a serial novel: Part 3
by CHRIS CASTLE
s they drove to the next house, the people of the town appeared at their windows and garden gates. Clearly the horror of the situation was starting to spread from one neighbour to the next. One or two of them tried to flag the cruiser down, but Nick made snap decisions for both, assessing if they were in danger or if they were simply searching for information. Mike had a feeling they had to stay in motion and that to stop would mean things collapsing even more quickly than they were now.
“It has to be a virus of some sort,” Nick said.
“I just shot a girl,” Mike said. His voice was quiet.
“That wasn’t a girl, Mike. The same way as the other thing wasn’t a man.” He tried to keep his voice steady but it didn’t work. Again, Mike found himself wondering how long he had known the little girl; most of her life? The life Mike had ended with a bullet. Her name was Sherri.
“But what…what if it’s a virus they can find a cure for? What if tomorrow, she’d had the chance to be cured? I-” he stopped talking as Nick pulled the car over to the kerb. For a second, neither of them spoke.
“Whatever this is, it’s not stopping, Mike. There won’t be a cure tomorrow, not for this.” His voice was calm and low. Mike felt there was a certainty in it that would be impossible to argue with.
“We have to act decisively now, Mike, otherwise it could go wrong very quickly, you understand?” He looked over and faced Mike full in the face. Mike didn’t look away.
“I understand.” He looked out at the house. The windows were shattered and the screaming was already audible from the street.
They engaged in the next skirmish without a single word passing between them.
69 CHANNELS AND NOTHIN’ ON
Mike continually called the city and each and every time was met with an engaged tone. Nick had an idea and pulled up outside the local vet’s, and Nick’s fishing buddy, Jon Denim. Before they’d reached the door, it opened and both of them tensed. Nick’s friend stood at the door, barely moving, a shotgun at his side like a walking stick.
“Nick. Mr. Sheridan,” He said calmly. Nick gave him the once over and moved his hand away from his pistol, Mike doing the same.
“Wondering if we could try your phone?”
“Be my guest,” he said, waving them in with his free hand. The three of them stepped inside. The man’s voice was stained with whiskey.
Nick called and Mike waited, believing this would be the breakthrough, the moment when they got some help. Nick’s eyes closed and his shoulders sagged just enough to let him know it wasn’t working. He turned to thank Jon, who was staring at him.
“What’s going on here, Nicky?” His voice was close to breaking and his eyes were moist. The steel had slipped away from him now that they were inside his home.
“I don’t know, Johnny. I just don’t know enough to tell you, right now.” Mike was surprised how much easier it felt to be truthful about it, rather than formulate some sort of protective lie. It would only come back and bite them on the ass at a later date if they went down that route anyway.
“Are…are people going crazy?” He almost laughed as he said it and Mike almost smiled as he heard. It was ridiculous after all, wasn’t it? This…this just didn’t happen in real life. He knew people did go crazy, yes, but it was a build up of things, of life or a moment that was too terrible or too painful that made someone snap. People didn’t just…break, in sequence, did they? It was too absurd to try to understand.
“It looks that way at the moment Jon, but…there has to be a reason behind it. There’s always a reason.” Nick looked up, nodding to Mike and hoping for some sort of agreeing reassurance from the vet. Instead he just saw a stark grey mask, one of fear mingled with pain.
“Except when there’s not,” was all the man said, the old hardness returning in that moment. For a long time, the two stood facing each other; Nick stunned by the bleakness of his friend, as if a part of him had already died, somehow. Mike cleared his throat and spoke up.
“We might need the use of your surgery, doctor, if things keep going the way they’re going.”
“I live above. I doubt I’ll sleep tonight. Knock on my door if you need me. I didn’t trust the telephones before you came here, anyway.” Mike snapped out of the low panic he was feeling and looked back once to Nick, to check he was thinking clearly, hearing correctly. Nick beat him to it.
“Why don’t you trust the phones?”
“Everything shorted out around five p.m. TV, phones, everything. Only cells left now.” He shrugged and walked with them to the door. Mike’s mind was racing and he glanced over to see Nick wore the same expression on his face.
“Don’t look so disappointed,” his old friend said, opening the door. “There’s never anything worth watching these days, anyway.”
A LITTLE RICH, A LOT CRAZY
As they drove to the fringes of the town, Nick gave Mike a potted history of the McKenzie family and specifically the patriarch, Julian. How it started with an off-the-books deal, threats, exploitation and everything else that went with good old big business. Nick glanced over from time to time to gauge the younger man’s reaction, which went from disbelief to anger, with a healthy dose of accepting cynicism along the way. City life and town life weren’t dissimilar in a lot of ways, Mike thought. By the time he cleared his throat, Nick seemed to be waiting for the first, inevitable question.
“So how come you didn’t throw the book at him?” He said and was not surprised to see the rueful smile on his partner’s face.
“Oh, I did, for about, let’s see, touching seven years. Started when I was about your age, working under a fella about the age I am now. I went at him all guns blazing, tried to pick him up on the labour he used, the accusations that followed; abuse, rape, even a murder at one point. Every time I threw something at him, all his lawyers stepped up to the plate and swatted them away, one by one.” The smile had slipped away now and Mike could feel the faint red tinge of anger on his cheek.
“That son of a bitch knew every trick in the book and then some, but it all came down to one thing, when all’s told,” he went on, swerving into the long dirt road. The radio jumped into life and then silenced just as quick.
“Money,” Mike said flatly and wondered if there was a case for any problem that wasn’t centred on it; or any big problem that wasn’t solved by it, too.
“Of course, money,” Nick snapped. He turned to say an apology but Mike was already shaking it away. “Every single person he hurt was either tainted or bribed or threatened and I bet every time a big, fat envelope went sliding under a table or into a pocket, somewhere along the line.”
“Nothing ever changes but the places,” Mike said, remembering the amount of backhanders he had seen in the bars and the countless others he’d pretended not to see when it was his friends reaching out or slapping backs.
“My boss was a good man but I couldn’t say for certain if he wasn’t taking a little something for his diplomacy. Every time I’d come back, looking beaten up and bruised and he’d shake his head. He used to say nothing beats power but money and we never had either, same as the poor folk McKenzie used up. He was right of course, but it didn’t stop me.” He pulled the car up onto a bank and cut the engine.
“How’d that go down with the folks here?” Mike asked, wanting to choose his words carefully. From what he’d just heard, it sounded like a miracle Nick still had his life, let alone his job.
“People surprise you. More came out on my side than I thought. Course, the rich men knew where the chips fell and tried to jamb me up once or twice, but not as many as I’d anticipated. I haven’t stepped back here in over fifteen years…feels like I’m being summoned, or something.”
“Anything I should know about his family, apart from the library archives?” Mike said, stepping out and instinctively checking his pistol. The day when everything changes, he thought. He hadn’t done that since his first year on the force. His partner, a good hearted drunk, had eased him out of the habit, claiming it would get Mike a reputation in-house of someone who had an itchy trigger; that or someone who liked playing with himself.
“Yeah, what’s not in them,” Nick said, wincing as he rose. “Those library photos are a perfect way of describing the McKenzie clan. You have the father and the dutiful wife, if I’m not mistaken?”
“As clean and wholesome as could be,” Mike replied, looking up to the sky. It was dusky now and the sun was setting.
“Sure it is. What you don’t see is the mistress. You don’t see the marks running up and down the wife’s arm. And you sure as hell don’t see the poor kid he had with the maid, a crippled kid they keep locked away like a dirty secret from the stone ages.” Mike felt his jaw drop. Nick walked on, obviously not feeling the need to say anymore. The sight of the mansion loomed large and as they marched towards it, Mike felt as if he were a kid taking up a dare to check out a haunted house.
“Everything goes crazy just as the power goes,” Nick said, almost to himself.
“In an hour these people will be going crazy,” Mike said and then thought again. “I’m mean, normal people crazy, not today crazy.”
“We’ll have to call a town meeting. We haven’t had one of those in almost fifteen years,” Nick said as they moved towards the front porch.
“Doesn’t seem to be much of a disturbance,” Mike said, looking in and sensing nothing as extreme as what had gone before.
“There never was,” Nick replied, before going back to the subject. “It all began as the power shorted,” he went on and Mike looked over. Behind the folksy charm, he knew the old man was a good detective and right now his mind was whirring over the cogs and pieces.
“You think something in the power lines triggered…something? What, like an act of terrorism or something?” Mike swallowed hard. Starting out as a cop, he would have baulked at the idea; now terrorism, and cyber terrorism to boot, was as much a reality as the kitchen knife and the filed down gun.
“It seems too much of a coincidence. Each of the rooms had a laptop, they were live at the time; everything goes wrong. It’s the only common thread between them. Everything else is disparate; none of them knew each other to any degree.”
“It’s perfect,” Mike said quietly, making Nick glance look back. “You send a virus through the system, and then short the system out. It’s the perfect fire: you start it, watch it burn and then step back, with no trace coming back to you.” They reached the gate and buzzed it, identifying themselves.
“But why not short all the power, all the electricity? Why tie it to laptops, computers and not, I don’t know, TV and radio? Why not wipe out all of it?” Mike let his hand fall down to his side again to where his gun sat; the scene of wealth and respectability felt totally at odds with the nature of their call.
“So they can control it,” Nick said, mirroring Mike’s action. “Think: if you’re doing this through a computer network, you must be a goddamn genius with computers. So you set things in motion, let the world eat itself and then when the carnage is over, you take charge of what’s left.”
“Or they just want to broadcast what they’ve done on TV,” Mike said flatly, without looking over. He felt Nick looking over to him as the door slowly opened.
The man who opened the door was not the villain Mike had anticipated or, to be honest, secretly hoped for. Julian McKenzie was of average build, recently shaven, with grey-green eyes. Nothing about him suggested a powerful man. Mike decided long ago this meant nothing; most serial killers were the men who stood in the supermarket and were forgotten by the people who served in a flash. The most vicious, cruel man he had ever met was a postal worker and wore the same haircut for twenty years. Even when they buried him, his old man still looked as if he we about to join a bird watching group and not hold a lighter until welts formed on his son’s arm.
“He’s in the far bedroom,” Julian McKenzie said, as if leading them to a concert. He didn’t attempt to shake either of them by the hand and spoke as if he were conducting a conference meeting. “He started behaving oddly and…I managed to lock the door before he could leave the room.” Mike followed the man of the house and glanced over to Nick to follow his lead.
“When did this start to occur?” Nick asked. Mike noticed a pinched quality to his voice and recognised it as a habit he also had of tightening his tone when rage bubbled underneath the surface.
“Around five,” the other man said, raising his hand briefly, as if swatting a fly. The house was rich without being decadent; there were no portraits hanging on every wall, but small, discreet paintings that Mike recognised as being worth more than his entire earnings to date. The three of them climbed stairs and then walked down a long corridor until stopping at a closed door.
“Do you know what this is?” McKenzie asked and for the first time, he turned around and looked them in the eye.
“We think it might be some sort of virus, spread through technology, perhaps. Does your son have the internet, sir?” Now that he had said it, Mike wondered if it was true at all, or merely a way for them to put a box around what was happening, to contain it and not call it what it really was: insanity.
“Yes. For all the good it did him.” Mike turned round to catch Nick’s eye and felt his own blood boiling: was he already referring to his own son in the past tense?
“It could be linked,” Mike said quickly, feeling his jaw clench. “Could you step away, now, sir?” He said, drawing his pistol.
“Of course, of course,” the man said, as if was simply following protocol. Nick led the way and Mike followed.
The scene itself was, on the surface, like all the others. The computer was upturned; the screen shattered, bits and pieces were in disarray. Mike stepped further in and drew his weapon and then stopped as the pieces began to come together in his mind. There were no scattered, broken belongings, no sign of the frenzy that had gone with the others. He looked over and saw a small, black creature in the corner...but the thing wasn’t set for attack. Instead, it was cowering. The noise was contained, the damage restricted to itself. It was…scared. Mike stepped back and then jerked forward. He spun round and saw what he was reacting against; the walls were rubber.
“This is a…cell.” Mike looked over and saw Nick staring around with the same level of disbelief. “He keeps his own son in a prison,” he muttered, lowering his pistol.
“He wants us to…put him down,” Nick whispered. As if understanding them somehow, the black creature twitched and huddled further into the corner of the wall.
“No, he wants us to exterminate it.” Mike said and looked around again. It was a pitiful sight and would have been, even before the madness of the day. Without speaking, he turned and walked towards the door, turning the handle abruptly and stepping out. Nick jogged after him, as best he could. The creature looked up briefly at the flicker of the open door and then recoiled away under his father’s stare.
“Well?” the McKenzie asked, his eyes thin but expectant. He looked down to their weapons and seemed confused at their apparent signs of inactivity. Nick realised with horror that the room had been sound-proofed and McKenzie had merely assumed the shots had been muffled by the walls.
“Well?” Mike said, his eyes flaring. The anger in his body motioned him forward without realising it and Nick had to come between the two men.
“There’s been no evidence of a crime, Mr. McKenzie.” He watched as the man’s eyes finally widened.
“But, you’ve seen it. You’ve seen what a monstrosity…” his words seemed to fail him and Mike realised for one of the first times in his life that McKenzie was facing the idea of someone not doing as he’d asked. “The law must state-”
“There are no laws at this time, sir,” Nick said. “We have no mandate, we have no clearance to act in a way other than those governed by law.”
“You have to act. I won’t have that-” before he could finish, Nick had pushed himself into the cruel, self-satisfied face he must have spent years hating. His gun was still at his side but Mike could sense everything in him was pulsing and shaking. His anger almost making him vibrate. Mike felt his throat go dry watching his partner shading with fury and wondered; is this what it was like for those poor people when they changed?
“Nothing has changed, so you’re going to provide due care until you are told otherwise. I will check and I will monitor what happens to your son, are we clear?” Nick’s voice hummed and sounded thick.
“What is in there can simply not be allowed. If I have to act, then I will.” Even though he had nothing to defend himself with, McKenzie’s will, his arrogance, was still cast-iron and Mike marvelled at it, in an odd, twisted way.
“If you act, then I will act,” Nick whispered, almost intimately, into the man’s ear. In that moment, it appeared as if McKenzie understood the weapon between them and the consequences it could bring. “If it’s a new time now, then there will be new rules.”
“I…” McKenzie stammered but then said nothing else. He paled briefly but then seemed to regain his composure. Mike watched all of this, saw the inherent calculations going on in the man’s mind, saw how he was trying to recover what had been lost and was already trying to work the angles back into his favour. As he steeled to issue a new threat, Mike pulled them all apart.
“There may be a question of a crime, but it’s one I already see in place, Mr. McKenzie,” he said, looking back to the heavy door and what lay behind it. “I’ll remember it, as will my partner, as long as we’re still around.” He nodded and then lightly brushed Nick on the elbow, before walking away. It wasn’t until the two of them were outside that they began to breathe again.
“I think I’ve seen another monster,” Mike said quietly, shaking his head. He peered back to the house and wondered where the rest of the family were, if they were suitably contained in other areas of the house and under lock and key.
“I made a bad call acting like that, Mike. I’m sorry.” His voice was thick and Mike could hear the apology coated with the leftover fragments of anger.
“I think I’m impressed you didn’t pull the trigger,” he said and patted his partner on the arm. He wasn’t surprised to feel how stiff and rigid it felt under the jacket.
“That’s kind of you to say so, Mike, but you’re wrong. He’s too powerful to undermine like I just did. That could cost us down the line.” Something in his wrist flared and made him gasp. Without thinking, he started to roll his hand to stop it from stiffening up. It was the first time he’d done this in-front of Mike.
“Still giving you grief, huh?” Mike said, giving up all pretence of ignorance. The older man nodded without looking up. “Look, I think we’ve got enough on, without worrying about this despot, no matter how loony he is with his own family. I was as much up in his face as you were, so don’t worry about it.”
“You’re wrong,” Nick said and when he looked up, Mike almost flinched at the worry that was drawn all over his face. It was worse than in any other part of the day, though that should have been impossible, bearing in mind what they had seen already in just a few short hours.
“Nick, the whole world’s going to hell in a handcart. How strong can one man be?” Again, he said it lightly, trying to find some sliver of absurd humour in their situation.
“That’s just it. If things go this way,” Nick whispered his voice still dry and almost muttering. “If it comes down to choosing sides and backing men, there’s going to be a lot of people looking at him, as well as us.”
“We’ve just gotta hope they back the men with the badges,” Mike said, his own lightness of speech suddenly sounding dumb, even to his own ear. He sounded like a kid refusing to listen to adult reasoning.
“They’ll back power, Mike and he’s got more than us. And the folks he owns carry bigger guns than us,” he finished, his hands settling into one final, slow arc before stilling. There was something in that motion and the way it edged into nothingness that sent a chill up Mike’s spine.
“Let’s get out of here,” he managed to say. The two turned away from the big house and started the long walk back to the car.
“You think it’s only the internet that’s tied up with this?” Mike asked after a long, cool minute of silence. Nick looked up at the sky and scratched his chin.
“It’s guesswork but I’d say so. It ties to a theory; is there anything else, apart from computers?”
“Mobiles,” Mike said, and saw the surprised expression on Nick’s face. He tried not to laugh and slipped his hand over his face, as if wiping away food. The old man obviously caught it in a flash.
“Okay, junior, I’m not exactly Bill Yates when it comes to this aspect of the case,” he said, trying to frown but letting his own, sly grin slip out.
“Gates,” Mike answered before he could stop himself. He saw the old man’s frustration grow and shook his head quickly. “Doesn’t matter.”
“I still write letters, what do I know?” Nick replied, glad there was still a fair amount of daylight left in the late afternoon sky. “You know how many people I book for accidents because they’re on their phones? In their cars, when they’re walking down the street, for Christ sakes.”
“It is only going to get worse,” Mike said distractedly, suddenly thinking about the city, his ex-wife. She had told him never to call, but if these weren’t exceptional circumstances…
“Maybe we’re looking at it from the wrong direction. Maybe these people have sent it out as a message to stop using the internet. They could have just turned the clock back fifty years in a second.” Nick raised an eyebrow and shrugged.
“But…to do it like this…to sacrifice all these people,” Mike felt his words trailing off. The idea was too extreme. “It’s crazy.”
“Insanity, pure and simple,” Nick said as the car came into view and he fished for his keys. On cue, the radio ate into the silence.
What does chaos look like?
Mike wondered about it as they drove back into the heart of town. With their rough , scattershot theories in place, Nick drove them back to the station to make a rough estimate of which houses had internet connections. As they finished, the radio blared again and sure enough one of the places they had pinpointed was involved. Nick had called the houses but none of them picked up. It could have been because the internet server had jammed up the line and put it out of action, Mike thought. It could be that they’re all dead.
Nick let Mike drive, his wrists obviously cramping, and allowed himself to take two pills with a bottle of water. Mike had been quiet, apart from their immediate questions and answers. The McKenzie child still burned on him.
“McKenzie’s dangerous,” Nick said, as if reading his mind as they tore down the road.
“If anything happens to that kid, he’ll see I’m dangerous, too,” was all Mike said as they reached the next house. This is what happens in war, he thought, and a terrible wave of sadness ran through him for the first time. It changes men.
Three more calls, three more scenes of bedlam. On each occasion, family members not infected had been murdered. Each time, Mike noted the younger siblings were spared and only the adults were attacked. Each time they had drawn and fired. Mike had felt something like surprise when the creatures stilled so easily. He had imagined some sort of upgrade, some advanced version, even though it had only been a matter of hours since it had all began. Nick had stood the last of them, clearly trying to find answers. Mike put a hand on his shoulder.
“It’s because they’re teenagers. The only one who was fully grown was the first,” he said. He squeezed Mike’s hand once and then walked away. Mike began to follow him, but the truth of what he’d just been told was too much for him. He pinched his eyes once and took a huge, fantastic gulp of air, accepting the truth. The ages round up to 18 and stopped at 30. It’s targeting kids.
The makeshift ambulance appeared at the top of the road and Mike waved him down. On the radio, after the first attack at the Riggs house, it had been agreed that they would take the bodies over to the city but leave the contaminated creatures in the town. It was part isolation and part desperate logic. The driver, Dean Astley, stepped out, looking as if it were just another day at the office. He opened the back of the vehicle and Mike noticed with horror the other bodies were stacked like packages in the back.
“I’ve waited. I figured it was going to be more than one.” Dean said matter-of-factly and then waited for them to lead him to the next one.
“We’re going to have to do something with the bodies,” Dean said, as he pushed the two corpses into the back of his converted people carrier. “Either kids or restless folks are going to start looking soon. I’m full now, so I’ll take this crew to the city, but the ones here…they’re going to have to be dealt with, sooner or later.”
“You’re right,” Nick said and Mike agreed. Having them…tucked away seemed wrong somehow.
“You should do it before it gets dark,” the driver went on. “How many body bags you got in the cruiser?”
“Two,” Mike said immediately. The other man nodded, as if it was the answer he’d expected.
“And how many bodies?” He went on, as he unzipped an overhead section of the vehicle.
“Five,” the two of them said, almost in unison. The driver came out and handed Mike a heavy roll.
“There are eight there just in case you need…extra.” He looked to both of them and drew a cigarette out of his shirt pocket. Mike refused, Nick accepted. “Some conversation, huh?”
“Some conversation,” Mike repeated and then suddenly pointed back to the carton and took the cigarette that was readily offered. He saw Nick raise an eyebrow, even as he offered the light.
“I’d quit,” Mike said, as if it were almost an excuse.
“Well, now’s the day to start over,” the driver said and walked away.
“Riggs, Steven. Appleby, Haley. Clifton, Gregory. Newman, Penelope. Meets, Colin.” Mike recited the list from his notebook as Nick drove them over to the Riggs property where it all began. The ages came next and then the schools, and Riggs’ job.
“No connections whatsoever,” Nick said, almost to himself. “No blood ties, no criminal records, no juvie, nothing. The only thing that links them is they’re all thirty or under and were all on the internet at the time.” The car ground to a halt at the front garden.
“Maybe Riggs somehow brought it back from the city?” Mike said, more in hope than expectation. As they reached the door they both paused and drew their weapons before they stepped inside. The body was just where they left it.
“No regeneration of any sorts, at least,” Mike muttered and paced forward, his gun still drawn.
“We’ll need a list of the other houses that have the internet at home. If the connections are down, we’ll have to go door to door or raise it in a meeting.” Mike joined Nick at the body and peered down to it; whatever he was going to say next died in his throat as they looked, really looked, at the corpse.
The body was someway between a human body and something else. Mike had seen drug ravaged bodies before but not even the worst damage came close to what he saw now. Starting with the face, the eyes were totally black, as if ink had been poured into them. The cheeks were sallow, as if drained of vitality, making the face gaunt, as if it were starving. Again, Mike noted aberrations; the forehead and the throat bloated, as if it had swallowed something it could not digest. The skin colour had cooled but thick black lines, almost like pulses, streaked across the face.
“Shall I take off his clothes?” Mike asked stiffly and did not look round.
“Yeah,” came the reply. Mike noted how hoarse it sounded and wondered if Nick, like him, was trying not to scream, choking back tears or fighting the urge to vomit.
He set the t-shirt to one side and scanned the body. The same black bolts ran over the body, looking for all the world like tubers under the skin. The chest itself was concave but there was a raised element around the heart, as if the organ had tried to leap clean out through the skin. The arms had the same junkie tracks but Mike noted a slight difference with the fingers; the tips were swollen, bulblike. As he rolled the body over, the same matrix of black lines sprawled across the flesh, even managing to almost overshadow a tattoo the man had on his shoulder. It was initials and a heart, entwined. Mike sighed at this small sign of humanity amongst the damage, before moving on. The rest of the body showed the same sort of effect, with no other noticeable characteristics. Mike carefully dressed him again and stepped outside without speaking.
“My guess is the virus went up through the fingertips, into the skull and spread through the body, until it blew out his heart,” Nick said, joining him on the porch. He patted Mike on the shoulder. “That was a brave thing you just did, partner.”
“I don’t think I could have done it with any of the kids,” he replied without thinking and suddenly realised it was true. He felt some warped sense of relief that one of the victims had at least been an adult and a man, too. “What do you think the black stuff is?”
“The virus. You checked yourself out?” Nick looked down to Mike’s hands. Each of them seemed puffy and oddly luxurious after what he had just seen.
“Nothing,” he said and reached back over for fresh gloves. “You got the body-bag?”
Mike took the top and Nick the bottom. He wished there were some way of not putting the strain on the older man but it was impossible. It was a short walk, at least, and they had backed the car up to the final step. He let Nick count down from three and braced himself. On zero they lifted the corpse up and Mike nearly fell back on his ass. He steadied himself, looking over to Nick, and saw the same look of dis-belief on his partner’s face.
“What the hell?” Nick mumbled and looked down. “There’s no way he should be this light.”
“Was he sick before? I don’t remember seeing him and thinking he’d lost weight,” Mike asked as they navigated the bag down to the car.
“No, this is something else,” Nick replied, his brow already creasing in thought. They took the steps and slipped it easily into the back seat. Mike thought furiously but came up with nothing. They both removed their gloves and dropped them into the nearby bin.
“The virus,” Nick said slowly, as he tilted his head to the sky and rolled his neck. “It must have eaten him from the inside out.”
BRINGING OUT THE DEAD
As they went to the other houses, Mike became aware of the curtains flickering from the neighbouring homes. Having decided against investigating the other bodies, they simply went inside, zipped them up and got them to the car as quickly as possible. In theory, it was fine, but in practice Mike slowed, finding himself looking at the everyday pieces of the family’s life as they moved through the houses, ruined by this insane tragedy. Notes on the fridge, with three exclamation marks and bubbly letters still rested in place but were flecked with blood. A sofa was drenched red; a bowl of fruit lay overturned in a living room, the apples and oranges still, some squashed and others intact.
The bedrooms were the most heartbreaking of all. Each of them contained details of their lives: circled dates on calendars, books with overturned corners, frames full of photos. All of this, as they encased the children inside dark bags, their eyes blackened, their mouths disjointed in a primal scream. Mike saw a jewellery box opened on one desk and felt bile as he realised the tips were now too bloated and swollen to ever accept the rings onto the fingers. He went on, carrying the bags, and looked up to see his partner’s eyes heavy with tears he was not willing to let slip. Mike wondered what it must have been like for the older man, who had known these young people, had watched them grown up from a distance, maybe chastised them once or twice, or helped them cross the road. It was a set of questions he would never ask his friend.
“Leave them be!” Mike looked up from the back of the cruiser and saw nothing but a draft from an open window. He turned and saw Nick gazing up, somehow not looking surprised.
“Mrs. Dater. Leader of the church group,” he said and looked down. Mike bit down on his lip and noticed the boot was full with three bodies: there were still two to go.
“Are we going to have to put them in the back seat?” he asked quietly, as if somehow, the church woman could read his lips.
“Looks that way,” Nick replied, almost as quietly. He drew down the boot gently and made sure it was locked.
“Jesus Christ!” Mike mumbled and drew his hand over his mouth, feeling stupid for looking over to the old woman’s house but doing it anyway.
“Don’t give her any more ammunition,” Nick said and walked to the front of the car.
“She can think we’re grave-robbers all she likes but no-one else is lifting a finger or doing a damn thing but us, Mike.”
The final two bodies slipped onto the back sat, just about keeping a clear view out of the back window. Three more times unseen voices hollered from windows, from rooftops and Mike flinched at every one. As mad as he was ashamed, each time he searched for just a glimpse of their accusers.
“Let’s go Mike,” came Nick’s voice, pulling him back. “We need to get this done before the radio rips back into life.”
“It’s like they’re blaming us,” Mike blurted out as they drove to the cemetery. He sounded about twelve years old but the thought of teenage connections made his stomach roil again and he gripped the dashboard with both hands.
“They don’t have anyone else to take it out on,” Nick answered, pulling into the car park. “At least not yet, anyways.” They rolled to the front of the cemetery and stepped over to the entrance.
“The gates are locked,” Mike said, looking blankly at the graveyard. He heard the rattle of keys as Nick fished in his pocket.
“Bill’s on holiday for a week. I got the spare set.” He hoisted them up into the air.
“Maybe he knew something the rest of us didn’t,” Mike said, catching the keys and snapping them into the lock.
“A gravedigger’s always the smartest guy in the room, as long as he’s the one holding the shovel,” Nick said, wandering back to the car.
Inside a half hour they had laid the five bags to the left side of the plots, out of plain view and locked the gates back up. They had worked in silence, both of them waiting for the radio to bleep into action. Mike looked out to the fields in the distance and looked at the trees swaying, the peace of it all.
“Hard to imagine it’s happening out there when it looks so beautiful,” he said, noticing Nick was looking the same way. “Maybe it’s not reached everywhere yet.”
“Maybe, Mike,” Nick replied, but the answer sounded hollow to both of them. Overhead the sky darkened.
BEDLAM DAYS continues in the Fall 2015 issue of HelloHorror.
Chris Castle is an English teacher in Greece. He has been published over 300 times and has been featured in various end of year and best of anthologies. He is currently writing a novel. His influences include Stephen King and Ray Carver. He can be reached for feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org. Chris has become a regular contributor to our journal: His stories, Grid, Slumber, Last House on Vector Street, Stealing Three, Zombie Cake, Button and Pa, The Garden, Butterfly Eater, Finger, and The Last House all consecutively appear in the January, April, June, August, October, and December 2013 issues of HelloHorror and its February, April, August, and October 2014 issues. Chris Castle's novel, Bedlam Days, is serialized in HelloHorror. Part 1 appears in the Winter 2015 issue, Part 2 appears in the Winter 2015 issue.
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