Now Chris, Joe, Ruby and Hooley are heading back to Manhattan to confront Scolfield. But what chance do the have against Scolfield's massive Z army? What chance do they have when he has forged a deadly alliance with one of Chris's old foes from out west? What chance do they have when he's already started creating his new batch of Z's - quick, sentient and hyper-aggressive?
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The Dead, The Damned and The Dying
Jojo Collins looked across the darkened expanse of sand towards the even darker reaches of the Pacific Ocean, stretching, it seemed, into eternity. He regarded the black expanse of the heavens, speckled with stars, but with no moon to cast light on the waters. A white-top rolled into shore, its dull boom momentarily obscuring the babble of laughter from the other side of the dune. Jojo looked in that direction and could make out the glow of the bonfire pushing back at the darkness. He detected the crackle and spit of the flames, the plaintive tone of a guitar, the sound of laughter and of drunken voices joined in song. His colleagues, his fellow graduates from the academy, were enjoying themselves. And why shouldn’t they? It had been six grueling months. They deserved to let their hair down. They’d earned a few days of R and R.
He reached his hand into his breast pocket and rooted around until his fingers located a small rectangle of metal. He withdrew the object and held it up against the faint glow from the fire. It glinted gold in the reflected light, even though he knew it to be silver.
“Lieutenant Collins!” a female voice spoke from behind him, sounding slightly tipsy.
“Hi, Ferret,” Jojo said, not bothering to turn as she walked up and slumped beside him on the sand. Luigi was with her and the dog nuzzled his ear, before trotting off to investigate the water’s edge.
“What are you doing out here all alone?” Ferret said.
They sat in silence. “We missed you at the fire,” Ferret said after a while.
“I missed you.”
“Did you?” Jojo said, not trying too hard to keep the edge out of his voice. “I would have thought you and Charlie –”
“Oh stop it, Jojo,” Ferret said crossly. “I already told you. Me and Charlie are just friends. He’s like a brother to me. As a matter of fact, seen as your parents adopted me, he is my brother.”
“And me?” Jojo said. “Am I like a brother too?”
Ferret said nothing. Jojo studied the contour of her face in his side view, taking in the profile he knew so well. God, she was beautiful. Had there ever been a time when he hadn’t been in love with her? Yeah, he kidded himself, when she was still an annoying little kid with skinned knees and pigtails, who used to hang on Ruby’s every word and follow her around like a lost puppy. But those days were gone, six years gone. Ferret was seventeen now and the love of his life.
“What are you thinking about now?” she asked.
“You know, Joe Collins, for such an intelligent man, and an officer of the First Ranger Division of the Pendragon Corporation to boot, you sure do spend a lot of time thinking about nothing.”
Down at the shore Luigi was chasing the tide out as it retreated. Jojo got slowly to his feet, dusted the seat of his pants, then reached out a hand to Ferret and pulled her up. For a moment she lingered close to him, their faces just inches apart, and Jojo wanted nothing more than to kiss her. Ferret held her breath, perhaps expecting him to do just that, but Jojo backed away, didn’t try. Charlie would have done it. But he wasn’t Charlie. He was a chicken is what he was. He turned and whistled for Luigi, then set off across the sand to join the others.
“Come on,” he said over his shoulder. “I expect everyone is keen to hear the rest of the story.”
Jojo shifted his weight, gaining a comfortable position beside the fire. He looked across at the eager faces, his fellow officers, ruddy with wine and the heat of the flames. Charlie sat at the opposite end of the wide circle and Ferret had taken a spot to his left at about nine o’clock, diplomatically positioned half way between the two of them. The whole throng seemed almost to be leaning forward with anticipation and Jojo let them hang, allowed himself a little smile and took a small swig from the wine bottle that was being passed around. The stuff tasted vile. Then again, he’d never been much of a drinker.
He drew the back of his sleeve across his mouth. “Now,” he said, knowing the answer full well. “Where did Charlie get to?”
“Joe Thursday was on the roof,” Axel Buckner said immediately.
“And the chopper had left,” Cecelia van Houten added.
“And the Zs were closing in,” Brad Grissom said, completing the preview.
“Right,” Jojo said, amused by their eagerness. This was like telling fairy tales to a kindergarten class. All of their high-spirited horsing around had subsided. They’d literally taken in a collective breath anticipating his next word.
Jojo didn’t keep them waiting much longer. “What you’ve got to understand,” he said, “Is that Joe Thursday, my Uncle Joe, was a smart guy. Don’t get me wrong, he could mix it with the best of them, he was one hell of a shot, he had balls. Before the whole thing went down he’d spent nine years in Africa, fighting as a mercenary, so he was tough. But no one survived back then purely on toughness. You had to be smart too, and Uncle Joe, well…” He stared wistfully into the flames, and a feeling of nostalgia washed over him. Amazing, he thought, how you could think back with fondness on a time of such terror, when you literally didn’t know from day-to-day whether you were going to make it out alive.
“So what happened?” an impatient voice cut into his reverie.
“What happened,” Jojo said, “is that Joe noticed the doctor, and the way that the Zs were responding to her; what happened, is that there was a twenty-mil with half a clip of ammo; what happened, is that the effect of Bobo Benson’s BH-17 finally ran out.”
“I don’t understand,” someone said.
“What I’m saying is that a number of circumstances came together, fortuitously you might think, but it took a smart man like Joe Thursday to put them all together and use them to his advantage.”
He paused again, enjoying the perplexed look on their faces. Hey, it was his story and he wasn’t giving it up without building a bit of suspense first.
“Come on, Jojo,” Charlie said from the other side of the fire. “Quit toying with these folks and just tell the damn story. We’re due back in camp on Monday.”
And so Jojo did tell.
Joe Thursday looked across the darkened expanse of the rooftop to the hulking shapes looming out of the shadows. How many of them? Hundreds, he figured. So why weren’t they attacking? Why were they shuffling forward cautiously, like a pack of wild dogs approaching a wounded, but still dangerous, prey? They were maybe ten feet away, their nightmare faces looming like specters among the fresh snow flurries, the smell of them reminding him of wet newspaper. Why were they all edging towards the west side of the rooftop?
The reason, when he saw it, was obvious – the doctor, standing off to his left. All of the Zs had orientated themselves towards her. Joe turned in that direction too. The doctor was no longer facing the buildings across the park on Broadway. Now, she had turned inward as the Zs formed a tight circle around her. She was clutching something in her hand, holding it like someone might hold a TV remote. It gleamed dully in the pallid light and Joe suddenly made the connection. He didn’t know exactly how she was doing it, but the doctor was controlling the Zs, holding them at bay with that device, whatever it was. If that was the case, maybe, just maybe, he had a way out of here.
The Zs shuffled forward, a crowd of grotesque rubber-neckers at a crash site. One of them, a stooped, skeletal figure missing an eye and a jawbone, reaching out, its bony fingers brushing his jacket in what was almost a caress. Joe took half a pace back and felt himself teeter at the edge of the rooftop. In the distance he heard the thud of the helicopter, sounding closer than it had before. He inclined his head and thought he saw the blink of the machine’s red beacon light. More hands reached for him and he brushed them aside. If he was going to get out of this, something that had seemed impossible just minutes ago, he was going to have to make his move.
The bunker with the twenty-mils was maybe ten feet to his left. Joe shuffled a foot in that direction, his toes cleaving to the slippery surface of the rooftop, his heels hovering over the dark space below. One slip would send him into the abyss, a three-storey drop that would land him in amongst the ravenous creatures below.
Another sliding pace, then another and another. Eventually he felt his leg brush up against the sandbagged gun placement. He cast a quick look to the doctor, now just visible among the massed Zs. They were standing off her, that much was certain. He angled his viewpoint downward and could make out the dull metal of the twenty-mils, one of them with a belt of ammo still feeding into the breech like a row of T-Rex canines. He saw something else too, something that was going to make his job a whole lot easier – one of the twenties had a harness clipped to it.
None of that was going to do him much good unless he could get into the bunker and that was not going to be easy. The Zs were still pushing forward, those behind forcing the others towards the edge of the roof. Joe was sure that, before long, they’d perform a lemming-like plunge over the edge, taking him with them.
He looked directly into the face of the creature in front of him, a putrid decayed face wearing an idiot grin that displayed yellowed, bovine teeth. The thing was so close that it only had to incline its head to plunge those teeth into his throat. Joe raised his hands carefully, placing them on the zombie’s bony shoulders. He braced himself. His next move was going to have to be swift and with a fleetness of foot that he’d probably never possessed, not even in his youth. He curled his toes in his boots, as though doing so would provide him with extra traction. Now. It had to be now. He tightened his grip on the Z’s shoulders, then slid his left foot forward and performed a pirouette worthy of a ballroom champion. In an instant he’d exchanged places with the Z, so that he now faced out towards the park, both feet planted firmly on the rooftop. The sudden movement caused havoc in the ranks of the zombies. Those close to the edge unbalanced, several of them losing their footing and plunging to earth where they crashed onto their comrades below in a series of dull splats.
Joe wasn’t waiting around to admire the spectacle. He’d already thrown himself to the right, over the sandbags and into the gun pit. He hefted the twenty mil, kicked at the tripod to fold it back against the weapon, then slipped the canvas harness over his shoulder. The weapon felt weighty and reassuring. Joe got his left hand on the trigger guard and lifted the gun’s ammo box with his right.
“Let’s party,” he said, and depressed his finger on the trigger.