Serial Novel Part 4
by CHRIS CASTLE
COFFEE FOR ARMAGEDEON
he two of them returned to the station house, on edge and waiting for the next call on the radio, and were relieved when it didn’t come. They parked the car, amazed people had not gathered outside, and then realised they were probably too scared to leave their houses. Nick sprayed down the car while Mike opened up.
Mike opened the door and was oddly reassured by the shack. He almost smiled, and then the weight of what had happened in those last few hours hit him. He gasped and was mindful to not breakdown in front of Nick, until he looked round and saw his friend had stayed in the cruiser and his head was buried deep into his hands. In deep pulsing sobs, Mike let himself cry; great wracking jolts, filled with fury, with fear, with pity and with astonishment. When it was over, he staggered to the small washroom and ran water over his face for what felt like a very long time.
He pulled himself out, stood at the desk, and looked up when Nick walked in. His eyes were puffy and his skin and pale and he looked both wrung out and deeply ashamed. Mike realised he must have looked a mirror image of washed out despair. Bizarrely, both of them, in silence, started to blush and then Mike let out a small, barking laugh, a noise so strange and odd that it made Nick flinch, as if he’d come across a yapping dog, until he started to do the exact same thing and moments later they were both laughing wildly, great peals of uncontrollable, unrestrained laughter, like gales, forcing them first to cup their knees with their hands and then to slide gracefully onto the floor. They both stayed that way for a few minutes, only stopping due to a lack of air. If not for that, Mike thought, I might have laughed myself straight on into the grave.
“I need some coffee,” Nick managed to say, and Mike nodded, making his way over to the small fridge and tossing everything inside onto two half clean plates.
“Radio still out?”
“Dead to the world,” Mike muttered, trying the switch again and again. “Guess that means TV’s still gone, too.”
“That means everything’s cut off and the internet’s out of bounds. Once communication’s gone, we’re in serious trouble. We need to call a town meeting, if not tonight, then tomorrow morning at the latest,” Nick said, biting into the sandwich Mike passed over.
“Maybe we could call on people tonight, get them to spread the word and then arrange it for midday,” Mike chipped in, clearly buzzing from the coffee. He paused. “What are we going to say?”
“What we think and let people take from it what they want. If they believe us, fine. If they think we’re blowing smoke, then that’s fine too, they can take it or leave it. Our priority is the kids and the old. If they’re able, they can make their own choice. Agreed?” Nick looked over and Mike nodded, mightily relieved to have his partner on the same page as him.
“Agreed. Plus, when we’re done on our rounds tonight, we should make a stop. Jules.” Mike waited for the older man to say something, raise an objection but was surprised to hear nothing negative, or any teasing, coming back.
“Right. If anyone’s going to have a theory, it’ll be him. We’ll just have to decide if we believe it or not. The doc’s should be our first stop anyway; we’ll spin back around and talk to him on the way back. We should work out a roster for sleep too; otherwise we’re not going to make it.” Mike agreed and then looked out of the window. He saw nothing, literally nothing. There was no-one walking the streets, no-one running or screaming, or laughing even. It was too quiet, even for a time of madness.
“You’re right. Finish the rounds and then we’ll get back here. Two hour shifts, one guarding, one sleeping and hope the radio stays quiet.” Nick stepped over and stood next to Mike.
“It’s too quiet isn’t it?” He frowned. “Not even quiet. Still.”
“It won’t last,” Mike said quietly, looking away back to the small table of provisions they had set out.
“You ready?” Nick finished his food and wiped his hand on his trouser leg.
“Sure,” Mike said, following his gaze down to the table; a torch, small bullets, a map. All you needed to face Armageddon. He looked over to Nick. “Maybe fill a flask of strong coffee?”
As they climbed back into the cruiser, the night was total. A few stars were dotted around the sky and the full moon was beaming. Mike wondered what it would mean; now that they didn’t have the protection of daylight. It felt oddly appropriate, he thought, to be dealing with the chaos at night; it made all the terror he had witnessed in the day seem somehow unreal and less truthful. He looked around to say something to Nick and saw the old man’s eyes were still searching for the sky. Before he could ask, Nick turned and faced him.
“There are no planes in the sky,” he said and then went back to the road, leaving Mike with the evidence. It was true; he looked for any flicker of light, any trail of smoke and saw nothing.
AFTERNOON IN HELL
Honey Falls doctor’s surgery was known for being slightly smaller than the local fishing shop next door. Any serious problems were diverted over the bridge to the city. The building was little more than an out-patient clinic for local bangs and scrapes. It housed three beds, about twice as many pieces of equipment, and the children who ended up there came out with multi-coloured bandages and a lollipop, thanks to the head, and only full-time nurse, Glenda Hagley.
Mike stepped out of the car and looked up and down the road. Again, he was unnerved by just how quiet it seemed. Nick had already walked up to the door and he hustled after him, trying the phone and his ex-wife’s number again, more out of hope than expectation. He slipped it back into an inside pocket as the door opened and the middle aged woman he had met twice, Glenda, looked out to them. She looked just as shattered as they were. Mike ran his hand over his jaw, wondering just how worn out a human being can get before hallucinations kicked in.
“Sheriffs,” she said and smiled, but it was a wan, tired expression. “Got any news on what’s happening here?”
“We know about as much as you, Glenda. How bad is it?” Nick looked down the hall as she stepped back inside and Mike followed them in. He thought the door felt flimsy and, small town or no, they should probably put a bar across it before too long.
“The bodies went over the bridge to the city. Seven in all.” As she listed the names, Mike saw how she’d tried to wipe down all the blood from the walls, the floor, but faint marks remained. The smears were hazy and smudged and he thought of the creature’s earlier movements, the frenzied way they jerked and rippled. His stomach lurched at the memories of the day and he swallowed hard, not wanting to add to the day’s decorations.
“Truth of it is, after it was over, it’s been quiet as hell. I think even if people have hurt themselves, they’ve patched themselves up rather than step outside their door.” She stopped looking around and faced the two of them. Even though she was pale, her face had hardened and Mike saw a determination in her eyes that had not been present anywhere else that day.
“How many trips did Dean make? Did he get any feedback from the city about what’s been going on?” Mike asked and saw her face flicker with emotion. In the few seconds of silence, Mike wondered if his question had been a mistake.
“Dean was worried about the…situation and thought it best to prepare as if it were a single journey rather than a round trip. He hasn’t been back and radio broke over the bridge.” She looked from Mike to Nick and the older man stepped forward and patted her hand.
“We saw him, spoke to him. He was doing a fine job. Have you heard from him?” Nick confirmed what Mike already suspected, that she and Dean were in a relationship. The time for petty office politics and rules and regulations was long gone.
“Not since he set off,” she said. Her voice became suddenly small. She righted herself and looked directly back to Nick. “I think communication’s been poor all over the city.”
“Did he say anything about the journey, about the city, as he approached it, in any way?” Nick’s voice was low and re-assuring and her eyes glistened, remembering something.
“He said there was a lot of smoke, a lot of fires and he had to navigate the bridge because some of the vehicles had settled against the embankment. The way he told it, he seemed in control, but there was something in his voice, Nick, something under it, that told me he was scared, you know?”
“Could be they just kept him at the hospital as a safe measure, Ms. Headly, quarantine and protocol matters…” Mike said and watched as both of them nodded.
“Sounds likely, Glenda,” Nick chipped in and she reared herself up, the moment of vulnerability gone.
“You boys need anything, were you hurt out there today?” her voice settled back into its groove and her eyes tightened with concentration.
“We just wanted to get your feedback on what you’ve seen today. I mean, one minute they’re teenagers, the next they’re…creatures. Can you tell us anything about it?” Mike listened as Nick spoke and marvelled at how cool headed he was, even when relaying frantic, terrifying news. His voice still kept low and calm, as if he were reading a weather report. He chilled at the thought of how some of his old colleagues back in the city would be reacting right about now.
“Let me show you something,” she said and opened the door to her tiny office. The three of them sat and she picked up her notebook. Mike noticed it was speckled with traces of blood.
“The wounds on the victims were ferocious, like something a bear attack would bring about. The level of strength, especially in young bodies, to inflict this kind of damage…well it goes without saying I’ve never seen anything like it before. But when you factor in most of them were family members.” She waved her hand and then ran it through her hair. “A complete psychotic break is, putting it mildly, at least linked to it. But to think Haley Quinn could do something like that to her own father…” Her voice faded away into nothingness.
“Do you support the idea it was triggered by a virus channelled through the internet?” Mike asked, amazed at how quickly his own brain was accepting the idea and framing rational questions around it.
“I would have to see one of the bodies,” she responded. “Where are you stockpiling them?”
“At the moment, the bodies are just inside the cemetery gates. Bill Fawn is on holiday until Tuesday, so our only focus was really getting them out of the house and out of public view.” Nick paled as he spoke and Mike’s guts did a fresh back flip at the memory of that part of The Afternoon From Hell.
“I should see them as soon as possible,” she said immediately and then paused as she saw the looks on their faces.
“We’re reluctant to move them in view of the town, Glenda,” Nick said. “We could either bring one over discreetly, or you could come out to the site.” Mike looked over, surprised by the hardness of Nick’s words but admiring the cold logic to them as well. He looked back to the nurse, curious to see how she would call it.
“I’ll come out with you. I get the idea folks have probably seen you acting like grave-robbers and acted none too kindly to it.” She smiled and it was full of small town resignation and still somehow beautiful, Mike thought.
“You’re a perceptive lady,” Nick said, mirroring Mike’s mind.
“When would be a good time for you?” Before Mike could re-phrase the gloriously inappropriate phrasing, she surprised them both by laughing.
“Quite a first date sir,” she said between giggles. “I can’t imagine sleeping tonight and I don’t want to be out there when people are cooking breakfast, so how about 4 AM, just before daylight?”
“Good for us,” Mike said, calculating they should have just enough time to do their work and catch a nap, unless the radio tore back into life.
“And now, if you’ll permit me,” she said, closing the blood stained book and stepping over to them before they could rise.
“If you are all that stands between us and the monsters, I need to make sure you’re in tip-top shape.” She flashed a torch into Mike’s eyes and took his pulse while looking him over.
“Do you really think they’re monsters?” Mike said quietly.
“Who said I was talking about the creatures?” she said and winked, before patting him on the wrist. “You want to go and check on our illustrious guest while I check out the chief for a minute?”
“Will do. Room two?” Mike asked, standing up and admiring the tact she’d used in getting him out of the room.
“It’s either that or the toilet,” she said and fished the torch back out of her shirt pocket.
BALLS AND SWEATSHOPS
Mike walked down the corridor and knocked on the door. After he got no response, he opened it and looked in on Jules Dugan. The man looked sound asleep and Mike was relieved; he felt too burnt out right now to deal with Jules and his theories. He knew it would be better to deal with them after a few hours rest. Failing that, he took a long pull from the coffee flask.
On his third day on the job, Mike had taken the call about a disturbance and told Nick about a fracas involving someone known as ‘Jules Crystal Stone Dugan the Third.’ At first he had assumed it was a joke, some sort of hazing that went with being the new man in town, but Nick rolled his eyes with a recognition that indicated it wasn’t a fake name or a fake disturbance.
“That goddamn lunatic will be the death of me, I swear,” he replied between sighs, and tossed the car keys to Mike. “You drive while I explain.”
The sense of it being too much like hard work to be a joke rode over Mike again during that car ride. Nick told the story, how Jules had been something of a child prodigy and could have become something like a master of the universe if he’d chosen to do so, but threw it all away due an argumentative streak and a stubborn nature that in later life would lead to a cycle of depression and delusion. Showing up teachers led to protest groups, leading to the big city which led to jail. On return, Jules fashioned himself as a self styled prophet who had all the trappings but precisely zero followers, then slipping into the tried and trusted figure of the local lunatic.
Until the internet.
The internet was a godsend on so many levels to Jules, Nick remarked, it was a wonder he hadn’t invented it himself. Not only did he utilize his undoubted intelligence in such areas as the stock markets, it also gave his ravings a platform and a wider audience which gave him the recognition he craved so brazenly. He became something of a guru to some and once or twice, Nick had witnessed the mystifying scene of a few of his followers turning up in town, seeking an audience with their cyber-king. Many of the locals bristled at times like these, but as Jules often, and with some relish, repeatedly pointed out, he was doing nothing wrong and was well within the boundaries of the law.
It was not a case of what Jules believed in, but what he didn’t believe in. Conspiracy theories were hatched each and every day and any local legislation was routinely blocked by him, on grounds ranging from religious beliefs to animal cruelty. Nick pointed out, as they pulled up to the kerb, that he was a crackpot but a dangerous crackpot because of his mind. ‘The tragedy of it is,’ Nick had said as they walked towards the shop, ‘was that he could have been a great man.’
Greatness was not what first came into Mike’s mind when he found a naked man chained to the radiator in the local clothes shop. His hair was down to his waist and his blue eyes poked out like antenna from his head. The poor girl behind the counter had managed to edge to the furthest point of her till and was looking anywhere but at the man on the floor. Nick looked away from Jules and over to the stricken woman.
“What seems to be the problem here?” Nick said with a straight face and Mike found himself struggling not to laugh.
“The problem is the sweatshops that exploit women and children in Third World countries to make the garments that are on display here,” Jules, said calmly. His voice was sharp but controlled, as if sitting naked in a retail outlet on a Tuesday was something he did regularly.
“Is that so, Jules,” Nick replied. “Well, I don’t think you and your johnson are going to bring down big business today or help this poor girl sleep tonight, so I think we’ll take you out of here and over to our station for a few hours to cool off.”
“I’m pretty cool as it is,” the man replied and Mike saw a smirk on his face that he didn’t care for; it was a smile that some people wore when they were smart and thought it made them superior.
“That’s why I think we’ll be taking one of these oversized jumpers for the trip, Jules,” Nick went on, apparently unflustered by the smirk or the comments or the situation in general. He unhooked one jumper and then actually stopped for a moment and compared it to another one in a style comparison, before tossing it over to Mike.
“I think that brings out the blue in his eyes more,” he said. “You know how to pick the cuffs?”
“Sure,” Mike replied, not mentioning he had only done so previously on dummies and not on sweaty, balls-out men.
“Pop the sweater over him when you’re done, while I take the statement.” Nick turned back to the girl and saw her clear her throat.
“Um, the sweater has to be paid for,” she said and looked apologetically to Nick. “It’s only my second week.”
“I understand ma’am,” Nick replied, as if this was to be expected. “Charge it to Jules, at 123 Far Avenue.”
“Whaaat?” Jules said and Mike noted for the first time how babyish his voice sounded when he was angry. He fell into a sulk, his lip jutting out into a pout. Mike tried to hide his smile but couldn’t quite do it; immediately he realised the other man had seen it. Mean little eyes thinned and he leant forward until his mouth was close to Mike’s ear.
“Mike Sheridan, formerly of the big city, divorced finalised seven weeks ago, no children, and house rights under dispute.” His voice was so low that for a moment, Mike thought he’d imagined it. He jerked back, just as the cuffs fell to the floor and stared at the man.
“If I know, everyone knows, sheriff,” he said and winked. Mike felt his blood boil and the sweater kept him from landing a blow.
“Everything okay there?” Nick called over, flipping his pad down. Mike didn’t look over but could feel the stare on him. “Maybe you should put our cuffs on, just to be safe.”
“Peachy,” Mike said through gritted teeth and hauled the man to his feet. He re-applied his own cuffs, tight enough to bite and hated himself for the little burst of joy he felt when Jules yelped. Nick said goodbye to the sales assistant, who was smiling now, and wandered over to the door to hold it open.
“Did you call it my johnson?” Jules said.
“Is it happening?” Jules said, just as Mike drew the door closed. He looked back in and saw nothing but the vague outline of the body and the bed in the darkness.
“Is what happening?” Mike asked, hating the eagerness in his tone.
“The chaos,” came the reply, the voice flat, and the form in the bed unmoving.
“Goodnight, Jules,” Mike whispered, trying to keep his voice level.
“Speak soon,” came the other man’s voice as the door closed, “real soon.”
BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG PITY
As they drove around the streets, Mike was again struck by the emptiness of the town. On the corner of each street they parked the car and identified themselves before stepping up onto the porches. None of the people in those first few streets even opened the door. After a few minutes, they simply stuffed the hastily written and photocopied note under the door or in the letterbox. The stark truth hit them both as they returned to the cruiser each time: the people were either terrified or dead.
“They say it’s in the water,” Mrs. Peacock, said, inviting them into her small bungalow. Everything was neat and tidy.
“We think it may be more to do with the internet, ma’am,” Mike said. He thought about the amount of coffee he’d drunk since this had begun and it suddenly dawned on him. He hadn’t even thought about the water. For a second, he suppressed the urge to laugh, though he didn’t know why. It should, by rights, have been scaring him witless.
“Well, I always said those things would be the end of us. Kids these days don’t even look up when they’re talking and what comes out of their mouth is nothing more than a grunt most times, anyways,” she said, uncorking a bottle of sherry that had seemingly appeared from nowhere. She offered them both and then went about filling a water tumbler halfway.
“We’re trying to put together a town meeting, tomorrow, at twelve. See what folks want to do, how they want to approach it,” Mike said, marvelling at how the petit old girl swallowed up a third of her drink in one go.
“I’ll tell you now how it’s going to go, son,” she said, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. “It’ll be everyone looking out for number one and failing that, working together out of greed, plain and simple. Isn’t that right, Nick?” She took her eye away from Mike and looked hard at the older man.
“I imagine so, yes, Betsy, but all we can do is try.” He nodded back to her and Mike was struck by the size of the grin that came with his answer. He wondered if this old girl held the key to every secret going inside the town itself.
“You boys try all you want,” she said, satisfied. “Folks will be telling you it’s the end of days and such but it’s been a long time coming, if you want to hear it from me. All you gotta do is pick up a paper and read what happens every day in this godforsaken pit and it's right there laid out in front of you in black and white.”
“She seemed nice,” Mike said as they wandered back to the car. Nick smiled, without looking around.
“You should have seen her when she was teaching me maths at school,” he said and slipped behind the wheel.
The retired maths teacher was the only one to open her door until they reached the last street in town. Over an hour, Mike noticed how most of the houses stayed in darkness, as if hoping that by hiding, the horror wouldn’t mark them out. However, there were exceptions. The old school gym, which was being renovated into flats, had music turned up to eleven and a party clearly in progress; they were either oblivious or blind drunk to the situation at hand. A hastily painted banner was hanging from the rafters, reading:
‘End of the world party!!!!!!!!!!’
“Should we try and stop it?” Mike said, recognising the song that came blaring from the speaking somewhere on the second floor.
“It really could be the last night on earth,” Nick said thoughtfully. “We should probably cut them some slack, this once.”
As they began to pull away, debating whether the partygoers were either oblivious or blind drunk, a young man staggered from the side of the house, wearing only a bin liner and clutching a six pack.
“Hey, man, come in!” he slurred, waving them over. His cans went higher, as the bin liner sank. “All bets are off! Come on in. It doesn’t matter anymore…” he shrugged and pointed back to the house.
“Town meeting tomorrow,” Nick said, trying to look the kid straight in the eye and failing; he was so high, it was a wonder he was still on his feet. Mike tried to hold it together but ended up smiling. The man was like an antidote to everything they had seen; dopey, bright and alive, as opposed to what they had seen during the day; the darkness, the violence and the unpredictability of it all.
“If you change your mind,” the boy said, shrugging his shoulders. As he weaved up to the door, Mike called after him.
“You have any idea what did this?” he said, hating how desperate his voice sounded. The kid looked back round and his face was full of benevolence and almost pity.
“The world finally went crazy, man, that’s all,” he said and stripped a can from his pack. He held it high in a salute and then opened the door. For a moment people, light and music revealed themselves and then flashed away just as quickly.
“Just went crazy,” Mike repeated and looked over to Nick, shrugging.
“Simple when you think about it,” the old man replied and the two drove away, both stealing glances in the rear-view mirror and the party, the banner sagging and slipping a little more. By the morning it would be in the dirt.
ASK ME NO QUESTIONS
The other house that opened its doors belonged to Sara Paxton. A single mother who worked at the café, Sara was amongst the most popular people in town. The woman who faced them in the small doorway was not the bright woman they saw every few days for breakfast and coffee. Her eyes were rimmed red and her jaw was clenched tight. Mike followed them in and saw that the fear she wore had an edge to it, something else that stood her apart from the few faces they had seen so far that night. She looked haunted, as well as terrified, as if she knew already what was to come.
“You have a gun, Sarah?” Nick asked, even before they had sat down. Outside, a car screeched by and the three of them flinched at the noise. Sara looked up to the ceiling and then back to her young daughter. Mike knew the little girl had been born deaf and dumb but little else. After a few moments, she looked back down and nodded. Nick went on, outlining the meeting for the following day and glancing up from time to time, to check to see if what he was saying was registering with the woman. Mike thought she was following but agreed that something distracted her. When Nick finished, there was a moment’s silence and then Sarah looked to them both, Mike first and then Nick.
“I’ve been trying to reach my sister in the city but the phones are all cut-off,” she began. Her voice was so hollow, Mike almost had to look away but her eyes, switching between the two of them, made him stay focussed.
“I’ve heard people saying it was on the internet…that it…spread on the internet. Is that true, what people are saying?” her eyes fell on Mike and she waited. He nodded and watched her swallow.
“My sister’s a web designer. It’s her whole life. We used to joke about how she was becoming like one of those actors who gets made into animation.” Her voice locked and she shuddered for a moment. “If it hit at five, like they said, there’s no way she wouldn’t have been on the internet. It’s her busiest time.”
“It’s all hearsay at the moment, Sarah,” Nick said quietly. “We don’t know for certain…”
“But you do,” she burst out. “You do know! I can see it, you know…” She locked up, her fists together and against her chest, as if she’d been struck. Mike saw his partner move forward just slightly, then stop. He doesn’t want to lie, Mike realised and knew it was the same thing stopping him from speaking out.
“As soon as we know anything about the city, we’ll come to you, Sarah, okay? I promise,” Nick said finally. Sarah nodded back to him, still wearing that expression of hurt and fear. He looked over to Mike and tilted his head for them to leave. The three of them rose up and made their way to the door.
“She helped paint this house,” she said quietly, not looking up. “After Carl left me and Mae, she stayed until the whole house was brand new,” she said, looking up long enough to take in the ceiling, the wall in front of her. Mike opened his mouth to speak but felt pressure on his elbow. He looked round to see Nick shaking his head. His mouth drew closed and the two of them walked out the door, making sure it was locked after they’d left and both of them, whether they realised it or not, stopping to look at the white coat of paint that ran across the front of the house.
“We can’t make promises we can’t keep,” Nick said as they stepped back to the cruiser.
“I know,” Mike answered and ran his fingers across his brow. “What can we tell them?” His voice sounded desperate but for the moment, he didn’t care.
“With what we know, or what we think we know, if the meeting comes up tomorrow and it gets back we’ve been saying things we can’t back up…that’s what gives people like McKenzie leverage.” His voice sounded tired and for the first time, Mike thought, like an old man.
“And what if he starts telling lies and making folks believe their truth? Honesty’s only going to get us so far, Nick; especially when the other side’s lying.” He looked over and saw Nick nodding.
“We’re open, I know,” he said wearily. “And that’s the truth.”
GOD IN 10 HOURS
Nick and Mike knocked on the door gently and were pleased to hear several extra padlocks being sprung before the door opened up. Glenda waved them in without a word. She returned to her desk as they walked down the corridor. Nick opened the door without knocking and flicked on the light switch without saying a word. He made his way over to the left and grabbed himself a chair and motioned Mike to do the same.
“You finally got done with all your chores?” Jules said without moving from his bed. If Nick had hoped to catch him unawares, it sounded from the even tone in his voice that it was too late.
“A few things cropped up,” Nick replied, not making any movement. Mike followed his lead and stayed stock still until, at last, the sheets began to rustle and a body started to emerge from underneath all the cotton.
Nick always said that the thing that caused Jules the most pain after his last protest had ended in a tumble, was not the broken arm, or even the damage to his back that came from the fall, but the news that the hospital room was not internet compatible. When Dean and Nick had scraped him off the concrete and he had been babbling, Nick had known even then, amongst the jutting bones and blood, that being cut off from the web would be the source of every agony.
Sure enough, from the first day until today no doubt, the patient in Room 2 had repeated his one request for a hook-up, without fail. Last week, Nick and Mike had seen Glenda shopping and watched as her normally serene face turned almost blue as she related the story and the repetition involved. Mike felt a hard edge and remembered something she’d said as they’d taken off to deal with another graffiti outbreak around the church.
‘He’ll be asking from now until doomsday for that damn internet connection,’ she had said, and the three of them had smiled, even as they shook their heads in disbelief. She was even more perceptive than she realised, he thought, and looked back to the man in question.
“How bad has it got?” he said, straightening himself on the pillows. He didn’t ask for any help and Mike wondered if he would have gotten any from either of them.
“What do you know about the events of the day, Jules? I’m sure you’ve been aware of the commotion that’s been going on in and around the building.” He kept his voice level, but Mike could feel the anger Nick was feeling at the smugness of Jules’ face. Mike ran a finger across his own cheek and felt his skin burning up.
“Yes, I was aware of the ‘commotion,’” he said, and that same smug little grin appeared on the corners of his mouth as it had done on Mike’s first encounter with the man.
“What do you know, Jules?” Mike asked, leaning in.
“Oh, about as much as the next guy, I imagine,” he said coyly and gave a weirdly childish shrug that turned Mike’s stomach.
“I doubt that,” Nick said, and this time all the polite edges had slipped from his voice. Without realising it, he copied Mike and leant in.
“And why should I tell you, even if I did know anything?” he went on, his tone still teasing and vaguely superior.
“Who else are you going to tell, Jules?” Mike said, suddenly struck with an idea. “No net, no streets, no audience. Glenda can’t stand being in the same room as you and I don’t see any get well soon cards on your table.” Mike watched and was stunned to see it was the crack about the cards that seemed to get the most reaction out of him. He made a big show of clearing his throat and then looked coldly at Mike. Nick got the same treatment a few seconds afterwards.
“Do you know that 2.2 billion people were connected to the internet?”
“So what does this tell us Jules? Apart from the fact you’re not a big fan of the great outdoors?” Mike watched as again, the smallest schoolyard taunt turned this undoubtedly intelligent, hell, borderline genius of an intellect into a wounded kid.
“It means it’s over!” he suddenly screeched, his voice pitching up as if one of them had reached out and twisted his broken arm. “It means someone finally dropped the biggest bomb this world has ever seen and destroyed everything.”
“You don’t know that,” Nick said, his voice sounding scratchy and dry. “You’re affiliated with a number of conspiracy groups, who preach a number of theories, many of which...”
“I bet you’re still trying to figure out why they all ripped up paper before they went crazy, right?” In a moment, his voice had returned to the flat monotone of the reassured, the one in control.
“How did you know that?” Nick said, the irritation in his voice clashing with the confusion. “Only-”
“And let me guess,” he jabbed in, running his free hand against his temple, as if reading minds. Mike realised with horror, he was actually enjoying this. “All between the ages of eighteen and thirty?”
Nick tilted back in his chair, looking both stunned and deflated. Mike didn’t want that, couldn’t afford that and lunged forward in his chair, grabbing the twirling fingers of the man and twisting them sharply.
“Number one: you interrupt the sheriff again,” Mike said coolly, looking from his eyes to his plastered forearm, “I’ll give you a matching set. Number two, tell me now what you know, or I’ll start a new world order right now and put you in a coma, do you understand me?”
“I…I” Jules stammered and for one moment, Mike actually thought the man was going to cry. His blue eyes turned watery and he gulped as if he was suffocating. It took a moment for the shock to wear off and then he opened his mouth.
“Demographics. Eighteen to thirty, most frequent, computer literate group in society. Key time, between 5 and seven, students finish work, people finish jobs. Adult demographic makes plans for the evening.” He took a breath and reached over for a cup of water. Mike helped it over to him, but noticed Jules wouldn’t look up, but stayed focussed on the paper cup.
“Kill the most affluent, most highly skilled amount of people in the free world. Trigger them to attack those around them for the limited amount of time they are alive, in short confined spaces, leaving no surviving members. You infect the daughter, she kills the family, the whole generation is nuked, right there and then.” He took a final gulp of water and his words then started to sound thick, almost hungry.
“Think about it. Whoever did this controls the net and has almost single-handedly blown away competition, threat, whatever, for the next decade, hell, probably the next millennium. They’re left with the keys to the kingdom; they control technology and can demand what they want.”
“What if they don’t want anything?” Nick said and Mike realised for a moment he had forgotten that his partner was even in the room.
“Well if they wanted to end the world, they just wiped out the most fertile group in it, thereby creating a long term decimation of its population. I say they’ve made a pretty good start don’t you?”
“Why are you happy about this?” Nick managed to say, though he was clearly struggling to even say the words. Mike could see he was utterly bewildered by what he was hearing.
“I’m happy because it’s my time. The world has just undergone a tremendous cull and X amount of people are left standing. I’m connected and I’m in control. I have power and I have money. The last ten hours could just have made me a god.”
“Beware false prophets,” Mike snapped and saw a little of the power wilt from his face. “Why not include telephone and televisions in all of this?”
“The virus may have only been able to spread via one medium, or they decided one route was better than a scattershot approach. Same as the timing; weekends too difficult and too random; Friday night would always be the safest play.”
“So what now?” Mike pushed on, seeing that Nick was still slumped back in his chair. If it hadn’t been for his breathing, Mike might have thought he’d just suffered a heart attack.
“Now, they’ll probably stand back, watch the wolves eat each other, and then step forward and take control when the dust has settled.” Jules kept his eyes on Mike, his stare burning. Mike realised Jules now saw him as the main opposition, that he had defeated Nick. The anger in Mike’s veins went up another notch.
“Do you know what the group is called?” Mike asked.
“Were you involved?” Mike saw a flicker on the side of the wet lip but couldn’t decide if it was pride or envy.
“I think I’d rather not say.”
“I think I’d rather not hear you talk anymore, Jules,” Mike said and stood up, just quick enough to make Jules flinch. He looked round and saw, with relief, Nick step gingerly out of the chair and follow him.
“There’ll be more questions,” he said, and Mike was pleased to hear his partner’s voice had levelled back out into something like the calmness he had always known.
“You and the rest of the world,” Jules spat out, as they reached the door. Mike pulled the light cord and plunged the room into darkness. He stepped out into the corridor and Nick fell in beside him. “Think for yourself!” the man in the bed shouted out after them. Mike glanced back once into the darkness but nothing was visible. He suddenly thought of the black ink of the dead teenager’s eyes. “Think for yourself!”
“Can we believe anything he says?” Mike asked as the two of them sat in the open reception area. Despite her claims, Glenda was fast asleep, and they wanted to leave her to it, if they could.
“I want to say no, but the way things are now, I couldn’t dismiss it.” Nick said. Mike looked up to the sky and saw the stars. On any other night it would have been a beautiful sight. Tonight, it filled him with a sadness that he thought might overwhelm him. And something else, something that surprised as well as consumed him: dread.
“I agree. He may be a lot of other things, but there’s no denying the internet knowledge he has access to. I’m not sure I believe he was involved in any way though.” Mike gazed further. Still no planes, he thought.
“He wasn’t involved. You saw his face twitch when we were talking with him; in him, it’s a sign of disappointment, envy even. You’re right though, if you cut through the hyperbole, he’s linked to it in a way we’re not. He’s more powerful now, whether we like it or not. I never thought the son of a bitch would get the better of me talking all that crap like he does, but he got me good this time, alright.” He brought his eyes over to Mike. There was almost a look of shame on his face. Mike dismissed it immediately.
“Chief, don’t let his spiel get on top of you. The guy’s been lying on his ass the whole time we’ve been out there keeping hell from pouring through the gates, okay? Don’t let him beat you with his mind games and all that crap, okay?” Mike gripped the banister harder and tried to ignore the feeling of wanting to go back in there and beat the man in his bed.
“Fine...but knock off that ‘Cheif’ stuff, Mike. All this is as much with you as it is me. You want to get the first round of shut eye here? I figure there’s as much chance folks will come here as the station if it comes to it.” He wiped down his hands as if the dirty traces of Jules were still on his skin. “Two hours off, two hours on okay?
“Deal,” Mike said and turned round to the plastic seat. “The dumb bastard doesn’t even realise that being here and being cut off probably saved his life, does he?”
“That’s the thing about a ‘genius’, Mike. They’ve got their heads so far up their asses they don’t know day from night most times.”
Mike’s nightmare was predictable in one sense. Of course it was about the events of the day, but somehow things had become muddled, they way they tended to in dreams. Each of the victims appeared in their bedroom doorways, eyes blackened, their tuber veins hardened to take on the quality of beetle’s shells, their movement twitching and unpredictable. Yet, as Mike drew closer, no weapon in his hand, no resolve in his body, the casings of the teenagers sloughed away, so he could clearly see their faces and the pain they must had suffered in the brief moments before it had taken them over. Living death, Mike had thought, both in his waking hours and in the nightmare, as each of the victims offered themselves to him, their arms outstretched, their hearts shorting out and exploding, black blood spraying into his eyes, tearing him from sleep.
If Nick suffered the same problems, he didn’t seem to show it. Mike sat looking out of the window, occasionally walking out to the cruiser, taking circuits around the building and returning to see the older man blissfully unaware of the world outside.
On his patrols, Mike had tried his phone and each time was met with the same blank response. He slipped the phone back into his pocket and was struck every time by the stillness that surrounded him. Not just the building in the roads and the fields. It was like the world was already over.
The three of them set out at 4 AM and saw little disturbance as they drove through town. What they did see was an even split of fifty/fifty when it came to lights on and lights off. Mike wondered what it came down to; if people were conducting surveillance for the attacks to come or holding vigils for those already lost. The houses that had suffered attacks came into view and Mike noted some of the yellow crime scene tape had been stripped down. He wondered if any of the houses had been ransacked.
“Could be kids,” he said and saw Nick shrug without commitment.
“Could be a lot of things,” Glenda said, saving Nick the trouble of saying it himself.
“I think we made the right choice moving what we did, when we did,” was all Nick would be drawn into saying. The three of them settled back into silence at his words.
Glenda set her tools down and unzipped the first bag. She looked up to judge if there was adequate light to work by and was satisfied enough to set the large torch to one side, opting for the first of the sun’s rays and the pen light for close inspection.
As she trimmed away the clothes, Mike and Nick stood at a respectful distance until they were needed. Both of them had cadged a cigarette from Glenda’s pack and peered back from time to time. Glenda had used clear sheeting to rest her tools on and anything else that was needed. Soon, Mike noted with the recurring sadness he always felt about these scenes, the body stopped resembling a human being and became a network of flaps and bones, all beauty removed.
“You need to see this,” she called out, just as the sun rose in the sky. Her voice had been low until that point, mumbling away into the recorder, but now it rose to the point of being animated. Mike took one look at Nick and then followed him over, wondering if any discovery at this point could be good news.
“Look,” she whispered frantically, touching one of the tuber like veins under the skin on the forearm. As she pressed the scalpel down, a fizz of sparks jetted into the air. Mike stumbled back and it was only Nick catching him that stopped him falling on his ass.
“The virus is still inside?” Nick said, his words uncertain.
“The energy is still inside; whether it still houses the virus or not, I couldn’t say at this point.” She lowered her head and looked back down to the torso in-front of her.
“It explains why they were so light to carry, Nick.” She looked back up to them both, hoping they would make the connections without her. Failing that, she frowned.
“Their organs were cooked from the inside out, that’s why. All the fat inside their bodies was heated until it was almost nothing. This…is a shell for a battery full of acid.” As if to prove the point she made a brief incision and the black inky substance that had first infused and then overwhelmed their blood oozed out.
“Did they suffer?” Mike asked, before he had a chance to stop himself. As soon as it was out, he wished he had kept it locked up somewhere inside himself.
“It must have been like going through the old electric chair without any buffer,” Nick said, just as Glenda opened her mouth to speak. They both turned round and looked at the old man. Glenda nodded and looked back down to the body below. The eyes were still as black as marbles, not so much peering in any direction as simply frozen. Overhead, the sun broke out in the sky, causing the frost to melt around them.
HOT IN THE CITY
Glenda waved them off from the step and they took one circuit of the town as morning broke. No one came out to speak to them; the few curtains that had flickered were still. At the edge of town the party had died away, the banner on the grass and paper cups scattered across the yard. Both of them were too tried to make a joke about it, or even think about cleaning up. As they headed back, Nick made a detour that Mike registered but couldn’t summon the energy to comment on. The cruiser pulled up at the Riggs’ place and Nick gestured over to the telescope on the porch.
“I want to see if the city’s still standing,” was all he said, before lumbering out of the car. Mike wondered how much pain he must be in and thought of his own mother, how bad it had been sometimes. He opened his door and stepped out.
“How does it look?” he asked, watching Nick adjust the sights, first right and then left. He didn’t answer for a few seconds, but then rose up and offered the telescope to Mike with an open palmed gesture. Mike saw the expression on his face and wanted to turn away, or refuse. Even as everything repelled him, he stooped down to look to the city.
The smoke still trailed up into the sky and the fires were still burning in the buildings. Traffic seemed bunched, as if someone had just dropped cars and buses out of the sky and let them fall where they may. Everything seemed as if it was broken and beyond repair. It looked more like a debris site than a city now.
“Can you see any people?” Nick asked in a quiet voice. Mike realised that was what he was missing out of the picture: a total absence of life. For a moment he wondered if the planes had simply fallen from the sky and landed on the unsuspecting city. He wondered how many people had turned and how many they had killed before dying in their own, terrible way.
“It's bedlam,” Mike said and pried himself away from the view. Even though it was beyond horrific, there was something hypnotic about staring into the end of things.
“The bridge is going to be an issue before too long,” Nick said, either ignoring or acknowledging Mike’s statement with silence.
“People coming over or people heading out?” Mike said, looking over. Some of the colour had returned to Nick’s face but he appeared…frail.
“That’s the question. I guess we’ll find out at the meeting if the town shows,” he said and looked back to the telescope. “I’m taking it. It could be useful, one way or the other.”
“You read my mind,” Mike answered, crouching down and unscrewing the fixtures, saving Nick the trouble.
“People are going to start seeing things differently soon, right?”
“What do you mean?” Mike said, handing over the first leg.
“Well, if computers are shot, people are going to start thinking about the future but winding the clock back at the same time: candles, batteries, fresh water. I know the shutter’s down on the store, but that’s going to come up, mark my words.” Nick gathered up the other legs, leaving Mike to take the main body.
“Supplies, who gets what,” Mike went on, following the thread. “And who has more than the next,” he finished, thinking of the McKenzie mansion, matching up against Sarah Paxton’s small flat.
“Exactly. If we’re stealing out of necessity, imagine what it’s like on the other side of the mirror.” The two of them stepped off the porch and walked back to the cruiser.
“You think people are going to start to take sides?” Mike asked, suddenly acutely aware of how little he knew about the politics of this small town.
“They already have, no doubt. It’s just a case of us finding out whose siding with us,” Nick said, handing Mike the keys.
STAY IN SCHOOL
Mike took the first shift and then slept while Nick took the second. He was amazed by how refreshed he felt at just an hour’s sleep. As he slipped off the couch, Nick bustled by, clutching a sheet of paper that he pinned to the whiteboard they kept in the corner of the office.
“Radio?” Mike said and saw Nick shake his head. It had gone so quiet they had both checked the batteries. It was like the whole town had fallen into a vow of silence. Mike saw him draw a timeline: Riggs at the top, then branching off to the houses that were affected.
“I don’t think there are any more kids in that age range who were logged on at that time,” Nick said, standing back. Mike shook his head.
“How is that possible?” he muttered as he sipped his coffee. Off the top of his head, he could think of at least a half kids he knew by name in the neighbourhood. Even though it was a town for old folk, a few families had either moved in or never moved away.
“Dumb luck. I checked the schedules for the town and the buses; the school held an end of term presentation that ran until almost five, so none of them got back in the timeline. Football training and the weather mean delays kept people off their computers at the target time period.” He tapped the paper and Mike saw him smile for the first time since this all began.
“So the people who were infected?” Mike asked, stepping up to the chart. He saw the smile fade; it was cruel of him but necessary.
“Off school for one reason or another. The Riggs fellow must have cut out of work early.” Nick drew from his cup and Mike studied the board. He looked at the kids who had stayed behind for extra credit and avoided the virus.
“Stay in school,” he said, tapping his finger against their names.
“Or be old,” Nick added, pointing out the people’s names who had a red dot, meaning internet connection. There were very few in the whole town and none in the older homes.
“How can a virus be age effective, though? How can it know…I mean if you read about the amount of perverts posing as teenagers alone, it’s a faulty concept.” Mike looked around the rest of the board, feeling guilty he hadn’t used his time more constructively while he was on patrol.
“Maybe it only spread through certain sites, like social networks and games; maybe it had access to ID databases…” Nick shrugged but Mike agreed. It was solid, linear thinking, not like the scattershot randomising of their good friend Jules. He stepped back and filled up their cups.
“So what now?” he asked. Sometimes the best questions were the most simple. After this Armageddon or something like it, Mike knew that each second mattered.
“We wait for the turnout of the town discussion and try to install some order. We’ll talk about rationing of some kind, talk about the bridge, the basics.” He looked over to Mike. “The best thing we can do at that meeting is listen.”
“Agreed. We’ll have to hope the shock and the fear subsides and people are starting to think more clearly. You think McKenzie will show?” Mike thought about what he had seen in that room and felt the odd, soft cushion of the padded wall. He flinched at the memory of it.
“He’ll be there. He’s one factor and there’ll be others, too. The church group, people with grudges, people who are flat out scared and want to either scream out or be told what to do by someone else. That’s what we have to watch out for most of all; not letting folks be herded into thinking something dangerous.” Mike noticed Nick padded his finger over certain people as he spoke, whether he realised it or not.
“What are we telling them?” Mike asked. It was not a doubt or an accusation, but a worry. “It’s not like we know anything for gospel.”
“What we think is the truth. We need to make them calm and nothing else. If people have different ideas, we’ll listen, same as everybody else but what we can’t afford is scare mongering. We allow that, and people will be burning houses before the nights out.” He looked over to Mike and he realised he was waiting for his agreement.
“I’m behind you one hundred percent on this. We have to tell people to disconnect their computers, too.” Mike saw the brief flicker of confusion in Nick’s eyes and looked up to the top of the sheet of paper. “We don’t know if it was the bomb or just the first wave.”
BEDLAM DAYS continues in the Winter 2015/16 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, and Part 3 appears in the Summer 2015 issue.
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