Read an Excerpt
One Thousand and One Nights
By Ruth Browne, Kaleen Harding
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2013 Ruth Browne
All rights reserved.
Inside, it was black as a witch's belly. The moon glimmered through the window she'd smashed, but the generators were long dead and the shelves blocked out the rest of the light. A zipper purred as she opened her backpack, and the beam of a dimmed flashlight pooled on the floor. Then, boot heels clicking, she moved amongst the shelves.
The last haul had been pretty slim, just a couple of paperbacks in some no-account town that didn't even have its own gas station. On the dirty grey board by the highway, the town's name looked like it had been scraped off with fingernails, and she could only make out the faded postscript: Population 63.
Some of them had still been there.
But this place was better, bigger, complete with a strip mall, a used car dealership, and an adult toy shop. It also had a library.
Paper rustled underfoot as she searched, running the flashlight over rows of spines with their little printed tags. Books had fallen or been wrenched out at random, trampled and left to rot. She picked her way between them, scowling in the dark. What a waste.
Her eyes had adjusted to the light, and when she came to the end of the row she could see the bulky Formica-topped counter where library clerks used to check out books. Over by the exit loomed the frame of a metal-detector. From here she could also see the doors, which had been jammed shut with broken bookcases and furniture. Covering the flashlight with her hand, she stood for a moment and listened intently. There was no sound, so she kept moving.
Passing several aisles of non-fiction, she turned into the children's section and smiled to herself as the flashlight lit up a small collection of dusty bound volumes. Yes! Grimm's Fairytales, a misplaced copy of the Odyssey, and something more rare: most of One Thousand and One Nights. Greedily, she lifted them down and examined them. They were all part of a set dedicated to the library nearly twelve years ago by the Minchin family.
"Bless you, Minchins," she murmured, and packed the books quickly into her backpack. This library's size had seemed promising, but it was heavy on autobiographies and wildlife. Not to mention it was never wise to hang around in one place for too long. Time to go.
She started back along the aisle towards the broken window where she'd made her entrance, her quick stride decisive on the floor-tiles. Then, sweeping before her as she walked, the flashlight beam picked up a crumpled form on the floor ahead. It twitched, and gave a stifled moan.
A dead boy wearing torn Spiderman pajamas rose like a stringless puppet, gangly with its jaw gone. She was so focused on him, his pathetic clutching hands, she almost missed the stumbling footfall behind her as something came lurching out of the dark. Almost.
There was the whisper of a leather holster, a double-click, and a shotgun blast; the walls rang, drifts of paper billowed, and a corpse with no head slid away in a spray of sticky blood. She pivoted on her back foot as the boy reached for her, and blew him away too. Through the whining white noise in her ears, she heard a chorus of sighs and dry throaty rattles. Well, that was just great. The townspeople must have used the library as a safe place way back when it first happened. She guessed they hadn't heard about the bitten yet those days, and now the place was crawling with them.
"Come on out, bitches!" She hefted the shotgun and sprinted up the aisle. They clotted together to block her escape and she blasted them aside like cornstalks. Grannies in knitted cardigans, yoga-moms in stretch pants, acned teenaged louts in hoodies ... she wasted them all. No discrimination, though she sometimes took pity on the legless ones. Ammunition was limited.
She hurdled the bodies, watching her step on a floor slippery with clotted blood, and boosted herself up and out of the smashed window. Broken glass cut her palms, even through the military-issue gloves she wore, but she gritted her teeth and bore it. Landing in a flowerbed smelling of geraniums, she looked back and saw a forest of hands reaching after her. The townspeople's grunts and howls spilled out into the night as they clamored for a piece of her.
Turning her back, she ducked through a tear in the fence and headed for a knot of trees on the open land out back. The air was fresh and cool, a nice change from musty paper and dead flesh. Since most people had stopped doing people things, the natural world had grown vast and loud. Over the rustle of grass and leaves, crickets sang under a sky full of stars.
Dressed entirely in charcoal wool and black leather, she moved through the grass like a cat, placing her footsteps silently. Tied up tight, her hair was giving her a headache. She loosened the tie and shook it out, the long copper strands glowing in the silver light. Technically she ought to have been wearing her helmet, but it restricted her vision too much and left ugly welts on her pale skin.
Her heart was still thumping in her chest when she ducked under the trees' low-hanging branches. Nothing had followed her, but the shots would've woken the whole town. Some ears were mighty sensitive these days, now that meat was hard to come by. Her keys made a little jingle as she wrestled them from her hip pocket. Moments later, a rolling roar rubbed out the night's noises, and she came out of the copse straddling an old black Kawasaki. She heard no shrieks or cries over the engine, but there was no mistaking the way every leaf, brick, and paving-stone seemed to come alert, aware of her presence.
She lifted her feet to the footrests and gunned the throttle. The weight of the books in her backpack made her grin as she nosed her way through the grass. Knowing the treasure she'd found, she felt reassured — ready to face the long journey back. She bumped off the pavement onto the street, where she quickly picked up speed and left the abandoned houses echoing as she pulled out onto the highway.
Less than five years since the world ended, and things had really gone to shit. Zero running water, ditto electrics, and even if you could find a supermarket that wasn't overrun you'd better have brought your can-opener. Plenty of time to plant your own food of course, but good luck finding a patch of land sufficiently well-defended to hold them off long enough to harvest anything.
The hordes of zombies roamed soullessly about the towns, massing in the cities and touring by twos and threes through the countryside. There was no knowing how the carnage had started, but this had become a world she understood. Hair tangled in the slipstream, she sped along under the midnight sky with not a care in the world. Then she remembered where she was headed. But the stories sat snug against her shoulder blades. Sheri was ready for anything.
High up in the foothills of a Midwestern mountain range stood a fortress. Every door and window in the cluster of redbrick buildings wore iron braces, and the central courtyard was barred over like a cage. Motion-sensing spotlights hooked up to gas-powered generators were rigged up all over the buildings and grounds. Surrounding the compound at a distance was a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire, a guard-tower on each corner. Beyond that, an electric fence and a steep slope studded with spikes, barriers, and strategic ditches. There was no power to spare for the outermost fence any longer, but the dead wouldn't know or care about that. The fortress was more than a hundred years old, and its various occupants had been improving it ever since till it hulked impregnably like a prison camp.
Night was falling as the roar of the Kawasaki's powerful engine drifted up from the ravine below. The approach to the compound was steep, snaking along a narrow tarred road with crumbling brick margins. Above, the bowl of the blue sky was deepening to indigo, and the vanished sun had left pools of shadow thickening under the pines.
Sheri had been on the road since the early hours of the morning, speeding along the highway in the gathering light. When the sun came up, she'd pulled over to put on her helmet, but otherwise stopped only for water and a few handfuls of dried fruit. The day had been hot in the wintry sunshine, the fields brown and tangled with years of undergrowth. She'd seen a few dead cows and some charred thing stirring in the ruins of a burned-down farmhouse, but spent most of the day navigating strings of empty cars or admiring the scenery. Once, when she was crossing a bridge where the road spanned a gushing river, the reeds and prairie for miles ahead lifted up into the air with a sound like thunder: a flock of birds so large it blotted out the sunlight.
Now, climbing into the foothills with a sore ass and knots like fists in her shoulders, she saw the tendril of cooking smoke rising up ahead and was surprised by a rush of home-sickness. She clenched her jaw. Patting the shoulder strap of her backpack for comfort, she put on another burst of speed as the gates came into sight.
Her nose picked up a hint of rot as she passed a ditch close to the road, but if anything was stirring down there she didn't see it. The Kawasaki rumbled up to the gate, where she swung it side-on to squint up at the nearest guard-tower.
"Open up, bitches," she growled under her breath. But the gates remained stubbornly shut, and night was falling fast. The walkie-talkie on her hip crackled. She grabbed it.
"Are you going to let me in or what?"
The unit hissed against her ear, and then she heard a man say, "Take off your helmet."
"For fuck's sakes." With both hands she tugged the bike helmet off, shaking out her hair. She glared up at the tower, where she could see the fading light glint off a pair of binoculars. While he examined her in silence, she cocked her head and gave him the finger.
"Didn't think you were coming back," he said at last. It sounded like Kruger.
"Who gives a shit what you think? Open the gate already." Something was definitely scrabbling in the ditch down the hill. Sheri balanced herself on the bike and looked round. A chill was settling into the ravine, and an evening breeze combed her hair. The pines rustled, but still she heard the scraping of fingers in the earth. "I think you have a crawler," she remarked. She reached for the butt of the shotgun in its over-the-shoulder holster. Against her ear, the walkie-talkie crackled with static until she snapped, "What are you, a child? Let me in."
Finally, a crack opened between the gates and she nosed her way through. They shut behind her with a racket as the men on patrol locked and barred them again. The inner gates were already opening, and she drove up to the buildings with a rumble that reverberated off the bricks. Rows of barred windows watched her arrive, and the sloping eaves leaned down to listen. Outside on the grass, her welcoming party waited with sparking cattle-prods, shotguns, machetes, and chains.
"Look who it is! It's my Sheri." The short Asian-American guy bowed and held out a pair of manacles. "Good to see you again, my Sheri. Did you have a pleasant vacation?"
Sheri cut the engine. "Fuck off Paul," she said, toeing out the kickstand. "That ditch-crawler out there speaks better French than you do."
"You're looking pretty crawly yourself, princess."
They were fanning out to surround her, three men and two women, all familiar faces in the gloom. Spotlights like miniature suns suddenly snapped on and snared her in their glare.
"The shotgun first," said Paul.
With a sigh, she loosened the harness and let the holster slide to the ground. Then she put down the helmet, knelt, and lay face-down with her arms behind her back. The soil was cool through the grass on her cheek. A knee pinioned her in the small of her back and she felt the restraints clicking into place. They smothered her head in a canvas bag, jerked her to her feet, and bundled her up the stairs into the building.
* * *
"How long?" Sheri shook her head slowly and grimaced at the pain that flooded it. Some too-bright light lit the insides of her eyelids red, and her mouth was gummy with saliva. They had jabbed her with something, a sedative. It didn't always happen, but tonight she could feel the drug poisoning her system.
"How long?" The voice she'd barely registered asked it again. "How long did I say you had?"
She licked her lips with a dry tongue and croaked, "T-two nights."
"That's right. Two nights. And you know what?" A hand took her by the chin and tilted her face up till she flinched against the light, squeezing her eyes shut. "Last night was the third night."
"I had to find more," she said. "I had to look farther." Most libraries close to the mountain fortress were in densely-populated areas, and those that weren't were mined out of the kind of material she needed.
Gradually, by millimeters, she opened her eyes. Her face felt swollen and sore, and for a moment she could see nothing. Then the shadow and light resolved into a face, a pair of eyes looking at her, only an arm's length away. "The king of the castle," she said, smiling though it hurt her mouth. Now she felt the collar around her neck and the grip of the manacles. Her wrists were still twisted behind her back, and the pain in her arms came and went in rushes of hot and cold. She was kneeling on a piece of ratty carpet, and by moving her head slightly she could tell that her collar was bolted to the wall behind her by a short length of chain.
The room was large but sparsely furnished: a cupboard with a jug and basin on top, a chair, a bare bulb, and a mattress under the window. Wooden boards made up the floor, and the peeling wallpaper showed cement underneath. They were high up, on the second or third storey.
His black eyes blinked once, and then he straightened up.
"What happened to your hands?"
"I cut them climbing out of a window."
Turning his back, he went to the basin to wash his hands. "Did you find any untapped gas?"
"Did you look?"
"I asked the attendant. But he just told me braaaains. Weird, huh?"
His back tensed under his blue chambray shirt. Then, deliberately, he dried his hands on his jeans and turned around. His hair was a mess, black and tangled like he'd dragged the night in after him from the evening patrol. "You should know better than to make me angry," he warned her. While she'd been away he'd raised himself a nice crop of stubble. Sexy. She smiled again, but only to herself.
Her leather jacket was too warm, but at least someone had taken off her boots. Her backpack lay at the foot of the mattress. She nodded at it, making her chain slither and chink. "Can I have my bag?" He slid it towards her with his boot. Sheri's mouth twisted and she lifted her expectant eyes to his. "Don't you want me to sing for my supper?" she asked. Anger darkened his face at once. He didn't like to be teased about his obsession, which was unusual by any standards. Yet his longing was plain as daylight — waiting for her had ground an edge to his appetite.
"Fine. What do you have?" he asked like he didn't care.
Her demonstrative shrug of helplessness made the pain flare in her shoulders, but after a bitter pause he came over and sank to his haunches beside her. She turned to look at him and he pushed her face aside with the flat of his hand. Holding her there with one hand, he dug the key from his pocket and unlocked her manacles with the other. The release felt so good that all she could do was lean against the wall and massage her wrists, but as soon as she was free he leapt out of reach like a bullfighter. Denim chafed as he scrubbed her touch from his hands.
"Gosh, you really don't like to touch me, do you?" she mocked him, green eyes narrowed. With a luxurious sigh, she stretched out her legs in their dark leggings. Then she reached up and unzipped the jacket's high collar, dragging the zipper, and his eyes, slowly down toward her navel. Her black T-shirt was standard issue, but she knew very well the rest of her wasn't. When she opened her jacket he showed her his back again, then sat on the mattress with his head in his hands. He had narrow hips and just the kind of firm, muscular ass she liked, but right then she only wanted to claw his kidneys out of his belly for scorning her.
"Well?" he prompted her.
She dragged the backpack between her knees and opened it up. Her treasures gave up their papery smell, and she caressed their pocked and careworn covers as she lifted them out. Around her, the house creaked. From somewhere downstairs came laughter and cooking smells. Her mouth watered.
"The One Thousand and One Nights," she read out, savoring the rolling vowels of the title. His back straightened. "This is Sir Richard Burton's translation, made in 1885. There are eight volumes, but I only found five. He begins by writing: "This work, labourious as it may appear, has been to me a labour of love, an unfailing source of solace and satisfaction ..."
Sheri read well into the preface, which was half a tale in itself. "Again I stood under the diaphanous skies, in air glorious as aether ..." He listened, but soon she knew it was time to move on.
Excerpted from One Thousand and One Nights by Ruth Browne, Kaleen Harding. Copyright © 2013 Ruth Browne. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.