New York holds painful memories for Chris Collins and he swore he’d never go back there. But when his daughter goes missing and shows up being displayed in Times Square like is caged beast, Chris has to take action.
Now, he's going back to Dead City on an operation that Joe Thursday describes as "one step up from a suicide mission". Going back to challenge his old nemesis Bronson Chavez, the one-time street thug who is now runs New York like his private kingdom, with a zombie army at his beck and call.
Only one of them will survive and Chris has the odds seriously stacked against him.
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Return To Dead City
“Chris? Chris, are you okay?”
I woke sitting upright in bed with Kelly’s hand on my arm.
“Are you okay?” Kelly said again. “You were shouting.”
For a second I was unsure where I was, and then I began to make out the familiar features of our bedroom. The closet papered with Sam’s juvenile artwork, the high-backed chair in the corner that looked like a torture device, the framed photographs on the bureau, reflecting back the moonlight streaming through the security bars on the window.
“Yeah, yeah, I’m fine.”
“Was it a bad dream?” Kelly said sleepily.
“I’m fine, get back to sleep, Kel.”
“Night,” she mumbled, already halfway there.
I slipped from the bed and made my way to the bathroom, closing the door so the light wouldn’t bother Kelly. I took a leak and then splashed water on my face. I studied myself in the mirror and decided that I could really use a couple of nights where I slept right through. My nightly sojourns were starting to leave dark smears under my eyes.
The dreams had started a few weeks ago. In them, I'm back in New York, standing in front of the ruins of my old apartment block. It is early morning with the first rays of sun just penetrating between the buildings. Then, like one of those demolition sequences played in reverse, the building seems to reconstruct itself before my eyes. I climb the staircase to the front door and step into the foyer with its chessboard tile pattern. I half expect to hear classical music coming from the Kranski's apartment, but there is none. The place is silent as a crypt. I climb the stairs to my apartment taking them two at a time. The front door is ajar, and as I step through, I hear a baby crying. Then the cries are accompanied by an off-key melody, Rosie's voice singing “The Greatest Love of All.” Even in the dream I can feel gooseflesh rise on my arms. I have a strong urge to run, but instead, I find myself stepping towards the sound of the baby's cries. I walk past the sideboard trailing my hand along the boxing trophies that are displayed there. I step across into the bedroom, which is dark except for a sliver of light from the half-open bathroom door. Rosie is sitting on the bed cradling the baby, cradling my daughter, Ruby. She looks up at me, only it's not her face I see, it's the face of Bronson Chavez. He smiles and even in the half-light I can see his jagged teeth and predator's eyes. "Took your time getting here, homes," Chavez says and angles his mouth in towards Ruby's neck.
Usually at this point in the dream, I wake up. But tonight there’d been a new twist. Tonight I’d watched as Chavez buried his face in Ruby’s neck and came up with his face dripping blood. That was what had caused me to cry out and wake Kelly, and had then deprived me of sleep for the rest of the night.
Back when I was still living in New York and making my living as a professional boxer, I used to rise at five every morning to do my roadwork. We’d been in Lancaster, California almost ten years now, and it had been even longer since my last pro fight, but this was still part of my daily routine. I loved being out while it was still dark and the city was asleep, loved the crisp, early morning taste of the desert air and the feel of stretching and taxing my muscles. I’d slip my 9-mil into a shoulder holster and then set off on a circuitous course - rounding the school, cutting through the park and making sure I passed by the barricades, where I’d exchange a few words with the sentries. Usually, they’d fill me in on the evening’s zombie activity. More often than not there’d be nothing to report. The Zs, for the most part, had gone into hibernation - at least that was what the Corporation would have us believe.
On my return route, I’d head back through the park, stopping off to do a few sit-ups and chin-ups and a bit of shadow boxing. Then I’d head for home, getting there as the sun was coming up.
Today was no different. I got back to the house, let myself in through the array of security locks and doors, did my best to rouse Kelly (usually I’d have to pull the covers off her, and even then I’d sometimes come back to find she’d gone back to sleep) then hit the shower. I took my time, enjoying the feel of the warm water on my body. I got out, toweled off and dressed. Kelly had managed to get herself out of bed and was not in the room. I figured she’d gone to wake the kids, a job that took some doing. In the rise-and-shine department, Joe, Charlie and Sam definitely took after their mother. Still the house did seem inordinately quiet. Normally at this time of the day there’d be a riot down the hall with the twins arguing about who gets to use the bathroom and Samantha complaining that it should be ladies first. Today, though, it was as though a bathroom truce had broken out in the Collins household.
I walked down the passage towards the boy’s room. Both Charlie and Joe were already out of bed. Sam’s bed was similarly empty, and they weren’t in the bathroom either, that door stood ajar. Somewhere during my search an alarm bell started to jangle. By the time I’d reached the empty kitchen at the end of the passage it was wailing like an air raid siren. A feeling akin to déjà vu washed over me. Only I knew this wasn’t déjà vu, this was a memory of a morning back in New York fifteen years ago, when I’d stepped out of a shower to find…. I pushed that thought from my mind.
Nothing. Even Luigi hadn’t barked.
I headed back down the passage - half-jogging now - and entered the lounge. It was empty. The front door stood open and I crossed towards it in a hurry. I’d just about made it to the door when I heard a man’s laughter and then Samantha screamed and I broke instantly into a sprint. I burst onto the porch realizing as I did that it was a damn fool thing to do. If there were Zs out there I’d have run right into them, if there was someone with a weapon he’d have been able to pick me off easily.
There was a man standing on the path. He had an arm around Kelly and another around Sam. Sam was squirming and struggling to get away from him as he tickled her. At the other end of the garden the twins were tossing a football to each other while Luigi ran between them following the ball. “Hey, Dad,” Charlie called out. “Look at the cool presents Uncle Joe brought us.”
I hadn’t seen Joe Thursday in close on four years, and time had not been good to my old friend. Joe had never been particularly athletic but he’d been solidly built and remarkably quick for such a big man. Now, though, I could see that his profile had taken a turn towards the decidedly paunchy, and with his prematurely white hair and the wire-framed glasses he was wearing, he looked older than his forty-nine years.
“What’s the matter, Chris?” Joe said releasing Kelly and Sam and spreading his arms. “Don’t you got a hug for your uncle Joe?”
“How the hell have you been, Joe?” I said and walked forward allowing him to wrap me in a bear hug.
“Pretty damn good,” Joe said. He pushed me to arms length and squinted. “Now my eyes ain’t what the used to be but I reckon you’re just about as ugly as I remember. How’d a rough and tumble Irish hoodlum like yourself land a beauty like Kelly and raise such handsome kids?”
“Must be my sparkling personality and good genes,” I said.
Joe pulled me into another embrace, “Good to see you again, compadre,” he said in my ear. “It’s been too long.”
“That it has,” I agreed.
“Boys!” I heard Kelly call, “Come on, time to get ready for school.”
“Ah, ma,” the twins said in unison.
While Kelly corralled the kids and got them into their morning cleansing and dressing routines, I led Joe to the kitchen, sat him down and started brewing some coffee.
“How are things in L.A., Joe?”
“Oh you know, swings and roundabouts, strikes and gutters, some days we eat the Zs, some days they eat us.”
“Really? I thought you had things pretty much tied up down there. You up for some coffee?”
“You wouldn’t perhaps have a brewski would you?”
“Beer? At this time of the morning?”
“It’s all good, oats and hops and spring water, the breakfast of champions.”
“Yeah, I think we can do you one. Bud Light, okay?”
“One rung up the ladder from mineral water, but if its all you got,” he said. He took the can, shucked it and drew a long dram.
“Breakfast of champions,” he repeated.
“So you were saying, Joe, you’re having some trouble down in L.A.?”
“I wouldn’t say trouble exactly, more like –”
“Has Chris offered you some breakfast, Joe?” Kelly asked as she walked into the kitchen.
“I’m good Mrs. C.,” Joe said. “That’s is unless you’re on the menu.”
“Not today, I’m afraid,” Kelly giggled. “You fellers mind taking it into the lounge, so I can get this pack of wolves fed and off to school.”
Joe finished off his beer and crushed the can. Kelly shot me a look. I shrugged.
“I’ll take another brewski for dessert if you got one,” Joe said. I passed him another Bud and we moved to the lounge as Kelly started pouring O.J. and fixing breakfast.
“You were saying, Joe, about L.A.?”
“Was I? Ah hell Chris, let’s not talk about that crap now. How you doing?”
“I’m doing good. Got myself a little gym set up, giving some self-defense classes, got a couple of promising young fighters. The kids are doing great in school, Kelly’s great. Lancaster’s a great place to live. I’m doing well, Joe.”
“Glad to hear it compadre,” said Joe, quaffing the foam from the top of his beer. “You deserve it after the shit you went through. I’m surprised you haven’t asked though.”
I looked at Joe squinting at me through his early morning beer buzz and realized he was right. I hadn’t asked about Ruby, hadn’t even thought to ask.
“Nothing to feel bad about,” Joe said. Even after all this time he could still read me like a billboard. “You had a call to make, way back when. You made the right one. You gotta look forward. Never back, Chris, never back.”
“So how is Ruby?” I said, feeling deeply ashamed for treating my daughter’s wellbeing like an afterthought. I received monthly reports from the Corporation, of course, but it wasn’t the same thing.
Joe looked at me through bleary eyes, magnified by his glasses and looked like he was about to cry. “Ruby’s –”
“Hey hon, I’m going to drop the kid’s at school and I need to stop at the market on the way back. Anything I can get you?”
“I’m good,” I said.
“You can get me a quart of Makers,” Joe said, then added, “only kidding, only kidding,” when he saw Kelly’s expression.
“Okay, I’ll be going then,” Kelly said, giving me a peck. “Joe, I hope you’ll still be here when I get back.”
“If you’re coming back, sweet thing, you can count on it.”
“Bye, Uncle Joe, bye Dad,” the kids chorused and Samantha came over and gave me a hug and a kiss, and then Kelly shepherded them out. The house was suddenly very quiet. Joe finished his second beer of the day and stared blankly at a Magritte print on the wall – something that Kelly liked, but that made no sense to me. Kelly’s SUV started up and reversed down the drive.
“I don’t suppose –” Joe started to say. I got up and headed for the kitchen and fetched the last beer out of the fridge. I was glad it was my last. I had a feeling that Joe would keep drinking them as long as I kept bringing them. And this was something new to me. Joe had always been partial to a drink, but he’d never been a ‘beer for breakfast’ type boozer.
“Here you go,” I said handing him the beverage. “Last of my stash,” I added, just so he knew.
Thanks, amigo,” he said taking the can from me. Joe sat there looking stooped and old, and when he looked up at me there were tears in his eyes. “Ruby’s gone, Chris,” he said.