Authors: Nicholas Kaufmann
Chasing the Dragon
© 2009 by Nicholas Kaufmann
Jacket artwork © 2009 by Erik Mohr
All Rights Reserved.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either a product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Edited by Brett Alexander Savory
Copyedited and proofread by Sandra Kasturi
Converted to Mobipocket and ePub by Christine
It would be a massacre. It always was. Georgia Quincey had seen it enough times, had witnessed more butchery and blood at the age of twenty-five than most people saw in a lifetime. Pulling her car into the parking lot of the roadside diner, she already knew what kind of slaughter she would find inside. The visions had shown her.
She’d been driving west all day, trying to pick up the Dragon’s trail, and somewhere on the dusty plains between Santa Rosa and Albuquerque the visions had come. Terrifying flashes of carnage, so strong she’d had to pull to the side of the road; screaming faces and geysers of blood, the wet rip of shredding flesh, the snapping of bone, and she knew. The Dragon had killed again.
The diner, or what was left of it, stood like the last defiant outpost of civilization in the middle of a vast, arid flatland peppered with Emory oaks and Apache pines. She opened the car door and stepped out into the stifling air. Waves of heat rose off the blacktop and shimmered like spirits. The diner’s windows were cracked and painted in red, messy arcs where the blood had hit. The screen door hung off its hinges, banging against the wall in the hot New Mexico breeze. A long fissure cut the pavement like a lightning bolt between the building and the base of a tall metal signpost beside the parking lot, which now tilted toward the ground at an almost forty-five degree angle, half the letters of its flickering neon sign shattered: BET Y’S ROADS DE DINER A G EAT PLACE FO BURG S YOU BETCHA! Half a dozen empty cars waited in the parking lot, their engines ticking in the heat, but there were no people. No survivors. There never were. No one who’d been inside when the Dragon came calling had stood a chance.
, she thought,
don’t let any of them still be moving.
Dead bodies were something she didn’t think she’d ever get used to, especially after the Dragon had feasted on them, but the ones that still walked, those were the ones that really wigged her out. Those were the ones she had to be careful of.
Georgia stretched, cracked her back, and pulled the pump-action shotgun from the backseat.
She approached the diner slowly, careful to step around the enormous crack in the pavement. Concrete crumbled at the edges of the fissure, and smaller cracks were already starting to form, branching out into the parking lot. It wouldn’t be long before the whole structure collapsed. The sound of her boots crunching over the gravel put her in mind of
, her father’s favourite movie. Something about the image of the lone protector, the hero no one would — or could — help, had resonated strongly with him, and he’d shown it to her dozens of times. She imagined herself for a moment as Gary Cooper headed alone to the showdown with Ian McDonald. All she was missing were jangling spurs on her heels.
She forced the thought from her mind. The truth wasn’t glamourous like a movie. The truth was bald and ugly. Forgetting that would get her killed.
She watched the diner’s windows and listened for sounds of movement, but there was only the low moan of the desert wind blowing across the flatlands. The screen door banging.
She gripped the shotgun tight and stepped inside. She noticed the coppery smell of spilled blood the moment she stepped over the threshold. The heat released from the eviscerated bodies made the air humid despite the rattling air conditioner over the door. A bank of booths ran along the wall on her right, all the way to the swinging doors of the kitchen. Blood dripped from the windows, ran along the tabletops and trickled off the edges like spilled cola. The floors, the seats were littered with bones and chunks of bloody meat — pieces of the Dragon’s victims. Georgia saw the stump of a stockinged leg, a high-heeled shoe still on the foot, and turned away to keep her gorge from rising. At the counter, six stools were bolted to the floor, each spattered with blood and grue. An array of cracked plates and smashed coffee mugs cluttered the countertop, and at the far end, half a human torso sat like an order of steak waiting to be brought to a table, its one remaining arm still inside the sleeve of a shredded blue Oxford. Beyond it, the dessert rack creaked on rusty gears, the pies and cakes spinning in lazy, indifferent circles.
The building shuddered around her. Cracks split the black and white linoleum floor. There wasn’t much time.
She stepped deeper inside and wondered if the Dragon was still there, hiding, waiting for Georgia to let her guard down. It had taken her half an hour to find the diner after the vision hit. The Dragon could already be long gone. But she had to be sure.
The floor buckled and leaned. A severed arm rolled against her foot. The hand landed on her ankle, the fingers brushing her skin. She bit back a yelp and kicked it away.
The heavy clang of a pan falling in the kitchen made Georgia jump. She lifted the shotgun to her shoulder and turned to the swinging doors.
The doors banged open and a hulking form stumbled out — fat, moustached, wearing a grease-stained apron. A fry cook, or it had been once. Both the apron and the shirt beneath had been torn open, revealing deep gashes in its chest and stomach. Blood oozed over grey skin, thick black veins. It came toward her with jerking, awkward steps, its dead muscles lacking the coordination to walk properly.
It fixed her with milky white eyes, opened its cracked black lips and said, “I was wondering when you would come.”
Its voice was deep, dusty and undeniably female. The Dragon’s voice.
Georgia grit her teeth and tried to keep the heebie-jeebies under control. The talking corpses made her skin crawl every time. She had to remind herself the thing in front of her wasn’t human, wasn’t even alive in any sense of the word. The Dragon was controlling its movements, speaking through its mouth.
The dead made a perfect and lethal army, unwavering, unquestioning, unstoppable so long as the brain remained intact to operate the motor functions. Georgia’s father had called them ghouls, but she had her own name for them. Something she thought was more fitting.
Instead of attacking her, the meat puppet tilted its head in puzzled amusement, and the Dragon said through it, “You should be dead, child. You should have died when I tore you open. Yet here we are. Together again.”
Georgia pumped a shell into the shotgun’s firing chamber. “You must he disappointed.”
The corpse laughed, a horrible sound. “Disappointed? No, child, I am intrigued. For centuries I have triumphed over the warriors who stood against me. Tore them open like ragdolls. Devoured them while the life drained from their eyes. But you, child. You are different. When I opened you, your blood stung me. It burned. When I opened you, you
. I find this remarkable. It has been such a long time since I have had a challenge.”
Georgia smirked. If there was one thing she knew about the Dragon, it was that she loved the sound of her own voice. “If you’re so confident, why don’t you face me yourself? Why hide and make this
do your dirty work?”
The meat puppet stepped toward her. She sighted down the barrel at its head, but her hands shook.
Come on, girl, get it together
, she thought.
You’ve done this plenty of times.
“We are not dissimilar, you and I,” it said. “It seems neither of us dies easily. Devouring you will be all the sweeter for it.”
“Where are you?” Georgia demanded. “You want to kill me so badly? Tell me where to go. Tell me where to find you.”
“I am everywhere, child. I am all around you.” Grey, rigid arms wrapped suddenly around her from behind, one snaking across her stomach, the other hooking around her neck. Another meat puppet had sneaked up on her while she’d been distracted. Georgia cursed her own incompetence. The arms pulled her back, and she tripped, banging her head against the floor. The shotgun accidentally discharged, shattering one of the windows, and the recoil knocked the weapon out of her grasp.
The meat puppet fell on top of her, a middle-aged woman with thick red viscera poking wetly out of a torn flowered dress. It scrambled for a hold, pinning her legs and one of her arms. With her free arm, Georgia reached for the shotgun, her fingers barely grazing the recoil pad at the end of the stock. The meat puppet reached for her neck. Georgia struggled for the shotgun again. This time she was able to grab hold of the stock and pull it toward her. As the meat puppet’s hand wrapped around her throat, Georgia swung the shotgun up and shoved the barrel under its chin. She squeezed the trigger.
She hadn’t ejected the first shell. The next one wasn’t even in the firing chamber yet. With one arm pinned, she couldn’t work the pump. Panicking, struggling for air as dead hands tightened on her throat, her gaze fell on the table in the booth next to her, its metal legs bolted into the floor. Georgia jammed the fore-end of the shotgun pump against one leg and pushed with all her might. Everything grew dim. In another minute, she would lose consciousness. In two, she’d be dead. She gave one last push, and the fore-end finally slid back against the counterpressure of the table leg. The spent shell tumbled out of the ejection port, and a second clicked into place in the firing chamber.