Read an Excerpt
A Zombie Novel
By David Wellington
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA Copyright © 2004 David Wellington
All rights reserved.
"MY BROTHER WAS ALREADY DEAD!" Clifton Thackeray made some outrageous claims while he was being held in a Fort Collins lockup on suspicion of involvement in a truly bizarre and grizzly murder. Last Saturday he attempted to hang himself with his belt. What really happened that night in the mountains? Our Harry Blount investigates: Page 17. ["Westword" weekly, Denver, Colorado, 3/15/05]
Here's what she had:
She was dressed all in white. Drawstring pants, halter top, linen jacket. Sandals and sunglasses, with her short blonde hair pulled back in a tight bun. A niobium stud in her nose and a tribal tattoo around her belly button, a sun with wavy triangular rays that flashed every so often as her top rode up and down with the rhythm of her walking.
She felt good: she was smiling, swaying her hips a little more than she needed to. She remembered wanting to slip her sandals off and feel the rough rasp of the sidewalk with her feet.
How much of this recollection could she trust? It was pretty threadbare and frayed around the edges. All the sounds she heard when she went back to this place were low and distorted. Oceanic vibrations. She couldn't smell anything. The light seemed to hang in the air in individual sunbeams, stray photons pinned to the air.
Worst of all there were no words. No names or signs. She bopped right past a stop sign but in this sunny space it was just a blank red octagon. Stop, she thought to herself. Stop, stop stop! The word wouldn't manifest.
Palm trees. Rollerbladers and homeless people competing for sidewalk space. The place had to be California, unless a million movies had steered her wrong. Not a famous part of California, just seedy and a little run-down in a charming multi-cultural way. A four way intersection with a food market selling Goya products, a free clinic, a boarded up storefront with no sign and some kind of bar. What she might be doing there she had no idea.
Time started up and the light moved again: with the scene set the action was ready to begin. At the intersection a Jeep Cherokee slurped up onto the curb and smacked into a stone bench with the sound of tin foil tearing and rattling. The car rocked on its tires, its windows the color of oil on water. Time hovered and danced around the scene like a bumblebee in search of nectar. Cubes of broken glass spun languorously in the air while clouds raced overhead in a fractured time lapse. She was frozen in place, in shock, in mid-stride. How much time passed? A minute? Fifteen seconds? The driver's door opened and a man in a blue western-style shirt tumbled out.
The look on his face made no sense at all.
He staggered a bit. Grabbed at the bench, at the hood of his car. He was having trouble walking, standing upright.
Of course she went to help him. She was supposed to—why? What was she? A doctor? A nurse? Massage therapist? The look on his face was just: slack. His jaw didn't seem to close properly and his eyes weren't tracking. Stroke? Seizure? Heart attack? She had to help. It was an obligation, part of the social contract.
He was dead when she got to him.
It didn't stop him from reaching for her.
The man was dead but he was still moving. An impossibility, a singularity of biology. The point where normal rules no longer apply. The recollection began to break down at this point into raw sense-data, fragments of information that didn't add up to a single recollection. She could remember the synthetic fabric of his shirt where she touched it, the oils of his skin, the pure and unadulterated comfort of his arm as it crossed her back, holding her to him, hugging her—as if he were a brother—a father—boyfriend—husband—priest—something, some male presence, still welcome and good and wanted because she didn't know what was going on, just glad for the human contact in a scary moment when nothing quite worked the way it should.
Then pain, intense and real, far more real than anything else in her memory, as thirty-two needles sank into her shoulder, into her skin, his teeth.
That's what she had. Everything else was torn away leaving ragged edges, bloody sockets where things had been torn away. Her head was full of grimy windows she couldn't see through everywhere else she looked. Her memory was dead and rotting and it had left her only these few scant impressions. Everything else was gone.
For instance: she couldn't remember her name.
FIVE FOUND DEAD NEAR ESTES PARK: Police Chief Suggests Links to "Meth" Production in High Country [Rocky Mountain News, 3/17/05]
Dick rolled to a stop on the shoulder and dug through old Burger King bags until he found the gas station map. It had a bad grease stain on it that spread slowly while he watched. Shit, there goes Gunnison, he thought, chuckling to himself.
He hardly ever used the map—he'd grown up in these mountains and the prairies beneath them and there were hardly a handful of roads in that part of the Front Range anyway. With a compass and a good idea of where he was headed he could usually get where he needed without straying too far. Still. Once you went offroad it was another story. There were a hundred canyons up in these mountains, little valleys like pockets on the sides of the big peaks, hollows lost in shadows or so overgrown with trees you couldn't see them until you were in them. He was somewhere near Rand, on the wild side of Rocky Mountain National Park, pretty far from anywhere civilized. The map showed an unpaved road or more precisely a track—a single dotted line branching off from 125 and zig-zagging up the mountain, ending nowhere in particular. He had missed it somehow. Not too surprising. March might have thawed out most of the Great Plains but up this high snow still glinted in every declivity and overhang and lingered under the shade of every stunted tree. An unpaved road at this altitude could have literally disappeared since the map was printed, ground out of existence by the winter snow squalls or the run-off from spring freshets. Dick frowned and checked the GPS unit bolted to his dashboard, then looked again at the map. If he was reading the scale correctly he was within a quarter mile of the track but he had seen nothing as he drove by at ten mph.
While he sat there wondering what to do he nearly missed a flash of movement in the rear-view. He turned around as fast as he could and saw a teenage girl come flailing out of the scrub growth on the side of the road maybe two hundred yards behind him. Her hair was a mess—well, she had just emerged from a stand of juniper bushes—and she wore an over-sized parka that was too heavy for the season. She had some trouble getting out of the bushes, her sleeves tangling up in the mazy branches until she had to yank hard just to get clear. That sent her tumbling to the ground. She got up and without even brushing herself off started walking. She didn't even glance in his direction, just started stumping down the road to the south. He remembered seeing some parked cars back there. Just a hiker, he thought. Plenty of them got this far up and decided, between the ruggedness of the trail and incipient altitude sickness, that what they really wanted was to just go home. He even smiled at the thought. There was something strange about the way she was walking—like her knees were stiff with arthritis, maybe, though she was much too young for that. He watched her go until she had passed around a corner and out of sight and only then wondered if he should have gotten her attention, offered some help if she needed it.
He never really got a solid look at her face.
Whatever. Dick had been there himself many times. He knew that when he was that anxious to go home he personally never wanted to talk to anybody. Let her be, he decided. If she wanted his help she would come back and ask for it. He still had to find the track and now he had a pretty good idea where to look for it. The idiot girl was hiking alone, which was a pretty bad idea in general, but hell, Dick wasn't law enforcement. If people wanted to be stupid he figured they had a right.
Back to the problem at hand—the missing track. Nothing for it but to inspect the site on foot. He groaned as he unbuckled his seat belt and grabbed his gloves and coat from the litter-strewn back seat but in truth he loved this shit, always had. From endless hiking adventures as a kid to summer stints as a park ranger in his college years to his current post with the National Institute of Health he had spent more of his life outside and above ten thousand feet than anywhere else.
The second Dick opened the door of the white Jeep snow blasted across his face and hands in a fine crystalline spray, making him squint up his eyes until he got his sunglasses on. Outside he was trodding on snow with every step, crunching it down. When he stood still he could hear nothing at all. The shadows of clouds roamed over the mountains, startlingly huge. He never got used to that beauty, to the breath-taking way the clouds painted the mountains with shadows. He turned back to where the girl had emerged and took a long hard look-see.
When he found the track he wasn't surprised that he had missed it. The juniper bushes had completely obscured it from the road and anyway there wasn't much of it to find. It looked like it had been gouged out of the slope instead of graded. Gravel had collected in spots along its length—maybe it had been a real path once but now it was hard to even think of it as an acceptable animal track. No wonder the girl had been so anxious to get off of it and back to the road. When you knew it was there you could follow it with your eyes as it snaked up the side of the mountain and disappeared around a bend. It didn't look too steep. Dick headed back to the Jeep to get his daypack and his cell phone. A nice walk in the mountains, nothing more. He just wished he could stop thinking about that girl and the crazy way she was walking.
UNEXPLAINED FIRE IN IDAHO SPRINGS CLAIMS RIVER GUIDE, SIX SONS: Gasoline cans found on scene and "the front door was nailed shut" [The Coloradoan (Fort Collins), 3/17/05]
Bannerman Clark, Captain Bannerman Clark of the Colorado Army National Guard to be precise, placed his cloth napkin neatly on his thigh and lined up his steak knife next to his silver fork. Once a month he treated himself to a twenty-dollar cut of beef at the Brown Palace, Denver's finest hotel and restaurant, and he had a standard checklist of tasks to complete in the proper enjoyment of the meal.
First: a sip of a good if moderately priced French wine. Next he took a pinch of sea salt from the cellar on the table and crumbled it liberally over the bloody red meat. Finally he blew out the table's candle so the light wouldn't dazzle his eyes and distract him.
He was the kind of person commonly referred to as "anal", and rather proud of it. The fact that he was aware of his nature and took steps to keep his behavior from becoming too extreme kept him from being mocked too openly in the ranks—or at least he believed so. He made it a point never to inquire too closely.
For himself he simply thought of himself as practical. As someone who chose to plan his day in advance and to try to stick to his plan. It was that simple. Life was best lived by those who were prepared for its contingencies.
Bannerman Clark had begun his adult life in the Army Corps of Engineers, serving an undistinguished but flawless term of service in numerous overseas theaters before choosing the closest thing to semi-retirement open to a man of his temperament: a lateral move into a post where he could do some good without having to deploy so often. He hated traveling. His post with the Army National Guard, one of the few full-time positions in that organization, allowed him an office on a military base. It allowed him to schedule his activities whole months and years in advance. It allowed him a routine that he found comfortable, while permitting enough variety in his assignments to keep him from growing moribund or, worse, bored. Bannerman Clark knew what he liked, and what he disliked, and he attempted to maximize the former and minimize the latter.
By way of example: he loved a perfect slab of rare steak, even though at the age of sixty-one his personal physician frowned on his ritual. He hated being disturbed in the middle of a planned activity. When his cellular phone began to vibrate in his pocket he was tempted to ignore it long enough to take at least one bite.
That was not really an option, though. He replaced the fork on the table and drew out the phone. He glanced up and saw the elegant white-clothed tables, the massive dangling brass chandeliers that suggested the shape of wagon wheels, the elaborate brass and marble work left over from when the Brown Palace had been the finest bordello in the Wild West. He saw the other diners, all of whom were paying extravagant prices to eat in the midst of such opulence. A woman in a red dress stared daggers at his phone. No need for her disdain, though. The phone was set to receive only text messages, not voice. The message Bannerman Clark received made him sigh deeply.
GOVCO + AGCOARNG RQST YR PRES INST RE ADX-FLRNC RIOT
In other words the Governor of Colorado and the Adjutant General both wanted him immediately to respond to an emerging threat: a riot at the "Supermax" prison in Florence, just south of Colorado Springs. He would go at once, of course. That was his role, the job he had sought out: Rapid Assessment and Initial Detection Officer in Charge. His business cards described him as the OIC, RAID-COARNG. It was his job to be the first man on the scene in order to get an overview of an emerging crisis and establish what level, if any, of response was required or recommended.
He rose immediately and took his cover (ANG-speak for his hat) from the empty chair next to him. A red-vested waiter rushed up, a distinct look of concern on his face but Bannerman Clark shook his head in reassurance. His steak would have to be sent back, he feared. The Brown Palace could probably provide a to-go bag but Bannerman Clark didn't request it. He would be onboard a UH-60 Blackhawk within the hour and the meal, even if it were possible to eat it while airborne, just wouldn't be the same without his little rituals. Besides, where he was headed it was best to arrive with an empty stomach.
MYSTERY CORPSE FOUND ON MAIN STREET IN WOODS LANDING, WYOMING: Coroner Claims Dead at Least Three Months [AP Wire Service, 3/17/05]
Lilies: the scent of.
Her ears vibrated with the soft moaning sound. Her nose felt painfully dry.
She opened her eyes. The lower limit of her vision was obscured by clear plastic: something on her face. The world was turned sideways because her head was lying on a piece of wood.
Her head was killing her. Everything smelled like lilies. Plastic on her face. She lifted an arm—far too heavy—and swatted at her nose but it didn't work. She tried touching the thing on her face and found that her fingers didn't work right. The fingertips felt numb, almost completely without sensation. She couldn't grab the thing on her face, couldn't get her fingers around it. Panicking a little she scrabbled at it with both hands until it fell away, hissing like a snake. She put her hands down on the wood of a bar and pushed until she was sitting up. Sitting up on a bar stool.
A mask—a kind of oxygen mask it looked like but it was decorated with a sticker of a day-glo flower. Tubing ran back to a metallic white tank bolted to the surface of the bar. There were other tanks, other masks: chromium red, cobalt blue, toxic green. She looked up, glanced around (killing her head as it whipped back and forth) and nearly fell backwards off her bar stool. Bar stool—bar stool—so she was in a bar. But. Not a regular bar. An oxygen bar, obviously. Why would she ...?
She reached down and switched off the oxygen mask. The stench of lilies began to dissipate. It must have been mixed in with the compressed gas.
Excerpted from Monster Nation by David Wellington. Copyright © 2004 David Wellington. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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