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Choose Your Battles

:flick:

It's a simple act, turning on a light.

"What are you doing? Turn that off!"

"Why? It's dark in here, I can't see."

"See how high up that light is?"

I've lived in this house for years, walked through this foyer countless times.

I look.

"We don't have a ladder high enough to reach it. If that bulb burns out, we'll never get it changed."

"If that's the case, why don't we use it until it does burn out?"

She looks at me like I'm a stupid child, one that may not make it past the 6th grade.

I turn off the light.

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Intruder Detection System: Model 38, Class A, Number 5
Copyright © 2010, Yaegini Lenoir

The laser ranging back and forth across the landscape betrays its approach. The machine makes no noise as it picks its way through the former suburb on six insect legs, looking for evidence of intrusion. It scans, measuring everything it can, and submits the data to central control. Scan, send. Scan, send.

Receive!

"ALERT: 30 meters in a heading of 23.3°, investigate car. Current height 3.5 inches lower than last baseline. Threat Assessment: 21% likely; Pre-emptive Action Threshold: 35% certainty."

...continue reading "Walking the Beat"

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The old man cranes as far back as his stiff neck will allow to watch the V of geese fly north, honking all the way to the horizon. There are only a fews days a year like this, perfect for the hunt. Enough wind to bring the scent, not so much to cover the groans. It dipped below freezing last night, yet warmed up sufficiently to get the prey moving again.

He turns his attention back to the dog. No commands are needed as the man slowly walks into the forrest’s verge, the dog moving back and forth a little ways ahead. Deeper into the woods, the dog picks up a scent and stops. The prey comes stumbling out of the shadows, letting loose a throaty moan. Again, no commands as the dog leads the quarry obliquely across his line of sight. The old man raises his rifle and takes aim. Exhales. Slowly squeezes the trigger. A rose blooms square in the forehead. It’s a kill.

Only then does he allow himself to appreciate her long, blonde hair and blue eyes.

#

The building doesn’t have a sign, not like the old days when marketing was king. It’s a sturdy cube, probably a Mexican restaurant before the war since it looks vaguely like the Alamo.

The old man guides his truck to its usual spot in a gale of dust. The dog follows him inside.

“Got a fresh one this mornin’, Sheriff.” He signals the bartender.

“Crap!” Burns himself with spilt coffee. “I didn’t hear the alarm go out. Who do we have mobilized?”

“No one, it’s not an outbreak. Hey, Dan, what’s the special today?”

“You sure?”

“Venison stew”

“What?”

“Again?”

“Gotta make do with what we have, Bill. Baked some nice crusty bread to go with it, though.” He pulls two drafts, the first one in a bowl for the dog.

The lawman bangs his fist on the bar. “OK, time out, Colonel, I think a possible outbreak is far more important than your damned supper, sir.”

“Sorry, yes, I found her out at the end of Willis Ford Road. Scoured the woods, we found nothing.” In an aside, “Get me a bowl with lots of bread.” Louder, “I think it was just a case of bad luck. Look, I got her picture.”

“It, goddammit, Bill. Don’t humanize the thing, it’s hard enough putting them down without--” he glances at the phone, “Oh, fuck me, that’s Deena, LuAnn’s kid.” With head in hands, “I hate this job. She filed a missing persons report last night. I told her the girl probably ran off with her boyfriend.”

“Sheriff, I can have my wife break the news to LuAnn, they’re cousins.”

“No, no,” he sighs, “Thanks, Dan. I appreciate it, We’ll take care of it. Need to figure out how the kid got infected. Colonel, tell me you didn't burn the body.”

“Nope, I alerted the ME to send some boys out to retrieve her. ” The old man's thirst is great tonight, he quickly signals for a refill. "Myra said she'd give me a call once she's had a look."

Dan slides the steaming bowl, "If it's not an outbreak, how in the hell did the girl get infected?"

"Good question," the old man says through a mouthful of bread. "Perhaps she was hunting blackberries and stumbled on a twitcher."

"I thought you said there's nothing out there," the Sheriff clearly irked.

Bill puts his spoon down, "Listen, I said I didn't find anything. That doesn't mean there ain't something 10 years old out there, unable to move, just a pair of jaws in a bramble somewhere, waiting to snare passing flesh."

His phone vibrates across the bar, rattling his fork. "Yes? OK, I'll be there. Give me about 15 minutes." He shovels 3 quick spoonfuls into his mouth. "The zed's on the slab, ready for an examination. Care to come with me?"

The Sheriff mulls for a second, "This is still an Undead Control case, right?"

"Unless the ME brings something to light, it is."

"Well, I'd like to help, but I better talk to LuAnn first." The lawman returns to his coffee.

"Sure thing," he leaves some bills on the bar and turns to head out.

“You coming back tonight? We’re going to tap our first batch of bourbon.”

“Count me in,” said the old man.

#

The woman is dressed as if for a trip to the moon. You can't be too safe.

The old man sports only a face mask and that just to mask the stench. He doesn't get too close, though.

"Well, she's definitely a zombie."

He recrosses his arms and arches an eyebrow.

"I know, I didn't need to tell you that. Look here, though, this is where the infection started." The doctor lifts up the right shoulder to show the back of the upper arm. "Chewed right down to the bone."

"So it was a twitcher."

"Yes. The DNA in the virus shows first generation. She got bit by an old one. Also, the nature of the wound indicates she was unconscious."

The door bangs open, announcing the Sheriff's entry.

"Nice shiner," jabs the old man.

"LuAnn was understandably unhappy."

The doctor looking up from her work, "Sheriff, not a good idea to be in here with an open wound."

"I'll just stay over here. What did I miss."

"Not much beyond the obvious, I was just about to point out that this may be a case for you." Both men edge closer.

"As I was saying, bruising around her neck is consistent with strangulation. There's still some residual heat in her core. I'd guess time of infection was within 24 hours and reanimation within 6."

"Never heard of a twitcher grabbing with its hands."

"Well no, but another human, eh?" The Doctor lifts up the other arm to show additional bruising. "These are classic marks of an abuse victim. What do you know about this girl, Sheriff?"

"Only what LuAnn told me. She was none too happy with the boyfriend and quite frustrated that Deana couldn't see through him."

"So is that a positive ID?"

"Yes, I showed LuAnn the picture Bill took of her. Well, a part of it. This is definitely Deena Lynne Martin."

The old man leans in, "So, doc, how do you see this playing out?"

"Well, this is just speculation until I can analyze additional material, but it appears she lost consciousness due to strangling and was thought to be dead. A vehicle would have been needed to cart her body out to those woods. It was pure dumb luck that she was dumped near a twitcher. It's also clear that she had been killed, she would not have animated." The doctor begins to clean up.

"I'd say we better find that boyfriend of hers, Sheriff."

"We? You still in this even though it's back in my jurisdiction?"

"I want to see this finished, that's all." The old man grabs his hat. "So where can we find him?"

"He's vacated his place, packed up and gone according to the landlord. I'm guessing he's heading west, to get lost in the mountains. I put the word out. We should hear something soon." The law man nods towards the doctor. "Thanks, Myra."

"No problem, just let me know if you find a crime scene."

#

The patrol car growls to a stop next to the faded yellow arches, across the street from the motel. He watches as the well used pick-up truck pulls into a spot outside the front desk, as if to check in.

The old man is inside for just a minute or two. He tips his hat as he comes back out: Yup, the boyfriend is here. The Sheriff checks his piece one more time, then holsters it as he gets out.

He looks both ways before crossing, old habits die hard, and trots over. The old man has his eyes closed, breathing slowly and deeply. He's been through this before, knows the routine and sticks with it.

As the Sheriff raises his hand to knock on the door, a six inch hole explodes out of its center, throwing him back several feet. And another one takes out the door knob, sending the old man scrambling to get away.

The sound of another round being shucked slips out of the room. The old man goes to a knee and readies. What remains of the door flies open and then disintegrates. The shotgun's barrel leading the man taking his last steps.

#

The old man let the sip of the bourbon linger on his tongue. He stares at the glass, nods, then puts it back on the table.

"I didn't want it to end this way," says the old man, exhaling.

"What? That I survived?" The Sheriff winces as he signals the bartender for two more fingers.

"Of course not. I've resigned myself to being stuck with you for quite some time to come. I'd rather that the boy didn't have to die."

"You had no choice, besides, this is the best possible outcome," responds the sheriff.

"How can you say that? There's so few of us left that the loss of even a lowlife like him cannot be a good thing." The old man takes another sip and savors it for a while.

"I doubt the boy would have been thinking the same thing had he been able to get a bead on you."

The bourbon slides smoothly down his throat, tracing lines as it warms everything it touches. "I don't doubt that at all." The old man digs into the bowl of peanuts. "What in the hell were you thinking, just walking up to the door like that. Don't you remember anything from your academy days?"

"You do realize I wasn't a cop Before."

"Fair enough. I wasn't in the military Before, either."

The silence stretches, but comfortably so, "Good thing that vest of yours didn't have an expiration date."

"Funny thing is, it did, about a year back."

"That is funny." The old man leans forward. "Well, here's to Deena, rest in peace."

The glasses clink.

5

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Zed House

The house creaked in the wind, a tree tapped a metronome against the rotting clapboards.

"Burn it down."

"What?"

"You heard me, burn it to the ground."

The boss stared at the building for a few seconds, then shook his head. "And waste what could be reclaimed? Why would I want to do that?"

The old man pointed, "Z for Zed. That's how we marked infected houses back when we thought the outbreak could be contained."

"That was nearly a decade ago. Even if something's still there, it's got to be so desiccated that it's immobile. The copper alone is worth the risk."

The old man flicked his toothpick at the house as he turned to walk away, "I won't allow it, not worth the risk."

"Wait a minute here! This is not a military operation and, anyways, Colonel, last time I checked, you're retired. Your presence here is purely consultative."

He took a step back as the old man advanced on him, ready to cut loose. "What the f...," the Colonel stopped, reconsidered, looking at the house again. "I guess it doesn't matter what I say, you'd come back tonight on your own even if I could terminate the project."

"Well...," he took off his cap and looked down at the brim. "It would make my life easier if you signed off on this."

"John, you're mother would kill me if anything happened to you. I'll sign off, but only if we do this by the book."

The kid put his hat back on, resuming his role as boss, "Fine by me."

#

Clearing a house of the undead is like a slow motion SWAT operation. Zed behaves predictably, so it's best to take your time. One man kicked the door down while another set the clacker, then they retreated.

"If they're ambulatory, this shouldn't take long. I imagine they're hungry. We'll give it five minutes." The old man's eyes never left the doorway. The dust cloud that seemed to be all that was left of the front door billowed out onto the porch, dissipating in the breeze.

"OK, you know the drill. Let's do it!"

Four men ambled up the steps, one kneeling to turn off the clacker. Two broke left while the other pair kept watch just inside the door, eyeing the stairs. The shouts of "Clear!" following the pair around the ground floor. A shot rang out, quickly followed by the all clear.

The old man and the boss entered the house. "Was that a live one?"

"No, just wanted to make sure."

"Cool. Let's get the basement. John, you stay here, make sure nothing comes down those stairs. The crew can wait outside, off the porch."

The team was already at work by the time the old man made it to the kitchen. More dust and a jawbone lying on the floor. A skeletal arm, its hand grasping a coffee mug, was still on the table. The urge for some caffeine suddenly strong.

The all clear sounded from below and a rattle/bang from the cellar door out back.

#

John was halfway up the stairs by then, taking careful steps, his semi-automatic at the ready.

He could could see her from the top of the staircase, through the open doorway. She lay on the bed in what must have been her finest dress. She didn't move.

He stepped into the room, checking the four corners as the Colonel taught him. Stillness, nothing moved but the motes floating through the window pane divided beams of light.

The floor creaked as he moved. She had to have known, if she was still animated. The pendent on her necklace rested on the leather taut across her chest. Coated in dust, it didn't sparkle, but it still caught his practiced eye. He stepped towards her.

Who are you? What happened? You had time to prepare, there's no sign of a rush. Was it poison? He reached for the necklace.

"You either hate me or you're a dumb piece of shit."

The boy recoiled, letting out a shout. "What the fuck? It ain't moving without a good dose of WD-40. Don't go scaring me like that, you crazy mother fucker."

"You think?" The old man tapped the head with the barrel of his rifle. The eyes shot open, jaw snapping. His shot exploded in the room, shaking dust loose from everywhere. The top half of the skull gone.

He turned and walked out. "I want half of what you get for that necklace."

###

Here's another Col. Drinkmore short story: Who Is He?

3

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From:    billdrinkmore@bill-lenoir.com
Subject: Experiences from the Zombie War
Date:    October 29, 2009 6:18:44 PM EDT
To:      editor@rapidan-publishing.com

To whom it may concern,

I am writing in regards to your request for remembrances 
from the war. Please feel free to contact me if you have any 
questions or need clarification.

Thanks,
Lt. Col. Z. William Drinkmore, Ret.

The child is dead.

I can see him, down hill about 200 yards away, just off the road.

And, yes, despite his longish blond hair gently waving in the wind like a prayer flag, he is a boy. I can tell even from this distance: his head is about a foot too far from his shoulders and his hands are bound behind his back.

The raiders wouldn't have done that to a girl, too valuable. Even if it means walking miles with her slung over a shoulder. But a boy? A small one? Probably couldn't get enough work out of him to justify the food he'd eat. Certainly not someone they would have slowing the group down.

The shade and breeze just inside the tree-line takes the edge off of the early spring heat. It's a good spot to catch my breath.

It's sad, really. Not the fact of the dead boy, but that it means so little to me. I've seen too much to readily give a shit anymore. It's energy wasted on what cannot be changed.

I look at the boy again. Thankfully, I cannot see his face. I gnaw some jerky.

The zombies don't worry me. Though raiders are truly an ill wind, they do have one side benefit: They leave no undead in their wake.

I break cover and stop, looking for movement in the bushes opposite signaling, perhaps, the rousting of a guard. Nothing.

I move along the tree line until I'm directly above the boy. Still, nothing.

I run down hill, more of a controlled fall. I lose my balance on the last stride, slamming into the road in a near face plant.

The only noise is the sound of the air I struggle to suck back into my lungs. If they're out there, I'm dead, or worse.

No, I hear the birds now. That's always good. They go quiet when Zed's around.

Most roads clearly show the fact that there hasn't been traffic for nearly a year. The build up of dirt and the weeds growing in the cracks. Not to say they're useless, just unused.

This road, however, clearly shows the passage of a large group. These guys have no fear of the undead or other humans. And why should they? They are reavers from what passes for any type of power and authority in the whole mid-Atlantic region.

I can see the soles of his feet, or what remains of them. They're mostly raw. Damn, that must have hurt to walk. I won't complain about the hitch in my side.

They didn't even waste a bullet on him, just a quick swing of an obviously sharp blade. I see foot prints in his pooled blood, most going in the same direction. Most, not all. Looks like a scuffle. A knee down? Is that a hand print? Whoever it was, she wasn't killed here. Was she his mother? Would that have been a good or a bad thing?

I have seen enough of those who have joined the so-called White Republic up around Front Royal to know that they were not all bad people, just hungry. They sold their souls for a regular meal. That makes them worse than evil.

How far gone do you have to be to just lop a head off like that?

I can't bury him. I don't have the tools and the soil here ain't easy to dig. The thought that coyotes will get him disturbs me. I can't burn him, that will signal my presence. I'll cover him with rocks.

I cut his binding, but the arms don't move, frozen in place. He hardly weighs anything and the rigidity of his body makes it obscenely easy to move him. I put his head back where it belongs. His purplish face distorts his expression, the torment exacerbated.

How old are you? I cannot tell. Is that Sponge Bob on your shirt? Were you a fan? At first glance, you could pass for an old man.

You survived the outbreak, that's gotta mean something. Though, by the looks of you, even before your capture, you weren't that far from death. Couldn't have been a local, those who have survived are well stocked with food and are fortified enough to deter the raiders, at least for now.

The smoke I saw yesterday evening, bet it was from the refugee camp just outside Culpeper. That's a long reach for the White Republic. Their power is growing.

And what do we do? Those of us who still consider ourselves to be members of that nearly forgotten entity, the United States? We cower in fear, worried about our next meal, about the undead infecting a new wave, about enslavement up north. Well, those of us who are white. The agony is shorter for minorities who fall into their hands, but several orders of magnitude worse. Did your blond hair prolong your suffering?

Who are you? What is your name?

There's nothing in your pockets but a worn piece of paper with writing too faded to read. Looks like it could have been an address. Yours? Did one of your parents write that last year, in case you were separated? Where was your home?

In the ditch I find plenty of silt washed down by the last storm. I know you'll be carried away in the next heavy rain, which, being March, won't be too long, but this is the best I can do.

Did my children meet the same fate? I don't know. I haven't considered that until now. But what right do I have to complain, to beg mercy for them when I did nothing for you or others?

I use a branch to brush away traces of my work and place it on top of the grave. As close to flowers as you'll get for your funeral.

I'm sorry.

I've heard it sung that it ain't no sin to be glad you're alive. And I suppose it's true, the part about being glad. But shouldn't survival be a means, not an end?

I head back up hill, the way I came. I must get back before dark.

Back within the tree-line, what was cooling is now cold. Anger, guilt or relief? I feel all three. That is good.

Thank you.

From:    jsmith@rapidan-publishing.com
Subject: Re: Experiences from the Zombie War
Date:    November 5, 2009 17:45:53 PM EDT
To:      billdrinkmore@bill-lenoir.com

Dear Col. Drinkmore,

Thanks for your submission to our collection of stories we 
are assembling. Unfortunately, we are looking for something 
more upbeat. However, we will reconsider your story should 
we publish another volume with a theme more inline with 
yours.

Regards,
Jennifer Smith
Editorial Assistant