Flame Breaker

Estelle lives a simple life, her needs easily met with the gratitude of those she serves. Her wagon provides shelter and purpose with the magic contained in the simple walls. Colic, her snub-winged drake, provides companionship and pulls the wagon.

Inquisitors threaten her peaceful existence with accusations and threats. Estelle faces them not with sword, but with her wits.

If you love fantasy and books, check out Flame Breaker.

📚

A beautiful day, at least up until the point when three black horses with uniformed riders came pounding down the forest trail and surrounded Estelle’s modest wagon. Colic, her snub-winged drake, hissed in alarm and tried to twist around in the harness. Estelle hissed back.

“Still yourself! You silly lizard!”

Colic glared at her with one golden eye and slowly pressed his entire green-scaled self down into the muddy path.

Not bandits, these men. Estelle could tell that much by the quality of their cloth. The red suits and black neck ties cinched their identity. Inquisitors. Trouble-makers by another name. Thugs, some said and she never disagreed. Gold thread hemmed the cloak of their leader. A small concession to vanity that identified the leader to her. Not that she wondered. He placed his horse right in front of Colic. Ignoring the drake which under other circumstances wouldn’t mind a nice bite of horse flesh. He sat straight, all ruddy fat in the face and contempt in his narrowed eyes. The tall dark evergreens surrounding the path served as mute witnesses to the encounter.

Pity they lacked eyes or tongues. A matter that might change, should circumstances require it.

The Inquisitor raised on black-gloved hand and pointed at the wagon behind her. “What sort of cargo do you haul, mother?”

“No brat ever escaped my loins,” Estelle said. “Neither am I a merchant to haul cargo. My home, that’s all I carry like the snail with its shell.”

“You lie, lady. Poorly, I might add. Best you confess now and avoid the screws.”

So mote it be. “Fly your pole somewhere else, Inquisitor. Nothing I carry concerns such as you.”

The ruddy bastard laughed. Fat cheeks shaking. More chuckles from the two lesser inquisitors on either side. The leader leaned forward, saddle creaking. Colic sneezed. The horse whinnied and jerked back. The inquisitor nearly tumbled forward from the saddle, only just catching himself his horse’s neck. He straightened up and his already red cheeks burned like coals in a fire.

He waved a hand at his men. “Search it!”

Estelle held up her hand. “Warrant? I’ve seen none.”

He started to lean forward and his eyes glanced down at Colic. He stopped and pressed a hand to his chest. “I am the official representative of the Magistrate. Surely no one with legitimate business would refuse to cooperate? Resisting could be construed as probably cause.”

“Your tongue wiggles more than my lizard’s –”

Colic snorted.

“– and isn’t nearly as truthful. Any search of my dwelling requires the presentation of a warrant. I don’t need your men pawing through my underthings.”

He stared at her and she looked back giving neither an inch or any obvious offense. His stupidity remained the primary question. He raised a hand and rubbed at the side of his head.

“I’ve heard reports of dangerous books appearing in otherwise wholesome communities.”

“Dangerous? In what way? Are these books more prone than others to cause paper cuts?”

His eyes narrowed. “You claim to know nothing of these reports?”

“First I’ve heard. Who makes these claims?”

“Citizens of good standing wishing for their children to remain safe.”

“From paper cuts?”

“From dangerous ideas. Blasphemy. Black arts,” he said. “Your wagon might transport many such books.”

Estelle shrugged. “Any books I transport are my own and dangerous only to ignorance. Are you seeking something to read?”

He pointed at her. “Trading in forbidden books brings substantial penalties.”

“How fortunate we are to live in a free society,” Estelle said. “Many miles I must cover before dark, if I may continue?”

A cluck of the tongue and a flick of the reins sent his horse side-stepping out of her path. Colic rose up and yawned, displaying an impressive array of teeth. Estelle whistled and the drake lunched into motion, pulling her and the wagon away from the inquisitors. She waved cheerfully as she passed.

📚

Her destination for the night? Raven’s Craw. Another dozen or so miles down the road from the site of her encounter with the Inquisitors. Not a direct shot, either. At the crossroads she took the path heading South, South-West. Left the tall trees behind, replaced by mounded prairie. The mounds rose up in general about as high as her wagon. The road wiggled back and forth between the mounds, cutting in the sides of some. As bumpy as a toad’s behind but much prettier. Wildflowers covered the mounds and all over bees, birds and dragonfly-riding fairies flew around the mounds. A squadron of fairies buzzed her wagon twice. On the second pass pelting her with grass seed. No harm in it. A perfunctory welcome, nothing more.

Nothing much at Raven’s Craw of note except the mill and the steamer dock. By the time Estelle rolled into town the sun hung low above the prairie and the buildings cast long shadows. Beside the mill and the dock warehouses the town included one hotel, a general store, a small school building, doctor’s office and the houses of those calling the place home. So few people came to town by road that Estelle’s arrival soon filled the streets. From little ones running around in nothing but diapers to the oldest watching from windows and porches. These people knew her. Mothers, fathers, uncles, grandfathers, cousins and all the rest. Word spread through town faster than a fire. At the center of town a junction of the prairie road and the road to the steamer docks created a sort of town square. Estelle’s whistle and sharp flick of the reins brought Colic to a stop.

Colic raised his throat and let out a ear-scratching warble that drew shrieks and laughter from the children already gathering with their arm-loads of branches. With the children stood many adults and most all carried arm-loads of branches. Colic snapped his tail, a loud whip-crack that split the air. Twice. A third time and the crowd stilled in anticipation. Time to take the stage, then.

Estelle rose up from her bench, trusting Colic not to jerk the wagon and send her sprawling. She clutched her hands to her chest. When she spoke her voice rang out over the gathered townsfolk.

“Good evening, my what a welcome! It warms the heart. I see many bundles of twigs and branches here.” She looked a fair-haired young girl standing bravely near Colic. “Who can tell me the purpose of these sticks?”

The little girl spoke up, her voice like the piping of birds. “Books! Books! Books!”

Laughter spread among those gathered. Estelle nodded. “Very wise, young one. Books, indeed. If someone will help an old woman down from this perch, let’s see what we can do.”

A broad-shouldered young man with coal-stained hands came to her aid. She held his fine, strong callused hand and made her way down the folding steps from the bench to earth below. He smiled down at her, showing a mouth full of straight teeth.

“Looking at you warms this woman’s heart and makes me wish for the return of my lost years,” she said.

“Surely there aren’t too many years lost,” he replied.

She swatted his shoulder. “Flatterer.”

More laughter from the crowd. Estelle walked to the side of the wagon. She beckoned to the little girl who spoke earlier. “Since you answered so smartly, you may be first.”

The girl walked over clutching her bundle of branches. “I’d like a book please.”

“Of course. What’s your name?”

“Missie.”

“Okay, Missie, whisper what you want in my ear here and we’ll see what we can do.” Estelle bent down.

The sweet child leaned in close. She cupped tiny hands to her mouth. “Alice, if I may?”

Estelle winked at her. “I think that is possible. Let’s feed the hopper.”

Along the bright green wooden side of the wagon was a red hatch. Estelle unlatched it and pulled it open, revealing a long drawer. She bent and picked up the little girl around the waist and hoisted her up. No, not so many years lost, in truth.

“Feed the hopper!”

Missie tossed her branches into the hopper. Estelle set her down and shoved it closed. She reached into her cloak and produced a short fat wand of gleaming oak. She whispered to the wand and then shoved it into a hole in the wagon beside the hopper. The wagon shook. Crunching and grinding noises sounded inside like as if she kept a beaver to eat the wood. A moment later the noises ceased. Then a loud thunk, as if something fell. Estelle bent and lifted Missie once more.

“Open the hopper, see what’s inside.”

With both hands Missie pulled the red hopper open. She shrieked and reached inside, lifting out a brightly colored book. She held it up and a murmur of delight passed through the crowd. Estelle brought Missie down and nestled the child on her hip.

“May I see?”

“Yes.” Missie held the book so that she could see the cover.

“Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. I believe you will enjoy this book a good deal.”

Missie nodded enthusiastically and hugged the book to her chest. Estelle let her down and turned to the crowd. “I see much fuel for my hopper. Who will be next?”

A boy with hair curly and dark as night stepped forward with a small bundle of twigs. Estelle beckoned him close. “Your name, son?”

“Patun.”

“Okay, Patun. What sort of book do you seek? Whisper it here in my ear.”

Estelle bent down.

“Fishing book, so I can catch fish for my ma.”

Estelle patted his head. “That’s a good boy.” She pulled the hopper out and held out her hands. The boy handed her the branches. She tossed them in and then pulled the oak peg from the slot. She whispered to it and shoved it back into the hole. Then she pushed the hopper closed.

Once again the wagon shook and trembled. Colic snorted and settled. The wagon fell silent again. Estelle opened the hoper and pulled out a book. The bright picture on the front showed a man with a pole and line in hand. The Art & Craft of Fishing. She handed it to Patun.

“Gee, thanks!” He shot off running with the book. The crowd parted and like a pebble dropped in a pond he vanished.

Estelle smiled. “Everyone will have a chance. Who’s next?”

“I’ll try your wagon,” a voice rang out. A voice she recognized having heard it not so many hours before.

She turned and sure enough, the inquisitors on their horses. The ruddy-faced leader swung down from the saddle. Up front of the wagon Colic twisted his long head to see around the wagon. He sneezed loudly. The inquisitor reached into his shirt and pulled out a blue sheet of paper. He held it up in the air.

“By order of the Magistrate, as stated in this warrant, I intend to search this wagon and confiscate anything illegal. Clearly this lady runs a scam of sorts and I promise the good people of Raven’s Claw that I will uncover the truth and her accomplice inside.”

Estelle held out her hand. “I’ll see that warrant which you did not produce when you stopped me only hours ago outside of Raven’s Craw.”

He smiled nastily and slipped the paper back into his shirt. If he heard her correction he gave no sign of it. “I’ll not have you tossing the warrant into your device there to be torn to pieces.”

“I only seek to verify the wording of the warrant.”

The crowd’s murmuring grew louder. The inquisitor cocked his head at the other two, who moved their horses up, nudging the crowd back from the wagon. The protests grew louder.

“Clear off, all of you! By order of the Magistrate, return to your business elsewhere!”

Some among the crowd moved back. Others drew off a bit and spoke among themselves. No one really left, Estelle noted.

“Inquisitor, what do they call you?”

“Harris, lady. Now open the wagon for inspection.”

Estelle walked to the end of the wagon and opened the small door at the rear. “Look, if it will give end to this business, Inquisitor Harris. Only you, and I trust you’ll not damage what few things I own.”

Inquisitor Harris swung down from his horse. Grunted when his boots hit the ground. He briefly placed a hand on his back. Then he stomped over to the wagon and leaned in the small door.

“As you see,” Estelle said. “Only my meager bed and little else.”

The Inquisitor rifled through the few books she kept on her small bedside shelf. He lifted the mattress and knocked his knuckles against the wood. Then he straightened and bent to look beneath the wagon. He came up scratching at the side of his head.

“What manner of sorcery is this?” Inquisitor Harris faced her. He shook his hand at the wagon. “How is it that these books are produced?”

“Another demonstration, perhaps?” Estelle looked at the Raven’s Craw townsfolk, none had gone far. She beckoned to another child. “Lad, come here with your branches.”

The fair-haired boy walked over to her, his mother close behind with a wrinkled brow. She kept touching the boy’s shoulders. Estelle smiled. “Worry not, mother. The good Inquisitor Harris aims only to safeguard this town and its people. We will reassure him.”

She crouched down in front of the boy. “What are you called?”

“Ricky.”

“Okay, Ricky. What book would you like?”

He shrugged. “I dunno.”

“What sorts of things do you like?”

Ricky smiled. “Bears.”

His mother touched his shoulder again. “He’s always going on about bears.”

“I know just the thing.” Estelle took the branches from the boy and stood. She held them out towards the Inquisitor. “Inquisitor Harris, perhaps you’d care to do the honors?”

He took the small bundle. Estelle went to the hopper in the side of the wagon. Inquisitor Harris jerked his head at one of his men. “Watch inside.”

The man in question dismounted and went to the open door at the rear. Estelle drew open the hopper, then pulled the oak peg from the hole. She whispered to the peg and then shoved it back into the hole.

“Toss in the branches, Inquisitor.”

Inquisitor Harris tossed in the branches. She pushed in the hopper. The wagon started to shake. The crunching and grinding noises started. Up front Colic sneezed. Inquisitor Harris took a step back. He looked to his man at the rear of the wagon.

“What do you see?”

“Nothing, sir!”

The shaking and noise reached its peak and then stopped. The wagon settled down. Estelle gestured to the hopper. “If you will, Inquisitor Harris?”

He rubbed his jaw then stepped up to the wagon. He grabbed the round knob on the front of the hopper and pulled it out. He reached in and lifted out a book. He looked at the front cover.

“Winnie-the-Pooh?”

Estelle reached up and took the book from the Inquisitor’s hand. She held it out to Ricky. “A very special bear.”

“Thank you!” Ricky hugged the book.

His mother looked at Estelle. “Thank you.” She looked to the Inquisitor. “Thank you, sir. Come on Ricky. Let’s go home and you can read your book.”

Inquisitor Harris raised his hand. “People of Raven’s Craw! Bring those branches here!”

Excited voices rose up. The people drew in closer. Inquisitor Harris beamed at the assembled crowd clutching their bundles of sticks and twigs. Abruptly his smile vanished like a drop of water on a hot stove. “Toss your branches at the base of this wagon!”

Cries of protests rang out. He held up his hands. “This woman trades in forbidden books. Her mechanism, this infernal wagon, must be destroyed!”

The young man that had helped her down from the wagon stepped forward. “Inquisitor, do not do this.”

Inquisitor Harris shook his head. “I do this for your sake, lad. And the good of this town.” He motioned to his men. “The branches, now.”

The third inquisitor dismounted, then he and one at the rear of the wagon went among the people. They snatched the branches and twigs away and threw them at the base of the wagon. Colic rose up and started to pull the wagon away.

Inquisitor Harris drew his sword. “Still the beast or I’ll still him for good.”

Estelle hissed at Colic. “Be still, you brute. Let me release your harness, you daft creature.”

She left the inquisitors to their wood-piling and went to the front to release Colic. He came free snapping his tail like a whip. She patted his ugly scaled head. “Don’t worry about it.”

Estelle motioned to the young man with the coal-stained hands. He joined her. “Yes, lady?”

“Please watch this stupid drake. Make sure he doesn’t do anything injurious.”

“Of course.”

Estelle left the drake in the care of the young man and went back to the wagon and the inquisitors. Inquisitor Harris held up a hand at her approach. “Do not interfere. This device must be destroyed.”

“Why, exactly?”

“You trade in forbidden books!”

“What books? I give the books freely, it costs me nothing. There’s no trade involved.”

“You receive nothing?”

“Their gratitude, nothing more. My needs are simple and easily met.”

“It matters not.” Inquisitor Harris pulled out a match from a pocket along with a flask. “Such a device might produce dangerous books as easily as a children’s book.”

“And who decides? You? I believe we live in a free society. Isn’t that what we claim? I only give people what they ask for. Freedom to read what they wish, surely that’s the foundation of any free society.”

“Security is the foundation of a free society.” Inquisitor Harris flipped the cap on the flask and splashed the contents on the piles of branches. He struck the match and dropped it onto the pile. Flames spread blue and yellow across the branches. Cries of dismay rang out from the crowd.

Estelle walked around to the rear of the wagon. None made any move to stop her. She hurried and climbed inside. She heard Inquisitor Harris shout something but didn’t wait. Up front, strapped to the side of the wagon she pulled down a red cylinder. She scooted back out and slid out of the wagon. A cheer went up from the crowd. Inquisitor Harris grabbed her arm.

“Foolish woman! What is so worth your life?”

“Knowledge, books.” Estelle pulled away. She pulled a silver pin from the top of the cylinder and pointed the nozzle at the flames. A cloud of white vapor shot out, engulfing the flames. She worked her way along the pile until every last flame was extinguished. Excited murmurs spread through the crowd and became cheers. The people of Raven’s Craw started clapping. Colic snapped his tail three times.

Inquisitor Harris caught up with her. “What is that device?”

“A fire extinguisher,” Estelle said. “It is very useful dealing with fires. Inquisitor, have you considered that there might be many useful books you might ask for? Things that might help you in areas other than persecuting someone like me?”

His eyes narrowed. “What sort of books?”

“Leadership, tactics, books on all sorts of instruments you might find useful?”

Inquisitor Harris stroked his jaw. “Perhaps I should confiscate the wagon, and keep it for myself.”

Estelle shook her head. “It works only for me.”

“I could take you, along with the wagon.”

“You could and find I have forgotten how to make it work.” Estelle smiled. “Inquisitor Harris, do not make your job harder! Ask for a book and I shall happily provide it to you, as I do anyone who asks. Not in trade, or from coercion. Perhaps one final demonstration?”

When he made no move to stop her Estelle pulled open the hoper. She picked up scorched branches from the pile and threw them in. She took out the peg, whispered to it and put it back. Then she closed the hopper. As before the wagon shook. When the noise and shaking ceased she opened the hopper and pulled out a book. Without looking at the title she handed it to Inquisitor Harris.

Color drained from his ruddy fat face. He looked up at her, back to the book, then shoved the book into his vest. He waved his hand at the other inquisitors. “Mount up! By order of the magistrate this woman shall be free to continue her business, unfettered and unencumbered.”

Inquisitor Harris mounted his own horse when his man led it over. He mounted up and then rode away without another word. Estelle chuckled and turned to the crowd.

“Where were we, then?”

📚

Dew covered the mounded prairie grass the next morning when she stepped outside her wagon and stretched. From atop one of the mounds beside the wagon Colic lifted his scaled head and blinked sleepily. The wagon creaked behind her. Strong young arms wrapped around her waist.

“Must you leave so soon?”

Estelle reached up and patted Martin’s, the young man of the coal-stained hands, face. “Yes, but I shall return. People will want more books.”

“It never stops, does it?”

She leaned against his solid chest. “I hope not.”

Above the mounded prairie the sun rose again with the promise of a new day.

📚
3,572 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 49th weekly short story release, written in May 2010, and originally released under a pen name. Eventually I’ll do a standalone e-book and print release when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the story. 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. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is my story Two for Death.

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.

Killing Dead Things

Killing Dead Things

Ravyn Washington grew up and woke dead things. A witch, like her grandmother and a target for the Inquisition.

In high school she feared the Inquisition discovering her secret and burning her – surgically and chemically frying her brain to remove her abilities the way they did with her grandmother.

In college her abilities became a living nightmare that threatened her friends and exposed her to the Inquisition.

They didn’t burn her, they recruited her. And now they want her back.

In Bramson Bay, Oregon, dead things stir and Ravyn must put them down.

At Last!

Today marks the official release of Killing Dead Things, the third book in the Dead Things series. I wrote these books over a four-year period of time between 2008-2012. The first two under a pen name “Tennessee Hicks,” but then other things happened and this book didn’t get out when I thought it would. Last November I had a plan to get the books out, bringing the first two out in new editions under my name, but that plan didn’t work out either. We kept working towards the new releases.

Waking Dead Things came out February 1st. Dreaming Dead Things finally got a new edition on April 26th. And now, finally, the third book of the series is out in both print and e-book editions.

I’m excited to get this release out, and it’s just the beginning.

What’s Next?

With this release we move on to the next series, Goblin Alley. There’s a sample for the first book at the end of Killing Dead Things, and I couldn’t be more thrilled to get the series out. The Bloodied Fang is the first book, previously released under my pen name “Michael Burges” will be getting a new edition, followed by two new novels.

When, you might ask?

When we can get them done. We’re focusing on the novels right now instead of doing more short story releases. It’s just a question of time. The new edits/fixes are in on the first book, the others will be coming. It’s harder to predict how long it’ll take me to do the cover illustrations. Although we have a schedule planned, it is subject to change if things end up taking longer, so I’m not even going to worry about posting dates at this stage.

Following those, there are a bunch more titles to come. It’ll be a mix of new titles and reissues as everything is moved from the pen names to my name. Eventually those will all have new editions and everything else coming out will be brand new, never-before-released novels.

I’d also like to fit in some short story releases when I can, eventually working my way through the backlist as well as getting out new stories. There’s a lot to do!

Dreaming Dead Things

Dreaming Dead Things

Current Word Count Stats

Today: [postwc] | Month: [postmonthwc] | Year: [postyearwc]

 Today

This morning saw the official release of the new edition of Dreaming Dead Things. Previously published under a pen name, I’m glad to have it out in this new edition. Work is progressing right now on getting the brand new Killing Dead Things novel ready to release in a few weeks.

I spent some time this morning updating pages for the new release, before heading off to work at the Day Job. We had people out today on vacation and sick, but it wasn’t too bad. I still managed to get my breaks in and complete my word count with time left to finish reading Scattered Suns by Kevin J. Anderson, and I started reading Affliction by Laurell K. Hamilton.

To catch up on other posts in this series, check out the contents page: Working Creatively With a Day Job.

If you enjoy these posts, please comment and share with others. It does take time that could be spent on other projects, so if you want to show additional support, consider picking up copies of my books or stories either for your own enjoyment, or for someone else.

Waking Dead Things

Waking Dead Things

 

The first novel in the Dead Things series, Waking Dead Things, is now available. Previously published as written by “Tennessee Hicks”, I’m excited to get this new edition out, leading up to the release of the next two books in the weeks ahead.

Ravyn Washington.

Ordinary high school teen worried about getting her driver’s license, dates and passing classes. Oh, and dead things.

Sometimes dead things wake up. It happened to her Nana, branded witch and necromancer by the Inquisition. Now Inquisitor Lockwood shows up in town, checking if Ravyn inherited the curse.

And dead things wake up. If Lockwood finds out, Ravyn could burn.