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The stench of death hung in the alley like smoke in a bar—so thick Caleb Locke swore he could see it.
He spat. He certainly had no trouble tasting or smelling the evidence of what had been here before him.
Both the benefit and curse of being a werewolf.
Caleb rubbed his hand over his mouth and studied the shadows that lined the narrow passage. Five people had died in this alley in the past week. They'd been found with their skulls cracked and their brains gone. Since then, two more people had gone missing.
Caleb was here to find the killers. He took a few quiet steps forward, deeper into the darkness, then stopped and sniffed.
The alley appeared to be empty, but Caleb knew better. He knew his prey was near. He just had to lure them into the open.
He slung the pack he wore on his back sideways so he could reach into its depths. From inside he pulled a vacuum-sealed metal container.
He paused to double-check his first impression before opening the thermos. Closing his eyes, he took another quick inhalation of the alley's cool, damp air. The scent of death was no stronger. No sound except his own breathing broke the silence. He cursed. He would have to spend his precious bait. The last he had.
He opened the lid. Air hissed free. He paused one last time, but there was still no sign of life—or death—in the alley.
Resolved that this time his prey wouldn't come to him easily, he returned his attention to his task and dumped the contents of the cylinder out onto his bare palm.
Zombie caviar—chunks of human brain. Looking at it, holding it, even stealing it from the recently deceased in hospitals and funeral homes, had stopped bothering him long ago.
Hoping what he held would be enough, he broke off a golf-ball–size bit. Then he glanced around.
The alley was lined with normal human refuse— rolling trash bins, metal garbage cans, broken boxes and the like. No one object or area held any value over another as far as attracting the monsters, but there were definite advantages to luring them to an open space. There he could pick off a few before they realized he was standing in the shadows waiting to attack.
He touched the holster that hung from his belt. An old WWI revolver he'd rechambered to take a more powerful round. One well-aimed shot meant one less zombie. Quick, easy and fairly mess free…as dealing with zombies went. However, if more than a few showed up for the picnic he'd laid out, he'd have to go for bigger, messier ammo. His shotgun.
He had it, too, already tucked inside a Dumpster.
Confident tonight would prove to be an easy evening of zombie killing, he deposited the brains he'd taken from the canister onto a forgotten cardboard box, then scraped his hand over its edge. After one more quick look around, he positioned the bait in the center of the alley, took a step back and surveyed the scene.
Satisfied that his trap was set, he hopped into the Dumpster.
It wouldn't be long now.
Samantha Wagner pulled her coat more tightly around her body. The sun had fallen past the horizon only an hour earlier, but the temperature had quickly plummeted.
The wind cut through the silver faux-fur-lined trench coat she'd bought at a secondhand shop two days earlier. Wisconsin in November bore little resemblance to her home state of Tennessee in the same month. Back home the trees were still changing, exploding in fiery displays of red and yellow. Here the trees were bare; snow littered the ground and rain fell in hard icy pellets. A lovely combination if you were a penguin or a polar bear. Samantha was neither. She might not look it, but she was as southern as sweet tea and fried green tomatoes.
Hoping to block more of the wind, she flipped up her collar and kicked a clump of ice out of her path. It skittered over the wet pavement and lodged under a Dumpster. Still, she jumped at the noise. She bit her lip in annoyance. If she was going to be jumping at every little sound, she had no business embarking on this mission. But even as she chastised herself, she released herself from some of the guilt. The street was empty, dark and cold, and unfortunately she knew what had happened to the last visitors to this place.
She shivered and tried not to think of the pictures she'd seen on the Internet, the image of a teenage prostitute, bite marks clear on her arms and legs, her arms pulled from their sockets.
The girl's brain had been missing, too. At least that's what the local paper had reported.
And there had been others.…
Samantha pressed her lips together and tried again to forget the images. She concentrated instead on avoiding the patches of ice that spotted the sidewalk and thinking of why she was here—to find Caleb Locke. Once she did, she could leave.
She reached into her coat pocket with her left hand and felt the tiny metal lump she'd sewn into the lining. A wave of guilt surged through her. She squeezed the metal tube and squelched the unwelcome emotion.
If the stories of Caleb Locke were true, she was doing him a favor, and more importantly, she didn't really have a choice.
To her right, down an alley, something clanged. Already jumpy, she tensed. Her right hand went to the other pocket where she kept a snub-nosed revolver. Touching the grip relaxed her. What the small weapon lacked in firepower, she made up for in accuracy. She'd been practicing with it daily for the last month. Funny how old skills came back.
She'd learned to shoot when she was six. Started with cans and moved up to vegetable-thieving rabbits by the time she was twelve. But by twenty she'd left that life behind, and replaced guns and red meat with yoga and tofu.
She'd never planned on going back.
But all that had changed when her best friend, Allison, disappeared.
There was another clang. She pulled the gun from her pocket and stepped sideways into the alley. The breeze caught her coat, flapping it open.
The wind cut through her, but the cold wasn't what froze her in place. It was what she saw. Zombies, six of them, scrabbling and scraping, each trying to get what looked a hell of a lot like human brains into their open maws.
She closed her eyes, briefly blocking out the sight, but not the reality. Zombies were real.
Until now she'd held out some slim hope this was all some horrible mistake or a joke gone wrong. But no, the video, the Internet reports, all of it was real.
She lifted her gun and fired.
A woman—or what used to be a woman—shuffled toward the pile of brains. Her feet were bare, her taffeta dress torn and stained. Her skin was gray and bald patches of scalp shone through hair that at some point in its past had been pulled into an elaborate updo. A strand of pearls hung lopsided from one side of her head.
A man in a stained tux followed.
A wedding party or a couple stuck on a perpetual prom date from hell. Caleb couldn't tell which, and he was twenty years past caring.
He'd seen too many walking corpses, witnessed too many of them lash out at loved ones they had forgotten. They weren't the brothers, sisters and mothers they used to be. They were monsters. Monsters he was determined to exterminate.
He rose a little higher inside the Dumpster and balanced the stock of his shotgun on its metal edge. Four more zombies shuffled behind the first two.
His finger resting lightly on the trigger, he waited. The closer the group gathered together, the easier downing multiples with one shot would be.
The prom pair had reached the bait. They dug their fingers into it like two kids digging into a jar of peanut butter. Their eyes rolled back in their heads, revealing nothing but whites as they sucked their fingers clean. Zombie clean, anyway. Bits of brain fell from their dry mouths, spattering the alley floor. They shrieked at its loss, the girl falling onto her knees to scrabble for the crumbs on the ground.
The four that had lagged behind were close now. Close enough they saw the feast and screamed, too, a dry, heaving noise that in no way resembled words, but that released an odor so intense someone less steeled to the stench of death would have hurled. Caleb, however, embraced it. It meant the hunt was on; his prey was here. Besides, the stench of a zombie still moving was nothing to that of one that had been eviscerated, and ultimately that was his goal.
The zombies scuffled closer, stumbling and staggering as they tried to hurry feet that in at least one case no longer existed. A motorcyclist, Caleb guessed. The zombie wore leather pants, jacket and one boot. The other leg ended in a stump, but the zombie didn't seem to notice. He thumped closer, his body listing back and forth as if at any moment he would fall to the ground.
His arm was missing, too. Probably chopped off in whatever accident had killed the man. He reached the prom partners first. With his remaining hand, he lashed at the female in taffeta. She roared back at him. Her date, on the ground, too, now, glanced at them. With no recognition of what was happening on his face, he continued to shove brains into his mouth at a furious pace.
The female turned, saw the brains were gone and threw herself onto the tuxedo-outfitted zombie whom Caleb had pegged as her date.
The other three had reached them now. A brawl broke out. The zombies, powered by greed and rage, tore at each other's limbs and clothing. Bits of material and zombie flew from the circle they had formed.
Caleb was immune to their noise and smell, immune to everything except the adrenaline that came with the hunt. It pumped through him, making him eager for the kill.
They were close, close enough he could take out three with one pull of the trigger.
He lowered his cheek to the shotgun's stock, caressed the trigger one last time and whispered the words he whispered each time he downed a zombie—the promise to keep up his hunt, to complete his revenge, no matter the cost. Ready, he prepared to fire.
A shot rang out. Caleb jerked his finger away from the trigger. He hadn't fired. His gaze locked onto the zombies, his zombies, his prey.
The prom queen staggered backward and pressed her hand to her torn and stained bodice. But no blood oozed through her fingers and no yelp of pain left her lips. But then, whether she realized it or not, she was a zombie. She had little blood left to lose and no ability to feel anything, not joy, sorrow or even pain. Those sensations existed with life, and once it was lost, they didn't return, not even if the body was reanimated.
No, now the once pretty prom queen was nothing but a mindless, devouring shell.
A mindless, devouring shell that was no more affected by a bullet to the heart than a bear was by a bee sting.
Caleb cursed and jerked his gaze to the end of the alley from where the shot had come.
What he saw caused him to still. He'd expected police or perhaps a human store owner out to protect his property. What he hadn't expected was an avenging angel dressed in a silver trench coat, tight-fitting black pants and a breast-hugging shirt.
Her hair was damp and dark and clung to her face, but with his werewolf vision Caleb could see the red in it. Just as even from this distance he could see the determination in the set of her jaw and the tinge of fear in her oversize eyes.
She cocked the gun and fired again.
But this bullet, just like the first, did nothing to stop the zombies.
Like the bear with that bee sting, the shot just angered them further.
The zombies rushed toward the shooter.
The zombies flung their heads to the side and smashed against each other like drunks in a mosh pit as they fought to get to Samantha—even the female whom she'd shot in the heart, twice.
The bullet hadn't stopped the demented creature, hadn't even slowed her down. If anything, it had drawn the entire group's attention away from their squabble and focused it onto Samantha.
Her heart beat loudly and sweat broke out over her body, but Samantha stood steady. She had a weapon; she knew how to use it. She would be fine. Besides, she had nowhere to run.
Tightening her jaw, she cocked her gun and fired again. It had to work; it had to stop them.
The zombie in the front, a woman dressed in a housecoat and bare feet, stopped, but only for a second. Her mouth dropped open and her hand rose. She pointed to her forehead and stuck her index finger through the round hole that now lay between her eyes.
Then she shrieked.
The other zombies didn't seem to notice her distress. They kept coming.
Heart? Brain? Where did Samantha have to shoot the creatures to stop them? What the hell was left?
Holding her gun at her side, Samantha hesitated. She'd used three shots. She had three rounds left for five zombies. She was no math genius, but even she knew those odds weren't good.
Three rounds. Two to do what damage she could to the zombies, and the last… Better dead than killed by what staggered toward her.
She lifted the gun and fired again, this time hitting a male in a tuxedo. The round caught him in the eye. He didn't blink, figuratively or literally. Not that he could have. His eyelids appeared to have gone missing long ago.
Without hesitating she fired her fourth bullet, into his throat. It zipped through him to strike a man in leather, as well.
Two for the price of one…but neither fell. Samantha was down to her last round. The taffeta-adorned female staggered forward, her hand out, inches from touching Samantha. She lifted the gun.
What the hell was the woman doing?
With his shotgun gripped in his hands like a club, Caleb sprinted forward. He swung and smashed the heavy butt of the gun into a zombie skull. He didn't pause to see which creature he hit. He just spun and slammed the stock into another.
A bullet whizzed past him. He glanced at the woman firing. Her gaze was on him, her eyes round as she sucked in a breath.
A hand landed on his shoulder. He swung the gun like a bat and caught the prom queen across the forehead.
While the party-going zombie was still on the ground, he flipped the shotgun end over end and with the butt pressed against his shoulder, pumped a round into the chamber. Then he fired, up close and very personal.