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Authors: Joe McKinney

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BOOK: Plague of the Undead
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Word traveled fast about the council’s change of heart. Kelly Banis and her husband, Barry, offered up their house for a party, and promised to provide as much of Kelly’s famous—or infamous, depending on who you asked—bathtub gin as the group could drink. It was a nice night, clear and crisp but not too cold, and by eight o’clock there were already enough people to force the party out onto the front porch and into the street, and a good many of them were already drunk.
Jacob didn’t go straight over to the party. He went home first and ate a small dinner of bacon and pickled vegetables from his mother’s garden. Then he changed out of his uniform and into clean jeans, a sweatshirt, and a light jacket, and headed over to Nick Carroll’s place on Lester Street, over by the north wall. Nick had promised to wait on him so they could go over together.
Nick was sitting on his front steps drawing in a sketchbook when Jacob walked up.
“You ready?” Jacob said as he came up the front walk.
“Yep, just about.”
Jacob climbed the steps so he could see what Nick was drawing. On the page, rendered in pencil, was an amazing likeness of a pretty young girl, nude from the waist up, her fingers running through her hair.
“What do you think?” Nick asked.
“Uh, nice tits.”
“You recognize her?”
Jacob squinted at the picture. He knew the face. He’d seen her around.
On the name, though, he was drawing a blank. “Well, I . . .”
“That’s Gina Houser.”
Jacob looked again. Nick was a talented artist, and now that he had a name to put to the picture, he could totally see it. He’d just never given Gina much of a look before. She was still a kid.
“Gina’s kind of young, isn’t she?”
“She’s nineteen.”
“Well, yeah. Did she . . . pose for that?”
“Damn straight she did,” Nick said, and shot him a wicked grin. “She does a whole lot more, too.”
“But isn’t she dating that kid from, uh, what’s his name?”
“Ted Roth, over at the Howth Farm. Yeah, they’re dating. But a girl her age, you know, likes a little fun now and then. And what her boyfriend don’t know won’t hurt him.”
“Really? Nick, what are you doing?”
“Don’t be jealous.”
“Whatever,” Jacob said. “Come on, let’s go.”
“Okay.” Nick closed the sketchbook. “Let me put this up.”
Jacob watched his friend enter his house. Nick was a blowhard, always had been. He was only five-nine, and his forehead was scarred with acne from his teenage years, but he talked loud and he talked well and for some reason the girls seemed to like him. He had no doubt that young Miss Gina Houser had soaked up his attention, loving every second of it. She wouldn’t have been the first. Not by a long shot.
As he stared into the darkened recesses of Nick Carroll’s living room, a memory rose up in Jacob’s mind. They’d gotten into a fight when they were sixteen and Jacob had come away with a black eye, a bleeding ear, and a mouth that looked like a tomato somebody had crushed beneath their heel. Nick had barely had a scratch on him. Jacob couldn’t even remember now exactly what was said to start the fight. They’d just been hanging out with a group of boys, waiting for a baseball game to start, and some of the other guys started kidding Nick about his last name, calling it a girl’s name. Nick seemed to take the ribbing pretty well, but when Jacob joined in it had sent Nick over the edge. Next thing Jacob knew they were circling each other inside a ring of boys all yelling, “Fight, fight!” Then the ass beating started.
That’d been a long time ago, twenty years now, and they’d been through a lot together since then. They’d dated some of the same girls, fought again over some of the same girls, only to come together again and again, always the two of them. They’d worked in salvage together, gone outside the walls together. They were tight.
Still, for Jacob at least, and maybe for Nick, too, there was always that fight. It lurked there in the past, in the back of his mind, the way failures sometimes do. It had cast a long but subtle shadow over their relationship, one that made their friendship one of always seeking dominance over the other, rather than understanding, and Jacob couldn’t help but feel that this latest conquest of Nick’s, this teenage girl with the nice pair and the pretty face, was just another way of Nick’s to show he was more of a man than Jacob.
And then Nick was standing in the doorway.
“Hey, man, you all right? You look like you’re someplace else.”
Jacob forced a smile. “I’m good. You ready?”
“Let’s go party.”
The walk over to Kelly’s place was short, the talk small. They rounded the corner and were hit with a wall of drunken voices. A cheer went up when they arrived. As they walked into Kelly and Barry’s front yard, friends ran up to shake Jacob’s hand and clap him on the back. Memories of his lost fight with Nick started to fade, and despite all he’d been through that day, Jacob felt kind of loose, ready for a good time.
“Hey, Jacob,” Nick said, a hand on his shoulder. He pointed to the north. “Look up there.”
Jacob followed the line of Nick’s finger. Kelly and Barry lived about four hundred yards from the north wall. A good portion of it could be seen from her front yard. And on the wall, a rifle slung over his shoulder, was Sheriff Taylor, making his rounds. His nightly tour along the town’s walls was a fixture of life in Arbella.
“You ready for that?” Nick said.
“You mean walking the wall every night? You think that’s something I should keep doing?”
“Don’t you?”
“You know,” he said, “I remember as a kid watching him walk that wall before bedtime. I remember my mom used to say, ‘Look up there. Sheriff Taylor’s on the wall. I think we’re gonna be okay.’ ”
“Everybody’s mother used to tell them that,” Nick said.
“I think you’re gonna have to do it,” Nick said. “At least for a little while. People see that, and they feel a little better closing their eyes at night. Is he really coming with us?”
“Yeah, I think he’s serious.”
“Well, he’s got his own reasons, I suppose.”
“You didn’t ask him.”
“Oh, I asked him,” Jacob said. Taylor had told him it was a political move, that if people saw them co-leading the expedition, it’d be a sign that Jacob had Taylor’s blessing as sheriff. He said it would help with transition, which Taylor wanted to happen when they returned from the expedition.
He said, “He just said he was craving a little adventure.”
Someone spoke behind them. “What are you two looking at?”
Jacob turned around. Kelly Banis was standing there, a pair of mason jars in her hands. She held them out to Jacob and Nick. “Gin and tonics, to get you boys started?”
“Hell, yeah,” Nick said, and took his.
“Thanks,” Jacob said.
“I’m sorry about today,” she said. “I really am. That must have been so hard.”
Nick took a big gulp of his drink, smacked his lips loudly, and slapped Jacob on the shoulder. “Hard, my ass. Old Jake here was steady as a rock up there.”
Jacob held his smile, but inside he was fuming. He wanted to tell Nick to shut the hell up. The man had no idea.
But he held himself in check.
Jacob kept his gaze on Kelly. “Thanks,” he said. “It meant a lot that you guys were there today. There was a moment there that I almost locked up. Seeing you guys really helped.”
Kelly put a hand on his shoulder.
Nick took another drink of his gin and tonic and scanned the party for a pretty face.
It was only then that Jacob noticed Kelly was wearing the necklace he’d made for her after his first salvage mission. A cluster of buttons he’d found at a mall and knotted together with a silver chain. It never even occurred to him that she still had it.
Kelly caught him looking at the necklace and she put a hand over it, a hint of a guilty smile on her face.
Had he really seen it, that smile, or was he just wishing? Either way, the thought broke off clean as Barry Banis, Kelly’s husband, materialized out of the crowd and put his arm around her. Barry was drunk, as usual, and grinning ear to ear.
“It’s finally gonna happen,” he said, raising his glass. “Thank you, Jacob. Here’s to you.”
“Thanks, Barry.”
Jacob found it hard to be jealous. Barry was head of the Agricultural Sciences Center over at Landry’s Farm. He pretty much decided which vegetable crops got planted within Arbella’s borders, and for the last twelve years, his right-hand woman had been his wife, Kelly Banis.
Jacob was proud of Kelly. She was, almost certainly, the smartest person he’d ever met. She was an authority when it came to plants, to be sure. His own mother quoted her articles in the town’s paper. But Jacob’s mind kept turning back to that summer they’d shared together, back when they were seventeen and young enough to ignore the future and revel in each other. They’d been joined at the hip all summer, sharing shrimp and catfish and beer. Lots of beer and lots of sex. There wasn’t much to do in Arbella when you were a teenager. You drank and had sex, that was about it. And afterward, if you really thought there was a future with this girl, you propped yourself up on your elbow and you listened to what she had to say. Kelly’s conversation had ranged from botany to making moonshine to Tennessee Williams to physics. Meanwhile, he’d been unable to think of little more than climbing back between her legs.
But so much for memories.
Now she was with a man ten years her senior, and one who was, arguably, the smartest man in Arbella. In another ten years, Barry Banis would undoubtedly be on the town council.
And all the while, Jacob had been nothing but a cop.
Still, nearly twenty years had gone by, and she still wore the necklace he’d made for her. Maybe she still held an ember of the fire they’d lit that summer.
And maybe Nick was right. Maybe every girl deserves her little secrets.
“So what’s the plan?” Kelly said. “Have you figured out what you’re going to tell them tomorrow?”
“Just what we’ve always talked about. Twelve people, picked for a variety of skills. Nick here as cartographer. You and Barry as botanists. Me for salvage. A few others. I figured we’d head north up Interstate 55 to St. Louis, then zigzag back south all the way to Little Rock, then come back here. If we take our time and do it right it should take us about five months.”
Barry pushed his glasses high up on his nose with his thumb. “I like that plan.” He turned to Kelly. “It’d give us a chance to test . . .”
There was a commotion out in the street. Jacob and the others turned that way just as people started screaming and backing away from a dirty figure, dressed in rags, long stringy hair forming a curtain in front of her face.
And she held a pistol in her hand.
“Oh, Christ,” said Kelly. “It’s Amanda Grieder.”
Jacob drew his weapon and advanced into the street. He held the weapon at low ready, not pointing it at Amanda, but afraid he was going to have to.
He said, “Amanda, stop, please.”
She turned toward him and the hair parted from her face. She’d been crying. Dirt and grime were tracked all over her cheeks, and her eyes were swollen and red. She pointed her gun at him.
“Amanda, stop! Don’t do this. Just put the gun down.”
“You made a mistake,” she said, her voice cracking. Then she screamed it. “You made a mistake!”
“Amanda, easy. Please. Just put the gun down.”
“He was innocent. You killed an innocent man, and now you’re out here celebrating it. You’re a murderer!”
“Amanda, wait. Listen to me. Please, put the gun down. If you want, we will go inside and I will listen to everything you have to say. Just put the gun down.”
“You didn’t find the locket. How can he be guilty if you didn’t even find the locket?”
“Jacob,” said Nick.
Jacob held up one hand to keep him back, but never took his eyes off Amanda.
“Amanda, that’s good. That’s something we can talk about. Put the gun down, okay, so we can talk about it. Just put it down.”
“He was innocent,” she said. “My Jerry was innocent.” Then she put the muzzle to her chest.
Kelly screamed.
“No!” Jacob ran forward, but he was too late. Amanda fired and collapsed onto the ground.
Jacob put his hand over the wound and tried to staunch it, but there was too much blood, too much damage. She wasn’t breathing, and when he put a bloody hand up to her neck he couldn’t find a pulse.
“She’s dead,” he said, and rocked back on his heels.
Barry came over and checked again for a pulse. Then he forced Amanda’s eyes open and examined the pupils.
“Ah, Christ,” he said. “Jacob, she’s turning already.” He backed away from the corpse just as it started to twitch.
From somewhere in the crowd somebody groaned miserably. Then the thing that had been Amanda Grieder climbed to her feet and lurched toward Barry.
“Jacob . . .” he said. “A little help.”
Jacob stepped up behind the zombie and put a bullet in her head. For the second time, Amanda Grieder dropped to the street, lifeless and still.
Jacob swallowed hard as he holstered his weapon. He stared down at the body and it was like looking at Jerry Grieder all over again. Blood dripped from his fingers, pattering against the pavement.
Jacob turned away from the body.
Down at the end of the street, the officers of the watch were running his way, their rifles clutched in their hands.
part two
By the time Jacob turned onto the Banises’ street, it was pouring. His umbrella did little good. No matter how he held it or what direction he turned, the wind somehow managed to curl under the rim, soaking his shirt and face. And what the wind didn’t get on him, the puddles in the street did, leaving him cold and wet and utterly miserable.
He was getting a headache. A bad one. He walked around most of the time now with his head full of lists. Planning for the expedition had become pretty much a full-time job, and a seemingly endless exchange of what to leave in, what to leave out. Everybody had advice for him. Everything from the paperback Westerns David Sachs kept giving him, saying he should learn what to carry on the trail from those, to Jenny Oldham’s quaint idea of having them bring along a covered wagon. (“It worked for the pioneers,” she was fond of saying, “it’ll work again here.”) The latest idea came from Walter Mayfield. Walter ran the livery, and he was supplying the horses, and he sat on the town council, and his wife, Esther, was supplying the expedition with two hundred pounds of beef jerky, so he pretty much had to be listened to. His idea was to equip every member of the expedition with two horses, one for riding and the other as a pack animal. Jacob hadn’t laughed in his face, partly out of respect for the man’s position in the town and partly out of exhaustion, but the urge to do so had been there nonetheless. Instead, he’d mustered what little patience he still had and tried to explain that while every member of the expedition knew how to ride—you didn’t grow up in Arbella without learning how to ride a horse—not all of them were competent enough to manage two horses over uneven terrain and still be able to deal with zombies, should they run into some. But Walter was unwilling to let the suggestion go, so Jacob promised he’d consider it and added it to an already huge list of headaches he would have to deal with eventually.
Though technically he wasn’t off the clock, he was counting on tonight to recharge his batteries. Tonight’s meeting was going to be fun, not work. Or at least it would be once he got out of the rain. So he hurried on his way, his head bent low as the rain sizzled and popped against the top of his umbrella. It was coming down so hard, and made so much noise, that he almost missed it when someone called his name.
He stopped, annoyed at being detained, and looked around.
Maggie Hester was trotting toward him, her arm over her head in a vain attempt to keep her hair dry.
Jacob held the umbrella out to cover her.
“Thank you,” she said as she slid in beside him. She had something in her hands. “I wanted to ask a favor, Jacob.”
“Yes, ma’am.” He had to yell to be heard over the rain. “What can I do for you?”
She held out a plastic baggie, the kind with the locking seal at the top. Plastic baggies were a valuable commodity around Arbella, and this one had obviously been reused many times. The plastic had turned white and nearly opaque, but Jacob could see a slip of paper inside.
He took the baggie from her. “What’s this?”
“Is it true you’re going to Little Rock?”
“Yes, ma’am. That’s the plan anyway. That’ll be our southern terminus before we head back here.”
Ms. Hester was in her seventies. She was a stocky woman with wide shoulders and the kind of bosom that made Jacob wonder why she didn’t have back trouble. She was ordinarily an animated powerhouse, the kind of dowager who blows into a room like a summer dust devil. But that energy was gone from her now. Her expression was a pained one, and she looked small to him, standing there all soaking wet. He studied her face, her red, puffy eyes and runny nose, and he wasn’t entirely certain the dampness on her cheeks was rainwater.
“That’s the address for my old house back in North Little Rock,” she said, nodding at the baggie.
“Yes, ma’am?”
“I was wondering, if you get a chance, would you go by there please? It may not even be there anymore, but if it is . . .” She trailed off. Her lips were trembling.
Jacob doubted they’d have much of an opportunity for side trips, and he was about to tell her as much when she started talking over him.
“We had to leave so fast. You don’t remember those days, I know, but it was so crazy when . . . when . . . when we left. I didn’t even get a picture of my daughter. At the time, it didn’t seem important, you know, with everything coming down around us like it did. I thought I’d always have her with me. That she would outlive me. I was wondering, if you could make the time . . .”
Jacob had known Maggie Hester his entire life. She’d even taught his pickling and preserving class back in school. But he’d never heard anything about a daughter. She’d lived alone as long as she’d been here in Arbella. It wasn’t hard to figure out her situation, though. A lot of people lost their families during the First Days. Jacob’s own dad had died on the way to Arbella. He was only three at the time and had no real memories of the man, but his mom sure did.
Jacob slipped the baggie inside his jacket. “I’ll make the time,” he said.
She seemed to deflate right in front of him.
“Bless you,” she said. “You have no idea how much this means to me, to all of us, that you’re going on this expedition. We’re so very proud of you.”
Before he could respond, she turned and trundled back through the rain to her house.
Jacob watched her go.
When she was back inside, he turned, bent his head against the wind and rain, and pushed on.
But he only made it a few feet before he stopped and let out a gasp.
There, on the pavement, was the dark stain left behind from Amanda Grieder’s suicide. The hard freezes of February had given way to a rainy March. It had rained a lot since that night. Nearly every day, in fact. He stared at the stain and wondered why the rain hadn’t washed it away.
Nobody blamed him for Amanda’s death. Quite the contrary, nearly everybody who was there, and nearly everybody who only heard about it later, said they thought he’d done everything he could to talk her down. And when she came back, he’d done the right and proper thing, putting her down with decision and dignity. A few had even said it was just another indication that Jacob Carlton was one of the best of his generation, the kind of man who exemplified the grit and get it done attitude that brought the First Generation safely to Arbella.
He alone blamed himself for Amanda’s death, and there was no getting past that. Some wounds are slow to heal.
And some never heal at all.
BOOK: Plague of the Undead
2.92Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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