan stood in front of the barricades facing the camera when they brought out Helen. The inquisitors had her in cuffs, wrapped in a blanket. A bloody bandage was wrapped around her leg.

“They’re bringing her out now, Helen Richardson, the witch of Willow Lane. It appears she’s been injured, we’re told that she was shot attempting to flee the scene. According to the laws regarding individuals with paranormal abilities the Inquisition will evaluate her and determine whether or not her abilities can be safely removed. Until such a time she will remain in their custody.”

Stefan turned and watched as they bundled her into the back of one of their vehicles. No ambulance, no trial. Most likely they’d burn out the part of her brain responsible and, if it was determined that she was no longer a threat, she’d end up released but likely with significant brain damage. He couldn’t really say that he felt bad about that either.

He noticed the others looking at him. “That’s it. I’m done. This is my last one. I’m retiring.”

Craig nodded. Roan came over and slipped an arm around his waist and gave him a squeeze. Stefan felt better, lighter somehow. Maybe now he could rest.

9,272 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 21st weekly short story release and the fourth in the Filming Dead Things series. I’d originally published these as written by my pen name Tennessee Hicks along with the rest of the Dead Things series. Stefan Roland returns to the series in Killing Dead Things.

I’m releasing each of these stories, one per week, here on my website. Eventually I’ll do standard e-book releases when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the books. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Check back next week for another story. Next up is Attack of the Sand Gnomes, a fantasy set in a different world.

War of the Dead Things

It’s 1979 and filmmaker Stefan Roland’s career needs a transfusion, a new film to restore him to his former glory.

As the Soviets invade Afghanistan, Stefan gets word that dead things are being used in the conflict.

Risking everything, Stefan and his crew brave the desert conflict to capture the footage for their latest and most daring film yet.

1

Stefan Roland squinted into the blowing dust and sand, trying to see the source of the distant sounds of gunfire without luck. His cheeks above the handkerchief tied around his face had turned red and peeling from sunburn. His white suit was wrinkled and stained after the long trip to Afghanistan. Hardly the stuff of legends but he knew it’d all look good on the camera and he needed film to relaunch his faltering career.

Nearby his team huddled together in the blowing sand, their shapes and details obscured. Craig Marshal, carrying the new camera that had nearly emptied Stefan’s bank account, was a tall figure wearing dark payraan tumbaan and even a turban, like a local. But his height and lack of a beard gave away his American origins. Using him as a wind-break was their new sound wizard, the petite Roan Collins, with her spiky blond hair, clearly out of place in this country with her blue jeans and t-shirt that she insisted on wearing.

“If they don’t like it,” she had told Stefan. “They can kiss my ass.”

With more muscles than either Stefan or Craig, he pitied any man that gave her a hard time.

Again the sound of gunfire, muted by distance and the wind. Most likely the Soviets, but unlike the other journalists, Roland wasn’t here to cover the Soviet invasion. He and his team had come because his tip line had finally produced reliable information that someone here was waking dead things. Some warlord was apparently planning a surprise for the Soviets and Stefan planned on getting to him before the Inquisition swooped in and took over. In every other incident in the past five years, since he had released Mall of the Dead Things, the Inquisition had gotten to the witch first. If his career or his bank account had any hope of surviving he needed this trip to pay off.

“How far away is that?” Stefan asked of the other member of their group.

Nabeh Sesay their guide, was a thin man with dark eyes and quick smile standing beside a worn sand-colored jeep. He flashed white teeth at Stefan. “Many miles distant, no worries.”

“Is it where we are going?”

“Maybe, maybe not. Hard to say,” Nabeh shrugged. “En shaalaa!”

“We’re supposed to meet an United States Army group stationed here.”

“Yes, yes, of course,” Nabeh said. “The CIA. We know all about them. They bring many weapons to the mujahidin.”

“Not CIA, army. I’m sure they are army observers.”

“Yes, yes. CIA, we know.” Nabeh laughed. “Wink, wink. Right?”

“Sure, sure,” Stefan said, letting it go. He’d been told Army observers, but as far as he knew Nabeh could be right. The word he got was certainly that the CIA was backing the rebels, supplying them with weapons and training. “Let’s get going.”

“Right away,” Nabeh said. He climbed into the driver’s side of the jeep and again flashed his bright smile. “Come, come. Let us be on our way.”

Stefan turned and faced the camera, giving Craig a chance to catch a shot of him before he climbed into the jeep. His people were good and all set with the gear. Stefan smiled and spread his arms.

“This sun-drenched desert might not look it, but it is home to dead things. It was on this ground that many armies have fallen to their enemies and the inhospitable terrain, where even now Soviet forces press inward against the forces of democracy. We’ve been told that in the midst of this conflict is a witch, a necromancer, one who wakes dead things to fight the invaders and their supporters. And we’re here to document the truth of those rumors, here in the heart of Afghanistan.” Stefan paused and looked at Nabeh in the jeep. “Our guide has promised to show us where these dead things walk. Come with us into the desert of the dead things.”

 

He turned and walked over to the jeep and climbed in. A second later Craig gave him a thumbs up and lowered the camera. “That’s great, man.”

“Roan?”

She came over to the jeep and climbed easily into the back with her gear. “Sounded great. There’s quite a bit of wind noise but I picked you up fine. We can clean up some of the wind when we get back to the studio.”

“I don’t want it all gone,” Stefan said. “The audience is going to want to hear that.”

She started at him until he raised his hands in surrender. “Sorry. Sorry, I know I can trust you to take care of it.”

Craig climbed in the other side of the jeep and then repositioned his camera so that he could shoot footage on the drive. Stefan clapped Nabeh on the shoulder. “Alright then, let’s go find us some dead things.”

“Many dead things in Afghanistan.” Nabeh laughed. “Many, many. En shaalaa, we will find them.”

The jeep started up with a loud rattling and a couple backfiring coughs. A cloud of exhaust fumes blew past Stefan reeking of the dirty diesel fueling the jeep. Nabeh gunned it and the jeep roared forward, kicking up a dust cloud behind. He spun the wheel and they slid around a large rock that had blocked their path, then skidded onto a pitted road leading off into the hills. Stefan looked for a seat belt but saw nothing. He clung to the door instead as the wind blasted his face. Nabeh drove like he was on an interstate, flooring the gas pedal. Stefan looked in the back but the others seemed fine. Craig had the camera up, filming the landscape as they tore through it. Roan had closed her eyes, her head back, impossibly looking like she was going to fall to sleep despite the shaking and the noise. Stefan held on and tried not to look panicked. Just then Nabeh slid into another skid to miss a large crater in the dirt road.

Stefan clung to the side of the jeep and tried very hard not to get sick.

The road went on up higher into the rugged, scrub-covered mountains. It twisted in and out of gullies with sharp, crumbling corners. That Nabeh managed to keep the jeep on the road seemed nothing less than a miracle. Stefan was just glad that the cliff was on Nabeh’s side. Bad enough that he couldn’t see anything except air and a long fall past Nabeh. He didn’t need to see the wheels running right on the side of a steep drop off. Sometimes the road dropped out from beneath them so suddenly that Stefan felt a moment of free fall before they crashed back down onto the rocky road with a metal crashing sound. Each time it happened he was sure that the axles on the jeep would break, or the whole thing would simply break apart.

Nabeh looked at him and laughed each time it happened. “Much fun, yes?”

“As long as we don’t get killed!” Stefan shouted to make himself heard.

Nabeh laughed hard at that, hardly looking like he was paying attention to the road. They skidded around a sharp corner in a cloud of dust. God help anyone that got in the man’s way. Nabeh snapped the jeep out of the skid.

“En shaalaa, my friend. En shaalaa!”

Right. Stefan clutched the door hard enough he thought he might dent the already battered metal. A hole in the door caught his eye, the metal peeling out away from it. A bullet hole? His stomach lurched as the jeep rattled across a series of washboard bumps. Maybe coming to Afghanistan to film dead things wasn’t the best decision he had made.

The ride went on and on. An hour in the terrain didn’t looked significantly different than what they’d already seen. So far there hadn’t been many signs of people at all. They passed few buildings, none in great condition, with people that stared at the speeding jeep. So did their goats. If the buildings represented farms he couldn’t see what they were farming.

Finally Stefan couldn’t resist. He had to know. “How much further is it?”

“Not far,” Nabeh said loudly. He gestured at the peaks ahead of them. “Up there, not far now.”

There was no other choice but to hang on and hope that he survived the trip. Unbelievably, Roan was still sleeping in the back. While he was looking the jeep hit a large bump, but Roan’s head rolled with it and she stayed asleep. Incredible.

It took another hour of bone-rattling road before Nabeh spun the jeep around a sharp corner and a large military truck blocked the road ahead. Brakes screamed and their own dust cloud caught up with them, enveloped them and hid the truck from view. Stefan’s heart pounded. Before the dust made it impossible to see he was sure he had seen turbaned men with automatic weapons. Nabeh killed the jeep’s engine and stuck his hands up in the air.

“Up, up!”

Stefan copied him just as dark shapes ran at them through the dust. Men shouted in Pashto. Nabeh answered back. The exchange sounded tense and hostile but the guns pointed at Stefan could shade the meaning.

Nabeh gestured at Stefan several times and each time the looks he got weren’t very friendly.

“What are they saying?” he asked, still holding up his hands. He didn’t dare look back and see what Roan and Marshal were doing.

“They are official toll collectors for the government. I am negotiating the amount.”

The exchange went on. Stefan wondered just how official these men were, but their guns rendered that question pointless. If they wanted they could shoot everyone in the jeep, dump the bodies, take their belongings and the jeep. He couldn’t help but wonder if some of them were thinking those same thoughts.

Nabeh laughed at something the man he’d been talking too said and lowered his hands. He looked at Stefan. “Fifty thousand Afghani. You pay and we go.”

Fifty thousand? It sounded like a lot until Stefan did the conversion in his head. Then it didn’t sound like so much, especially not compared to their lives. Feeling self-conscious with the men still around them, he took out the Afghani he carried and peeled off fifty, one-thousand Afghani notes. It felt like a lot but he handed it over to Nabeh.

Nabeh took the money, handed it over. “Another note, gratuity for negotiating.”

Stefan peeled off another and gave it to Nabeh, who immediately pocketed it in his own pocket. He and the man he had talked to laughed and exchanged a few more words. Then the men with guns all fell back away from the jeep. The dust had drifted enough that Stefan could see the truck. Its engine fired to life, black smoke blowing out of the exhaust pipes. The drive sounded a loud horn and immediately started backing up. Men scrambled out of the way as the truck backed up and straightened out. It only left a narrow strip on the cliff side of the road.

Nabeh didn’t hesitate. He started the jeep and gunned it for the gap. Stefan squeezed the door. It wasn’t possible that the jeep could fit in that gap. This was where his career and his life was going to end. They’d tumble right down that cliff into the ravine. He opened his mouth to protest but there wasn’t even time. The jeep shot into the gap. The truck was right there beside the jeep so close that Stefan snatched his fingers off the door for fear they’d get scraped off. He heard dirt crumbling and rocks cracking against one another. The jeep tilted toward the cliff and Nabeh gunned the engine. They kicked up dirt and rocks as the engine revved and they shot around the truck back onto the road.

Stefan twisted around, saw Marshal doing the same thing with the camera, and saw rocks and dirt sliding down the ravine from the side of the cliff. They’d started a mini rock slide and taken out a chunk of the road at the same time. He slid down in his seat, bracing his feet and held on to stop himself from covering his eyes. After a couple more bends in the road it dropped down into a valley that opened up in front of them. A small lake or large pond sat at one end of the valley behind a rock dam. Nearby was a walled fortress with armed men on the walls. Outside the fortress was an assemblage of buildings made of available materials without any building plans. Shacks, for the most part. It looked like paradise after the ordeal of riding in the jeep up that road. Stefan wondered if there was any way to get a helicopter in here to fly them out. Anything not to find themselves on that road again.

Nabeh drove the jeep like a missile at the fortress walls. Men with guns ran across the walls and dropped down, aiming their weapons at the jeep. Stefan tensed, expecting gunfire any second. The gates opened a crack and several men ran out with weapons ready. He glanced back and saw that both Roan and Marshal had their equipment running.

Well, if he was about to die at least it’d be caught on film. Stefan hung on as Nabeh brought the jeep to a skidding, dusty stop. He looked over at their driver, wondering if the man had double-crossed them somehow.

Nabeh’s teeth flashed as he smiled. “Here we are, see? No problem. Very safe road.”

“What is this place?” Stefan asked.

“We rest here, meet the CIA observers. Inside.” Nabeh climbed out of the jeep and walked toward the men with the guns. He called out, speaking loudly with many gestures back at Stefan.

The men lowered their guns. Nabeh turned around and came back to the jeep, beckoning with both arms. “Come, come. These are friends. We rest here, meet your CIA, yes?”

Hardly believing it possible, Stefan opened the jeep door and got out. Everything hurt. He stifled the groan that threatened to escape and shut the door. The air felt hotter here, but dusty still from the cloud that the jeep had kicked up. Marshal climbed out of the back while managing to keep the camera balanced. Roan jumped out the other side. Stefan noticed some of the men muttering to one another as she walked up around the jeep. She ignored them and came around to Stefan.

“Quite the ride, right boss? What now?”

“Come, come,” Nabeh urged.

Stefan raised a hand. “Yes, one moment. We need a shot, okay?”

Nabeh beamed. “Of course, yes!”

Marshal had the camera up and filming. Roan got her equipment going and joined Marshal. Stefan used a handkerchief to wipe the worst of the dust from his face. He looked at his team. “How do I look?”

Nabeh appeared at his elbow. “Very handsome!”

“Thanks.”

“Fine, boss,” Roan said. “Let’s shoot this and get a drink.”

“Okay. Let’s do it.”

Marshal raised three fingers and counted down.

Stefan smiled at the camera when Marshal pointed. “We’ve reached this unbelievable location deep in the mountains. In the fortress behind me we are supposed to meet the army observers assigned to the region who have offered to take us deeper into this ancient and war-torn country.”

Nabeh stood a couple feet away grinning at the camera. Behind him many of the men had also started grinning and aping about. Stefan hurried to wrap up before they ruined the shot.

“It is a land of much mystery and secrets. A place where the dead may walk.” He paused for the break. “Okay. Get a shot of the men as we go in. Let’s see what we have here.”

Stefan turned to Nabeh. “Thank you, we’re ready.”

Nabeh bowed and headed toward the fortress doors. On the way he passed the jeep’s keys to another man who immediately ran to jump in the driver’s side. As they walked up to the massive wood gates to the fortress the man spun the jeep in a circle, kicking up dirt and rocks, and then shot off into the village.

Stefan picked up his steps to catch up with Nabeh as they reached the doors. “Where’s he going with the jeep?”

“He will use it while we rest. No worries,” Nabeh said. “We shall have the jeep back when it is needed for our return.”

“Okay.” Stefan followed Nabeh through the doors, motioning for the others to hurry up and follow.

On the other side of the doors they entered a wide courtyard that was unlike anything Stefan had seen outside. A fountain shaped like a large urn bubbled cheerfully at the center of the courtyard in the center of an oval pool of water. Green plants abounded in planters around the courtyard. A group of men in desert-colored fatigues were waiting for them beside the fountain. These men clearly weren’t locals. They looked like the Army observers that Nabeh claimed were actually CIA operatives. Stefan fell back beside Marshal.

“Film everything. Unless they stop you, I want it all.”

“No problem, man.” Marshal hoisted the camera up to his shoulder.

Stefan glanced at Roan and didn’t even bother saying anything when he saw the look that she gave him. He turned his attention back to the men. Nabeh stood between them, smiling broadly, looking back and forth. Men from the fortress moved around the edges of the courtyard, holding their guns and watching the group. Stefan walked forward.

“I’m Stefan Roland. This is my cameraman Craig Marshal and sound wiz Roan Collins. Are you Colonel Anders?”

The guy in the center, not tall, he probably wasn’t over five seven or so, moved forward. He wore a dark, scruffy beard and had his sleeves rolled up. There was a rifle slung across his back and a gun on his hip. His broad shoulders strained the fabric of his shirt. A hand-twisted cigarette dangled from his mouth, the thin trail of smoke rising up into clear blue sky. He didn’t offer his hand.

“Right. The film guy. I’ve seen your work. Thought you might have some advice to help us with a situation here.”

“What’s the situation?”

Anders looked past Stefan at Marshal. He took out his cigarette and pointed it at Marshal. “He gonna film everything?”

“That’s why we came,” Stefan said. “That’s the deal.”

Anders squinted at Stefan. For a couple of seconds they stared at one another. Just when Stefan started to wonder what he’d gotten himself in for the colonel nodded. “Fine. You can film, unless I say otherwise. I tell him to stop and that camera goes off or it becomes scrap. Got it?”

Stefan shook his head. “No deal. We film what we decide to film. We don’t need to do this, Nabeh can take us back to the airport if you don’t like it.”

Nabeh’s smile broadened. “Yes, of course. Anytime.”

Stefan’s heart beat faster. His throat felt dry and choked with dust. Going back with nothing would ruin him. He couldn’t afford to go back but he also couldn’t let Anders direct what they shot. That had the potential to kill any film too.

“Is that so?” Anders asked.

“Yes.”

Anders chuckled and then took a long drag on his cigarette. Finally he gave Stefan a small nod. “Got to respect a man that stands his ground. Okay. Film whatever in the hell you want. What do I give a fuck? Let’s get out of the sun and we’ll talk about what’s going on.”

Without waiting for another word from Stefan, Anders turned and headed across the courtyard toward a shady entrance on the other side. Stefan followed him and Nabeh, Marshal and Roan all fell in behind him. The other soldiers fell in around and behind them. Stefan felt less protected than herded as they went under the balcony overhead and through another pair of dark wood doors into the building itself.

The interior was much cooler than the courtyard. Electric lights lit the entrance and the hallway beyond. The floor was polished marble. A staircase leading upstairs had a gleaming brass railing. In an alcove beneath the stairs was an ancient-looking clay vase. Their footsteps echoed as Stefan and the rest followed Anders deeper into the building. After passing several closed doors Anders turned into an open doorway on his left. They walked through a small sitting room across a carpet that looked like some expensive Persian weave, through another set of doors into a large library. Bookshelves lined the walls and rose up at least fourteen feet all around the room. Two other sets of doors, both closed led out of the room. A shuttered window on one side of the room blocked out the harsh sunlight, but a few sunbeams made it through to illuminate the dust motes floating in the air. The furniture all looked old, expensive and well-preserved. Ornate carved wood, stained dark, with deep red fabric covering the cushions. Anders went straight to a thick table on the side of the room near the window. A large map had been unrolled across the table. As Anders went around the far side Stefan joined him at the table. The other soldiers drifted in around Anders. Nabeh dropped into a big chair on the other side of the room and picked up a book. Marshal and Roan took up positions to record the meeting.

Anders stabbed a finger down on the map. “This is where we are right now.”

The map was printed on thin paper and was essentially a big topographic map covered with many, many squiggly lines and notations in Naskh script that Stefan couldn’t read. He had no idea if the spot on the map was actually the location of this fortress or not. None of it made any sense to him. “Okay.”

Anders ran his fingers along a squiggly line. A road? “The last sighting was here, not more than a mile away. A small village reported their graveyard disturbed. We’ve been waiting for you to take a look.”

“What other reports have you gotten?”

Anders touched three other points on the map. “Intel points to dead things moving around in these spots. Villagers say that their graveyards have been ransacked, whole graveyards have been emptied. They claim that the bodies have been possessed by unholy forces.”

“Any attacks?”

Anders shook his head. “None. In each case the dead were taken during the night. Anyone seeing them ran away rather than confront the walking dead.”

“Do the people have any idea who is behind this?”

Anders shook his head. “No specifics but the locals are blaming the Soviets. They believe that this is another strategy on the part of the Soviets. If they can control the dead it will drive these guys bat-shit.”

One of the soldiers, a sun-burned tall guy with reddish hair spoke up. “Local leaders take this desecration of their dead very seriously. If they find out who is behind it they will take up arms to stop them.”

Anders nodded to the guy. “This is lieutenant Bassett. He’s our cultural guide. I guess I should introduce you to the others.” Anders clapped a hand down on the shoulder of the man his left. The guy had a dark complexion, with a pink scar cutting across his forehead above his left eye. “Kane. And the other lump over there,” Anders gestured at the guy standing on the other side of Bassett, a broad-faced young man with a curly blond beard and hair. “That’s McIntosh.”

“And you’re all Army observers?” Stefan asked. “Someone suggested that you worked for the CIA.”

Anders grinned. “Doesn’t matter who we work for, Roland. What matters is that we’re the only help you’re going to get over here. Any other questions?”

“Yes, I’d like a chance to sit down and interview each of your about your experiences here.”

Anders laughed. He took a long drag on his cigarette and then stubbed it out in the crystal ash tray that held down one corner of the map. “Why don’t you all get comfortable? I’ll see that someone brings you some water, shows you the facilities. We’ve got some things to get ready before we can move out. We’ll come get you when we’re ready. I wouldn’t wander. We’re walking a fine line with these guys already. Wouldn’t want you upsetting anyone by poking your nose in where it isn’t welcome.”

At his gesture Anders’ people followed him on out of the room. Marshal filmed their departure. When McIntosh passed through the doors he turned and pulled them shut behind them.

Roan looked at him. “Shutting off to save the batteries.”

“Good.” Stefan nodded to Marshal. “I guess we get a break.”

“Very nice!” Nabeh said, slapping the chair.

 

2

 

Anders proved good to his word. A man dressed in a pure white payraan tumbaan and turban came in carrying a tray loaded with a glass pitcher of water with ice and glasses for all of them. He placed the tray on the table between the chairs and left without a word, not even acknowledging their presence.

“Friendly,” Stefan said as the door closed behind the man. He picked up the pitcher and filled the glasses. “What do you think about Ander’s story?”

“I don’t know, man, but what else are we going to do?”

“Very bad, the desecration of the dead,” Nabeh said, still sitting in the same chair. He picked up a glass of water, took a sip and grinned. “Ice! Very cold!”

When Stefan had hired Nabeh to guide them he hadn’t expected the man to hang around after they got here but so far Nabeh didn’t show any signs of leaving. He seemed like he considered himself a part of their group.

Stefan handed a glass to Roan and settled back on the leather couch. “Very bad. We’ve seen this sort of thing before.”

Nabeh nodded enthusiastically. “Yes, very famous, mister Roland. Even here I have seen your films.”

“What about the Inquisition?” Stefan asked. “Has there been any sign of them investigating these reports?”

Nabeh looked grave as he shook his head. “No, no Inquisition. But who knows when they show up. One day they are simply here.”

“That’s true,” Marshal said.

“Yeah.” Stefan sipped the water. It tasted very cold and full of minerals. He put the glass down. “We need to get the footage before they show up and take over the situation. And before the Soviets move in this direction.”

Roan scooted forward on the couch. “Shouldn’t we be looking around? I mean, what is this place? There’s a lot of money in all of this.”

“No.” Stefan shook his head. “We’re not here to get involved with whatever the various factions or warlords have going on. We’re here to get footage of the use of zombies in warfare. That’s what’s going to sell tickets back home. The rest of it doesn’t matter.”

“Doesn’t matter?” Roan’s voice rose. “I can’t believe that you just said that. You do realize that there are people here fighting against communism?”

“Hey,” Marshal objected. “Communism gets a bad rap because of the people in power. They’re the real problem.”

“Right, comrade,” Roan snapped.

Nabeh had gone back to his book, ignoring the exchange. Stefan shook his head. “Enough. We’re here to do the job, get the footage and make it back home in one piece. That’s it. We can’t document everything that’s going on. We’ll include what we can where it doesn’t get in the way of the movie.”

“Right now that’s all we’ve got, man.” Marshal rested his hand on the camera. “We’ve yet to see anything worthwhile to shoot. Maybe that’s why the Inquisition isn’t around. Maybe there’s nothing going on here.”

Stefan shook his head. “I don’t believe that. I’m sure they’ll show up soon. We’ve just —”

The big double doors to the room opened. Anders strolled in as if he owned the entire place. He put his hands on his hips. “Well, you all want to sit around gabbing or are we going to go find out what’s going on?”

Stefan got up. “We’re ready.”

“Actually,” Roan raised her hand. “I’d still like to visit the facilities.”

Anders grinned. “I’ll be happy to show you, miss. Why don’t you just follow me?”

Since she’d brought it up and the pressure on his own bladder was beginning to get uncomfortable, they all ended up trailing Anders down a couple hallways to a bathroom bigger than many of the shacks outside. They each took turns taking care of business and then the whole parade turned around and Anders led them back out into the sun and heat.

It took all of four steps to erase the relief provided by the interior of the fortress. If anything the heat had gotten even worse. Stefan felt his clothes sticking to his skin, gritty with dust. The air smelled smoky, but it was a sour-smelling smoke that billowed in black clouds from several chimneys in shacks around the fortress. Their jeep was back in front of the main gates. Nabeh climbed happily into the driver’s seat. Anders pointed at a bigger jeep parked in front of theirs.

“Keep up, we don’t want you to get lost out here. These back country roads can turn into a maze before you know it.” Anders chuckled and strolled off to his jeep.

Stefan got into the jeep next to Nabeh. The guide smiled brightly. “No worries, en shaalaa!”

Roan and Marshal got into the back and settled their equipment. Anders’ jeep started up and took off, kicking dust up in their face. Nabeh followed but stayed back far enough that the dust only obscured their vision rather than blinding them entirely. It’d be hard to lose sight of them with that dust cloud leading the way.

It didn’t take long to leave behind the relatively smooth dirt road through the village before they headed off onto another pitted mountain road. Fortunately Ander’s driver wasn’t as crazy as Nabeh, who took pleasure in pointing it out.

“Look at that! So slow! Are all Americans so timid?”

Stefan shook his head. “If I had to drive this road I’d get out and walk.”

Nabeh laughed hard at that, slapping his leg for emphasis while he slid around a corner, steering with one hand.

Stefan resisted the urge to bury his head and instead looked at the scenery. It was easier now. It helped that he was looking up at the hillside instead of off a cliff this time as the road descended down a valley between peaks on either side. The mountains were high enough to even provide some shade as they followed the twisting course.

When the road split Anders’ team didn’t hesitate on taking the right-hand fork. There weren’t any signs, Stefan doubt if the roads out here even had names of any sort. The drive went on for well over an hour to reach the first of the spots Anders had indicated were “nearby”.

As villages went this one was more substantial than the shacks around the fortress. The buildings were mostly of stone and mud construction. They looked old, but Stefan also realized he wasn’t necessarily the best judge of their age. What was missing were the people. The town was a ghost town with the doors closed and no one in the streets. Anders’ jeep stopped near the center of town. As the dust blew around the vehicle the doors opened and the soldiers jumped out, weapons ready, as they scanned the village. Nabeh brought their jeep to stop behind the soldiers. He shut it off and folded his hands across his middle.

“I will wait here,” he announced. “A curse is on this place.”

“A curse?” Stefan asked. He popped open his door. “We can only hope?”

Nabeh shook his head and closed his eyes. His lips moved as he recited a prayer. Stefan got out of the jeep and headed around front toward Anders. Marshal and Roan followed him, equipment already going to capture the moment.

“Colonel, is this the place?”

Anders scowled but walked over to meet Stefan. “It doesn’t look good. A week ago this place was crawling with people. I don’t see anyone now. And I don’t hear anything. They’re either hiding, gone or dead. I don’t suppose there’s any point in telling you to stay put?”

“Not really.”

“At least stay out of our line of fire, okay?”

Stefan swallowed. “We can do that.”

Anders motioned to his people. The spread out in a formation around the film crew. Anders took point, Bassett and McIntosh took up positions on either side while Kane brought up the rear. Stefan turned to face the camera and gave a short intro.

“We’ve come to this village, I’m sorry we don’t have a name yet, looking into reports that graves have been disturbed. Right now it looks like a ghost town. We haven’t seen anyone on the streets. They may have fled because of the Soviet invasion. We’re going to check it out.”

Anders moved out. As a group they followed him. Past the big military jeep, and quickly across the street to the nearest building. Anders motioned them all up against the wall. Stefan felt somewhat silly huddling against the stone and mud front of the building but he wasn’t about to make himself a target. Anders reached out and knocked hard on the wooden door. No one answered. Stefan didn’t hear anything. He eased back and looked at Roan.

“Are you picking up any sounds that we’re not getting?”

Roan held up a finger.

“Come on,” Anders said.

Stefan shook his head. “Wait.”

Anders came up and grabbed Stefan’s arm just above the elbow. He squeezed hard. Stefan refused to let anything show on his face but he was sure that there’d be a bruise later. “What are you doing?”

Stefan leaned closed, whispering. “She’s got sensitive sound equipment. I thought she might pick up something if there’s someone in town.”

Anders released his arm. Stefan rubbed the spot.

“Fine,” Anders said. “Is she getting anything?”

Roan pulled off her headphones and smiled sweetly at Anders. “As a matter of fact, yes. There’s someone crying, over there.”

She pointed at a building across the street, a couple buildings up. “I couldn’t make out much, but there’s definitely at least one person in there.”

Anders grinned back. “Okay then. Let’s check it out.” He looked at his men. “Watch your targets. I don’t want to go shooting civilians because they surprise us.”

“Right, sir,” Bassett said. The big red-head spit into the sand. “Wouldn’t want that.”

As a group they hurried across the street. Stefan ran after Anders tasting dust in his mouth and he wondered yet again if it had been wise to sink everything into this trip. What if it all ended up like this? Nothing but dirt and empty streets on film? They hadn’t even gotten any footage of the Soviets yet, something that they could sell to news groups back home.

They reached the building. Anders motioned them behind him and Bassett while Kane and McIntosh moved around to the other side of the door. Anders reached out and knocked on the door. “Hey in there!”

“They’re moving,” Roan said. “Running, I think.”

“We’re going in,” Anders said. “On three.”

“Two.”

Stefan licked his lips and tensed.

“One.” Anders lunged forward and kicked the door. The flimsy wood sprang open with a rain of splinters around the latch. Kane and McIntosh went in after him. Stefan followed them in, his shoulders clenching at the idea of shots being fired, but the guns stayed silent. He saw Anders sling his weapon around his back and spread his arms.

“Shhh,” Anders said. “We’re not here to hurt anyone.”

Stefan moved to the side and could finally see something besides Anders’ backside. A boy cowered on the far side of the room. There wasn’t much in the room, a wood table with a couple chairs, a bed on one side. A small iron cook stove near the wall. The boy had his knees up to his chest. Tear streaks marked his face.

Anders looked at Kane. “Tell him. Ask what happened to his parents.”

Kane moved forward and spoke to the boy in Pashto. The boy sniffled, wiped his nose against his arm and answered, short and clipped. Kane looked back at them. His scar looked redder than normal.

“He says his name is Hamal and that soldiers killed his parents and marched them away.”

Marshal had already moved around to get a better shot. Stefan asked Kane, “You’re sure about that sequence? They died and then marched?”

Anders nodded at Kane.

Kane looked back at Hamal and spoke again. This time the interchange went on a little longer. Finally Kane turned back to the group.

“Yes. He’s sure they died. Many died. The soldiers went through the village killing anyone they found. But after the people died they got back up and marched away. Hamal hid from the soldiers and the dead. He’s been hiding since then.”

“If they marched the dead away why is he still hiding?” Stefan asked.

Kane asked Hamal. The boy answered with several shakes of his head.

“They didn’t take everyone,” Kane said.

Anders turned and snapped his fingers at Bassett and McIntosh. “Make sure we’re secure here. Take a look outside. Let’s see if we’ve attracted any unwanted attention.”

Hamal spoke more.

Kane scowled as he translated. “You’ve made too much noise. They’re coming.”

Stefan went over to one of the shuttered windows. The wood was nothing but scraps cut and nailed together into a square that fit the window. It wasn’t hinged, just wedged into place.

“Got something,” McIntosh announced from the doorway.

Stefan peeked through the cracks in the shutter. A man with blood down his front and his turban partially unwound had just staggered around the front of the military jeep. His face looked pale, eyes clouded.

“Marshal.” Stefan stepped back as the cameraman moved up to the window to get the shot.

Stefan went over to the door with Anders. They all looked out. From the wider view at the door Stefan saw that the dead thing by the truck wasn’t alone. Others now moved out on the street. As he watched a section of the street moved. A hand came up out of the ground, sand pouring from grasping fingers.

“Shit,” Anders said. “They planted them like mines. The whole place was a trap. We’ve got to move. This location isn’t defensible. We get to the jeeps and get going?”

Stefan was looking out at the street. “Where’s Nabeh?”

Nabeh wasn’t in the jeep. It still sat behind the military jeep but was empty.

“He sold us out,” McIntosh growled. “He’s probably why these things are moving now!”

Anders looked at Stefan.

Stefan shrugged. “I don’t know. I wouldn’t have thought so, but we just hired him.”

“Doesn’t matter,” Anders said. “We’ve got to move. Kane, get the kid. We’re getting out of here. Everybody, on my signal move to the jeep. We take one vehicle. It’ll be cramped but we can fit.”

Without waiting for an answer Anders and McIntosh moved out of the building. The zombie by the front of the jeep groaned and moved toward them. Anders’ weapon snapped up. The crack of the shot rang out in the clear air as the top of the zombie’s head disintegrated into a bloody pulp, the body twisting around and flopping back into the dirt.

As the echoes of the shot died down Stefan heard a new sound. A loud moaning, groaning sound coming from many directions and many voices. A chorus of the dead raising their voices. He’d heard the sound before, in the Glenda Barker incident when he witnesses an entire graveyard of dead things rise, and again when Tomas Dias brought another flock of dead things through a suburban neighborhood to the local mall. Here it sounded worse as the cries echoed off the steep valley walls. More zombies were pulling themselves out of the sand between the buildings. So many that there was hardly any space remaining where there weren’t hands reaching out of the sand, dirt and rock crumbling from hungry mouths, and some already climbing up onto their feet.

“Here! Here!” Nabeh’s voice shouting but Stefan didn’t see him.

Bassett pointed. “There he is!”

At the far end of the street, a big house surrounded by a high wall. Nabeh stood on top of the wall waving his arms in the air. At the bottom of the wall two zombies already scrambled at the mud-covered bricks.

“We go for the jeep!” Anders said. “Come on!”

Anders slapped Bassett on the shoulder and the man moved. He started shooting at the closest zombies, head shots every time. Zombies pitched around and fell to the dirt. Bassett shot a man only sitting up in the dirt, dropping him back into his newly disturbed grave. Stefan spared a glance back to see that Marshal and Roan were following. Kane had the boy, his arm around the boy’s shoulders as he urged him to leave the building. McIntosh fell in beside them, joining Anders and Bassett in shooting the zombies.

A harsh cry split the air, even over the shots, and something dark swooped down at Stefan’s head. He felt wind, smelled a dry, rot smell, and ducked. A vulture flew past his head. It crashed right into Anders’ back. He yelled. The vulture hung onto his vest with its claws as it pecked and beat its wings at him. More dark shadows approached.

“Get down!” Stefan cried.

Anders’ threw the vulture off into the dirt and fired several shots into the bird. It flopped, bones broken but kept struggling to reach the soldier. Anders fired another shot and the vulture’s head disintegrated.

Not before several others fell on the team. Anders and Bassett started shooting into the air. One fell to the ground, a wing torn away but it screamed and flopped across the sand toward the soldier. More dead vultures fell on the team and were shot by the authors. Stefan ducked lower as more came. Marshal and Roan also crouched but both kept doing their jobs, filming and recording the scene. Black feathers drifted through the air around Stefan. All the gunfire had his ears ringing but he could still hear the sound of all of the zombies staggering across the sands, and pulling themselves from the dirt. The team was surrounded, pinned down by the dead vultures and the zombies themselves, and all Stefan could think was that he really, really hoped that Roan could capture that deafening racket. That sound, slowed down and played against a slow motion shot of the team’s dire circumstances — it’d sell the picture.

Through it all he looked for Nabeh but their driver was no longer on the wall above the big house. The vultures circling above probably had something to do with that. The zombies dragged themselves closer, forcing the soldiers to alternate between picking off the attacking birds and shooting the zombies.

“We’ve got to move!” Anders shouted. “Everyone to the jeep! Bassett! Take point!”

Bassett moved forward in even, methodical steps. He’d step, shoot a zombie in the head, and take another step. It happened faster than Stefan would have thought possible and Bassett mowed a path to the jeep. He’d nearly reached it when a blazing streak came out of a building on Stefan’s left, behind the jeeps. It barely registered in his mind before there was an enormous noise and the jeep exploded.

Stefan saw miraculous and horrible things. Vultures burning in the air, still flying. Zombies flying through the air on fire. One of the dead things was Bassett. Unrecognizable, except for his boots as his charred remains hit the ground near dead things knocked over by the blast. Sand stung Stefan’s eyes. He felt deaf. The noise had been so loud that for a few seconds it seemed like the entire world had been silence. Roan was down, on the ground holding her head. Marshal crouched over her, the camera on his shoulder but who knew what it was pointing at. He was looking at Roan.

Stefan picked himself up. He didn’t remember falling, and scrambled over to Marshal and Roan. He slid in the sand beside them like a baseball player sliding into home.

“What happened?” he shouted.

Marshal shook his head. “I don’t know!”

It sounded like the volume on his voice had been turned down and muffled. Stefan looked at Roan, searching for an injury and saw blood on the sand in front of her. He put a hand behind her head and eased her over. Her eyes fluttered. Her face looked pale. A big black piece of smoking metal stuck out of her left shoulder.

Marshal reached for the shrapnel.

“No!” Stefan tried to stop him but Marshal grabbed the metal.

He yelled and jerked his hand back without pulling out the shrapnel. He shook his hand in the air.

“It’s hot!”

“We need to leave it in any way!”

Anders and McIntosh were already back on their feet. Anders came over, his face dark. He looked down at Roan. “She alive?”

“Yes,” Stefan said. “But hurt.”

Stefan saw Kane at the door to the building he pointed inside. “The boy won’t come!”

“Leave him,” Anders snapped. “This whole town is a trap. We need to get under cover.”

Anders brought his gun up to his shoulder and fired three times, taking down three more zombies that had gotten to their feet. The shots drew Stefan’s attention out and he looked down the street. It was clogged with dead things. An army of the dead had been lying here in the blistering hot sand. Waiting for them, the Soviets or the rebels, he had no way to know which. Anders pointed at Roan.

“We can’t shoot and carry her. Either you bring her or leave her but we’re leaving!”

“We’ll get her, man,” Marshal said.

Stefan shook his head. “You take the gear. I’ll get her.”

Marshal looked like he was about to protest, but Stefan didn’t give him a chance. He lifted the shoulder strap for the recording gear over Roan’s head. Then he slid his arm beneath her neck, feeling the hot wet slick of her blood, and his other arm beneath her legs. He stood, grunting with the effort. She was heavier than he had expected. He got to his feet and readjusted Roan, hoping he wasn’t hurting her by picking her up.

While he was getting her Marshal had the gear and was still shooting film. Anders and McIntosh had drawn in closer. Kane had left the building to join them.

Stefan heard a whistling noise and Anders shouted, “Get down!”

They all crouched. The dead things didn’t. More and more were getting closer, working their way around the burning wreck of the military jeep. Stefan didn’t see it this time but his jeep exploded with another deafening roar. Burning zombies flew through the air or were knocked off their feet.

“Where did it come from?” McIntosh screamed.

“Who the fuck cares?” Kane asked. “Let’s get out of here.”

Zombies were rising from the sands. Stefan stood, readjusted Roan and discovered her looking up at him.

“Roan, don’t move, you’ve got shrapnel in your shoulder. I’ve got you.”

“Gee, thanks boss.” Her eyes flicked to the shrapnel and back to his face. “What’s the plan?”

Stefan moved up next to Anders. The zombies were closing in again. A couple staggering toward them were burning, sizzling and sending up thick clouds of black smoke. His nose and eyes burned from the fumes.

“The big house! Come on!” He hurried forward and trusted the others to come, to follow him.

Anders did follow, both he and McIntosh fell in beside him. Kane and Marshal brought up the rear. Their guns fired and fired into any of the zombies that came close. It was loud enough for him to hear despite his ringing ears. The smell of smoke was making him cough which also made it hard to hold onto Roan, but he did. She stayed away, watching as he walked as fast as he could toward the house. Still no sign of Nabeh, but the man must be inside waiting for them. With each step Stefan expected a bullet to come out of nowhere and hit him. His shoulder-blades itched with the anticipation. Someone shot the jeeps with some sort of bazooka or something, which meant someone was watching them to make sure they couldn’t escape this trap. Obviously playing with them. Or testing the trap to see how it worked.

The soldiers were mowing down the dead things. Already they’d cut down the number of zombies considerably. Anders and McIntosh kept shooting methodically. They didn’t waste shots. One or two per zombie to take out the head and then they moved on to the next. Bodies littered the street by the time they reached the other side and, for the moment, it seemed safe. Anders lowered his gun as they stopped at the door in the thick wall around the house. He hit the door with the gun’s stock. Once, twice, three times without an answer.

“Nabeh!” Stefan shouted. “Open the door!”

It didn’t open. Stefan looked back. Marshal had the camera on them, balanced on one shoulder. He held the microphone in his other hand, somehow trying to do both jobs. Two zombies staggered around the corner of the building. One had the side of his face ripped open, showing a ghastly one-sided smile. Both had been shot in the chest recently. Their faces looked pale as they moaned and staggered towards the cameraman. Kane turned, gun to his shoulder. Two quick retorts and the zombies flipped back into the sand with holes in their head.

“Open it,” Anders commanded.

Stefan turned back. McIntosh went up to the door, pulling a long knife from his belt. He inserted it into the crack between the doors and forced it down. Something gave and the door popped open.

“Inside!” Anders shouted. “Now, move it!”

Stefan didn’t hesitate to follow McIntosh inside. Like the place they had stopped earlier, there was a courtyard inside the doors. Blood was splashed across the bricks that lined the courtyard. This place lacked the fountain and plants of the other house, much more utilitarian. A covered porch ran around the courtyard. Steep, shallow stairs climbed up the wall on either side of the door to the top of the wall. There wasn’t any sign of Nabeh, not unless the blood splashed liberally across the bricks was his.

Across the courtyard, on the right, was a bench beneath the overhang that stuck out from the wall. Stefan carried Roan over to the bench. Stepping from the sunlight to the shade he was amazed how much cooler it felt. He shivered when he put her down on the bench. Roan gritted her teeth but stayed away.

“Thanks,” she said, her voice strained. “Thanks for not leaving me back there.”

“Of course not,” Stefan said.

Marshal brought over the recording gear into the shelter beneath the porch and sat it down. He took a moment to unsnap and extend the legs of the tripod for the microphone and set it up facing the courtyard.

“There,” Marshal announced when he finished. “Now we can catch whatever happens.”

“Lower,” Roan said. “Tip it lower, you’ve got it angled too high.”

“No problem.” Marshal did what she asked. “How about that?”

Roan gave him a thumbs up.

Anders and his surviving men were talking in lowered voices at the center of the courtyard. The door was shut and, Stefan hoped, locked. He wanted to know what Anders was saying but he also didn’t want to leave Roan alone. Marshal had the camera and was filming the soldiers and the scene. Stefan looked down at Roan’s pale, vulnerable face. He hadn’t ever seen her look vulnerable before. She gave him a weak smile.

“Go. Find out what the plan is, or call for help, but do something. I need a doctor. We can’t stay here.”

She was so matter-of-fact, so practical that it brought tears to his eyes. He squeezed her hand. “I won’t be long. Hang in there. We’ll get you home.”

Stefan stood up feeling like he had lied. He thought his face must be burning but Roan didn’t see it. She had closed her eyes. Only the steady rise and fall of her chest convinced him that she was still breathing. The only thing he could do was hope that she hadn’t lost too much blood. The piece of shrapnel was in her shoulder. Maybe it hadn’t hit anything vital.

He crossed out from under the porch, checking skyward for any signs of more dead vultures, and went over to Anders and the other soldiers. Marshals trailed after him with the camera. Anders pushed in front of the other two men. His bushy eyebrows drew together as he scowled at Stefan.

“What did you know about this?” He pointed at the door. “Did you know that there was a whole fucking town of dead things here?”

Stefan shook his head. “I came over here looking for them, but I didn’t have details.”

“If you withheld information — I lost a man out there!”

“I know that. I’m sorry. And my sound tech is unconscious over there with a six inch piece of your jeep sticking out of her shoulder. She might not live either. What are we going to do to get out of here?”

“I guess that depends on who gets to us first.” Anders rubbed his jaw. “Someone out there has the firepower necessary to blow that wall to smithereens, so we can’t count on it. I wouldn’t stand too close. We’re low on ammunition. Enough of those dead things come in we’ll have trouble holding them off. Same problem if the Soviets show up. Our best hope is the mujahidin, they owe us. If they get in here we might have a chance.”

“What about the Inquisition?”

Anders shrugged. “Beats me. They always have their own agenda. I doubt they’d be all that interested in us unless they thought we had information that they needed.”

Stefan gestured to the camera. “We have the footage we’ve shot. There might be something there that the Inquisition wants.”

Kane chuckled. “What’s to stop them from taking it and leaving us behind?”

“I’ve worked around them before without that happening. My films have helped their image.”

“Doesn’t matter,” McIntosh said. “We don’t have any way of contacting them.”

Marshal pointed up at the big house. “Yes we do?”

They all looked where the camera man pointed. A thin radio tower extended out of the top of the house, behind the roofline.

“Fantastic,” Anders said. “McIntosh, you stay here with the civilians. Kane and I will go see about the radio. Back in fifteen if we don’t have any luck.”

“We’re going with you,” Stefan said.

“No.” Anders shook his head. “Not this time.”

“That’s not the deal,” Stefan said. “We can’t do anything for Roan, sitting here isn’t going to help anyone. We’ll come along.”

For several seconds they stared at one another. Stefan felt the sweat dripping down his forehead. He wished he didn’t look like crap, but it’d probably come out good in the film. There might not be anything in the house, but he wanted to check it out and he wanted to find out what had happened to Nabeh.

“Plus I want to find my driver,” Stefan said. “He was in here. Where did he go?”

McIntosh and Anders both looked at the blood spilled across the bricks.

“We don’t know that’s his,” Stefan said.

“Maybe not,” Anders agreed. “But it’s reasonable to assume that there’s some of those dead things around here. Stay behind us. Move when we say and don’t get in the way.”

“Right.”

Anders motioned to Kane. “Come on. Let’s do a sweep. We’re looking for a radio room. We might find noncoms inside, let’s watch our targets.”

Stefan crossed back over to the balcony where Marshal had set up the audio equipment. He picked it up himself, collapsing the tripod and returning it to the bag. It wouldn’t look as good with him carrying it, but that’s the case. He took one last look at Roan’s pale face and turned to McIntosh who had followed them over.

“I’ll watch out for her,” McIntosh said.

“Good enough.”

“Come on, director!” Anders shouted.

Stefan took a breath and walked back out into the courtyard. Marshal followed him at two strides back.

Anders led, Stefan behind him, then Marshal and Kane brought up the rear. Stefan followed Anders across the courtyard beneath the balcony at the far end. Double doors led into the house. Anders tried the handles, which opened turned easily. He shoved them open and walked in on a tiled floor. His boots sounded loud. Otherwise the place was as quiet as a tomb and only lit by light streaming through the high, small windows. They were in a big foyer with several different exits around the space. A large grand staircase went up to the second floor on each side of the room in enormous sweeping arcs. The place was elegant but Spartan at the same time. A few expensive hangings on the walls in vibrant color, but little else.

No one said anything. Anders pointed at the hallway that went straight ahead beneath the stairs, then moved in that direction. They all followed him into the dark opening. Marshal turned on his camera light and it lit the hall, casting Anders’ and Stefan’s shadows out ahead of them. Stefan stayed close to Anders, but listened carefully with the headphones for any sounds. So far he only heard their own breath, footsteps and the sounds of their clothes. Nothing else. The air tasted flat and stale, but cooler than outside. He smelled decay and rot but couldn’t decide if it came from the house or from bits of exploded zombies embedded in their clothing.

They reached the first set of doors leading off the hallway, one on either side. Stefan waited while Anders quickly opened the first. Nothing but a closet, neatly arranged with shelves and supplies. The door across from the closet opened into a bright tiled bathroom with gleaming fixtures.

“At least we know where to go when the shit hits the fan,” Kane said.

Stefan saw irritation flash across Anders’ face but the colonel kept moving down the hall. They didn’t have to go far before reaching the next set of doors. Stefan licked his lips, feeling the dry, chapped skin. Why did they have to close all the doors? It didn’t make much sense.

Anders opened the door. “Well, hell.”

“What is it?” Stefan moved over so that he could see into the room and still give Marshal the shot.

The room must have been used for security at one time. Stefan saw shattered computer monitors and other equipment scattered on the floor of the room. Not only that but it looked like someone had splashed blood everywhere and walked in it. Piled in the center of the room was a stack of corpses. Nabeh lay sprawled across the top of the stack with his chest ripped open. His head and fallen back and blank eyes looked upside down at them crowding the doorway.

“That’s sick,” Kane said. “Sir, I suggest we fall the hell back.”

“Radio equipment is smashed.” Anders shook his head. “And we don’t know who left this for us. I don’t like this one little bit. Let’s head out.”

Nabeh coughed.

Everyone jumped. Stefan bumped into Marshal. Anders brought up his weapon. More noises came from the pile. Hands clenched open and closed. Someone groaned. Nabeh’s eyes moved and fixed on Stefan. He moaned and his arms flailed about as if he was trying to grab onto something, anything. One of the bodies beneath him grabbed his bicep and pulled. Nabeh rolled, tumbling down the pile to land face down on the floor with a loud thud. Stefan moved back beside Marshal. Somehow the cameraman kept filming, how Marshal remained so focused all the time he’d never understood but he appreciated it. Nabeh clawed at the floor, groaning as he dragged himself forward. Shots like this would make the film, as horrible as it was to witness. Stefan’s gut clenched as Nabeh lifted his head up and looked right at Stefan. Almost as if he knew what Stefan had been thinking. Ridiculous, but that’s how it felt even though there wasn’t anyone behind those eyes. At least no one still living.

“En shaalaa, my friend,” Stefan said quietly.

Anders fired the first shot. It took off the top of Nabeh’s head, but an instant later Kane’s hit from the right side and Nabeh’s head disappeared into a shower of gore. Stefan looked away and saw that Marshal had the camera on him.

“Did you film that?” he asked.

“Of course, man. I film everything.”

The other bodies on the pile were untangling themselves. A broad-chested man in a turban pushed himself up out of the pile. He would have been handsome once, with a strong jaw and a close-trimmed beard. Except for the fact that his throat had been slit he looked almost normal. Stefan didn’t know which bullet hit between his eyes, staggered him back until he hit one of the chairs sitting in front of the ruined computer stations. The man fell and didn’t move again.

Gun smoke filled the air. Stefan covered his mouth as Kane and Anders shot the remaining dead things in the room. Stefan only knew that they’d stopped shooting when they lowered their guns. His ears kept ringing as if they were still shooting.

“We’ve got to go,” Anders said. “I don’t think any place in this town is safe.”

“What is the plan?” Stefan asked.

Anders looked at the camera, and back to him. “We hike out. Get away from these things before we run out of ammunition. “

“Hike out where?”

“We’ll retrace our steps. Head back the way we came.”

“What about snipers?” Stefan asked. “I think shooting the jeeps showed that they weren’t letting us leave easily.”

“Yeah, I think he has a point, man,” Marshal said.

Anders started back down the hallway toward the front of the building. “I’d rather shoot things that can shoot back.

Stefan hesitated. Kane gestured with his gun. You’d better do what the colonel says if you want to get out of this alive.”

“We’re going,” Stefan said.

He fell in behind Anders with Marshal following him and Kane at the rear. When they came outside Stefan blinked in the bright light. He couldn’t see McIntosh anywhere but Anders called out. Then McIntosh appeared from behind a pillar on their left. He lowered the weapon.

“Didn’t know if it was you. I heard shots and —”

A red hole appeared in the middle of McIntosh’s chest. A loud crack of a rifle echoed through the air.

“Sniper!” Kane shouted.

Another shot rang out and hit the pillar near Anders’ head. Would have hit him but he was already moving, diving down behind the pillar. Stefan scrambled back to the wall beside the door and pressed his back against the cool stone. Marshal was next to him, Kane on the other side of the doorway. Anders was facing them, his back to the pillar at the edge of the covered porch. McIntosh’s body lay half in the shade and half in the sun.

Anders shook his hand, pointing to his left, clearly indicating they should go around that way. It made sense. McIntosh had come out on the other side of the courtyard. Unless whoever was shooting had snipers on both sides they should have cover going around the other way. The only problem? Roan was under the porch on the other side of the courtyard. Stefan took off the sound equipment and dropped it at his feet.

“Ditch the gear,” he told Marshal.

“No way, man!”

“Is it worth your life?”

Marshal’s face broke into a wide grin. “Hell man, this is it you know? What else is anybody gonna remember me for?”

“Roland!” Anders hissed.

Stefan nodded. “You’re right, but I can’t carry that and get Roan. If you can get out of here, take the chance. Show people the film. Hell, they might even remember me.”

He couldn’t wait any longer. He took off running along the wall, staying as far beneath the overhang as he could.

“Roland!” Anders bellowed after him.

Stefan ignored the colonel. It was crazy, reckless, but he had to take the chance. He couldn’t leave Roan here by herself.

He reached the corner where McIntosh had hidden and skidded around the corner. At the far end of the porch he could see Roan still lying on the bench. A shot pinged off the stone right in front of him. Would have hit him had he not hesitated. Stefan plunged ahead, running as hard as he could. Several more loud rifle cracks split the air. One shot grazed the back of his head. The pain was like a brand and he stumbled, his fingers touching the gritty stone. The third hit one of the support pillars. Stefan reached Roan.

She was breathing still, asleep. He scooped her up, feeling the heat of her body, as he turned and walked quickly along the porch. On the other side of the courtyard he saw the guys running around the courtyard beneath the overhang. Stefan reached the corner and headed toward the door leading out of the house. It was still closed. He carried Roan into the doorway and leaned against the stone wall. Anders, Marshal and Kane arrived a second later. Marshal actually had the recording equipment hanging off his other shoulder.

Anders grinned at him and shook his head. “You’re crazy man.”

“Let’s get out of here,” Stefan said.

Marshal laughed. “I got it all, man! Might be a bit unsteady, but it’s fantastic!”

“Let’s hope someone gets to see it,” Stefan said.

Kane opened the door, leaned out. “Clear. Come on.”

They moved out of the big house. The jeeps and blown apart zombies were still smoking at the center of town.

“Stay close to the wall,” Anders said. “And stay close.”

They moved in a line along the wall, falling back into their usual order with Anders in the lead, then Stefan, Marshal and Kane bringing up the rear. A blackened zombie missing his bottom half dragged himself toward them across the sands. Kane spit at it and they kept moving, leaving the zombie behind clawing at the sand.

Any second Stefan expected to get shot but the sniper seemed to have given up. The entire area was littered with zombie remains, and craters in the road where the zombies had been buried until the trap was sprung. Stefan thought about the boy that they’d found. Could he have been the necromancer? It seemed unlikely, a survivor maybe. Someone set this up and watched what was happening. Whoever it was destroyed their jeeps, shot McIntosh and shot at him.

At an alley ahead Anders stopped, motioning them back against the wall. He held his fingers up to his lips.

Roan felt heavy and hot in Stefan’s arms. She mumbled something but he couldn’t understand a word of it. He didn’t know how long her could carry her. They needed a vehicle, or some place to hide out until help could come. If help ever came.

From around the corner he heard footsteps. Stefan braced his back to the wall and waited. Marshal had the camera pointed ahead. Kane had moved out from the wall and was on one knee, gun at his shoulder.

Three women came out of the alley, each covered in a blue chadri that completely covered them, even their faces were hidden behind a fine net. But these women walked unsteadily and there was blood on their chadri. They stopped and turned to face Anders.

“Kane,” Anders said quickly.

Kane spoke quickly in Pashto. Stefan didn’t understand what the soldier said, but he understood the tone. It was both a question and a command. For a second none of the women moved then their cried out and charged the group. Kane and Anders fired at the same time. Stefan flinched as two of the women flew back through the air and hit the sand. But the third was right there reaching for him. He turned Roan away to protect her from the bloody claws that emerged from the chadri. There wasn’t time to do anything else.

Roan shifted in his grip, slipping and he had an instant to see that she was awake before she reached up and ripped the six-inch piece of shrapnel from her shoulder. He lost his grip and she landed on her feet and as the dead thing grabbed at her Roan swung her fist around, slamming the pointed piece of metal shrapnel into the side of the dead thing’s head. With a moan the zombie slumped down at Roan’s feet, the shrapnel embedded deeply in her head.

“What’d I miss?” Roan asked.

Stefan reached for her but Roan waved him off with her good hand.

“Ugh, it feels good to get that thing out of my shoulder. Anyone got a Band-Aid I could use?”

Anders came over, already digging in his vest pocket. He pulled out some gauze pads and tape. Stefan staggered back and leaned against the wall. Now that he wasn’t holding her his arms ached. His head throbbed. He reached back, touched the spot where the bullet had grazed him. When he lowered his hand there was blood on his fingers.

Anders was checking Roan’s wound when she squinted at Stefan. “Boss, you don’t look too good.”

He managed a smile. “I’m fine. Your timing’s great. How’re you doing?”

“Bleeding has stopped,” Anders said. “I’ll tape it, I think she’ll be okay if we get her to a doctor.”

“I’ll be okay, boss.” Roan grinned. “Don’t worry.”

“We need to get moving,” Kane said. “It’s getting late. We need to find some place to hide out for tonight.”

Anders jerked his head at the alley. “Let’s check up here.”

After Anders finished with Roan’s shoulder Stefan took the recording equipment from Marshal and they set off again at a slower pace up the alley. After a couple hundred yards Anders led them through a door into one of the more solid-looking houses. There wasn’t much to it, a few rooms and the door. No hiding places, but it was comfortable enough. Roan agreed to lay down on the bed upstairs. Anders made sure the door was barred, it had a wood bar for that purpose, and they settled in at the table in the main room. Stefan was glad for the chance to sit down. Even Marshal took a break and changed the film on the camera, and the tapes in the recording gear.

Outside the sun was setting quickly and the house was getting dark. Anders refused any lights but Kane did find some cans in a cupboard. Cold beans, seasoned with something Stefan couldn’t identify, made up their dinner.

“Get some rest,” Anders said. “Tomorrow we’ll look for new transportation, find a way out of here.”

“Assuming we make it to tomorrow,” Kane said.

“We’ll make it,” Anders said.

Stefan was so tired that he found he didn’t care. Maybe they’d make it, maybe not. At that moment all he wanted was to sleep.

Morning came too soon. Stefan woke up with everything hurting. Every muscle felt stiff. Anders looked down at him. “Time to get moving.”

“What time is it?”

“Sun’s up.” Anders moved off.

Stefan rubbed his eyes and rolled off the chairs he had used as a bed last night. Marshal and Kane were already up. Marshal was checking over his camera and the big surprise was Roan sitting at the table with a fresh bandage on her shoulder and a can of beans in front of her. She shoveled a big spoonful into her mouth and chewed with relish.

“Guess I’m the last up,” Stefan said.

“Don’t sweat it, boss,” Roan said. “After saving my life you can sleep in any time you want.”

“Thanks.”

It took them a little longer to get everything together. Anders reported that they were extremely low on ammunition. After it was gone they’d have to fight any dead things off with knives or sticks.

The air was chilled. The town was silent and the smoke was gone. Anders led them back down the alley to the main road. The burned remains of the jeeps cast long shadows across the lumps of blackened flesh dotting the road. Before they had left the house Anders explained that they were going back to the big house to look for vehicles. He figured there had to be trucks and jeeps in some adjoining building. If they found transportation then they could get out of here. Hopefully before those responsible came back.

Stefan felt better than he expected once they got moving. Seeing Roan back on her feet with her gear, she had insisted on carrying it, helped his spirits. Nothing moved on the streets while they made their way back. They’d gotten all the way up to the doors when something on the other side hit the wood.

Kane moved up beside Anders. The two soldiers exchanged a look. Anders nodded to Kane, who moved forward and unlatched the door. He gave it hard shove. It hit something, then gave way. Stefan saw McIntosh on the other side of the door, catching his balance. In one hand he held his weapon and it came up, shots firing at nothing but Stefan still flinched and ducked down.

Anders fired once. The shot took McIntosh in between his eyes and dropped him onto his back.

Kane straightened up. “Damn. That sucks.”

That it did. Anders and Kane went in first, dragging their fallen comrade to the side. Anders took his dog tags and stuffed them into a pocket on his vest. Kane took what little ammunition McIntosh still carried.

No one said anything.

Then a loud thump, thump sound filled the air and sand blew in through the door.

“Chopper!” Kane shouted.

“Get back, against the walls!” Anders motioned them all back. Stefan and his team ran to one side of the door. Anders and Kane took the other. The sound of the helicopter or helicopters was very loud. Stefan pressed his back to the stone and waited. If they had helicopters Kane and Anders were going to be out-gunned and out-manned. Good guys or bad guys? That was the question.

Stefan looked at Marshal and Roan. “Let’s get this shot!”

Marshal moved out from the wall enough to get a good angle. Stefan stood in front of him, facing the doors. The noise of the helicopter died down outside. Stefan heard shouts. People were coming.

Anders motioned to Stefan. “Get back!”

“No! I’m going to cover this. I’m a journalist, this is my job!”

The doors swung open. The men that come through had their guns pointed at him. Most wore black military garb but the two in front were in sharp red suits with thin black ties and polished black shoes. Both also wore black sunglasses. The Inquisition had arrived.

Stefan raised his hands. “Don’t shoot!”

Both inquisitors lowered their weapons. One waved to the other men, who also lowered their guns.

Stefan stayed where he was but he lowered his hands. “I’m Stefan Roland, filmmaker. I have a few questions for you.”

One of the inquisitors stepped forward, taking off his sunglasses, and Stefan knew it was going to turn out. All of it. They’d get home. He’d get his movie. They weren’t done yet, but for the first time since he had arrived in this blasted desert he believed he was doing the right thing.

 

13,167 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 20th weekly short story release and the third in the Filming Dead Things series. I’d originally published these as written by my pen name Tennessee Hicks along with the rest of the Dead Things series.

I’m releasing each of these stories, one per week, here on my website. Eventually I’ll do standard e-book releases when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the books. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Check back next week for another story. Next up is Trailer Park of the Dead Things, the final story in my Filming Dead Things collection.

Mall of the Dead Things

In 1969 Stefan Roland made history with his documentary on Glenda Barker, the witch that raised dead things in Farm of the Dead Things. The film showed the dangers fought by the Inquisition.

Now a tip takes Stefan and his team to an upscale neighborhood to investigate the possibility of a dead thing.

This time dead things have woken in a city and he faces terror for a second time.

The Tomas Dias Story

Stefan Roland stepped out of his van onto an unblemished sidewalk beneath a bright sunny afternoon blue sky. No weeds or trash littered the sidewalk. The adjoining lawn was a perfectly mowed swath of green between the McMansion and the sidewalk. And next to it was another perfect house with popup sprinklers spraying water over another perfect lawn. The whole neighborhood looked flawless, except for the police cars parked across the street with flashing lights just ahead.

The van’s side door slid open and his camera man, Craig Marshal, jumped out with his new camera already on his shoulder. Tall and muscular, Marshal had the build of a long distance runner. He wore a black t-shirt and jeans. Even his sneakers were black. Right behind him Noah Crane climbed out of the van carrying the sound gear. Crane was the most colorful of the three with his tie-dyed shirt, beads and a wild head of ginger curls. The three of them had already made history filming dead things with the Glenda Barker incident, now maybe they’d get a chance to repeat that earlier success.

Stefan smoothed his suit, brushed lint off the dark navy fabric and straightened his tie. He resisted the urge to touch his hair, knowing he’d mess it up more. As the on screen personality of the team appearance mattered. “Let’s do a quick setup. On three. Two. One.”

“I am Stefan Roland, reporting from the once peaceful neighborhood of Westfield Spring, now disrupted by reports of the dead coming back to life. We’re here to see if there are any truths to these rumors.” Stefan paused and then looked at Crane. “How do I sound?”

Crane said, “Good boss.”

Marshal shut the sliding door.

“Let’s go.” Stefan headed down the sidewalk toward the police barricade and the crowd already growing near the car.

As Stefan got closer to the scene he started picking it apart. The cops moved with quick professionalism. They had barricades up, crime scene tape across the road behind the two police cars. Their seriousness told him that this was something real. His pulse picked up. The call on his tip line didn’t say much. Only that there was a dead thing at loose in the neighborhood, but so many of those tips ended up being someone in make-up shambling down the street as a joke. Maybe this time was different.

The crowd also looked serious. The people wore mostly designer clothes. Parents held their kids close and the crowd spoke in hushed whispers. No one tried to challenge the police barricade. That told him something too. What was on the other side of the barricade that had everyone so scared?

Stefan led the way over to the right side of the police barricade. A young officer, her hair pulled tightly back into a sandy blond bun, sunglasses hiding her eyes, stepped in front of him. Marshal and Crane positioned themselves to film the encounter.

“Please stay back, sir.”

“Can you tell us what is happening?”

He saw her look at his team, then back to him. “There’s a domestic disturbance, we have the situation under control.”

“A domestic disturbance? I was told that there was a dead thing on the loose.”

 

Her lips tightened. He noticed the sweat beading on her brow. Finally, with a glance at the camera, she smiled slightly. “As I said, sir, we have the situation under control. Please stay back.”

“Yes, ma’am. Thank you.”

Stefan backed away from the barricade and headed over to the crowd. If this panned out he’d want to do some interviews, but not right now. He needed something more than interviews with bystanders and cops manning the barricades. He needed footage of the dead things. The guys followed him over past the crowd.

A tall, gawky sort of guy in a blue polo shirt stepped away from the crowd into his path. Out the corner of his eye Stefan saw the guys move to film and record the discussion. “You’re Stefan Roland, you made that movie about the dead things. Do you know what’s going on here?”

Stefan said, “That’s right, sir, what’s your name?”

“Conner Grant. My wife and I live just over here.” Grant pointed at a light blue McMansion just this side of the police barricades. “Are there dead things loose in the neighborhood?”

“We don’t know, Mr. Grant. What have you been told?”

“Nothing. We saw the cars and the crowd and came out to see what was going on, but people are talking about a zombie.”

“Just one?”

Mr. Grant turned and pointed to a sixtyish woman with her hair in short gray curls standing to one side of the crowd. “Mrs. Tremblay said that she heard there was a zombie a few houses down. At Mrs. Donohue’s house, but the police haven’t said anything.”

“Thanks,” Stefan said. “We’ll try to find out what is going on.”

He led the others away from Grant, up across the sidewalk and onto the Grant’s lawn. From this angle they had a good view of the crowd. Stefan gestured at the crowd. “Grab some footage of the crowd, try to get some statements. I’m going to want to look at it later, see if there’s anyone we might want to interview.”

“Sure boss.”

Marshal and Crane moved off together until they were right up against the crime scene tape as Marshal filmed the crowd’s faces. Stefan edged backward toward the Grants’ front door. He moved slowly, not wanting to draw any attention to himself. There wasn’t much to see at the moment but most of the crowd was focused on each other and the police. A few noticed the guys filming and crowded around for the off-chance that they might get on TV. Casually Stefan turned and walked right up to the Grants’ door. He didn’t look back, just went to the door, opened it and went inside.

The Grants’ house looked like something out of a catalog of fine home furnishings completely with a darkly stained side table against the entry wall, a chandelier hanging above the foyer and a staircase that curved up to the second floor. He didn’t waste time but went straight on through, down the hallway and through a door at the end into the kitchen. The kitchen was big with lots of polished marble countertops and gleaming wood cabinets. Modern appliances all caught the light. It really could be a catalog house. He didn’t see anything out of place but he did see French doors that opened out onto a deck, that’s what he wanted. Stefan hurried over and went on out onto the Grants’ deck.

From that vantage he could see into the neighbor’s backyards. Two houses down he saw the cause of all the disturbance. The house was more or less a mirror of the Grants’ house, except done in a pale yellow color. That house also had a deck, painted a deep green color, and beyond that a picture perfect if dull lawn graced only by a plain bird bath at the center. More interesting than that was the zombie that stood in the yard. It was an old woman in a pale blue bathrobe, pink bunny slippers on her feet and spatters of blood down the front. She wasn’t doing much at the moment, just shuffling slowly around the bird bath. He needed Marshal to get it on film. Stefan hurried back inside, through the Grants’ house, to the front door. He eased it open just an inch and peeked out. Everyone was turning away, looking down the road at the approaching black sedan.

The Inquisition. He was out of time.

Marshal stood with his back to the front door as he filmed the approaching car. Crane stood beside him. Stefan slipped out and walked casually up behind them. He stopped right behind the cameraman.

“Come on, we’ve got to get inside,” he whispered.

Marshal didn’t jump or stop filming. He just started backing up the walk. Crane came up beside Stefan. “What’d you find?”

Stefan shook his head. “We don’t want to draw attention, come on.”

Stefan led the way, convinced any second that someone would stop them but it didn’t happen. The Inquisition car came to a stop near the barricade. Stefan slipped inside. Marshal stopped right outside and filmed the scene as the car doors opened and four inquisitors in their red suits with black ties, stepped out. Sunglasses hid their eyes as they surveyed the crowd. Stefan pulled Marshal inside and shut the door.

“If they saw the camera they’re probably going to investigate, we’ve got to hurry.” Stefan was already moving.

Marshal followed on his heels. “What have you got?”

“A zombie, and our chance to follow up on the farm film.” Stefan opened the French doors and ushered Marshal and Crane out onto the deck. “Let’s get a quick setup shot and then focus on the zombie.”

Stefan positioned himself at the deck railing at an angle to the camera so that Marshal could keep the zombie in the shot. “Ready? Okay, let’s go.” Stefan paused for two beats and then spoke to the audience. “Behind me you can see one of the most terrifying sights anyone can encounter, the dead risen from the grave. We don’t know yet who this poor unfortunate woman used to be, but it is clear that she is recently deceased. The fact that she walks suggests the presence of a witch, a necromancer, haunting this stylish neighborhood. The inquisitors have arrived, so I expect they will deal with this situation promptly. Let’s see if we can get a better picture.”

Stefan gave Marshal the nod and the cameraman moved closer to the railing and zoomed in on zombie. She hadn’t changed her shuffling path around the backyard. Stefan stayed ready for any commentary but let Marshal film. He saw movement in the house. It was Grant, coming through the kitchen.

“We’ve got company,” he announced.

Marshal backed from the railing to get the shot. Crane joined him. As Grant came through the door Stefan stepped forward. “Mr. Grant, thank you for joining us. You can see right over there, is the zombie. Do you know her?”

Grant looked, and his eyes widened. He gasped. Stefan knew that Marshal and Crane had to have gotten his reaction.

“Oh God, that’s Mrs. Donohue, what’s happened to her?”

“Has she been ill lately?”

Grant shrugged and then crossed his arms. “I don’t know. I mean she always seemed frail, but she was old, you know?”

“I understand —”

“Oh God! What are they doing?” Grant’s arm pointed.

Stefan turned away from Grant to look across the yards. The back door of the house had opened and the four inquisitors in blood red suits moved smoothly out into the yard, weapons in hand, spreading out to surround the poor dead old woman. Even at this distance Stefan heard her growl at them. Her fingers curved into claws and she started toward one of the inquisitors, the one closest to the house. The inquisitor fired. The shot took her in the head and a spray of blood and bone splashed across the bird bath. Mrs. Donohue fell back onto the lawn as the echoes of the shot died away.

The inquisitors gathered around her body then slowly put away their guns. One of them pointed at Stefan and the others watching from Grant’s deck. Stefan stepped up to the railing as Marshal and Crane fell back, leaving him standing with the horrified Grant.

“We’ve just seen the shocking necessity that faces inquisitors. When the dead walk what else can be done? I believe we’ll soon be able to ask that question?” Two of the inquisitors had gone into Mrs. Donohue’s home.

While they waited Marshal kept filming the scene in the backyard. The remaining two inquisitors stood guard over the body. A couple minutes later one returned with a black body bag. The other appeared in Grant’s kitchen and came out onto the deck.

He wore a the slick red suit, black tie, black gloves and shoes that signified the Inquisition, the secular police organization that had replaced the original that had gotten its start burning witches at the stake. This inquisitor had blond hair greased back. He reached up and took off his sunglasses.

“Mr. Roland, I’m inquisitor Hitchens.” He extended a hand.

Warily, but knowing that his crew was filming and recording the encounter, Stefan accepted the handshake. “It’s nice to be recognized, Inquisitor. How can I help you?”

Hitchens gestured at the scene across the yards where his companions had donned gloves and were sliding Mrs. Donohue’s body into the black body bag. “This is an ongoing investigation as we establish the person behind this incident. We trust that you will not attempt to interfere with our work.”

Stefan shook his head. “I don’t have any plans to interfere. If it is possible I’d like a chance at an interview?”

“Perhaps.” Hitchens smiled. “Although we plan to resolve this situation before it gets out of hand, as happened in Springwood.”

“People died there. Has anyone been hurt yet here?” Roland was thinking of the blood splatters on the front of Mrs. Donohue’s dress, the ones from before she was shot.

“The only casualty so far was a small dog,” Hitchens said.

“Button?” Grant asked. He flushed when they all looked at him. “That’s what she called her dog, a little black Pekingese. Every morning she was out walking that dog to poop on someone’s yard. She never picked up after it.”

“That sounds like the dog,” Hitchens said. “And as I’ve said, we have it under control.”

“Thank you, Inquisitor,” Stefan said for the camera. “I’m sure everyone in this neighborhood appreciates your efforts in apprehending the witch behind this latest incident.”

The inquisitor nodded. “If you’ll excuse me now?”

“Of course.” Stefan looked back at the yard. The inquisitors were carrying the body bag out of the yard.

He quickly moved to the railing and faced the camera so that the shot would get him and the inquisitors. “There you have it. An elderly neighbor dies and walks again, her beloved pet the victim of the horrid tragedy while the Inquisition searches for the witch behind this incident.”

Stefan paused and then nodded to Marshal. “Okay. That’s it. Let’s get a shot of them leaving.”

He turned to Grant and held out his hand. Grant took it and they shook. “Thank you, Mr. Grant, for your help.”

“Any time, sure. It’s horrible, what happened to poor Mrs. Donohue.”

Stefan nodded and released Grant’s hand. Then he went on past into the house with Crane and Marshal following. They went out through the house into the front yard. The crowd was buzzing with whispers as two inquisitors loaded the body bag and a bright red biohazard bag into the back of a black van that had joined them. The other two were questioning the crowd.

What was wrong with this picture? Stefan looked at the crowd. Beside the excitement some of the people were pulling away, drifting back toward their houses and lives. That was the problem. Everyone seemed to think that the trouble was over.

“It can’t be over,” he said.

Crane blinked. “What man? Why not? I mean they hauled her away, right?”

Stefan noticed that Marshal had turned the camera in his direction but ignored it. “Look, why would the necromancer only bring back that one dead thing? One old lady?”

“Maybe they’re starting small, you know? Or maybe that was an accident.”

Stefan shook his head. “It doesn’t make sense to me.”

“Maybe that’s all there is, man. Maybe this time you won’t get a big movie out of it.”

Bang!

Stefan flinched. People in the crowd screamed. Marshal turned toward the crowd. A battered green pickup full of gardening equipment was pulling away from the scene. The driver stuck his arm out the window and gave a wave at the crowd. Stefan saw him as he went past, a young man with dark hair and sunglasses. He wore a dirty work glove on his hand. Stefan shook his head.

“The truck backfired.”

“Man, that wasn’t funny.” Crane said. “I about shit myself.”

“Hey,” Marshal said, waving his hand. “Look at this!”

Stefan turned and looked where Marshal was pointing. Down the road, past the crime scene tape, down past Mrs. Donohue’s house, right in the middle of the street, a woman was walking slowly toward the crowd. In the bright afternoon sunlight Stefan could see her clearly and despite the hot sun he felt chilled. Her collar bone showed through her left shoulder. Her hair lay plastered against her skull and she was dressed in a long black dress but her feet were bare. She walked with a faltering, shuffling step that he recognized.

“It’s another one,” Stefan said. Then he saw something else and the day seemed even colder.

She wasn’t alone. She was just first.

A short distance down the street another crowd was following her toward the crime scene. On the road, sidewalk and across the perfect lawns. Zombies, but they weren’t alone. Just like back in Springwood other dead things were with them. Stefan could make out a dog limping along on three legs. Something flat and furry dragged itself along the road. Finally he realized that he could hear something too, the moans and cries of the dead things. The sky behind the zombies was dark with things that flew, birds and insects. All dead and all of them heading this way.

Although his legs felt wooden Stefan made himself walk toward the zombies until he was in front of Marshal’s camera again. “Are we good?”

“Yeah, yeah,” Marshal said.

Crane didn’t move. He stood staring at the approaching dead things.

“Crane!”

Crane jerked. “Yeah, boss, good.”

Stefan took a breath. “Three, two one. Just as it looked like the Inquisition had the scene under control here at Westfield Spring we’ve seen the terrifying sight behind me. A whole flock of zombies and other dead things coming this way. We can’t stay here, but we’ll stay as close as we can to document this latest incident and hopefully locate the necromancer behind it.”

People started screaming. Stefan turned in profile so that he could see what was happening. The crowd and the Inquisition had noticed the flock now. People turned and ran away. Some went for cars parked on the street, or in nearby driveways. Others ran for the houses. Grant ran past him yelling.

“Melody! Melody!”

A blond woman came out of the crowd, clutching a small girl with blond curls. Grant ran to her and took the child. Then they ran together back over to their house, past Stefan. Grant hesitated when he saw them and stopped.

“Do you want to come inside?”

Stefan shook his head. “Get inside, lock your door. Close the curtains. Stay quiet. The flock will probably pass by if you don’t draw their attention.”

Grant nodded and ran off.

Stefan started down to the street as the crowd evaporated. A line of cars pulled out and drove away. The inquisitors stood at their car, Hitchens inside the driver’s seat talking on a radio. A crow dropped out of the sky screeching as it flew right at Stefan. He ducked just in time but smelled the stink of putrefaction as the bird flew past. Following in its wake he heard the buzz of flies and other insects.

“Back to the van!” Stefan headed that way with Marshal and Crane following. The inquisitors got into their car too. The flock was too large for only four inquisitors to handle.

At the van Stefan noticed something moving on the front. He went over to the front instead of getting in. A grasshopper, squashed and stuck to the front of the van was twitching and trying to free itself. Not only it, but several of the more intact bugs splattered across the front of the van, all of them were wiggling and trying to move. Marshal stuck with him and filmed the van. More flies and other dead insects buzzed around Stefan. He swatted at them.

“Let’s get inside.”

Marshal went around to the passenger side while Stefan went to the driver’s side door and got in. Crane was already in the back, shutting the sliding door when Stefan climbed in. The flock was getting closer. Marshal was leaning out the window filming the approaching flock. The inquisitors had gotten in their car and were turning around, following the van that held Mrs. Donohue’s body.

The flock was close enough that Stefan could see more details on the zombies than he wanted. Most looked like they’d been buried in their Sunday best. Suits and fine dresses, but now and then there were exceptions. A woman in a bloodied pink jogging suit looked fresh. The blood glistened on her skin in the afternoon sun. She must have run into the flock while jogging. She was near the front of the flock. Scattered among the zombies he saw decayed cats and dogs coming too. A clump of flies flew right at the van’s window, some landed while most flew on past.

When the lead zombies were only about thirty feet away Stefan started the van. Dead eyes turned toward the van. Zombies that had wandered from the road toward the houses changed their direction. Stefan felt the weight of all of those empty gazes on him. Or were they empty. The jogger looked right at him, her eyes still as clear as when she was alive. Was there something behind her eyes? Was it the necromancer? Something else?

“You might want to move to the back,” he said to Marshal.

He put the van into gear and pulled out, swinging a wide circle that took him closer to the zombies. Marshal pulled the camera back in and rolled up the window. Then he climbed into the back as Stefan drove. Knowing Marshall, he was still catching it all on film. The zombies cried out and moved after the van. Their moans and cries filled the air. Cats yowled and spit. The dogs barked and growled. Birds flew at the window.

“I guess we got their attention,” Stefan said.

As he finished the turn Stefan felt a breeze and the stink of rot and death blow into the van. He looked in the mirror. Marshal had the back window open so that he could film without shooting through the glass. Stefan kept the van’s speed down and drove slowly down the road in front of the flock.

“Can’t we go faster?” Crane asked, dropping into the passenger seat next to Stefan.

“Not yet!” Marshal called from the back. “This is great stuff.”

Stefan kept the speed down and watched the mirrors. Most of the zombies were slow, but they knew from experience that the fresher ones like that unfortunate jogger could move fast.

“As long as we don’t let them get around us we’re fine,” he told Crane.

Crane looked back. “I think we’re closer than we need to be, man.”

“We’re okay.”

Over the zombie’s cries Stefan heard a scream. He looked out at his mirror in time to see a girl, not more than seven or eight, screaming as she ducked and ran out of a dog house. She clutched a white fluffy dog that barked at the zombies. She was quick, and avoided the zombies’ grabbing arms right at the dog house, but there were more in front of her that turned around. The girl stopped, looking for a way past the zombies that surrounded her.

Stefan slammed on the brakes.

“What are you doing?” Crane yelled.

“There’s a girl.” Stefan opened his door and jumped out. The air stank of the dead things.

He heard the van door open and saw Marshal get out too and hurry around the van. Beside the camera he held a wood baseball bat that he tossed to Stefan. Stefan caught the bat and ran toward the zombies surround the screaming girl.

His heart raced in his chest. His mouth felt dry, but he couldn’t sit by and do nothing. Not this time.

The first zombie he reached was a gray-haired old grandmother with leathered skin pulled tight over her bones like an Egyptian mummy. Stefan gritted his teeth and swung the bat at the back of her head. She dropped to her knees and toppled over face-first onto the lawn. The dog yipped and barked. The girl screamed. Stefan swung the bat again, this time at a chunky man in a dirty suit. He hit the zombie’s arms and it grabbed at the bat. Stefan yanked it away and lifted the bat over his head and brought it down on the zombie’s skull. The bat made a dull crunching noise and the zombie staggered away, turned and fell over. The smell of rot and death stuck in his throat and threatened to make him gag.

Stefan reached for the girl. “Come on!”

She stopped screaming and ran toward him just in time to avoid the zombies behind her. A teen-age boy zombie, his face mangled and oozing came at Stefan, growling and barring his teeth. Stefan swung the bat and as if he was going to hit a home run, catching the zombie in the side of the head. The boy staggered but didn’t go down. Stefan turned and ran after the girl.

Marshal waved them on. The girl darted around the van but more zombies were almost upon the van. Crane was in the driver’s seat with his sound equipment braced in the window.

Stefan ran as fast as he could around the front of the van. The jogger in the bloodied pink sweats was right there and lunged at him. He got the bat up in between them as her head darted forward. Stefan shoved the bat and her teeth hit the wood. He heard a crunch and saw her front teeth break. She grabbed at the bat.

Stefan struggled to hold onto it. He spun her around and tried to shake her off. She snarled and came at him again. Stefan kicked her in the stomach, and she fell back, releasing the bat. He turned and swung it like a battering ram, smashing her nose and knocking her back more. She fell on her rear.

He ran on around the van. More zombies had reached the van and scrambled at the sides, but they hadn’t reached the passenger door yet. He got there, opened it and jumped inside, throwing the bloodied bat to the floor. Crane had already pulled in his gear and rolled up his window. Just in time as a zombie hit the glass. Crane yelped.

“Go!” Stefan yelled, slamming his door.

The door hit something. He looked and saw a hand in the door, with bright red polished nails. He opened the door and a dark-haired woman zombie snarled at him. A dark bullet hole pierced her temple. She lunged forward as he slammed the door again. This time her head was in the door. He opened it again and she staggered back. Stefan slammed the door shut and hit the lock.

Zombies pounded on the sides of the van. Their moans and snarls filled the air. Flies buzzed around the windows and a bird battered at the windshield. The dog in the back kept barking.

“Oh God,” Crane said, giving the van gas.

Right in front of the van the jogger launched herself at the van. It hit her and knocked her down. Crane kept going as fingernails scraped along the van. The smell of the blood and embalming fluids clogged Stefan’s nose. He felt ill and looked at his hands. Specks of blood and other bits stuck to his skin.

Crane shifted gears and the van picked up speed. They pulled away from the zombies and in moments had a clear road ahead. Crane’s knuckles were white on the wheel. Stefan looked in the mirror and saw the flock of dead things receding in the distance.

“Slow down.”

Crane looked at him. “What?”

“Slow down, you’re going to get too far ahead.”

Crane laughed.

“Seriously, man. Slow down.”

The van slowed. “More.”

In the back the girl had stopped screaming and the dog wasn’t barking anymore. Stefan opened the glove compartment and found a rag. He wiped his hands off and tossed the rag onto the floor with the bat. Then he turned and looked in the back.

Marshal was in the back, with the window open again, getting the camera ready. The girl sat on the middle seat with her knees up in front of her chest and the dog on her lap licking her face.

“What’s your name?” Stefan asked.

“Shelley.”

“I’m Stefan, that man back there with the camera is Craig and the dude at the wheel is Noah. We’re filmmakers. Was that your house, where you were hiding in the dog house?”

Shelley shook her head. “That’s where Patches lives. Mr. And Mrs. Pegg live there but they’re on vacation. I was just there to feed and play with Patches.”

Crane was still driving the van slowly down the street. Stefan tapped his shoulder. “Stop here for a minute.”

Shelley looked alarmed. “Why are we stopping?”

“I know it’s scary, but we’ll keep you safe. We just need to film the dead things.”

“Why?”

“That’s what we do, make movies about things that are happening. Even scary things like this. That way people know what happened here and hopefully can stop it from happening somewhere else.”

Shelley chewed her bottom lip for a few seconds then nodded.

“Where do you live, Shelley?”

She pointed ahead. “This way, closer to the mall.”

“Okay, that’s good. If it’s safe we’ll drop you off, we just need to see where the flock is going.”

Stefan heard sirens, and up ahead several police cars shot across this street on one of the side streets, lights flashing. “Looks like something is going on. The Inquisition must be mobilizing local law enforcement.”

“You think they’ll get the National Guard involved?” Crane asked.

“Probably. I don’t think they have the firepower to handle it themselves. And this might not be the only flock. Remember last time? If it works out the same we can find the necromancer if we just stay ahead of them.”

But last time wasn’t in a city. Stefan looked back at the flock, the crowd of zombies on the ground and the dark cloud of flying dead things in the air. This could go very bad. The lack of traffic they’d seen so far suggested that officials were closing off the affected area, probably evacuating people in the path of the flock. But they might not get everyone out.

Behind them the flock was getting closer. Stefan tapped Crane’s shoulder again. “Okay, move ahead, but stay about this distance from them. Marshal, is that good?”

“Yeah man, I’m getting some great footage.”

“I’d feel better if you were driving,” Crane said.

Stefan shrugged. “Okay. Stop, we’ll switch.”

Crane stopped the van. Stefan climbed in back. Crane moved over to the passenger seat and gathered up his sound equipment from the floor. Stefan crawled back into the driver’s seat.

“Everybody set?” Stefan looked in back. Marshal gave him a thumbs up, Shelley nodded. In the passenger seat Crane shook his head.

“I don’t know why I still follow you around, man. This sort of thing is messed up.”

Stefan grinned. “You like the fame.”

“That’s you, you’re the one in front of the camera,” Crane said.

“No, I just think people need to know about what is happening. It keeps people honest. And we can’t have a police force like the Inquisition operating in the dark. People need to know what they do.”

“So you’re doing this for your noble ideals?”

“Hey, I have bills too,” Stefan said. “But I could have found a nice safe career if that’s all I cared about.”

“They’re getting closer,” Marshal said from the back.

Stefan put the van in gear and drove slowly down the street, under ten miles per hour, just enough to stay ahead of the flock. A fly flew past his head and battered itself against the windshield. The buzzing irritated him, but he tried to ignore it. In the mirror he could see the crowd of zombies moving forward. The bugs and birds spiraled above them like a dark tornado of death. Either the houses on either side of the road had already been emptied or people were hiding because the flock kept moving forward.

In the mirror just then Stefan saw a garage door going up on a smaller red and white house. A blue convertible mini-cooper backed out of the driveway, being driven by a woman with bright red hair, right into a crowd of zombies. Birds and other dead things swirled down around the car. Stefan braked. The crowd swelled around the car. Over the sounds of the zombies he heard screaming. Shelley covered her ears, but that let Patches jump down onto the floor.

For a second Stefan saw the crowd of dead things fighting over something red and glistening and then they closed around it again. Patches stood braced on the floor barking at the back of the van where Marshal leaned out the window and filmed the tragedy. The crowd started to break up. Dark streaks stained the shiny blue paint of the car. A torn and bloody shape on the road stirred, one hand reached out and pushed as the newly dead woman struggled to rise. Stefan’s stomach turned at the sight. He looked back at his hands on the steering wheel and noticed a bit of blood in the creases of his left knuckle. The first time had been a fluke of sorts, just following up on reports of graveyard vandalism in Springwood. He hadn’t thought anything would come of it. And this time he had found himself hoping that it was the real deal and the dead things were waking again. He looked in the mirror. The panicked driver, she had to have been panicking to try leaving right then, got to her feet. Her shirt and both breasts were missing. Stefan felt his stomach tumble again and looked away from the approaching zombies. He gave the van gas and drove away.

“Wow,” Marshal said from the back. “That’s some intense footage, man. I don’t know if we can use that.”

“We’ll use as much as we can,” Stefan said automatically. He felt disconnected from his hands as he drove slowly down the road.

At the next intersection two police cars drove out in front of him with lights flashing. They turned and stopped in his path. An officer jumped out and waved him at the side street.

For once Stefan didn’t even mind. He waved and made the turn. Ahead, just down the block, the police had erected barricades across the road. More cars blocked the road behind the barricades. There was a gap big enough for him to slip through. Behind him the police cars swung into line and followed. Another block down the street he saw a school yard where there was obviously a staging area established. He saw a man in the bright red suit of the Inquisition walking into a tent.

As he passed the barricades a tall black officer motioned for him to roll down his window. Stefan stopped and did as he was asked.

“Hey,” the officer said. “You guys are lucky to get out of there. Go on to the school straight ahead.”

“We picked up a girl, got her out in front of the zombies, can you help get her home?”

“Yeah, yeah, all evacuees are processed at the school. Get going, we’ve got to close this up and hope those things don’t turn this way.”

“Right.” Stefan pulled on ahead. He drove slowly, watching for pedestrians, and saw the cop cars pass the barricades behind him, then turn and block the road. The police reestablished their barricade and lined up facing the road. Over the rooftops he could see the swirling mass of the flying dead things. It wouldn’t be long before the flock reached the intersection. Would they turn, or go on straight ahead? He expected they’d go straight on unless the police did something to attract their attention. But it was hard to say, particularly since they didn’t know what the necromancer behind this wanted.

He stopped the van. Shelley picked up Patches and held him tightly. “Marshal, Crane, go ahead and get out. I’ll come back after I drop off Shelley at the school.”

Crane gave him a look like he was crazy or something but Stefan looked right back at him. Marshal didn’t show any hesitation. He opened the sliding door and jumped out, slamming it shut behind him. Crane sighed and got out as well. Marshal slapped him on the back as they walked back toward the barricades. Stefan twisted around and could see the cloud of dead things spiraling closer.

He looked back at Shelley. “We’ve got to get you to the school, you’ll be safe there until the police can get you back home.”

“Why is this happening?” Shelley asked.

“That’s what I’m trying to find out,” Stefan said as he drove on.

He pulled up to the curb in front of the school and climbed in the back to let Shelley out. She jumped down.

“Thanks!”

“Don’t mention it,” Stefan said, grinning. “Get inside now, over there.”

He settled back into the driver’s seat and watched until he saw a couple EMTs hustling Shelley and Patches inside. Then he pulled out and drove back to the blockade. He parked back far enough that the van wouldn’t get in the way and went to find the guys. He found them up front, on the left side of the barricades where they could get a good shot.

“She okay?” Crane asked.

“Yeah, yeah. Let’s do a spot on this man, I want to see what happens when they get here.”

It wouldn’t be long. The cloud of dead things spiraling above the flock was behind the nearest house now. Stefan positioned himself in the shot, but left Marshal a clear view of what was coming.

“We’re at a road block along the route that the zombies are following. The intent appears to be to keep the dead things contained, presumably until more assistance arrives. The big question that has to be on everyone’s minds at the moment is whether or not the flock will turn down this side street threatening the brave officers at this blockade or if it will continue on in the same direction as before.”

A murmur went through the crowd. Stefan saw officers tense and weapons were pointed down the street. The first zombie came into view at the intersection. It was the woman that had driven the mini-cooper. She walked with a long stride, out-distancing her killers. Was she still trying to get away? Her head turned and she looked down the street at the blockade but she didn’t stop.

More zombies shuffled into view behind her. The numbers swelled and grew until it looked like a fun run in slow motion. Above the zombies flew the cloud of dead birds, flies and other dead things. Stefan saw dead cats and dogs among the zombies, how many family pets had clawed their way up out of the ground for this?

The police all waited, weapons trained on the dead things. Given the size of the flock Stefan didn’t figure they’d have much luck holding them back if it turned.

None came toward the barricade. They spread out some in the intersection but then kept going down the street. Stefan looked back to the camera.

“It appears that the flock has another destination in mind. We’ll follow and see if we can figure out where they are going.” He held for a two count and then nodded to Marshal. “Let’s get back in the van and try to get ahead of this.”

The police were busy, evidently with the same idea. A couple patrol cars and one unmarked sedan pulled out and headed down the street parallel to the one used by the dead things. Stefan and the guys got in the van and followed.

Stefan drove past the school, following the cops in the unmarked sedan. There was a barricade up at the next intersection but the cops there let them pass through, probably unsure if they were part of the convoy or not. The cops went on up to the next cross street where there was another barricade and pulled in. Stefan kept his speed down and drove on past.

The neighborhoods changed around him. The expensive houses gave way to an older neighborhood with a cracked road and no sidewalks. The houses were smaller and more often than not the lawns looked less than perfect. Now and then there was a home better cared for than the others, but those were the exception. The road curved around back toward the main road being used by the flock of dead things. Stefan expected a blockade and wasn’t disappointed. He stopped as he rounded the corner and saw the police cars up ahead. At that end of the street the houses gave way to businesses, some in remodeled houses, and a Shell gas station stood on the corner, cop cars taking up the lot.

Crane looked at him. “Why are we stopping?”

Stefan leaned forward on the wheel. “The cops aren’t going to let us past onto the main street, but there might be another way around.”

Marshal popped up between the seats and pointed off to their left. “There’s an alley over there, behind that tanning parlor.”

“Right.” Stefan started the van again and rolled on down the street. The cops were busy at the barricades. He managed to reach the alley before anyone noticed him, then as he turned one of the officers turned around and saw them. Crane gave them a wave and Stefan kept going.

“Let them chase us if they want,” Stefan said.

The van bounced along the rough dirty alleyway behind the convenience stores and shops laid out in a strip along the road. Big blue dumpsters narrowed the alley at regular intervals. After a couple blocks they reached the end of the alleyway and looked down across an empty street at the newly constructed mall. Three long wings spread out with massive peaked, glass roofs surrounded by a sea of parking. Most of the parking spaces were empty but Stefan saw a truck he recognized.

“Look.” He pointed at the truck. “That’s the same gardener’s truck that pulled away from the barricades back where Mrs. Donohue was found.”

Marshal brought up the camera and shot through the front windshield. “What do you think, boss? Is that the guy behind this?”

Stefan put the van in gear. “Could be, the flock is coming this way. We saw that last time, they were coming to the necromancer.”

“Let’s go check it out,” Marshal said.

Crane groaned.

Stefan pulled out into the road. A couple blocks further down on the left was another police barricade but he went right. Far down the road ahead he could see another barricade, but it was well past the entrance to the mall. It looked like they planned for the flock to come here and had evacuated the area. Which meant it couldn’t be long before reinforcements arrived. He drove around down the ramp into the mall parking lot. If the police or the Inquisition wanted to get them out of the area they could come make them move. He cut right across the lot and pulled in near the green pickup. They all piled out.

Stefan turned and shaded his eyes with his hand as he looked back the way they’d come. The dark swirling cloud of dead things marked the approaching flock, but it wasn’t alone. To the west there was another, similar cloud of dead things. He pointed to the second flock.

“Look there, more dead things.”

Marshal turned the camera and shot the oncoming flock. Stefan gave him a few moments to capture the footage.

“Can we get both in a single shot?”

Marshal turned and pointed to a spot in the parking lot. “From over there, man.”

“Let’s do it. I want to catch that.”

They all hurried over to the section Marshal had indicated. Marshal walked backward, looking through the camera as he filmed the scene behind them. Up on the road Stefan could see the flashing lights of the police barricades. So far they hadn’t sent anyone down to stop them.

Finally Marshal stopped. “Here, this is good.”

Stefan went and stood in front of the camera where he thought it would put him between the two approaching flocks on the horizon. “Here?”

“Great, good, boss.”

“Crane, all set?”

“Yeah, man. Go for it and then let’s get out of here. I don’t want to be in this fishbowl when they start shooting.”

“We’re at the new Westfield Mall, apparently the target of not one, but at least two flocks of dead things approaching from the west and south, that you can see behind me. What looks somewhat like swirling storm clouds are actually masses of dead insects and birds circling above the shambling zombies. That puts us at ground zero. The police and Inquisition have evacuated the area and have set up roadblocks on the streets leading here. We suspect that the necromancer behind this incident has taken up shelter inside the mall. That green pickup parked next to our van —” Stefan pointed it out, “— was last seen leaving the scene in the Westfield Spring neighborhood. We’re going to try and get inside to see if we can find the person behind this.”

Stefan started walking back toward the mall. Marshal and Crane followed him. He walked quickly. Then he saw a patrol car coming around the east side of the mall with lights flashing. The siren whooped twice as it came their way.

“Come on!” Stefan broke into a run. He heard the guys running after him.

Behind them the siren sounded again and he heard the engine rev. Ahead on the top of the mall he saw several police snipers at the edge of the roof with rifles. He kept going. He didn’t believe that the snipers would shoot unarmed civilians. He reached the sidewalk in front of the mall and jumped up over the curb. He must have landed wrong because he tripped and almost fell. He laughed it off and kept going for the doors. He glanced back and saw the police car skid to a stop behind them.

“Hurray up!” He shouted to Marshal and Crane.

He reached the doors as the police climbed out of their car. “Freeze!”

Stefan grabbed the door, fearing it was locked, but it opened easily. He waved the guys inside. “Go, go on.”

Marshal and Crane both ran inside.

“Stop right there!” Both officers had their guns out, aimed at him.

Stefan lifted his hands and stepped back through the door as it swung in front of him. He winced, expecting gunfire to shatter the glass but the police didn’t fire. They lowered their weapons and one of them ducked inside the car to talk on the radio. Stefan turned away from the doors and went on into the mall. Marshal filmed him walking inside.

He smiled for the camera. “Well, I guess we’ll be safe enough in here.”

Elevator music played over speakers. Sunlight streamed down through three floors from the glass roof above and illuminated the trees and other plants that filled planters along the center of the mall. The shops showed signs of hasty departure, none of them had their gates down or locked. The air was cool, especially after the heat from the outside. The emptiness of the place was like a ghost town. Stefan walked deeper into the mall, followed by the guys.

“Hello?” he called out. “Is anyone here?”

Ahead was a wide food court area around some rather large cedars at the intersection of the three wings. Stefan smelled fried chicken coming from the KFC store on his left. His mouth watered at the smell. He laughed. “Anyone hungry?”

He turned in place and looked back at the entrance. The police car was gone. Stefan cleared his throat. “It appears that our friends in law enforcement don’t want to enter the mall themselves. Could it be that they are afraid of the necromancer? Let’s see if we can find the person responsible.”

Stefan decided to go straight ahead and walked through the food court. Food littered the tables, remains of hamburgers and fries, pizza, and even fried chicken. Walking past a bucket from KFC, Stefan really wanted to grab a drumstick but he resisted the urge. It wouldn’t look good on camera. The mall had three wings and three floors, it’d take time to search the whole place if the necromancer wanted to remain hidden. Longer than they had, before the flocks arrived and whatever the police and Inquisition had in mind happened.

“Hello? Is anyone here?”

Ahead, at Right Fit Men’s Clothing, a young man in a tux stepped out of the store brushing off his sleeves. He cocked his head and smiled at them. Good-looking, dark, with wavy black hair and shadowed eyes. He didn’t stray far from the front of the store.

“Who are you?” he asked, his voice mild.

Stefan walked slowly forward. “Stefan Roland, I’m a reporter. You are?”

“Tomas Dias.” Tomas grinned. “You’re going to put me on TV, right?”

“That’s why we’re here. We want to let everyone know what is going on here.”

Tomas rubbed his jaw and nodded. He snapped his fingers and flashed white teeth at them. “Excellent. Yes, this is good. Man, people have to know, you know? With the war and everything going on people forget about what’s wrong right here.”

“You woke the dead things, the ones coming here?”

“Yeah, man. I did that. Only way to wake up everyone else too.”

“How did you do it? Bring them back?”

Tomas tapped the side of his head. “I hear them, you know man? Like whispering behind my eyes. They tell me things, important things. Secrets. They talk in the sleep of death. It only takes a nudge to wake them up.”

“Is this something you could always do?”

“No, man. A year ago I could not do this. I had nothing. But then things started to change. I’d get upset about something and that’s all it took. That energy, you see, it was enough of a nudge to do it. After that I learned to listen and to choose.”

“Why bring them here?”

“They’re going to tear this place down, man! All of this stuff that people think is so important, it’s coming down.”

“People have died out there,” Stefan said. “Did you mean for that to happen too?”

“No man,” Tomas bit his lip and suddenly looked angry. “Look, I warned them, you know? I told them what was coming. They were supposed to get everybody out.”

“So you don’t actually control the dead?”

“Only to a point, man. They’re hungry. Get too close and I can’t help you. You should all get out of here, they’re almost here.” Tomas fell silent. Then he scuffed shiny black shoes against the floor. “Aw, hell, man. Looks like you’re too late.”

And he smiled. A slick, gotcha sort of smile that raised goose bumps on Stefan’s arms. He heard them, then, the moaning and wailing of the dead things. A crow cawed and there was a buzzing noise that came from everywhere. Stefan backed away from Tomas.

Something moved in the store behind Tomas, and the ones next to that. It was flies, boiling out of the air vents. A cloud of dead flies that poured out of the stores and flew toward Tomas. Stefan ducked but the flies flew in a cloud around Tomas, not coming too close as they circled him. More poured over the railings on the floors above and streamers flowed through the concourse.

Far down at the entrance it looked like a crowd of sales-mad shoppers coming through the doors but Stefan knew better. It was the dead things.

Tomas still had that same smile on his face. Stefan turned back to his guys. “Upstairs, come on.”

“Run, run,” Tomas said. “You can’t escape the dead man.”

Stefan led the way to the nearest elevators and thought better of it before he pushed the button. If the Inquisition cut power to the mall they could be trapped but he couldn’t be sure that the zombies wouldn’t force the doors open. He pointed at a red door with a stairs symbol. “The stairs.”

With the sounds of the zombies and other dead things behind them, Stefan led the guys up the flights of stairs. He continued past the door on the second floor and on up to the third. Flies buzzed around the stairwell as they climbed. One nearly went in his mouth before he knocked it away. At the third floor Stefan pushed the door open and stepped out. Birds smelling of putrefaction flapped heavily past in front of him. He heard glass breaking below and a cat spit fury. Stefan walked right out to the railing and looked down.

The zombies hadn’t reached this section yet, but he could see them approaching the food court down the concourse and all manner of flying dead things filled the air in front of him.

“Boss!”

Stefan turned around. Crane was pointing at a sporting goods store nearby. “Good idea. Help Marshal record what’s going on, I’ll check it out.”

Crane looked like he wanted to protest but Marshal moved to the railing and filmed what was happening below. Crane joined him near the railing. While they recorded the incident Stefan went down to the sport goods store. At the front of the store he found the buttons to raise and lower the gate. He pushed the button to lower the gate and motors hummed into motion. The gate rattled and shook as it spooled down, a grid of metal bars that might keep the zombies out.

“Hey!” Crane cried out. “What are you doing?”

Stefan pressed the stop button with the bottom of the gate about three feet off the floor. “Just getting it ready in case we need to duck in here and close it. I didn’t want it to take very long if those things are after us.”

“Oh.”

Stefan waved at the concourse. “Keep recording!”

Crane turned back and held out the microphone. The cries of the zombies were clearer to Stefan’s ears now, and the smell of the place was deteriorating with so many dead things inside. He ventured deeper into the store and found a rack of metal bats. He took two and went back out to rejoin the rest of the crew.

He handed one of the bats to Crane. “Just in case. Marshal? Let’s do some commentary before things get out of hand.”

Stefan went around Marshal so that his back was facing the approaching zombies. He tried not to flinch as things flew past his head. He found himself twisting the bat in his hands so he tossed it over onto the floor beside Marshal’s feet.

“We’re in the Westfield Mall now, as are the flocks of dead things we saw approaching. At this time we have no information about the Inquisition’s plans to contain this incident. In our brief interview with Tomas Dias he said that he warned them this was coming, which gave them the time to evacuate the mall and surrounding neighborhoods. From the look of things he didn’t give them much time, we saw food left on tables in the food court, the stores are all open.” Stefan ducked as several crows came at him. He felt their wings and the stink of their decaying flesh. “We —”

The crows weren’t done. They came back at him, screeching and flapping at his face. He dropped to the floor and they went past. He looked up and saw them coming back, along with a large group of other birds and insects.

Stefan scrambled forward and grabbed the bat. “Go! Get inside!”

Marshal and Crane both ran for the sporting goods store. Stefan rolled to the side as the attacking dead things dove at him. Several of the birds hit the floor with soft thuds. He got to his feet and kicked one flopping jay away, then ran for the store himself. The dead things came back just as he reached the gate. He swung the bat and knocked several birds away but two crows got through and attacked his head. He felt a sharp stab of pain right beneath his right eye and flies crawling on his skin. Something stung his arms. Stefan knocked the birds away, brushed at his arms and then ducked down beneath the gate.

The motor kicked in. He saw Crane standing beside the button. The gate came down. Behind the gate were accordion glass doors which Marshal and Crane pushed closed as well. The dead things battered at the gate, insects crawled on the glass, but for the moment they were somewhat safe.

Stefan picked himself up. “Come on, we’ve got to cover the vents or more of those dead bugs will get in here.”

It didn’t take long before they had posters taped up over the air vents. The store was as secure as they could make it. Marshal stood by the front, filming what he could from the store. Stefan found some tissues and settled down back by the checkout counter to clean his wound as best he could. The stings on his arm, three of them, looked inflamed and hurt. Crane came back and sat next to him.

“That’s all I need,” he told Crane. “Stung to death by a dead wasp.”

If the stings were going to kill him it wasn’t going to happen immediately, but other things might.

“They’ve gotten upstairs,” Marshal called from the doors. “I can see some on the other side of the concourse, but more are coming this way.”

“Get back,” Crane said. “If they don’t see you they might not notice us in here.”

Marshal didn’t move. Crane got up and hurried over, leaving the sound equipment next to Stefan. He picked up the headphones, slipped them on and pointed the microphone at the front of the door. The tape was moving, it was recording.

Crane reached Marshal and grabbed his arm. “Come on, man. You have to get back!”

“No way,” Marshal said. “I want to get —”

A zombie shuffled in front of the store. He’d been fat once and had been buried in an pale blue suit but now it hung on him like sheets. The jacket was missing. Dirt and dark fluids stained the rest. What was left of his hair floated around his head. And yet his eyes looked right at Marshal and Crane standing at the door.

Did waking the dead restore withered flesh to some extent?

Stefan’s question seemed to answer itself as the zombie gave a wordless cry and threw himself against the mesh gate. He grabbed it and shook, howling in rage. Crane backpedaled until he hit a low table stacked with t-shirts. He tripped and went down on a knee and one hand. Marshal held his ground and kept filming.

The zombie’s actions had attracted others. Stefan saw a woman, no clothing to conceal her withered flesh. Her stomach hung open, a ravenous cavity beneath her ribs. Yet like the man in the blue suit her pale oozing eyes looked right into the store. She joined the first zombie in his assault on the gate and their cries became a continuous howl of rage.

Stefan pulled off the headphones and set them aside. “Maybe you’d better get back, Marshal. We’re attracting too much attention.”

For once Marshal did move back. He put a round rack of uniforms between him and the front and put the camera down on the flat top at the center, pointed at the door. Then he and Crane both came back and joined Stefan back at the counter.

Marshal put his arms on his knees and watched the two zombies at the gate. “What now boss? Wait for them to get bored?”

“I think that now we wait for the cavalry to arrive.” Stefan leaned his head back. “Not much we can do except wait.”

 

2

 

They didn’t wait long. Within the hour Stefan heard the first hard crack of a rifle shot. It echoed through the mall, momentarily replacing the cries and moans of the dead. More shots followed until they didn’t hear anything else except glass breaking on occasion. Marshal started to get up but Crane pulled him back down.

“Do you want to get shot?”

Marshal pulled away. “No, but I want to get the shot.”

“Marshal’s right,” Stefan said. “We’ve can’t sit here while the Inquisition or National Guard or whoever is out there shooting cleans the place up. We need to film it.”

“They might just shoot us!”

“I don’t think there are many zombies with cameras,” Marshal said.

Stefan grabbed his bat. “Or baseball bats. Let’s go.”

Crane came along with the sound equipment rather than be left behind. Since Stefan was only one semi-armed he went first and pulled open the glass doors. The two zombies at the gate renewed their efforts and several others turned to watch. Stefan positioned himself in front of the gate and nodded to Crane, standing over at button to raise the gate.

Crane hit the button.

The gate started to rise but the woman zombie held onto it. She bit at the links with her teeth and two fell out, clattering at Stefan’s feet. The motor whined but the gate kept rising and took her off her feet. The other zombie stepped back and watched her rising into the air. Stefan took advantage of the moment and ducked beneath the gate with the baseball bat held like a staff between his two hands. He ran right into the zombie, gagging at the smell and shoved the zombie backward. The woman zombie kept screeching behind him but so far hadn’t let go. Stefan kept shoving the zombie even as it grabbed at the bat. He pushed until it hit the railing, then jerked the bat free and it the zombie across the head.

It staggered.

Stefan crouched, grabbed the legs which slipped and squished beneath his hands, and lifted. The zombie flipped over the railing backward and toppled to the concourse below. A shot rang off the railing inches away.

“Don’t shoot!” Stefan shouted, standing with the bat raised in his hands. “Civilians! Don’t shoot!”

Down below soldiers moved through the concourse. He turned and saw more coming toward him on this level. Shots rang and two zombies that had been coming toward him fell with new holes in their heads. He heard a crunching noise and turned around as the gate pulled the zombie woman’s arms up into the slot where it rolled away. She kept biting it and several more teeth littered the floor. Crane was on his hands and knees by the doors, a puddle of vomit on the tile in front of him.

Marshal held the camera steady.

The gate pulled the zombie up, her arms crunching until her head hit the top of the entryway. For a second the motor strained and her head crumpled. A moment later the gate tore her free from her arms and the body dropped like a rag doll to the floor.

A figure in red walked past the soldiers, a gun in his hand. Inquisitor Hitchens. Stefan nodded to him and made a quick motion to Marshal who quickly brought the camera to bear.

“Inquisitor,” Stefan said. “Did you get Tomas Dias?”

For a second Hitchens just looked at them. Then he motioned to the soldiers and pointed at zombies further down the row of stores. When they were gone Hitchens put away his gun.

“Yes, Mr. Roland. The witch in question has been taken into our custody.”

“Custody?”

“That’s right. This isn’t the dark ages and we don’t literally burn witches unless there’s no other choice. Our researchers have worked out ways to burn out only that portion of the brain responsible for these paranormal outbursts. With time and treatment Dias may be rehabilitated.”

“That probably isn’t much consolation to the victims in the situation, both those injured or killed and the families of all of these poor dead souls.” Stefan gestured to the woman’s fallen body. “Instead of letting them rest in peace he woke them, disturbed their eternal slumber, shouldn’t he have to pay for that?”

Hitchens tilted his head slightly to the left. “What makes you think that he won’t pay for it?”

With that Hitchens turned and walked past them, following the soldiers.

Crane rejoined them. Stefan looked at the recording gear. “Tell me you caught that.”

“I did,” Crane said defensively.

Stefan nodded. “Great. Let’s get some closing shots of the bodies and then clean up. After that I’m going to go home and collapse on the couch with my dog. We’ll start interviews and editing tomorrow.”

Stefan walked over to the nearest fallen zombies. One was only a teenager, a young boy, but his body showing the signs of prolonged decay. Somebody’s son and grandson. Maybe a brother. One way or another, Stefan promised silently, he’d make people know what happened here all because of one bitter individual.

11,021 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 19th weekly short story release and the second in the Filming Dead Things series. I’d originally published these as written by my pen name Tennessee Hicks along with the rest of the Dead Things series.

I’m releasing each of these stories, one per week, here on my website. Eventually I’ll do standard e-book releases when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the books. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the e-book versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links at the top of the page or on the Books page. Check back next week for another story. Next up is War of the Dead Things, the third of four stories that make up my Filming Dead Things collection.

Farm of the Dead Things

1968.

In a world where witches raise the dead a filmmaker gets a chance to capture the Inquisition in action.

Stefan Roland’s team responds to reports of graves being disturbed. Their report takes on a terrifying new dimension when they come face to face with their worst nightmare and their one chance to become famous.

The Glenda Barker Story

The story must be told, that’s as true today as it was back on that Friday in 1968, when Stefan Roland, Craig Marshal and Noah Crane filmed dead things rising from their graves.

The air felt heavy, hot and still when Stefan popped open the van door and slid out onto the gravel beside the road. The on-screen personality of the group, Stefan possessed the casual handsomeness of an old western sheriff, crossed with a more modern relaxed professional style. From his mop top haircut and his neat, close-trimmed beard, to the long cut of his jacket, and dark sunglasses, he looked every inch the up and coming television news reporter. Out of the van he pulled off his sunglasses and surveyed the isolated road. Nothing in view except for the low stone fence along the edge of the graveyard with yellow and brown leaves piled up against the stone. The place looked worse for the wear with a couple sections crumbling down. Two deep puddles filled the ruts leading up to the modest wrought iron gates. And it was quiet. He didn’t even hear any birds or crickets. Not even frogs and this late in the day there should be frogs croaking in some nearby pond. Beside him the side door of the van slid open and Crane came on out.

Also young, Crane fit the hippy ideal from his sandals to his beads and tie-dyed shirt. His ginger hair spread out around his head in a mass of curls, the unfortunate result of his attempt at an afro. He whistled softly. “Wow, man. Look at this place.”

“Right.” Stefan turned back to the van. “Marshal —”

The dude in question slid on out of the van holding onto his camera. He wore thin jeans and a bright orange cardigan, and like Crane, sandals. He let the camera hang by the strap from his shoulder as he climbed down.

“Yeah, boss?” Marshal asked.

Stefan gestured at the empty road and the old cemetery. “Is this the right place? It doesn’t look like anyone gets out here. Man, this place is dead.”

Crane laughed. “Good one.”

Stefan shook his head. “Look, I wasn’t trying to crack a joke, but I think someone is trying to pull something over on us.”

“Dunno, man.” Marshal shrugged with one shoulder. “The man I talked to said that someone had been messing with graves here. Springwood Cemetery, just like the sign says.”

“And I thought you said that the Inquisition was investigating?” Stefan pointed his sunglasses at the closed gate. “I don’t see anything that looks like the Inquisition.”

“Dunno what to tell you. I only know what the man said.”

“Hey man,” Crane said. “We’re here. Let’s check it out. If we don’t shoot something the station is never gonna pay up for the trip out here. All we got to do is get in and get a shot of you in front of a disturbed grave, right? Grave robbing is news, right?”

 

“Yeah, right,” Stefan agreed. “Assuming we find anything disturbed.”

“Not a problem.” Crane laughed. “I’m sure we can scuff up some grave if we need to.”

“Nice idea,” Marshal said.

“Hey! It’s not my fault that we came all the way out here and there ain’t nothing going on, is it?” Crane turned to Stefan. “Is it, man? I didn’t even want to come on this joy ride.”

“No, man. It isn’t your fault. Fine. Let’s see what we can find. Maybe the man you talked to is around here some place. Either way, get your gear together. If we can find the guy I might be able to get something on film, but I’ll tell you man, this doesn’t look like my big break.”

Stefan left Crane and Marshal to gather the film and sound equipment while he checked out the driveway leading up to the cemetery. Gravel and dried leaves crunched beneath his black leather wingtips. The quiet started to bother him. He grew up in the city and out here away from the busyness and excitement of the city he felt cut off. Much like he felt cut off from the career he’d imagined he’d have. He detoured around the big puddles in the ruts leading to the gate, and the grass-covered ground along the sides of the drive squished beneath his shoes. He grimaced and went on around to the firm ground on the other side. Up close the gate wasn’t locked, only shut. He still didn’t think it was worth the risk of getting the van stuck to drive it up through the puddles. Stefan lifted up the heavy iron hook that held the gate shut and gave the gate a shove. The hinges squealed like an angry cat but the gate swung open a couple feet. Back at the van Crane and Marshal were untangling cords. Stefan left them to sort it out and stepped on through the gate.

More puddle-filled ruts dotted the dirt lane as it ran out into the cemetery. On either side marched ranks of headstones, statues and grave markers. Big old maple trees dotted the cemetery, the leaves on some starting to turn yellow while others looked untouched. The sun hung low in the sky behind one of the larger trees. Stefan slipped his sunglasses back on and walked on up the driveway on the lookout for the man Marshal had talked to about the disturbances. He didn’t see the man but something did catch his eye, the cemetery sloped up away from the road, and several rows up fresh dirt marred the green lawn. Stefan rubbed his beard and looked back down the drive. Crane and Marshal had gotten the gear sorted out and were starting toward him, skirting the puddles on the drive. Stefan raised a hand and waved.

Marshal waved back. Stefan pointed up the slope and got a nod back in return. Good enough. Let the guys catch up when they could, he wanted to see what was up there. He set off through the grass, which obviously hadn’t been mowed in a while. It rose up higher than his shoes and quickly wet his feet. He ignored it and walked around the nearest headstones.

The closer he got the clearer the dirt area became. A grave with a weathered headstone at the top, but the ground was all churned up like someone had dug it up and then put everything back. There were chunks of sod all uneven like a patch of broken ice on a pond. Something had obviously disturbed the grave, very recently too, because the piles of dirt didn’t show any sign of having been worn down by the recent rain showers that had made the puddles on the drive. Stefan looked back down the drive. Crane and Marshal had started up the slope toward him, he beckoned to them. “Up here!”

His encouragement didn’t speed up their pace at all. Stefan turned back to the grave at his feet. This grave did look like it had been disturbed, which fit what Marshal had been told. Small town grave robbing? Or a prank by the kids at the university? Hard to say. And without an interview with a caretaker or local sheriff it wasn’t going to be much of a story. Stefan looked at the headstone.

Albert Thompson. Loving Husband, Father and Grandfather. 1878 – 1959.

Family, that’d be another angle. If they could track down Albert’s family and interview them about the disturbed grave, that might add the human element he needed. Turn this into a real story. A glint in the dirt caught Stefan’s eye. He bent down and brushed away moist dirt clods. A worm wiggled beneath the dirt but that wasn’t what he had seen. A bit of gold metal caught the sunlight and glowed with bright reflections. Stefan brushed a bit more dirt away revealing what looked like part of a segmented gold watch band. He picked up a dirt clog and dropped it back over the part he had uncovered. It looked pretty much like how he’d first seen it and would make a good shot on camera when he uncovered it. They’d also need a shot with him in front of the cemetery gates to set it all up.

Crane and Marshal made it up to the grave.

“Whoa, man,” Crane said. “What happened here?”

Marshal hoisted his camera up to his shoulder. “This is what the man said, the caretaker guy. He’s keeps finding graves all messed up like this.”

“Okay, here’s what we’re going to do,” Stefan said. “I’ll do a piece here by the grave. There’s a watch there in the dirt —”

“Where?” Crane bent to look at the grave.

“Never mind it right now. Get the sound set up. We’ll do the piece and I want Marshal to film me finding the watch. We’ll take in the headstone and then we can take a look around and see if we can turn up this caretaker. When we go I want a piece in front of the gates. If we can’t find the caretaker we can try talking to the local sheriff or look up this guy’s family.”

“It’s already getting late,” Marshal said. “We’re going to lose the light soon.”

“Then let’s get this thing done.” Stefan positioned himself beside the grave. He buttoned his jacket. “How do I look?”

“Cool, boss.” Crane got his microphone up.  “Okay, I’ll record when you give the word.”

“Ready,” Marshal said.

“Okay. Three, two one.” Stefan put on his serious, concerned face. “I’m standing at the side of one of these disturbed graves, a plot belonging to the late Albert Thompson. As you can see, the grave has been dug up very recently.”

Stefan turned, keeping his profile in the shot and looked down at the grave. He brought his hand up and stroked his beard. “Well, look at this. I see something in the dirt there.”

He bent down and brushed away the clog of dirt that he had placed over the watch band. “It looks like a gold band, maybe a watch.” He dug a finger into the moist soil and dragged it out of the ground. A man’s watch, sure enough, caked in dirt. It dangled from his finger catching the evening light.

“A man’s watch, maybe belonging to the late Mr. Thompson. We’ll make every effort to return this to the man’s family.” Stefan pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket and made a show of wrapping the watch before he slid it into his pocket. He waited for a count of two. “That’s a cut.”

“Are you really going to give that watch back?” Crane asked.

Stefan didn’t bother answering. “Let’s look around and see if we can find this caretaker. I’d really like to get him in on this since he called us. We could use some local color. There must be some sort of caretaker’s shack or something, right?”

“Dunno,” Crane said.

“Come on.” Stefan set off back down the hill toward the road, trusting the others to follow.

Marshal kept his camera up on his shoulder. “I’m going to get some background shots in case we need them.”

“Great,” Stefan said without slowing.

He walked down the rows of graves with Crane on his heels. Marshal lingered and wandered away from them as he got the background shots he wanted. Stefan had nearly reached the road when he noticed a man up ahead, off to the side of the road, walking toward Marshal. The man staggered and caught himself on one of the headstones. He was, oddly enough, wearing a tux, but it looked rumpled and dirty even at this distance. Stefan pointed out the man to Crane.

“Do you think that could be the caretaker?”

“In a tux?”

“I don’t know, he looks like he has been roughed up.” Stefan started toward the man. “We’d better see if he needs any help.”

“It’d make a better story if he got roughed up trying to stop the dudes that messed up the graves.”

Stefan didn’t bother answering. He hurried through the wet grass toward the man. He raised his hand when he got closer. “Hey there.”

Marshal was still closer to the man than Stefan and had his camera up, filming Stefan’s approach. The man looked at Stefan but then shambled on toward Marshal. Stefan heard him making a noise, like a growl deep in his throat.

“Excuse me, are you the caretaker?”

The man ignored him and kept heading toward Marshal. Marshal actually started walking backward to keep the shot. The man in the tux moaned. Stefan put on more speed. He jogged up behind the man. “Excuse me, we’re from channel five news. Can we have a word, please? About what has been going on here?”

Then the wind shifted and Stefan caught a whiff of something harsh and chemical, and the smell of rotten meat. The odor caused his throat to clench and his gorge to do somersaults. Slowly the man turned to face him with clouded gray eyes. He sniffed heavily at the area and then let out the most mournful moan as he stared toward Stefan. The man’s skin was sunken, dried out and looked too pale. Stefan twirled his hand in the air.

“Film this!”

“I’m filming,” Marshal answered.

Stefan watched the man warily, holding out his hands. “Now calm down. Can you tell us what has been going on here?”

All he got in response was a low groan and the man lunged at him with out-stretched hands. His fingernails were torn, the ends of his fingers in tatters and oozed a foul dark fluid through the caked dirt. Stefan’s stomach turned over and he took a couple steps back to keep the distance between them.

“No hold on there…” Stefan shook his head. He looked right at the camera. “He’s dead, man.”

Then dead thing came at him again, grabbing at Stefan’s jacket. Stefan’s jaw tightened and he grabbed the dead thing’s arms and shoved it away. Still groaning the dead thing came back at him. Stefan didn’t back away this time. He grabbed its arm and swung it around as if they were at a square dance, and then let go. The dead thing stumbled back, tripped and fell. The back of his head hit the sharp corner of a grave marker with a sound like a melon hit with a hammer. His feet kicked against the wet grass for a second and then he lay still.

For several seconds none of the men moved.

“Whoa,” Crane said, breaking the silence.

Stefan made a chopping motion with his hand. “Cut. Stop filming.”

Marshal shut off the camera and lowered it from his shoulder. “Is he dead?”

Stefan took a couple steps back toward the body. It hadn’t moved since it fell. The eyes stared vacantly at the sky. “Man, he was already dead, just a dead thing.”

“But he was walking and making noise,” Crane said.

“Yeah.” Stefan tasted bile in his mouth. “Yeah, but he was dead anyway. I mean look at the guy. All covered in dirt, his clothes and hands all messed up. Look at his fingers!”

They all gathered around the body.

“So what do we do, boss?” Crane asked. “I mean, are people going to believe us?”

Stefan shook his head. “We’ll cover our bases.” He brushed the dirt from his sleeves and looked at Marshal. “Let’s shoot again. Another segment. Start on me and pull back when I signal.”

“What?”

Stefan position himself beside the body. He made a rolling motion with his hand. “Come on, let’s get this. Then we’ll do the piece by the gate on our way out of this dump.”

Marshal lifted the camera into position. “Ready.”

“Three, two, one. We’ve made a grisly discovery.” Stefan paused for a breath and continued. “Grave robbers have desecrated this quiet Springwood cemetery. While searching for the caretaker we discovered that the robbers didn’t get far with their stolen body.”

Stefan signaled with a flick of his fingers. He gave Marshal a second to pull back and include the body in the shot. Stefan pressed his hands together into a prayer position. “Although we cannot confirm at this time that this body is the remains of Albert Thompson it seems likely to this reporter. Final confirmation will need to come from the county coroner.”

A two count and Stefan said, “Cut. How’d that look?”

“Great,” Marshal said. “But man, we’ve got film of this dude walking around.”

“And I’m telling you that the guy was already dead when he was walking around.” When Marshal shook his head Stefan stepped past the body and grabbed Marshal’s arm. “Don’t believe me? Then touch him. Go on! He’s cold. I felt it when I wrestled with him. And the way he felt — he’s just a dead thing.”

Marshal slung his camera and went to the body. Stefan crossed his arms and waited. Marshal looked back up at them both. Gingerly he reached out and touched the neck. He jerked his hand away as if shocked. He got back up in a hurry.

“That’s why the guy said the Inquisition was investigating,” Crane said, excitedly. “It wasn’t because of grave robbing, it was this weird shit.”

“Maybe,” Stefan said. “Come on. Let’s get the gate shot before it gets too late.”

“You’re going to leave him here?” Marshal indicated the body.

Crane laughed. “What’re you gonna do with him, man?”

“I don’t know, it seems weird.”

Stefan shook his head. “We leave it all for the sheriff or the Inquisition. Right now I want to get that gate shot and then see what else we can find out. For one, are there more of these dead things walking around?”

“Okay, man.” Marshal started backing away from the body. “Let’s go then.”

“Totally,” Crane said.

Together they left the body and headed back to the road. They hadn’t gone far when Stefan saw something crawling through the grass alongside the road ahead. He held up a hand. “Just a sec. I see something. Marshal?”

Marshal got the camera up on his shoulder. Crane turned on the sound gear. Stefan went on ahead. He looked back at the camera. “We see something up ahead, alongside the road. Not sure what it is, but we’re going to take a look.” He got closer and the dark shape let out an loud caterwaul that raised goose bumps on his arms and stopped him in his tracks. “It sounds like an animal in pain.”

Stefan took a couple more careful steps and the shape in the grass crawled up onto the road. It was a cat, but it also another dead thing. One back leg hung by nothing more than a strip of flesh. Half an ear was missing, and the eye and most of the skin on the left side. The cat’s once white fur was caked with mud and patches had fallen away. It tottered out onto the dirt driveway and yowled again.

“Holy crap,” Crane muttered.

Stefan kept his distance but beckoned to Marshal. “Get a shot of this. Folks at home, this is a terrible sight. This cat is in awful shape. It looks dead, but it’s on its feet and making that noise. I can’t even begin to describe the smell of it, but I’m sure you can imagine it isn’t nice.”

The cat lurched in Stefan’s direction. It hissed and growled deep in its chest. He took a step back. “It seems understandably agitated. I think we’ll keep our distance and let the proper authorities deal with the poor animal.”

Stefan backed away across the road to circle around the cat. Crane and Marshal followed him.

Then Marshal said, “Boss, look!”

Marshal had the camera pointed back up the slope of the graveyard. Stefan turned around and saw what Marshal had seen. Two more people in the graveyard, a woman and a man. The man was too far away to see clearly but the woman was wearing nothing but mud and dirt. She staggered through the graveyard toward them. The man also walked with an odd, unsteady gait. The cat yowled again.

“At this point I think it is best we leave and let the authorities and the Inquisition deal with this situation.” The cat crawled unsteadily in their direction, still growling. Stefan twirled his hand. “Keep filming, Marshal. We’re going to want all of the footage, but let’s get back to the van.”

Together they set off back down the road to the gate at a fast pace. Not running, the dead things were slow and aimless in their movements, but Stefan didn’t want to risk getting too close again.

“Do you think it’s a witch behind this?” Crane asked as the gate came into sight.

“I don’t know, man,” Stefan said. “But I’ll tell you this, there’s definitely a story here and we’re going to get it on film. All of it.”

“What about the Inquisition?”

“We haven’t even seen them. And if they do show it I think it’s about time we got them on film. Don’t you?”

“Sure, I guess so. But they might not like it.”

By that point the gate was just ahead but Stefan saw another dead thing shambling down the slope in their direction. He touched Marshal’s arm and pointed out the newcomer. “I don’t care, people have a right to know what’s going on.”

A fly buzzed around Stefan’s head. He swatted at it and kept going all the way to the gate. He slipped through and waited for the others to get through then he pulled it shut and dropped down the latched with a dull clang. He positioned himself in front of the gate.

“Okay, let’s get the setup shot now. Ready?”

A quick count, Crane nodded, and Marshal gave Stefan a thumbs up. “This is Stefan Roland, reporting at Springwood Cemetery where we’ve received news of disturbed graves and the possibility of an investigation by the Inquisition. It raises the question, is there witchcraft at work?”

Stefan paused and the said, “Cut. How was that?”

“Um, boss?” Crane nodded at the cemetery.

Stefan turned and looked. Two of the dead things had reached the dirt lane leading through the cemetery and were coming toward the gate. “Right. Let’s get in the van and go back down the road. Not too far. I want to stay on this and see what they do.”

They all got into the van, Stefan behind the wheel so that the other two could film and record what was happening outside. He put the van into reverse and backed out of the drive into the road and then down the road another hundred feet or so. Marshal leaned out the window with the camera.

“How’s that?”

“I’ve got a clear shot of the gate. Let’s wait here.”

Stefan put the van in neutral and let out the clutch. He leaned on the wheel, watching the graveyard. “Do you realize this might be the first time anyone has documented an event like this?”

“That’s assuming that the Inquisition doesn’t confiscate our gear, man,” Crane said.

“They don’t have the authority.”

Marshal didn’t look away from the camera, but he spoke up. “Are you kidding? They’re like the feds on steroids. They go wherever they want, any country they want. If they decide to take our gear I’m handing it over.”

Stefan shook his head. “If it comes to that you give me the camera. I’ll deal with them. Something like this could be good for them, build up their image.”

“And yours,” Crane said.

Stefan looked in the back where Crane lounged against the seat. “Look man, this could be big for all of us. You saw those dead things back there. There hasn’t been a modern event like this, and we’re right here in the heart of it. I just wish we could talk to that caretaker guy that called, find out some things.”

Marshal tapped his shoulder. “Hey look, guys. They’re at the gate.”

Stefan leaned forward to get a better look. Two of the dead things stood at the gate. The naked woman and some guy in a suit. They reached out and pushed at the gate. Even from here he heard the gate clanking and a low moaning noise. A third figure shuffled into view, it looked like a man in blue jeans and a flannel shirt, with the right side of his neck a bloody ruin.  The blood had gone all down his shirt and pants. He joined the others in grabbing the gate but he shuffled along the bars, shoving past the others to get at the center. He fumbled at the latch.

Stefan’s breath caught. He had to get in the shot on this, the moment when the dead things were getting out of the cemetery. He spun in his seat and opened the door.

“What’re you doing, man?” Crane called from the back.

Stefan ran around the front of the van, the hot air stale in his mouth. He skidded to a stop on the road in Marshal’s shot. He looked back and then took one step to the right. “Come on, let’s get this. Crane!”

Crane slid open the side door and stuck out his mic. “Fine. Ready.”

“What you see behind me should disturb everyone. Those aren’t people trying to get out of the cemetery, but zombies.” Stefan took a breath and looked back at the cemetery gate. The dead thing in the flannel shirt was pawing at the latch. He lifted it and it dropped back in place, but for how long? Stefan turned back to the camera. “That’s right, zombies. Dead things brought back to a semblance of life. There have been other cases in history, but none so recent as this, and none with a trained news crew on site. We are sticking to this story to see how it develops.

“Right now the cemetery gate holds the zombies back, but for how long?” Stefan took another look. Two more figures approached the gate and he heard the sound of the cat’s caterwaul on the wind. “We also don’t know what supernatural force animates these creatures, but traditionally they are associated with a single twisted personality, one equipped with the supernatural ability to raise the dead. If that’s the case here we haven’t seen any sign of the witch behind this.”

Stefan heard a loud clank and turned to see the dead things had managed to unlatch the gate. They kept pushing and the heavy gates swung open with metal squealing. Stefan pointed at the zombies.

“Here they come! It’s a terrifying sight, the dead literally risen from their graves and they’re coming out now into the street itself and there’s no sign of anyone here. No local law enforcement, no sign of the Inquisition, we’re alone out here on this street. There aren’t any houses close by…” The dead things finally noticed Stefan and the van down the street. Blank eyes turned to face them. Stefan held his ground a moment longer. “We are going to stay with this story, to bring you the truth behind what is happening here, but we can’t let them get too close. We’ll back off and see what they do.”

With that Stefan hurried back around the van to the driver’s side and got in. Marshal kept the camera on the zombies shuffling out onto the street. With Stefan out of sight now in the van the zombies lost their focus. They stopped where they stood, one man standing up to his ankles in one of the puddles in front of the gates.

“There are more of them now,” Marshal said softly.

Stefan saw that his cameraman was right. Past the gates more dead things shuffled toward the open gate. In the small slice he could see there had to be at least a half-dozen more moving.

“Crane —”

Crane waved his hand. “Quiet, man. I hear something.”

In the back seat Crane held his microphone pointed out the partially open side door. He adjusted the controls and touched his fingers to his headphones. “I can’t make out what that is.”

Stefan listened carefully. Distantly he heard the moans of the zombies. The dead cat yowled again. A couple flies flew in the open window and buzzed about battering themselves against the front windshield. Then he heard more buzzing and saw more flies outside.

“Close the window! Shut that door!”

Crane pulled back his microphone and shoved the door closed, but not before several more flies flew in through the gap. Marshal pulled the camera in and started rolling up the window. A few more flies slipped in before he finished. The cloud of them flew around the van buzzing. Stefan grabbed the morning paper that he had stashed between the seats and swatted at the flies. Outside a dark cloud of flies flew past and around the van. They landed all over the windows, obscuring the view.

“What the hell?” Crane asked.

Stefan shoved the paper back down beside the seat. “Hang on.”

He pushed in the clutch, shifted into reverse and slowly started to back up the van. At first the flies on the windows and mirrors didn’t do anything. He gave the van more gas, trying to see where he was going as best he could, but the flies made it difficult. He went a bit faster and then suddenly the flies all took off. He braked and shifted back to neutral. They’d gone another few hundred feet down the road. The flies outside flew in a dark cloud toward the cemetery which continued to spew out more zombies that shuffled aimlessly around the drive in front of the cemetery with a few wandering near the road. Without prompting Marshal had already rolled down the window and was filming the scene again.

“Look man,” Crane pointed at the dash.

Stefan saw that the flies which had flown into the van lay dead on the dash. A couple had fallen to the floor beneath the dash. Marshal turned the camera and took a shot of the dead flies scattered across the dash.

“What killed them, do you think, boss?” Crane asked.

Stefan looked at the flies, and back to Crane, knowing that Marshal was still filming. “Maybe they were already dead, and when we backed up we took them out of the range of the witch, or whatever is causing this? I don’t know but if that is true it suggests a limit to the affected area.”

“But why flies?” Crane asked. “That’s just gross.”

Stefan shook his head. “I don’t know, man. But flies must die all the time, right? Seems like it to me, anyway.”

Marshal turned the camera back to the view outside. Stefan saw dark shapes flying above the cemetery. Birds? More dead things? The haze in the air had to come from the flies and other dead insects. Whatever was happening, it clearly wasn’t limited to the people in the graves. Every dead thing was getting up and moving, and they were getting it all on film. This was going to be huge but he wanted to know the answer to the question the audience was asking. Why?

For the moment they all sat and watched the dead things gathering around the cemetery like watching storm clouds growing on the horizon. After a few minutes Stefan heard the sound of a car approaching and checked his mirrors. A dark sedan was coming down the road toward them at high speed.

“Come on guys, let’s get out and see who this is.” Stefan opened his door without waiting for an answer. Behind him he heard the sliding door open, and the passenger door. Stefan shut his door and walked around to the front of the van, just in case whoever it was didn’t stop. Crane and Marshal took up positions behind him, and it made him feel better that everything was being filmed. Even from this point he could hear the zombies groaning and other odd cries and noises from the graveyard. A shadow flitted across the road. Stefan looked up and saw a flock of crows or black birds flying toward the cemetery.

The sedan pulled on past the van, turned across the road and stopped blocking both lanes. Front and rear doors opened and men got out. Sharp red suits with thin black ties and polished black shoes. All of them wore large dark sunglasses, all were white with their hair slicked back.

“It’s the inquisition, man,” Crane whispered.

Stefan beckoned to his crew and started walking toward the inquisitors. “I’m Stefan Roland, reporting on this developing situation. We’re happy you’re here.”

One of the inquisitors, tall with sandy blond hair, came forward, unbuttoning his jacket. Stefan caught a glimpse of a gun on the inquisitor’s hip.

“You’re reporters?” The inquisitor asked.

“That’s right. We were called about disturbances at the Springwood cemetery. Can you shed any light on what is happening here?”

“For your own safety we need you to leave,” the inquisitor said. “This is an inquisition matter now. Get back in your vehicle and go.”

Stefan shook his head. “People need to know about this. We have an obligation to stay.”

The inquisitor didn’t move. One of the others came close and whispered something. The inquisitor nodded. “If you don’t leave now we will arrest you for interfering in this operation and adding and abetting a witch.”

“So there is a witch involved here?” Stefan pressed.

“Get back in your vehicle now.”

Stefan held up his hands. “Okay, man. We’re going.” He headed back to the van. Marshal and Crane made it there first and climbed in.

Once inside Stefan put the van in gear and swung it in a wide turn across the road. He bumped down off the side of the road and then back up onto the asphalt and headed in the opposite direction. Marshal lowered his camera.

“Is that it? Are we done?”

Stefan laughed and shook his head. “Hardly. We’re going to check out the roads on the other side of the cemetery and see if they have it all blocked off.”

“Should we do that, boss? What if they do arrest us?”

Stefan shrugged. “They can arrest me if they want.” He glanced over at Marshal. “How’re we doing on film?”

“We’re good, man. No problem.”

“Great. Because is big, you know? We can do this like a whole feature, not just some segment. We get the station to back it and it could go nationwide. People need to see this.” Up ahead Stefan saw the dirt road that ran off east on his left. No sign of any other cars. He took the turn and increased his speed despite the rough conditions. Marshal got up and crawled between the front seats into the back of the van. He went to the window behind the driver’s seat and had the camera ready. A farmer’s field stretched away on their left toward the cemetery, which was a dark tree line in the distance. Glancing out his window Stefan thought he saw something like a haze hanging above the cemetery, a sort of swirling disturbance. Flies? Bugs? Birds? He needed to get around to the other side.

At last they came to another road running north and south, paved but cracked and obviously little used. Stefan turned back toward the cemetery and gunned it. His mouth felt dry as he sped down the road at nearly fifty miles per hour. Was the Inquisition ahead of them on this road, more zombies or both? It didn’t take long before he had his answer.

Dead things were massing outside the cemetery, but not the Inquisition. Those zombies that had come out the gate on the other side were the minority. Stefan licked his lips and brought the van to a crawl.

“Damn,” Crane said.

Marshal had the camera at the window. “Look at them all.”

A crowd of dead things spilled out of the cemetery onto the long hillside between the cemetery wall and the road, but they weren’t just standing there. Most lurched, shuffled, staggered and even crawled north, along the cemetery fence.

“Man, where are they going?”

“I don’t know,” Stefan said. “Let’s find out.”

“I’m not going to get as good of a picture through this window,” Marshal said.

“I can fix that.” Stefan swung the van across the road, shifted and then backed up into the road again to put the sliding door on the side facing the zombies. Marshal reacted immediately, climbing across Crane to open the sliding door. Crane shrank back from the opening. Several flies immediately flew into the van.

“You’re crazy!”

“Get the gear ready,” Stefan ordered. When Crane didn’t move Stefan gave the van more gas. They picked up speed backing down the road toward the zombies.

Crane swore and got the microphone ready and pointed the dish out the door.

Through the open door Stefan had a clear view of the dead things. Most of the human dead things looked long dead, like mummies in their best dress but here and there among them were fresher zombies. There was a young woman who even looked pretty at first glance with a long sleek black dress, blond hair tumbling in curls past her pale unmarred shoulder but when she turned her head the right side of her face was a dark ruin of torn and mangled flesh still weeping bright blood. She looked right at them with clear eyes and bared her bloodied teeth.

Stefan kept the van moving. Marshal and Crane kept recording. A few zombies had wandered down to the road but not many, he thought he could get around them. Just then the dead young woman growled and shoved aside a withered old granny zombie. The girl zombie started running at the van. Stefan noticed her feet were bare but bite marks and blood marked her left leg and foot beneath the dress. Had she been a mourner at the cemetery when these things clawed their way out of the graves?

“Boss?” Crane asked, his voice anxious.

She picked up speed. Sprinting down the grass at them. Not at all slow like the rest. Stefan gave the van more gas, accelerating in reverse down the road. The girl zombie altered her direction, still coming on fast. More dead things noticed and turned toward the van. A group ahead started coming toward the road. Dead voices groaned as they came at the van.

“Faster, boss,” Crane urged. “She’s coming fast!”

He gave the van more gas but the distance between the open side door and the dead girl had already halved. She was about twenty feet away, running fast down the slope. He heard her panting as she sprinted at the van. He was so busy watching her that he didn’t see the dead guy coming up the road at the van until the last second. He turned the wheel, trying to swerve around the guy, but the corner of the van clipped the zombie and knocked him aside. Crane yelled and caught the door to prevent himself from falling out. Only ten feet between the van and the running zombie, with at least a dozen more zombies coming behind her as fast as they could manage.

Stefan floored the pedal. The van picked up speed. Enough at the last second that she came up short, with her hands grasping at Marshal, her growling pants filling the van, but she didn’t quite reach the door. Her fingernails scratched alongside the passenger door and then he was past her. She staggered out into the road in front of the van. Then she recovered and her eyes locked on his. He didn’t see any intelligence there, only hunger. She ran after the van. Stefan smelled rot and decay on the wind coming in through the door.

He looked back, watching the road. More zombies stood closer to the road, turning as the van approached. He kept going in reverse as fast as he could to get past them and still give Marshal the chance to make the shot of the crowd of dead things moving away from the cemetery, human and otherwise. The air looked thick with insects and birds. He saw smaller shapes squirming through the grass. It looked like every corpse, no matter how small or large had risen up and all of it was on the move, heading north. The van cleared the zombies crowding the road. Stefan glanced back the way they’d come, but then girl zombie had slowed. She was still coming but not running. He let off the gas and brought the van to a stop, shifted back to first and pulled across the road to give Marshal another shot of the oncoming dead things.

More and more dead things turned their empty gaze toward the van. The dead girl led the pack, not yet running but walking quickly down the road in their direction. Marshal kept filming. The cries of the dead things grew louder and more flies flew into the van. Crane cried out and swatted at the flies. The distance between them and the gathering dead things shrank further. Stefan heard the sound of the dead girl panting. Her pace picked up to an unsteady jogging when she was maybe thirty feet away. Behind her came even more zombies and the general direction of the crowd started turning toward the road. Crane’s hand beat the back of Stefan’s seat like a wounded fluttering at a window. He had dumped the recording equipment on the seat, still running.

“Come on, man! Let’s go!”

Stefan ignored him. The gap between them and the girl shrank more. Twenty feet. Fifteen.

“Roland!” Crane yelled shrill, and panicked as he lunged for the sliding door handle.

The dead girl put on a burst of speed and in seconds was less than ten feet away. Crane shoved the door but Marshal put out a hand and stopped the door, holding it open with the camera in the gap. Crane shoved on the door handle.

“Come on, man! She’s right fucking there!”

And she was right fucking there, reaching out with scratched and bloodied nails to grab at Marshal but the camera man yanked the door closed in the last second. Her nails scrambled at the side of the van, trying to get at the handle. Marshal flipped the lock and raised the camera to the window. She attacked the window, her once pretty face bloodied and torn up. She bit and clawed at the glass. More zombies were coming behind her. Stefan put the van in gear and pulled away from the dead things.

“Bye baby,” he said.

Marshal cracked up. He fell back in the aisle in front of the back seat and laughed and laughed. Stefan laughed too, he couldn’t help it. He glanced back and saw Crane crouched up on the seat looking at them both with wide eyes. His face looked drained of blood. Stefan checked the mirrors. The girl zombie wasn’t running after them. The whole crowd of dead things continued to stagger along the road in this direction, the air thick with things that flew, and smaller shapes crawling and lurching through the grass. He didn’t see any sign of the inquisitors. He eased off the gas and kept the speed low enough to stay ahead of the dead things without leaving them behind.

Marshal finally stopped laughing and got up, climbing back into the front passenger seat. He dropped into the seat with a sigh and set the camera gear on the floor. “Man, that’s some fucked up shit back there. What do you think is going on? Where are they all going?”

“Beats me,” Stefan answered. “But we’re going to find out.”

“They would have torn us apart if they got in here,” Crane complained. “Why don’t we take what we have and get out of here?”

Marshal shook his head. “No way, man. And next time why don’t you try doing your job instead of panicking?”

“Screw you!”

“Hey, guys!” Stefan interrupted. “Let’s not, okay? Something caused all of this. We’ve got to get to the bottom of it, and then show everyone. That’s what we do. I said it before, but this is our big break. You dig? If we keep it together, stay cool, man, we’ll write our own ticket.”

“I just don’t need him telling me how to do my job.”

Stefan shot Marshal a look before the cameraman could say anything. “Fine. For now, let’s stay ahead of them and see if we can figure out where they are going.”

The van crawled down the road at no more than ten miles per hour to stay ahead of the dead things. Stefan kept an eye on them in the mirror. On either side of the road were brown fields bordered by trees. Up on the right stood a collection of buildings, white farm house, a long low barn with a rusted metal roof, a round silo, and a paddock dotted with black and white cows. The farm was a good distance from the road, unless the dead things changed their course they’d go right past the farm. Marshal took the camera and crawled into the back of the van to shoot out the rear hatch.

As he’d thought, the zombies didn’t turn away from the road to approach the farm house. If anything more of them drifted away from the road to the ditches and fields on the left side. When they came to a fence they walked into it, fell over it, or pushed through it but kept going. Some stuck to the road and just kept coming. They were about a mile past the cemetery now, all the dead things keeping more or less in a group, when Stefan saw headlights fast approaching. He hadn’t even realized how far the sun had sunk until that moment. He switched on his own headlights and honked his horn to get the driver’s attention.

Whoever was behind the wheel, they didn’t slow. The car shot past them, a dark Cadillac, headed straight toward the zombies and other dead things. Stefan hit the brakes and came to a fast stop. He twisted around.

“Are they stopping?”

“Not yet,” Marshal said.

Stefan shifted the van into reverse and headed back down the road after the car. A couple seconds later the car was close enough to the zombies in the street for the headlights to light them up. The brake lights came on. The zombies didn’t waste any time shambling to the car. The dead girl, still leading the pack on the road, ran right up to the caddy and grabbed at the door. This time she got lucky and managed to get a good grip on the door handle, popping the driver’s side door open.

Stefan’s stomach clenched and he gave the van more gas. He honked the horn as he reversed, trying to get the zombies’ attention. Nothing had any effect. Faster than he would have expected more than a dozen zombies had surrounded the car. It looked like they were trying to climb into the driver’s side. Stefan couldn’t make out exactly what was happening. Marshal had the camera up and was filming but Crane just sat on the back seat like a lump.

“Crane! We need to record this!”

Crane stirred, looked out the back with his face bleak. “You can’t be serious.”

“Do it,” Stefan said. “You said you didn’t need anyone to tell you how to do your job? Well, then get to it!”

The zombies had someone, the driver of the caddy, and pulled her out into the street. Her screams cut through the night.  She wore a pale pants suit, stained in splotches of red. Her blood. Stefan stopped the van. He couldn’t get any closer without risking the same thing happening to them. He grabbed the door handle and his hand shook. He shoved open the door and jumped down. There was a crowd of zombies in the field, more around the car with the woman, still screaming and fighting back against the zombies. She shoved the dead girl away into the others. For a second the space around her was clear.

Stefan ran past the rear of the van but more zombies came around the caddy and surrounded her again. He rubbed his jaw and backed away from the mob. He looked at Marshal and realized he was on camera.

“This is horrible,” he managed to say. “We tried to get the driver’s attention, but she didn’t stop and then the dead things closed around her so fast!”

The zombies weren’t alone in the attack. A cloud of flies flew around the zombies and several dark birds darted into the fray and away again. Crane threw up, leaning out the rear hatch but he kept the microphone pointed in more or less the right direction. Stefan’s own gut clenched when the woman’s screams stopped.

“We saw the inquisitors back on the other road past the cemetery, but none since. Maybe if they’d been here this terrible tragedy could have been prevented, if they had up road blocks or anything but we’re alone out here.”

Moans from the zombies carried on the wind. The activity near the car diminished. Several of the zombies turned their attention back down the road. Stefan saw more and more dead eyes turning in his direction. He took a step away. Just then the crowd parted. He saw the dead girl that had chased him, and beside her on the ground was the driver. Clearly dead. Her pants suit ripped open, along with her insides. Zombies shoved bits of gore into their bloodied mouths as they shambled in his direction. The dead girl gobbled down a chunk of unidentifiable flesh and then reached out a hand as if pointing at him. Marking him as next.

Stefan took another step back and looked at the camera. “Clearly they’ve noticed our presence. I wish we could have done more, but we’ve got to get moving to stay ahead of them.”

The driver’s foot twitched. Stefan didn’t move. The woman groaned loudly and rolled onto her side but the zombies didn’t pay any attention to her. He felt a chill settle over his limbs when he realized why. She’d become one of them. Dead birds clustered on the top of the car took off, screeching their disappointment. She pressed her bloody hands onto the road and slowly climbed to her feet. It looked like someone had taken a giant ice-cream scoop out of her stomach. Her once pale pants suit was mostly covered in red and darker stains. Her blond hair clung wet and red to her skull. One eye socket was empty, trailing gore down her cheek. With her remaining eye she looked straight at Stefan.

The weight of that gaze was like an accusation. It compelled him to move. He backed up almost to the van’s bumper, out of view of the camera. His mouth felt dry. He turned, staggered as if dead himself, and ran back for the driver’s side door. Loud groans rose up in the darkening twilight behind him. He reached the door and his heart lurched when a hefty figure stepped into the beam of the headlights wearing a decaying suit. Zombies from the main group had come over to the road. More stumbled down into the drainage ditch. Something flew past his head carrying with it the reek of rot and decay.

Stefan pulled open the door and looked back along the van. Crane started yelling. The dead girl and her recent victim both growled and ran at the van. Marshal wasn’t playing chicken this time. Stefan heard the rear hatch drop. He jumped in and slammed his own door closed. The zombie in the front of the van came around the bumper toward the driver’s side door. He shifted into gear and hit the gas. The van lurched and for a second he thought he had killed it by popping the clutch too fast but it caught and the engine revved as they shot ahead. The van bumped the zombie by the front of the van, knocking him away.

No other zombies in the road, but a bunch beside the road as he pulled away. Stefan accelerated quickly, shifting gears until he reached forty miles per hour. Only when the dead were nearly swallowed by the darkness did he finally ease off the gas.

“You guys okay back there?”

“I think I shit myself,” Crane said.

“I don’t know if we can show this footage,” Marshal said. “That woman’s family might object.”

Stefan’s heart still thudded in his chest but he shook his head. “People got to know about this, man. We can’t cover it up.”

“I hear you, but they might not let us.”

No need to mention who they were, the station executives or the Inquisition or federal agents. There were plenty of people that might squash this before it got out. But the idea made Stefan feel sick. A fly buzzed by his face. He swatted at it.

“No. We’ve got to find a way, but first we need to know why this is happening.”

“How are we going to find out?” Marshal asked.

Stefan looked in his mirrors. He couldn’t see anything behind them. He hit the brakes.

“What’re you doing?” Crane cried.

“Waiting. The only way we’re going to find out what is going on is if we see where these dead things are going.”

“We don’t know that they’re going anywhere,” Crane objected.

“They’re all going in the same direction. It isn’t like they’ve scattered in every direction. They’re going somewhere and I’ll bet it has something to do with what is going on.”

A short distance ahead on the left side of the road, Stefan saw lights just past some small Douglas fir trees. From what he could see it looked like a trailer. He tapped the window. “We need to warn those folks about what’s coming.”

It wasn’t far. Stefan pulled into the dirt driveway, lights flashing across a rusted swing set with blue and white spiral limbs, a bicycle discarded on a weedy lawn and two dented aluminum trash cans beside the wood porch. Marshal crawled up from the back.

“Think they’ll let us use their john?”

“You’d want to go in a dump like this?” Crane asked. “Who knows what you’d catch?”

Stefan ignored them and got out. He heard the sliding door open too, so evidently the guys were getting out as well. He headed straight for the front door, mostly straight except when he had to avoid stepping in piles of dog crap, and hurried up the wooden steps. He knocked hard on the metal frame of the screen door, rattling it. A dog started barking inside the trailer and first a woman’s voice, then a man’s hollered at it to shut the fuck up. A second later the main door was yanked open by a stringy woman wrapped in a blue terry cloth robe with pink curlers in her hair. A half-smoked cigarette dangled from her lips. The lines around her eyes deepened as she looked at him.

“Who the hell are you?” Her eyes shifted and she pointed a bony, liver-spotted hand. “And who the hell are they? What’re you doing with that camera?”

Stefan glanced back, not surprised to see Marshal filming the scene while Crane recorded. He looked back to the woman. “I’m Stefan Roland, ma’am. That’s my film crew. There’s something strange going on, and I need you to listen carefully.”

“This is some trick, isn’t it?

“No ma’am.” She scowled but Stefan hurried on. “I know how implausible —”

“What?”

“How unlikely this will sound, but we’ve just come from Springwood cemetery. The dead people there have risen from their graves, along with every other dead bug, bird and animal in the area and they’re coming this way.”

She didn’t move for a couple seconds as if his words had frozen in where she stood. Then she hollered so loud that Stefan nearly jumped back.

“Earl! You gotta hear this! This man here says that judgment day has come!”

From somewhere in the trailer the dog started barking again and the man shouted at it and her to be quiet.

“It isn’t judgment day, but the dead are coming. We saw them kill a woman only a little way up the road. You and your husband need to get in your car and get out of here.”

She shook her head. “Car’s all busted up. Don’t run worth shit.”

“We’ve got room in our van, but we have to go.”

She took a long drag on her cigarette and blew smoke at the screen door. Stefan coughed and she shut the trailer door in his face. He banged on the door frame again.

The woman hollered from inside. “I got my twelve gauge here!”

“I hear them,” Crane said.

Stefan turned around. Crane had his microphone pointed back the way they’d come. He turned back to the door and banged on it with his fist. The door flew open and he found himself looking at the black barrels of a shotgun through the screen.

“See?” The woman said around her cigarette, still dangling from her lips. Smoke curled out of her nose. “Now get the hell off my property.”

Stefan took a step back, holding up his hands. “We’re only trying to help. They are coming.”

“Anyone else shows up here I’ll show them the business end of this.” The shotgun twitched in her hands. “I don’t think you’re moving fast enough mister. Get!”

“We’re going.” Stefan made his way down the steps. He waved at the others and they retreated back to the van.

The woman stepped back and let the door swing shut. Stefan hurried back to the van. Once inside he started it up. So far he didn’t see any of the zombies. He backed out into the road. It was getting too dark to see far behind him.

“How far back do you think?”

“Not far enough,” Crane said.

Stefan let the van idle. They still had a half tank of gas. Enough for now. He rolled down his window. The wind whispered in the trees, chilly as it blew into the van. Even from this distance he heard the dog barking in the trailer and the wordless, futile shouts of the people. He gripped the wheel until his knuckles turned white. Why wouldn’t they listen? Sure, it sounded crazy, but still, sticking a gun in his face?

“Boss, what’re you doing?” Crane asked.

“Waiting.” Stefan leaned on the window. He closed his eyes and listened. Then, faintly, he heard them. Low groans and moans in the distance, the harsh cries of the birds in the dark sky and beneath it the persistent buzz of the dead flies. The sound floated on the wind and raised goose bumps on his arms. He twisted around.

“Get back to the hatch. I’m going to pull forward enough so you have a shot of the trailer. Tell me when to stop.”

Crane rubbed his face and his cheeks looked wet. Marshal just crawled into the back, dragging along the camera gear. He popped the rear hatch and pushed it up. The wind felt cold on Stefan’s neck. He put the van in gear and moved it slowly forward.

“That’s good,” Marshal called. “Crane, come on.”

“Damn you both,” Crane said. Still, he picked up his equipment and joined Marshal in the back.

Stefan left his window down and waited.

It didn’t seem that long before the first shadows appeared out of the night, flying around the brightly lit windows. Then a zombie walked out of the night into the yard. It was the unfortunate woman that hadn’t stopped her caddy. Right behind her came others and he saw hints of movement around the sides and back of the trailer. The dead things converged on the trailer and even the dog fell silent. Stefan watched carefully, but for the moment he didn’t see any dead things nearby except he heard flies buzzing about.

The caddy driver reached the porch steps first. She started up, tripped and crawled the rest of the way. Once on the porch she pulled herself up on the screen door. The trailer door flew open and the woman was there again, a dark shape against the light.

“Lord in heaven!” She cried.

The shotgun blast cut through the moans and cries of the zombies. The caddy driver’s body flipped away from the porch and fell into darkness, but more zombies came at the door. The woman backed up as they ripped apart the screen. Screams joined the moans of the dead. Stefan looked away.

He stared at the dash for several seconds. The dog started barking again and he looked back at the trailer. Zombies crowded all around it, hitting it with their hands. The whole thing rocked on its blocks. A line of them led to the open door. Then zombies fell away and the dog, a big black dog ran out of the trailer, knocking aside zombies in its way. Stefan leaned out the window and whistled sharply.

He couldn’t see the dog in the dark but he leaned across the front of the van and opened the passenger door. A zombie appeared in the doorway, a balding man with skin peeling away from his skull. Withered hands reached into the van.

Crane screamed in the back. Stefan swung around and kicked at the zombie, hitting it in the head. It stumbled back and a large dark shape jumped up into the van. It was the dog, a massive brute with hanging folds and big drooping eyes. Stefan leaned across the dog and pulled the door shut. The zombie he had kicked returned and beat at the window. Stefan hit the lock and moved back into his seat. The dog jumped up in the passenger seat and bared its teeth at the zombie.

He heard the rear hatch shut and looked back to find the camera aimed at him. Marshal gave him a thumbs up. Crane had his face in his hands, but he didn’t look hurt. Stefan turned forward and realized that there was a face right at his window.

The dead girl from the cemetery stood right outside his window looking at him. The dog barked, the sound deafening in the van. Stefan hit the gas and the van jumped forward. Dead fingers grabbed at his door and slipped away. A couple other zombies staggered around the road but Stefan swerved around them and kept going.

“Can we go home now?” Crane asked.

Stefan didn’t answer, but if he found a connection back to a highway or something he was tempted to take it. The dog sat placidly in the passenger seat, panting softly. With the road ahead clear Stefan rolled up the window with one hand while he held the wheel with the other. Up ahead a bright red reflector caught the headlights on the side of the road. He slowed but the reflector only marked what looked like a dirt road or driveway leading off into the darkness. He kept going.

A minute later the headlights caught something ahead. More zombies, out in the roadway, coming toward the van. Stefan slowed to a stop. Marshal came up between the seats with the camera.

“How’d they get in front of us?”

“I don’t know.” Stefan didn’t see that they had many options. The crowd ahead looked too thick. The dog growled deep in his chest like an engine at work. “This has to be a different group, no way they got ahead of us.”

Crane laughed in the back. “That’s just swell.”

“We’ll have to go back to that turn off we passed a minute ago. There’s nothing else unless we try to force our way through them.”

“There are more behind us,” Crane said.

“So we’d better get to the turn off first.” The zombies ahead were getting close. The dog barked once. Stefan shifted into reverse and backed up until he had enough room to turn around. Soon they were driving back down the road. Another reflector marked the turn off from this direction as well, Stefan turned and took it.

The road or drive had grass growing down the center and the tracks were like a washboard. The van rattled slowly along with the headlights lighting up the field ahead. A dark hill with a few trees and a small house at the top rose up ahead. As near as he could tell the road was taking them to that house. A dim light lit up one of the windows, so someone must be home.

The driveway turned a corner and headed more directly toward the hill.

“Wait,” Marshal said. “Back up.”

“Why?” Crane asked from the back.

Stefan didn’t question it. He stopped and put the van in reverse. As he backed up the lights shone out into the field. Then he saw it. Dark shapes moving through the field on two legs. More zombies, but headed toward the house on the hill.

“This is where they’re all going,” Marshal said.

Crane laughed. “Oh that’s fucking great. We’re right at the middle of all of this?”

“Hang on,” Stefan said.

He started driving on up the road, faster now. The van bounced over pot holes. It was risky, but he didn’t want to be cut off either. Even if the zombies and other dead things were coming to this house they might be able to hold them off. And if the dead things were coming here there might be a reason. Like the person responsible.

“Have the gear ready. When we get out I want you to be filming and recording everything.”

“Is that all?” Crane asked.

“Yes!” Stefan looked in the rearview mirror. “That’s all man! Hold the microphone. Record what happens so that people know what went on here tonight. Okay!”

“Why not?” Crane asked miserably.

The driveway curved around the hill and came up the backside. As they rounded the last curve the headlights caught more dead things down that side of the hill. This place was the bulls-eye and they’d been herded right to it by trying to stay ahead of the dead things from  the Springwood cemetery.

It wasn’t much of a house.  A small square house, white paint gone gray with age and weather, peeling off the siding in places. Moss covered much of the roof but through yellow curtains light glowed in one window. Back behind the house on one side was a sagging old barn and paddocks with broken fences. A rusty old pickup with side-boards sat alongside the house. Stefan parked the van behind the pickup and got out. The dog followed him, Marshal and Crane got out the sliding door with their equipment. Marshal had the camera’s spotlight on now. Stefan faced them, the house behind him.

“Ready? Three, two, one.” Stefan took a deep breath. The light from the camera was blinding but he looked to the side at the dark night. Overhead he heard the birds cry out. “The dead things we’ve followed tonight are coming here, to this isolated farm house. We’ve encountered groups of them coming from all directions. They’re here now, and we’re going into this house to see if there are any answers or refuge from the dead.”

Stefan walked up the cracked and weedy concrete walkway to the front door. He knocked on the dark blue-painted wood. Like the rest of the house it had seen better days and the paint was a web of cracks now. Marshal’s light lit up the whole doorway. Stefan raised his hand and knocked again. He heard boards creaking inside.

A woman in a gigantic pink spotted dress opened the door. Stringy hair hung down in her face, she was tall, an inch or two taller than Stefan and large. Her frame filled the doorway. She looked at Stefan, her face expressionless.

“I expect you’re here about them dead things?”

“Yes, ma’am, you know that they are coming here?”

She heaved a big sigh. “You’d best come in before they do get here.” The corners of her mouth twitched as if she might smile. “Unless you want to stay out there.”

“Thank you, we’ll come in.”

She moved on into the house. Stefan followed with the dog at his heels, and then the guys with the gear. Crane closed the door after they were in and turned the dead bolt. She led them into a small living room. Two other doorways in one corner. A couch slowly decayed on one side of the room while a dusty television sat on the opposite side, on with the evening news playing. A smell of fried chicken and sour milk hung in the air. In front of the couch was a small glass-topped coffee table with three KFC buckets on the top.  A few flies buzzed around the buckets. The woman moved past the coffee table and dropped onto the couch, which sagged so much that it looked like it might fold up around her. She reached into the middle bucket and took out a drumstick. The dog sat down at one end of the coffee table and watched her intently.

There wasn’t any place other than the couch to sit. Stefan went around the other side of the coffee table and perched on the padded arm of the couch. “My name is Stefan Roland, I’m a reporter. These other men are my crew and the dog, well, he joined us when the dead things attacked his owners.”

She bit into the drumstick and didn’t say anything. She tore loose a long strip of greasy meat with her teeth and then tossed it to the dog. It landed limply on the floor. The dog looked at it, then back to her and didn’t touch the scrap. She shrugged. “Suit yourself.”

“Could you tell me your name?”

She still didn’t look at him, just stared at the television. “Might as well, I suppose. I’d have thought folks like you would turn up sooner than this. I’ve been waiting.” She gestured at the television. “So far there’s been nothing.”

“We’ve been filming,” Stefan said. “When we get back we’ll be able to report.”

She nodded. “That makes sense. I’m Glenda Barker. It was me that woke those dead things. I’ve got the gift.”

“Why?”

She chewed on the drumstick, slurping the meat off the bone. As she chewed, she answered. “When it started I didn’t mean to, it just happened. Little things at first. A mouse caught in a trap, or a spider I’d squashed. Kinda fun once I got the hang of it.”

“You said you woke them, how could you do that? Are you a witch?”

Glenda chewed at the scraps on the bone. When she finished she tossed it into the right hand bucket. “I don’t know about that, it’s a gift, that’s all. A sign from the Lord that I’m blessed. I can raise the dead just as surely as Jesus raised Lazarus! It’s time people knew that, paid me a little respect.”

Something hit a window at the back of the house. The dog growled.

“If you woke them, can you make them go back? Can you stop them?”

Glenda reached into the center bucket and pulled out a wing. “Why? With them to do what I want?”

Another thud against the house. Stefan heard moans from outside. If she couldn’t stop them it sounded like they would break in soon.

“Why are they coming here?”

“Because I woke them. They know who I am, and when you all show your film so will everyone else. I’ll be rich! Can’t you see it? Everyone will want their dead back, and I can give them that.”

“These dead things have attacked and killed people.”

Glenda bit into the wing and chewed off the meat. She sucked the last slivers free and tossed the wing into the right hand bucket again. She closed her eyes and for a second Stefan thought that she was falling asleep but then the bucket on the right shook. He heard snapping noises from inside. Several more blows hit the windows, all around the house. The moans grew louder. The bucket tipped over and an assembly of bones flopped out onto the table. It fell apart, then the bones rolled and snapped and reconnected again into the shape of a bird without feet or a head. It flopped off the table and fell apart again.

The dog whined. Glenda opened her eyes and chuckled.

Something pounded on the door.

“Glenda, you need to stop them, before they break in here,” Stefan said.

“Don’t you tell me what to do! No one tells me what to do!”

Stefan rose up off the couch. “I’m not telling you, I just wonder if you can do it.”

Glenda’s head fell forward, her hair hiding her face. She reached into the bucket for another piece of chicken. Stefan beckoned to the guys and they followed him over to the other doorways. One led to the kitchen, and at the back, another door. Stefan leaned into the other. It smelled like dirty gym socks but he could make out a bed, and a door at the end. A bathroom?

“Come on.” They all, including the dog, followed him into Glenda Barker’s bedroom. As he walked past a dresser he noticed something. “Marshal, bring your light over here.”

The light pointed at the dresser. It was a scrapbook on one side of the dresser. Stefan picked it up and went on around the bed, past a closet to the other doorway. Sure enough it led into a bathroom.

“Okay. We’ll hole up in here. We can push the dresser over in front of the doorway, pull it into place from the inside and close the door. There’s only that one small window above the tub. I don’t think the dead things will get in.”

Something hit the window above the bed and elsewhere in the house Stefan heard glass break. “Come on!”

Stefan snapped his fingers at the dog and pointed at the bathroom. It obediently ran inside. “Crane, help me with the dresser.”

Marshal went on into the bathroom. Together Crane and Stefan shoved the dresser over in front of the doorway, leaving only a gap to squeeze through. Then from the inside they pulled it over completely in front of the door. Stefan shoved the door closed. The space was pretty small and it smelled of piss and mold. Dark stains crawled along the ceiling and walls. A stand-alone sink with a cabinet beneath it, a toilet across from that and the tub along the wall. The dog jumped into the tub. Marshal sat down on the toilet, after putting down the seat, the camera still running. Crane perched on the edge of the sink and Stefan leaned back against the door.

The house echoed with the bangs and thumps from the dead things. The moaning cries carried through the walls.

“How long do we wait in here?” Crane asked.

Stefan shook his head. “As long as we have to, until those things go away or the Inquisition shows up and gets rid of them.”

“You think that’ll happen?”

“They know about it, but I’ll bet it was a bigger problem than four inquisitors could handle. They probably needed to get help.”

The dog whined and lay down in the tub. Stefan looked at him and shook his head. “He has the right idea.”

Marshal shut off the camera and the light, but Crane found a night light in one of the outlets and switched it on. That gave them something to see by. Crane kept recording the sounds of what was going on.

Windows broke. The cries of the dead things grew louder. Glenda started shouting in the other room but soon her shouts turned into screams. Crane took off his headphones and put his hands over his ears but as loud as she screamed Stefan doubted that Crane could block them out. He felt sick and felt bad when he was relieved that the screams stopped.

“Do you think they’ll stop now?” Marshal whispered.

Evidently not. They could still hear the zombies shuffling around the house. Something that sounded like dishes breaking. A cat yowled and it sounded like it came from the bedroom. Wings beat on the bathroom window several times before going away. The dog whined softly in the tub.

Once something hit the dresser, shaking the door, but otherwise nothing tried to get in. Eventually Stefan sat down on the floor with his back against the door. He leaned forward and rested his head on his knees.

Three hours they sat in the bathroom before they heard the first gunshot. Then more, shot after shot firing. Crane and Marshal joined Stefan on the floor, worried that shots might come through the walls. Several minutes later they heard voices. Stefan gestured at the equipment. He took the scrapbook and shoved it into Marshal’s bag. Marshal picked up the camera and started filming.

Stefan heard footsteps in the house. Several more shots, followed by the sound of bodies hitting the floor. Then footsteps in the bedroom and a voice, loudly, “Clear!”

“Help us!” Stefan called out.

That brought shouts and more footsteps. “Hello?”

“We’re in here,” Stefan said. “Three of us and our dog.”

There was a great deal of scraping as the dresser was moved away from the door. Stefan cautiously opened up the door. Flashlights shone in their faces. Stefan blinked and saw the inquisitor that had spoken to them on the road. He smiled slightly.

“I thought I recognized that van outside. You just couldn’t stay away?”

Stefan shook his head. “We had to get the story.” Two men in hazard gear carried a body out of the bedroom. It was the dead girl that had chased them from the cemetery. She had a fresh hole in her head, right between the eyes. Stefan looked back at the inquisitor. “I’d like an interview, when you have a moment?”

“I’ll have to talk to my superiors about that. Right now we need to get you out of here so that the cleanup teams can do their work. If you’ll follow me?”

Stefan nodded and led the way out. He whistled and the dog came with him, sticking to his side. The inquisitor followed them on out of the house and over to their van. A large bonfire burned in the front yard, the smell of singed flesh filling the air. In addition to the inquisitors’ car were three big green national guard trucks and a jeep. Soldiers were active around the house. Two soldiers in hazard gear staggered out of the house with Glenda Barker’s ravaged body between them. Like the others she had a bullet hole in her head. Stefan didn’t say anything to the inquisitor. The soldiers tossed her body onto the bonfire. She landed on her back, her empty eyes looking out of the flames. Smoke billowed up and obscured her face. Stefan looked over at Marshal and saw that the cameraman had caught the shot.

Gunfire rang out in the night. A soldier with a flamethrower sent fire into the sky, roasting the flies and the birds.

Stefan reached down at patted the dog’s head, then crouched. The dog’s big tongue licked at his hands. “We’ll have to get you a name. How about Buddy?”

The dog leaned against him, his weight almost enough to knock Stefan over. He patted Buddy’s back and watched the bonfire burn. He still needed to shoot the wrap-ups, interview anyone he could, find other witnesses and interview them. Then editing and everything else, but he didn’t doubt one thing. This film, when they released it, would be big. The career-changing film he’d been looking for.

So why didn’t he feel better about it? He’d gotten the story of a lifetime but he felt sick and empty inside. All he really wanted to do right at that moment was knock back a beer or six and sleep for a week.

13,465 words

Author’s Note

This story is the 18th weekly short story release and the first in the Filming Dead Things series. I’d originally published these as written by my pen name Tennessee Hicks along with the rest of the Dead Things series.

I’m releasing each of these stories, one per week, here on my website. Eventually I’ll do standard e-book releases when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the books. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the e-book versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links at the top of the page or on the Books page. Check back next week for another story. Next up is Mall of the Dead Things, the second of four stories that make up my Filming Dead Things collection.

Boldly, Sort Of

Melanie finds writing stories of far-away worlds and adventurous travelers easy. Meeting people? The complete opposite!

Determined to change she attends Spec-Con, a gathering of science fiction and fantasy writers where she plans to come out of her shell and meet people. And who knows? Maybe even find her muse along the way!

1

Spec-Con Welcomes Writers!

The welcome poster board stood to one side of the Davenport’s spacious lobby, as if the hotel staff were subtly trying to hide it, but at least Melanie was out of the heat. August in Spokane, what had the convention organizers been thinking?

She knew she had to look a mess after two hours stuck in traffic on I-5 trying to get to SeaTac, a full pat-down by an overly attentive TSA agent, and then the mercifully short flight sitting next to a hefty man in a blue business suit. Chuck. Insurance. And the heat was stuck on too high in the plane so she still probably smelled like Chuck’s sweat and Axe cologne.

Melanie wanted her room, a shower and a clean change of clothes. Then she’d worry about registration. Or at least that was the plan until a middle aged woman with her sandy brown hair up in a bun, wearing a tight red t-shirt and a name tag with a red border appeared at Melanie’s elbow.

“Hi there!” The woman stuck out her hand. Her palm was damp. Melanie let go quickly. “I’m Nancy, with the writer’s convention? You looked like you might be a writer.”

“I am?” What did writers look like, anyway? Was it a comment that she needed to hit the gym, or just her general disarray? Besides, it felt weird to claim she was a writer, but wasn’t that why she was here? “I am. Melanie Cline, thanks.”

“I thought so.” Nancy pointed past the registration desk. “The convention registration is past the desk, down the hall past the restaurant. It’s in salon three. We’ve got signs out, you can’t miss it.”

“Thank you.”

“Sure. Where’d you come in from, anyway?”

“Tenino.” When Nancy’s face stayed blank, Melanie added, “It’s south of Olympia.” Still a blank look. “That’s south of Seattle, on the other side of the state.”

“Oh!” Nancy laughed. “That’s close to Forks, isn’t it?”

Not really, but Melanie nodded. “We have fewer vampires.”

Nancy rolled her eyes. “I know, right? Anyway, if there’s anything you need just let me know, or anyone with a gold cord.” She touched the string on her name tag.

“Not the red shirts?” Melanie asked.

“No.” Nancy laughed. “Those are for the new writers. Are you professionally published?”

“No.”

“Oh, then you’ll get one too in your registration packet. All of the new writers get red shirts. The pros get a choice of blue or gold.” Nancy laughed. “Isn’t that cute?”

“Yeah.” At least they weren’t requiring miniskirts to go with the red shirts.

The door opened behind Melanie. Two young guys struggled to get their bags inside. She used the distraction as her chance to escape. “Looks like you’ve got more guests, I’ll go check in.”

“Okay, bye!” Nancy waved her fingers and hurried over to the guys.

Glad to be free, Melanie hurried to the registration desk.

 

2

An hour later she was clean, dressed in clothes that didn’t smell like an insurance salesman, and didn’t know what to do.

Actually, that wasn’t true. She knew exactly what she should do. Go downstairs and meet other writers. The thought made her stomach clench. Who was she even kidding? Coming here? If she went downstairs she’d probably end up sitting in one of those chairs the hotel had along the sides of the corridors, with her Kindle in her hand, reading someone else’s book. Someone wearing a blue or gold shirt if they were at this convention.

That’s not why she came all this way. That wasn’t who she wanted to be, one of these days she wanted to come back to this convention and be one of the writers in blue or gold.

Melanie picked up the convention t-shirt. Large, she wished that she could have gone for a medium — it had been on the tip of her tongue — but she could tell just looking at those shirts that it would be too tight and make her boobs look huge. A large red shirt. It didn’t have a target on the back, but it might as well.

Tough. She wasn’t going to hide in her room and she wasn’t going to lurk in one of those chairs like a wallflower. She was going to put on this shirt and go downstairs and actually meet people even if it killed her!

Five minutes later she was back down in the lobby where red shirts wandered around like ghosts, hardly daring to meet each other’s eyes. No sign anywhere of anyone in a blue or gold shirt. She had the bag they had given her at registration with the program booklet, cover art post cards, book marks, e-book gift cards, pens printed with the convention name, and a water bottle with a Pocket Books logo printed on the side. Pocket Books, the official sponsor of this year’s con.

Melanie wondered what color of shirt they would wear. None, probably.

Feeling self-conscious she evaluated her options. Intense-looking guy over near the doors with the top hat and bushy beard? No. Not a chance. What about the woman that looked like she might be in her forties, on the heavy side, but with pretty brown hair, that was sitting by herself in one of the chairs along the corridor? That could have been Melanie sitting there in ten years, except the woman was reading on a Nook. And wearing a red shirt, like the rest of them.

Melanie so did not want to still be a red shirt writer in ten years. She’d go indie before then. How many of these writers were self-publishing? No, the woman looked nice but if she was sitting there and Melanie introduced herself then she’d probably get stuck like a fly on fly paper. They’d end up bonded at the hip the rest of the convention, stuck to the sides of the room watching everything happen around them.

No. No! She wasn’t going to do that. There, a the man coming out of the registration salon. Somewhere around her age, not too tall, with dark hair. He stopped right there in the middle of the corridor and put his registration bag between his knees.

What is he doing? she wondered.

He was wearing a long sleeve green shirt, nice, but he unbuttoned it right there in front of everyone. She saw writers throwing him startled glances but he didn’t act like he noticed. He finished unbuttoning his shirt and pulled it off!

Oh my. The man had a nice chest, very well-defined, and six pack abs that she just wanted to lick all over! She flushed. She never responded like that, but the image was strong in her mind.

And with it the other thought she had had about coming to a convention. A chance to meet someone like her, not that it was the main reason at all, but she had considered the possibility.

Whoever this guy was, he wasn’t shy.

With his shirt off he pulled a red shirt out of his bag and pulled it over his head. He had to struggle to get his arms in the sleeves a bit. It looked like he could have gone with a bigger size but once he got it on the red shirt did a really good job of showing off his biceps. The green shirt disappeared into his bag. He straightened up and only then looked around the corridor.

His eyes met hers and stayed. That was it. Her chance. She was going to go right over there and introduce herself to him. Even if nothing else, she wanted to know how someone could be that uninhibited that he could just change his shirt like that in the middle of the corridor.

But then two guys, the same two guys that had followed her into the hotel, walked past him and her eye contact with the man was broken. She started to move forward, but by then he was already walking away down the corridor.

Melanie took a step, but seriously? Chasing after him? Wouldn’t that look desperate or something? Before she could make up her mind he was gone around the corner.

She’d missed her chance with the not-shy guy. She had blown it, no doubt about it. So when she saw a pretty normal woman walking down the center of the corridor she wasn’t going to make the same mistake. She went right over there and introduced herself.

Darla, turned out to be the woman’s name. Thirties, pretty but not too much so, on the fat side of thin. She looked good. Very curvy and she had a great smile. And she was published!

“So why don’t you have on a blue or gold shirt?” Melanie asked.

“The organizers are only recognizing markets considered professional by the writer’s guild. The magazines I’ve sold to are all smaller markets, but some of those are tougher to get into than the big markets.”

Melanie nodded as if she knew what Darla was talking about. “This is my first time at something like this, I don’t want to hog your time, but I just wondered what we do until the reception tonight?”

Darla laughed. “That all depends. I guess the really dedicated writers are up in their rooms writing.”

Melanie shook her head. “I do that all the time. I don’t have trouble getting words down. It’s more meeting people that I have a problem with.”

“You’re doing fine,” Darla said. “I was going to take a walk on the river front, would you like to come along? I’m sure we can find some other writers to meet on the way.”

It was either that or end up lurking here trying to get up the nerve to introduce herself to someone else. Melanie nodded. “Okay! Sounds good. I’ve been meaning to start walking more.”

“Great, let’s go. We can take the side exit back this way.” Darla started walking. “I walk each morning, and usually after dinner in the evening. Unless I’m on a date or something.”

“That’s great.”

“Writing’s sedentary enough, you have to do something.”

3

Melanie stood alone in the big reception room, surrounded by people. The place was standing room only, literally, they had those little stand-up round tables for people to rest their drinks but no chairs. Even the wallflowers were going to have to stand for this. There were two bars running on each side of the room and the tables were scattered around the edges. Mostly it was a sea of red shirts except for the pro guests. Each stood surrounded by a group of red shirts, obvious in their blue and gold.

The program even promised dancing later, something that sent her stomach fluttering.

But after the afternoon she’d had with Darla she was determined to meet more writers. They had walked along the river and had stopped to talk to several other attendees but now she couldn’t recognize a single face in the sea of eager new writers. Darla had begged off attending with a headache.

Except then she recognized his face. And more.

It was the man that had taken off his shirt in the corridor. He was standing in profile, an untouched drink in his hand. With his tight red t-shirt, blue jeans and cowboy boots he looked like a cross between a sensitive, geeky sort of guy, and a cowboy who modeled underwear.

Melanie took a deep breath. And she was going to meet him. Why not? He was probably perfectly nice.

She walked straight to him. He must have noticed her coming because he turned and gave her the biggest smile, one that crinkled his eyes at the corner, as if he had been standing there looking just for her.

His reaction surprised her so much that she turned around to look behind her, because there was no way that his smile was for her.

But there wasn’t anyone behind her smiling back and when she looked back at him, he was still grinning at her.

“Hello,” he said. His voice was rich, gravelly and laced with warm humor. He also had a bit of an accent, Irish, maybe? A geeky, Irish cowboy writer? Such things didn’t seem possible.

He was acting like he knew her and was really glad to see her, both things she had a hard time understanding.

Melanie picked the path of least resistance. She ignored it. Instead she stuck out her hand. “Hi, I’m Melanie.”

Her pulse raced just thinking about shaking his hand but she was going to play it cool. Hopefully her palm wasn’t sticky. Of course there were other things she wouldn’t mind him doing than just shaking her hand.

“I know.” He paused. “Oh, right.”

He took her fingers and raised them slightly as he bent and his lips found the soft skin on the back of her hand. It was only the lightest of touches, dry, just a caress with his warm breath and lips. Then he rose and looked into her eyes with that same impish smile as if they were playing a game, only pretending not to know each other.

Her brain pretty much hit tilt. Her hand tingled as he released it. It was ridiculous but suddenly she could understand how women used to swoon in books. If he could do that much with a kiss on the back of her hand, what else could he do?

He stepped close and his right arm slid smoothly around her hips. His eyebrows raised in a look of concern.

Melanie shook her head and made herself step out of his embrace and away from him. “What the hell?”

His smile came back. “You’re not going to swoon? I didn’t want you to injure yourself falling to the floor.”

Not going to swoon? “What are you talking about? Why would you think I was going to swoon? I mean the kiss was nice and all, but really?”

Now his eyebrows drew together. “But you were thinking about it. You wanted to know what else I could do beside kissing your hand.”

“How would you know what I was thinking?” She raised a finger. “Don’t say you read my mind!”

“Then I won’t say it.” He looked down at his drink, then tilted his head and gave her a long look.

She saw it in his eyes. No. Way. There was no way that he was reading —

He nodded. His smile broadened.

Okay, she thought. If you’re reading my mind then tell me that I’m beautiful.

He smiled really wide then. “You are beautiful.”

The words came out of his perfect mouth with complete sincerity. Melanie found it hard to draw a breath, but she did, and followed it with another.

“What’s your name?” She asked.

“Caleb, I think. I picked that one out but there’s so many names. Do you like it?”

Melanie stepped closer and looked around. No one was listening to them, everyone was busy with their own conversations.

“Yes, they aren’t paying any attention to us, except the one woman over by the bar. She hates you for having the courage to talk to me. You’re the only person who has talked to me tonight.”

“Well, if you keep doing that mind-reading thing, it might put people off.”

He didn’t say anything, just kept looking at her as if she really was beautiful. His lips parted. Melanie raised a finger. “Don’t say it again. It was sweet the first time, but it isn’t true.”

“It is!” He protested with complete conviction.

Which made him either an accomplished, perfect liar, or she didn’t know what. But a mind-reader?

He nodded.

“Stop that. Even if you can read my mind you can wait until I say something to respond to it!”

“Okay.”

Melanie sipped her drink and swirled the taste of the champagne around in her mouth, fizzing against her tongue. The things they could —

No. She stopped herself from thinking about that, for right now there’d be no thoughts in that direction. “So you’re a telepath at a convention full of people who write science fiction and fantasy? Are you a writer too?”

“Yes, and yes. I hope to write stories about your world.”

“Okay, the strangeness meter just dialed itself up another notch. You say that like this isn’t your world.” Melanie shook her head and covered her smile with her hand. “Seriously? That’s what you’re going with?”

Caleb batted his eyes at her and pouted. He looked so wrongfully accused that it wasn’t even funny.

“How are you doing that?”

“Am I doing something incorrect with the expressions?” he asked.

“No, they’re perfect, but too perfect. It’s like if I said make a happy face and you did this.” Melanie smiled her biggest, brightest smile, trying to punch it all the way up to her eyes. “Only on you it doesn’t look fake like it would if I did it.”

Caleb nodded, his face smooth and thoughtful. “I see what you mean.” He winked at her. “Tone it down a notch, right?”

“Perfect.” And it was. Now he didn’t seem like an excellent actor, but an actual real person.

“I am a person.” His tone had the right amount of grievance laced with humor. “Caleb, remember?”

“Oh, I remember.” Melanie took a deep breath. “Okay. So you’re some sort of alien telepath, Irish cowboy, geek writer visiting our world?”

“That about sums it up.” Music started to play, a bouncy dance song. Caleb gestured to the center of the room where people were starting to dance. “Would you like to dance?”

Melanie laughed. “Why not?”

They found a table for their drinks and then Caleb took her hand in his big, strong and perfect hand, and they danced. He danced as well as he made his expressions or did anything else. He was uninhibited but matched her move for move. When the first song ended Melanie suddenly realized that a bunch of people had made room for them and clapped as they finished.

The next song was a slow one and Melanie pulled Caleb away from the center of the attention into the crowd. His hands found her lower back and held her close, but not too tight, just enough so that she could feel his body without being plastered all up against him. Not, she thought at him, that she would mind that if he wanted to go up to her room.

Caleb bent close, his lips brushing her ear in a way that sent delicious tickles down her neck. “If that’s what you want, it’s what I’ve always dreamed of, I even took this form for you.”

Melanie pulled back. “What are you talking about?”

Their heads were so close together his bright green eyes were just about all she could see.

“I came here looking for you, Melanie. A chance to meet you, before all the world speaks your name? It was always my destiny, to be your paradox, your muse. You said it yourself many times.”

She buried her face in his shoulder and breathed in his scent. Soap and something that just screamed maleness that she couldn’t quite place. She could feel his muscles moving like a caged tiger beneath the shirt and remembered suddenly how he had looked in the hallway, putting on this red shirt.

“So you’re what? Adding time traveler to what you are now?”

“Time and space are linked, you can’t travel in one without the other. And we are linked, too, Melanie. From this point forward in the timeline there can’t be one without the other.”

It should have sounded scary. The whole time-traveling alien telepath who looked like an Irish cowboy crossed with a science fiction geek thing should have been too much.

But it wasn’t. “Okay. Let’s go upstairs.”

Melanie led the way, boldly. Sort of.

<<<<>>>>

3,322 words

Author’s Note

This story is the 16th weekly short story release.

I’m releasing each of these stories, one per week, here on my website. Eventually I’ll do standard e-book releases when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the books. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the e-book versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links at the top of the page or on the Books page. Check back next week for another story. Next up is Magic is Life, a fantasy story I hope you’ll check out.