Undead uk remember me de.., p.17

Undead UK: Remember Me Dead, page 17

 part  #1 of  Undead UK Series

 

Undead UK: Remember Me Dead
 


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  Mannequins wearing lace gowns gazed impassively past him as he checked out the store, stumbling over a gramophone and grazing his shin on a sharp edged stone bird bath. Carefully he inspected a side room behind the counter, then ascended to the upper level. All he found was a toilet and a store room piled high with junk. Pushing aside the net curtain at the window, he looked out onto the street.

  A solitary zombie shuffled uncertainly back and forth in the middle of the road. In the distance he could just see the gloomy walls of the castle.

  If he could dispatch this one zombie quickly and quietly, he might be able to make it to safety without having to run the gauntlet of the hordes. That was the hope, anyway.

  Back downstairs, he looked for a weapon that might do the job. If Zak could use a Katana, then maybe he could find a sword that would have the same effect. The sabre he found in a glass cabinet, however, didn’t look promising. It was blunt, and the blade was loose in its socket. Lifting it up and trying a few practise swings failed to inspire him with any confidence. He put it down and lifted a heavy pewter candlestick instead. It certainly felt solid enough.

  The mental image of him trying to bludgeon some unfeeling zombie to mush, however, didn’t sell itself to him as a winning idea.

  The shadows grew deeper as the light faded and Breht realised that what he really needed to be looking for was a torch of some sort. If he was going to be stuck in the shop overnight, he preferred to have a light source. He searched the novelty trinkets by the till, looking for an LED keyring or something similar. He found nothing.

  Going into the back room, he fumbled among the boxes on the shelves. As he was doing so, the front door to the shop opened with a ting of the bell.

  Breht froze. He’d assumed the front door would be locked and realised he should have checked. Peering into the shop, he lifted his rifle, his thumb flicking the safety off.

  In the silence, the click of the safety catch was clearly audible, and Breht listened as a foot dragged across the floor in response. He saw a shadow move and opened fire, the muzzle flash briefly illuminating the room. The strobed image of the zombie’s face was close – too close – and Breht was sure he hadn’t hit it well enough to put it down. He didn’t want to be trapped in the dark with that thing, and he made a split second decision to run for it, sliding across the counter and bolting for the door. He heard a groan as the creature twisted to reach for him, but it was too slow and he was out of the shop and running up the street.

  The ambient light was a little better outside, but his eyes hadn’t adjusted and he couldn’t focus on the mass of shadows, so he couldn’t tell whether he was in a street full of zombies or not. He was sure the street had been empty, but the gunfire would attract more.

  He ducked into a doorway, but then remembered Filipova’s story of the scientist who thought he could hide in the shadows.

  If what she says is right, they’re going to home in on me like a beacon.

  He heard the ting of the bell as the zombie in the antique shop came shuffling out.

  Breht took to the street again, walking swiftly towards the castle. A sharp hiss caught his attention and he saw a shadow emerge from behind a car. Switching to automatic, he opened fire, stitching bullets up the walking corpse until he exploded the head. Changing mags, he began to run.

  An illumination flare shot up from the castle, and Breht skidded to a halt. Swinging from its parachute, the incandescent light cast a harsh glare over the town, showing the large undead mob clustered around the castle. Behind him, more undead shuffled out, closing in on him.

  Breht weighed up the odds. He had no chance of reaching the castle now, and he didn’t want to get trapped in a house with the undead battering down the doors to get at him. He wouldn’t make it till dawn.

  The tide was up on the river, the heads of the stuck zombies showing up just above the waterline. In the middle of the river, however, was a small rowing boat, tied to a buoy. It wasn’t an option he particularly liked, but when the runners broke away from the mob and galloped towards him, he shed his inhibitions and sprinted down to the water’s edge.

  Dropping his rifle and hastily removing his heavy body armour and magazine pouches, he dived into the black water and started swimming.

  The zombies in the river jerked and flapped, but they were stuck fast, and Breht powered past them, his sights set on the boat. The coldness of the water sucked his breath away, and the tidal current dragged at him, but the splashing of the runners entering the water behind him drove him on until he slapped a hand onto the side of the boat. Tilting the boat as he hauled himself in, he collapsed, shivering, the boat rocking violently.

  The flare was low over the town and Breht watched fearfully as zombies ploughed through the water in pursuit. They did not swim, however, and as they tried to run, the mud sucked them down. Another flare went up, this time over the water, and Breht watched the mob come down to the water, sinking until they disappeared from sight. They kept coming, though, a grotesque lemming horde drawn on by the heat source out on the boat. When they were packed tightly in the shallows, more clambered over them, arms windmilling as they launched themselves into the water, disappearing beneath the surface. Loose clothing drifted past on the current. Breht watched in amazement as what seemed the entire town descended to the river and the welcoming, sticky mud.

  When the last flare went out, Breht listened to the mass of hissing and groaning that carried across the water.

  *

  There were no oars in the boat, and Breht’s shaking fingers were unable to undo the rope that held him to the buoy. The thought of drifting out to sea offered no solace, anyway, so he gave up. In the pitch darkness, he huddled at the bottom of the boat.

  The gentle rocking lulled him into a fitful sleep and he woke hours later when the receding tide dropped the boat firmly on a mud bank. Stars twinkled in the night sky and a new moon illuminated the undead townsfolk less than a hundred yards away, still groaning and still stuck – a bitter crowd that swayed and stretched in their efforts to reach him. The hours passed and they got no closer to him, but Breht couldn’t sleep anymore. It would only take one of them to break free from the mud’s relentless grip and cover the short gap to get at him. In his hand he held his revolver with its remaining two bullets. And he still had the final bullet in his shirt pocket. He wondered if he should load it now, to save time. He didn’t want to be fumbling for it when a zombie sank its teeth into him, but he felt so tired now he wondered if it would simply be easier not to resist.

  That thought snapped him awake as he realised he was dozing off. He recalled Harris’s horrified face.

  No, dying quickly was preferable to being eaten alive. If he’d been in the same situation, he’d have wanted Harris to do the same thing to him. Maybe he too would have been shocked at the thought, because there wouldn’t have been time to think about whether it was a good idea or not. And the end, no matter how it came, would feel brutal and unfair.

  Unfair. That was a strange thought to have at the end of life. As if life actually owed him something. It was a crazy notion, but deep down, it was probably what everybody felt when they weren’t ready for it, as if life should somehow have given them some warning that it was about to end.

  What was life anyway? And was being undead just another form of life?

  It probably was, but it was a shit form of life. Alzheimer’s was also a form of life – undeniably so – but he remembered his grandmother saying she preferred to die outright rather than lose her mind in that way. She coughed out her last minutes in pneumonia, and it wasn’t a peaceful death. The strain was engraved in her face, and Breht thought that maybe if she’d been unaware of her last moments, she would have been more at peace. The horror she exhibited when she realised her time had come haunted Breht for a long time. Like the look on Harris’s face.

  But still the thought of losing her mind worried her more than losing her life.

  Unfair. That probably did sum up a perso
n’s final choices. There were no good options, and maybe the illusion of being able to choose was the last saving grace.

  Breht hugged the revolver to his chest. He had no further thoughts on the matter. If the zombies rushed the boat, he’d simply blow his own brains out rather than fight and take a chance on losing. With that, he lay back down and waited.

  *

  Dawn brought the rays of a weak sun, mist on the water and the first chill of the coming autumn. Breht watched the sky brighten but did nothing. He was shivering, and the boat was still stuck on the mud flat. The castle towers shone in the morning light, the undead continued to moan in their exertions.

  Breht let the hours pass, feeling the strengthening sun on his face. Water coursed against the side of the boat until the returning tide refloated it.

  Breht sat up and saw the figure in the tower, sniper rifle ready. He waved, and Zak waved back.

  The knot on the boat’s rope was still too tight to undo, but Breht could see clearly now the slipknot on the buoy. Pulling his boat over, he released the line and began to paddle with his hands, moving slowly to the shadow of the bridges, aided by the incoming tide. Cruising past the crab-eating zombie, he beached the boat and stepped out.

  A rope sailed down the wall.

  In the distance Breht could see one or two zombies shambling about with no direction, but most of the undead that he could see were still jostling each other in the river, water up to their chests. He had no problem strolling to the rope and hauling himself up.

  When he reached the top of the wall, a dozen hands helped him over. He felt giddy and light headed. When he tried to sit down, he was instead lifted up and carried on a pair of shoulders. People were clapping him and slapping his back. Everyone was smiling. Zak descended from the tower, joining in the bounteous applause. “I knew you could do it,” he said.

  24

  “I didn’t do anything,” said Breht as he clutched a bowl of hot stew. It might have been dog food, but he was so hungry, he ate it anyway.

  They were in the basement of one of the towers, which Zak had turned into some kind of renaissance pad, with reproduction daggers on the walls, candles and a mandolin. Breht half expected to see an incised skull among the paraphernalia. What he didn’t see was any sign of Jennifer’s occupation: no flowers, scarves or peace signs.

  “You did more than you realise,” said Zak. “You emptied the town.”

  “But I didn’t mean to.”

  “Doesn’t matter. I told you destiny was at work. You were meant to be here at this precise time. You were chosen. And I was waiting for you.”

  Breht couldn’t tell if he was joking or not. Zak appeared serious, but there was a gleam in his eye that Breht just couldn’t read. Maybe it was only a reflection of the candles.

  “Sorry about losing the digger.”

  Zak dismissed that. “Don’t worry about it.”

  “And the Land Rover?”

  Zak grimaced. “Pain in the arse, that was. Should have got a Toyota.”

  “Bound to be one somewhere out there.”

  “Yeah, need to start organising more expeditions. Get everyone else involved. There’s too much sitting around. Not liking the apathy of some people. They’re not pulling their weight. This is a big project and we need everyone’s contribution. I’m tired of their whining.”

  “I haven’t heard any of that.”

  “It’s there, I assure you. I’ve been having a hell of a time trying to get people to take a risk on going outside. Modern living has bred a society of slackers who just want to be fed and entertained. Some of them don’t understand that they’re not going to get their coke and fries back. Those days are gone and personally I couldn’t give a shit. It’ll take a while for some people to adjust, though, so we need to be pushing them.”

  “We?”

  “Yeah, we. You and me.”

  “There’s that theme again.”

  “Exactly, and I don’t let up. You know you’re the man for the job.”

  Breht put the bowl down. “I’m still not sure I am. And you never talked to Cobb.”

  Zak’s eyes gleamed again. “I don’t want him.”

  Breht caught a sudden chill. “What do you want?”

  Zak’s lips parted. “You.”

  Breht felt a frisson of excitement. He hadn’t anticipated that Zak might be gay too, in spite of Filipova’s jibe the other day. He’d certainly admired Zak’s physique, and thought he was fairly handsome, in a rugged way, but that had been clouded by his strange manner and the fact that Breht had never been good at reading someone’s sexuality unless they paraded it openly. The fabled gaydar that gays were meant to possess, that strange ability to be able to pierce people’s masks and uncover the hidden signs beneath, was largely a mystery to him. He understood now some of the tension between Zak and himself and wished he’d spotted it sooner. He wet his lips, still cautious. “I thought you were with Jennifer.”

  “Jennifer’s a dear friend, that’s all. We go back a long way, but not like that. I’ve been waiting a long time, and I think you have too.”

  “I didn’t realise.”

  “No, I was wondering how long it would take you to work it out, but you were too wrapped up in your own gloomy mistrust. You’ve got a wall a mile high, but I was patient. I remember being shocked when you announced your name on the radio. I followed your case in court through the papers and the army grapevine, and I felt sorry for you. So when you turned up on my doorstep, I knew it was fate. All I had to do was wait.”

  Breht’s heartbeat quickened. He was still nervous of making the first move. Simon Cann’s accusation of rape, however false, had made him fearful of being misinterpreted again. He’d shut himself off from all sexual risk after that and drenched his passions in a cold shower of remorse. His ardour was back with a vengeance now, however, as the lost years were wiped away in a hormonal rush. “You want to do it here, now?”

  “Uh huh,” said Zak, stroking his face.

  Breht leaned forward, and their lips touched. He felt the strength of Zak’s hand on the back of his neck, then the two grappled in a fierce embrace, their hunger taking over.

  *

  Long afterwards, Breht had the sensation of feeling reborn and whole again, like he’d crossed the River Styx with his two coins in hand and found himself on a brighter shore than the one he’d just left. Reality had inverted itself, and the black days of civilisation had been replaced by the warm rays of the apocalypse. It didn’t make sense and yet felt perfectly right. Taking a walk around the castle yard, he observed the happy smiles and responded to the well wishers. He watched the children play and soaked in the ambience of a community in good spirits. Jennifer winked at him as she emptied another bucket of silt on her tomato plants and even Nobby looked to be in a good mood as he flirted with his new girlfriend. The wall Breht had built around himself melted away and it seemed incomprehensible to him that he’d nurtured its cold stone embrace for so long. Why had he not tried harder to escape when it was clearly better on the outside? He’d stepped through the looking glass, and the snowy night was behind him, as eager to be rid of him as he was it. All the paranoia and doubts seemed a massive waste of energy. All the wariness he’d felt about Zak, all the murmured warnings by Cobb and Filipova, seemed absurd in the bright sun. Credulous and naive, he understood what a fool he could be, and how he was often his own worst enemy, frittering away opportunities with an obstinate blindness. He’d prolonged his own agony and, as he looked around at the activity in the castle, realised he didn’t need to do that anymore.

  When he returned to the tower basement, Zak was still naked and playing the mandolin. With skilful strokes, he picked swiftly through a rising arpeggio, ending the high note on a vibrato.

  “Where’d you learn to play like that?” asked Breht, fascinated.

  “In Syria. An old Turkman named Rahim taught me. He was my guide and fixer. And lover, sometimes.”

  “You got around.”


  “Part of the job. You know the old army joke: travel the world, meet interesting people and kill them. I did all those things until my pores sweated out pure hypocrisy and I couldn’t stand it anymore.” Zak looked up, plucking a few mournful notes. “Nasty business to be in. Sooner or later you know you’re going to betray the very people you think you’re fighting for. All it took was a change in the price of oil or some treaty signed in some place you’ve never heard of. I was a mercenary, that was all.”

  “You survived.”

  “I did, but that was because I was determined. Kept my hard edge when others started to go soft. You know you’ve got to get out when that happens.”

  “Maybe Rahim survived too, still remembering the man he gave lessons to.”

  “No, Rahim didn’t make it.”

  “I’m sorry.”

  “Don’t be. It was me who shot him. He was about to sell me out.”

  25

  In his worst dream, Breht imagined himself stuck in the river bed with the other undead, his exertions raising clouds of silt that swirled about him, like tendrils of darkness that coiled around his legs, sucking him down and never wanting to let go. A brief gasp above the water showed the red glare of a burning world, sparks dancing about his head. The songs of the birds turned into the screams of the dying, then he was pulled under again, the ghostly faces of the undead mocking him for ever thinking he could break free. Stones would build up, one by one, until he was bricked in, and the last shred of light would disappear as he was buried alive, the hunger of the undead pounding on the walls that hemmed him in.

  Breht sat on the roof ridge, a fresh breeze on his face. It only brought the rancid smell of a dead town to his nostrils, but at least he was outside. Small mercies in heaven were generous indulgences in hell.

  He’d reached the end of a row of houses, and the only way to cross the street was to come down from his lofty sanctuary. The headless corpse of a zombie stretched out below on the cobbled road was reason enough, however, to want to take the risk.

 
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