25 to 1. Those are the odds of being struck down--and resurrected--by the savage plague that's sweeping the country, forcing survivors to band together against the dead.
They're Growing Stronger. . .
Even among the living, there is dissention. A new leader known as the Red Man has risen up and taken charge--and he's nearly as dangerous as the hungry dead. Some, like Bob Richardson and his friends, strike out on their own. Because if the men with guns don't get them, the zombies will.
They're Getting Smarter. . .
Fleeing the cities, Richardson and his crew find sanctuary in an abandoned farm. But their stronghold may not be strong enough. Something strange and terrifying is happening to the undead. They're banding together. Working as a group. Hungering for a common goal: human flesh. And lots of it.
Praise for Joe McKinney and His Novels
"A merciless, fast-paced and genuinely scary read that will leave you absolutely breathless." --Bram Stoker Award-winning author Brian Keene on Dead City
"A fantastic tale of survival horror that starts with a bang and never lets up." --Zombiehub.com
"A rising star on the horror scene."--Fearnet.com
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
By Joe McKinney
PINNACLE BOOKSCopyright © 2012 Joe McKinney
All right reserved.
Chapter OneBen Richardson jammed himself all the way to the back of the oven and watched the zombies staggering around in the rubble that had once been the lobby of a Pizza Hut. He wanted to kick himself for being so careless. His head had been elsewhere, and they'd caught him completely off guard. If he hadn't turned around when he did and spied them through the busted-out windows at the front of the restaurant, they'd have made a meal of him. But chain restaurants like this usually had canned food in their prep areas, and the promise of something other than pork and beans had been too much to resist. Stupid, he told himself, risking his life for a gallon of tomato puree.
But he made the mistake and now he had to own it. All that was left was to wait. Be quiet, and wait. He silently let out a breath and relaxed his muscles, trying to get comfortable. No telling how long this would take.
There were three of them out there, two older men and a young girl who looked like she might have been about fourteen. It was hard to tell for sure, though. The disease and the malnutrition disfigured them so, and, truth be told, he wasn't such a good judge of how old children were anymore. He saw so few of them these days.
The zombies bumped into overturned tables and stopped as though confused when faced with padded booths and the overturned skeleton of the salad bar. The only sound came from the glass and fallen ceiling tiles crunching beneath their feet. But that could change at any minute. Richardson knew that from long experience. They always hunted in silence until they flushed something from the debris. Here, in the ruins of downtown St. Louis, that something would probably be a rat or, if they were lucky, a dog or a cat. Once they cornered it, the moaning would start. It would begin as a soft groaning sigh, but that would quickly swell to the breathy, almost desperate sobbing sound that Richardson had come to think of as their feeding call. It would carry for blocks, attracting more of their kind. Within moments the infected would swarm the streets.
Richardson had seen it happen too many times before.
And so he waited with a revolver in his left hand and a machete in his right, hoping these three would pass him by. Zombies were the ultimate opportunists, always on the lookout for an easy meal. But they lacked any sort of higher consciousness, and they certainly couldn't anticipate their prey's movements. As long as he stayed quiet, and stayed in the dark, he'd be okay.
You're a roving camera, he told himself. Just watch. Soak it all up.
One of the zombies stepped in front of the oven, stopped, and slowly swiveled its head in Richardson's direction. For a moment, the zombie was framed by a faint golden nimbus of morning light. But then Richardson's eyes adjusted to the glare and he saw the zombie clearly. The man had obviously fed recently. His shoulder-length hair was matted with deep arterial blood that had partially dried and looked like tar. Flies swarmed about his mouth and eyes, resting on his shaggy beard and on the soiled clothes that hung like strips of rags from his body. The smell of rotten meat brought bile to Richardson's throat.
He studied the man's eyes. They were a milky white and threaded with cloudy pink lines. The eyes told him everything he needed to know. This was a Stage I zombie, probably only infected within the last eight months or so with the necrosis filovirus, which caused the disease that had turned him into a zombie. He was slow and stupid, his brain charred to cinders by fever and his body crippled by malnutrition. If he survived long enough for the disease to enter its second stage—and that was highly unlikely from all that Richardson had seen—he would evolve into something far more dangerous, faster, even capable of rudimentary teamwork with other zombies. But for now, the man posed little threat.
As long as Richardson stayed quiet.
Just wait it out, he thought. Be a roving camera. He'll go away.
A sudden noise out in the street caught Richardson's attention. The sound of somebody running, breathing hard. A woman's voice, the words indistinct.
Slowly, the zombie turned toward the noise. The other two did the same. A moment later the moaning started. A chill crawled across Richardson's skin. Even after all these years and all the time he spent telling himself he was just an observer here, none of this affected him, the feeding call still made his bowels clench in fear.
He saw a flash of movement off to his left. The zombies were already moving to the exit, going after whatever it was, and so Richardson inched forward to the edge of the oven and craned his head as much as he dared around the corner.
The restaurant windows had been busted out long ago, so that only shards of glass and dangling lengths of weather stripping hung in the frames. Through the window Richardson had a view of the street outside, weeds growing up through the cracks, and beyond that, the ruins of North St. Louis. He wasn't exactly sure of the name of the street and he supposed it didn't matter. All the streets of the world seemed to look the same now anyway: thick with wrecked cars and blown trash, bleak canyons between buildings that had long since been reduced to windowless hulks, their insides gutted by scavengers and rotting from the weather.
The zombies that had been inside the restaurant with him were moving off to his left, threading their way through a maze of cannibalized cars. Richardson could see a few more zombies emerging from an alley on the far side of the street.
"Hey, over here!"
It was a woman's voice, coming from his side of the street.
The three zombies stopped and slowly swiveled around to face the restaurant.
"Oh, no," Richardson muttered. What are you doing you crazy fool?
"Hey!" the woman yelled again.
He inched back into the oven. You're a roving camera, he told himself. Don't get involved. Choose the smart option, the one that lets you live.
But it had been days since he'd seen another person.
And it got lonely out here in the wastelands. God-awful lonely.
Well aware he was acting foolishly, he decided to chance it.
He poured himself out of the oven and, keeping low, moved to his backpack resting against the wall by the building's side door. Richardson kept binoculars in there, but he didn't need them. The woman had stopped where he could see her easily enough. She was about his age, late forties, early fifties maybe, slender, with frizzy gray hair pulled back in a loose ponytail that bounced between her shoulder blades like a tumbleweed on the wind. She carried a hunting rifle with a shoulder sling that she waved over her head like she was trying to flag the zombies down.
Richardson was stunned. I know her. Christ, where do I know her from? He studied her profile, leafing back through the Rolodex in his head, trying to place her face. Where had he seen her before? Montana, maybe? There had been several thousand people living in a commune there, years ago. Unbidden, thoughts of the two happy years he spent there rose up in his memory. Those two years, when Ed Moore and the others who had escaped Jasper Sewell's Grasslands cult were still alive, had been a sort of lull in the apocalypse. Ed had done everything right, and people had flocked from all over to enjoy the protection he offered. Straining his memory, Richardson went through the names of all the people he had known there in Montana, but he couldn't place the woman.
But he did know her. He was positive of that.
The zombies were getting closer to her now. Their feeding call was louder. Their sobbing had become urgent. The lead zombie raised his arms, his fingers clutching at the air, his addled brain unable to accurately perceive the distance to his intended prey.
Then the woman put the gun down on the hood of a wrecked pickup, pulled a wooden baseball bat from a holster she carried on her shoulder, and charged the zombie.
"What the hell ...?" Richardson said.
The woman sidestepped the zombie, ducked underneath its clutching hands, spun around, and came up behind the man. Then she dropped him with a practiced swing to the back of the head, grunting loudly as the bat cracked the man's skull. She put the other two zombies down with the same precise movements, and Richardson figured she had to have done that move before. It was too quick, too precise, too practiced.
Now she was looking around.
Richardson scanned the parts of the street he could see too. Don't get involved, he pleaded with himself. Stay out of sight. Be the roving camera that sees all but doesn't get involved.
But for once his curiosity overruled his common sense. This was crazy. What was she looking for? He couldn't figure it out. Richardson kept expecting her to run for it. She wasn't carrying any sort of gear except the bat and the rifle; and her clothes, though dirty, were in good repair. That meant she had to come from one of the compounds somewhere around here. There were five or six he had heard of. But she was definitely not a roadie, like him. She had friends somewhere close by, and maybe even transportation. A bicycle, probably.
The sounds of moaning in the near distance shifted his attention back to the other side of the street. It was just as he had feared. The frenzied feeding calls of the first three zombies had attracted more of their kind.
He reached into his backpack and quickly extracted his binoculars.
Scanning the rubble, he counted at least eighteen zombies, but it was hard to be sure through the morning haze and the dust clouds rising off the vacant lots.
Roving camera, he thought. Time to get the hell out of here.
He returned the binoculars to his backpack and zipped it up. He was sliding the straps over his shoulders when the woman let out an ear-piercing whistle.
"What?" Richardson blurted out, startled. "No."
He pressed his body up against the wall next to the door, his pulse quickening as he chanced a look outside.
She's gonna get herself killed, he thought.
An excited moan rose from the approaching zombies.
"Ah shit," Richardson said.
The woman whistled again, then turned to retrieve her gun, and in that instant, something in his memory clicked into place. He recognized her.
"I can't believe it," he said under his breath. "Sylvia Carnes."
Eight years ago, shortly after Hurricane Mardell ripped the face off the city of Houston, and the zombies rose up from the soup of oil and chemicals in the floodwaters, Sylvia Carnes had been an English professor at the University of Texas at Austin. Those were wild, uncertain times. Nobody knew what to make of the infected. They were alive, and infected with a deadly virus, that was true, but did they have to be summarily executed? Didn't America have an obligation to find a cure? Everyone, it seemed, had ideas. Nobody had answers.
The military was able to contain the outbreak behind a quarantine wall built up to shield the rest of the country from the Gulf Coast and the affected areas of South Texas, and for a while, America was able to take a step back and ponder what it was supposed to do next. Diseases could be cured, couldn't they? Shouldn't they? There were many Americans with family still inside the quarantine walls. They lobbied hard for the government to offer some kind of relief. They wanted a cure. At the very least a vaccine. But there were others who were disgusted and outraged by all the stories of cannibalism and senseless violence coming out of the Gulf Coast region. Why not hold the zombies criminally responsible for the things they did, they argued. You didn't waive charges simply because a murderer claimed to have the flu. Why would you do it here, for this disease? Better yet, why not simply exterminate them before the plague they carried had a chance to spread?
It had been a confusing time, a lot of people yelling.
And Sylvia Carnes was right in the middle of it. She was a member of a radical group called People for an Ethical Solution. They wanted to show that the infected were still people who wanted and needed our help. This was not some bumbling, half-baked attempt at universal health care. This was a national crisis, and we had a moral imperative, Carnes said, to do everything in our power to find a cure, and to do it now.
She filed a suit in a federal court allowing her to take forty of her graduate students into the ruins of San Antonio to prove her point, and it was a sign of just how crazy and uncertain those times were that a judge actually issued the okay for her to go inside the quarantine zone.
At the time Richardson was a reporter for the Atlantic, tasked to cover every aspect of the outbreak. He had walked the wall with guards from the newly formed Gulf Coast Quarantine Authority. He had interviewed hundreds of survivors from Houston and San Antonio. But he had never actually seen a zombie firsthand.
He got his chance when he accompanied Sylvia Carnes and her students into San Antonio. At the time he hadn't made up his mind about the infected. They weren't very well understood and the idea that they could be cured appealed to his modern American sensibilities that everybody deserved a second chance, that it was somehow our moral obligation to extend a helping hand—even if there was a very real chance that it would get bitten off in the process. But after seeing zombies attack and kill all but one of Sylvia Carnes's students, his doubts disappeared. Their deaths clarified everything. Put his views in focus. A concern for doing the right and honorable thing gave way to the realities of survival.
He hadn't thought of that trip into San Antonio in a long time. A lot had happened since then. The Ben Richardson who went on that trip wasn't the same Ben Richardson who now crouched in the doorway of a ruined Pizza Hut, watching the rubble like a hunted animal. The world had changed. He had changed. And he hated that about himself.
But she was looking at him.
He stared at her, not blinking. Did she recognize him? She didn't seem to. She just seemed surprised to see another living person there.
"Run," she mouthed silently. "Run!"
He didn't move.
She hesitated for a moment, then looked over her shoulder at the zombies coming into the parking lot. Their moaning was much louder now.
She looked back at him, no sign of recognition on her face, and said, "Run, damn it!" One of the zombies stepped on a large piece of glass and the crack made Sylvia whirl around. "Run," she said again, and then trotted off toward the back of the restaurant without giving Richardson another look.
The zombies were almost even with the door now. Richardson could hear their feet shuffling across the trash-strewn pavement, their moans forming a chorus of strained overlapping rhythms.
Richardson pulled back into the shadows and held his breath.
From where he stood he could see a small section of the lot behind the restaurant. There was a two-story red brick building there with all the windows gone. Tall grass and sunflowers had grown up around the edges of the building, giving it a long-abandoned look. He wondered why Sylvia had run off in that direction. He'd come from those parts on his way into downtown and he knew there was nothing of any value over there. Just more empty apartment buildings and quiet streets.
So where was she going? And why was she trying to get the zombies to follow her? He couldn't see her anymore. And he couldn't hear her over the mounting feeding call.
Zombies shambled into the grass at the edge of the lot, still moaning, arms dangling at their sides, heads canted to one side as though their necks weren't strong enough to hold up the weight. Out of habit, he counted them. Sixteen in all.
He'd counted eighteen before, so there were at least two more up near the front of the building. Richardson wanted to follow Sylvia Carnes, but he knew he had to think of his own survival first.
Be the camera, he pleaded with himself. Don't be stupid.
Ducking back inside the restaurant, he went to the front windows and scanned the street. There was nothing there but ruined buildings and more wrecked cars. He couldn't see the other two zombies he'd counted earlier, and that bothered him. He listened, and when it sounded as though the moaning had receded, he holstered his pistol and his machete, grabbed his rifle, and headed out the side door in a crouch.
He hugged the wall as he moved to the front of the building. There he stopped and scanned the street again.
Excerpted from MUTATED by Joe McKinney Copyright © 2012 by Joe McKinney. Excerpted by permission of PINNACLE BOOKS. 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.