Drifters

Drifters

by John L. Campbell

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780594730521
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 01/06/2015
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 186,425
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.00(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

John L. Campbell, author of the Omega Days novels, including Omega Days and Ship of the Dead, was born in Chicago and attended college in North Carolina and New York. His short fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies, literary magazines, and e-zines, as well as in two of the author’s own collections. He lives with his family in the New York area, where he is at work on his next novel.

Read an Excerpt

DEAD OF JANUARY

ONE

January 11—Outskirts of Chico

In life she had been Sharon Douglas-Frye, thirty-three, mother of two. A music scholarship took her to the University of Illinois, where she met Joseph, a grad student with plans for starting a heavy equipment dealership in California. Marriage, house, kids, book club, Pilates.

She had been bitten while sitting at an outside table of a sidewalk café by a little boy wearing an Angry Birds shirt, a wild little thing with no mommy in sight. Not even a real bite, really, more of a nip. She cleaned and bandaged it at home. Joseph was away on business, no need to worry him.

Sharon died of fever in the master bedroom of her lovely Chico home.

She came back and ate her children; parts of them, at least.

Then she ate Joe when he got home from his trip. The kids helped her with Daddy. Since that day, Sharon had seen none of them and wouldn’t have recognized them anyway.

Now, five months later, Sharon Douglas-Frye shuffled barefoot through a January hay field of brittle stubble, her feet black and torn, the meat worn off several toes. She wore the tatters of a floral-print nightgown that drooped off one shoulder, exposing an emaciated body with flattened breasts, jutting ribs, and skin the color of old wax. Her face was drawn and tight, decaying jaw muscles visible through holes in her flesh, teeth clicking incessantly. Her eyes were a cloudy blue shot through with black blood vessels.

The hay crackled beneath her feet and her arms flopped as she walked, following the sound of crows. That sound always meant food, either what the crow was eating or the crow itself, if it wasn’t fast enough. The birds were usually too quick and clever to permit Sharon to catch them, however.

A few others of her kind slumped through the field around her. Sharon paid them no mind.

It was cool; the barest of breezes made her knotted hair rustle about her shoulders. She trudged directly through the skeletal remains of a cow, the bones gnawed clean, catching and ripping her nightgown on a thick, upward-curving rib. As she moved past, her left hand banged against the rib, and Sharon didn’t notice when both her engagement and wedding rings at last rattled off her bony finger and dropped into the hay stubble.

The crows called, and Sharon kept moving.

To her right, a man who had once sold used cars moved through the field with jerking steps, still wearing the remains of a shirt and tie, his skin a mottled olive streaked with black, now split and hanging about him in loose, sour ribbons. Strands of a comb-over fluttered about a face so torn it revealed bone, and the car salesman was bent forward and to the side by a pair of fractured vertebrae, grinding against each other with every step.

The three coyotes that had been trailing the salesman for the past hour finally decided he posed no threat. They darted in and took him down at the knees, and the salesman groaned and flapped his arms as they devoured him.

Sharon didn’t notice the coyotes. She heard crows.

A sharp, twisted piece of metal severed two toes on Sharon’s left foot as she walked through the hay field. She stumbled, then got tangled in a swirl of burned electrical wiring. That made her fall down, and she crawled toward the sound of the crows for almost an hour before she managed to free herself of the wiring and could stand once more.

There were a lot of sharp things in this field, bent shapes and pieces of metal blackened by fire, scattered over a hundred yards. The hay stubble was brittle and ashy where it had been burned, snapping under her feet, and she could still smell the smoke from the fire. That usually meant food too. She fell again, this time tripping over a long, slender length of melted polymer, constructed in a honeycomb pattern. Sharon rose once more, walked on, and at last reached the place with the crows.

Half a dozen of the glossy black birds were perched on the fuselage of the Black Hawk helicopter, which lay on its side in the field. The tail boom was gone along with both turbines, and only the troop compartment and shattered cockpit remained, all of it scorched.

The crows shrieked in annoyance as Sharon stumbled to where the cockpit windscreen had been, a few melted fragments clinging to the edges of the frame. The body of a tall man was still strapped in the pilot’s seat, slumped against his belts, his blackened skin picked away to reveal dripping, red meat. His flight helmet and head had been caved in when the cockpit hit the ground nose first, and so he was not moving.

Sharon moaned and reached inside, tugging at an arm, trying to bring it to her mouth, snapping her teeth. It didn’t quite reach, and so she started to whine, pulling herself up through the frame and into the cockpit, tearing her own flesh on jagged aluminum and sharp Plexiglas. Her feet left the ground as she wriggled through, at last stuffing the fingers of the pilot’s dead hand into her mouth. Sharon chewed and grunted, and the crows watched.

•   •   •

Orlando Worthy was a biter.

The Chico police had long ago nicknamed him Orlando the Impaler. He had drifted into the Northern California city at age twenty-six, after receiving parole on a seven-year stretch for armed robbery (he slashed a female store detective’s face with a fish-cleaning knife in front of a discount store) and had remained in Chico for the next twenty-two years.

In those two-plus decades Orlando had bitten nineteen people during meth transactions, bar fights, domestic disturbances, and just because. He bit another nine police officers and seventeen store detectives over the course of fifty-three arrests for petty theft. He bit a cocker spaniel when it barked at him in Bidwell Park. As payment for the biting, he had been hit with nightsticks, pepper spray, Tasers, a beanbag round from a less-than-lethal police shotgun, two kitchen knives, a tire iron, and countless punches and kicks.

By the time he turned forty-eight—the summer of the plague—Orlando already looked like a zombie, the meth wasting his body and aging his features. He was so distorted by the drug that a twenty-year montage of his booking photos had become one of the highest-viewed online features at Faces of Meth, a dramatic progression of decline that he bragged was his second claim to fame.

His first was boosting. Orlando Worthy had been a professional shoplifter for his entire life. Not professional in the sense that he was too good to get caught—he had been caught plenty of times, and his face was known by every cop, retailer, and security guard in Butte County—but in the fact that he did it for a living and was skilled in using the tools of the trade.

His bony hands could snap off security tags faster than an electronic detacher. When he couldn’t break the tags, he used wire cutters, or stuffed the goods inside foil-lined bags to defeat the electronic pedestals at the front doors. If a garment was affixed with ink tags, he would just put it in the freezer overnight and snap them off harmlessly in the morning. For the big, cabled Alpha tags, the screamers, he would go in with a large drink from 7-Eleven, dip the sensor until it shorted out, and then clip it off with his cutters. Retailers called this drowning tags. A flat-head screwdriver could get him into locked electronics and jewelry cases, and threats of violence and biting stopped most store owners and at least two-thirds of store detectives from trying to apprehend him.

Some weren’t intimidated, and Orlando had taken his share of beatings.

Orlando Worthy stole whatever he could sell, and that was most everything. There were always buyers for Polo shirts, fragrances, Timberland boots, and Under Armour. Anything Apple was a hot commodity, as well as electronic games and learning toys. Shrimp, condoms, batteries, leather jackets, women’s shoes, Lego, and pocketbooks—everything had a market. He would steal powdered baby formula by the case and sell it to drug dealers who used it as a safe way to cut heroin, or to welfare moms who paid him twenty cents on the dollar. If a woman walked away from her purse at a grocery store, it was his. If someone left their car unlocked near him, they would return to find their GPS and any spare change missing.

Orlando liked to think of himself as the Prince of Thieves. He didn’t understand the literary reference to the nickname the Impaler, and no one bothered to explain it to him.

In August of last year, Orlando scooted out of a store with seven pairs of snowy-white Nikes, aluminum foil wrapped tightly around the sensors to prevent the pedestals from sounding. He ducked behind the store, on high alert for signs of pursuit, relaxing only when he realized no one was coming. He was shaking, not just from the adrenaline; the pipe was calling. Not just calling, but singing.

A beefy kid in his twenties emerged from behind a Dumpster, a store detective Orlando knew well, and who knew the meth addict just as well.

“Oh, shit,” Orlando said, bracing himself as the kid galloped in and tackled him. As they hit the pavement together, Orlando growled and bit the kid’s arm.

The kid bit him back and damn near tore his right ear off.

Orlando shrieked and hammered at the store detective with his fists, squirming beneath his bulk and slipping free. The kid snarled, glassy-eyed with Orlando’s blood smeared across his face, and the meth addict ran. He didn’t care about Nikes anymore. The look on the kid’s face held the promise of death beside a stinking Dumpster.

He made it seven blocks, stumbling along a sidewalk with both hands pressed to the dangling flap that had been his ear, blood streaking his neck and dampening his clothes. A police cruiser slid to the curb and the young officer inside immediately recognized Orlando. He leaped out of the cruiser and slammed Orlando to the ground, cuffing him. If Orlando Worthy was running and bleeding, he surmised, then he had been up to some illegal shit and that was probable cause enough. The young officer didn’t want to hear his protests of innocence, cared nothing for the meth head’s claims about a cannibalistic store detective. He took him to Enloe Medical Center.

Enloe folded within twelve hours.

When Orlando turned, he had a pressure bandage with heavy gauze wound around his head and was handcuffed to a bed rail in the emergency room. He tugged and rattled the cuff for five months before decay finally tightened his flesh enough to pull his hand free.

There was nothing left to eat in the hospital, so he wandered out.

Eventually he heard crows, understood that it meant meat, and made his way to the sound. When he reached the debris of the wrecked Black Hawk, he saw that another of his kind was already dangling out the cockpit as it fed. Orlando Worthy crawled up and in beside her, moaning as he pushed her over a bit so he could also reach the meal in the flight suit.

Sharon didn’t appear to mind the company.

•   •   •

They had both been dispatchers for Chico Emergency Services, Patty Phuong and Patty MacLaren. The first Patty was petite to the point of being childlike, the second a solid woman with red hair and a booming personality. Cops, firemen, and paramedics, without exception, called them Rice Patty and Patty Wagon. Neither woman took offense, and they even had coffee cups at their workstations bearing the nicknames.

Friends both on and off the clock, the two women no longer knew one another as they shuffled across the winter hay field, walking together by chance alone. Their uniforms hung in tatters and the flesh beneath was a speckled gray and maroon. Rice Patty had lost an eye and most of the flesh on one side of her face. Big Patty Wagon was missing her left arm at the shoulder, and her meaty body was peppered with blackened buckshot patterns.

The women began moaning as they neared the Black Hawk, spotting the figures already feeding there. Then their attention was drawn to the right as a pair of indignant crows, working at something on the ground, took flight in a flurry of black feathers. Rice Patty and Patty Wagon lurched over to see what the birds had been eating.

It was the lower torso of a woman, hips and legs only, with burned fatigues tucked into combat boots. The crash had pitched this bloody mass thirty feet away from the helicopter. The two Pattys dropped to all fours and began to feed, side by side.

•   •   •

Along the length of Mulberry Street in Chico, drifters wandered with arms dangling at their sides, shuffling through blown trash and dropped luggage and abandoned cars. They moved beneath darkened traffic signals and past houses and businesses with broken windows and kicked-in doors. Spray-painted signs, messages to family members about whether someone was alive and where they had gone, marred walls and pavement. A drifter locked in the backseat of a patrol car pressed its rotting face against the glass and pounded a fist with a steady rhythm. Black, crispy shapes moved through the skeletal remains of a burned movie theater, and things dressed in the baggy clothes and knit caps of hipsters walked stiffly along the paths of Chico State University.

Coyotes loped through the quiet streets. Sometimes they fed, sometimes they were fed upon.

A single rifle shot echoed through the bare limbs of winter trees, and a V of honking Canada geese passed high overhead. The wind blew newspapers and foam cups down boulevards of stopped vehicles, and whistled through the space left between a pair of municipal trucks parked nose to nose in an attempt to block a street. Drifters wearing summer clothes shuffled around the ends of the trucks and kept going with no particular destination in mind.

Along Vallombrosa Avenue, where it ran alongside Bidwell Park, crows perched on the wooden crosspieces of the tall, heavy crucifixes planted there, picking at the flesh of still-moving corpses lashed and nailed to the wood in a line that stretched for three blocks. Occasionally a crow would get careless and a head would snap over, teeth crunching down on bone and feathers. For the most part, the birds were clever enough to stay clear of the bite.

The wind ruffled the clothing and hair of the crucified, carrying their moans away.

TWO

August—Sacramento

It was two minutes past six when Dean West let himself into Premier Arms, deactivating the alarm and locking the doors behind him, switching on a few lights. Opening wasn’t until nine, and Tony and Juan wouldn’t be in until eight. The daycare offered early drop-off hours, which worked well as Leah was an early riser, and so Dean looked forward to a couple hours of solitude before the actual workday began. He was restoring an M-1 Garand, the standard-issue rifle of World War II GIs, and the quiet would allow him to give the old weapon the attention it deserved.

Dean was thirty-three and fit, hardened by his former military service, and maintained by five days a week at the gym, plus racquetball. He had to stay in shape to keep up with his wife, a fitness junkie. Not that he minded her dedication. Angie West was a MILF if ever there was one, though he caught a hard slap on the behind when he used the term. Just shy of six feet, handsome by any standards, Dean had tousled brown hair, dark eyes, and a scruff of whiskers on his angled face that Angie said made him look rugged and sexy. He suggested the sexy came from his biceps and washboard abs. She didn’t disagree.

According to their every-other-day rotation, it was his wife’s turn for drop-off at the daycare, but Angie was in Alameda today filming a segment with her uncle, Bud Franks. They were showing off the fifty-caliber Barrett. Flexibility, Angie and Dean agreed, was one of the keys to a successful marriage, and since she was traveling, he took up the slack. It would balance out later when it was his turn to be out of town, and he didn’t mind, anyway. He was crazy about their two-year-old daughter, and even at her tender age, she knew she had her daddy completely wrapped around a tiny finger.

Thinking of being out of town, Dean reminded himself to check his calendar. He was pretty sure the producers of Angie’s Armory were planning a shoot for next week involving a “Life at Home” segment, featuring scenes showing Dean and Angie around the house, having dinner, and playing with Leah. He’d have to get a haircut. They also wanted him to do a shirtless bit, but he hadn’t yet decided if he would. Actually, Angie hadn’t decided.

Premier Arms was a Franks family enterprise, but Dean and Angie ran it. Her dad was semiretired and contented himself with occasional shifts at the smaller shop he had up in Chico, only showing up here in Sacramento for an occasional business meeting or when filming required his attendance. Premier Arms was the “big” shop comprising converted warehouses nestled between Sacramento’s industrial and commercial areas. It boasted a large store that served as the showroom; a public firing range; the machine shop where they fabricated, serviced, and restored weapons; some small offices; a receiving bay; and a pair of classrooms for gun safety courses. There were over forty full- and part-time employees, and they needed six or seven more now that the show had taken off, driving traffic and sales.

Dean walked through the silent showroom and into the back, setting down his coffee and switching on the shop’s lights. At his regular worktable, the metalwork of the Garand rested in a pair of clamps. He turned on the iPod nearby, set it to a nineties playlist, and within minutes was lost in the detail work of professional gunsmithing.

“Dean!”

The yell made him jump, and Dean spun to see Juan Vega, one of his senior guys, standing at the end of the worktable. The digital clock on the shop wall read 7:01. He hadn’t even noticed the hour go by. He switched off the iPod.

“I been calling you,” said Juan, “and yelled at you three times.”

Dean shrugged. “The music’s on. What are you so worked up about?” He had meant it to be casual until he noticed that Juan was worked up. He looked pale and was sweating, and his eyes darted around too much and too fast. Then Dean noticed that Juan was wearing a big-frame automatic in a belt holster. “You okay, man?”

“Where you been?” Juan demanded, his voice higher than normal. “What are you doing here?”

Dean frowned. “What does it look like? Is Tony with you?”

Juan shook his head angrily and waved a hand. “No, why are you here?”

Now Dean got angry. “Because it’s my place. You’re not making sense. And why are you strapped?” He pointed to the pistol on Juan’s hip.

The other man seemed not to hear him. “I tried calling. I didn’t think anyone would be here, but I drove down just to check. I saw your truck outside. Tony isn’t answering either. I’m going to pick up Marta and the kids.” It all came out in a rush, and Juan was leaning a palm against the worktable as if he might fall down. Dean held up his hands.

“Slow down, buddy. Breathe or you’re going to pass out.”

Juan looked at him as if Dean were speaking another language. “You haven’t heard the radio?”

Dean shook his head and pointed to the iPod.

“You don’t know shit, do you?”

Dean shook his head again.

“It’s fucking crazy out there,” Juan said. “There’s rioting, bodies in the streets, fires. . . . People are attacking each other, killing each other with their bare hands. I saw a police car on fire.” Juan grabbed his friend’s arm and gave him a shake. “Are you listening? I saw a helicopter fly over, and the guy in the door was firing his machine gun down into the street, looked like at a crowd of people.” He wiped a shaking hand across his face.

Dean tilted his head. “Don’t fuck with me, Juan. This better not be some gag you and the crew worked up, some punking bullshit.”

The look on the other man’s face told Dean it wasn’t. Juan wasn’t that good an actor.

“Tony doesn’t answer his phone,” Juan said again. “I’m going to get Marta at her office, and then we’ll get the kids from her mother’s. Where’s Angie?”

“Oakland. She’s with Bud and the film crew.”

“You gotta get Leah, man,” Juan urged, tugging on his friend and leading him out into the showroom. “You gotta get the fuck out of Dodge. People are gonna come here.” He gestured at the locked cases of rifles and pistols. “They’re gonna take all this. You can’t be here when they do.”

Before Dean could reply, Juan went around one of the counters and used his keys to unlock a rifle case and the cabinet beneath it, pulling down a pair of black clip-fed Mossberg twelve-gauges and stacking several boxes of shells on the glass. Dean said nothing, only pulled out his cell phone and dialed the daycare but only got the busy signal. He dialed Angie and it went straight to message. He texted her, R U OK?

Juan quickly loaded both shotguns and came from behind the counter, handing one to his boss along with two boxes of ammunition. “The radio was talking about a virus,” he said, “probably terrorism, some kind of biological attack. Another station said zombies—fucking zombies, man. I saw some shit in the street on the way over. . . .” He trailed off, looking at the door.

Dean snorted. “Zombies? Brother, if this is some kind of punk, you are so fired.”

Juan just nodded slowly, his eyes on the door. Then from outside came a pair of pistol shots, close together, and both men jumped. A third shot rang out.

“Does that sound like a punk?” Juan asked.

“Watch the door,” said Dean, going behind the counter and unlocking another cabinet, pulling out a Glock forty-caliber in a paddle holster and clipping it to his belt. “Go get Marta. Call me when you can.”

Juan looked sharply at his friend. “You’re not gonna try to stay here, right?”

“Hell no, that’s what insurance is for. It covers civil disorder, but I don’t know about zombies.” Dean had said it to make his friend smile, but it didn’t work, and that scared him. “Let’s go out together.”

The two men moved to the front door and peeked outside. In the lot was Juan’s white Jeep parked next to Dean’s black Suburban. Out on the road that ran past Premier Arms, a tractor-trailer was stopped in the far lane, the driver’s door open, no sign of the trucker.

“When I was coming over here,” Juan whispered, “I saw—” He hissed and pointed. “There! What the fuck is that?”

A woman in a yellow tank top was walking past the Suburban, her shirt covered in fresh blood, most of her face missing, head tilted at an odd angle. She suddenly increased her pace, breaking into a grotesque gallop as she moved to the left and out of sight. A moment later there was another pistol shot, followed by a man’s scream.

Juan crossed himself and muttered something Dean couldn’t hear.

“Let’s go,” said Dean, racking his shotgun and pushing through the door. Once outside, Dean took the time to lower and lock the security gate—no sense making it easy for the bastards—before turning toward the parking lot. Juan was a few feet away, staring at a point just past the tractor-trailer. The woman in the tank top was on all fours in the road, kneeling next to a man in gray coveralls. They were ripping at the body of a man in a flannel shirt and work boots, still gripping a pistol. They were . . . eating him.

“Go,” Dean said, pushing his friend. “Go get Marta.”

Juan nodded and walked to his Jeep, moving like a sleepwalker, unable to take his eyes off the grisly scene. Dean jogged to the Suburban and fired it up but didn’t pull out until Juan’s Jeep finally started moving. In his rearview he could see the two figures devouring the third, and he didn’t miss the fact that the sounds of the starting engines made them both look up. Moments later Juan was on the road, and Dean pulled out, heading in the opposite direction.

Sunrise Daycare was five miles away, almost an equal distance between Premier Arms and his and Angie’s house. It was a good place, a safe place where the teachers and kids regularly drilled on crisis procedures. Leah would be okay.

The busy signal that greeted him every time he called seemed to argue the point.

She would be okay, he insisted. But it didn’t prevent him from stomping the accelerator and rocketing into the commercial district.

•   •   •

Juan had been right. It was coming apart.

The black smoke of structure fires climbed over the roofs of buildings, and the air was full of sirens. There was traffic, even at this early hour, and it was moving fast, people blowing lights and cutting through corner gas stations, swerving around vehicles stopped in the street. An olive-drab helicopter swooped low over a strip mall, followed a moment later by a second and a third.

Dean watched the choppers pass from right to left and gripped the steering wheel tightly to keep his hands from trembling. He tried to control his breathing as he switched on the radio, punching in a local news channel.

“. . . biological hazard, said Major Phillip Jeffries, U.S. Army physician and part of the Army’s program on chemical and biological warfare. Dr. Jeffries stated that he was in regular contact with the governor’s office, and that every effort was being made to coordinate military activity with civilian authorities.

“Repeating the most recent release of information from the California Department of Public Safety, ‘The infection appears to be highly contagious, and contact with the infected is to be avoided. Those exposed to the virus may experience periods of rage and violence, and if avoidance is not possible, they are to be isolated and contained. Citizens are advised to remain in their homes and keep roadways clear for emergency vehicles.’

“From the State House, the governor has declared a state of emergency for all California counties and has activated National Guard units to maintain order. In a statement an hour ago, Governor Young said that all incidents of violence and looting will be dealt with swiftly and harshly.

“In Washington, the president . . .”

Dean slammed on the brakes and cranked the wheel, putting the Suburban into a sideways slide as he raced toward an intersection where several cars and a postal truck had tangled. The tires stuttered and then stopped, and Dean let his breath out in a great whoosh.

A Sacramento motorcycle cop was walking around the wreckage, shooting people still trapped inside. A man with his face covered in blood. A little girl reaching out through a window.

“No!” Dean screamed as the cop’s pistol went off, and he reached for the door handle and the pistol on his belt simultaneously. Before he could get out, however, another hand shot out from the wreckage and caught the motorcycle cop’s ankle, jerking him off his feet. More hands gripped the man’s legs and together dragged him screaming into the shadowy tangle of bent steel and broken glass.

Dean didn’t wait to see more. He gunned the Suburban around the traffic accident and accelerated, knocking over the cop’s motorcycle, a moment later flashing by a wailing ambulance headed in the other direction. A burning Applebee’s went by on the right, with no fire trucks in sight. People ran out the front of a liquor store carrying cardboard boxes, chased by a man with a green apron and a baseball bat. The Suburban went faster, Dean trying to keep an eye on the road as he tried his cell phone again. Now there was simply a No Service message.

As he approached the turn for Leah’s daycare, a minivan swerved at him and blared its horn, scraping down the Suburban’s left side before rocking back into its lane and disappearing behind him. His brain had a second to recognize the driver as one of the regular drop-off moms from the daycare, though he couldn’t remember her name. She had a daughter with a lot of freckles. In that instant, he saw blood on her face, and she was screaming.

Dean’s heart was pounding now as he made the turn and headed down the long, curving drive to Sunrise Daycare. At the far end of the road was a low, stucco-sided building with finger-paint masterpieces taped to the windows and a fenced playground off to one side. The parking lot and driveway were packed with vehicles, many stopped at odd angles, many more with their doors standing open, completely blocking the path.

Dean wheeled up over the curb and tore across the lawn. They could bill him for the landscaping.

He stopped thirty feet from the entrance, the big SUV’s nose buried in a long hedge, and jumped out expecting to see mommies and daddies streaming out through the front doors, their little ones in their arms.

But there was no one.

Dean left the shotgun in the car and pulled his shirt down over the pistol as he moved across the lawn. A handgun at a daycare, no matter who you were or what was going on, would result in an immediate call to the police. After what he had seen at the intersection, he had no wish to encounter Sacramento’s finest.

Then he saw why the lot was empty. The glass front doors to Sunrise Daycare were closed, and packed with adults on the other side, staring wide-eyed at the sidewalk beyond, some covering their mouths. The cement walk just in front of the doors was splashed with blood, the body of a woman in a charcoal business suit lying facedown to one side, unmoving. Closer to the doors, another woman was crouched on all fours, just like the one he had seen earlier, biting and ripping at something small, something with a pink top and matching pink sneakers. . . .

“Oh, God,” Dean gasped, stopping.

The woman lifted her head, eyes glassy, face a red smear, and she snarled. He recognized her, Miss Daniels, one of the preschool teachers. The woman snapped her teeth several times and went back at the little body.

Dean’s Glock .40 cleared leather as he stepped to her and pulled the trigger. A sharp crack, red and gray exploding out the other side of her head, the tinkle of a brass shell hitting the sidewalk.

There was rapid pounding at the glass doors and Dean looked up to see the cluster of parents frantically pointing behind him. He turned to see the woman in the business suit, Veronica something, mother to the little one in pink, standing and lurching unsteadily toward him. Her throat was a torn, red void, and her eyes had that same glassy quality.

“Veronica . . .” Dean started, but the woman made a sound that was half growl, half gurgle, and lunged.

Dean shot her in the chest. She stumbled and kept coming.

He raised his Glock ten inches and fired a round, stopping her.

It was like opening the flood valves of a dam. The front doors burst open and parents flowed out carrying crying children. They moved past Dean and ran into the parking lot.

“Watch out for that one,” one mother said as she passed, pointing at the little girl in pink. Then she was gone, the lot quickly turning into a mass of gunned engines and horns. Dean looked past the hopelessly blocked lot and saw half a dozen people stumbling in from the street, probably parents who had seen that they couldn’t get their cars in. They moved like people who had just been through a prolonged artillery barrage.

Dean went into the lobby, no longer worried about the pistol in his hand, where he met Miss Pottermeyer, the center’s director. She held up her hands. “She’s fine. Leah’s with Miss Pam, playing with a few other kids. We haven’t been able to reach all the parents yet. I’ll go get her.”

While the woman was gone, Dean looked out at the still-snarled parking lot. There were fewer honking horns now. Then he looked at the two women he had killed.

Infection? Biological attack? Zombies?

He ejected the partially used magazine from the Glock and pulled his spare clip from its slot next to the holster, looking at his hands. They were steady. Thank God for that. He loaded the full magazine and looked at the bodies again. No hyperventilation, no racing heart. Again, good. He’d worry about how he felt about them later; he needed his game face right now. And they weren’t his first, were they? Or the first women.

Miss Pottermeyer returned with Leah, blond, blue-eyed, and two (two and a half, he corrected himself), wearing little white shorts and a powder-blue top with a kitten on it. Her sneakers had kittens on them as well.

“Daddy!” She ran to Dean, and he swept her up in his left arm, holstering the Glock with the other hand.

“Outside . . . I . . .” He looked at the center’s director and shook his head.

The woman held up a hand. “Dean, you did what needed doing. No one could leave while she was out there. And I can’t even think of her as Miss Daniels after what she—she was a monster, and that’s all.”

Dean shook his head. “But the other ones.” He remembered the dead girl’s name was Kayla but realized he had never met her mom, except to say “hi” in passing. “How did they . . . ?” He trailed off again.

“They come back,” Miss Pottermeyer simply said. “They’re not people anymore.” Her voice was flat, her face without expression, as if a hard shell had closed over her emotions. It was a survival technique, and used especially by those with responsibility for others. He had seen it many times and had done it himself, in a place of sand and high temperatures.

Miss Pottermeyer took a step toward him and lowered her voice. “Monsters, Dean. Don’t you forget that, and don’t you hesitate. You’ve seen what they do, and they don’t differentiate between adults and children.”

They were the words of a combat leader, and the fact that they were delivered by a preschool administrator made it all the more surreal. Still he nodded.

“Is Angie okay?” Pottermeyer asked.

“I don’t know. I can’t get in touch with her.”

The woman reached out and ran her fingers up Leah’s back, making the little girl giggle. “You need to get her far away from here,” she said, her voice still low.

Dean nodded. “The family has a crisis plan. We’re going north, to the ranch. Angie will know to meet us there. What about you?”

The woman gave him a sad smile. “There are still four little ones here waiting for their parents and 911 just goes to a recording. I can’t leave while they’re here.”

“Then we’ll put everyone in the Suburban—” Dean started.

Pottermeyer cut him off. “Their parents might be on the way now. I can’t take them anywhere.” She squeezed Dean’s arm and forced a smile. “I called my husband when the phones were still working. He’s coming with the Explorer, and I told him to bring his pistol. If the parents haven’t arrived by the time he gets here, maybe Miss Pam and I will put the kids in the truck and we’ll all leave together.”

“Where’s Mama?” Leah asked, squirming in Dean’s arms.

“She’s working, sweetie.”

“Why is she working?”

Dean smiled at their old routine. “Why do Mommy and Daddy go to work?”

“To make that money,” Leah said.

Miss Pottermeyer reached out and took Leah from Dean’s arms, surprising him. She turned so that the little girl was facing the other direction. “The door,” the woman said.

Dean turned to see Kayla, the little girl who had been torn apart on the sidewalk, standing and bumping against the glass, smearing it red. Her eyes were milky and dead. It was an impossible sight, the little corpse pressing her face against the glass, biting at it. The damage to her body was extreme. She shouldn’t be standing, shouldn’t be moving.

Watch out for that one, the fleeing parent had said.

Dean didn’t think he could shoot a little girl, no matter what she had become. Miss Pottermeyer saved him from the decision. “Come with me to the fire exit,” she said, crossing the room. Dean followed her down a hallway with brightly colored doors and bulletin boards covered in construction-paper creations and panda faces made from paper plates. They passed a classroom with a viewing window, where he saw a young black woman on her knees singing a song with four preschoolers. Miss Pam looked up and smiled.

Dean stopped in the hallway. “I’m staying with you until your husband gets here.”

“No,” Pottermeyer said.

“I have a shotgun in the truck. Let me—”

“No,” she repeated, this time in her teacher’s no-nonsense, now-hear-this voice. “Richard is on his way. We’ll stay locked inside until he gets here. We both have kids to watch out for; go get yours to a safe place.” She gave Leah a kiss on the ear, getting a giggle in return, then stood on her toes and kissed Dean on the cheek. “God bless.”

A moment later the fire door was clicking shut behind him, and Dean was trotting across the grass toward the Suburban, the Glock once more in his hand. A few of the cars seemed to have managed their way out of the lot, but most remained where they had been. There was no more honking, in fact no more movement. A few of the open car doors were now streaked red, and there was broken glass strewn across the asphalt. Low growling came from within the jam of cars.

Dean quickly buckled Leah into her seat, handing her a stuffed Cookie Monster with a rattle inside to keep her busy. She let it drop to the floor at once, declaring it a baby toy. Then the big SUV’s tires were carving furrows in the lawn as Dean backed up, turned toward the main road, and headed for home.

•   •   •

First there had been no traffic, and then suddenly he was sitting still, cars and trucks backed up from the intersection ahead, horns unable to drown out the unmistakable rattle of automatic weapons. Dean saw a squad of infantrymen in full combat gear running along the sidewalk to his right, toward the gunfire.

He felt a tremble at the corner of his eye, his mouth going dry.

Not now.

People had begun to get out of their cars to see what the holdup was, despite the shooting. Idiots, Dean thought, and threw the Suburban into reverse, crunching into the grille of a BMW and hurling it backward. With this new space he was able to wheel out in a hard U-turn, ignoring the shouted curses and horns, scraping the front fender across the brick face of a pizza joint and then shooting back the way he had come, away from the intersection.

“Daddy, you crashed,” said the voice from the backseat.

“Just a little, honey.”

“Did you hurt the car?”

“Nope, we’re fine.”

“Juice!” Leah yelled.

“When we get home, honey.”

“Juice! Juice!”

He was driving up a tree-lined road and had to swerve right and stop on the shoulder to get out of the way of an oncoming line of vehicles, all moving at high speed. Three desert camo Humvees roared past him in the other direction, followed by a sheriff’s deputy with flashing lights. All three military vehicles had men in the turrets, two behind mounted fifty-calibers, the third behind an automatic grenade launcher. Overhead, pacing their movements, a Black Hawk in desert colors flew so low it made the trees shake.

Without warning, the beat of the rotor blades suddenly hurled Dean into his past. He felt the desert heat, and heard the cries of men who now only existed as ghosts.

King-Six, King-Six, we are fully engaged.

Call in the goddamn fire mission!

Get third squad moving on the right flank—

Requesting medevac, coordinates to follow.

Dennis is hit! Oh, Christ . . .

Negative, King-Six, we cannot—

Dean? My legs, man . . . I can’t find them. . . .

The convoy and helicopter were gone, and Dean blinked, shaking off the ghosts. Not real, not anymore. He pulled back into the street and put his foot down, urging the big SUV on. It was bullshit, he didn’t have it. Eight years in, three combat tours completed, and all of it was almost five years behind him now. Lots of guys had come home with it, but not him. It wasn’t creeping up on him now, despite the . . . moments . . . he had experienced over the last six months. Post-traumatic stress was something other guys had to deal with. Dean had coped just fine with what he’d seen. It had been horrible, yes, and there were bad memories, of course. But that was all they were.

“Mama!” came a shout from the backseat.

“We’ll see Mama soon, sweetie.”

The Suburban turned into Sierra Oaks Vista, Sacramento’s most upscale residential neighborhood, a sleepy place of large, estatelike homes with lush landscaping and meandering roads. It was tough to buy here because houses rarely came on the market, and before even being able to schedule a showing, potential buyers had to prove they could qualify for the million-dollar-plus loans. He and Angie had been fortunate not only with the timing but to have found a place they fell in love with and could also afford. The schools were first-rate and the neighborhood was safe. He made a series of turns to reach the house.

Over five thousand square feet, the sprawling two-story sat well back from the street across manicured lawns shaded by mature trees. A four-foot stone wall ringed the property, more for aesthetics than security (it was only four feet, after all), and a pair of iron gates closed the paver-stone driveway off from the street. Dean pressed one of six buttons on a remote clipped to his sun visor, and the gates swung in.

The Suburban shot up the curved drive as Dean depressed another button, opening one of the five-car garage’s roll-up doors. He turned to back in and saw a woman walk through the driveway gates before they could close.

She was walking with sort of a stiff-legged lurch.

Bobby and Angel Levine had the house next door. They were a couple close to his and Angie’s age, with a little boy about six months older than Leah. They were nice people and there had been playdates, barbecues, and drinks by the pool. Pulled into the shadows of the garage now, Dean shut off the engine and watched Angel shuffle up his driveway. She had always been an attractive woman, with long black hair, longer legs, who jogged and was religious about yoga, committed to maintaining her figure, much like his own wife.

Angel was dead now. She had to be. No one could live with their torso ripped open like that, internal organs dangling and bouncing against their thighs. It was a sight Dean knew he’d see later in dreams.

“Potty, Daddy!” Leah called. “Gotta go!”

Dean shut the garage door. He was fairly certain the rest of the house was locked; it usually was before he went to work, so Angel Levine would have to wait. He got Leah inside and to her potty chair in time, then carried her to the family room and turned on Nick Jr. He wanted the news, but he had priorities, and keeping his toddler amused so he could carry out his tasks was at the top of the list. Leah clapped when she saw Dora. Dean was just happy there was still a cable signal.

“Daddy will be right back.” Dean touched his daughter’s head and then looked out the windows, searching for Angel. He didn’t see her, but it wasn’t the best angle. She could be near the garage door, or moving around back. He made a quick tour of the doors and windows on this floor, making sure they were locked and looking constantly for his neighbor. There was no sign of Angel. As he took the stairs two at a time he tried Angie again but had no signal.

In one of the hall closets, filling most of the space at the bottom, was the family go-bag. It was made of bright orange nylon and packed with clothes, first-aid supplies, a little food and water, flashlights, spare cell phone batteries, and a wad of cash. The bag was a discipline he and his wife had adopted in the face of the many natural disasters and terror attacks that had plagued the world in recent years, one that made sense. They had basic supplies they could take in a hurry and a plan for where they would go, even if they were separated and out of contact. It was simple, but he knew most people didn’t even have that.

However, as he pulled out the bag he realized it hadn’t been updated since Leah was younger. It held diapers, wipes, powdered formula, and onesies she hadn’t fit into in over a year. Leah had given up the bottle twelve months ago and was now potty trained. Almost. He cursed the reality show for making their lives so busy they neglected the details, then shook his head. Blame yourself, buddy, he thought. The History channel’s not responsible for your family.

Dean dumped the baby items and grabbed clothes from Leah’s room, remembering to snatch Wawas off her bed. The much-gnawed, soft little walrus was the center of Leah’s world, and failing to bring along the stuffed animal would launch its own sort of apocalypse.

He left the go-bag in the upstairs hall and went into his walk-in closet, tapping in the code for one of two gun safes. From a shelf above the hanging clothes he retrieved a heavy black nylon bag with PREMIER ARMS printed on the side. His selections went into the bag.

A Smith & Wesson .45 automatic with shoulder holster.

One box of rounds.

A clip-fed, twelve-gauge auto shotgun—like the one in the truck—with fold-out stock.

Four boxes of shells.

An AR-15, illegally converted to full-auto capability.

Ten magazines, loaded, in a nylon bandolier.

A Browning .380 auto with ankle holster.

Two boxes of shells for his Glock.

An Ingram MAC-10 machine pistol with suppressor in a custom leather shoulder rig.

Eight loaded thirty-round magazines.

Two boxes of forty-five-caliber rounds for the Ingram.

When the world ends with zombies, it doesn’t suck to own a gun store. It sounded like one of those snarky greeting cards people posted on Facebook. The black gun bag weighed a ton as he heaved it and the orange go-bag downstairs and through the house to the garage. He glanced at Leah as he went by. She was sitting criss-cross-applesauce on the floor. Dean could hear Miss Pottermeyer’s voice admonish him, “We don’t say Indian-style anymore, Mr. West.” On the TV, Dora and Boots were trying to find their way to the snowy mountain.

Both bags went into the back of the Suburban, along with a five-gallon container of fuel he kept for the riding mower, and a propane camp stove. He raided the kitchen pantry, sweeping canned goods into a pair of canvas totes, then added them, along with a three-quarters-full case of bottled water, to the rear of the SUV. He looked around the garage, grabbing an axe, a short-handled shovel, and a blue plastic tarp. He hadn’t used any of his lawn or house tools since the show went nuclear and he could afford a landscaping service.

Dean was intensely aware of the time, felt it pressing down on him as minutes slipped away. He knew a few things about crisis in an urban setting, and one of the first things he had been taught was that those who didn’t get out immediately usually never got out at all. He had seen it and lived it overseas, and had taught it, along with other skills, during his days at Fort Lewis. Specifically at the fort’s Urban Warfare School, where soldiers were introduced to a close-combat, high-stress environment, one in which death waited at every doorway, window, and corner. They were lessons the school’s graduates dared not forget.

“Sweetie, time to go,” he called, walking quickly back through the house.

Leah wasn’t in front of the TV.

Dean’s heart tried to crawl up his throat for a full second before he saw her. She was standing at one of the windows.

“Miss Angel,” Leah said, pressing her nose to the glass and waving.

Dean felt like he was moving in slow motion as he went for Leah, knowing what would happen, seeing the dead arms crash through the glass and drag his little girl to her death. But they didn’t. He reached her and saw that Angel Levine was indeed outside the window, but held back by three feet of tight, trimmed hedge, grasping hands reaching but falling short. Mercifully, the bloody damage to her torso was out of sight beneath the top of the hedge.

“We’ll talk to her later,” he said, forcing his voice not to waver.

Leah laughed and waved. “She’s funny.”

“We need to go for a ride, baby.”

Not a baby.”

“No, a big girl. We’ll get a juice box for the car, okay?”

“Want Dora.” She huffed and crossed her little arms. Dear Lord, she looked like her mother. Dean pulled the stuffed walrus from his back pocket and wiggled it. “Look who I have.”

Leah squealed, “Wawas!” and grabbed for the animal. Dean held it low but out of reach, walking fast through the house, making it a game as Leah laughed and chased him to the garage. There he swept her up, snapped her into the car seat, and handed her Wawas.

“Shit,” he said as he slammed the door, and went back into the house, every second ticking like rumbles of thunder. How long had he been here? It felt like hours. He returned with the potty seat they kept in the downstairs bathroom, along with a box of wipes and a half-full package of juice boxes. He made one more trip inside, scrawling a note to Angie and pinning it to the front of the fridge with a magnet. Gone to the ranch.

Behind the wheel at last, Dean stared at the closed garage door. Was Angel Levine on the other side? Was she dangerous? Maybe to the first, of course to the second. He wasn’t going to shoot a neighbor in the head in front of his daughter. What would he do . . . run her over?

He opened the garage, then clicked open the gates at the end of the drive.

Nothing moved.

He gassed it, going too fast down the drive, catching a peripheral glimpse of a figure staggering toward them across the lawn before he reached the street. Other than the absence of joggers, people getting their papers, and cars pulling out for the drive to work, Sierra Oaks Vista was as quiet as any other weekday morning. Only now, Dean wondered at what was moving behind those stately walls and curtained windows.

Within minutes he was clear of the neighborhood. Now all he had to do was escape Sacramento and make it the hundred miles to Chico.

Several blocks away, a gas station went up in a loud WHUMP, a red-and-black plume mushrooming into the clear morning sky. To his right, a police helicopter was hovering low over a parking lot while a SWAT officer hung out one door, firing his rifle. In the street ahead of him, bloody and mangled bodies dragged their feet as they moved in search of prey.

So many choices. Dean West gritted his teeth and got moving.

THREE

January 11—East of Chico

Halsey awoke to a cold cabin. He had been dreaming about the stables again, but in this dream, the stables were filled with the rich smells of hay and horses, and the mare named Starlight was still in her stall, belly heavy with the foal she would drop soon. It was peaceful, a good dream.

He sat on the edge of the bed for several minutes, waking up and waiting to see if he was hungover, deciding he wasn’t. His face was scratchy, needed a razor, and he wondered—as he did every morning—why he bothered shaving anymore. He would, though, just as he had every day of his fifty years since he was sixteen. A dull ache materialized behind his eyes. Maybe he would need some Advil after all.

Starlight. It was the horses that had drawn them, perhaps the smell, perhaps the lure of flesh trapped helplessly in their stalls. Halsey had been out when it happened, had returned to the ranch to find the horses slaughtered, Starlight and her colt partially devoured, dead things shuffling around the cabin and outbuildings. He had shot them all down, and then he’d cried, a fifty-year-old man on his knees in the packed dirt, sobbing like a child.

He didn’t go into the stables anymore.

Halsey shuffled into the main room of the cabin, wool socks whispering on the hardwood floor. He was tall and slender, with ropy, muscled arms, and his short hair was bristly, the color of iron. He switched on the generator, tucked into a separate locked shed against the outside of the cabin and wired into the house, then set a kettle on the hot plate. He sat at the kitchen table and picked up an Elmore Leonard novel, starting from the page he had folded at the corner, waiting for the whistle.

The cabin was small, simple, and clean with a bedroom, a bathroom, an eat-in kitchen, and a tiny living room. There had been a flat-screen TV mounted over the fireplace, but Halsey had taken it down and left it out in the weather behind the stables. He had never watched it much anyway. In its place hung a large map of Butte County, covered in circles and notations from a red felt-tip pen. The cabin’s furniture was crafted from heavy wood, sturdy and comfortable, the décor a simple western theme. Like him, a simple, single man steadily moving out of his prime.

When the coffee was ready he fried up a skillet of canned hash, longing as he often did for eggs and milk. He couldn’t keep the animals that supplied those things, however. Their presence attracted the dead.

Halsey shaved and washed up with a rag and a basin of water, then dressed in jeans, boots, and a thermal shirt, pulling on a brown Carhartt jacket and an old John Deere cap. He went to the window beside the front door—all of them were covered in sturdy, barred wooden shutters—and slid open a peep slot like he was a doorman at a Prohibition speakeasy.

A pair of DTs—Halsey’s shortening of Dead Things, since the word zombie just felt like kid’s stuff—was out there, a man shuffling past Halsey’s dusty Ford pickup, a woman in what had once been a suit but was now gray rags standing in place, swaying side to side and staring at the cabin. Halsey peered at her.

“I’ll be damned,” he said. “You’ve come a long way, Dolores.”

That was the problem with living in the sticks. You knew the folks you shot. Dolores was the branch manager at the bank Halsey had used up in Paradise, five or six miles from here. The gray-black skin of her bare feet was filthy and torn. In life she had been a pleasant sort. Halsey had liked her the way a man likes people he meets only once in a while, those who remember that other folks matter just as much as themselves.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

“When people ask me to recommend great zombie fiction one of the names I consistently mention is John L. Campbell. Nobody writes an urban battle scene quite like he does. The pace of his storytelling will leave you breathless, and his characters are so real and so likeable you will jump up and cheer for them. Omega Days is, hands down, one of the shining stars of the zombie genre. Do yourself a favor and move this one to the top of your to-be-read pile right now. You can thank me later.”—Joe McKinney, Bram Stoker Award-winning author of The Savage Dead and Dead City

“Characters as diverse as a priest fallen from grace, to a prisoner who finds his heart, are all in this story of terror….Campbell is good with characters…It’s stories like Omega Days, with a setting in a popular city that most people have heard about, that can take an average story and make it unique.”—Examiner.com

“An impressively convincing vision of a world suddenly gone insane…The maelstrom that Campbell creates is a somber portrayal of the human capacity for both selfishness and, more rarely, altruism. He effectively builds a mood of terror that sweeps the reader along in this powerful example of zombie thriller genre at its best.”—Publishers Weekly

"A highly entertaining read with a style that grabbed me from the very first page...There are creepy echoes…of masters like Koontz and King…If you want highly entertaining, escapist, zombie fiction with plenty of action peopled by rich and interesting characters, you couldn't do better than Omega Days."—SF Revu 

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Drifters 4.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Never a dull moment! Heart pounding action. This writer puts you in the story. What a ride!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Love the series. Can't wait for the forth book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Found the third book as good as the other two. Looking forward to book #4.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Loved it!
LITERALADDICTION_MLO More than 1 year ago
Our Review, by LITERAL ADDICTION's Pack Alpha - Chelle: *Copy gifted in exchange for an honest review I adore zombie fiction. And I have read some good one and some terrible ones. When I discovered John L. Campbell's Omega Days series, it was all I could do to wait for the next installment.  Campbell has, in my mind, proven himself a force to be reckoned with in modern zombie apocalypse tales, and the dissected storylines of the series, while something that usually annoy me to no end, lent to a beautifully robust tale from multiple perspectives while still keeping the story arc whole.  Drifters was a bit different than the first two installments, wherein we finally get to find out what happened to the ones that our previous 'main' characters were trying to get back to, specifically, Angie West's husband and daughter, along with the rest of her family. I enjoyed every single page and devoured it in two sittings, but I must admit, I missed the rest of the cast from the U.S.S Nimitz for a good majority of the book, and that is only because Campbell had made me miss them by drawing me in so thoroughly in books #1 and #2.  While Omega Days and Ship of the Dead were slightly more real-time, Drifters takes the reader back to the things that happened during the time that Angie and her family were separated, while uncovering yet another sick and twisted group of survivors, proving once again that all monsters are human.   In keeping with the tone and tension of the series, Campbell holds no punches when it comes to disturbing action, and piles on the grit in a most wonderful way. Nobody is safe in these novels, and I couldn't be more excited about that. :) If you like The Walking Dead and have a soft spot for horror novels that delve into the human psyche and the darkness that exists within us all, then I highly recommend the Omega Days novels.  Postscript: I was completely saddened because I thought this was the final novel of the series, though I had wondered if John might write a spin-off. I've now heard that there will be more, and after that ending, I absolutely cannot wait!