Undead UK: Remember Me Dead, page 8part #1 of Undead UK Series
From the church tower of St Chads, Breht looked out across the town. A lot of rooftops led towards the office blocks and multi-storey car parks of the town centre. A bewildering array of streets. An easy place to get lost in, and not an easy place to find just one man who might already be dead. But Breht didn’t believe for one minute he was dead. Not him.
It wasn’t his style.
Below him lay the church graveyard, surrounded by a high wall and accessed from the street by wrought iron gates. It had been transformed into a vegetable garden now, with potatoes and runner beans growing among the tombstones, their slender roots reaching down into the remains of forefathers and ancestors. Outside the graveyard were the overgrown gardens and back yards of terraced three and four storey houses, a profusion of architectural styles that only the well heeled could afford. All silent now, and holding onto their dark secrets.
To Breht’s tactical eye, it was a mistake to simply accept their presence. The houses formed an unbroken U-shape around the graveyard, and could have been cleared and fortified, massively increasing the community’s living space and food-growing needs. The wrought iron gate, while high, was easily scaled, and should have been better secured. The community had done well to survive this long, but it was one bad harvest away from annihilation. A single outbreak of illness would wipe them out, and they were already suffering from bunker syndrome. The coming winter could prove to be their last.
With the younger people gone, however, a bold attempt to improve their position would only lead to more deaths. Breht understood William’s reluctance to hasten their demise, even if it simply meant a slower form of suicide.
A gentle cough signalled the arrival of Laura, but Breht had already heard her footsteps on the stairs. Ignoring her father’s admonition, she’d kept her dress on and was now shivering.
“Someone once jumped from this tower, you know?” she said.
“Is that a fact?”
“Yes. It was early on, soon after the community was set up. I can’t remember his name, but it was someone who used to take drugs and couldn’t get any more. Couldn’t bear the thought of facing the world without them.”
“I’m assuming he died?”
“Absolutely, but not straight away. He broke his legs and couldn’t get away from the zombies.”
Her flippant manner indicated that she’d quite gotten used to death. Or maybe she just hadn’t found the victim attractive.
“Tell me more about the man with the sword. Which way did he go?”
Laura pointed. “Off into the centre, somewhere. He, Martin and the others were trying to get to the castle.”
Breht turned to her. “What castle?”
“Salop Castle, on the other side of town. You can’t see it from here.”
“How long ago?”
“Fifteen days. I counted them. We waited and waited for them to come back, and after four days, Martin returned, coming down that street, there. We crowded on this balcony and shouted encouragement to him, but he looked exhausted. The undead just surrounded him, and... well, I don’t want to talk about that.”
“And nobody else came back?”
“No, though Daddy watches from this tower quite often, hoping to maybe see somebody else. It’s quite pointless, though. He sees Martin every day now – that’s the zombie who was chasing you into the church. He used to be quite fit, and very fast. He tried to climb the gate into the cemetery once, when we were harvesting, and Daddy had to shoot at him. It didn’t do anything, of course, but it made him feel more guilty. It’s dangerous to go into the cemetery now.”
Breht wondered what Martin had witnessed in his four days in the town. Did he make it to the castle, or had they found themselves trapped and besieged?
“How many of them went out?”
“Five. Martin, Clive, Terence, Jessica and the other man. Jessica was a bitch, but Terence was sweet. He was my lover for a while. I miss that.”
Missed the action, not the man, then. The mere mention of it seemed to turn her on, and she flaunted her breasts, erect nipples pushing through the fabric of the dress.
“It’s so cold,” she said. “I really could do with someone warming me up.” She gave him a coy look.
“Better get a coat on, then,” he said as he headed for the stairs.
“Tell me more about the man with the sword.”
Breht and William were in the vestry, just off the entry hall, where the meagre food supplies were stocked. William had unlocked the door when Breht asked to speak to him, and they sat in the musty, wood panelled interior, surrounded by hanging regimental flags from bygone units, commemorating losses from conflicts like The Crimea and the Boer War.
“There’s not much to tell, really,” said William. “I never really got to know him.”
“So why didn’t you trust him?”
William gave him a sideways glance. “I see you’ve been talking to my daughter.” He hitched up his trousers and sighed. “I suppose I don’t trust anybody now. Not after what happened to Martin. But the truth is, I wasn’t sure about Mr Watkins from the moment he arrived.”
“Is that what he said his name was?”
“Yes. Roger Watkins.”
“That’s not his real name.”
William turned to face him. “You know him?”
“I think so. Tell me more.”
William shrugged. “Like I said, I never really got to know him. There was something about him I didn’t like, however. Something... dark. I can’t put a finger on it, but I got the sense he wasn’t giving us the full picture about himself. A lot of bonhomie and confidence, and he expressed a great willingness to help. He had a lot of plans, but I felt he was hiding something. An ulterior motive.” William scratched his head. “Well, maybe not as strong as that, but... he seemed to have an alternative world in his head that the rest of us weren’t privy to. A different vision of things that he wasn’t prepared to share, as if it was only for him and nobody else, and that his participation in our concerns, our world, was only an act.”
“Was he convincing?”
“To everybody else, yes. He seemed like such a hero, coming in from the outside, rather like you did. He looked military, he was very affable and he seemed unperturbed by the catastrophe that had befallen society, as if it was just an opportunity to make something new. He acted as if nothing was impossible. A 'can do’ man, as the Americans would say. I think that’s what drew Martin to him immediately, because Martin was a little like that. And maybe he was getting a little fed up with the negative attitude of some of the rest of us. So when a kindred spirit walked in, it was natural for Martin to feel a sense of relief, I suppose. Being a leader is a lonely job – I know – and being able to share that burden must have been quite attractive.”
“How did he persuade Martin to go to the castle?”
“Oh, Martin didn’t need persuading. He was obsessed with the idea that there was another community there. Had been ever since he saw smoke coming from the other side of town, which he was convinced were camp fires. Nobody’s seen anything since, but it’s become some sort of transcendent myth. A community somewhere else where everything was better than here. People hungered for that myth, I think – the idea that elsewhere a new beginning was being created. Not just a community bent on survival, but a larger thing that sought to grow and conquer, rolling back the apocalypse and taking things back to the way they were, or perhaps a brave new world where the old mistakes could be rectified and something better put in its place. A millennial fantasy that saw the current disaster as some sort of warped blessing, a cleansing by fire and a chance to go forward, once the right people stepped in to lead us all.”
“So the prophet led his followers into the wilderness and never returned.”
“You could put it like that, I suppose.”
Breht stared at the regimental colours. He was sitting her
William equivocated. “Yes and no. Martin inspired hope, and the loss of so many people at once was a blow. But since then, it’s been calmer.”
William thought about it. “Yes. Younger people tend to have more bravado than patience, and tempers flare easily in this kind of environment. We live a kind of monastic existence here and some people aren’t suited to that. Tensions ran high, sometimes, and there were power struggles that were painful to watch. All that ended after Martin went, and now we have a kind of peace.” William coughed. “I’m sorry, you must think me terribly ungrateful. I just... well, I’m simply making an observation.”
“That’s okay. I just needed to know what happened.”
“Of course. If you don’t mind me asking, what is your interest in this other man?”
“I need to find him.”
“Is he a friend of yours?”
“And you were following him?”
William eyed him with interest. “And what are you going to do when you find him?”
Breht thought for a moment. “Ask him some questions.”
“And that’s it?”
“It’s a start.”
“You risked your life to get here just for that?”
“Have you ever wondered about your sanity?”
“I don’t need to tell you the obvious, then. How long have you been tracking him?”
“I don’t know. Since winter, I think.”
“We’re in autumn now.”
“Probably a while, then.”
William was silent for a while. “I honestly don’t know how you’ve survived this long. If I were a betting man, I wouldn’t lay odds on you surviving much longer. Not if you persist in roaming the wilderness. But you don’t need to continue your search. Your man is dead.”
“I need to verify that.”
“There’s nothing to verify. The town is packed with the undead. It’s impossible to get far and difficult to get back.”
“I’ll give it a go, anyway.”
William looked bewildered. “Well, we’ve discussed your sanity, so there’s no point me reiterating that, but still. You have a serious problem. And I hope you really aren’t planning to persuade someone to go with you.”
Breht guessed he was thinking about his daughter. “No, I don’t need that. I’m just here to trade for supplies and weapons, then I’ll be on my way.”
William didn’t look convinced. “We don’t have much to trade, but if you want something for your gun, you should perhaps see Jacob in the basement. He’s some kind of gunsmith – reloads cartridges with homemade gun powder. He might be able to help you.”
Breht wondered why Jacob had been consigned to the basement. The ramshackle chemistry lab on a table, where a beaker of clear liquid bubbled over a bunsen burner, the makeshift shotguns made with steel pipes and duct tape that hung on the wall, and the sweating sticks of dynamite lined up beneath the high, barred window, served as a clue.
“I picked them up at the quarry on the way here,” said Jacob when he saw Breht casting an anxious eye at the explosives.
He made it sound as if he’d just popped into a corner shop to get them. Slightly unkempt, Jacob’s beard looked as if it had been combed with a hedgehog and trimmed with a lawnmower.
“I’m pretty sure they don’t just leave stuff like that lying around,” said Breht.
“Oh no,” said Jacob. “But everybody had left, and it was easy enough to pick the security door lock. I used to break into my grandmother’s locked whiskey cabinet all the time,” he added by way of explanation.
Breht imagined him as a child, then decided it was better not to. He was probably blowing up cats by the age of seven.
Jacob turned to shut down the bunsen burner and used a cloth to carry the steaming beaker to his desk. Taking down a rusty tin from the shelf, he opened it and plucked out a damp, used tea bag, which he dropped into the beaker. “So how can I help you?” he said, stirring his tea.
“You’ve got my stuff.”
“Ah yes,” said Jacob, opening a drawer and pulling out the revolver. He spun the cylinder, popped it open and inspected the bore. “It’s rusty,” he said, clicking the cylinder back into place and placing the weapon on the desk. “Not much use carrying an empty revolver around these days, but you should at least look after it.”
“William said you load your own cartridges. Any chance you can do that for this?”
“Depends. Do you have the spent cartridges?”
Jacob sighed. “Then I can’t help you. I can do you .22 rimfire, though they’re not much use for what you’d need, or NATO 5.56mm – I have a few of those – but .38 is rare, on account of the pistol ban. I’ve not come across any. It’s a nice collector’s item, though, so I’ll trade the revolver for one of my shotguns if you want.”
Breht looked again at the makeshift weapons on the wall. “You’re joking, right? Even an empty revolver’s worth more than they are.”
“On the contrary, an empty revolver’s worth nothing, unless you plan to beat a zombie to death with it. And good luck with that. Your Katana blade, on the other hand, is worth considerably more. For that, I can offer you something both lethal and reliable.”
“Katana’s not for sale.”
Jacob pouted in disappointment. “Pity.” The samurai sword was propped behind his desk and he picked it up, half drawing the blade from its sheath. “This is a genuine Nobuyoshi, handmade in the traditional way. Nobuyoshi was the only Japanese-licensed swordsmith outside Japan. A master.” Jacob curled his lip. “You haven’t been looking after this well, however. I took the liberty of burnishing some of the corrosion off the blade and oiling it – I hope you don’t mind – but do you really want to ruin such a fine thing in the conditions you’ve been living in?”
Breht wondered how long Jacob had been living in this basement. He didn’t seem all that attached to reality anymore. “If it’s a choice between ruining that or ending up undead, then yes. So what’s this lethal and reliable thing you’re offering?”
“If you don’t have anything worthwhile to trade, then I’m not.”
Breht pulled out a bulky package of jewellery from his bag and spilled gold chains and diamond rings onto the desk. “And now?”
Jacob pulled a long face. “Not really my style.”
Breht added a small can of beer.
“I don’t drink much,” said Jacob.
Breht delved deep and pulled out a small sample bottle of perfume. Jacob tried to be nonchalant about it, but the seconds he spent staring at the bottle betrayed his desire. What he’d do with it, Breht had no idea, but even in the smallest community, trading took place, even if it was only for sexual favours. Breht imagined that Jacob would need something pretty substantial to swing the odds his way. Especially if he had his eye on Laura.
Then again, maybe he preferred them older.
“It’s a possibility,” said Jacob, hesitating a moment. He stared a while longer, then opened a drawer in his desk, pulling out a sawn-off shotgun with the butt cut to form a hand grip, sanded and polished. Not a piece of duct tape to be seen anywhere.
Breht picked it up, broke open the twin barrels and peered down them. The bore was clean, and the ejectors and hinge were oiled. Breht closed it with a satisfying click. It was a lot heavier than the revolver, but felt reassuringly solid.
“Shells?” he asked.
Jacob took out a box of home-loaded shells, placed ten on the desk, pulled four of them back, then changed his mind and made it eight. “These are valuable too,” he said. “The community needs them.”
“Very civic minded of you,” said Breht. “Do we have a deal?”
Jacob grabbed the jewellery and bottle, dragging them over. “I think so. Can I interest you i
Breht glanced at the sweating sticks and declined. Blowing himself to shreds just because he tripped over his boot laces was not the way he wanted to go. “Just the gun will be fine.”
Breht traded the rest of his stock with the community, setting up his stall by the altar. The remaining jewellery attracted some interest, but it was the toys that drew the biggest crowd, with the children generating a euphoric atmosphere that melted the resolve of even the most tight fisted of adults. In such utilitarian circumstances, entertainment for the children was in short supply, and the bright coloured toys shone like beacons in the drab, damp surroundings. Business was brisk, and Breht ended up with some potatoes and runner beans, an onion, dried fungus, fishing hooks fashioned from can ring-pulls, a quarter tin of black shoe polish and an offer to darn his socks and repair any holes in his clothing. He also got an offer of a haircut, which he accepted, and an offer of a massage from Laura, which he declined.
Breht sat on the steps of the pulpit, the hairdresser behind him close-cropping his hair, while he rubbed shoe polish onto the shoulders and back of his leather coat to improve the waterproofing. The leather was still waterlogged, but it would take days to dry in the damp atmosphere, and he didn’t have time to wait. A woman nearby patched up two bullet holes in the front and back of his army fleece, her needle pushing through the stiff dried blood that stained the green fabric. William came and stood in front of him, looking from the scar on his chest to the holes in the fleece.
“You never did mention how you got that wound,” he said.
“No, I didn’t.”
“Would it perchance have something to do with the man you’re looking for?”
“You don’t just want to ask him questions, do you?”
“Care to explain?”
William looked at the shotgun between Breht’s feet. “You know, there are very few survivors left. Most are probably like us, barricaded in safe places and concentrating on survival. Heaven knows that’s difficult enough, even without the added dangers of the undead. Are you really sure it’s worth wasting your energies on something as pointless as revenge? The world has been destroyed. An act of vengeance won’t change that.”