Mad Skills, page 1
Table of Contents
ONE - MADDY AND BEN
TWO - NEWS CYCLE
THREE - DREAM THERAPY
FOUR - BLINDS
FIVE - SCRATCHES
SIX - THE PROCRUSTEAN READING ROOM
SEVEN - REPORT
EIGHT - DRIVE-THRU
NINE - HOMECOMING QUEEN
TEN - SOLITAIRE
ELEVEN - MOUSETRAP
TWELVE - ON THE QUAD
THIRTEEN - SPECIAL NEEDS
FOURTEEN - DIP VAN WINKLE
FIFTEEN - THE MALL
SIXTEEN - JONAS AND LAKISHA
SEVENTEEN - RETURN TO SENDER
EIGHTEEN - HARMONY
NINETEEN - SIGNS
TWENTY - BROKEN MIRROR
TWENTY-ONE - ELECTION
TWENTY-TWO - BEN AGAIN
TWENTY-THREE - VAN GO
TWENTY-FOUR - HELICOPTER CAMP
TWENTY-FIVE - 1-2-3
TWENTY-SIX - HOPSCOTCH
TWENTY-SEVEN - PINS AND NEEDLES
TWENTY-EIGHT - SILVER BIRCH
TWENTY-NINE - LOCUST
THIRTY - SMOKE AND MIRRORS
THIRTY-ONE - CASTLE DRACULA
THIRTY-TWO - RETURN TO HARMONY
THIRTY-THREE - REUNION
THIRTY-FOUR - WORK
THIRTY-FIVE - FISSURE
THIRTY-SIX - ASTROTURF
THIRTY-SEVEN - PEP
THIRTY-EIGHT - GOOD-BYE, YELLOW BRICK ROAD
THIRTY-NINE - OF RATS AND MEN
FORTY - GHOST IN THE MACHINE
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
“Zombie stories and novels are cool, but Xombies, to me, kick it up to a whole ’nother level … Xombies: Apocalypticon is more exciting, more action-packed, more gory, and more darkly humorous than its predecessor.” —BSCreview
“Good characters and great action scenes … Fans of the original book should enjoy this one, and zombie fans looking for something different may enjoy it as well.”
“Walter Greatshell’s Xombies: Apocalypticon actually succeeds in bringing something new and fascinating to this milieu … The Xombie tale is gory, wild, surreal, gross, and definitely action-packed. It has a macabre sense of humor and isn’t afraid to step on toes or go places that might offend some readers. Yet it adds onto that with some great world-building and a fascinating biological puzzle that will certainly keep you guessing. If that sounds like your cup of tea, then I definitely recommend this one!”
XOMBIES: [APOCALYPSE BLUES]
“A triumph, both epic in scope and entirely unpredictable, and anchored by one of the most refreshing and unique voices in modern horror fiction. Expect great things from Mr. Greatshell in the future.”
—Nate Kenyon, author of Sparrow Rock
“Surprise after surprise … a heady brew of horror, science fiction, suspense, and adventure … 28 Days Later meets Lord of the Flies … as sharp and bone-chilling as an arctic gale.”
—A. J. Matthews, author of Unbroken
“An amazing novel … I picked it up and couldn’t put it down. Beyond the freshness of take on the subject matter and the compelling narrative, I was taken completely by the sheer quality of the writing. Often genre fiction is driven more by ideas and momentum than by good writing, but not in the case of Xombies: [Apocalypse Blues]. That was top-notch in every regard. A modern classic.”
—Bob Fingerman, author of Pariah
“I really loved Xombies: [Apocalypse Blues] and want to know what’s up next.”
Bram Stoker Award-winning author of Rot & Ruin
“By far the best horror novel I’ve read. Hell, I’d check out anything that [Greatshell’s] written at this point.”
—Jason Thompson, author of Manga: The Complete Guide
“The writing is fast-paced and keeps you hooked. The book itself is a cross between Night of the Living Dead and an end-of-the-world-type premise like Earth Abides, one of my all-time favorites. I see the makings for a pretty decent horror movie—maybe Hollywood will listen?”
“The pace is frantic almost from the first page. The ending is unexpected yet seems right. I’m looking forward to more from this author.”
—The Romance Readers Connection (4 stars)
“I loved [this] book.”
—David Wellington, author of Overwinter
Ace Books by Walter Greatshell
XOMBIES: APOCALYPSE BLUES
THE BERKLEY PUBLISHING GROUP
Published by the Penguin Group
Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, USA
Penguin Group (Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto, Ontario M4P 2Y3, Canada
(a division of Pearson Penguin Canada Inc.)
Penguin Books Ltd., 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England
Penguin Group Ireland, 25 St. Stephen’s Green, Dublin 2, Ireland (a division of Penguin Books Ltd.)
Penguin Group (Australia), 250 Camberwell Road, Camberwell, Victoria 3124, Australia
(a division of Pearson Australia Group Pty. Ltd.)
Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd., 11 Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi—110 017, India
Penguin Group (NZ), 67 Apollo Drive, Rosedale, North Shore 0632, New Zealand
(a division of Pearson New Zealand Ltd.)
Penguin Books (South Africa) (Pty.) Ltd., 24 Sturdee Avenue, Rosebank, Johannesburg 2196, South Africa
Penguin Books Ltd., Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.
An Ace Book / published by arrangement with the author
Ace mass-market edition / January 2011
Copyright © 2011 by Walter Greatshell.
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without
permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the
author’s rights. Purchase only authorized editions.
For information, address: The Berkley Publishing Group,
a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.,
375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014.
eISBN : 978-1-101-44597-6
Ace Books are published by The Berkley Publishing Group,
a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.,
375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014.
ACE and the “A” design are trademarks of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
For Cindy and Max
Thanks to my editor, Danielle Stockley, and to the great team at Ace and Penguin, whose real-life mad skills make my life easier.
I saw a young Indian in the Nation, who when present, and beholding the scenes of mad intemperance and folly acted by the white men in the town, clap his hand to his breast, and with a smile, looking aloft as if struck
AS Maddy Grant plummeted from the forty-second floor to certain death amid the blaring traffic of Ninth Avenue, all she could think was, Stupid.
Until then, it had been such a sweet gig.
She had said she was a college student, an incoming freshman at Columbia University, and it wasn’t even a lie—Maddy fully intended to enroll at Columbia now that her situation was finally stabilized. Now that she had a job and a place to live and proper identification. A whole new identity: Brittany Higgenbotham, age eighteen, from Tempe, Arizona. The only thing she didn’t have was references, but the woman who had hired her was so eager for a live-in nanny-slash-housekeeper-slash-whatever-else-she-could-think-of that she didn’t care that it was Maddy’s first job. All she cared about was that Maddy was cheap.
The condo was beautiful, a roomy three-bedroom on the West Side, just a five-minute walk from the park. Broad-way and Times Square were not much farther. Maddy could hardly believe it: She was living in New York City!
Even in her achingly, fakingly sunny memories of growing up in the prairie suburbs of the West, she had always had a fascination with New York—so distant and out of reach, a fat, golden apple dangling from a high branch. More myth than reality. To her knowledge, she had only ever visited twice, years ago, once on a school trip and once with her parents, but somehow it was a deeply familiar place, the only place on the whole map that beckoned when she was lost and desperate. When she had nowhere else to go.
It was her second month on the job. Maddy’s employer, an aging, fading starlet named Angela Brightly, was out for the evening, just as she was every evening, running out to clubs and parties and gallery openings, schmoozing with the rich and famous while Maddy babysat her two kids. Little Danielle and Sam knew that their mother was not just a swinging socialite but a struggling singer, actress, and model in fierce competition with all the newer models out there … most of whom hadn’t had two children. The living room was full of pictures and artifacts of Angela’s once-promising career, many cropped to remove the face of her ex-husband and manager. Her children had learned to accept the situation without fuss: Mommy works hard so that we can have a good life. They were the quietest, gloomiest children Maddy ever met … but they were certainly no hassle.
On that particular evening, Maddy made them dinner, read them animal stories from their collection of vintage children’s books (television was a strict no-no), and tucked them both in. Then she changed into her sweats, made a big salad and some garlic bread, and plopped down in front of the TV. For dessert, she was looking forward to a nice slice of the cheesecake she had picked up at Zabar’s that morning. Ms. Brightly wouldn’t be home for hours. It was going to be another quiet evening—Maddy’s favorite kind.
Then the fire alarm went off.
At first, she didn’t recognize the noise; it wasn’t the shrill peeping of a room alarm but a loud bell coming from outside. Annoyed that it was going to disturb the kids, she jumped up and ran to the front door, peering through the peephole. The emergency lights at the ends of the hallway were flashing. Shit! She opened the door a crack and could see other people on the floor sticking their heads out as well.
“Is it a fire drill?” someone called above the deafening noise.
A bald man across the way said, “I don’t know.”
“Either way, we better go down.”
“It’s probably nothing. Somebody burned the popcorn.”
Suddenly, the elevator opened, and four firemen emerged. They had shiny yellow helmets, fire axes, and spanking new fire-retardant suits. The leader wore a tank on his back. They advanced down the hall, banging on doors, and shouting, “Everyone out! Now!”
People trying to ask them questions were jerked from their doorways and shoved toward the stairs.
“Get out of the way! Move! All of you! Everyone out, right now! Drop what you’re doing and go! This is an emergency!”
One of the firemen glanced straight at Maddy, then hurriedly flicked his eyes away. It was a subtle, barely noticeable thing, but suddenly she realized what was going on. There was no fire, not even any fire drill—they had come for her. She could scarcely believe it, but somehow they had found her.
Maddy shut the door and locked it, her heart slamming in her chest. Her worst nightmare come true: They found me. And yet, in a strange way, it was also a relief, the end of the suspense. Thoughts racing, she headed for the kitchen and spotted Sam and Danielle standing anxiously in the bedroom doorway. The poor things must be scared out of their wits. Maddy made an effort to look calm.
“It’s okay, guys. Just a drill, it should be over soon. Go back to bed.”
“Sam needs to go potty.”
“Well, you’re such a big girl, why don’t you take him?”
The front door exploded inward. It was a steel security door with multiple dead bolts, but it blew off its hinges like cardboard. The whole building shook.
Jeez, Maddy thought, shielding the kids. She had been expecting a few more seconds at least.
The firemen poured in, shouting, “EVERYBODY ON THE FLOOR, NOW!”
Deafened, Maddy sprinted past the bedroom, grabbed the two children on the fly, and piled into the bathroom. She shut the door just as the lead fireman let off a stream of liquid flame that roared down the corridor and set off the sprinkler system.
There were no windows, no escape. Looking around the bathroom for something, anything, she yanked open the medicine cabinet and scanned the dozens of prescription bottles—Ms. Brightly was a total hypochondriac if not a drug addict—then grabbed a toenail clipper. As heavy boot steps squish-squished toward her across the wet carpet, Maddy used the clipper to strip the wires from a curling wand, then twined the bare wires around the brass door-knob and plugged it in.
Someone grabbed the knob. There was a bright blue spark and a loud snap, then a scream and a bone-jarring crash. The lights flickered, dimmed, and the men outside shouted, “Get back! Don’t touch him!”
In the couple of seconds she had bought, Maddy hurriedly searched for a means of escape. The bathroom was like a desert, easily the emptiest room in the house; everything useful was bolted down. Still trying to act cheerful, she made the children lie down in the bathtub and covered them with an armload of towels and the toilet lid. They were both wide-awake, and intensely curious about whatever was going on.
“Them men shouldn’t be here. It’s too loud. My mommy’s gonna be mad.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it.”
As axes began chopping at the door, Maddy reached up and pulled on the shower curtain rod. It was a fat enameled tube about five feet long, lightweight but sturdy. There was no way to get it down in one piece, not without tools—okay. Leverage. Sliding the shower curtain to the center and twisting it like a rope, she yanked the bar so hard it broke, landing her flat on her butt. Ow. She got up, wincing, and wrested the two halves out of the wall. The kids were fascinated.
“Oooh—you broke it. You’re in trouble.”
“Just stay there and be really quiet, okay? Just like two little deer in the forest.”
“Just like Bambi, shh.”
Digging around under the sink, Maddy grabbed a can of hairspray and a blow-dryer, then hunted around for a combustion chamber of the right size. Her darting eyes sought out shampoo bottles, the kids’ potty, the plastic sheath for the toilet brush. Hmmm.
In front of the tub was a furry nonskid rug with rubberized backing—she flipped it over and placed the two halves of the shower curtain rod on ei
The whole operation had taken exactly forty-seven seconds.
She flicked on the blow-dryer as a boot kicked in the splintered door. A wave of smoke and burning wet stench poured in, and with it came a dripping, yellow-helmeted man, ax held high. His face was pasty white, and his mouth a rippling gullet lined with concentric rows of inward-curving black teeth, needle-sharp as acacia thorns.
Sitting against the tub, Maddy sprayed hairspray into the blow-dryer’s suction fan. The aerosol’s flammable propellant gas—propane—filled the plastic chamber of the toilet brush, while microparticles of sticky hairspray compound flooded the dryer’s nichrome heating coil. There was a spark.