Todays Soundtrack – Tiffany Blews by Fall Out Boy
And so it continues! Here is the next Zombie Project short story, for your reading pleasure. Don’t forget, if you comment on any of the Zombie Project short stories you’ll be entered to win a prize draw, prizes including a brand new copy of Warm Bodies and an eBook copy of Julie Hutchings’ Running Home – and more prizes may be joining those soon!
Bridget Shepherd was recommended to me to be a part of this project, and after reading her short story I can see why. This is the first I’ve seen of her work, and I hope you’ll love it as much as I did! Continuing with our theme of phobias, Bridget happens to share two of mine – a fear of spiders, and a fear of being trapped. I hope I share the same writing talent as her, too! You can find Bridget on Twitter, here, or on her blog, here.
Those who read the first short story, by Bobby Salomons, will love this one…
Two Red Flags and Three Black Bags
by Bridget Shepherd
Red flag number one must have gone up in the back of my mind half a year before I killed my first zombie, when Dr. Ivanovic died of a supposed drug overdose. I had been stationed at Section Lab 201 and tasked with both guarding and keeping tabs on Dr. Ivanovic as he entered and exited and performed his experiments. It was an odd job—protecting his life while monitoring him for any suspicious behavior. In the five and a half years I spent playing bodyguard and Santa’s elf-spy, the man ate an apple at exactly 10:00 AM every morning he was with me. He was a health nut germaphobe who had never failed a drug test and Corporal Evans, my male counterpart, had personally watched him pissing into the sample containers. Drug overdose sounded like bullshit.
I’d have bet a month’s pay his death occurred during or as a result of his visit to Section Lab 358. He always looked a little paler after a day there and no one would tell me anything other than the fact that animal testing went on down there. Still, it’s not like the link between suspected lab accident cover-up and Project Secret Zombie Plague was obvious just from that.
Dr. Ivanovic’s replacement was not what I expected. He had been over six feet tall, in his fifties and jittery. Dr. Frida Ramirez-Vega on the other hand only exceeded five feet by half an inch. Her info packet said she was a year older than me but she barely looked over twenty-one. Evans and I introduced ourselves and she shook our hands with cold courtesy. The way her clothes shifted when she moved caught my eye—the swing of her hips and her ponytail mesmerized me. Every movement she made had an understated grace and unapologetic self-assurance. I dismissed these thoughts as inappropriate but dreaded having to push them away while watching her for hours every day.
After she was whisked away for an orientation at 358, Evans gave me a damn knowing smirk.
“Dude, Delancey. New doctor-lady is cold on the inside but hot on the outside. Uh-huh. What do you think? Worth risking fraternization?” He chuckled like a preteen.
I snorted. “Fraternization? I think you should try not to get discharged for sexual harassment. I actually like you most of the time. Who knows who they’d replace you with, you bastard.”
“What? No, I have Emma, what are you saying? I’m doing you a favor you ungrateful asshole. You never come to cards night. Someone there has it on good authority that doctor-lady plays for your team. I’ll look the other way even after you were a bitch to me just now.” He grinned and raised his eyebrows.
She was into women. My don’t-fall-for-straight-girls defenses came crumbling down. I gritted my teeth to hold back a blush—like hell I would let Evans see that. “Fuck you,” I said a couple beats too late. “I’m not jeopardizing my career any further.”
“When was the last time you got laid?”
Private joking among grunts aside, Evans was as professional as I was when it came to our charges, and Frida too was all business all the time. It took two months and a minor lab accident for me to step over the line with her.
One minute she was mixing chemicals as she had done a thousand times before, the next a cloud of gas poofed up from a vial and she was running, covering her mouth, toward the restroom. I shared a glance and a nod with Evans and went in after her. I found her praying at the porcelain altar.
“Ma’am? Do you need assistance? Should I call emergency medical?”
“Ugh-guh.” She waved her hand. “No, I’m okay. Just—could you grab my toothbrush, paste and mug from inside my desk? Do you know—?”
“I know where it is.” Sometimes when she pulled a double shift working on a deadline she’d brush her teeth. Said it made her feel awake.
When I came back she tried to get up but threw up again. I poured her a glass of water and rubbed her back without really thinking about whether it was the professional thing to do. She smiled gratefully.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” I squatted to get a look at her face. She still looked pretty green.
“It was nothing that would kill me to breathe or I would have been using the hood. Just smelled like shit and worse is I’m the type that pukes when I see puke. It’s a vicious cycle.”
“Here.” I stood and offered her a hand up. When she stood I steadied her and flushed the toilet with my foot. “Let’s get you cleaned up.” I led her to the sink and grabbed her some paper towels.
Once she had brushed her teeth, she regarded herself in the mirror sourly. Her hair drooped out of her bun in sweaty strands. She let it down and her thick near-black mane swept below her shoulders. She tried to refresh it with a little water on her hands.
“God, I look like shit,” she said.
“You’re beautiful,” I said. It just came out, my intonation all too honest. There was no way to pretend that I meant it in only a casual way.
Her lips curved into a mischievous smile. She put her hands on my upper arms and leaned up to whisper in my ear.
“Thank you, Corporal.”
My hands found their way into her long soft hair and my lips found hers.
After a few weeks of secret bathroom-break dating, I submitted a transfer request so that we could begin seeing each other publicly but received a notice stating that there was currently a transfer freeze in effect. Frida was pleased, though I couldn’t imagine why she wouldn’t rather spend her time with me outside of the lab.
“I don’t want any of those other scientists getting their filthy hands on you,” she said while she was washing her hands. It was the end of the night and we were about to head home. Evans was off securing the back.
“Why?” I said with a small smile. “Dr. Ivanovic was an okay guy.”
“That was then. It’s a new climate now. The director of research is getting demanding.”
“You have been spending a lot more time at the 358. What the hell do you do down there anyway?” I had never broached this subject with her before.
She regarded me stoically—it was the first taste of her old cold courtesy I’d had in a while. “Do you really want to know? Do you know what you’re asking?”
I sighed. “I’m not authorized to know.”
Something flashed in her eyes then, a mix of relief and disappointment maybe.
“Then don’t ask me.”
“Okay, sorry.” I stepped over and leaned in to give her a sideways hug and a kiss on the top of her head. As I straightened, my hand brushed something hard beneath the back of her lab coat. “What was that?”
“What was what?” She turned to face me. Her smile was forced.
“Take off your coat.”
“What? I don’t have time—”
“I’m not asking, Dr. Vega.” I didn’t want to be cold with her before I knew what was going on but I could not compromise on my duty.
Her face fell and she shrugged out of her lab coat. She turned to let me take the steel canister from the back of her belt.
“What is this?”
“A sample of an antidote.” She wouldn’t look me in the eye.
“You were planning to take this outside of the lab? Are you stealing?”
She didn’t answer. Thoughts whirled in my head. Had she been playing me this whole time?
“Why? Was it money?”
Her sadness turned to rage in an instant.
“No. I would never do that for money.” She looked me straight in the eye.
“You need to help me understand. This is a very serious—”
“Don’t you fucking tell me how serious this is, Hayden. I love you.” That made me feel like I’d plunged into hot and cold water all at once. We hadn’t said it to each other yet. “But I would throw away a thousand perfect loves to save all the people who are going to die.”
The truth in Frida’s eyes was red flag number two and I believed it. But this was my job.
“If you believe there’s something illegal going on here then show me. I need more than assurances. I need proof, Frida.”
Her expression melted into joy and renewed determination.
“That, I can get for you,” she said with pleased ferocity. “I’m not working alone.”
Frida showed me copies of disturbing case files, not only her own but some her contacts had acquired by various means from others in the 358 as well. I recognized the security protocols—they were legitimate. This was good enough for me but we knew it wasn’t enough to go public. Not against people this well-funded and connected. We kept Evans safe in blissful ignorance until an accident at 358 took out Corporal Coffman. Evans got his transfer notice and we took a leap of faith. I met with him for a drink a week after he started there and probed his views on the program. It turned out he had been preparing to go to the press himself after what he’d seen down there. We convinced him that our current evidence wouldn’t cut it and the three of us made a plan.
A few days prior we all dosed ourselves with the antidote. Frida said it would last two months without incident. The greater the exposure, the more it would get used up. I’d been bit by a dog as a teen and was not looking forward to a zombie bite. I tried to put that out of my head but all my dreams for those three nights were worse—in my nightmares it was Frida who got bit.
My security clearance level had been updated to include the 358 at the same time Evans’ had. I guess they didn’t expect him to last very long down there. We went in together while Frida was in a meeting with the entire science team in the conference room. Frida’s contacts had ensured that the security cameras would be taken care of.
We used an encoded security card, also courtesy of Frida’s contacts, to access a heavily sedated test subject—a human being or at least something that had once been human. His skin was chapped and ashen. His darkened eyelids sunk deep in their sockets. Evans and I exchanged a nervous look but didn’t dare speak. The almost-human already lay on something of a stretcher so we lifted him with relative ease and packed him into the bottom of a large supply cart. We covered him up with a shelf and packed the supplies we had supposedly come here for onto that.
I carried the clipboard with our itinerary toward the security checkpoint and Evans wheeled the supply cart behind me. Despite our authorization, the 358 had tougher security than the 201 so Palmer would be checking the contents. Luckily, Evans played cards with Palmer so chances were he wouldn’t look very closely.
We reached the checkpoint at the same time as a forty-something man in an expensive suit with a designer watch and a badge that read “Boyd Jackson, Consultant.”
“Please, come on through, America’s heroes.” He waved us in Palmer’s direction.
“Isn’t Dr. Tehma waiting for you?” Palmer extended his hand for Jackson’s briefcase.
“I’m already twenty minutes late. What’s another two?” He flashed a good ol’ boy smile. “These fine soldiers have important cargo to take somewhere.”
A knot formed in my chest. The way he said “important cargo”—he knew what we were doing. How could he know? If he knew why was he here making insinuations and not with the head of security?
Good thing Palmer was giving him a look like he was crazy.
“Lift up the lid, John?” he said to Evans who complied. Jackson leaned in to get a look. Palmer gave him a final dirty look, skimmed the contents and itinerary and handed the clipboard back to me. “Thank you—”
“Hold on a minute,” Jackson said. “Didn’t you see the shelf? What’s in the bottom tier? Don’t tell me you two are making lab moonshine in a cupboard somewhere down here or something.” He gave us a cheesy wink-and-grin.
Evans rolled his eyes and closed the lid. “Who the hell is this guy?”
Palmer frowned and shook his head. “He’s special consultant to Dr. Tehma and it’ll be my ass if he goes mouthing off about my negligence so I’ll need you to unpack the supplies and show me the goddamn empty bottom tier now please. Sorry guys.”
I stopped myself from eyeing the exit. Running out of this complex was only going to get us a taser or bullet to the back. Frida’s contacts had created a fake classified order for the transfer of the subject. It was bullshit but if we were lucky it would be enough to protect us in military court. If we even made it to court. Evans gave me a look and I thought it right back at him—we were both so going to be turned into zombies right now, weren’t we?
Fucking Boyd Jackson.
After sleeping in a cell I suspected they used for test subjects before they became test subjects, I sat face to face with good old Don Heisman, the man who had recruited me. He was Chief Warrant Officer Four now. Good for fucking him.
He interrogated me on and off for days. He tried threats and bribery. He showed me photos of suspected collaborators, looking for recognition. Good thing I had never met any of Frida’s contacts. He tried to convince me that Evans had given us up, but he guessed a few things wrong in his bluff. I could have kissed Evans for never once implicating Frida. I lay in my cell at night aching for how hard it must have been for Frida to deny any and all involvement with us.
Something like a week later they were done asking questions. They didn’t start the waterboarding. They had worse things they could do to us here.
A black bag covered my head as they led me into a room that smelled like ethanol. They cuffed me to a chair and the bag came off. A few feet away Evans sat strapped to a medical chair set right up against a quarantine box. His bare arm threaded through a hole, like the kind doctors use to not break the quarantine seal, only his arm had no glove and was locked into place. Someone or something was sleeping inside the quarantine box.
“Hello, Corporal Delancey,” a high nasal man’s voice said from behind me. It sounded like Dr. Tehma. “Unfortunately for Corporal Evans, you have been identified as a caring person. Therefore, in order to elicit your compliance we will torture him as you observe.”
He went silent to let me take it all in. I struggled to control my breathing and bile rose in my throat. He must have figured the woman was the weaker link. Oh Evans, I’m so sorry. Evans’ mouth made a thin line and his eyes burned with a cold fire. But he was sweating, and no wonder. Still, I would have traded places and I knew in that moment he was glad it was him.
“Tell us what we need to know, Corporal.”
I breathed and thought all my support at Evans. His eyes flicked to mine and flashed with mutual defiance.
“Dr. Vega, administer the adrenaline.”
Frida came into view. The syringe hung loose in her grip. Her dead gaze followed the floor tiles ahead of her as she walked over to the IV hanging beside the quarantine box.
It took everything in me not to scream for her to stop. Seeing her forced to participate in this horrific act crushed me.
“It’s okay, Dr. Vega,” Evans said barely above a whisper. “I know you’re a good person. I don’t blame you for this.”
“I work here,” Frida said with a bitter laugh. “I’m not a good person.”
They were both slipping, but at this point so was I. I didn’t dare open my mouth. I couldn’t be sure what would come out.
“Hush dear,” Tehma said. “You’re a smart person, a brilliant physician and scientist. We’re working for the greater good, you know that.”
“I’m sorry, Doctor,” Frida said, remembering herself. “I just can’t feel that way when I’m asked to torture a man who has been my guard for years.”
“Frankly, my dear, I’m having you do this to determine whether or not you were working with them. They were both your guards. Doesn’t it strike you as odd?”
She regarded him with her trademarked cold courtesy. “They both had questionable backgrounds. They were the last qualified guards chosen for 358 clearance. Obvious marks.”
“Very well dear. Please administer the adrenaline now.”
Frida stabbed the syringe into the IV and pushed the plunger. The zombie in the quarantine box jolted awake screaming. It writhed and beat against the reinforced glass of the box. Evans started yelling profanity. I held my breath. Every muscle in my body knotted as I saw the zombie go for Evans’ arm. Its inhuman yellow shark teeth sank deep. Frida screamed. Evans groaned, his jaw clenched and eyes squeezed shut in pain.
“God it burns.” He opened his eyes and looked straight at me, his breathing ragged. “Don’t say a word, Delancey.”
I loved him for that.
Three days of torture later—one me and two more Evans—Frida was caught trying to arrange our escape and her contact was captured and held for questioning. The three of us were tranquilized and left with the black bags still over our heads in some middle-of-nowhere town.
“What the hell?” It was Evans. I pulled the bag off of my head and saw him lying on the ground next to me. A little kid was poking him with a stick. “I’m awake, I’m awake.”
I panicked when I didn’t see Frida, but found her behind me. I rubbed her back and she stirred.
“What are you doing taking a nap in the park?” The kid, a boy no older than six, crossed his arms.
“We’re sleeping, duh, what do you think naps are for?”
“What happened to your arm?”
I blinked at Evan’s arm. They had bandaged our bites. I looked down at my leg. I had my standard uniform pants on. Why the hell had they left us out here?
“We got in an accident,” I said. “Where’s your mom or dad?”
“They’re at the church but I went to the bathroom and ran away. I hate Sunday school.” He sat down and scraped the dirt with the stick.
Frida took off her left boot and felt around the space between her big toe and second toe. “Oh thank God.”
“What?” I asked.
“My tracker is still in my foot. If I can find a scalpel or a knife I can activate it. We can be rescued as long as they can get past that chopper.” Now that she mentioned it, I could faintly hear a chopper. Torture had taken my edge off.
“Cool,” the kid said. “Are you super spy soldiers?”
“Yup,” Evans said.
“No you’re not,” the kid laughed—he wasn’t going to be taken for a fool. If only he knew.
“Will this help?” I offered Frida my pocket knife, then realized what I had just done. “Holy—We are armed.” I pulled out my Beretta M9 pistol. It had never felt so good to hold.
“Whoa, cool. Can I see it?” The kid started to get up but midway he slumped over like a puppet having its strings cut. “Ugh. I don’t feel so good.”
I holstered my sidearm and got up on my knees. “You okay, buddy?”
“Hayden, give me your pocket knife. Neither of you have a spare gun do you?” The coldness in Frida’s voice raised the hair on the back of my neck.
“O-Okay. No spare gun. What about the kid? Aren’t you… Oh no. You don’t mean—How can you be sure?”
“Look. He’s already lost consciousness. Soon he’ll be dead and then awake again. Knife. Now.”
I gave it to her and flinched as she stabbed into the flesh between her toes. A red light went on just beneath the skin. She put her boot back on.
The kid made a horrible hacking sound. Something between mucous and venom trailed from his mouth.
“I want to go home,” the kid growled. “Where am I? Who are you? Take me home!” He sprang at Evans baring all too familiar teeth. Evans batted him back. The kid rolled around on the ground moaning. We both drew our sidearms at the same time.
“We have to get out of here,” Frida said. “If the kid is changing now, zombies will be pouring out of their church anytime.”
The zombie child rushed at Evans even faster. Evans kicked him in the chest and sent him sprawling back.
“It’s gaining strength. Shoot it!” Frida pointed.
“I—I can’t.” Evans held his weapon half raised. “It’s just a kid.”
“It’s dead, it’s not a kid anymore. Hayden.”
“Right.” The zombie got on all fours and growled. I had its head in my sight. I pulled the trigger, but my hand jerked. I made myself miss. Damn me.
“Hayden,” Frida said quietly and took the gun out of my hands. The zombie charged Evans again and she blew its brains out midflight.
“Holy shit.” Evans said.
“You never told me you could shoot.” We both grinned at her.
Then Evans screamed. An adult male zombie held him from behind and ripped into the side of his neck. He tore free and Frida shot it. Behind it came a pack of twenty more fast ones and I could see other slower, still-confused ones behind that. Evans held his neck but blood seeped between his fingers.
“Run,” he choked. “Just run.” He turned and started shooting.
“Evans, come on! Frida?” She had stopped shooting and was walking away, looking for me to follow.
“Hayden…” she said as I took my gun back and started shooting too. But there were too many. Three zombies jumped Evans at the same time. Then five more crowded around them.
“Hayden!” Frida shouted. It killed me to leave a man down, but dear God, we ran as they ate him.
An unmarked white van showed up when we’d reached the edge of town. The zombies weren’t far behind and Frida recognized the driver so we jumped in.
“We almost couldn’t get to you,” the driver said, “but the chopper suddenly left. We got word. A truck carrying TRH-7453 has crashed in a corn field twenty miles from here and all the local Hazard choppers are headed that way.”
This shit was only just beginning.
If you loved this, make sure to check back in next Sunday for the next link in our grizzly chain, by Carey Torg! Not only that, but ‘Running Home’, by one of our amazing writers, Julie Hutchings, is being published by Books of the Dead Press on August 1st – get on Goodreads and add that bad boy here.