"Reminiscent of the best and darkest work of David Morrell and Dan Simmons, the new collection by Pete Mesling, None So Deaf, crackles with malignant life and death. You can smell and taste these stories, which are written with a surgeon's eye for detail and a mortician's sense of drama. Highly recommended!"—Jay Bonansinga, New York Times bestselling author of The Walking Dead: Invasion and Self Storage.
"Zombie Killer" is also available in the Dead Worlds: Undead Stories Volume 2 anthology from Living Dead Press and can be heard in episode 11 of The Bare Knuckle Podcast, read by the author.
"Zombie Killer" is also available in the Dead Worlds: Undead Stories Volume 2 anthology from Living Dead Press and can be heard in episode 11 of The Bare Knuckle Podcast, read by the author.
These were hard times for Vernon Beckels. He drove into an uncertain future with one damp hand on the wheel and a lump of disgust in his belly. He was shirtless, and every now and then he’d peel himself away from the sedan’s leather upholstery. His window was down and he tapped a beat on the roof with his fingers. Thirty-four miles, the last sign had said. There’d be plenty of them in Spokane. Hell, they were everywhere.
Bland rock music played on the radio. It had taken him forever to find a station playing something other than news reports about the incident. He’d be reminded soon enough, when he got to Spokane and saw them swarming through the streets. He didn’t need to be told and retold the juicy details.
It happened six days ago. A truck got itself stuck at a railroad crossing, and what would have been a hazardous but containable spill of anhydrous ammonia from a derailed train car became a cataclysm. The truck was transporting dirty bombs, destination Seattle. It would have been enough to reduce most of the city to rubble. But even at a remote train crossing east of Lake Washington the effects were pretty dazzling. Some kind of interaction occurred between the anhydrous ammonia and the unstable radiation from the explosives. Whatever the science of it all, the result was that dead folks had been popping up out of the earth ever since. What everyone assumed was a small affected radius just kept expanding, and now there was no sign that the resurrections were going to stop any time soon.
It hadn’t taken him long to develop a taste for killing, and he’d have his pick of the crop in Spokane. Not that there weren’t still plenty of them roaming Seattle, but there was a lot of competition for his services there. He’d make it back eventually. It was his home, and he’d fight for it. But he needed a change of pace.
He imagined the entire downtown region of Spokane would have an apocalyptic feel to it when he pulled off the freeway. Fires would burn in blasted-out lots. Abandoned cars would litter the streets. And the damn things would be wandering on foot in every direction. He’d be forced to pull over and walk among them.
Seven miles out of Spokane his head began to throb. He was hungry for it now. He could see a vehicle parked at an odd angle halfway across an approaching overpass. Maybe this was an opportunity to get in a little practice before striking at the swarming masses in Spokane.
He coasted to a stop at the top of the ramp and got out of the car. It was desert hot, which suited him just fine.
Opening up the back door, he retrieved his weapon, a wooden baseball bat with a railroad spike driven through the fattest part of its length, near the end, and held in place with a liberal coating of epoxy. A fine piece of work. If the element of surprise was available, the scumbags could be incapacitated with one blow. If not, things got a bit messier, but that had only become an issue once, on day one, when he was still learning his craft. Six days of steady brutality had made him a proficient killer.
His boots slapped against the blacktop as he approached the disabled vehicle. An SUV, one of the super-sized road hogs with tinted windows. No way to know what might be hiding in the back end of it. The doors were probably unlocked, but there was something to be said for shock value. He drew back the bat and swept it into the backmost window on the driver’s side. The railroad spike pierced the glass with a dull thuck!, and a cobweb erupted from the puncture hole. He brought it in again and again, pulling shards of glass out each time he removed the instrument. He paused, waited. No sound. He inched closer to the smashed window. Still no sound, and no movement. He pressed his face up against the opening he’d created. His eyes darted left and right, but there was nothing to see. The vehicle was empty.
He moved to the driver’s door. Sure enough, it was unlocked. He opened it and climbed in just enough to see if the key was in the ignition. It was. He turned it. Nothing. Bad solenoid, maybe. He saw a wad of chewed gum stuck to the inside of an open ashtray and poked an impression into it with his index finger. Soft and warm. So a group of the bastards had tried to flee and got stalled on the road. That meant they must have continued on foot. Good, they were getting desperate. Very, very good. Now, which way had they gone? North to Canada maybe. There was some sense in that. Canada was where you went when trouble came down in the states. Every good survivalist knew that. And it was exactly what they’d want him to think. South it was.
He paused where the on-ramp intersected the overpass. It was hot weather to be without a vehicle, and it was remote country he was heading into. But going after the former occupants of the SUV on foot had its advantages. He’d be much stealthier, and he wouldn’t have to worry about fuel.
Ah, but he would. His body was already in need of nourishment. It would reach a critical point by sundown, but he was willing to risk it.
The Campbells were four in number. Marie walked in the lead. Directly behind were her twin sons, Bobby and Mitch. And bringing up the rear was Edwin, her husband. Marie was fine with being up front. It spared her the sight of her children’s hunger and exhaustion, and her husband’s tired resignation. If she’d left things up to him, they’d still be sitting in their Ford Expedition, waiting for help to come.
For years she’d quietly accepted Edwin’s rule over the household finances, the disciplining of the twins, and all the other major decisions that came with modern life in middle-class America. But when Spokane had been thrown into darkness, something turned inside Marie. Whatever it was, she saw it turn the other way in Edwin. As her own inner strength burgeoned in the midst of their terror, her husband’s dwindled to a pinprick, and he was exposed as the weakling she’d secretly known him to be all along. But it didn’t make her love him any less. Things may have been easier if it had.
They walked the yellow-dashed center line. At the crest of a rise, Marie stopped suddenly; her family did the same. A chill crawled up her back. Something wasn’t right. They weren’t alone. Looking down at a stretch of road about a mile-and-a-half back she spotted a lone figure.
“Get back,” she whispered, though there was no danger of the figure in the distance hearing her. “Go across the road to the trees.” She was confident that the setting sun would be in the figure’s eyes, preventing him from glimpsing them during the brief time they’d been in his line of sight, but she wasn’t about to take any unnecessary chances. She didn’t trust his loping gait, or what looked like a baseball bat swinging at his side. He might be one of them, and though it was hard to tell from so far away, she’d learned in the past week that it was far better to be safe than sorry. She’d seen firsthand what the bastards were capable of.
Edwin was across the road in a shot, scrambling for cover up an embankment cluttered with dogwoods and evergreens. But Mitch and Bobby stopped at the far shoulder and waited for their mother.
“Aren’t you coming, Mom?” Mitch asked.
They were nine years old and identical to the point of eeriness. Sometimes, if the lighting was just off, even Marie had to take a second to make sure she addressed them correctly.
“Yes, I’m coming,” she said and crossed the road.
“Come on, kids,” their father whispered hoarsely from the trees. “Get on up here. What’d you see, Hon?”
She wanted to chastise him for putting his own safety before the children’s. Instead she slowly made her way to him, using the time to calm herself before replying. “Someone’s coming up the road, not far behind.”
“I don’t know. Could be.” She liked how he winced at that. “Could be human, too.” It would have been cruel to remind him how she’d been begging him to take the Expedition in for maintenance, to remind him how he’d been cursing the starter lately. But she wanted to. Oh, how she wanted to. If it wasn’t for the kids…
“What do we do?” He was almost crying.
“Have you come up with a better plan than the one we started out with?”
“Then we move on until we find a nice secluded farmhouse to spend the night in.”
“Maybe the affected area will stop expanding. Then there’ll be hope of—”
“Maybe and maybe not,” she said. “I’m not going to wait around for a magic fairy to show up and save our butts, I’ll tell you that. We move, and we move now.”
“Mom?” It was Bobby this time.
“What is it, Sweetie?”
“I gotta do number one.”
“Oh, shit.” She rolled her eyes. “Okay, let’s all move up a ways. I want to get away from the road. You run ahead, Bobby, and do what you’ve got to do. Just stay in plain sight.”
“Turn your back to us if you want privacy. I want to be able to see you. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” he said and ran deeper into the trees.
Marie led Edwin and Mitch another thirty feet up, to where the embankment leveled off. Bobby stood beside a tree, peeing. His world lay ahead of him, but she wondered what kind of world he was inheriting. If this new pestilence proved unstoppable, the human race was a collapsed soufflé.
It was difficult to get reliable reports of what was going on, but some facts became believable through repetition. One bit of information that seemed plausible to Marie was that the newly dead were the most easily roused by the foul atmosphere created by the bizarre collision that occurred almost a week ago. They were also the strongest and swiftest. A relatively fresh heart attack victim might even pass for human on the street, some were saying.
But they were far from human in their habits. They desired and acted only to feast. And it was a sickening sight to behold. She was hooked, though. The business of these creatures enraged her, but she felt it was important to witness. She bottled up each of their atrocities, hoping to uncork her accumulated resentment when the time came. She vowed it would be a very dark day for the undead when she did.
“Hey, Mom,” Bobby called to her. “My zipper’s stuck.” Her arms had been folded but she dropped them to her sides and walked briskly toward the boy.
Bobby looked down and tugged at the front of his pants. She was almost to him, about to turn him around so she could have a look at the malfunctioning zipper. But hands other than hers were quicker to the task. From behind the great pine to Marie’s right, two sore-mottled arms sprang for Bobby’s throat, and a lumbering form followed, its head thrown back, its jaw working in hungry circles. The thing was naked, and skin hung from it in loose, rotten flaps. The face was a raw mass, a suppurating, diseased parody of a human face. And Marie could not look away—or move.
As its meat-like hands touched Bobby’s neck, the boy jumped and spun around to face his attacker. Bobby screamed, but Marie was soon the master of her actions again. She tore her son from the creature’s feeble grip and positioned herself between the two of them. Bobby clung to her leg. There was nothing contagious about the condition, as far as anyone was able to tell, so she tried not to worry about that possibility. That was the stuff of movies and cable talk shows, she told herself. The only way to become one of them was to die.
This one had been dead a while, no doubt about it. The reek of decomposition was strong. Marie’s lunch of dry biscuits and bottled lemonade threatened to come up. She couldn’t deny that it would be satisfying to puke in its face, but the action would weaken her, and her family would likely be doomed.
“Edwin!” she hollered, wondering why she’d left their only defense in his care. “Get over here!”
The thing squeezed one of Marie’s breasts, and the bloody hole that passed for its mouth narrowed and turned up at the corners in a sickening smile. It took a marionette-like step into her space and put both arms on her shoulders, as if inviting her to dance. Her stomach heaved and the taste of bile burned at the back of her throat, but she kept her gorge down.
“Run, Bobby!” She could feel her son’s arms loosen from around her leg. She laid her hands on the attacker’s chest and shoved. It stumbled backward, joints working in odd, halting gyrations to keep it upright. Its smile became a snarl and it let out a hideous groan.
She chanced a look in Edwin’s direction and was relieved to see that Mitch and Bobby were safely at his side. But why wasn’t he coming to her aid?
“Edwin, I need some help here!”
He sat on a patch of lumpy earth and pine needles, staring at her like a war-zone child who’s just watched his parents get blown up in a bomb blast. “Fucking worthless,” she muttered and strode over to him. He clutched a nylon duffel bag. She wrenched one handle strap out of his grip and unzipped the bag in a single, quick motion. From inside she drew a medium-weight sledgehammer she’d somehow convinced him to steal from an abandoned hardware store several days ago and an eight-inch bolt they’d found hanging loosely from a warehouse wall. Thus armed she turned to face the abomination.
There was nothing in the face but dumb rage and hunger. She let a shiver pass through her before taking several purposeful strides toward the thing. The stink of its breath came over her again. She’d need to act fast to keep from upchucking. Gripping the bolt in her left fist she punched it into the thing’s eye and held it there. It howled and grasped her arm with both hands. The head of the bolt barely showed from within her clenched fist, but catching some of her own skin when she struck it was the least of her concerns.
Her other arm brought up the sledgehammer, and she could see the bastard’s working eye rove upward to meet the weapon’s business end. Before the ghoulish atrocity could formulate a complete thought, the weapon fell to meet the bolt. A thick, oily substance spewed from the wound and the thing fell to the ground, where it quivered and cried, plucking ineffectually at the source of its discomfort until, at length, it ceased moving altogether.
Marie dropped to her knees and let the contents of her stomach spill into the grass. When she rose she felt transformed, and, wiping vomit from her chin with a swipe of her forearm, she swelled with the pride of a conqueror. But a rough road lay ahead, and she knew better than to count her blessings. She yanked the bolt free of the thing’s eye socket, returned to where Edwin now stood, and deposited the implements in the duffel bag that hung over his shoulder. He neither helped nor seemed to notice, and Marie cut deeper into the woods, knowing her family would follow her if they valued their lives. Somewhere ahead there would be an empty farmhouse. Somewhere ahead, dear God, let there be an empty farmhouse.
Vernon could feel the hot pavement burning through the soles of his boots. The night would be cool enough, though, and there wasn’t long to wait.
When he reached the top of a curved incline, the wind picked up, and with it came a smell, familiar but difficult to identify. He sniffed at the wind like a wolf. Something off the highway, in with the trees. He followed his instinct into the woods. The scent was stronger there. He climbed until he came to a level patch and spotted a fallen creature.
He leaned over the carcass for a long time, turning his head this way and that, trying to make sense of what he was looking at. Suddenly he dropped to his haunches and scooped some fluid from the damaged face with an index finger. Licking it dry from base to tip he stared into the trees and whispered, “You’ll pay for this. Whoever you are, you’ll pay for this with your brains.”
The Campbells came to where the trees ended, and Marie looked out across what seemed a vast plain, rolling slightly downward from where she stood. A picturesque farmyard stood in the trough of the plain, but she was hesitant to move from the cover of trees. There was a lot of open space between them and the house. She hoped that whoever was behind them had continued on down the highway, but if he hadn’t, if he had somehow discovered her handiwork, he might be dangerously close behind. They would be totally exposed while crossing to the farm.
It was a chance they’d have to take, she decided. She said nothing as she resumed her course, and Edwin and the boys followed without question. There was the possibility that the figure she’d seen was a man, not… one of the others. He might even be able to help their chances of survival. But it was best to trust no one yet, especially since she barely trusted herself anymore.
“Boys, go inside with your father. I want to check out the yard, see what kind of supplies there might be lying around before it gets dark.”
A well stood off to one side of the house, what appeared to be a storage shed to the other. At the back of the yard was a barn. The shed was padlocked shut. No time to deal with that. The barn was the only place where she might find something useful. A weapon, a tool. Anything.
She found nothing of obvious interest inside, however. The barn was tidy. At first she wondered if it had been unused, but her nose soon told her otherwise: the smell of animal habitation. Horse, she believed. She checked the stalls on both sides. A couple of them sported fresh-looking manure. Whoever had lived here owned horses and probably fled with them. No vehicles in the yard. They must have had a horse trailer.
A ladder led to a loft, so she climbed up to have a look. Like the rest of the barn, it was mostly empty. A dark pile of hay lay in one corner, but no pitchfork, unfortunately. Still, she climbed all the way up and walked over to the hay. It wasn’t such a bad place to hole up in, actually. The ladder was retractable, which would probably keep a family safe. They’d need food and water, of course. She sat down in the hay to think things through. Maybe she should gather her family and bring them up here, just for tonight. Tomorrow they could concentrate their efforts on fortifying the house.
The loft window was partially open and through it she could see the sky, filled with the oranges and violets of dusk. Her estimate had been way off. It was already almost dark. She decided she should make sure Edwin hadn’t abandoned the boys and found himself a remote alcove to hide in. He wasn’t exactly himself lately.
Back at the house, her hand on the front door, she looked out across the darkened plain they’d recently braved. No sign of the figure from the highway, but she couldn’t see very far. She’d have to trust they were safe for now. “Christ, give us one night of peace,” she whispered as she opened the door and stepped across the threshold.
She groped for a light switch, found one and flicked it up; the room filled with light. Her whole body tightened. Shit, she thought. Might as well send up a flare. She slammed the light switch down again, imagining the figure from the road walking leisurely across the open field, hoping to find a free meal, when suddenly a light flashes on briefly in a nearby house. Gooseflesh came up on her arms as she went for the stairs.
Vernon’s days were a drudgery whose only satisfaction lay in the promise of nightfall. But whatever strange set of circumstances had brought him back from the grave, he was thankful for them. He had been rescued from a terrible place, a place of constant hunger and agony. Now he was free once again to satiate his appetites, to quell his pain.
And it had already resumed. The man whose body now lay beside him in the dark was a fine hors d’oeuvre. He’d killed him with a blow to the base of the skull and trepanned him with the spike of his augmented baseball bat. With his lips sealed tightly around the hole, he’d sucked and devoured with insane zeal. Even he was mildly shocked by his bodily urge to empty the man’s skull of its delicious contents, but the meat was far too rich to resist.
It saddened him, as he rested his fattened body against the bedroom wall, to think that such a frail specimen had managed the task. But he’d looked inside the man’s duffel bag and found the tools that had obviously been used. It had been dead a long time, the creature this man had put an end to. It probably hadn’t been able to put up much of a struggle. But still, this lone, desperate individual seemed far too pathetic to deal such a blow to the New Cause. He had actually begged for his life. Begged and pleaded for Vernon to leave him alone. Like a girl.
The fear added flavor to the feast, however. For that Vernon was grateful. It was the best eating he’d done since being reborn.
A creak from the stairs. Maybe the house settling. A wind had come up with the setting of the sun. Perhaps the old farmhouse was readjusting its bones. Still, worth checking out, especially since he thought he’d seen a flash of light from the corner of his eye a minute ago. He used the bat to haul himself up, a greater effort than he’d expected. His full belly sloshed to and fro. The meal had left him sluggish.
“Come to me,” a voice whispered from the direction of the stairs. He felt something like fear, but it was quickly swallowed by anger. Was someone actually trying to bait him? He brought the bat to rest on his shoulder, the way a highway patrolman might prop his Mag-Lite when he pulls over a swerving driver and approaches the vehicle on foot, in case things turn ugly.
But he was stopped cold by something even stranger than the hidden whisperer. Before him, in the dimly moonlit hall beyond the bedroom door, a young boy stepped into view from opposite the stairs. Catching a glimpse of Vernon Beckels—or more likely his ghastly silhouette—the boy ran for the landing, emitting a strangled squawk of fear. What games were these?
He livened his pace and reached the top of the stairs just in time to see two figures whirl around the banister at the bottom and crouch alongside the staircase, apparently thinking themselves out of his line of sight. He proceeded down the stairs.
A loose board about halfway down complained under his weight. He paused.
“But Mom,” the boy whispered, mere feet below where Vernon stood, “There’s a bad man. Please let me turn on the light. I’m scared.”
A shadow tore from beside the staircase and across the room to the front door, where a switch was thrown. Light filled the room, and Vernon and the boy stared each other down.
“Does the light make it better, son?” Vernon asked. The boy appeared to be trembling. Vernon smiled. “I didn’t think so. And your mother, she might as well come out now too.” He saw that this was a family, and that he’d killed the father. Hadn’t he guessed as much, back at the broken-down SUV? His thoughts were getting heavy, his memory unreliable.
She rose on command and walked defiantly to the foot of the stairs. Her gaze was as steady as her son’s but showed none of his youthful fear. She was ready for business.
A sharp voice shrieked from behind him, “Monster!” He spun around, almost losing his balance on the narrow wooden step. At the head of the stairs was the boy. But how was that possible? He sensed there was a rational explanation, but it was just beyond his grasp, like an itch in his brain. It occurred to him to check and see if the boy was still at the front door as well, but before he could turn all the way around, the woman was yanking the baseball bat from his grip.
It glared at her, but she’d backed down a few steps already, out of reach. It concentrated all of its hatred on her as she slammed the spiked bat into its forehead. The spike went in all the way to the wood with a satisfying sound. There was virtually no reaction. The thing just stood there, swaying. She let go of the bat immediately, ran down the steps and stood off to the side of the staircase.
“Mitch,” she called up, “I don’t want you going near it, do you understand? I need you to jump over the railing into my arms. I’ll catch you.”
She expected him to hesitate, but without a thought he swung himself over the railing and into her arms. The force knocked her to the ground.
“You go outside with your brother and wait for me. I’m going to check on your father.”
The Campbell twins did as they were told and Marie got to her feet and mounted the stairs. She didn’t even pause on her way up as she swept a hand out and pushed the creature over. There was no resistance in the sound of its tumble, and when its head cracked on the hardwood floor below she could tell without looking that it lay there motionless.
She was afraid to discover what Edwin might have suffered at the hands of the ghoul. The next five minutes would probably be the roughest of her life, and she planned to memorize every twinge of hatred they inspired. That hatred would be unleashed on the next round of undead creatures she was sure to come across in the days that sprawled before her and her sons like leering infinity.