We generally don’t believe anything bad will happen to us. Things like earthquakes, tsunamis, and zombie apocalypses happen to other people. We all firmly believe this… until suddenly that first bastard bites us on the ass.
Then that feeling of security is shot to shit, never to return.
I, for one, resent the hell out of this fact.
# # #
My fellow wild cards and I stood outside Licker Up—yeah, really—a poor man’s Bev Mo, and its sister store Partyrama. “One stop shopping for your party needs!” They were situated in a cluster of interconnected shops on Palm Street.
Located at the south end of Redwood Grove, Palm was considered the main drag of the town’s “industrial district.” In other words, stores and offices built in that utilitarian saltine cracker box style that clashed with the “quaint” building code imposed on the rest of the community. There were no residences other than a rundown trailer park at the end of the street, and whatever homes were tucked into the woods outside the actual town limits.
The weather was unusually clear, a brisk wind having swept out the coastal fog that usually shrouded the town. Instead, sunshine filtered through the trees and reflected off the windows. The downside was that without the cloud cover, the crisp November air was butt-ass cold. Gusts of wind managed to insinuate themselves under our clothing and Kevlar, and standing still wasn’t helping the situation. I stomped my feet and blew on my hands, wishing Gabriel—our team leader—would get his butt in gear and tell us what to do.
Captain Gabriel was a member of the Dolofónoitou Zontanóús Nekroús—usually called DZN, for obvious reasons—an ancient organization dedicated to protecting mankind from the undead. The DNZ enlisted members from all walks of life, including various armies and other agencies worldwide. Think The X-Files under the auspices of the U.N.
Gabriel was also in charge of this “chickenshit operation,” as Tony liked to call it, so we were waiting on his orders.
We gonna kill some zombies, or what? I rubbed my hands together briskly.
“How come we’re out here in the butt end of nowhere?” Kai grumbled. Guess I wasn’t the only one getting impatient. As usual, he radiated an attitude that said, “I’m cuter than a young Will Smith and I know it.” While I had to admit that he made riot-gear chic look pretty damn good, I always found it a tossup whether to admire his looks, or dropkick him in his admittedly well-toned ass.
Gabriel gave Kai what my dad used to call the “hairy eyeball.”
“There are still zombies trickling in from the quarantine perimeter,” he said, “probably drawn to the activity in town. The remaining teams are sweeping the outlying areas with the help of incoming military assistance, now that we can risk letting other soldiers inside the quarantine zone.”
“About time,” Tony muttered.
We all shared his resentment—at first, when the quarantine zone was established, the potential for an uncontained outbreak was too high to risk sending in more personnel. Which really sucked for those of us stuck inside to fight the zombies. The Powers-That-Be had only just started sending in reinforcements to help us clear out the remaining ghouls, because some of the soldiers who’d been inside the zone from the beginning had gotten sick, without being bitten. They were the ones who’d received the not-so-thoroughly tested vaccine for Walker’s, the Flu de Jour.
Gabriel may not have had wild card hearing, but he wasn’t deaf. The look he shot Tony was way past irate. He turned away without saying a word and stalked down the block, yanking out his two-way radio.
I watched his cute butt every step of the way. If Kai made swat chic look good, Gabriel rocked it like a runway model.
“What crawled up his ass and died?” Tony said. Four heads turned and looked at me—everyone but Sergeant Gentry, who looked in the opposite direction. He was shooting for the “I am invisible” approach.
“Oh, don’t even try and pin this on me,” I growled. “Gentry, tell them this is not my fault.”
Gentry was a baby-faced Army lieutenant who’d been fighting zombies with the DZN’s Zed Tactical Squad—ZTS—even before he’d been bitten and discovered his own immunity. He just shook his head.
“Sorry, Ash, but I’m staying out of this, for the sake of our friendship and my continued health.”
Tony snickered. Not surprising since he had a solid case of hero worship for Gentry. The lieutenant wielded a mean flamethrower, and held his own with Tony and Kai when they started batting around movie quotes like the ROTC’s answer to The Big Bang Theory.
“Wuss,” I muttered. Not that I could really blame him, seeing as Gabriel was his direct superior. Then I turned back to the others.
“Not that it’s any of your business,” I said, “but Gabriel and I, well, we haven’t… er… seen each other since we fought the swarm.”
Tony nodded sagely. His tongue piercing clicked against a tooth. Tall enough to play for any basketball team, he’d gone from an irritating punked-out teenager to a slightly less irritating zombie-killing teenager—and done it in record time. The metal ball in his tongue was only one of the multiple piercings Tony had sported when I’d first met him. But he’d learned the hard way that dangling pieces of metal didn’t mix well with zombies.
“Classic case of Pon Farr,” he said. “Get him back to Vulcan, stat!”
“Damn straight,” Kai said, nodding his head in agreement. “The dude needs to get laid.”
“Is there anyone here but me who thinks this conversation is totally inappropriate?” I looked entreatingly at Mack. “Come on, man, back me up here.” A fifty-something mailman, Mack wore an expression that reminded me of a mournful hound dog. Unfortunately I could tell by the way his blue eyes shone with mischief that I wasn’t gonna to get the support I wanted.
“Tony has a point, Ashley,” he said. “It’s your job to make sure our fearless leader has an outlet for his stress.”
That elicited a snort from Lil, an eighteen-year-old Arts major and my roomie during the current quarantine. She giggled, then looked at me guiltily.
I sputtered in outrage.
“So what, I’m some kind of human stress ball now?” I demanded. Even as the words escaped my mouth, I knew they were a bad choice.
“Well, you are his main squeeze,” Mack replied. His straight face lasted all of five seconds until Tony, Kai, and Lil all dissolved into fits of laughter that made me want to smack them. Repeatedly.
Not wanting to add fuel to the fire, I settled for a mega-watt glare, then stomped off down the sidewalk after Gabriel to find out exactly what his problem was.
Gabriel and I had been sniping at each other since we’d met as student and teacher at Big Red, before the zombie shit hit the fan. Well, technically he was a teacher’s assistant, a self-righteous vegan, and I was a happy little caffeine and sugar junkie omnivore. The sexual tension had developed somewhere between my surviving being bitten by zombies, and my transformation into a wild card—a person immune to the zombie virus. That tension had culminated in some hot, sweaty sex that hadn’t as yet been repeated—despite what the rest of the team thought.
I’d hoped all of the sniping was over with, especially after we’d fought together—and almost died—defending the university against a zombie swarm.
I guess I was wrong.
In many ways my ex—okay, dead—boyfriend Matt had been a lot easier to deal with. Matt had been uncomplicated. Give him sex and praise on a regular basis and he’d been a happy camper. A far simpler, and definitely more rewarding relationship than I’d had with my ex-husband.
Gabriel, who I found a lot more compelling, was nowhere as easy to keep satisfied. Hell, I didn’t know if he even wanted me to try.
I just wanted an adult relationship with mutual respect, intellectual compatibility, and lots of hot sex. Hell, at this point I’d settle for a steamy round of cuddling. Not that I was likely to get any of it, now that Gabriel was back in douche mode.
# # #
He was still talking on the radio when I caught up to him, so I leaned against a building next to the alley that separated Licker Up and Partyrama. He was spewing a string of Byzantine military phrases, and I rolled my eyes as I eavesdropped.
See, being a wild card not only meant enhanced physical abilities and a whole world of super-cool weapons. To my dismay, I’d heard more acronyms, code words, and pompous jargon over the last few weeks of rapid-fire training than in my previous twenty-nine years. That’s even if you included the hours I’d been forced to watch the Military Channel with my ex-husband—it was the only way I could spend any “quality” time with him.
Gabriel finally signed off with some variant on “Tango Whiskey Foxtrot.” Frowning, he thrust his radio back in its holster and turned to me.
“Did you need something, Ashley?” he demanded.
Ouch. Not the friendliest tone I could have asked for, all things considered.
“Well,” I said, choosing my words carefully, “I was kind of hoping you’d tell me what exactly is the reason for that very large stick you’ve currently got shoved up your ass.”
Okay, maybe not so carefully.
Gabriel’s brows lowered over a pair of denim blue eyes as his frown went—to use meteorological parlance—from an F1 to an F2. Before he could snap my head off, however, I kept talking. I’m good at that.
“Because the rest of the gang is talking about it, and they’re all blaming me for not helping you relieve your tension on a regular basis.”
Unfortunately I’m not always so good at filtering what comes out of my mouth. From the look on Gabriel’s face, we just skipped F3 and headed straight to F4, destroying all of the trailer parks in a hundred-mile swath.
“Oh, that’s just great,” he snapped. “What is this, high school? Am I supposed to give a shit about who’s sleeping with whom?”
“That’s not exactly the point,” I said carefully.
Seriously, I really was being careful this time.
“Then what exactly is the point?” He folded his arms and glared down at me.
“The point is that you’re acting like an athlete on the verge of ’roid rage and—” I took a deep breath and put a hand on his arm. “And I’m worried about you.”
“Well, don’t be,” he snapped, jerking his arm away. “I don’t have time for this juvenile shit, okay?”
He might as well have slapped me across the face. I felt my cheeks flame as hurt and anger duked it out with humiliation for dominance. Anger won.
“You know that song I Might Like You Better If We Slept Together?” I shook my head. “Well, not so much.”
Gabriel glared at me for a split second then turned without another word and stalked back down the sidewalk toward the entrance to the shops. I’d be damned before scurrying after him like some sort of slave girl, so I stayed where I was, fuming silently.
It didn’t last long, though.
The unmistakably nasty stench of the walking dead gave me just enough warning to dodge to one side as a zombie lurched out of the alley and lunged at me. It used be a waitress at the local Spanky’s Coffee Shop, her nametag and the tattered remains of what used to be a retro pink uniform tipping me off. Just like Flo used to wear in Alice. Its face looked like it had been pressed onto a hot grill, with strips of blistered flesh peeling off. I was tonight’s special.
My M4 was still slung across my shoulder and my blades were sheathed, so like an idiot I was caught empty-handed. Luckily there are a bunch of ways to kill a zombie, if you’re creative. I grabbed a trashcan lid and hefted it.
“Just pick up a lid, Sid,” I sang quietly to myself. “Give it a whack, Jack,” I smashed the edge of the lid against the zombie’s head, the metal leaving a dent in its skull. I swatted it a few more times for good measure, finding it very therapeutic after dealing with Captain Jerk.
“Do it again… er… Len.”
Finally Zombie Flo crumpled to the ground.
“Until it drops dead.”
So sue me. I’m not a lyricist But I am a kick-ass zombie killer.
“Can I take your orwdah?” I intoned in my best Schwarzenegger.
“Talking to yourself?”
“Shit!” I yelped. The unexpected sound of Lil’s voice made me jump almost as much as Zombie Flo had. I recovered quickly, though, and pointed to the zombie. “Nope. Talking to her.”
Lil looked down at the twice-dead corpse and gave a quiet little sigh.
“I knew her,” she said. “Mom and I used to go to Spanky’s for lunch, and—” She stopped, swallowing hard. I immediately enfolded her in a hug.
Lil’s mom had been out of town when the whole zombie plague had hit, but she’d evidently made it back before the quarantine had been imposed around Redwood Grove and the surrounding area. Lil and I had found her car outside their apartment building. Not knowing her mom’s fate weighed heavily, and the cracks in Lil’s already fragile emotional state grew a little bigger with every day. The only time she seemed happy was when she was cuddling with her cats, or killing zombies. I understood the cat thing—they were a connection to her old world. But the homicidal tendencies? Those worried me.
Often I joked that she was like a lethal Care Bear in her combat gear, but it was true. All wide green eyes and cuddly curves, Lil turned into a gleeful slaughter machine when faced with the walking dead. Now, however, she was just an eighteen-year-old who missed her mother.
I missed mine, too, but at least I knew both my parents were alive and well up north in Lake County. Lil didn’t even have the comfort of closure.
“Let’s go take care of business before Gabriel comes looking for us,” I suggested. Giving her one last squeeze, I let go and took a step back.
She nodded, wiping her eyes with the back of one hand. I pretended not to notice.
“Yeah… I heard him yelling.” Lil snuck a quick peek at me. “Are you okay?”
It was my turn to nod.
“Yup,” I said, “just pissed off.” And also worried, but I didn’t want to go into that right now, or even think about it. I’d already been caught by surprise once today because of shit with Gabriel. I didn’t intend to let it happen again. I smacked Lil lightly on the shoulder.
“Let’s go hunting.”
That brought a smile to her face. I tried not to worry.
We joined the rest of the gang in front of Licker Up. Gabriel had returned, but I didn’t bother looking at him.
“We doing two teams on this?” Mack asked. Gabriel nodded.
“Mack, Gentry, Lil, you take the office complex across the street,” he said. “Ash, Tony, Kai, check out the stores on this side of the block.”
“What about you?” Oops… almost forgot we were pissed at each other.
He hadn’t. He just ignored my question and walked away. My face burned just like the good old days, when he was just a self-righteous jerk, giving me grief when I showed up late to class. I made a face at his retreating back and Lil giggled, then tried to turn it into a fake cough when Gabriel turned and shot a dark glance our way.
Immature? Yeah, I totally cop to it. But it was better that than throwing a punch at the back of his head—which was my other impulse.
I turned to the rest of my team, unsheathing my tanto. While my modified katana was shorter than the traditional blade, the even shorter tanto was a better choice for close quarters encounters. Less chance of accidentally slicing one of my fellow wild cards if things got hairy. And the M4? We may have been immune to the zombie virus, but a stray round ricocheting off a hard surface could still kill us.
Tony had what I referred to as “Thor’s Wee Hammer,” a small but lethal sledgehammer that was his weapon of choice, while Kai hefted his favorite crowbar.
“Time to pahty,” Tony said, adding his own Ahnold impersonation to the day.
Kai grinned and the two clanged their respective weapons together. They had bonded early on during training, and were pretty much inseparable. The term “bromance” could have been invented just for them.
Lucky me. I got to be third wheel on today’s date.